Socialists and the vote in Australia

December 5, 2014
Delegates to the third Australian Socialist Federation conference in June 1909 at Broken Hill.

On its establishment in 1788, the colony of New South Wales was subject to English law by the application of legal reasoning that was settled in the late 18th century. It confirmed that “if an uninhabited country be discovered and planted by English subjects, all English laws then in being, which are the birthright of every subject, are immediately there in force.”

For the Aboriginal population, who had occupied the land for tens of thousands of years, this meant that they were treated as people “who lacked effective possession of the lands over which they roamed”. It was a legal fiction that denied a war of occupation. Their land is still today a land of struggle against oppression.

Constitutional arrangements were also handed down from the British. As the number of emancipists and free settlers increased, elected representation was gradually introduced to the colonies, beginning with New South Wales after the Australian Constitutions Act was passed by the British parliament in 1842, and eventually extending to Western Australia in 1890.

As a penal colony that developed into a white settler society, Australia experienced none of the political or industrial revolutions that convulsed Europe and the US. The political ideas that shaped the nation arrived with its migrants, including 160,000 convicts.


Writing in the early 20th century, a German migrant contended that among those immigrants who arrived in Australia in the 1850s there were many who retained the revolutionary spirit that permeated Europe in 1848. These were men “who remembered Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and the Chartists”.

There were also those who remembered Karl Marx and Frederic Engels. Prominent among them was Henry Bauer who migrated to Australia around 1851. Bauer was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist League that commissioned Marx and Engels to write the Communist Manifesto. Gustav Techow was another "old 1848er" who led the revolutionary army in Baden and migrated to Australia in 1852. Marx was still corresponding with Techow at his address at the Royal Hotel in St Kilda in 1860.

It was the German migrant community that founded two of the first socialist organisations in Australia, the Allgemeiner Deutscher Verein (General German Association) in Adelaide in 1886, and Verein Vorwarts (Forward Association) in Melbourne the following year.

Another migrant who knew Marx and Engels was the London-born unionist, George Henry Buttery, who sat alongside them at the Council of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International).

After migrating to Adelaide in 1877 he became a member of the South Australian Fabian Society and later a leading member of the Clarion Fellowship of Socialists established in Adelaide in 1902.

Another revolutionary event that touched Australia was the Paris Commune. Some of the Communards exiled to New Caledonia and later released managed to find their way to Sydney where they joined the Socialist International Club founded by Frank Sceusa, who migrated from Sicily to escape the persecution he suffered as a socialist.

Important as these contributions to the development of socialist organisations in Australia were, the overwhelming political influence was bound to be British. In 1861, out of a population of 1,152,106, 55% were British born and 37% Australian born, mostly of British parents.

The political movements they were most likely to have encountered were Chartism and Robert Owens’s Utopian Socialism.


The Chartist movement took its name from the six points of the People’s Charter of May 1838 — universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, paid members of parliament, secret ballots for election to parliament, equal electoral districts and no property qualifications for elected representatives.

Many of the artisans who migrated to South Australia in the late 1840s had been active members of the Chartist movement in Britain, and several ex-Chartists were among the miners’ leaders on the Victorian goldfields in the early 1850s.

The secret ballot, the Chartist demand to eliminate the bribery, intimidation and duress associated with public voting, was first used in Victoria in 1856. Following its adoption soon after in other colonies, it became known throughout much of the world as the “Australian Ballot”.

In 1859, an ex-Chartist, Charles Jardine Don, was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly. But in the absence of another Chartist demand — paid MPs — he continued in his daytime job as a stonemason and was only able to attend sittings of parliament held at night.

Australian workers made significant advances during the period of the “long boom” that ran for four decades from 1851. Although agriculture was still of prime importance, it was the time of building railways, telegraphs, steamships and factories, 10,000 of which employed more than 100,000 workers by 1890.

