Attitudes towards federation in Queensland

Jenkins, Alan (1979). Attitudes towards federation in Queensland M.A. Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Jenkins, Alan
Thesis Title Attitudes towards federation in Queensland
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1979
Thesis type M.A. Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Total pages 369
Language eng
Subjects 160601 Australian Government and Politics
Formatted abstract
Queensland's vote at the federation referendum of 1899 indicates a marked lack of enthusiasm for integration with the other colonies. Only 65% of qualified electors voted, and of these, only 55% voted YES; a mere 36% of qualified electors supported federation.

Although the 6% turnout for the referendum was lower than for an election, it compared favourably with the referendum turnout in the other colonies. At the I898 referendum, the other four eastern colonies recorded only a 45% poll; the following year they managed 59%, The relatively high turnout in both Queensland and Western Australia, which held the last two referenda, was possibly indicative of the fact that they could not afford the luxury of abstention; a federation would be formed whether they joined or not.

With only 55% of voters supporting federation, Queensland produced the lowest YES vote in Australia. Queensland was probably the most distinctive part of Australia, and its distinctiveness was reflected in government hesitancy to co-operate with the other colonies and public apathy towards the federation movement. Closeness of contact with N.S.W, only exacerbated the trend, for N.S.W, was little more enthusiastic than Queensland.

An important consideration in explaining Queensland' s low affirmative vote must be the brief exposure of most Queenslanders to arguments on federation. While Griffith was in power, Queensland was in the forefront of the federal campaign; with Griffith's resignation, Queensland slipped out of the movement during the crucial years from 1893 to 1899. Admittedly, a Federation League had been formed in I898, but it remained dormant until 1899. People were not brought face to face with the practical details of federation until the Federation Enabling Bill was before Parliament, As a result, the average Queenslander had only two or three months to come to grips with the consequences that federation held for him. In a colony with poor communications, the result was often a poorly-informed vote, a situation that probably assisted the anti-billites. The experience in the other colonies of a higher YES vote at the second referendum seems to confirm a widely-held belief in Queensland that an unsure voter was more likely to vote NO.

As in the other colonies, a large part of the YES argument involved patriotism or sentiment. Advocates of federation stressed the common origins of Australians, the artificial barriers between the colonies, and the strong personal associations that many people had with other colonies. On the other hand, a weaker but s t i l l significant force encouraged Queensland nationalism. Some leading citizens had participated in the struggle for separation, and many more had witnessed the longer-lasting fight to shake off N.S.W. commercial domination. The result had been a core of Queenslanders who desired to remain independent. The longer settled an area was, the more likely it was to vote NO. Despite towns like Warwick, Gladstone and Maryborough, a settlement map of Queensland in 1861 bears a strong resemblance to the areas of anti-billite influence in 1899.

The utility of transferring certain services to the federal government helped the federalist cause. Although doubts were raised about federal control of immigration due to the black labour controversy, most Queenslanders welcomed the creation of a common defence force, the chance to have others share the burden of maintaining shipping channels, etc. On most aspects of transferred services, the only line of attack by the anti-billites was the cost factor.

Economic factors were important in influencing the referendum decision, but the traditional method of examining reactions, industry by industry, has weaknesses. In a colony with severe communications problems, a Queensland-wide consensus of opinion was virtually impossible. To take sugar as an example, Pimpama Island was opposed to federation almost as strongly as Ingham supported it . Even a similar voting pattern did not mean consensus, with Mackay and Bundaberg having very different views on the need for black labour.

The best rule of thumb on economic matters is that prosperous units enjoyed sufficient confidence to support federation whereas marginal units opposed federation to avoid the possibility of upsetting the equilibrium. Wide variations occurred within an industry because voting was affected not only by the overall state of an industry, but by the size of a farm or the type of order on a manufacturer's books.

The same rule applies to towns or regions. In North Queensland, where economic confidence reigned supreme, export figures through the ports reveal that the area had been unaffected by depression and drought in the I890's, whereas other towns had experienced a gloomy period. Potential promise or threat could also affect voting, particularly where railways were concerned. The three previously-mentioned towns of Warwick, Gladstone and Maryborough a l l expected to benefit from railway extension, whereas Rockhampton suffered not only from the rejection of submissions for extensions in the west but also from the threat of increased Brisbane competition once the coastal link was completed,

A wide range of other factors influenced voting. The NO side included opposition on political grounds from both those who thought the constitution was too radical and those who thought i t was too conservative. Members of political parties who felt that federation might adversely affect party chances also opposed the movement. A further political group v/ere separationists from Central Queensland who saw federation as the death knell of their hopes. Other groups were Irish and possibly Germans who evaluated federation in terms of past experience in their homeland.

On the YES side, factors such as border influence and the example of other federations were evident, A further advantage to the federalists was their dominance of the field of voter persuasion. Although the anti-billites fought hard, they could not match the resources or the wide coverage of the federalists, and where they were unable to campaign, their share of the referendum vote was correspondingly low.

The final result reflected a tremendous range of voting returns; the polling booth at Tabletop (59-0) was unanimously in favour whereas Crosshill (0-52) was unanimously against; the electorate of Croydon was 95% in favour, but Aubigny was only 15%. On a regional basis, the NO vote was predominant in two blocs: an area about 100 miles square in the extreme south-east and a smaller section around Rockhampton. The rest of Queensland showed varying degrees of loyalty towards federation, with support being strongest in the extreme north and west.

The reasons for this voting pattern are complex. The establishment of a rank order of importance for causal factors is virtually impossible because they seldom operated in isolation, but in most areas it can be shown which combination of factors was present and whether they supported each other or created cross-pressures. The overall result saw Queensland with a majority for federation but the smallest majority in Australia.
Keyword Federal government -- Australia -- Public opinion
Public opinion -- Queensland
Referendum -- Queensland
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