A study of nineteenth century Australasian politics, the purpose of this web page is:

  • to explain why New Zealand is defined as "a State" in the Australian Constitution;
  • to list the reasons why, in the late nineteenth century, New Zealand choose not to become an Australian State; and
  • to enable reflection upon this decision in the twenty-first century.

Notice - The information on this page is published for historical and political reference only, intended for students, historians and those who seek the answer to a question posed more than a hundred years ago. It is a non-political and non-profit web page. It is NOT the author's intention to incite, promote or advocate a case for New Zealand statehood and should not be viewed as such.

Historical Background

The British Empire and her Australasian realms

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Great Britain sought to expand her empire throughout the southern reaches of the globe. By the end of the nineteenth century, her principal colonies in the Australasian region included Fiji, New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, South Australia and her northern territory, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.

Originally having formed part of the New South Wales 'mother colony' since 1700, Tasmania (1825), South Australia (1836), Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859), eventually broke away into smaller, self governing colonies as a result of increasing populations and the desire for local governance.

Whereas New Zealand was a dependency of New South Wales from 1840 until the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1841, Western Australia was settled by the British as a seperate colony in 1829, independent from New South Wales.

A strong feeling of kinship existed amongst the people of the colonies, the colonists sharing a common language, heritage, race, religion and way of life. From the mid nineteenth century, waves of colonists who believed in the unity of the people of the colonies formed various interest groups such as the Australian Natives Assosciation (ANA) and the Australasian Federation League (AFL), which had branches located in colonies on both sides of the Tasman Sea. In addition, each colonial government considered that many benefits could arise from union with her neighbouring colonies. Ideas about the creation of one united nation gained momentum during the latter part of the nineteenth century and representatives from New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia met to discuss the details of a proposed Australasian Confederation.

Creating a Constitution

The three conventions

Three principal debates were held at various locations across the continent from 1890 to 1898, during which representatives from each colony put forward their proposals for a new government. Common issues of concern such as immigration, defence, taxation, pensions, communication, transportation, finance, currency, commerce and trade, were identified as the possible responsibilities of a new, federal or "Commonwealth" government, whose power would be vested in a constitution created jointly by these colonial representatives.

Many proposals that were entered into debate competed or conflicted with other colonies' interests, yet the representatives were able to compromise only just enough to avoid a stale mate that would break down the process.

Two representatives from each of the seven colonies (with the exception of Western Australia who sent only one), attended the first of such meetings, the Australasian Federation Conference, which was held in Melbourne from 6 to 14 February, 1890. House of Representatives member Captain William Russell Russell and former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Hall were selected as the two New Zealand representatives to discuss New Zealand's involvement in such a confederation, and to put forward their ideas on the framework of the new constitution that would govern the new nation.

Captain William Russell Russell was joined by former Governor of New Zealand Sir George Grey, and the Honorable Sir Harry Albert Atkinson, in Sydney at the National Australasian Convention, the second of such meetings, held 2 March to 9 April 1891.

After these first two conferences, Queensland and New Zealand withdrew their interest in the federation process. Western Australia, too, while still attending the following Australasian Federal Convention, indicated that her desire was to withdraw from the process, leaving only the colonies of New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria likely candidates for the new union. 

Nevertheless, the colonial governments of Western Australia and Queensland, discontented with the proposed constitution, still presented their populations with a referendum to either accept or reject the constitution and question of federation. Both Western Australia and Queensland each achieved a majority 'yes' vote, ensuring that they would form part of the new nation upon its creation. No such referendum took place in New Zealand, whose representatives returned home to their parliament with discouraging reports about the federation process.

New Zealand Withdraws from Federation

Hopes for a complete union fade

The New Zealand representatives who came to the Australasian Federation Conference and the National Australasian Convention were, at first, in strong support of federation. However, they came uncompromisingly protective of the amount of power and number of functions that they would be obliged to surrender to the new government. Hoping that each State of the new federation would be more autonomous, and the functions of the new federal government more limited, they departed on both occasions with disappointment, unrealised dreams and unmet expectations.

The new federation was destined to become much more of a tightly bound union of Australia than a loosely bound union of Australasia. The constitution and question of federation proved unacceptable for a number of reasons:

The New Zealand representatives agreed that a unified navy was advantageous, but rejected the notion of a unified army, in the belief that should New Zealand come under enemy attack or invasion, it would take too long for assistance to arrive by ship from the continent, and ... vice versa ... should the continent come under attack or invasion, it would take too long for assistance to arrive by ship from New Zealand.

New Zealand raised around one third of her total revenue from trade tariffs, duties and excise, much of which came from the other six colonies, and a customs union would have limited New Zealand's capacity to raise revenue.

The seat of government for the new federation, located between Sydney and Melbourne, and not within the sight or hearing of New Zealanders, was thought to be too distant to be effective.

New Zealand was not willing to have her finest political minds occupy themselves with federal matters on the continent and to be distant in the federal capital, far from New Zealand for much of the year.