It was also the time when unions, which had first been established in the late 1820s and early 1830s as trade associations and benefit societies, were organised on more solid political foundations. By 1890, the Amalgamated Miners Association, with 25,000 members, and the Amalgamated Shearers Union, with 22,000 members, were among those who challenged the narrow outlook of craft unions. Trades and Labour Councils were established in capital cities from 1871, and the first Inter-Colonial Trades Congress was held in 1879.

As unions developed, so too did socialist organisations. One of the earliest was the Democratic Association of Victoria formed in 1872. It affiliated to the First International and sent a delegate to its General Council in London in the same year.

The Melbourne Anarchist Club that was formed on May 1, 1886 was short-lived, but from the late 1880s avowedly socialist organisations were formed throughout the country.

The Sydney-based Australian Socialist League (ASL), launched publically in August 1887, was probably the most influential. At least eight of the 35 Labor Electoral League (Labor Party) MPs who were elected to the NSW parliament in 1891 were members of the ASL, a party committed to state socialism.

The ASL eventually broke with the Labor Party over nationalisation in 1905, but the idea of joining the ALP in order to steer it in a socialist direction (white-anting) still had some life in it.


The Communist Party of Australia, formed on October 30 1923, became a probationary affiliate of the NSW ALP in June 1923 and was instrumental in the party committing itself to socialism. It didn’t last long though, by October that year the CPA was expelled. All other ALP state branches, and the federal party, then ruled that communists were ineligible for membership of the ALP.

CPA members had actually pre-empted affiliation and joined the ALP en masse in 1922. Following their proscription they were instructed to remain in the ALP and fight expulsion. Many CPA members did remain in the ALP — and the great majority of them stayed there rather than return to the CPA. The venture into “entrism” cost the CPA almost two-thirds of its members.

It was, of course, the ALP who succeeded in winning the majority of the working class to its cause. But there was always a tension between left and right forces in the party.

This led to two splits in the decades that followed: the first in 1916 over conscription; the second in 1931 over its response to the Great Depression.

Four years after the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party that was defeated by the slender margin of 52,000 votes, the ALP split again with the formation of an anti-communist labour party which called itself the Democratic Labour Party. Committed to keeping an ALP “soft on communism” from gaining office, it had enough electoral support to send several senators to Canberra and sustain its aims until 1972.

Whether the ALP can survive the corrosive consensus of neoliberalism, introduced by the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating governments of the ’80s and ’90s remains to be seen.

One of the consequences of this unity ticket was evident in the study released in June this year by the Australian National University and the Social Research Centre that showed that those who believed it actually made a difference which major party was in power plummeted from 68% in 2007 to 43% this year.

Perhaps this goes some way to understanding why 3 million people, nearly 20% of eligible voters, opted out of last year's election.

Australia’s constitutional arrangements are a product of Empire: five former colonies became state governments with bicameral parliaments that came with gerrymandered upper houses until Queensland abolished its upper house in 1922.

It later transferred the gerrymander to the lower house — in 1974 the ALP in Queensland received just 13% of the seats in parliament after winning 36% of the vote. In the upper house in WA today non-metropolitan voters have a vote that is up to 5 times more influential than a metropolitan vote.

The powers that the states have ceded to the Commonwealth since federation have expanded to such an extent as to question the relevance of state governments. Opinion polls have shown a preference for smaller, regional governments.

The Commonwealth Senate is an institution that has managed to restrain any democratic impulse. With some 350,000 voters, Tasmania elects the same 12 senators as the 4,747,077 NSW voters. With more than one million voters less than NSW, the combined states of WA, SA and Tasmania have 36 senators to the 12 from NSW.

The fight for equal suffrage is not over yet.

[This three-part series is based on edited extracts from A Short History of Social Democracy: From Socialist Origins to Neoliberal Theocracy which will be published by Resistance Books early next year. Read part one: Socialists and how the vote was won. And part two: The fight to win the vote for women.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.