Tag Archives: politics

Australian politics explainer: the MV Tampa and the transformation of asylum-seeker policy


Alex Reilly, University of Adelaide

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. The Conversation


Some time before August 23 2001, a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1, left Indonesia en route to Christmas Island with 438 asylum seekers aboard.

Like many before them, the asylum seekers hoped to reach Australia and apply for permanent protection visas. The Palapa’s engines failed in international waters between Indonesia and Australia, and it lay stranded for many days.

On August 26, the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship en route from Fremantle to Singapore, answered a call from the Australian Coast Guard and rescued the crew and passengers of the Palapa. Makeshift accommodation and bathrooms were organised on the open deck. Pregnant women were among the passengers.

A delegation of five asylum seekers was taken to see the Tampa’s captain, Arne Rhinnan. They pleaded to be taken to Christmas Island (four hours away) and threatened to jump ship if they were returned to Indonesia (11 hours away). Rhinnan told the coast guard he planned to take the rescuees to Christmas Island, which was duly noted.

However, some hours later, Neville Nixon of the Department of Immigration contacted Rhinnan to inform him that the Tampa was not to enter Australian waters – and if it did so, Rhinnan risked imprisonment and fines of up to A$110,000.

What was its impact?

It was the prime minister, John Howard, who decided to prevent the Tampa entering Australia. The decision heralded the beginning of a new, executive-led change in policy, which has been the underlying basis of the approach to asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat ever since.

When the 438 asylum seekers left Indonesia on the Palapa, Australia’s policy was to rescue asylum seekers at sea and detain them in Australia while their claims for protection were processed. If their claims were successful, they would be released into the community on permanent protection visas. If they weren’t, they would be returned to their country of origin.

On October 8, six weeks after the Tampa was told it could not enter Australian waters, the Palapa survivors were forcibly removed from the HMAS Manoora onto Nauru. In the intervening period, the Australian government had introduced a policy of boat turnbacks.

The ability to construct and implement this policy less than three months out from an election was an extraordinary achievement of the Howard government, particularly given it involved complex negotiations with a foreign country (Nauru).

Also in this six-week period, ten more boats (now labelled Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs) attempted to reach Christmas Island. It was a period of high drama. The Australian Navy was under orders to forcibly return boats to Indonesia under Operation Relex.

Several boats sank under navy observation. Despite the best efforts of navy personnel to rescue asylum seekers flailing in the open sea, many people drowned. In the case of SIEV-4, cabinet ministers seized on a navy communication feed that children were being thrown overboard. They immediately made the allegation public; Howard and his immigration minister declared these were not the type of people Australia wanted.

The government maintained its reliance on unverified naval intelligence right up to the federal election on November 10, without providing the navy with an opportunity to correct the record. This politicisation of navy information was the subject of a Senate inquiry in the next parliament.

Boats ceased arriving altogether after SIEV-10 sank on October 19, killing more than 350 of its 400 passengers.

The exact circumstances of the sinking of SIEV-10 remain uncertain. There can be little doubt, however, that its sinking had a significant deterrent effect on asylum seekers in Indonesia considering the journey to Christmas Island by boat.

What are its contemporary implications?

At the time of the Tampa incident, the government’s new policy of boat turnbacks seemed extreme.

However, the government ran a highly successful campaign claiming that the policy was necessary to control Australia’s borders and keep the nation safe, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The government kept strict control of information. It withheld information about navy operations involving asylum seekers at sea and restricted the access of journalists to Nauru and Christmas Island. It also downplayed the effect of offshore detention on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers, and cast rescuees as undeserving of Australia’s protection – and potentially a risk to security.

The Rudd Labor government ended the Howard government’s asylum-seeker policy in 2007. Offshore detention centres were closed; boat turnbacks ceased. But, from 2010 to 2013, boats began arriving in unprecedented numbers, and Tony Abbott and the Coalition were elected on a platform that included “stopping the boats”.

The Abbott government introduced a new policy mirroring the post-Tampa policy – which included an added sting introduced by the Rudd government prior to the 2013 election that no asylum seeker arriving by boat and processed in an offshore detention centre would ever be resettled in Australia.

This present-day asylum-seeker policy has bipartisan support. It is a direct legacy of the Howard government’s decision to refuse entry to the Tampa in August 2001.

Alex Reilly, Deputy Dean and Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: the Mabo decision and native title


Kate Galloway

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. The Conversation


On June 3 1992, the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in the long-running case of Eddie Koiki Mabo and his compatriots from the Torres Strait island of Mer. Together they challenged the authority of the Queensland government to claim not just sovereignty but also ownership of the land comprising their ancestral home.

What happened?

Queensland annexed the Murray Islands through the Queensland Coast Islands Act of 1879. The court had to determine the effect of this annexation on the rights of the Meriam people to their land.

In its argument, the state claimed that on becoming sovereign over this territory, it derived ownership of all the land comprised in it – including the island of Mer.

This concept, known as universal and absolute beneficial crown ownership, was derived from the idea that Australia was “terra nullius”. According to international law, this implied that a territory was uninhabited. Consequently, England could lawfully claim sovereignty over that territory.

Similarly, under English law, Australia was deemed to be “settled and uninhabited”, and therefore English law was fully imported into the new territory.

A feature of this law was that the Crown was the absolute owner of all land — a relic of English feudalism. If, by law, the Crown was the absolute owner of all land, there was simply no possibility of recognising any other type of landholding, including that of Eddie Mabo.

By contrast, Mabo argued that, despite the state’s claim to sovereignty, he and his people retained ownership over the land. The basis of this argument is the well-known reality that Australia was not uninhabited at the time of colonisation. To maintain a law based on this outdated fiction would be unjust.

The court agreed. Although it could not upset sovereignty, the fact of sovereignty could no longer support the state’s claim for absolute ownership of all land. It recognised a new category of territory – one that was “settled but inhabited”.

As an inhabited territory, the original inhabitants – including Mabo and his community – retained ownership of land.

However, the state did have the power as sovereign to extinguish pre-existing ownership rights. But the Anglo-Australian legal system would continue to recognise those rights until they were extinguished. This is known as native title.

What was its impact?

Although in the early days the Mabo decision generally seemed welcome, it was not long before it became increasingly divisive.

Many celebrated a huge victory for justice for Indigenous Australians. Some of this enthusiasm foresaw a new age of reconciliation, perhaps even a new republican constitution.

But, increasingly, in the months after the decision, many opposed what they saw as the decision’s support for the “white guilt industry”. Mining companies asserted that a “flood” of land claims would inhibit mining in Australia contrary to the national interest. The Australian Mining Industry Council (now the Minerals Council of Australia) took out full-page advertisements to that effect.

Adding to the panic, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett claimed that Australian backyards were under threat from Aboriginal land claims – he has since admitted he was wrong.

The decision has remained important to Indigenous communities throughout Australia, notably because Anglo-Australian law now officially recognises the prior existence of Indigenous peoples. No longer is Australia “terra nullius”.

However, there have also been Indigenous voices expressing criticism of the decision. Noted scholar Irene Watson observes:

Post-Mabo most people believe we have gained justice. We are still working for the same goal, land rights and self-determination, but we are also working harder than ever before, for now we are also working on unmasking the illusion; the illusion that “the blacks have got it all”.

What are its contemporary implications?

The decision had a huge impact on Australian life. However, regardless of which side of the debate you might be on, it is clear that our institutions and society can cope with such apparently enormous shifts.

Some suggest the Mabo decision did not go far enough to achieve real justice. This indicates that, despite the perhaps inevitable argument that follows profound change, we can afford to be aspirational in embarking on reform efforts.

