Australian federal election, 1901
Federal elections for the inaugural Parliament of Australia were held in Australia on Friday 29 March and Saturday 30 March 1901 following Federation and the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia.
The first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, contested the inaugural 1901 federal election as head of a caretaker Protectionist Party federal government. No party won a majority, however the incumbent Barton Protectionist government was supported by the Australian Labor Party, against the opposition Free Trade Party.
The event would be important for setting the template for future federal elections and the fact that those elected determined much of the character of Australian parliamentary democracy and protocol from then to the present day.
|Protectionist Party||185,943||36.75||*||31||*||(6 elected
|Free Trade Party||151,960||30.03||*||28||*|
|State Labour Parties||79,736||15.76||*||14||*|
|Free Trade Party||28|
|Party||Votes||%||Swing||Seats won||Seats held|
|Free Trade Party||1,053,012||39.44||*||17||17|
|State Labour Parties||360,494||13.50||*||8||8|
Following the federation of the colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia on 1 January 1901 to form the Commonwealth of Australia, an election was announced for Friday 29 March (in Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania) and Saturday 30 March 1901 (in South Australia and Queensland) to elect the inaugural members of federal parliament.
The 1901 election was the only one of two occasions in Australia's history that the entire country did not go to the polls on the same day in a general election, the second occasion being the 1993 "supplementary election" in the Division of Dickson. This election was also the only time that an election or any part thereof was held on a day other than a Saturday.
In what would later be known as the Hopetoun Blunder, in December 1900 the Governor-General, the 7th Earl of Hopetoun commissioned Sir William Lyne, the Premier of the senior state, New South Wales, to form the first Commonwealth Government from 1 January 1901. This would be conducted on a caretaker basis in the absence of a parliament. Lyne was unpopular and proved unable to gain support, so he returned his commission. Edmund Barton was then called upon to form a government. Barton was sworn in as the inaugural Prime Minister, and his cabinet contested the poll as the incumbent government.
Voting and enrolment
Voting franchise was according to each state's specific electoral laws. South Australian and Western Australian women were enfranchised, but in the other states they could not vote. Tasmania retained a small property qualification for voting, but in the other states all males over 21 could vote. Only in South Australia and Tasmania, however, were indigenous Australians even theoretically entitled to vote. A few may have done so in South Australia.
Voting was voluntary throughout Australia and candidates were elected by a "first past the post" voting system. In South Australia, voters were required to mark the box opposite their preferred candidates, while in other states voters were required to cross out the names of non-preferred candidates.
Parties contesting the election
The parties contesting the election were the Protectionist Party, led by Prime Minister Edmund Barton, and the Free Trade Party, unofficially led by former New South Wales Premier George Reid. There was no national Labour party, but in five of the six states local Labour parties contested the elections - in Tasmania, where there was no Labour party, King O'Malley was elected as an independent labour candidate. There were also a number of independents of various political leanings and a New South Wales Senate ticket called the "Socialist Six", comprising Labour members in conflict with the official party.
The Protectionists advocated the protection of local industries through the imposition of tariffs on imported goods, the construction of a transcontinental railway, a uniform railway gauge, uniform suffrage, aged pensions and defending the Australian constitution from radicals. The party used the colour red throughout the campaign. In addition to Barton, Protectionist candidates included many of the leading political figures from colonial Australia, including future Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, Charles Kingston and Sir John Forrest.
The Free Traders (their official title was "Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association") advocated the dismantling of the tariff system, a transcontinental railway, and believed that aged pensions should be left to the states. As many of the policies of the Protectionists and Free Traders were similar, the Free Traders campaigned heavily on tariffs, with Reid stating that he wanted the election to be a plebiscite on tariffs. The party used the colour blue throughout the campaign. In addition to Reid, who believed he should have been appointed Prime Minister instead of Barton as he considered himself the bigger political figure, Free Trade candidates included Reid's unofficial deputy Paddy Glynn, future Prime Minister Joseph Cook and William Irvine.
Labour advocated old age pensions, electoral reform, a national army, compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes and a national referendum to decide issues that would otherwise lead to a double dissolution of parliament. Senior Labour candidates included future Prime Ministers Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes and Chris Watson. Labour candidates were elected as individual state-based candidates - they met before the first sitting of Parliament on 8 May 1901 and agreed to form a federal Labour Party. Chris Watson, a Sydney printer and former member of the New South Wales Parliament, was elected the first leader of the Party.
The candidates were contesting 75 House of Representatives and 36 Senate seats. The 75 House of Representative seats were determined by the population of each state, except for the constitutional proviso that Tasmania was guaranteed at least 5 seats. New South Wales was allocated 26, Victoria 23, Queensland 9, South Australia 7, Western Australia 5 and Tasmania 5. The South Australian and Tasmanian colonial parliaments had not legislated for single member electorates and so their House of Representative members were elected from a single state wide electorate. Each state elected six Senators regardless of population. The Senate was elected by bloc voting rather than the current single transferable vote system.
The campaign period officially commenced on 17 January 1901, although some candidates, particularly Reid, had been unofficially campaigning since December the previous year. The campaign was delayed due to the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January, but soon got into full swing again as candidates travelled widely to address lively public meetings. Reid drew the biggest crowds, including 8,000 to a rally in Newcastle and he campaigned widely, travelling to Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, while Paddy Glynn organised the Free Trade campaign in South Australia.
