Self-rule and How It Grew

By 1850, within sixty-two years of the founding of the penal settlement, the Australian colonies had secured the right to rule themselves. By 1860 five of the six had the machinery of responsible representative self-government at work. The sixth (Western Australia) got it in 1889, and similar machinery was set up when the federation came into being in 1901.

Self-government means what it says. The colonies gained complete control of their own affairs as fragments of veto power from London disappeared. Then the federal government took charge of those wider matters which were transferred to it by the states—defense, interstate and overseas commerce, the tariff, external relations, and so forth. By rapid stages it assumed the rank of a self-governing dominion, with its own army, navy, ministers, consuls, treaty-making powers, and the right to stay out of or enter any war in which Great Britain became involved.

Responsible government means the British system of cabinet responsibility to Parliament, in contrast to our division of powers between the legislature and the executive. It was not so much an imported article as a natural growth by installments between 1820 and 1850. The colonists who won it were not democrats. They were men of means and substance, who hoped to be able to run the country as they thought best.

This might have produced a “squattocracy”—government of the country by the squatters for the squatters. But close on the heels of their victory came the gold rush. Most of the rushers came from Europe, then in the throes of political and economic turmoil. On the Continent the revolutions of 1848 had sought to limit despotisms and obtain popular constitutions. In England the Chartists had for years been insisting that the wrongs of the poor could be redressed only if Parliament was made more representative of the people, and they had clamored for such things as universal manhood suffrage, vote by ballot, and payment of legislators.

Seeds of democracy

Some of these ideas were planted in Australian soil and quickly produced a crop. Vote by ballot was introduced into the first constitutions. Some states began with manhood suffrage, and the others got round to it later for one of the two legislative houses which each state set up. Women were given the vote in South Australia in 1894, close on the heels of New Zealand (1893), and in 1902 all women were enfranchised for federal elections. In later years compulsory voting was introduced, and the person who failed to vote was fined about six dollars. In the federal election of 1943 soldiers over eighteen years of age who were fighting abroad had the right to vote.

Voting in Australia is a less strenuous business than with us. Normally elections come once in every three years, and the state elections do not take place at the same time as the federal contests. Votes are cast only for the members of the legislature, and not for any administrative officers or judges. The cabinet members are chosen by the victorious party from among the elected representatives; and judges are appointed, never elected.

Payment of salaries to members of Parliament began in 1889 and soon became nation-wide. This payment opened the road to the highest political offices, and it has been trodden by many men who started from the humblest homes. Among the federal prime ministers—the nearest equivalent to our presidents—we find miners, labor-union secretaries, a country doctor, a neighborhood storekeeper, a grade-school teacher, and a small-town accountant. The present prime minister, Mr. John Curtin, became a printer’s apprentice at twelve years of age, then was secretary of a lumberjacks’ union, and then a journalist on a Labor paper. His war cabinet includes two railroad workers, a barber, a teacher of electrical engineering, a patternmaker, a farmer, a newspaper proprietor, and a lawyer who worked his way up to a judgeship of the High Court of Australia and then resigned to become a Labor member of Parliament.

Checks and balances

VotingIn the federal field democratic government has reached about the highest possible point. In the states it is curbed to some extent by the existence of two legislative houses. One of them—the Assembly—is chosen by full adult suffrage, but the other—the Council—is either nominated for life or is elected by owners of real estate, householders, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and military or naval officers. The Council is a legacy of the old days when property, position, or the practice of a profession was thought to confer rights to special consideration. This restricted franchise helps to make the Council more conservative than the Assembly. Its members are older men, usually ranchers, business or professional men. They serve without pay, and are likely to look with suspicion on change, especially a change which is going to injure themselves or their class.

The Councils have been a brake, slowing down and sometimes even stopping the wheels temporarily; but the record of bills actually passed shows that if there was enough popular driving force the resistance was eventually overcome and the wheels started turning again. The Labor Party has been the chief victim of delay and has therefore sought to abolish the Councils. It succeeded in doing so in Queensland in 1922 and in other states there has been some curbing of the Council’s power to amend or reject bills. Yet the Councils still have considerable power and are the defenders of states’ rights against attempts to transfer increased authority to the federal government.

Democratic aims

The most interesting features of Australian democracy are not the machinery of government, but the way it has been used, the men and parties who have operated it, and the policies they have pursued. Here we find some marked differences between American and Australian experience. American democracy was born in a rural society. It inherited the Revolutionary dislike of an overseas government and was therefore prone to dislike all government restraint, regulation, and taxation, though it did not object to government help. The business of government was to let you have land free or cheaply, to aid you in developing industry or trade, and to protect you from being oppressed by big fellows—unless you were a big fellow yourself. For the rest, you wanted to be left alone to exploit the vast resources of the ever moving frontier, and to grow as rich as you possibly could, because there would still be plenty of resources left for others.

Australian democracy took shape almost a century later. Its founders had grown up in the industrial urban society that emerged in early nineteenth-century Britain, in an atmosphere full of ideas about improving that society. The belief that the best government was the one which did least was being challenged. In its place the notion was growing that a fully representative government could and should do many things to promote the economic welfare of its people.

In addition to the gap of nearly a century between the two attitudes, there was a vast difference between the resources available in the two countries. We had enough of them to supply free or cheap land to all comers all the way to the Rockies. But if the Australian left the coastal belt he was soon in the badlands. We seemed to have enough minerals and forests for everybody; but Australia had no such treasure-house, and hence it might be desirable to prevent some people from getting too much for fear that many would not get enough.

These two contrasts in outlook and resources help to explain three of the problems confronting Australian democracy. They were the land problem, the industrial problem, and the labor problem.

From EM 44: Australia: Our Neighbor Down Under (1944)