'A woman's place is in her home' - Original image used with kind permission from: Palczewski, Catherine H. Postcard Archive. University of Northern Iowa. Cedar Falls, IA. 

See also The Suffrage Postcard Project, https://thesuffragepostcardproject.omeka.net/items/show/22

(Anti-suffrage posters are used to illustrate the arguments and stereotypes once used in an attempt to deny the vote. Similar nonsense (like arguments about merit) face the campaign to achieve equal representation.)

Democracy and voting rights

In this section we look briefly at the nature of representative democracy in Australia. This section highlights the following:

  • how thinking about democracy has changed

  • how the election laws in Australia have changed many times for many reasons

  • how democracy has advanced in stages to recognise the voting rights of:
  1. men (with exceptions)
  2. women (with exceptions)
  3. non-white (non-indigenous) men and women
  4. indigenous persons

Voting rights need protection

In 2010 the Australian Human Rights Commission warned that not every Australian had equal access to the right to vote.

A healthy democracy makes sure that all members of the community have equal access to the political process. Australia is a democratic nation where governments are elected by popular vote. However, even though almost all Australians over 18 years old have the right – and the obligation – to vote, not all Australians enjoy that right as a practical matter.
If you are young, live in a rural or remote area, have a disability, are Indigenous, homeless or a prisoner serving a sentence of more than 3 years, your right to vote in a federal election may be restricted as a legal or practical matter.

The changing nature of democracy.

There is no fixed and absolute model of democracy. Attitudes and opinions change as do the ways in which each democratic society organises itself. The choice of system for representation produces widely differing results as shown in this example from South Australia.

However, as John Stuart Mill wrote in The subjection of women, the status quo can be an enormous obstacle:

I am up against practical principles in which people have been born and bred, and which are the basis of much existing order of the world; I can hardly expect them to surrender at the first argumentative attack that they aren’t capable of logically resisting.
That would require them to rely on their own power of estimating arguments, and that can’t happen until the understandings of the majority of mankind are much better developed than they ever have been. So I am quarreling with my opponents not for having too little faith in argument but for having too much faith in custom and the general feeling.

Founding fathers, but not mothers

When people speak of the "founding fathers" of the Australian Constitution this is particularly apt. Women were not included in the Constitutional Convention which hammered out its terms.

In 1897, Catherine Helen Spence tried, but failed to achieve sufficient votes to become a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. However, Spence earnt the title of the first woman in Australia to stand for public office. Spence (like Vida Goldstein) knew that party politics would stifle the voices of women and argued strongly for a different form of representation to that of single person electorates, putting forward her own 'Hare-Spence' system - as recorded by Derek Drinkwater.

In July and August 1900 Union Parliament members debated several measures initiated by the ‘Premier’, F.W. Richards (Maughan Church Literary Society), regarding South Australia’s electoral and voting arrangements as a state of the approaching Commonwealth. Most controversial of these was the proposal ‘that the whole of the Province be one electorate for the election of members of the Federal House of Representatives, and that the Hare-Spence system of effective proportional voting be adopted in elections for both Federal Houses of Parliament’.[43] Union Parliamentarians debated the proposal keenly on this occasion, and, as in the state Parliament, controversy continued for years over ‘Hare-Spence’, the South Australian reformer Catherine Helen Spence’s modified version of Thomas Hare’s proportional representation system, which was aimed at securing better representation for minorities. Miss Spence, an unsuccessful Federal Convention candidate in 1897, campaigned in vain in 1899 and 1900 for the introduction of ‘effective voting’ (a form of proportional representation) in federal elections. Her supporters persisted, most notably the former Union Parliament member, Howard Vaughan, who drafted South Australia’s first proportional representation bill in 1902. It was rejected annually by South Australia’s Parliament eight times.

Racist provisions restricted the vote and right to stand

The status of Australia as a pioneer of women's suffrage (is) undermined by the country's racial policies. Political rights in the federal elections (but not in all state elections) were restricted to the white population only, while Aboriginal people were not granted the right to vote until 1962.

It has been easy to emphasise the universality of suffrage in Finland against the backdrop of the restrictions imposed in New Zealand and Australia. 

Some have thus argued that Finland was the first to achieve "genuine" democracy. After all, not only did Finnish men and women of all social classes become politically equal in 1906, but Finland also adopted a unicameral parliamentary system, which was exceptional in Europe at the time. Moreover, both men and women were granted the right to stand for election, and they actively exercised this right from the very first parliamentary elections.