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Memento : Issue 39
MEMENTO ISSUE 39 3 It was not without controversy that these parts of the Constitution were brought together. Many views were exchanged during the Constitution's framing and the referendums on the Constitution Bill in the late 1890s about the desirability and the workability of an arrangement which would give (almost) co-equal powers to both Houses, merging parliamentary democracy with federalism. In fact, this 'marriage' (for which many constitutional provisions were needed) has functioned remarkably well But there is a colourful history behind it, if you know where to look! It is a history that, unknown to many Australians, drew on the story of the American Civil War, and spilled over eventually into the grievances of one particular State. The State Premiers' Conference meeting in Melbourne in 1899 was dubbed the 'Secret Premiers' Conference' by anti-federationists. The meeting resulted in amendments to the Constitution Bill which secured its passage in referendums held in all colonies during 1899 and 1900. From left to right: Sir John Forrest (WA), Charles Cameron Kingston (SA), George Houston Reid (NSW), George Turner (Vic), James Robert Dickson (Qld) and Edward Nicholas Coventry Braddon (Tas). Dragging the federation chain On 31 July 1900 -- 110 years ago -- the eligible men and (newly-enfranchised) women of Western Australia voted in favour of joining the Commonwealth of Australia. They were the last to do so, but their vote was not equivocal. An unusually high number turned out to vote and many more than half were favourable. Western Australia, however, had dragged the federation chain. Special constitutional enticements had been offered to it (allowing the phasing out of its tariffs over a five-year period, whereas the others had to give theirs up almost immediately). The other colonies had been waiting for Western Australia to make its mind up; they now decided to go ahead. On 9 July, the Constitution Bill received the royal assent as an Act of the Imperial Parliament. The preamble records this sequence: 'Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania ... have agreed to unite...', it begins. Western Australia is missing. But the hope that it would join is expressed in a clause that follows: if within a year, the people of Western Australia agreed, their colony would join the Commonwealth as an 'original state.' The Western Australian referendum -- or so it was thought -- sealed the deal. People rejoiced that the six colonies would now be equal partners in the 'indissoluble Commonwealth.' Many today who read the preamble may not notice the word 'indissoluble', or realise its significance. But, like a tiny window onto a broad landscape, it is the key to a significant history. The word was added only at the last moment, in the final session of the Federal Convention, in early 1898. Why was it chosen? In designing a federal Constitution, giving equal representation to each state in NAA: A1200, L16930