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The Goldrush

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Part Three

T'othersiders and political representation

"The air in Perth is full of the yellow fever. Its germs, in the shape of talk of reefs, leases, claims, yields,. trial crushings, camels, syndicates, stocks and Company flotations, are as thick as a London fog . . . It is impossible to speak for two minutes with anybody, from a Cabinet Minister to a cow-minder, without referring to the omnipotent subject that lies closest to the hearts of all."

Albert Calvert, 1897.

MANY colonists had prayed that self-government would deliver them progress and prosperity, but few could have imagined the extent of the economic boom that followed. By 1893, Western Australia was in the grip of a gold rush after strikes at Coolgardie and Hannans, now known as Kalgoorlie. Compared to the modest returns won on the northern, Kimberley goldfields in the 1880s, the eastern 'fields quickly produced a series of stunning finds. Thousands of diggers flocked to the area intent on making their fortunes and escaping the depression which blighted eastern colonies. The West Australian reported that . . ."In Perth and Fremantle everyone seems to be either carrying tents, picks, shovels, and dishes, or otherwise preparing for the road".

The goldrushes were responsible for strong economic growth and a population explosion in the 1890s. In 1891, the population was recorded as 49,782, though this did not include Aboriginal people in the colony. By 1895 the population had doubled to 100,515, and then by 1901 almost doubled again to 184,124. Similarly the value of exports leapt, from 874,447 pounds in 1890 to 5,962,178 pounds in 1900. That astonishing growth prompted Western Australia's early historian J. S. Battye to reflect that . . . "The gold almost seems to have waited for the advent of responsible government to declare itself, or perhaps it was that a freer, more independent, and more enterprising spirit came upon the people through the change". By 1896, more than 300 companies had been floated in London to the exploit gold deposits. After years of slow, modest growth, the colony looked to be riding the crest of a wave. For decades Western Australia had been a distant, self-contained society, removed from the currents of social, economic and political change which periodically swept eastern colonies. With the goldrush boom, that sense of relative isolation was steadily eroded. The landowning elite welcomed the new economic prosperity of the colony but resented the influx of immigrants from the east, derisively nicknamed t'othersiders. They most feared being swamped by the 'fields transients "who brought with them a lively radical outlook impatient of the old 'sandgroper' oligarchy". Septimus Burt, regarded by many immigrants as the epitome of the conservative, landowning interest, simply confirmed the antipathy of old to new when he carped . . ."Miners are birds of passage . . . who are they to have a vote and maybe upset the settled policy of the Government? Enough of pick and shovel representation". No more clues were needed to define the new Battye lines in 1890s Western Australian society.

The diggers crowded in Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie and the Murchison clamoured for two things - political representation and increased government spending on infrastructure projects, like railways and water services. While the Forrest government acknowledged the need for public works, it was reluctant to cede much political power to recent arrivals. Forrest argued that . . . "I do not believe that people come to this country for the purpose of voting. They come here to make a fortune, and if they take my advice they will apply themselves in that direction instead of running after the franchise or getting on the roll." He moved cautiously, amending the Constitution Act to establish three new goldfields electorates for the Legislative Assembly in 1893 in response to cries for more representation. Then in 1896 a redistribution of seats saw the creation of ten goldfields constituencies for the Assembly and three new seats in the Legislative Council. Still, representation for the 'fields seemed lean compared with their proportion of the colony's total population. In 1899, the fiery goldfields member Frederick Vosper sponsored a motion supporting increased representation in the Council. At the same time, the Forrest Government consolidated all consitutional amendments in the Constitution Acts Amendment Act of 1899, which also reduced the terms of the Assembly to three years, from four previously, and added more seats for the goldfields.

    "Until the late eighteen nineties the composition of the Parliament underwent few important changes. It represented only a small proportion of the total population and greatly over-represented those who lived in the country districts. No attempt was made to have electoral districts with an equal number of voters. In fact, quite the opposite was the case. Miners had great difficulty in proving "residence" for a sufficient period in the one place in order to be registered as electors - originally a year - and increased representation of the goldfields was much delayed."

    Frank Crowley, Australia's Western Third, 1960.