Tag Archives: elections
With taxes and health care emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War.
It also happened back in 1929 when Australians went to the polls, focused almost solely on arbitration.
In its early days, Australia pioneered a system of compulsory arbitration — basically a new kind of court to settle disputes between unions and employers and set wages. From the late-1800s, arbitration courts were set up in most of the Australian states, and after Federation, a federal court was established in Canberra. At first, this federal layer was designed only to deal with the most serious, nationwide industrial disputes, but it soon became a full-fledged second layer of arbitration governing all facets of industrial relations.
Most unions and employers rather begrudgingly came to accept arbitration as a kind of compromise – an institution that could make industrial disputes a little more civil and, hopefully, a little less violent.
But not all accepted the compromise. In the 1920s, the Coalition government (it was the Nationalist-Country Party Coalition back then, but they are roughly comparable to today’s Liberals and Nationals), led by Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, made several attempts to water down the arbitration system, or at least remove one of the layers.
While unions saw the dual-layered system as an important check preventing a pro-business state or federal government from watering down hard-won protections and wages, the government believed it allowed unions to “venue-shop” until they got the result they wanted.
The Coalition also believed that high wages were putting off foreign investors and risked Australia’s economic development. Something had to be done.
The Coalition’s unpopular assault on arbitration
Initially, Bruce tried to solve the problem by asking the states to give up their courts in favour of one centralised system in Canberra. The states, then mostly governed by Labor, refused to hand over their powers to the feds.
Next, Bruce sought to change the Constitution to beef up the Commonwealth’s power to regulate industrial relations. The referendum, brought in 1926, failed to gain a majority of votes or states, with only Queensland and New South Wales voting “yes”.
Frustrated, and alarmed by a growing economic crisis and a slew of bitter strikes, the Coalition government changed direction, attempting to abolish the federal layer of arbitration. In 1929, Bruce introduced the Maritime Industries Bill, a law taking the Commonwealth out of arbitration for most industries, leaving just the state courts.
The bill did not pass. Six MPs, led by former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, dramatically crossed the floor to add an amendment requiring a popular mandate for the law, either through a referendum or a general election. Bruce told the house he considered the bill a matter of confidence and called an early election.
(This “hair trigger” approach to confidence has since fallen out of vogue. Losing on any old bill – or indeed, even a very important one – is no longer treated as a proxy confidence vote. See, for instance, the case of the Medevac Bill passed against the wishes of the Coalition government last year. The government continued in office.)
What happened on election day and why it still resonates today
In the 1929 election, both sides of politics insisted that arbitration was the question being answered by the electorate. Labor, under James Scullin, clearly tapped into the public mood with his argument that arbitration, though imperfect, was the best hope for progress in Australia. The Coalition lost 18 seats and with them, their majority. Scullin took Labor into government for the first time since 1917.
To add insult to injury, Bruce lost his own blue-ribbon seat of Flinders – the first time a sitting Australian prime minister lost his seat.
It would prove a rare event, not occurring again until 2007, when John Howard lost Bennelong. Funnily enough, that election, like 1929, was also largely focused on a conservative government’s fundamental reforms to the industrial relations system.
Only twice in the past century have Australians seen fit to throw a prime minister out of parliament, and both times, it was over proposed reforms to industrial relations. It’s a striking fact — one that might tempt us to question whether there is some deep continuity here. It could speak to the legacy of trade unions, which have made industrial relations a fraught area for governments, even well after the heyday of union power and organisation.
For my money, I’d say this speaks more to the basic attitude to government in Australia — what Laura Tingle, borrowing from linguist Afferbeck Lauder, dubbed “aorta politics” (as in, “they oughta fix x”; “they” being the authorities).
Very much unlike our more libertarian cousins in the US and UK, Australians have historically wanted the state to solve many of their problems. Whether or not it is a good idea, we’ve had the state irrigate farmland, deliver the mail, provide electricity, pay for our health insurance and help us buy our first home. Nowadays, Australians seem to expect it to tackle things like domestic violence and climate change.
And even today, as in 1929, we expect the state to keep the industrial peace – to prevent bosses or unions from going too far in their quest for economic power, to keep things civil.
The point here is not that arbitration or even industrial relations shall forever be a sacred cow in Australian politics. What we learn from 1929 is simply that the Australian voter does not take kindly to our governments trying to drop an issue because it is too hard. We are, it seems, a demanding lot.
125 years ago today Aotearoa New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant all women the right to vote.
The event was part of an ongoing international movement for women to exit from an inferior position in society and to enjoy equal rights with men.
But why did this global first happen in a small and isolated corner of the South Pacific?
Setting the stage
In the late 19th century, Aotearoa New Zealand was a volatile and rapidly changing contact zone where British settlers confidently introduced systematic colonisation, often at the expense of the indigenous Māori population. Settlers were keen to create a new world society that adapted the best of Britain and left behind behind the negative aspects of the industrial revolution – Britain’s dark satanic mills.
Many supported universal male suffrage and a less rigid class structure, enlightened race relations and humanitarianism that also extended to improving women’s lives. These liberal aspirations towards societal equality contributed to the 1893 women’s suffrage victory.
At the end of the 19th century, feminists in New Zealand had a long list of demands. It included equal pay, prevention of violence against women, economic independence for women, old age pensions and reform of marriage, divorce, health and education – and peace and justice for all.
The women’s suffrage cause captured widespread support and emerged as the uniting right for women’s equality in society. As suffragist Christina Henderson later summed up, 1893 captured “the mental and spiritual uplift” women experienced upon release “from their age-long inferiority complex”.
Two other factors assisted New Zealand’s global first for women: a relatively small size and population and the lack of an entrenched conservative tradition. In Britain, John Stuart Mill presented a first petition for women’s suffrage to the British Parliament in 1866, but it took until wartime 1918 for limited women’s suffrage there.
Women as moral citizens
As a “colonial frontier”, New Zealand had a surplus of men, especially in resource towns. Pragmatically, this placed a premium on women for their part as wives, mothers and moral compasses.
There was a fear of a chaotic frontier full of marauding single men. This colonial context saw conservative men who supported family values supporting suffrage. During the 1880s, depression and its accompanying poverty, sexual licence and drunken disorder further enhanced women’s value as settling maternal figures. Women voters promised a stabilising effect on society.
New Zealand gained much strength from an international feminist movement. Women were riding a first feminist wave that, most often grounded in their biological difference as life givers and carers, cast them as moral citizens.
Local feminists eagerly drew upon and circulated the best knowledge from Britain, America and Europe. When Mary Leavitt, the leader of the US-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) visited New Zealand in 1885, her goal was to set up local branches. This had a direct impact, leading to the country’s first national women’s organisation and providing a platform for women to secure the vote in order to affect their colonial feminist concerns.
Other places early to grant women’s suffrage shared the presence of liberal and egalitarian beliefs, a surplus of men over women, and less entrenched conservatism. The four frontier US western mountain states led the way with Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1895). South Australia (1894) and Western Australia (1899) made the 19th century and, before the first world war, were joined by other western US states, Australia, Finland and Scandinavia.
New Zealand was fortunate to have many effective women leaders. Most prominent among them was Kate Sheppard. In 1887, Sheppard became head of the WCTU’s Christchurch branch and led the campaign for the vote.
The campaign leaders were well organised and hard working. Their tactics were petitions, pamphlets, letters, public talks and lobbying politicians – this was a peaceful era before the suffragette militancy during the early 20th century elsewhere.
The women were persistent and overcame setbacks. It took multiple attempts in parliament before the Electoral Act 1893 was passed. Importantly, the suffragists got public opinion behind the cause. Mass support was demonstrated through petitions between 1891 and 1893, in total garnering 31,872 signatures, amounting to a quarter of Aotearoa’s adult women.
Pragmatically, the women worked in allegiance with men in parliament who could introduce the bills. In particular, veteran conservative Sir John Hall viewed women’s suffrage as a way to a more moral and civil society.
The Suffrage 125 celebratory slogan “whakatū wāhine – women stand up!” captures the intention of continuing progressive and egalitarian traditions. Recognising diverse cultural backgrounds is now important. With hindsight, the feminist movement can be implicated as an agent of colonisation, but it did support votes for Māori women. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia presented a motion to the newly formed Māori parliament to allow women to vote and sit in it.
New Zealand remains a small country that can experience rapid social and economic change. Evoking its colonial past, however, it retains both a reputation as a tough and masculine place of beer-swilling, rugby-playing blokes and a tradition of staunch, tea drinking, domesticated women.
Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
Between 1894 and 1908 a wave of women’s enfranchisement swept across Australia. Beginning in South Australia in 1894 and ending 14 years later in Victoria, Australia’s six colonies allowed women to vote.
With the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act in 1902, Australia became just the second country in the world – after New Zealand in 1893 – to give women the vote. At the same time, the Commonwealth became the first country in which women could stand for parliament. It was this coincidence of voting and representation rights that made Australian women the “most fully enfranchised” in the world.
The development of voting rights for women was not a “gift”, as contemporary politicians and – later – historians framed it. Instead, it was the result of concerted activism led by a group of white, middle-class, urban women, with pockets of working-class support, and fortified by a Protestant temperance vision.
Suffragists from Perth to Sydney enlisted male political sponsors and drew on a common tactical arsenal to engender public support for their demands – which “squeaked through parliaments in a period of flux”.
As several historians have shown, in the 1850s women contested the terms of the political citizenship conferred on male colonists after Britain conferred responsible government – the system whereby the colonies were given control of their domestic affairs through popularly elected parliaments.
However, feminism only came to the fore as a political force in the late 1880s. It was galvanised by the formation of local women’s groups, like literary and suffrage societies, as well as overseas imports like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the dissemination of British and American propaganda. With these institutional supports, organised suffrage movements emerged in all six colonies.
The Australasian WCTU’s Manual of the Franchise Department neatly summarised the methods that defined the colonial campaigns. Its author, Catherine Wallace, sought to standardise the techniques that saw Victorian women amass 30,000 signatures on a “monster” suffrage petition that year.
She urged readers to form franchise departments, join suffrage leagues, write to the press, hold public debates, circulate petitions, and relay news across the union’s hierarchy of colonial and global suffrage leaders.
What was its impact?
Winning the vote was not an end in itself. The suffragists believed that gaining the vote meant women had an obligation to reform society.
They hoped to improve the lives of Australian women and embody the virtues of political citizenship for the benefit of disenfranchised women across the world. This was especially true for the “sisters” from whom they had drawn inspiration in the UK and the US.
However, as the suffragists quickly discovered, enfranchisement was not a panacea for women’s economic, political and social disadvantages. Soon after winning the vote, their activist coalitions collapsed as women pursued an array of conflicting agendas, from prohibition to workers’ rights.
One of the chief divisions that arose in the ensuing decades was over the need for separatist organising. Socialist and working-class women, like Kate Dwyer, the Golding sisters and Lillian Locke believed women’s political future was with the Labor Party.
By contrast, many of the movement’s leading figures – including Vida Goldstein, Catherine Helen Spence, and Rose Scott – remained outside the party system. They feared demands for loyalty would sideline any feminist agenda.
As their counterparts in New Zealand had already found, even when women reached consensus they faced stiff resistance when they attempted to “curb men’s sexual liberties”.
In particular, campaigns to raise the age of consent and repeal the infamous Contagious Diseases Acts led to a backlash against women exercising their political power.
What are its contemporary implications?
The struggle for voting rights did not end in 1908. As historians like Patricia Grimshaw have pointed out, the expansion of who was entitled to vote federally came at the expense of Indigenous peoples.
Whereas Indigenous Australians’ voting rights had been murky until Federation, the Commonwealth Franchise Act disqualified any “Aboriginal native of Australia Asia Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand” from enrolling to vote.
Most suffragists did not display the fixation with racial integrity that led politicians to institute the White Australia policy. Yet, until a new generation of feminist leaders emerged after the first world war, neither did they challenge it.
Women’s enfranchisement is celebrated as part of Australia’s democratic mythology. However, many of the suffragists’ more radical ideas – like pacifism, equal pay, and even their vision of a world where women could use the power of the state to protect themselves and their children from violence – remain unrealised.
Nevertheless, Australian suffragists were notable for their desire to use new-found national citizenship as a platform to promote progressive causes. Examples include Catherine Spence’s pursuit of “pure democracy” (a form of proportional representation) in the US, and Vida Goldstein’s role in founding the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance.
Historian Clare Wright argues the suffragists’ efforts offer Australia a founding myth distinct from the Anzac legend. However, much evidence suggests that women like Rose Scott resisted the appeal of nationalism altogether, and instead worked to realise their ambitions in the states.
Still, in their commitment to promoting peace, advocating for women’s rights, and fostering international understanding, the suffragists offer a model of Australia’s role in the world that remains as important as ever.