It is also clear that divisive language, such as that of the debate that followed the Mabo decision (and since), is unnecessary. Knowing that our institutions can withstand the “shock” of change surely means we can engage in a well-modulated and respectful public discussion to achieve it.

Finally, we clearly cannot be complacent following even apparently significant advances in the law’s approach to Indigenous Australians’ claims for justice. There remains work to be done; any single advance will not be sufficient.

To fulfil the promise of Mabo, to advance justice for Indigenous Australians, we need a suite of reforms embracing law, policy and the economy.

Kate Galloway, Assistant Professor of Law

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: the Prices and Incomes Accord



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The Hawke Labor government had a strong incentive to seek a new approach to industrial relations when it came to office.
National Archives of Australia

Anthony Forsyth, RMIT University and Carolyn Holbrook, Deakin University

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. The Conversation


During the Hawke-Keating years, the union movement – under the leadership of Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Bill Kelty – became a partner in Labor’s economic rationalist agenda.

Through Accord agreements, unions accepted a degree of responsibility for Australia’s broader economic health. This was often at the expense of their own members’ interests.

What happened?

The Hawke Labor government had a strong incentive to seek a new approach to industrial relations when it came to office.

The last time Labor held government was under Gough Whitlam, between 1972 and 1975. At that time, Hawke was ACTU president, and the front man for the industrial militancy and wages explosion that saw inflation peak at 18% and unemployment reach 5% for the first time since the early 1940s.

Hawke was a confrontational union leader. But Hawke 2.0, the self-possessed teetotaller who became prime minister in 1983, preferred consensus.

In opposition, Labor’s industrial relations spokesperson, Ralph Willis, developed the idea of a formalised agreement between the unions and Labor in government, which was adopted as policy at the Labor Party conference in 1979.

The Prices and Incomes Accord was a series of agreements between Labor and the ACTU where unions would moderate their wage demands in exchange for improvements in the “social wage”.

The first Accord was struck in February 1983, just before the election of the Hawke government. There were six subsequent accords, culminating in Accord Mark VII in October 1991, which ushered in the system of enterprise bargaining.

The Industrial Relations Commission developed a policy of “two-tier” wage fixation, in a shift from the “wage indexation” system of the past. Basic increases would be provided but additional wage rises were dependent on “efficiency offsets”.

By the early 1990s, this had developed into the dual system of basic annual wage increases for award-covered workers, and the opportunity to implement enterprise-based agreements to drive productivity at the workplace level.

The Accord’s social wage elements included better public health provision through Medicare, improvements to pensions and unemployment benefits, tax cuts, and – eventually – superannuation.

What was its impact?

The Accord was a key component of the Hawke-Keating governments’ economic reform program. Along with the floating of the Australian dollar, opening the door to international banks and the reduction of tariffs, the Accord signalled a turn toward a more globally engaged Australian economy.

Hawke’s consensus-oriented style brought the union movement inside the economic policy management tent. This was also a corporatist project: although business groups were not formally part of the Accord, Hawke brought big business into other institutions such as the Economic Planning Advisory Council.

Generally, business groups became critical of the influence the ACTU exerted over Labor through the Accord years. From the mid-1980s, arguments for radical reform of the industrial relations system grew stronger.

Elements in the Coalition and the New Right pushed for individual workplace bargaining and a reduction of union power. They saw the Accord as symbolic of the much-reviled “industrial relations club”.

Within the union movement itself, the Accord was always controversial. Critics argued it transferred power from the grassroots network of delegates and shop stewards to an elite group of senior officials sitting around the table with business and government.

The Accord evolved over the 1980s to focus mainly on managing wages outcomes while ignoring accompanying increases in the social wage. In response, left-wing officials like Laurie Carmichael of the Metalworkers Union became increasingly critical of the Accord. For many, the union movement had simply given up too much for too little.

What are its contemporary implications?

On the 30th anniversary of the Accord in 2013, ACTU president Ged Kearney said the Accord’s spirit should be revived to meet the challenges of job insecurity and wage inequality.

Rising inequality is behind the backlash now underway against neoliberalism and the mantra of prosperity through free trade and globalisation.

The ACTU’s new secretary, Sally McManus, has been in the headlines since assuming her position in March this year. McManus said she believed workers were justified in breaking laws that they judged to be unfair.

She later declared neoliberalism had “run its course”, and:

The Keating years created vast wealth for Australia, but it has not been shared, and too much has ended up in offshore bank accounts or in CEO’s back pockets.

McManus’ combative style recalls an era before market economics gained bipartisan support, when the lines between labour and capital were more sharply drawn. Her approach also raises important questions about the future of the relationship between the industrial and political wings of the Australian labour movement.

McManus appears to be positioning the union movement as the bulwark against unfairness, and the vigorous defender of long-held conditions. There is none of the Kelty “pinstriped proletarian” in her approach. It is unknown whether the McManus-led ACTU will entertain a similar kind of compact with a Shorten Labor government, or take a more conflict-oriented approach.

Bill Shorten is by nature a consensus Labor leader, who is inclined to seek common ground between business and labour. At present, though, he is riding the turn against neoliberalism, adopting a pro-union position and populist rhetoric on issues such as corporate tax cuts and penalty rates.

There is some prospect therefore of a new Labor-ACTU compact for the 2020s. This would not focus so much on the Accord’s economic objectives, but on the protection of workers’ rights in the fast-changing world of automation and new platforms of service delivery.

Anthony Forsyth, Professor of Workplace Law, RMIT University and Carolyn Holbrook, Alfred Deakin Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as prime minister



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Gough Whitlam speaks to reporters after being dismissed as prime minister.
National Archives of Australia

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

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. The Conversation


The dismissal of the Whitlam government provided one of the biggest political shocks in Australian history. It put on open display vice-regal powers that most did not know existed, and tested Australians’ understanding of their own Constitution and political system.

What happened?

On October 16, 1975, the Senate resolved that it would not pass supply until the Whitlam government agreed to call a general election. This meant the Commonwealth would soon run out of money to pay public servants, provide pensions, pay its contractors, and provide services. The Whitlam government decided to tough it out in the hope the Coalition opposition would collapse.

Because the Christmas holidays were approaching, the last day to initiate a pre-Christmas election was November 13, 1975. If that deadline was missed, there would potentially be months of economic chaos with no money to run the government and pay salaries or pensions until February.

On the morning of November 11, Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser told Gough Whitlam the Opposition would pass supply if Whitlam agreed to hold an election for both houses in May or June 1976. Whitlam refused.

Instead, Whitlam went to the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to seek a half-Senate election in December. This would not have been likely to resolve the impasse, because any new Senate would not have taken office until July 1 the following year (apart from the territory senators).

When Whitlam declined to request a general election, Kerr exercised his reserve powers by dismissing Whitlam and his government from office. He then appointed Fraser as prime minister on the condition that he secure the passage of supply, advise the dissolution of both houses of parliament, and call an election in December.

Kerr also stipulated that Fraser’s government must only be a caretaker government that would not make any major appointments or undertake any inquiries or investigations into the Whitlam government. The Senate passed supply, and both houses were immediately dissolved.

It was then left to voters in the election to decide who should govern. The Whitlam government was comprehensively defeated, and the Fraser government was elected to office.

Footage from the day of the Dismissal.

What was its impact?

The reaction was relief for some, and outrage for others. The public and the media, being unfamiliar with constitutional history and the role and powers of vice-regal representatives, saw the Dismissal as unprecedented and shocking.

A martyrdom narrative was constructed – that it was only ever Labor leaders who were dismissed (Whitlam and former NSW premier Jack Lang in 1932), and it was always done by the conservative establishment through undemocratic upper houses. Conspiracy theories flourished, with fingers being pointed at the CIA, the Queen, and the banks, amongst others.

