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Developing Democracy

Australia is one of the world’s oldest democracies – an unexpected achievement perhaps in a group of British colonies whose foundation settlements were in effect prisons. Nevertheless, by the late 1850s several Australian colonies had adopted constitutions that were the most advanced in the world. A second period of democratising followed in the 1890s, and in 1901 the federated Australian nation was created on the assumption of universal suffrage. The three documents inscribed in the Australian Register of the Memory of the World Program exemplify these two decisive decades in Australia’s democratic transition.

When the first Australian colonies were created between 1788 and 1836 the notion of democracy, or rule by the people, was generally seen as a radical, even a dangerous concept – but not by all. The colony of South Australia, whose founders in 1836 included many with liberal, even radical sympathies, sought self-government from the very beginning, and a South Australian Act passed in 1842 by the British Parliament actually allowed for the creation of a parliament with an elected lower house. This early attempt at democracy was thwarted by the conservative Governor Grey, who also resisted several other attempts at reform, including a petition to the British government in 1844 seeking the right to elected representation.

Debate intensified from 1850 when the imperial Parliament passed the Australian Colonies Government Act, opening the way to self-government. Reformers in all colonies campaigned for the right to elect their representatives, although there were many opinions on the level of direct representation and on the extent of the suffrage that should underpin it. In the midst of this general political debate gold was discovered in the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales and the resulting gold rushes brought thousands of eager gold seekers to eastern Australia. Amongst them were some who had been influenced by liberal and radical movements in Britain and Europe, including men and women who had supported the Chartist cause in Britain.

The impact of the gold rushes on eastern Australia (and to a lesser extent South Australia) was instant and profound. During the 1850s the population of Victoria almost trebled, as gold seekers surged into Melbourne, then onto the goldfields in the hinterland. Tiny colonial administrations in Melbourne and Sydney were overwhelmed by these unruly hordes, and imposing a fee for licenses to dig for gold was a desperate attempt to raise revenue from a mobile and volatile population. License fees were always unpopular, but disaffection grew as the fees rose and policing methods became more punitive. Organised resistance to the collection of the license fees spread throughout the fields, with large public meetings and demands for redress. Several petitions were collected and in November 1854 the hastily convened Ballarat Reform League issued a four-page Charter summarising its principles and demands, for presentation to newly arrived Governor Hotham. The Charter is a unique statement of the political beliefs and aspirations of many of the ordinary men and women of Ballarat in the period before formal democratic government was introduced, and it is seen as a very significant document in the move towards democracy in Australia. In the language of the Charter, and in its principal demands, the Ballarat Reform League drew on the immediate legacy of the Peoples’ Charter in Britain and on the rhetoric of various movements for democratic reform in Europe in the late 1840s. Its basic tenets were even older, drawing on the principles of the American and French revolutions and on even more ancient assertions of the ‘rights’ of citizens to have a voice in the way they were governed. It failed to convince Governor Hotham, however, who eventually moved against the miners in force at the Eureka Stockade.

The significance of the Eureka Stockade to Australia’s democratic history has been debated widely. It is seen as highly significant in Victoria, although the democratic concessions enfranchising miners introduced in the new Victorian Constitution of 1855 were drafted and sent to Britain before both the Eureka Rebellion and the Ballarat Reform League Charter. The colony of Victoria briefly became the most democratically elected legislature in the world, but was almost immediately eclipsed by South Australia, which introduced full manhood suffrage, including the enfranchisement of Aboriginal men, in its South Australian Constitution Act of 1856. While no monster meetings, monster petitions or peoples’ charters were created in South Australia, the weight of public opinion, expressed through the press and in somewhat staid and orderly public meetings, ensured that the same principles were enacted there – the first instance of full manhood suffrage in the world. It seems clear that democratic principles were broadly supported throughout the Australian colonies by this time.

