Federated Australia elephant

Federated Australia elephant

Around 1900 political federations, in various guises, were popular issues. This cartoon shows Premier Richard Seddon riding a toy hobby horse labelled ‘South Pacific Federation’, while premiers of Australian states try to persuade him to take the vacant seat alongside them atop the white elephant of ‘Federated Australia’.

New Zealand had participated in Australian colonial conferences since the 1860s. But when federation became a serious prospect in the 1890s, New Zealand took no part in the negotiations and there was little public interest. However, the 1899 decision to federate the Australian colonies sparked off some agitation across the Tasman in favour of joining Australia, and the conservative opposition advocated a referendum on the issue.

As this cartoon shows, Premier Richard Seddon saw himself heading a South Pacific empire, not a subordinate administration. He set up a Royal Commission in 1900 to buy time and get a sense of public opinion. While most submissions opposed union with Australia, many farmers were in favour, fearing trade barriers to their produce if New Zealand stayed outside the new federation.

The prevailing view was that New Zealanders – both Pākehā and Māori – were of superior stock to their trans-Tasman counterparts. Nascent nationalism was also fostered by participation in the South African (Boer) War. And the 1200 miles of often-stormy sea separating the two countries were held up as 1200 arguments against federation.

Read more on the 1901 Royal Commission.

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