The Protectionists were forced to modify their immigration policy following an outcry from Queensland Protectionist candidates who feared that a White Australia policy would impinge on the importation of Kanakas to work on Queensland sugar plantations. Their policy was revised to read that Kanakas would be only be sent back to their country of origin when they were no longer of any use to the sugar industry. On the whole, however, a white Australia was extremely popular with the electorate and most candidates outdid themselves to prove how much they supported it. It was left to Free Trade candidate for Parkes, Bruce Smith (a leading representative of the employers), to oppose anti-immigration measures. Andrew Fisher argued that any Kanaka who had converted to Christianity and married should be allowed to remain in Australia. Both were elected comfortably.
The Free Traders also had to modify part of their election platform when they realised that to advocate for the removal of all tariffs protecting Australian industries would be political suicide. Many employees in these industries considered the removal of tariffs as likely to mean the end of their jobs.
The Protectionists enjoyed the support of the powerful Australian Natives' Association (ANA) throughout the campaign as well as the endorsements of The Age and The Sydney Bulletin, while Free Trade received support from business interests and the endorsements of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph, The Brisbane Courier, Melbourne's The Argus and The Adelaide Register. Labour could only rely on union-owned newspapers, although some of these enjoyed a great level of influence in some electorates (the Gympie Truth for example is considered to have played an important role in the election of its part-owner, Andrew Fisher, in Wide Bay).
There were only two cars used in the 1901 election campaign; Sir William Lyne, who was a candidate for the Division of Hume while still Premier of New South Wales, used his official Premier's car to great advantage; the shipping magnate and candidate for Melbourne Sir Malcolm McEacharn, enjoyed the use of his car while travelling around his electorate.
Floods in Queensland delayed polling in parts of the state until April while complaints were received by polling officials about the earlier than advertised closing of polling booths in some electorates, the poor quality pencils supplied to fill in ballot papers (they apparently blunted easily, leaving many votes incomprehensible to officials) and the Senate ballot paper in New South Wales which listed 50 candidates, confusing many voters and leading to a significant number of informal votes.
These complaints aside, the administering of the first federal election was seen as a great success and a credit to the polling officials who, in some cases, were responsible for electorates larger than some European countries.
The results showed the strong regional basis that has always characterised Australian politics. The Free Traders won most of the seats in New South Wales, apart from the border areas where the Protectionists were strong. The Protectionists won most of the seats in their stronghold, Victoria. Labour won some inner urban seats but most of their members represented pastoral and mining areas. In the smaller states many members had no fixed party loyalty and saw themselves as representing the interests of their states. Seven Prime Ministers of Australia (Barton, Deakin, Watson, Reid, Fisher, Joseph Cook and Hughes) were elected at this election, as were a number of influential former state Premiers (Sir John Forrest, Lyne, George Turner, Anderson Dawson, Philip Fysh and Charles Kingston among them).
With no past to live down, Barton's Protectionist ministry had all the advantages of incumbency with none of the problems, which meant that a Protectionist victory was almost a certainty, and Barton had been confident of obtaining a comfortable majority in parliament. However, while Barton and his ministry were returned, they had to rely on Labour support to pass legislation. Although the Protectionists remained in government, however, many observers saw the result as a moral victory for Free Trade (who won more seats than the Protectionists in the three smallest states of South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia). Labour also performed better than expected, particularly after the post-election recruitment of O'Malley. Labour was the smallest of the three parties in the House but held the balance of power. Chris Watson pursued the same policy as Labour had done in the colonial parliaments. He kept the Protectionist governments of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin in office, in exchange for legislative concessions including the immensely popular White Australia policy. Such was the overwhelming support for a White Australia by the electorate and the three political parties that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the first piece of legislation passed by the nascent parliament.
Of the two elected independents, both were from Queensland. James Wilkinson, elected to the seat of Moreton, was a former member of the Labour Party, and rejoined the party in 1903. Alexander Paterson, representing Capricornia, had no political affiliation, and retired in 1903.
South Australia and Tasmania went to the election as single multi-member constituencies. South Australia elected seven members, each elector casting seven votes: four Free Traders (Paddy Glynn, 59.5%; Frederick Holder, 59.5%; Alexander Poynton, 41.1%; and Vaiben Louis Solomon, 43.0%), two Protectionists (Charles Kingston, 65.9%; Langdon Bonython, 62.7%) and one Labour member (Lee Batchelor, 50.3%). Tasmania elected five members, each elector casting one vote: three Free Traders (Edward Braddon, 26.2%; Norman Cameron, 11.6%; Frederick Piesse, 10.1%), one Protectionist (Philip Fysh, 9.9%) and one Labour member (King O'Malley, 21.9%).
- Candidates of the Australian federal election, 1901
- Members of the Australian House of Representatives, 1901–1903
- Australian 1901 election upper house results
- Members of the Australian Senate, 1901–1903
- McGinn, W.G. (1989). George Reid. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne. ISBN 0-522-84373-5.
- Rutledge, M. (1988) Smith, Arthur Bruce (1851 - 1937), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.
- Simms (ed.), M. (2001). 1901: The forgotten election. University of Queensland Press, Brisbane. ISBN 0-7022-3302-1.
- Bastian, p. 82.
- Bastian, P. (2009). Andrew Fisher: An underestimated man. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.
- State and federal election results in Australia since 1890
- McMullin, R. (1991). The Light on the Hill; the Australian Labor Party 1891-1991. Oxford University Press, South Melbourne. ISBN 0-19-554966-X.
- Reynolds, J. (1999). Edmund Barton. Bookman Press, Sydney. ISBN 1-86395-377-9.
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