New Zealand was geographically not part of Australia, the two being separated by a stormy sea. It was the New Zealand representative Captain William Russell Russell who proposed a change to the new nation's name, from the Commonwealth of Australasia to the Commonwealth of Australia, indicating his preference for his colony to withdraw interest in the process.

Although New Zealanders shared a common heritage, language and lifestyle with the Australian colonies, New Zealanders were likely to develop their own national identity due to their physical isolation from the continent and due to the climate contrasting drastically with that of the continent.

The system of plural voting, accepted in the National Australasian Convention, would have denied New Zealanders a fair and representative vote in Commonwealth elections, allocating more power to landowners.

Maori affairs formed an integral and important component of New Zealand politics, and New Zealand was reluctant to share these responsibilities with a distant government who knew and cared little about the native situation.

There was a much heightened sense of prestige in remaining a part of Great Britain and her empire, rather than forming part of a new nation, unknown and inferior to the great powers of that era.

The Politics Underlying New Zealand's Withdrawal

New Zealand seeks her own empire in the Pacific

Upon their return to New Zealand, the issue of confederation was debated in New Zealand's general assembly yet Sir George Grey's "Confederation and Annexation Bill" of 1883, which had previously been passed by the New Zealand general assembly in August of that year, but did not receive royal assent, had the unfortunate consequence of fusing the issue of Australasian federation with New Zealand's desire to annex outlying South Pacific islands in the minds of the New Zealand statesmen.

Grey's bill eventually steered the focus of the New Zealand parliament in the 1890's towards their own interests in building her own (unrealised) 'empire' of Pacific Islands on behalf of Great Britain. New Zealand's federation with the Australian colonies may also have hampered any future possiblity of her becoming the focus of economic and social activity within her own South Pacific federation. It is notable that those parliamentary members who were most opposed to New Zealand's involvement in Australasian federation were the greatest supporters of increasing New Zealand's own sovereignty through the annexation of outlying South Pacific islands.

Six out of Seven

An incomplete but stronger union

On the first day of January, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia officially came into being and the six Australian colonies, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, became States of the newly created nation. Although New Zealand chose not to take any further part in the federation process after preliminary discussions, their representatives primary success was to ensure that New Zealand could, at any time she pleases, enter into the Commonwealth of Australia as a State without the need for approval from the other States. It is for this reason that New Zealand is included within section 6 of the Preamble to the Australian Constitution.

Sir Henry Parkes, who chaired the conference and who is considered to be Australia's "Father of Federation", commented during the Australasian Federation Conference about the 'completeness' of the new nation. He had hoped that all seven colonies would form part of the new nation, but pointed out that it may not be possible for all of the colonies to unite together at the same time. He was, however, certain that the federation would eventually be as complete as it was destined to be, saying that if it be the will of the people, the federation will be complete. Parkes' speech helped ensure that provision was made in the constitution for any of the colonies to enter into the federation as a new State, if they chose not form part of the federation as an original State.

Considering that more than one hundred years have passed since six of the seven colonies united, and that during that time New Zealanders have made little or no effort to join the federation, it is safe to assume that at it's creation on 1 January 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was as complete as it will ever be. It is likely that New Zealand will never form part of the federation which would require that her government relinquish control over certain matters to the Commonwealth, as have done the Australian States. After having asserted her presence as an independent and proud nation, enriched by her native culture which is foreign to Australians, and having developed a strong sense of national identity, under what possible circumstances would this ever occur?

The New Zealand representatives contributed greatly to the formation of the Australian constitution through their involvement in the Australasian Federal Conventions, and their early withdrawal from the federation process enabled the six States of the Commonwealth of Australia to unite in a more tightly unified nation than would have possible had New Zealand been included.

Reflecting upon the Past

Then and now

Many of the reasons behind New Zealand's rejection of federation, while valid and critical in the 1890's, are no longer issues:

The speed at which armed forces can now be relocated between the continent and New Zealand has become a matter of hours, and is no longer a matter of days.

The system of plural voting, to which the New Zealand delegates were opposed, was not adopted by the Commonwealth.

Technological advancements in communication mean that the seat of government, located between Sydney and Melbourne is now both in sight and sound of New Zealanders, via television, radio, internet and satellite broadcasts.

The two hour flight times, and real time telecommunications between the continent and New Zealand of today would have been unimaginable in the 1890's.

New Zealand is no longer a British dominion and claims no more prestige from her connections with the British empire than does Australia, and neither Australia nor New Zealand are unknown entities in the global community.

Reflection for the Future

Closer together or further apart?

Today's relationship between Australia and New Zealand would be considered by nineteenth century minds to be tantamount to unity, given:

the Australian and New Zealand mutual defence treaty, the ANZUS Alliance;

free trade and migration of citizens between Australia and New Zealand under the Closer Economic Relations Agreement;

contemplation of, and public support for a new common currency;

that New Zealand ministers participate alongside State and Territory ministers in Ministerial Council meetings;

a shared sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II; in addition to
a wide range of social conditions which traverse our national boundaries to influence our mindset and heighten our sense of kinship, such as New Zealand teams playing in Australian football competitions, and satellite television channels which broadcast across both Australia and New Zealand simultaneously.

