Enthusiastically supported in Melbourne from the early 1880s, Federation was promoted in the press, in the Parliament of Victoria, and from the pulpit and the platform at public meetings as a solution to every problem of the day, be it European annexations in the Pacific or the feared flood of Chinese immigrants. Victorian Government ministries campaigned consistently for effective federal action.
Support for Federation was part of a consensus among the city's politically active citizens on the need for democracy and tariff protection of native industry. Melbourne manufacturers and artisans shared a heady pride in the metropolis they had created, and a fierce suspicion of the land-holders who dominated rural Victoria. Manufacturers, trade unionists and small farmers forged a protectionist alliance in the 1860s and 1870s against the merchants and squatters of the Legislative Council. In the 1890s the urban alliance was revived, providing a better vehicle for democratic reform than the fledgling Australian Labor Party.
Melbourne citizens also shared a pride in their common membership of the British 'race'. The immigrant generation and their native-born children argued about the fate of the race in a new land, but they agreed entirely about their inherent superiority to people of colour. Suburban branches of the Australian Natives Association (ANA) flourished as debating societies where the coming generation of men received their political education, with federal union as their central creed. When the Melbourne Trades Hall Council called for an end to Chinese immigration, the demand was initially received as sectional, benefiting only the working classes. But the ANA's advocacy quickly established the issue as a national one, overriding any potential employer interest in cheap labour.
The crippling depression of the 1890s confirmed Melbourne's commitment to Federation, with national free trade and protection against the world seen as essential to the revival of urban industry. And again workers and employers recognised a common interest in the growth of the city. The movement to create a federal constitution took a uniquely consensual form in Melbourne. In 1893-94 the founders of the local branch of the Australasian Federation League worked long and hard to involve every representative political organisation in the city, producing an overtly democratic platform supported by the Trades Hall, the Chamber of Manufacturers and even the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce. Only the Royal Agricultural Society refused support, reflecting perhaps the League's urban preoccupations.
The urban consensus is again visible in 1897, in the election of delegates to represent the colonies in the federal Convention that would write the federal Constitution. Male Victorians - voting as a single electorate - returned all 10 of the candidates listed on the Age newspaper's Liberal ticket. Press cartoons pictured the Conservative interest as a city 'fat man' in top hat and frockcoat, pitted against a slim 'Liberal voter' in rural moleskins and riding boots. But the elected Liberal delegates were in fact mostly city men (though none of them fat), politicians representing suburban electorates in the Legislative Assembly.
In the federal Convention of 1897-98, these Victorian delegates spoke only rarely in the specific interest of their city. Perhaps the only occasion when they battled overtly on Melbourne's behalf was during the last sitting of the Convention, held in that city in 1898, when Victorian delegates fought for four days in an inconclusive battle to defend the rights of their parliament to charge preferential railway rates in order to attract the Riverina trade to Melbourne. Other battles lost at that Melbourne session were less clearly marked as in defence of urban interests, but were equally part of the urban political program, notably the resolution of deadlocks by use of the popular referendum so favoured by the Age.
Few of the Victorian delegates were satisfied with the draft constitution produced by the Convention, and the influential Age newspaper was most dissatisfied. But the ANA came in strongly behind the draft, and political pressure induced the premier, Sir George Turner, and his government to go to the electorate in support of the Bill. In the ensuing referendum campaign, the ANA established branches of the Australasian Federation League throughout rural Victoria, but the main thrust of the campaign - and the most popular speakers, for and against - came from Melbourne. The terms of the debate were mostly set in the city, though the Gippsland politician Allan McLean made some impact with an argument about the dangers of losing the Victorian stock tax.
In Melbourne almost the only opposition came from Henry Higgins' Anti-Convention Bill League, funded by the Trades Hall and directed against the undemocratic nature of the Bill. Both billites and anti-billites campaigned as for a general election, canvassing districts and staging public meetings, but the anti-billites' resources were few. The Federation League set up 'central rooms' with placards, electoral rolls, leaflets, badges and a telephone. A 'Volunteer Fighting Brigade' harassed enemy speakers on the Yarra Bank, at evening meetings in the suburbs and at city markets on Sunday afternoons. The anti-billites won a small victory by booking the Melbourne Town Hall for a monster meeting on the eve of the poll. The billites responded by staging meetings in every available town hall in Labor constituencies for the same evening, seven in all, and by 'packing' the Melbourne Town Hall and passing a dissenting amendment. On the evening of the poll a huge crowd gathered outside the office of the Argus newspaper in Collins Street to cheer and hiss lantern slides of the heroes and villains of the campaign, and to celebrate Victoria's endorsement of Federation, a triumph with 93 475 yes votes to only 20 570 against.
The failure of the Bill at the polls in New South Wales led to some amendments, mostly of a democratic kind, and to a second referendum in which Victorians voted even more overwhelmingly for Federation. One amendment provided that the federal capital should be built within New South Wales (though at a distance of not less than 100 miles from Sydney), and that Melbourne should host the federal parliament until the capital site was chosen. Victorian delegates had never seriously sought the capital for Melbourne, though Turner had once suggested St Kilda, as 'we have a climate unrivalled for changes in any part of the Australian colonies'. The outcome of Sydney's Pyrrhic victory was that Melbourne effectively remained the seat of federal government until 1927.