Resource Sheet 4

The right to vote

Image of a Petition from the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales

National Archives of Australia, R16, 2.

Petition from the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales to the 1897 National Australasian Convention (abridged)

to the Honourable the President and the Honourable members of the electoral Convention of 1897.

The humble petition of the members of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales respectfully sheweth…

2. That at the present time in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania women do not possess the right to vote for candidates for election as members of Parliament of the said colonies whilst in respect of South Australia such right has been conferred upon the women of that colony and that therefore the women of the colonies first mentioned are under a disability from which the women of South Australia have been relieved.

3. That (as the honourable G. H.Reid Premier of New South Wales has said in his article on the Outlook of Federation ) "in this matter the taxpayer has much more at stake than the politicians" and that the women of the various colonies are taxpayers under their respective governments and will be tax payers under any federal government which may be established.

4. That women are patriotic and law abiding citizens taking an equal part in the religious and moral development of the people.

5. That in view of the facts and considerations abovementioned we are justified in appealing to your Honourable Convention to so frame the Federal Constitution as to give the women of all the colonies a voice in choosing the representatives to the Federal parliament so that united Australia may become a true democracy resting upon the will of the whole and not half of the people.

Modified extract from 1897 draft Constitution, section 41

No adult person who had the vote for a state parliament could be prevented from voting for the Commonwealth Parliament.

Draft of a bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia, Robt S Brain, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1897.

Is the constitution democratic? – Yes!

The Senate of the Commonwealth has no qualification for its members other than that which its electors must have. That is to say, there is no property qualification whatever, and the elected, like the elector, need only be a man holding the manhood franchise…The poorest elector in all Australia is made eligible for election to the Senate, and all the other poor electors as well as the rich ones can vote for him.

It so chances that South Australia is at present in this continent the only state possessing the "adult" franchise; that is, the women have votes as well as the men… [this is] bound to become the adopted practice in every Australasian colony…There is no desire on the part of practical politicians to press for the logic of the issue as one involving eligibility of women to seats in the Legislature. That is a matter that can well bide its time, if it have a time in the future.

Ballarat Courier, 31 May 1898.

States’ rights and democracy

Modified extract from 1897 draft Constitution

section 7

There shall be a minimum of six senators for each Original State and equal representation shall be maintained.

section 127

To alter the constitution, the proposed change must pass through both houses of the parliament, and be agreed to by a majority of voters in a majority of the six States.

Draft of a bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia, Robt S Brain, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1897.

To the memory of majority rule

Cartoon 'To the memory of majority rule'

National Library of Australia

Is the constitution democratic? – no!

An overwhelming majority of the electors of the Commonwealth, and an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives (the peoples’ house, elected on a population basis) may desire an amendment, but if the Senate, i.e., the Upper House (where area and not people carries the weight) says no to the proposed amendment, it cannot pass. Thus the Senate—the Chamber in which the small colonies representing a small minority of people will be dominant. (New South Wales and Victoria between them will have twelve members in the Senate, and South Australia, West Australia, Tasmania, and Queensland, 24)—has the power to veto…A small minority of Australians are to control the will of a large majority of Australians.

Ballarat Courier, 19 May 1898.

Speech extract by Henry Bournes Higgins, Geelong, 18 April 1898

This [the Constitution] is not like an ordinary Act of Parliament which Parliament can change if it does not work well…The difficulty will be far greater in getting a change in the Federal Constitution.

To make a change in a single word in this constitution, there must not only be an absolute majority of both houses of the Federal Parliament; but the change has to be submitted to the electors in the several colonies; and unless there be a majority of the people, and also a majority of the States in favour of the change, the change cannot be made. Even if four out of every five Australians voting vote for change, the change is not necessarily carried.

Henry Bournes Higgins, Essays and Addresses on The Australian Constitution Commonwealth Bill, Melbourne, 1900, pp 6–9.

Diary extract, 2 June 1898

We realised that Federation must come—that it was an absolute necessity for Australia…Every year of delay would make the problem more difficult…the prospect of agreement on fair terms more remote. That this would especially be the case with the smaller colonies who would be the more overshadowed by the large and rapidly growing populations of New South Wales and Victoria. Now Tasmania is offered equal terms in the Constitution—equal representation in the Senate with the great colonies, a minimum of 5 members—instead of 3 her proportionate number—in the House of Representatives…never again were we likely to get such favourable terms.

JB Walker, diary, 2 June 1898, Reports on the Historical Manuscripts of Tasmania, Nos 1–5, Hobart, 1964, pp 179–181.

Free trade versus protectionism

Modified extract from 1897 draft Constitution, section 92

Trade between the states shall be free of customs duties.

Draft of a bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia, Robt S Brain, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1897.

Food will be cheap because of the pouring in to Tassie of South Australian Wheat; cheap food for factory hands means low wages. Low wages and high prices for heavily protected woollen goods ought to suit the consumer for he will have to wear a high-priced colonial suit or go without a suit altogether.

Clipper, 4 June 1898.

Trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States, whether by means of internal carriage or ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free.

All artificial barriers to trade and interchange between the federated colonies are to be removed, so that commerce may be free to flow through its natural channels…The consumer who lives a few miles from an imaginary boundary-line will not have a fine imposed upon him because he dares to spread with South Australian butter his bread made of South Australian flour, or because he puts his crop with a South Australian stump-jumping plough, and harvests it with a South Australian stripper. "You may buy in any Australian market".

South Australian Register, 27 April 1898.