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The father of Federation

1889: Henry Parkes gives his Tenterfield Oration

National Library of Australia nla.obj-148884565
1800 1900

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Which of the reasons for Federation that Parkes spoke about is the most persuasive in your view? Why?

2. Compare your answer to the previous question with the other students in your class. Which reason for federating is the most popular in your class?

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the Tenterfield Oration is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.


1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3.If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Portrait of Henry Parkes, by Henry King</p>
National Library of Australia obj-136671812

In a snapshot

On 24 October 1889 Henry Parkes, then Premier of New South Wales, gave a speech at the Tenterfield School of Arts. In the speech he argued that the Australian colonies should federate (unite) into one nation. The Tenterfield Oration is significant because, although politicians had been discussing Federation for some time, this was the first time the general public was asked to support the idea.

Portrait of Henry Parkes, by Henry King

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Who was Henry Parkes, and what political experience did he have before Federation?

2. What was unusual about Parkes’s Tenterfield Oration?

3. Why did the Tenterfield Oration become an important catalyst for achieving Federation?

Who was Henry Parkes?

Henry Parkes was born in England in 1815. His family was poor and he received only a small amount of schooling as a child. Unable to find work in England, Parkes and his young family immigrated to New South Wales in 1839.

Parkes got involved in politics in Australia almost immediately, and by 1856 he had won a seat in the first New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He went on to serve five terms as Premier of New South Wales. Parkes supported the idea of a federated Australia. In 1867, at a conference in Melbourne, he said: ‘I think the time has arrived when these colonies should be united by some federal bond of connection’.

Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School of the Arts.

Why should the colonies federate?

The Australian colonies had developed separately for the first 100 years of their existence, but by the 1880s it was clear that the colonies would benefit socially and economically if they federated to become one nation. Tariffs on goods moving across colonial borders could be removed, and federation would allow for nationwide approaches to defence and immigration. A growing sense of Australian nationalism was arising among the population, which was by now mostly Australian born.

In 1881 Parkes suggested the creation of a Federal Council to discuss the unification of the colonies, but Victoria refused to join. In 1883 Victoria proposed unification, but this time New South Wales refused. The difficult relationship between Victoria and New South Wales was the biggest barrier to Federation.

What was Lord Carrington’s dare?

On 15 June 1889 Parkes had a long conversation with New South Wales Governor Lord Carrington, who was also a Federation supporter. Parkes boasted that he could federate the colonies of Australia in 12 months. Carrington dared Parkes to try. Throughout 1889 Parkes put all his efforts into convincing the Australian colonies to federate.

<p>Australasian Federal Convention souvenir poster, 1898</p>

National Museum of Australia

<p>Australasian Federal Convention souvenir poster, 1898</p>

What was the Tenterfield Oration, and why was it important?

On 24 October 1889 Parkes was travelling between Brisbane and Sydney and stopped for the night in the town of Tenterfield in New South Wales. Tenterfield was close to the border with Queensland, which meant trade with nearby Queensland towns was expensive because of high tariffs.

While in Tenterfield Parkes gave an oration asking the audience to support the federation of the Australian colonies. He argued that Federation would allow colonial armies to join together and form a stronger national army. He also argued that Federation would improve rail travel between the colonies.

The Tenterfield Oration is important because it was the first time that a politician had asked the public, rather than other politicians, to support Federation.

Research Task


Parkes didn’t quite complete Lord Carrington’s dare; he couldn’t federate the colonies within one year. What happened between 1889 and 1901? You can find the answer in another defining moment: 1901 Becoming a nation — Federation

‘The great question which we have to consider is, whether the time has not now arisen for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian government and an Australian parliament … Surely what the Americans have done by war, Australians can bring about in peace.’

Sir Henry Parkes, Tenterfield, 24 October 1889.

What was the effect of the Tenterfield Oration?

The Tenterfield Oration was reported in the Sydney newspapers, and Lord Carrington telegraphed Parkes to return to Sydney as soon as possible so that he could give the same speech there. Parkes went on to give similar speeches in 15 different places. The oration helped encourage colonial governments to begin negotiating towards Federation. On 1 January 1901, 12 years after the Tenterfield Oration, Australia federated and became an independent nation.


Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Who was Henry Parkes, and what political experience did he have before Federation?

2. What was unusual about Parkes’s Tenterfield Oration?

3. Why did the Tenterfield Oration become an important catalyst for achieving Federation?