That Kerr had sought advice from the High Court’s chief justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, albeit after Kerr had already made up his mind to dismiss Whitlam, was seen as adding to a conspiracy, because Barwick had previously been a Liberal minister.

Collective amnesia was applied to the fact that such things had happened before. Chief justices had advised governors-general and governors on almost every constitutional controversy since Federation.

Labor had blocked supply in state upper houses before, resulting in the governor, after consulting the chief justice, requiring the resignation of the conservative premier – even when he held a majority in the lower house. It had long been the case that if supply could not be obtained, the only options were resignation, an election, or dismissal (sometimes disguised as a forced resignation).

In 1975, the Speaker asked the Queen to intervene and restore the Whitlam government. In response, the Queen’s private secretary pointed out that the power to appoint and remove the prime minister and dissolve parliament was held by the governor-general, so she could not act.

Many people were influenced by the events of 1975 to support a republic, due to their objection to an unelected representative of the Queen dismissing an elected government that had majority support in the lower house.

Others saw 1975 as revealing the importance of the Senate’s power to block supply, and the need for the reserve powers of the governor-general to resolve a crisis.

All the major participants in the 1975 dismissal were damaged by it. Whitlam was never able to form a government again. Kerr was publicly vilified and led much of his later life outside Australia.

Although he became prime minister, Fraser found his government’s legitimacy undermined by the way it had obtained office, resulting in it being more timid and ineffective than it might otherwise have been.

A lunchtime rally outside Parliament House protests the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
National Archive of Australia

What are its contemporary implications?

One salutary consequence has been that both governments and oppositions have been more wary about taking matters to extremes, preferring to let conflicts be resolved in the ordinary course by elections.

The Dismissal soured politicians’ taste for brinkmanship. It revealed the likely consequence of a loss of political legitimacy.

Another somewhat ironic consequence is that while the Dismissal fuelled the republican movement, it has also undermined it. The republican model with most public support in Australia is that of a head of state directly elected by the people.

To avert the prospect of a directly elected head of state undermining the indirectly elected prime minister and destabilising the system of government, many consider it would be necessary to remove or codify the powers of the head of state. Yet the ghosts of 1975 have stymied attempts to do so, frustrating any consensus towards a republic.

Harking back to Whitlam’s famous words on the steps of Parliament House, nothing might have saved the governor-general – but the Dismissal appears to have saved the Queen, at least for now.

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: the Labor Party split



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B.A. Santamaria (left) played a significant role in the Labor split and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Paul Strangio, Monash University

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. The Conversation


The Labor split started in earnest in October 1954, when federal leader H.V. Evatt denounced the “disloyal” activities of a militant anti-communist faction operating predominantly in the party’s Victorian branch. Tumult followed.

In March 1955, rival Victorian Labor delegations competed for admission to the party’s federal conference in Hobart, further crystallising the split. A month later, the Victorian Labor government was sacrificed as anti-communist breakaways crossed the floor to support an opposition-initiated no-confidence motion.

In the federal sphere, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies called an early poll to capitalise on Labor’s chaos. The result was an emphatic victory for the Coalition, which benefited from preferences from the Australia Labor Party (Anti-Communist), later renamed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).

Influenced by distinctive local factors, the split also engulfed Queensland Labor in 1957. Premier Vince Gair was expelled from the party. This precipitated an election that delivered power to the Coalition in Queensland.

But the seeds of this political calamity predated Evatt’s combustible statement. For complex socioeconomic and other reasons, a majority of Irish Catholics had historically voted for Labor, and the schism during the first world war over conscription further strengthened this ethno-sectarian alignment. In turn, there had always been a tension between socialist impulses within the labour movement and Catholicism.

The risk of conflict escalated in the 1930s, as the small but resolute local Communist Party made inroads into the labour movement.

By the 1940s, communists controlled key trade unions. This prompted Labor state branch organisations to establish “industrial groups” to combat that influence. These groups proved effective, but became closely entwined – especially in Victoria – with the Catholic Social Studies Movement.

“The Movement” had been set up by the bishops and was directed by B. A. Santamaria to exploit the position of Catholics within the labour movement to fight atheistic communism.

Santamaria’s ambition for The Movement expanded from it stiffening anti-communist resolve in the trade unions to it becoming a trojan horse for transforming the Labor’s personnel and policies. Those dreams were fanciful, but Santamaria’s zealotry and Evatt’s intemperance were crucial to the split.

Trade union powerbrokers who were determined to subjugate Labor’s parliamentary wing – even at the price of political oblivion – were also responsible.

Labor leader Doc Evatt (right) meets British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1954.
W. Brindle, CC BY

What was its impact?

The split destroyed Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland. The party was relegated to opposition for a generation. It did not regain office in these states until 1982 and 1989 respectively.

Better sense prevailed within the ALP’s top counsels and Catholic hierarchy elsewhere, enabling Labor governments to ride out the storm in New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Federally, however, the consequences were also devastating for the ALP. Becoming prime minister for the second time in 1949, Menzies’ hold on office was initially far from secure; the elections of 1951 and 1954 were close run. But the Labor split gifted him political dominance.

In contrast, despite remaining at the ALP’s helm until 1960, the brilliant but mercurial Evatt never recovered politically or psychologically.

Another legacy was the DLP, which at its zenith held the balance of power in the Senate and buttressed non-Labor governments, federal and state, through watertight preference flows.

The split dramatically realigned Catholic voting. Tribal Labor supporters were torn between their religious and political faiths. The upward social mobility of Catholics in post-war Australia was destined to diversify their voting behaviour, but in one stroke a sizeable chunk hived off to the DLP.

It has also been suggested that, over time, the DLP acted as a bridge for Catholics to transfer loyalty to the Liberal Party: a side of politics where they had been traditionally unwelcome.

The anti-communist Victorian state Labor executive was locked out of the party’s federal conference in Hobart.
National Library of Australia

What are its contemporary implications?

The effects of the split washed out of the political system during the 1970s.

Federal intervention in the Victorian Labor Party in 1970 to correct its post-split deformities was an important prerequisite for the party winning office federally in 1972, and a decade later in Victoria.

The first of these victories undermined the DLP’s fundamental rationale – to deny Labor power nationally. In 1974, it lost its representation in the Senate. A few years later it expired.

Viewed from today’s post-Cold War and secularised society, the conflicts at heart of the split appear curiously arcane. Yet the ghosts of those events linger.

In 1985, four trade unions – including the powerful and conservative Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association – that had affiliated with the DLP in the 1950s were controversially readmitted to the ALP. Their presence continues to influence Labor’s contemporary factional power balance.

The DLP – or its bastard child – resurrected in the 2000s and has since had members elected to the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council.

We are also reminded of how much the presence in the modern Liberal Party of a high-profile conservative Catholic grouping recast religious political allegiances following the split. Among them is former prime minister Tony Abbott – an unashamed Santamaria protégé.

Paul Strangio, Associate Professor of Politics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: how women gained the right to vote



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The Australian delegation to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, 1923.
National Library of Australia

James Keating, UNSW

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. The Conversation


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”.

Lady Mary Elizabeth Windeyer, first President of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales.
State Library of New South Wales

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.

A cartoon from Brisbane paper The Worker promoting women’s suffrage in 1900.
The Worker

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.

James Keating, PhD Candidate, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: Robert Menzies and the birth of the Liberal-National coalition



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Robert Menzies knew the Liberal Party would never be able to govern in its own right.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

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. The Conversation


It has become an established fact of Australian politics that when the non-Labor side of politics is in power, the government will be a coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party. This has been the case for almost 100 years, since the formation of the Country Party in 1920.

