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Australia's parliament house in Canberra

On this. day: Australia’s first federal election

On 29 and 30 March 1901, Australia held its first federal election, solidifying its new democratic status and processes. Sir Edmund Barton led his Protectionist Party to victory, and Australia was off on the democratic path.

As the old saying goes; a week is a long time in politics, which means that a lot can change in a short amount of time. So, if a lot can change in a week, then how much has changed across a century of Australian politics? Here are some of the key developments that have shaped Australia’s political landscape.

Early innovation  

There’s no doubt that Australia was an early innovator within politics, and led the way with many innovative practices and beliefs that are now commonplace in democracies across the world.

After the Australian women’s suffrage movement began in the mid-1880’s, the South Australian and Western Australian state level governments granted women the right to vote in state elections. With the introduction of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, Australia became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in a federal election and to stand for election in the federal parliament. This right was exercised in the 1903 federal election when Vida Goldstein became the first woman to run for the senate.

Australia was also the first country to introduce preferential voting. Almost uniquely Australian, preferential voting requires the voter to number their preferred candidates. If the voters first choice candidate is not elected, and no other candidate receives half the vote then the votes are re-examined for their next preferred candidate. The goal of this system is to elect the most preferred candidate and the one that can build an absolute majority of support in the electorate, ensuring a fairer process for the voting population.

The secret ballot, also known as the Australian ballot around the world, was also first introduced in Australia. Used by Victoria and South Australia for state elections since 1856, the other states soon followed, and the system has been in use since our first federal election in 1901, and was implemented globally soon after.

Late stagnation

While Australia does have a long history of electoral experimentation, we seem to have stagnated within our growth since those early days. While leading the way by giving women the right to vote early on in our processes, Australia had the largest gap of any western democracy between a woman standing for federal parliament and a woman actually being elected, at 41 years.

Dr Geoffrey Robinson, Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies at Deakin University, argues that this was caused by the movement themselves. ‘Feminists, who were mostly on the right were not focused on party-political representations, but rather non-party reformism such as child health.’

‘Unlike places like Europe, and feminists on the right side of politics, the workerist Labor party offered little space for left feminists.’ Dr Robinson says. This is shown through those women who did align themselves with the major parties. These women still faced internal and external barriers to entry into federal parliament. Australian Labor Party women were preselected for unwinnable seats, and Nationalist women were forced to stand as Independents. ‘This was the way for a long time, and it only changed when feminism ideals shifted to the left in the 1960’s,’ Dr Robinson says.

This lack of growth within the Australian political landscape is summed up by Dr Robinson: ‘There is a general contentment with Australian democracy and our politicians although that is plunging.’

Even with the growing discontentment with our political system and our lack of faith in politicians, we face another major barrier to halt our stagnation. ‘Major parties in Australia are reluctant to open up our political system, as they know that it will destabilise their overwhelming power,’ Dr Robinson says.

The digital age

The rise of the internet has had a major global impact on politics in turbulent times and countries. The ease of which the general populace can find information online and through social media channels has played a major role in global events.

In Australia, this access to information that has previously been unobtainable for the average person is helping the general public become more well informed on political issues. However, possibly the greatest impact it has had on all spectrums of Australia’s political landscape is the ability to organise.

Digital disruption might be the buzz phrase of the moment, but that’s an oversimplification.  Politics in the digital age is more transparent and as Dr Robinson says: ‘It has encouraged electoral volatility, perhaps most of all between parties on the same side.’

This transparency and ability to organise has made the political landscape a tightrope for the traditional political powers. It’s now a practical redundancy of the old order, and is helping usher in a system that is more democratic and representative of the voting population.

Interested in learning more? Explore Australian politics through Deakin’s Bachelor of Arts degree.

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Dr Geoffrey Robinson
Dr Geoffrey Robinson

Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies, Faculty of Arts and Education
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