With the coming of Federation, it was clear to all politicians that the rules of the political contest had undergone a fundamental change.
With the coming of Federation, it was clear to all politicians that the rules of the political contest had undergone a fundamental change. Many of the most capable politicians had won seats in the new Commonwealth Parliament, leaving the leadership ranks of the major parties significantly weakened at the State level. Some of the functions of the colonial legislature had been transferred to the central Government, so that property such as post offices, lighthouses and army barracks were handed over, while the old colonial borders lost their customs barriers. Indeed, with the whole question of customs tariffs now out of the hands of the Parliament in Macquarie Street, there was serious doubt about the rationale for maintaining the two major fiscal parties, Free Trade and Protection. Moreover, with customs duties now no longer available, all State Governments had to take more seriously the problem of how they were to raise their revenue.
With the formation of the Commonwealth Parliament, there was general agreement on the need for a cut in the number of Members in the Legislative Assembly. All parties supported a reduction, as did the public, but there was no agreement on the size of the reduction. A decision was deferred until 1903 when Premier John See decided that the best way to solve the problem was to ask the voters. A plebiscite was held in December 1903 at which electors were asked to choose between three options, retaining the existing Assembly of 125 Members, reducing it to 100, or even further to 90 Members. To the chagrin of many MLAs, the overwhelming choice was for a reduction to 90 Members. In January 1904 this was made the basis for the Electorates Redistribution Act 1904. The Electoral Commissioners were given the urgent task of deciding on the new boundaries to take effect at the election which was due about the middle of the year. The task was completed by the time of the eventual election on 6 August 1904. The drastic cut in numbers created numerous contests between sitting Members: 22 electorates were contested by two sitting Members and two electorates were contested by three sitting Members.
Another issue the Government needed to address was that of the women’s franchise. The first Commonwealth election in 1901 had been conducted under the existing electoral laws of each of the States. This meant that Members and Senators from South Australia and Western Australia were elected by men and women, while those in New South Wales and the remaining States were elected only by male voters. The question of women’s suffrage had been on the electoral agenda throughout the 1890s, but conservative opinion (and the resistance of the Upper House) had postponed any decision in New South Wales, even though most politicians could see that it was inevitable. When the Commonwealth passed its own Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, giving the vote to women in all Australian States for Commonwealth elections, the matter could be postponed no longer. The suffragettes had their victory in the Women’s Franchise Act 1902. Not only did this double the size of the typical electorate, but it forced major changes in the organisation of the emerging political party system. If the votes of women were to be harvested for the political parties, the parties themselves would need to welcome women as organisers and advisers.
The See Government also implemented a number of changes to the State’s electoral procedures. The Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act 1902 consolidated a number of changes that had been made since the previous legislation of 1893. These included: a reduction in the residence requirement for electors from three months to one; an attempt to make electoral lists more reliable and up-to-date; and greater autonomy for the three Electoral Commissioners.
The party system itself was being transformed. After Federation the existing Protectionist administration continued in office with the parliamentary support of the Labor Party MLAs. Initially, this meant merely changing the leadership, with William Lyne moving to the Commonwealth and John See taking over as Premier. The question of party identity and the irrelevance of fiscal labels was handled by merely changing the name of the Party to “Progressive”, without facing any of the policy or identity dilemmas. Meanwhile, from 1902, the old Free Traders were transforming their party into one of economic and social reform, backed up with an anti-socialist ideology. The creation of the Liberal and Reform Association, largely driven by Sir Joseph Carruthers, set the foundation for the extra-parliamentary organisation of his Liberal Party. The election of 1904 saw the installation of the two-sided party competition that survived for the rest of the century – the Progressives suffered a disastrous defeat that was terminal for that party, while the main contest was between Liberal and Labor.
The early years of the new century saw “reform”, and calls for change, at the centre of electoral politics. The Carruthers Liberal Party espoused a free market economic system, backed up by a set of political institutions redesigned to maximise freedom and resist socialism. Very soon, however, the Party’s vision of social reform was itself transformed by the mobilisation of sectarian Protestant pressure, so that a wowser agenda of imposed temperance, along with anti-Catholicism, soon permeated the party. Facing the Liberal vision was that of a reviving Labor Party, just as committed to reform, but having a completely different notion of how society should be changed. Important internal debates redefined the term “socialism” to mean government ownership, or at least control, over strategic sectors or institutions of the economy such as banks or coal mines. Assurances that this was a different ideology from the more radical and class-conflict doctrines of European socialism helped to transfer the support of most Catholic voters from the old Protectionists to Labor, thus paving the way for more widespread electoral success than had been possible up till then. Calls for the expansion of the minimalist social welfare system to provide effective protection for widows, the aged and the sick had a strong appeal for families. Both sides of politics were convinced that their version of “reform” would be attractive to the new female voters.
The 1904 election gave a strong mandate to the Liberal Party led by Carruthers. The Liberals won 45 seats compared to the Progressives’ 16 and Labor’s 25. Clearly the new Premier was not satisfied with the hastily prepared electoral reforms of 1904 and moved quickly to put together a more comprehensive set of changes to complement the reduction in size of the Assembly.
This resulted in the Parliamentary Elections Act 1906. The Act removed the requirement that every elector to carry a certificate of “elector’s right”, since it seemed to have encouraged rather than discouraged abuse. The silly requirement for Members of the Assembly to resign and recontest their seats when appointed as Ministers was abandoned. The clumsy arrangement where voters were required to cross out the names of all candidates they were NOT voting for was abolished, voters simply required to mark an X for their preferred candidate. Absentee voting was made easier and the deposit for candidates was waived.
The 1904 redistribution set the boundaries used for elections in 1904, 1907 and 1910. During this time the Liberal Party held office under Joseph Carruthers (1904-7) and Charles Gregory Wade (1907-10). At the 1907 election the Liberals were returned with 45 seats and could count on the support of eight sympathetic Independent Liberals. Labor narrowly won office in 1910 for the first time with 46 seats and James McGowen became Premier.
Before the 1910 election, a number of changes were made by the Parliamentary Elections (Second Ballot) Act 1910. These changes reflected a conviction in the ruling Liberal Party that normal first-past-the-post voting gave an advantage to the stronger discipline over endorsement and voters maintained by the Labor Party. Quite often the conservative vote in an electorate was split between endorsed and non-endorsed or Independent candidates, allowing the Labor candidate to win the seat without an absolute majority. The “second ballot” enabled something like the preferential voting common throughout Australia in modern times. If no candidate in an electorate achieved an absolute majority there would be a separate “run off” vote in that electorate a week or two weeks later, with only the two candidates with the highest votes eligible to contest. The non-Labor parties soon became disillusioned with the second ballot when it became obvious that Labor discipline also enabled that party to mount a stronger challenge in the second vote. A total of 26 second ballots were held between 1910 and 1920. Of the 12 second ballots held at the 1913 election, increased turnout at the second ballot allowed Labor to win five contests where the Labor candidate trailed on the first ballot.
The system was abandoned for the 1920 election which was conducted under Proportional Representation. (That experiment also failed to give significant advantage to the non-Labor parties and was abandoned in its turn after three elections.) The 1910 legislation also made a redistribution necessary in the near future since it foreshadowed the excision of the newly-established Australian Capital Territory from the State electorates. MH