Henry Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration – 24 October 1889

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Henry Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration – 24 October 1889

Tenterfield Schools of Arts plaque

Source: Monuments Australia www.monumentsaustralia.org.au

Give a thought today to Henry Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration delivered 126 years ago on the 24th October 1889.

It is credited as the speech that re-energised the Federation movement that subsequently brought about the Federation Conference in Melbourne in 1890 and the Constitutional Convention in Sydney in 1891 resulting in a draft Constitution.  The Convention was chaired by Henry Parkes.

But remembering dates and places is not enough.  It would be a serious misreading of history to think that the road to Federation was smooth, consistent or even inevitable.  The draft Constitution nearly fell at the first official hurdle when the delegates of the 1891 Convention returned triumphant to their colonies, draft Constitution in hand, only to meet the realities of colonial Parliaments, electoral cycles, petty jealousies and economic recession.  All were waiting for Henry to take the lead, introduce the draft to the NSW Parliament and have it passed.  It was not to be (yet).

At present, we are again considering whether Australia’s Federation arrangements and Constitution best serve our needs today:-

  • What decisions our Commonwealth and State Governments should make?
  • How they pay for the decisions they make – build hospitals, roads, schools the arts and the environment?
  • Whether indigenous Australians should be included in the Constitution (“Recognised”)? and,
  • What a Republic might mean for our country?

What our history teaches us is that ‘Federation’ politics is hard!  It will take a long time, include all of our governments, many people and different ideas along the way and attempts to progress the debate will encounter innumerable hurdles.  Nothing should be considered a failure unless we give up – we should never give up on making Australia the best place it can be and with it, be our best selves.

In the Tenterfield Oration, Henry said:

‘This great thing [Federation of the colonies] would have to be done, and to put it off would only tend to make the difficulties which stood in our way greater’.

The questions for us today are the same as those that Australians faced in 1889 but our answers may well be different.

Who do we want to be? Are we the best we can be?

Thank you Henry!

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