Even on those occasions when the Liberals have won a House of Representatives majority in their own right, the Coalition has held.

What happened?

It is also true that when the then Nationalist Party and the then Country Party came together in coalition in 1922, the Country Party had much more clout than it has today. In the 1922 federal election, the Nationalists won 35% of the vote and 26 seats in a 75-seat House of Representatives. The Country Party won 12.5% of the vote and 14 seats, including seats in Tasmania.

The price Country Party leader Earle Page demanded for coalition was the political execution of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, and the treasurer’s job. He got both, creating the Bruce-Page government.

Former National Party leader Stanley Bruce, who became prime minister in 1923 in a Coalition government.
Government of Australia, CC BY

When Robert Menzies became leader of the United Australia Party in 1939 following the death of Joe Lyons, Page attempted the same trick again. He made a savage personal attack on Menzies and refused to serve under him – only this time the Country Party refused to follow suit, and replaced Page as leader.

The political reality was that to form an effective political relationship, any non-Labor prime minister needed to have a good working relationship with the Country Party. Menzies understood this.

When Menzies put together the bits and pieces of the non-Labor political forces following the collapse of the United Australia Party and formed the Liberal Party in 1944, he knew the Liberal Party would not be able to govern in its own right.

What was its impact?

At the 1949 election, which swept Menzies to power, the Liberal Party won 55 seats in a 121-seat House of Representatives. The Country Party won 19 seats.

Country Party leader Arthur Fadden became treasurer and remained so until 1958, when new leader John McEwen chose not to move to Treasury. McEwen’s influence in non-Labor governments, especially in relation to tariff matters, was considerable until his retirement in 1971. His antipathy to William McMahon effectively forced him out of the contest to elect a successor to Harold Holt in early 1968.

During this period, the Country Party could use its influence to shape Coalition policy. It did so because it had strong electoral support, which kept its numbers in the House of Representatives hovering around 20.

Liberals seemed to be quite happy to acquiesce in that influence, especially as Menzies and his immediate successors – with the possible exception of McMahon – were not opposed to government regulation of the economy.

Over time, Australia’s demography worked against the Country Party. The number of people living in urban areas has always been high in Australia, but the numbers have swung even more against rural areas. The size of the House of Representatives increased in the 1980s to 148 but the number of Country Party members remained static.

In 1982, it officially became National Party policy to indicate it was not merely a sectional party. This was followed in the 1980s by an attempt by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to create an urban base for the Nationals in Brisbane. This had some initial success, but ultimately failed.

Joseph Lyons makes an election speech in Sydney in the 1930s.
State Library of NSW, CC BY

What are its contemporary implications?

The Nationals remain a country-based party in an Australia in which urban areas experience the greatest growth in population. Since the 2016 election, the Nationals have held 16 seats in a 150-seat House of Representatives.

What this means is that National Party policy will not disappear in the medium term, unless the party agrees to a union with the Liberals. The Liberals will have to take account of the wishes of the Nationals, up to a point.

However, it is clear that current Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce does not have the power to veto particular individuals from the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It is also clear that a Nationals leader will not be able to influence policy in the way McEwen did. Joyce may be a sort of agrarian populist, but times have changed – and the Liberal Party is no longer the party it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

It all comes down to numbers. The Nationals have relatively fewer seats in parliament than did the old Country Party 50 years ago. So, their capacity to influence what the government does has diminished.

Nevertheless, the Liberals need the Nationals if they are to form stable governments. They need each other. But, ultimately, the Liberal Party can only become the more powerful part of the relationship.

Gregory Melleuish, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: the White Australia policy


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The ‘White Australia’ ideology was commercialised and used to sell things from soaps and games to pineapple slices.
Multicultural Research Library

Benjamin T. Jones, Australian National University

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. The Conversation


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly claimed that Australia is the world’s most successful multicultural nation. While the sentiment has bipartisan support today, for more than half a century after Federation Australia boasted not of multiculturalism, but of its monoculture.

In 1925, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce reassured a worried public that Australia’s racial makeup was 98% British and that this was unlikely to change. The means of maintaining this racial and cultural homogeneity is loosely termed the White Australia policy.

Immediately following Federation in 1901, policies were designed to keep Australia white and British. Non-racial language was used to minimise international condemnation, but the xenophobic concern was plainly evident. Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, explicitly stated his belief in white superiority:

There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races – I think no-one wants convincing of this fact – unequal and inferior.

The White Australia policy was in place for seven decades after 1901 and had a profound impact on the newly federated Commonwealth.

What happened?

The White Australia policy was not a single government directive but a series of acts with a common goal: to achieve and maintain a white, British national character. The Immigration Restriction Act, Pacific Island Labourers Act and the Post and Telegraph Act (all passed in 1901) formed the initial legislative foundation.

The Immigration Restriction Act in particular epitomises the spirit of the White Australia policy, and its hypocrisy. It never mentioned the words “white” or “race”, but the parliamentary debates – and its application – make clear it was a tool of racial exclusion.

The act’s most infamous feature was a dictation test. Migrants could be asked to write 50 words in any European language. Officers could manipulate the test to exclude any undesired person.

The most famous example was Jewish communist Egon Kisch. Fluent in several European languages, he was arrested after failing to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic.

Between 1901 and 1958 (when it was dumped), only around 2,000 people ever took the test. Despite the non-racial terminology, its purpose was understood. As a direct result, non-whites largely avoided coming to Australia, and overseas shipping companies did not issue tickets to people likely to fail the test.

The White Australia policy received bipartisan support, but was gradually dismantled by both sides. Conservative governments introduced the Migration Act in 1958 and its significant modification in 1966.

Driven partly by the “populate or perish” doctrine, non-Europeans were allowed to come to Australia based on skills and suitability rather than race. Eventually they were offered the same pathway to citizenship as Europeans.

The progressive Whitlam government symbolically buried the last remnants of the White Australia policy in 1973. The Racial Discrimination Act made it illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race. Those words are from Section 18C of that act, which the current government is seeking to amend.

What was its impact?

The legal mechanisms of the White Australia policy were tied to a widespread belief in the superiority of British civilisation and the white race generally during this era.

The masthead of the popular Bulletin magazine read:

Australia for the White Man.

The object of the White Australia board game was to:

… get the coloured men out and the white men in.

There were White Australia theatre productions, songs, pins and badges, soaps, and even a White Australia brand of sliced pineapple in syrup. It was as much a cultural as political phenomenon, and it could not be simply extinguished with an act of parliament.

The acceptance of large numbers of Vietnamese refugees under the Fraser government was seen as a litmus test of whether the White Australia policy was really gone.

The White Australia Game was registered in 1914 and was popular throughout the 1920s.
Migration Heritage Centre

What are its contemporary implications?

Both major parties have endorsed multiculturalism for nearly half a century. Even in this era of Trumpian populist politics, it is inconceivable that Australia would ever return to race-based immigration policies.

But if the White Australia policy is dead, has the White Australia ideology survived?

In the 1980s, the Garnaut report made the economic case for greater Asia literacy. However, the region was – and still is – viewed by many with suspicion. In 1996, Pauline Hanson warned parliament that Australia risked being “swamped by Asians”.

In the lead-up to the 2001 election, Norwegian container ship the MV Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers and attempted to enter Australian waters. Prime Minister John Howard refused to accept them, causing a tense diplomatic stand-off. The widespread support for Howard, which arguably helped him secure election victory, has been seen by some as evidence of a lingering White Australia mindset.

Academics James Jupp and Gwenda Tavan have argued that the White Australia ideology is still shaping Australian immigration policies in the 21st century, especially in regard to refugees. The bipartisan commitment to offshore processing and the re-emergence of Hanson’s One Nation party following the 2016 election lend some weight to this view.