Of course, radical as they were in global terms, these developments in colonial democracy only benefitted half the population. Women continued to be excluded from the political process, both as voters and as representatives. Although women were mentioned occasionally during debates in the 1850s, no serious attempt was made to enfranchise them at that time. This changed with the growth of the Woman Movement in the 1880s and 1890s. The goals of the Woman Movement were broad, aimed at ending what they described as women’s condition as ‘creatures of sex’. Early concerns were raising the age of consent, improving the legal position of women within marriage, and increasing women’s access to education. But supporters of the Woman Movement also realised that their goals could not be achieved without political power, and securing the right to vote quickly assumed primary importance.

During the 1880s and 1890s a range of organisations formed in each colony to advance women’s issues generally, and to seek the vote in particular. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was active in each colony, but there were many other groups working alongside, some, like the Women’s Suffrage League in South Australia, the Womanhood Suffrage League in New South Wales, or the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society, with a specific focus on gaining women the vote. There was often significant cross-over membership of these organisations and the women concerned devoted many thousands of voluntary hours to the cause. They convened public meetings, travelled extensively to promote the cause in regional areas, wrote letters and articles for the press, wrote many letters to members of parliament and sought supporters amongst existing parliamentarians to present private members’ bills to their respective houses. Some seven of these bills were debated in the South Australian Parliament between 1886 and 1894 – all of them unsuccessful.

In several colonies the suffragists also drew up petitions, gathering thousands of signatures in support of their cause. The largest of these was the so-called ‘Monster Petition’, gathered in Victoria in 1891 by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Victorian Temperance Alliance and other suffrage groups. This petition secured 30,000 signatures and was tabled in the Victorian Parliament in 1891, the largest petition to be tabled there in the nineteenth century. The petition repeated arguments presented during the American Revolution and asserted many times thereafter: that ‘Taxation and Representation should go together…’ But importantly the petitioners prefaced their request with the statement: that ‘Government of the People by the People should mean all the People, and not one half’; and that, ‘in short, Women should Vote on Equal Terms with Men’. Despite their efforts, the Victorian Parliament did not support the request.

Petitions were also presented in other colonies. Several petitions were gathered in South Australia in support of women’s suffrage but the largest, containing 11,600 signatures, was timed to coincide with the third reading of the Constitution Amendment Bill, which proposed extending the suffrage to women. This petition, tabled in Parliament on 23 August 1894, was the work of a group of women’s organisations – the Women’s Suffrage League, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Working Women’s Trades Union – which gathered signatures from all over the colony. Secretary of the League, Mary Lee, was especially influential in garnering support. The campaign in South Australia ultimately gained the support of the liberal Kingston government and South Australia became the first colony in Australia, and only the second place in the world (after New Zealand), to extend the suffrage to all adult women in 1894/5. Western Australia followed in 1899, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905 and Victoria finally in 1908. The Commonwealth of Australia extended the franchise to women in 1902, although those already enfranchised in their colonial jurisdictions had already qualified automatically to vote in federal elections.

The position of Aboriginal voters is less clear. Although Aboriginal men were theoretically enfranchised in all colonies except Queensland and Western Australia at the time of Federation, it was only in South Australia that they had been able to exercise their entitlement. The same applied to Aboriginal women. Although South Australia tried to ensure that Aboriginal voters retained this right in federal elections, the clause in the Australian Constitution that appeared to guarantee the franchise was open to interpretation, and during the 1920s and ‘30s many Aboriginal people were removed from both electoral rolls. They were disenfranchised effectively until a further round of electoral reform saw these rights reinstated in 1949. However it was 1962 before Aboriginal people were able to vote in all Commonwealth elections, and 1965 before the last state (Queensland) conceded this right.


John Hirst, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy Allen & Unwin, 1988

Dean Jaensch (ed.), The Flinders History of South Australia: Political History Wakefield Press, 1986

Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism Allen & Unwin, 1999

Audrey Oldfield, Woman Suffrage in Australia Cambridge University Press, 1992

Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: a history of the Colony of Victoria 1851-1861 Melbourne University Press, 1963

Pat Stretton and Christine Finnimore, How South Australian Aborigines Lost the Vote: some side effects of federation History Trust of South Australia, 1991

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