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"on the cutting edge of democracy"

Writing about the successful passage of women's suffrage legislation in the South Australian Parliament in 1894, Susan Magarey has written in Suffrage and beyond: international feminist perspectives, edited by Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan (Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1994) on pages 70-71,

"There was a logic in this extension of democracy occurring first, in Australia, in the colony of South Australia. For unlike the other colonies, and unlike the imperial 'mother' country, Britain, South Australia had enjoyed not only manhood suffrage but also one man-one vote since self-government in 1856. This meant that, once the property limitations attached to earlier female suffrage measures had been removed, the trade unions, the UTLC, and the ULP gave the 1894 bill their wholehearted support. In the other Australian colonies the labour movement expressed sympathy with the women's aspirations, but refused to give them official support until they had succeeded in their own campaign to abolish plural voting, which allowed men to cast votes in every electoral district in which they owned property. The exception was Western Australia where the formation of the Labor Party did not occur until 1901, after the passage of female suffrage legislation by the conservative government of John Forrest in an attempt to strengthen the urban conservative vote against the emergent labour movement of the goldfields.

It was a logic which also had extensions that the South Australian legislators did not shirk. Manhood suffrage in South Australia had, at least in principle, also enfranchised Aboriginal Australian men. The 1894 legislation enfranchising women extended the suffrage to Aboriginal Australian women too. In 1896, Point McLeay, an Aboriginal settlement near the mouth of the Murray River, had its own polling station with more than 100 people on the rolls; 70 per cent of them voted in the election that year. Ironically, perhaps, these electors also voted for the representatives who attended the Federal Convention of 1897. One of several held to draft a constitution for the federation of the separate colonies into the Commonwealth of Australia, this was the convention which resolved, despite protests from the South Australians, that Aboriginal Australians would not be counted in the censuses of the Australian population. So began the process by which Aboriginal Australians were excluded not only from the federal franchise, but also from the definition of human beings-until 1962.

South Australia's achievement of female suffrage in 1894 was, however, critical to the national enfranchisement of women in 1902. Lobbied by the suffragists, South Australian delegates to the Federal Convention of 1897 threatened to forego federation rather than allow South Australian women to be dis-enfranchised in the federal arena. Just as the achievement of votes for women in New Zealand in 1893 had given impetus and encouragement to the South Australian suffragists, so the South Australian victory, both at home and in the new Commonwealth, gave heart and hope to suffrage campaigners throughout Australia. For once votes for women had been conceded for elections to the Commonwealth Parliament (1902), then most of the other states abandoned their opposition. Western Australia had passed female suffrage legislation in 1899. Following the Commonwealth Parliament's ruling, women were enfranchised in New South Wales in the same year, in Tasmania in 1903 and in Queensland in 1905. Only in Victoria was there continued concertedopposition, and that, too, finally gave up in 1908. Moreover, the fortuitous South Australian precedent, a precedent that was not followed in the other Australian states until after World War I, in conceding to women the right to sit in Parliament-not merely to elect, but also to become legislators-when extended to the Commonwealth Constitution, established Australia on the cutting edge of democracy, ahead of everywhere else in the world."

Adapted and reprinted here from the copy held in the Bray Reference Library with kind permission from Susan Magarey and the publisher Auckland University Press.


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