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Research Guides

Commonwealth Government Records about Tasmania


Even from our unusual Tasmanian–Commonwealth perspective, the opening decade has so much of interest. Some local events mirrored the national. The proclamation in Sydney of the new Commonwealth on 1 January 1901 was paralleled in Hobart when the Administrator Sir John Dodds repeated the announcement from the Tasmanian Supreme Court steps. The first government was also sworn in, with Edmund Barton as Prime Minister and, briefly, the Tasmanian Premier Sir Elliott Lewis as minister without portfolio. Queen Victoria's representatives, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, having opened Parliament in Melbourne in May, then sailed south in July to visit Tasmania.

More lasting indicators of national government were inherited or had to be established. Some were critical building blocks of parliamentary democracy grounded on the principle of separation of powers, such as the High Court of Australia's Office of the Hobart Registry (from 1903; CA 1563), while others facilitated it, like the Commonwealth Electoral Office, Tasmania (from 1903; CA 969) and five divisional returning offices. As for the Senate, its very first committee, established in July 1901 and chaired by Launceston barrister Senator John Keating, looked south. It was a Select Committee 'Upon the Advisableness of the Commonwealth Taking Measures to Improve the Steam-ship Communication between Tasmania and the Mainland of Australia'. From this was to come a daily mail service to the mainland.

Politically, the decade reflected the tentativeness of the times. In Hobart and Melbourne, governments came and went, and in a curious parallel both Assembly and Parliament saw recycled leaders with both the aforementioned Lewis serving as Premier and Alfred Deakin as Prime Minister three times in a decade. And with Prime Minister Chris Watson (April–August 1904) and Premier John Earle (October 1909), Australia and Tasmania had their first glimpses of Labor governments.

Most new departments (Treasury, Home Affairs, Attorney-General, External Affairs) and the Public Service Commissioner were entirely mainland based, though some were connected to related agencies with state branches. These included the Tasmanian District Registry of the Industrial Registry (CA 895), a Trade Marks and Designs Sub-Office (CA 901), and a branch of the Commonwealth Meteorology Bureau (CA 1558). As for the Department of Defence, it had a grand total of three people in Tasmania, separate of course from the Commonwealth Military Forces' District Headquarters, Tasmania (CA 1571), which remained unchanged during the first decade.

The remaining two departments were special, and of the Commonwealth's inherited machinery, an official 1904 list of Commonwealth employees broken down by state could not be clearer. Trade and Customs had 47 staff transferred from the colonial administration, most in Hobart (CA 816), and the others each under a Sub-Collector of Customs in Launceston (CA 819), Devonport (CA 818) and Burnie (CA 817). That the Tasmanian Customs Department had had more than three times the number of offices reflects just how important customs and excise was to its economy. And federal customs had more to do. Its responsibilities included, in addition to the collection of customs excise and primage duties, such things as quarantine and immigration control. Even larger was the state presence of the Postmaster-General's Department (CA 1033), with Deputy Postmaster-General HL D'Emden in charge of some 349 staff spread throughout the state. One of his first tasks was to reinvent a branch network of the Tasmanian Post Office Savings Bank, enabling its replacement, the State Savings Bank, to operate branches – for a fee – in the newly owned post offices. Another priority was to establish an appropriately imposing General Post Office (GPO) headquarters, which was opened in 1905.

While transitional arrangements were being established, the working rule was status quo ante. Thus until the Commonwealth passed the Quarantine Act 1908, with effect from July 1909, quarantine remained the responsibility of state governments. Staff at Barnes Bay, Bruny Island got on with their lives. It was only at the end of the second decade of Federation, with the gazettal in July 1919 of six new positions within a new Sub-Treasury, Tasmania (CA 1006), that the Commonwealth Treasury was properly established in Hobart. For the previous 18 years, the state government had provided an accountant and paymaster.

So, while the Commonwealth had yet to activate through legislation and administrative action all of the so-called specific powers granted it by the Constitution, by the end of the decade it was more than a going concern. And it was generating records, while drawing on those it had inherited. Not all were automatically accrued through the oft cited 'records-follow-function' convention, however. The Meteorology Act 1906, for example, authorised the Governor-General to enter into arrangements with the Governor of a state about matters such as 'the transfer to the Commonwealth, on such terms as are agreed upon, of any observatory and the instruments, books, registers, records and documents used or kept in connection there-with'.


Chapter 1
The Commonwealth and Tasmania, 1901–2000