The dictation test was undoubtedly political spin to justify a racist agenda. A century later, similar charges have been levelled at the “stopping deaths at sea” defence, which is used to justify the current “harsh” treatment of predominantly non-white asylum seekers.

As a policy, White Australia is gone. But as an ideology, it arguably lingers on. There certainly is a minority who want to “reclaim” an imagined idyllic Australia of yesteryear, with its white monoculture.

An overwhelming majority, however, agree with the prime minister. Multiculturalism is here to stay.

Benjamin T. Jones, Australian Research Council Fellow in the School of History, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: the writing of our Constitution



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The British parliament passed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in 1900.
Museum of Australian Democracy

Ryan Goss, Australian National University

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. The Conversation


Since coming into effect in 1901, Australia’s Constitution has shaped – and been shaped by – our political history.

The Constitution is the highest law in Australia. It shapes the laws the federal parliament may pass, how it administers those laws, the way our courts work, and how the federal government interacts with the state and territory governments.

What happened?

In the late 1800s, there were six British colonies on the Australian continent. These stand-alone colonies had their own parliaments and governments, their own colonial constitutions, and even their own militaries.

When travelling from one colony to another, people had to pass through a customs check before crossing the border. And they had to pay taxes on goods they were carrying.

In the 1880s and 1890s, representatives of the colonies began the discussions that would lead to federation. They wanted to join together to create a national government while maintaining political power for each colony’s own government.

These discussions, which culminated in the Constitution we have today, were driven by many factors. Among these were the need to make trade easier within Australia, a desire to control immigration, and to improve defence arrangements for the continent.

In part, the Australian Constitution’s drafters were inspired by the United States and its Constitution; the structure of our Constitution looks quite similar to the Americans’.

But, crucially, Australian Federation did not involve a revolution against Britain. Instead, at Federation, Australia would maintain close links to the parliament in London, the British courts and the British monarchy.

Aside from some discriminatory provisions, the Constitution would not include acknowledgement or recognition of Indigenous Australians. Our system of government became a mixture of British-inspired elements, American-inspired elements and uniquely Australian elements.

Voters were asked to approve the draft Constitution at referendums held in all the colonies. All the colonies eventually voted in favour – though some only narrowly, and with most women and Indigenous Australians excluded from voting.

After being passed into law by parliament in London, the Constitution came into effect on January 1, 1901.

Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin are considered founding fathers of Australia’s federation.
National Library of Australia

What was its impact?

All this history has shaped our Constitution, and continues to shape our political history. Our Constitution establishes:

But it’s also important to remember that much goes unmentioned in our Constitution. Many key elements of our system of government don’t appear in the text of the Constitution. The prime minister, for instance, doesn’t rate a mention.

To help make up for the omissions, our political and legal history has been guided by rules known as constitutional conventions. These conventions are shaped by British history and by Australian history, and have occasionally proven very controversial.

Unlike many constitutional systems, Australia lacks any form of comprehensive bill of rights protections. Instead, Australia’s constitutional system was built on the principle that:

… the rights of individuals are sufficiently secured by ensuring, as far as possible, to each a share, and an equal share, in political power.

Nonetheless, the text of our Constitution shapes what our governments can do, and the way in which they can do it. The Constitution affects how governments spend money, the position of Indigenous Australians, and policy in areas ranging from industrial relations and marriage to the environment and asylum seekers.

Significantly, the Constitution also protects our role as citizens in choosing our representatives and in holding them accountable.

What are its contemporary implications?

The Constitution is hard to change. The federal parliament first must approve any proposed amendment. The amendment must then pass a referendum by a “double majority”: approved by a majority of voters as well as a majority of voters in a majority of states.

In 116 years, 44 attempts have been made to change the Constitution. Only eight have succeeded.

The failed attempts have included efforts to switch parliamentary terms from three years to four years, multiple efforts to protect basic civil rights, and the unsuccessful republic referendum to replace the monarch with an Australian. The last time the Constitution was successfully amended was in 1977.

Some may see this inflexibility as a strength: the Constitution is stable and enduring. But it also makes the Constitution very hard to update in response to changing times and changing values.

As a result, the Constitution is a document that reflects the priorities of the late 19th century more than the early 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, after 116 years of federation, there are many contemporary debates about the Constitution. Some are about how we should interpret the Constitution we have. Others are about finding ways to update our system of government without having to amend the Constitution.

But there are also debates about changing the Constitution, such as whether Indigenous Australians should be recognised in symbolic or substantive ways, whether the role of local government should be enshrined, or whether to replace the monarchy with an Australian head of state.

Or should we undertake a much more serious overhaul?

These questions reflect our history, and the answers to them will shape our future. But they also raise broader questions for all Australians: what do we expect from our politics? And what do we expect from our Constitution?

Ryan Goss, Senior Lecturer in Law, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Birth of a nation: how Australia empowering women taught the world a lesson


Clare Wright, La Trobe University

After five prime ministers in five years, many fear that Australia’s political system is irrevocably broken. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the problems surrounding, and solutions to, Australia’s current political malaise.


In February 1902 – just 13 months after the Australian colonies federated to become the world’s newest nation – a tall, slender woman from Portland, Victoria, was standing outside the door to the Oval Office in Washington DC. She had been summoned to the White House as somewhat of a curiosity.

Intelligent, inquisitive, and quite often irreverent, the young woman waited until she was bidden to enter. When the door opened she saw President Theodore Roosevelt, sitting with his feet up on the desk. He rushed to greet the elegantly attired woman, grabbing her hand and pumping it up and down in his vice-like grip. He shouted:

I am delighted to meet you. You’re from Australia; I’m delighted to hear that.

And with that enthusiastic embrace, Vida Goldstein became the first Australian to meet an American president at the White House. Goldstein was in Washington as Australia and New Zealand’s sole delegate to the International Woman Suffrage Conference. Goldstein addressed huge American audiences on one of the most controversial global issues of the day: Votes for Women.

Campaigning for women’s suffrage was what Goldstein termed “the policy of concentration”. The parliamentary vote was, in Goldstein’s words, “the right that covered all other rights”. She decried:

… the futility of working piecemeal for the emancipation of women, without the vote.

Only the vote, Goldstein argued, would ensure “the protection and prevention of degraded womanhood”. Only the vote would unravel the vast web of legal, economic and social disadvantage that ensnared women and girls the world over.

Furthermore, Goldstein ardently believed that women should enter parliament, as Australian women alone in the world were entitled to do. She argued:

I have always maintained that wherever there are women’s and children’s interests to be considered, women should be thereto consider them.

Such a simple premise; such a revolutionary idea.

Goldstein’s six-month US lecture tour was met with a diva’s reception. Though prim in fashion and chaste in manner, she was both enfant terrible to the established order and darling of the avant-garde. Daily newspapers across the country covered her sold-out lectures on the topic of “The Australian Woman in Politics”.

Goldstein held no doubt about her subject’s international importance and interest, or her country’s political superiority. But why, in that second northern winter of a new century, did the commander-in-chief of the United States of America seek an audience with a charismatic activist from the deep planetary south?

The simple answer is that Teddy Roosevelt was a political progressive. Goldstein was the most fully enfranchised woman he could yet hope to meet and he was keen to see what a member of this new breed looked like. While Roosevelt was a steadfast believer in votes for women, the American Congress would not abide it.

US congressmen put up the same arguments as conservative opponents to universal adult suffrage the world over, including numerous anti-suffrage women. In the words of one Australian politician, if women could vote, what would prevent them from seeking:

… to assume to themselves the functions of men?

