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VCE Humanities

Australian History Unit 3: Transformations - Colonial Society to Nation


There are no prerequisites for this unit.

Course Description

Over the last two hundred years, the history of European settlement in Australia has brought radical changes for the descendants of both the original Indigenous inhabitants and the incoming colonists. From 1788 onwards people, ideas and events created colonial societies and eventually a new nation that confronted significant challenges and changes in its first century of existence. 

Transformations in Australia’s history have occurred sometimes chaotically in response to a sudden rush for land or gold, and at other times in a debated and planned fashion as in the creation of, what was in the early twentieth century, an advanced democracy. Over this time, crises and movements have also led governments and people to modify the status quo to confront critical challenges to the stability and defence of the nation.

Students explore four periods of time which span some of the transformative events and processes that developed and changed the nature of Australian society and created modern Australia. The first slice of time begins in the 1830s with the expansion of European control over much of southern Australia as squatters appropriated country inhabited by Indigenous peoples. The remaining three time periods consider transformations undergone by the new Australian nation in the twentieth century.

Areas of Study

The Reshaping of Port Phillip District/Victoria 1834 –1860

  • How did Aboriginal and British arrivals’ understanding of land management and land ownership differ in the Port Phillip District/Victoria?
  • What were the demographic and political consequences of the gold rushes?
  • What were the responses of and outcomes for Aboriginal people following the arrival of the pastoral and gold rush colonists?

In the early decades of the nineteenth century much of the land of the Port Phillip District was actively managed by the Aboriginal peoples of the Kulin Nations to ensure that animal and plant life flourished and could be efficiently harvested. Early non-Indigenous people commented on the ‘park-like’ quality of parts of the district with its abundant grasslands. This was not, as the newcomers assumed, a natural phenomenon but a modification of the landscape by Aboriginal burning and cultivation practices utilised to ensure a predictable food supply. 

The intrusion of British settler colonisation into the Port Phillip District from 1834 onwards was underpinned by the confident belief that by acquiring and investing capital in large pastoral holdings they were introducing ‘improvement’ to a land that they considered ‘waste’ (unimproved). This belief extended to an understanding that they could therefore rightfully occupy the lands of the Indigenous people. As elsewhere in the British Empire the doctrine of improvement was a key justification for the confiscation of the land of Indigenous peoples. Free enterprise and initiative were founding principles during the time of the new pastoral economy and the subsequent gold rush decade.

Grazing practices and later widespread gold mining brought about extensive environmental change in the colony. For the Aboriginal people of the area, this, together with the loss of their land and the introduction of new diseases and settler violence, was devastating. Yet they challenged the European presence, using strategies of negotiation, accommodation, manipulation and resistance and maintaining where possible their cultural practices.

The discovery of gold introduced further radical change in what had become the separate colony of Victoria. The wealth and ideas generated by gold, mass migration, the outcomes of the Eureka rebellion, and the introduction of responsible government transformed the colony from a pastoral economy into arguably the most dynamic of the Australian colonies with a strong vision about its future.

Making a People and a Nation 1890 –1920

  • What visions drove the formation of the Australian nation?
  • What measures were introduced between Federation and 1914 to implement this vision?
  • How did participation in World War One affect Australians’ visions for the new nation?

Behind the emergence of a sense of an Australian national identity in the late nineteenth century and a corresponding desire for nationhood were visions of what the new world nation could achieve. These visions were shaped by representations of what was unique to the Australian way of life in art, literature and popular journalism and by the economic difficulties and labour struggles of the 1890s. There was a belief that Australians possessed a distinct identity forged by the culture of the bush, one that valued egalitarianism and democracy. But this sense of being Australian did not negate an equally strong sense of also being a British people and of belonging to the global British Empire. Pride in Britishness, in a common ancestry, traditions, language and form of government were key components of the Australian world-view of the time. A conviction in the superiority of the ‘white race’ also fed into aspirations for the new nation.

The process of nation building after Federation in 1901 saw Australia become what was for the times an advanced democracy. Significant legislation introduced pioneering changes to electoral laws, industrial arbitration and social welfare. The new Conciliation and Arbitration Court introduced the principle of a basic wage for male breadwinners in 1907. This was known as the Harvester Judgement. These measures continued to be important features of Australian society for much of the twentieth century. Their advanced nature meant that the new nation was regarded internationally as a ‘social laboratory’. However, the changes had uneven outcomes. Some people were excluded from membership in the new nation. The new rudimentary welfare provisions privileged men as providers and envisioned women as unpaid mothers of the nation. Yet women, even if widowed and working to raise a family, were not paid the full basic wage. Aboriginal people were not covered by the welfare provisions or the 1907 wage decision and were governed and paid according to special state government regulations. 

Participation in World War One led to Australians becoming immersed in Old World struggles; however, the war consolidated Australians’ pride in themselves. Many came to believe that the new nation had proved itself on the battlefield and shown that Australians were superior stock to their British kin. Although Australia had demonstrated its loyalty to the British Empire, its involvement in the war also led to a growing sense of being independent from the mother country. But pride in the new nation’s achievements was tempered by the lasting suffering endured by many families as a result of the war.


Outcomes Assessment Tasks Marks Allocated
(school-assessed coursework)
Analyse the nature of change in the Port Phillip District/Victoria in the period 1834 –1860. Analysis of primary sources. 50
Analyse the visions and actions that shaped the new nation from 1890 to 1920, and the changes and continuities to these visions that resulted from participation in World War One. Essay. 50
Total Marks 100

Overall Final Assessment

Graded Assessment Title Assessment Exam Duration Contribution to Study Score (%)
1 Unit 3 Coursework School-assessed   25
2 Unit 4 Coursework School-assessed   25
3 Written Examination November 2 hours 50


Reproduced by permission of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Victoria, Australia: