Parkes and Federation

Edited transcript of a speech by the Hon. Bob Carr, Premier of New South Wales, to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Parkes’ Tenterfield Address. Tenterfield, NSW, 24 October 1999

I value the privilege of being invited to honour Sir Henry Parkes, five times premier of NSW, and to celebrate a speech he made in Tenterfield 110 years ago.

It’s a remarkable thing to commemorate a politician’s speech made so long ago. I can think of only one parallel in the English-speaking world: Lincoln at Gettysburg. And if the comparison seems far-fetched, note the common purpose of both speeches – to dedicate a people to the task of building a united democracy. That’s what we celebrate at Tenterfield today.

Sir Henry represented Tenterfield in the Legislative Assembly, and in the very speech we commemorate today he began by acknowledging his debt to the electors of Tenterfield.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald: “. . . he remembered how generously they had elected him for Tenterfield, within a few hours after his defeat for East Sydney in 1882. He remembered also the generous confidence which they had displayed in refusing to accept his resignation on the occasion of his visit to England in 1883.”

What Sir Henry called his “intimate relations” with Tenterfield was one reason he chose it for his clarion call for Federation in 1889.

In their masterwork The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth the great authorities on Federation, Sir John Quick and Sir Robert Garran, say emphatically that it was the Tenterfield oration which, in their words, “set the ball rolling”.

They say that Parkes “had come to the conclusion that the popular sentiment was now ripe for a definite Federal movement. He resolved to place himself at its head.”

This is what Parkes said here 110 years ago: “The great question . . . is whether the time has not now arisen for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian Government and an Australian Parliament. I believe the time has come.”

More than 10 years were to pass before Parkes’s vision was fulfilled. He didn’t live to see it, dying in 1896.

The most striking thing about his Tenterfield speech is its unqualified Australianism. Parkes was so proud of NSW that in 1888 he introduced a bill to rename it Australia. And he made it clear at Tenterfield that there could never be a federation without leadership from NSW. The whole purpose of the speech was to give leadership from NSW. We are still doing it today.

But at Tenterfield, Parkes spoke as a proud Australian. He said: “Australia has now a population of 3 1/2 million. The American people numbered only between 3 and 4 million when they formed the great commonwealth of the United States . . . Surely what the Americans did by war, the Australians can bring about in peace.”

Note the word “commonwealth”. That was the first time the term was ever used in connection with the idea of Australian federation. In fact, his commonwealth suggestion met strong opposition in the constitutional conventions of 1891 and 1897 because it smacked of republicanism.

Not that Sir Henry Parkes GCMG* was still a republican in 1889, though he certainly had been much earlier in his career.

But in Tenterfield, 50 years exactly after his arrival in Sydney as a penniless English migrant, Parkes spoke simply as an Australian who believed the time had come for the Australian colonies to unite.

It was the grand simplicity of the proposition that gave the Tenterfield speech its galvanising force.

Now we face another grand but simple question which is only the natural and inevitable extension of the great question Parkes put when he asked if the time had come for an Australian government and an Australian parliament.

Let me draw a parallel from the great process of Federation started here 110 years ago. The immediate result was the Melbourne Conference of 1890 and the First Constitutional Convention at Parliament House, Sydney, in 1891.

The real fight was always going to be in NSW. Federation was never on without us.

The conventions of 1897 and 1898 drew up a constitution which was put to a referendum in June 1898. The opponents of Federation in the NSW Parliament moved the goalposts, decreeing that there must be at least 80,000 “yes” votes for the referendum to carry in NSW.

The “yes” majority fell short and the referendum failed.

The Premier, Sir George Reid, then secured changes to the draft constitution, and the second referendum in June 1899 carried triumphantly. In both referendums, the “yes” majority came from country NSW. Sydney and suburbs recorded a “no” majority both times.

But my point is about the first referendum. If there had not been a “yes” majority in the first referendum, however small, Reid would never have won his concessions for NSW. He wouldn’t have had the incentive or the political clout.

If there hadn’t been a “yes” majority in NSW in the first referendum in 1898, there wouldn’t have been a second in 1899. Without the “yes” majority in NSW in the first referendum, the Commonwealth of Australia would not have been proclaimed at Centennial Park on January 1, 1901. The Federal cause would probably have been abandoned for a generation or more.

Let Sir Henry Parkes have the last word; 110 years ago in Tenterfield he said: “The only argument, I believe, which can be advanced in opposition to the views I have put forward is that the time has not yet come. But I believe that the time has come.”

We have the opportunity to take the great work Parkes began here one step further while safeguarding the Australian Constitution, the Australian system of parliamentary democracy Parkes helped create – a safe and steady step towards his vision of a truly independent Australia.


* Subsequently corrected from KCMG, as Parkes was awarded the higher honour of GCMG in 1888. Just one letter different but in reality quite a big difference in status since Henry was the first local ‘Australian’ to be awarded the GCMG.