Yet the woman now taking tea with the president was decidedly feminine, despite the fact that she came from the country where women had more political rights than anywhere else in the world.

In 1893, New Zealand had become the first country to give women the right to vote in national elections. But in 1902, the newly federated nation of Australia became the only country where white women could both vote and stand for election on a universal and equal basis with white men. This dual right – the complete electoral franchise and eligibility to sit in parliament – was what political philosopher John Stuart Mill termed:

… perfect equality, admitting no power of privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

In the very moment of its creation, Australia had instantly become a world leader. And Roosevelt, as he told Goldstein at their meeting, would be “keeping [his] eye on Australia”. He considered its experiment in equality “a great object lesson”.

Comparing Australia and America

Australia’s geopolitical claim as one of the oldest, most stable, and most inventive parliamentary and social democracies has been well established. The secret ballot, the eight-hour day and the wage arbitration system are regularly touted as democratic landmarks with Australian origins.


NLA

Yet Australia’s inimitability with regard to women’s political equality has barely entered conventional studies of political history. The women’s suffrage movement is more commonly treated as a discrete topic of investigation: a picturesque mainstay of the equally niche field of women’s and gender history, as if the achievements and legacy of the suffrage campaigners and their supporters are merely a quaint nook in the colossal edifice of nation-building.

But at the turn of the 20th century, Australia’s world-leading status as a democratic freedom fighter was no secret. In her opening address to the Washington Conference in 1902, American Suffrage League president Carrie Chapman Catt was unequivocal, if somewhat bemused, in locating Australia at the apex of women’s political liberation.

The little band of Americans who initiated the modern [suffrage] movement would never have predicted that…the island continent of Australia, then unexplored wilderness, would become a great democracy where self-government would be carried on with such enthusiasm, fervor and wisdom that they would give lessons in methods and principles to all the rest of the world.

Catt then specifically referred to Goldstein as the bearer of these unexpected lessons. Australia, said Catt, was “associated in our memory of childhood’s geography as the abode of strange beasts and barbarians”. Yet remarkably, this bizarre land now:

… sends us a full, up-to-date representative woman, widely alive to all the refinements of life, and fully cognisant of all the rights of her sex.

Goldstein was both the literal messenger and a representative of the feminist ideals that Catt associated with Australia. Goldstein was fully aware of the leadership role she had been asked to play. She told a packed house during her address to the 34th American National Suffrage Convention in Washington in March 1902 that:

Woman suffrage is with us to stay, and that our success may hasten the day when you American women will stand before the world as political equals of your menfolk is the earnest desire of the countries which have sent me here to represent them at this great conference.

But it was not always a relationship of mutual admiration. Goldstein was critical of her host country. She told Australian audiences:

Most of us regard America as the most democratic and advanced country politically in the world. Instead it’s as conservative as a country can well be. A democratic form of government does not necessarily mean that the people rule.

Goldstein offered an analysis of the root cause of the hypocrisy:

[America’s] written and hidebound constitution [has] played directly into the hands of moneyed and unscrupulous politicians.

What’s more, Goldstein argued:

… an abnormal material individual prosperity has contributed towards keeping [Americans] in that hypnotic state under the political machine.

In general, Goldstein was a fan of Roosevelt, but she was not a sycophant. Never one to be patronised, she cheekily parroted Roosevelt’s own words to her. She wrote:

The [Australian] Federal Franchise Bill is the greatest step in the direction of political equality that we have yet seen, and must be a splendid object lesson [her emphasis] to every civilised country in the world.

With this line, Goldstein managed both to cock a snook at the US president and highlight her own country’s political superiority.

Changes at home and abroad

If America was slow to take the Australasian lead, by 1908 Finland and Norway had joined Australia and New Zealand in enfranchising women. But imperialism connected British suffragists more closely to the Australian electoral experiment, providing inspiration and example.

In 1911, Emmeline Pankhurst, on behalf of the Women’s Social and Political Party, recruited Goldstein to address the legions of women who were engaging in mass demonstrations and participating in targeted acts of property destruction. Thousands filled lecture halls and theatres to hear Goldstein’s speeches in support of the militant British suffrage campaign.

By this time, unconvinced that gentle persuasion would make a jot of difference, the suffragists were bombing politicians’ residences, setting hedge fires, breaking windows, staging mass street protests, going on hunger strikes and being force fed through nasal tubes by prison guards. The British experience of suffrage advocacy could not have been more different from Australasia’s peaceful struggle for women’s rights.

While in England, Goldstein formed the Australian and New Zealand Women Voters Association (London):

… with the hope that women of enfranchised dominions would help the women of England in their fight for political freedom.

Goldstein also compiled a pamphlet, The Political Woman in Australia, widely circulated in the UK, Europe and the US for propaganda purposes. She was always at pains to point out that, lo, the sky had not fallen and women had not been unsexed by their new political identity as equal citizens.


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By 1910, Australia had become known around the world as a “social laboratory” celebrated for its pioneering welfare legislation. Some commentators attributed Australia’s capacity for experimentation to “a new land like ours, with a restless go-ahead population”.

Suffragists, however, were keen to stress the gendered nature of Australian progressivism, and were quick to note how crucial votes for women had been in igniting the flame of social change. It was the “woman citizen”, claimed first-wave feminists, who mobilised trade union support for equal pay and other measures of social equity.

There were other concrete markers of the impact of female citizenship rights on women’s living conditions. Prior to winning the franchise, the infant mortality rate in Australia was 111 deaths per 1000 babies. A decade later, the rate had dropped to 77.

Goldstein attributed the decline in infant mortality to the introduction of pure food laws and raising the age of consent. South Australia, the first Australian colony to enfranchise women in 1894, was also the first legislature in the world to require an “illegitimate father” to recognise his financial obligation to the mother of his child through a law called the Affiliation Act, passed in 1898 after lobbying from women’s groups.

Further examples of progressive and protective actions initiated by women were pensions for invalids, pure milk laws, early closing hours for pubs and technical education for girls. Goldstein called these and other measures the “social reform legislation for which Australia is noted”.

Goldstein directly attributed the success of reformist legislation to the mobilisation of female voters – many of whom would sit in the galleries of the parliament when any bill affecting women and children was debated and then interview members of parliament to urge alterations and amendments.

Suffrage as part of a wider movement

In Australia, the suffrage dream was closely aligned with other utopian visions of social and political transformation.

Sparked by the gold rushes of the 1850s, a potent amalgam of socialists, spiritualists, dissenters, eclectics, theosophists, pacifists, feminists, unionists, Unitarians, vegetarians and garden-variety liberal democrats all converged on Australia in a remarkably non-volatile brew of ideas and optimism.

By the late 19th century, Australia’s utopian dreamers were not fringe-dwellers. They were bona fide members of Melbourne’s legal, political, religious and social establishment. Like future prime minister Alfred Deakin, most of this clique were civicleaders, sometimes referred to as “the honest doubters”.

As many women’s rights activists realised, federation was the ultimate test tube in which the experimental social and spiritual optimism of the honest doubters would be crystallised.


NLA

The birth of the Australian Commonwealth was channeled through a series of constitutional conventions held in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide from 1890 to 1897. The issue was never really whether the six Australian colonies would federate, but how. This would require diminishing the power of the colonies or expanding some of their laws to benefit all citizens across the new Commonwealth.

This jurisprudential reality meant that, just as the mobilisation of the international women’s movement was reaching its apex, there was suddenly a high-profile public platform on which activists could argue the case.

With spitfire efficiency, women’s suffrage organisations around the country lobbied delegates to the federal conventions. The Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales (WSL), an association founded by Australian newspaper editor Louisa Lawson, submitted a petition to the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897. It was one among the hundreds sent by women’s groups to convention delegates, lobbying for women’s voting rights to be enshrined in the new Australian Constitution.