However, the question of whether or not the events and changes over the past century have drawn Australia and New Zealand closer together or further apart needs to be considered further:

over the last century each country's national indigenous and multicultural identities has flourished and no longer are the politics and societal institutions of each country mutually dominated by the white, British, colonial elite. On indigenous issues and indigenous identity, Australia and New Zealand are worlds apart;

as would have been expected of any of the Australasian colonies who chose not to join the federation, New Zealanders have developed their own national identity, distinct from that of Australia;

during the nineteenth century the feeling of kinship between all of the colonies was one of brotherhood, whereas now in the twenty-first century New Zealanders and Australians consider each other 'cousins'. A common saying in the world of nineteenth century imperialism was that neighbouring colonies would eventually 'unite or fight', but what will our relationship be in twenty-second century? 

"The States" shall mean such of the colonies of New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia, and South Australia, including the northern territory of South Australia, as for the time being are parts of the Commonwealth, and such colonies or territories as may be admitted into or established by the Commonwealth as States; and each of such parts of the Commonwealth shall be called "a State".

Section 6,
Preamble to the Australian Constitution

"Nothing is more evident than that New Zealand must, at no distant period, form an integral and productive part of the immense Australian empire."

Sydney Gazette, 1831

Australasian Federation Conference, 1890
Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

"The foundation exists in that feeling of kinship among Australasians to which so much eloquent allusion has been made. That is the foundation upon which we are preparing to build-upon interests which are common, upon community of race, language, and history. In conclusion, I must say that I almost envy my Australian brethren the opportunity of joining in the great work before them. I cannot help regretting that, for the present, circumstances render it impossible for New Zealand to do so. It is said that history repeats itself, and we shall, I feel confident, have another instance of it."

Sir John Hall, NZ Representative,
Australasian Federation Conference
12 February 1890 

"We who have come over here as representatives to this Conference tire as the seed; when we go back to our several colonies we may plant it in fertile soil, and from that may grow the roots and branches of Federated Australasia. It will be my pleasure to go back under these circumstances and instruct my countrymen as I have been myself instructed in regard to the many advantages which may flow from federation."

Captain Russell, NZ Representative,
Australasian Federation Conference
11 February 1890

National Australasian Convention, 1891
Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

"... and what I have hoped and desired, was that the time had now come ... when a constitution such as the world has not yet seen, would be given to a free people; and when I heard the language to-day, ... the heart began to sink, and the hopes that seemed so near realisation appeared to be fading away."

Sir George Grey, NZ Representative,
National Australasian Convention
17 March 1891

Australasian Federal Referendum
Victorian voters' certificate, July 1899
Courtesy of National Library of Australia 

Federated Australia: "Come into these arms"
New Zealand: "Nay sir, these arms bear chains"
New Zealand Graphic, 20 Oct 1900, vol. XXV (XVI)

"Does New Zealand intend to join the federation?" -

"New Zealand wishes the power to be retained to enter cheerfully into a combination of which it approves. This constitution is intended to take in all Australasia, and it should be so framed. We have no wish to have this done for us by other people, but our desire is to do it for ourselves."

Sir George Grey, NZ Representative,
National Federation Convention
2 April 1891 

One view that should New Zealand join the federation, the colony would progress by 'leaps and bounds'
New Zealand Graphic, 16 Sept 1899, vol. XXIII (XII) 

"I think it would be a very great misfortune, not only to Australasia but also to Australia, if in the Convention ... to which the New Zealand representatives at this Conference will ask their Parliament to send delegates, New Zealand and Fiji are not represented. ... she should join in saying to them-'Although you do not at present feel that you can enter the federation and throw yourself into our arms, here is a hand to help you whenever the day may come in which you see your way to join this magnificent union.'"

Captain Russell, NZ Representative,
Australasian Federation Conference
11 February 1890

All seven colonies were intended to be united by federation
Illustration: source unknown

"There is every disposition on our part to unite as far as possible with you. I hope that we may be able to take some steps towards the removal or diminution of those barriers which so impede commercial intercourse between different parts of Australasia. [...] Increased commercial intercourse will lead to increased social intercourse, and the more we know of each other the better friends we shall be, and the more likely it will be that we will be prepared to agree to a more intimate union than is at present practicable."

Sir John Hall, NZ Representative,
Australasian Federation Conference
12 February 1890 

"I say, let us do what we can. If we cannot include all the colonies at once, don't let us despair; let us include those who will join, trusting to the forces which I am sure will make themselves felt on those who remain outside the Dominion, to come in as soon as they call."

Sir John Hall, NZ Representative,
Australasian Federation Conference
13 February 1890

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