Electoral opportunity and political power
" . .. having more than they can do well in all that appropriately belongs to them, to add the civil and political duties of men, would be unjust and oppressive."
The Victorian Express, 1870.
THE early years of self-government were not democratic in the way we tend to think of democracy now. The new Constitution Act conferred political power on a relatively small, elite group of men in the colony, not the entire population. Most people did not have the right to vote, much less run for parliament. At first, only a very few men - those with extensive property interests - were allowed to stand as candidates. Politics was a masculine domain and women were totally excluded from formal politics; they could not vote or nominate for seats, and married women were not even legally entitled to own property in Western Australia till 1892.
In the first elections for the Legislative Assembly only men over the age of 21 who owned or leased property of a certain value were entitled to vote. They also had to satisfy stringent residency qualifications before they could register as electors. This meant that many men were denied voting rights and, in some cases, candidates won office with the support of a tiny fraction of the people in their constituency. For example, in the West Kimberley in 1890 there were just 39 registered voters, though about 833 adult males, and an even greater number of Aboriginal men, lived in the region. Also, there were about 3,200 men in Perth in 1891, but only 1,504 registered to vote in the city's electorates. These restrictive provisions were intended to preserve the electoral domination of the landowning elite. The Daily News wrote in 1891 that "under a franchise in which only those who have a stake in the country can have a voice in selecting those who legislate for it, we need have no fear of the legislature containing more than a very small proportion of members who are pledged to support motions in favour of the government finding work for the unemployed, or fixing the rate of wages, or extracting money from the successful to give it to the unsuccessful. This sort of thing comes only of manhood suffrage, the tendency of which in Australia is to bring down everyone to the same level of impecuniosity".
It took a series of reforms to the original Constitution Act to extend voting rights; even then, there were prohibitions on Aboriginal people wielding the vote as late as 1962. A coalition of interests - among them goldfields diggers and other liberal-minded colonists - pressed for electoral reforms and contested the tight political grip of conservative landowners in the 1890s. The Forrest government was somewhere between the two camps, and Forrest himself recognised the need for change, arguing that "no member wants to have justice demanded from him at the point of the bayonet". In 1893, the Constitution Act Amendment Act dropped the property requirement for candidates and introduced manhood suffrage. In principle, these changes meant that an adult man could vote and nominate for the Legislative Assembly, irrespective of whether or not he owned or leased property. However, the would-be elector still had to satisfy strict residency requirements and other registration formalities which, in reality, barred many from enrolling to vote. The government also specifically excluded Aboriginal men from the reforms by stipulating that they could only enrol if they owned freehold land. Women still did not have the vote and nor did immigrants from Asia or Africa.
The new Legislative Council, or upper house, was a conservative house of review and the natural ally of wealthy landowning interests. It was at first a wholly-nominated chamber but soon became elective because of rapid growth in the colony's population. In 1894, twenty one members were elected to the council from seven provinces across the colony. Despite the elections, the chamber retained its conservative character - candidates had to be aged at least 30 years and have lived in Western Australia for two years, while voters had to satisfy stringent property and residency qualifications before they could register, despite the reforms that extended voting rights in Legislative Assembly elections. In fact, property qualifications for council voters were extremely durable. They remained in force, albeit in reduced form, till 1964, when the franchise was brought into line with that of the Assembly.
Women began lobbying for voting rights in 1893, just two years after the introduction of self-government. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, an association devoted to women's rights and the family, was at the forefront of the campaign. Its members formed the Women's Suffrage and Political League in 1896, which included Lady Margaret Forrest, and the Women's Franchise League in 1899. The Forrest government was first opposed to women gaining the vote, but then decided in 1899 to reverse its position. By the Constitution Acts Amendment Act of that year, women were finally able to cast votes in Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council elections, though in the case of council polls they still had to satisfy property qualifications, as did men. In passing this legislation, Western Australia became the second Australian colony, after South Australia, in which women had voting rights. But it would be another twenty-one years before they could sit as members in State Parliament.
One of the most contentious electoral issues in the 1890s was plural voting, which allowed landowners to vote in every constituency where they held property. Alexander Forrest, it was said, was entitled by this provision to vote in almost all the forty four electorates of the Legislative Assembly in 1899. Plural voting was supported by the colonial elite, but condemned by the burgeoning goldfields' population and other liberals as undemocratic. After several unsuccessful attempts to end the practice in the 1890s, most notably by Assembly member Frederick Illingworth who twice moved unsuccessfully for its abolition, it was abolished in Legislative Assembly elections in 1904. However, it remained the practice in voting for the Legislative Council as late as 1964.
"The newcomers to Western Australia found a political system which was operated by 'ancient colonists' and for established interests, particularly the landed. They, with some liberal 'ancient colonists', demanded political reform and drove the established interests on to the defensive. Concessions were extracted, and within the space of twenty years there emerged a new political system, more democratic than the old."
C. T. Stannage, "The Composition of the Western Australian Parliament", 1967.