Leveraging the precedent of South Australia, which had already given women the right to vote and to stand for parliament, the WSL’s petition urged delegates to:

… consider whether or not such franchise shall be uniform throughout all the colonies.

It was this question of uniformity – whether all women would now achieve federally what South Australian women had won locally in 1894 – that set Australia on its course to democratic distinction. The rampart was raised for a showdown between colonists’ rights versus federal rights, with woman suffrage as the battering ram.

Frederick Holder, a keen federalist and treasurer of South Australia when women won their historic victory in 1894, insisted that any agreement honour the existing rights of individual colonists. At the 1897 convention in Adelaide, Holder and Charles Kingston, South Australia’s premier, proposed that full voting rights for all white adults should be written into the Constitution.

Holder moved to add a clause that read:

No elector now possessing the right to vote shall be deprived of that right.

Other delegates were horrified. Edmund Barton, who would become Australia’s first prime minister, saw the writing on the wall. He railed:

As I understand the suggestion, it means that if the federal parliament chooses to legislate in respect of a uniform suffrage in the Commonwealth, it cannot do so unless it makes it include female suffrage.

If South Australian women could not be stripped of their hard-won electoral rights, then the rest of Australia’s women must perforce gain them. Barton’s conclusion was inexorable:

It ties the hands of the federal parliament entirely.

If the clause were not approved, Holder and Kingston threatened that South Australia would vote against joining the Commonwealth. Despite Barton’s protests, a poll was taken and the ayes won by three votes.

Two men from South Australia, backed by every progressive woman’s organisation on the continent, had effectively made white women’s suffrage the precondition of a federated Australia.

The racial qualifier is key. The earlier legislation that entrenched the White Australia Policy – the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 – was also the crucial prerequisite that made Goldstein the freest of the free when she visited America in 1902.

Further, in preserving the existing rights of colonists and extending them to all white adults, the Franchise Act of 1902 had stripped Indigenous Australians ofvoting rights. As historian Susan Magarey has argued:

Citizenship, as defined by the right to vote, could be sexually inclusive, because it had just been made racially and ethnically exclusive.

Race, not gender, defined the new Australian citizen. Historian Marilyn Lake has argued that in an international context, the federal female franchise ushered in an era of unprecedented political power for women. But what did people at the time make of the opportunistic alignment of feminism and federalism?

Spreading influence

The majority of political pundits reckoned that the social laboratory had not spawned a monster. “Votes for Women: Australia Satisfied – Letting the Empire Know”, trumpeted a newspaper headline in 1910, following the Senate’s decision to communicate to the British prime minister that Australia had “found [the] experiment a success”.

Wrote another journalist:

The result has not produced either a heaven or a hell.

The Australian suffrage campaigners were correct to see federalism as their ticket to public influence on the grandest scale. Leaders like Goldstein readily adopted the role of international ambassador for the enlightened dawn of a new century.

On April 12, 1907, Goldstein wrote to members of the parliaments of Australia as President of the Women’s Political Association. “Dear Sir,” her letter began – for there were as yet no female parliamentarians, despite Goldstein’s own efforts to become a senator in 1903:

We Australian women who have had our right to political liberty granted by the national parliaments and by every state parliament save one [Victoria], have been appealed to by the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to help our less fortunate fellow women in other lands.

The appeal was most forthcoming from nations:

… where it is urged by those in authority that the enfranchisement of women means social and political disaster.

Goldstein pressed the statesmen to write testimonies to the successful workings of complete adult suffrage in Australian political life. She was obliged with an avalanche of letters, including responses from Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, as well as testimonies from the attorney-general, postmaster-general and state premiers.

Even former opponents to women’s suffrage like Thomas Waddel, the colonial secretary of NSW, testified that women:

… exercise the franchise wisely and I feel sure that their influence in public life will be all for good.

Goldstein was able to forward a thick stack of letters of endorsement from respectable and influential men to the campaign leaders of her “less fortunate fellow women” abroad.

On November 17, 1910, the Senate went one step better in touting Australia’s democratic credentials when it unanimously passed the Votes for Women Resolution – a confidence motion in its own first decade of nationhood. The motion read:

Because [universal suffrage] has brought nothing but good, though disaster was freely prophesised [sic], we respectfully urge that all nations enjoying representative government would be well advised in granting votes to women.

If this sounds fresh, there was more hubris to come.

Our young Australian nation is bound to achieve greatness.

Why such a glorious destiny? Because Australia was, in the words of the senators, “the first nation to make justice the foundation of its constitution”. And it was not just women who thought as much. The motion concluded:

Woman suffrage has done for Australia all and more than its leaders claimed for it. No self-governing country can prosper without the political aid of women. It is a necessary factor in securing the moral and spiritual progress of the individual and of the nation.

The senators were highly aware of the inherent role reversal in the colonies giving political tuition to the Empire. One claimed that Australia – though the child – had every right to give advice to Britain – the mother. His rationale?

We are, in politics, the pacemakers of the world.

Copies of the Senate’s bumptious resolution were circulated and published abroad.


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Judging by the 1910 Senate’s vote of self-confidence in its own destiny, the auspicious occasion (if there must be just one) when Australia overcame its self-doubt and believed itself to be a nation, in fact occurred prior to any military battle on foreign soil.

Five years before Gallipoli, the Commonwealth of Australia asserted that it was “bound to achieve greatness” because of its democratic agility and proficiency, its sociopolitical courage and grace.

It might even be that the establishment of the Anzac legend and the trumpeting of a distinctive, world-leading constitutional equity were two sides of the same coin. “Both the feminist/reformist/federation story and the masculinist/digger/Gallipoli story” assumed that Australia could create a new imperial nation that would simultaneously embody racial superiority while rejecting the political inequalities and hierarchies of the old world.

Though not all first-wave feminists agreed, militarism and maternalism were not necessarily mutually exclusive. The belief that Australia had something valuable to contribute to the world continued beyond the disastrous landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.

In 1917, six years after Goldstein’s sold-out lecture tour of Britain and at the height of the Great War, the Australian Commonwealth once again agreed to send a message to the world. While ostensibly a message of hope to King George V, it was not a felicitation for his newly named House of Windsor, nor a pledge of solidarity for the war effort. It was, instead, an appeal for political reform, bordering on a taunt to keep up with the precocious Australians.

The parliamentary missive began:

Appreciating the blessings of self-government in Australia through adult suffrage, we are deeply interested in the welfare of the women of the Empire and we again humbly petition Your Majesty to endow them with that right of self-government for which they have petitioned for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Perhaps this can be read as the trademark tactic of an adolescent, cutting an arrogant parent down to size with evidence of her own incompetence. But more likely, Australians were deeply aware of the unique contribution they had made to the advancement of democratic principles and institutions – a profound sense of commitment to the international cause of political equality, spurred on by confidence in their own social experiment of change and reform.

Maturity was not simply tested by readiness for war. And “growth” was not measured in imperial pencil marks on a military doorframe, but by more psychosocial notions of human development. Australia was justly proud that its first success had been the peaceful negotiation of the transnational need for women’s political emancipation.

As Bishop JE Mercer argued in his contribution to Goldstein’s cache of support letters:

Australia was reaping the reward of having responded to the unanswerable appeal to justice.

Selling the campaign

In the decade that followed the Washington International Suffrage Convention, the Australian press was also keen to herald Australia’s landmark status on the American political landscape.

“American Suffragettes. Praise for Australia”, screamed one newspaper headline, when a deputation of American women’s rights activists appeared before the Home Rules Committee of the House of Representatives in December 1913. The Australian experience of women’s suffrage was “quoted in favour of the proposal” by the deputation.

