People's Choice celebrates Australia's contributions to democracy - the 19th and 20th century democratic innovations for which Australia was responsible. It traces the ways in which democratic ideas arrived in Australia and the fertile ground they found here. Ideas such as Chartism, which had been the subject of unsuccessful agitation elsewhere, took on institutional form in this country.
Chartism was the first political mass movement in Great Britain and millions signed the petitions demanding the Charter. Some Chartists were sentenced to transportation for their political activities. Many more migrated to Australia after the failure of the movement, particularly to Victoria at the time of the gold rush. Our early democratic history, including the Ballarat Reform League and the Eureka Stockade, was inspired by the six points of the People's Charter. The Chartist demands were for manhood suffrage; the (secret) ballot; abolition of the property qualification for MPs; payment of MPs; equal constituencies; and annual parliaments. A version of these demands was adopted by mass meetings of miners at Ballarat .
Manhood suffrage and the secret ballot (known in the nineteenth century as 'the Australian ballot') were achieved in the 1850s while they were still seen as dangerous radical demands in other countries. Apart from annual parliaments, Chartist demands were largely realised here by the end of the nineteenth century, including the payment of MPs which enabled the election of working men to parliament for the first time. Tasmania and Western Australia lagged slightly on manhood suffrage and the abolition of plural voting and Queensland on the latter, but in general the record of innovation for lower houses in the nineteenth century was outstanding.
Elements of direct democracy quite alien to the British tradition of parliamentary democracy became important at the time of federation. There was not only direct election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1897-98 but also the submission of the draft Constitution to the people in referenda. The concept of the referendum came from Switzerland and the United States. It was not only used for the ratification of the Australian Constitution but also included in s128 as the means of amending the Constitution. The Australian Senate was also the first upper house in the world to be directly elected by popular franchise. By the end of the nineteenth century Australian parties were also starting to experiment with rank and file preselection of candidates.
Compulsory registration and voting (strictly speaking attendance) is another Australian innovation of global interest. It has many democratic ramifications including the numerous innovations to ensure that everyone could register a vote, regardless of barriers such as pregnancy or residence in remote locations. Australia was a pioneer in respect to postal voting, absent voting and mobile polling booths. The introduction of Saturday voting (starting with South Australia in the nineteenth century) is another little celebrated aspect of Australia's pioneering role in pursuit of democracy.
Australia's record in relation to indigenous enfranchisement was less edifying. This was one area where neighbouring New Zealand was more innovative, with the pioneering of separate representation for indigenous people. New Zealand also led the way with the creation of an independent body to conduct redistributions, but in other respects, such as the secret ballot, was to borrow from Australia.
Electoral experimentation has been another aspect of democratic pioneering - by the end of the 19th century Australian colonies were trying out proportional representation and contingent voting. The ideas of Thomas Hare and John Stuart Mill received practical testing and development. Today Australia has longer experience with proportional representation (the quota-preferential variety) than any other country and has also led the world with innovations such as the Robson rotation. Australia was remarkable as the country where democratic ideas, including those of the Chartists or of John Stuart Mill took on practical shape.
Another example consists in the political rights of women. John Stuart Mill was again providing the ideas, and was already writing to the Victorian Attorney-General in 1858 urging him on to 'get rid of the Toryism of sex'. Australian women became the first in the world able both to vote and to stand for the national parliament. The Australian Senate wrote to the British Prime Minister about the virtues of women's suffrage while Muriel Matters, an enfranchised Australian woman, floated over the House of Commons in an airship inscribed 'Votes for Women'.
More recently Australian electoral administration and voter education programs (including programs directed to electors from non-English speaking backgrounds) have earned a global reputation. Continuous roll maintenance is a distinctive feature of Australian electoral administration and the Aboriginal electoral education program has been highly regarded. Australia has contributed technical expertise to the introduction of democratic elections in other parts of the world such as South Africa and Cambodia as well as closer to home in the South Pacific.
Often the great contribution made by Australians was in the practical application of these ideas and the invention of unique institutional forms. The book will be designed to meet high scholarly standards and to present leading-edge research. However it will also be designed to attract a general audience beyond electoral specialists. Indeed one of its objectives, like that of the associated conference and exhibition, will be to inspire greater interest in the democratic significance of electoral institutions and their history. The aim will be to have the book published in time to be on sale at the opening of the People's Choice Exhibition at Old Parliament House in March 2001.
Marian Sawer is Convenor of the Governance Strand of the Reshaping Australian Institutions project at the ANUís Research School of Social Sciences. Her books include Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia (1990); A Womanís Place: Women and politics in Australia (with Marian Simms, 1993) and edited volumes such as Representation and Institutional Change (1999) and Theory and Practice of Representation (forthcoming). She is a former President of the Australasian Political Studies Association and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.