The Melbourne Argus similarly reported American suffragists’ disappointment and disgust when Woodrow Wilson failed to mention the American women’s suffrage campaign in his Congressional Christmas address in December 1913.

Why would a Melbourne newspaper consider this seemingly immaterial aspect of American domestic policy relevant to its readers, other than as a tacit nod to Australia’s continued primacy in progressive legislation? Pride in Australia’s democratic superiority endured. Australian newspapers consistently reported Wilson’s inability to get a universal suffrage bill through Congress throughout the war years.

As historian Hilary Golder has argued, though many Australian feminists in the Federation era were strong nationalists (as well as pacifists), they leapt at the opportunity to become involved in international suffrage campaigns, lending guidance and advice as well as participating in “performative activism”.

It was possible to be both proud Australians and loyal “women of the Empire”. In June 1911, Australians Alice Henry, Dora Montefiore, Nellie Martel and Murial Matters joined with Goldstein and Margaret Fisher, wife of Australia’s then-prime minister Andrew Fisher, to march in the Great Suffrage Petition in London.

Goldstein and Fisher carried a banner on behalf of Australia and New Zealand imploring England to:

Trust the women, Mother, As I Have Done.

The banner, painted by the Australian expatriate artist Dora Meeson Coates, dripped with symbolism. It depicted a young woman bearing a shield of the Southern Cross, humbly petitioning a maternal Britannia to listen to her cause. Maiden Australia’s hand is upturned in supplication; Mother England stares diffidently into the distance.

The image is not one of cross-gender antagonism, but of intergenerational conflict and negotiation. In the mother–daughter dyad, the psychic health of the daughter requires that she go her own way, but not antagonise or hurt the resentful mother, who needs her to remain a beloved friend and comrade.

The antipodean suffrage banner can be read as a symbolic cutting of apron strings. Mother England gives her colonial daughter the cold shoulder; the nubile offspring must stand her ground. This feminised coming-of-age story, implicit in Australia’s critical role in the British suffrage campaigns, provides an alternative to the androcentric underpinnings of Gallipoli’s enduring “birth of a nation” mystique.

If the philosophical and practical leadership of women in stewarding Britain through a time of political upheaval focused on women’s transnational relationships, as Goldstein herself noted:

… one feature in the Suffrage Campaign in Australia makes it radically different from that in any country – the readiness of our men to admit that our cause was a just one, and entitled to immediate recognition.

Goldstein may be overstating her case, given that the Australian suffrage campaign began as early as 1869 and thus lasted 33 years. Also, other suffragists described Australian men as behaving like pompous benefactors or as surrendering reluctantly to the inevitable. In April 1902, Jessie Ackerman bemoaned the number of politicians who put themselves on a pedestal:

… halo in hand, to anoint himself high priest, and claim the glory touch of shepherding the women into the kingdom of federal citizenship.

Ackerman was quick to point out that the Commonwealth parliament enfranchised its women because it had no constitutional choice. She concluded:

There is, therefore, little credit due to an “unbounded generosity” on the part of men. There was no alternative.

Goldstein believed that in Australia, the political faultline lay not between men and women, but between conservatives and progressives. She also criticised Australia’s self-styled “new women” for their own failure to fulfil the promise of their early electoral equality.

Returning to Australia after the intense fellowship and purpose of London’s mass demonstrations and overflowing lecture theatres, Goldstein began to despair that after a decade of voting rights but no elected female representation, Australian women seemed to have lapsed into an apathetic status quo. “Enfranchised women of Australia,” she beseeched her sisters from street corners, copies of her Woman Voter journal in hand, “rise to your responsibilities, to your potentialities”.

Though the absolute numbers of female voters almost doubled between 1903 and 1910, Goldstein was not convinced that women were doing enough to prove that female political power was a force for good. Goldstein had an evangelical vision of Australia’s global mission that was not dissimilar to the male advocates of the federalist movement, who viewed Australia as a salve to old world ills.

The Brisbane Worker had declared in January 1901:

From the first to the last keynote of Australian provincial progress has been democracy, this is Australia’s manifest destiny if she is to fulfil any nobler destiny than the nations decayed and decaying.

Australian suffragists benefited from a timely alignment between the ideals of international feminism and the historical coincidence of federalism – a sense of providence about the role that a new country could play in the worn-out routines of global political housekeeping.

Vida Goldstein as part of a delegation on a visit to London.
NLA

Where are we now?

So what has happened since then to shift the national conversation from Australia’s youthful, maverick mission as a global innovator to a country of politically timorous conformists?

One cultural trend stands out. Australia’s collective memory of the international achievements of its homegrown suffrage movement has faded in inverse proportion to the popularity of the Anzac legend. Militarism has won the public relations campaign for the “birth of a nation” mantle. Most Australian feminists believed as fervently in disarmament as suffrage. It was indeed the latter that should, in theory, have produced the former.

Yet Gallipoli also represented the heady, irresistible triumvirate of militarism, empire and race. But in the wake of a world war, any idea of Australian isolationism seemed increasingly untenable given, as the historian Audrey Oldfield has put it, “the historical imperatives of Australia’s geographical position”.

Most Australian suffragists, including Goldstein, believed whole-heartedly in the wisdom of a White Australia. As the British Empire crumbled under the weight of its own racial pecking orders, American global dominance took hold under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Underpinned by the same imperialist subservience that ultimately fuelled the Anzac legend, with its heroically active men and patriotically domestic women, the transnational potential for feminists to take a leading role on the world stage was impaired. Australia’s relevance as a youthful ambassador for change diminished as its acquiescent ties to Mother England remained stubbornly tangled.

In October 2011, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser expressed his anxiety at Australia’s lack of political pluck when he addressed an open letter from prominent Australians to Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the issue of the humane processing of refugees. Fraser exhorted:

Seize the opportunity to exhibit leadership, not just at home, but also on the world stage.

Fraser gave a concrete example of the form such moral courage might take: why not implement measures that would “serve as an incentive and an example for members of the UNHCR Working Group on Resettlement, which Australia currently chairs”.

Channelling the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, Fraser concluded:

Make no mistake, the world is watching. Australia has a chance to not only salvage our reputation but set an example for our friends and allies around the world.

In October 2012, Gillard took up the challenge, though not on the issue that Fraser pre-empted. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” Australia’s first female prime minister fairly roared at a smirking opposition leader, Tony Abbott. And the world was watching.

Julia Gillard excoriates Tony Abbott in parliament.

Via the internet, millions viewed “the misogyny speech” in a global fascination with Australia’s female pluck. World leaders rang Gillard to congratulate her on calling out the entrenched prejudice towards women in public and professional life. International journalists used the Australian precedent to focus attention on their domestic politics. As Amelia Lester wrote in The New Yorker:

After his performance last week, supporters of president Obama, watching Gillard cut through the disingenuousness and feigned moral outrage of her opponent to call him out for his own personal prejudice, hypocrisy, and aversion to facts, might be wishing their man would take a lesson from Australia.

US President Barack Obama reportedly mentioned the speech to Gillard when she rang to congratulate him on his 2012 election victory.

Thus, more than a century on from Goldstein’s historic visit to the Oval Office, a hint of antipodean evangelism has recently re-entered the sphere of international politics.

Perhaps, with the global challenges of the 21st century, Australia can reassert its erstwhile youthful exuberance and once again be proud to call itself a trailblazing leader – a nation where justice serves as the foundation of its moral constitution.


A longer version of this essay was published in the Journal of Women’s History.

You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition here.

The Conversation

Clare Wright, Associate Professor in History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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