The new Commonwealth government
When Federation took place on 1 January 1901 the young nation of Australia had a new constitution and a new federal government. These had been created through discussions, conferences, conventions and referenda with the input and consent of people in all the Australian colonies. It was unusually democratic for a nation's constitution to be agreed to by its population in this way.
Democratic values were a strong influence on those who drafted the Constitution and worked out the details of the new nation. But those people were also strongly influenced by other values which were not so democratic, such as self-interest, racism and disrespect for women. Since then, many changes have been made to the Constitution and to the way the federal government operates in Australia. But was the federal government a democratic one in its early years? No, not entirely. Let us take a closer look.
One undemocratic feature of the Constitution was that it was created only by white men, many of whom were wealthy (see image 1). There were no women, Aboriginal people or non-white Australians present during the Federation Conventions of the 1890s at which the details of the Constitution were worked out. As a result, these groups were not consulted about how they might be affected by the Constitution and their rights were not guaranteed within it.
The right to vote
Women's groups had lobbied the men who attended the conventions to put women's rights to vote and stand for parliament in the Constitution. But they were unsuccessful. The Constitution said anyone who was allowed to vote already could vote for the federal government. This meant that South Australian and Western Australian women could take part in the first federal election (as those colonies had given them the vote) but women in the other colonies could not.
This changed in 1902 when the federal government made new laws about who could vote. After this, all women and men over the age of 21 could vote in federal elections regardless of how much property they owned. Plural voting, where people could vote more than once if they owned property in several places, was abolished.
But some people lost their right to vote through these laws. Aboriginal people could no longer vote, even though Aboriginal men had been able to do so in some colonies. The law also said that non-white people (particularly those originally from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands) could not vote.
When drafting the Constitution, Australians used the United States Constitution as one of their models. Unlike the United States' version, Australians did not include a Bill of Rights which would have guaranteed certain rights for Australians. The only right which is clearly stated in the Australian Constitution is freedom regarding religion. The Australian government is not allowed to force people to take up or abandon a religion.
As well as taking a hands-off approach to human rights, the writers of the Constitution decided to take a hands-off approach to Aboriginal people. They chose to leave it up to state governments, rather than the federal government, to make laws about Aboriginals. The state governments, which until Federation were colonial governments, had a history of making unfair laws for Aboriginal people. Representatives from New Zealand who had been thinking of joining the Australian federation felt the decision was unfair to Aboriginal people. This was one of New Zealand's reasons for choosing not to become part of Australia.
Something else that disadvantaged Aboriginal people was that the Constitution said they were not to be included in the census (the official count of Australians in each state). There are different theories about why the drafters chose to put this in the Constitution, but it suggests they did not consider Aboriginal people to matter in terms of politics or democracy.
A democratic feature of the Constitution was that it could not be changed unless Australian voters agreed to do so by voting for the change in a referendum.
Because the number of members of parliament each state could elect depended on the size of its population, the smaller colonies were concerned there would be more representatives from the more populated states. They worried that decisions might be made that would favour the bigger states over the smaller ones.
Another democratic feature of the new system was a responsible government, where ministers who are in charge of certain areas (for example defence or transport) have to be members of parliament. This means ministers can be voted out if the population is unhappy with how they do their job. In America, ministers (who are called secretaries in that country) are chosen by the president, not by the people.
Even though the new system provided these ways for Australian people to have input into their government, the British government still wanted to have some power over Australia. It made sure, for example, that Australia did not develop its own relationships with other countries. Issues to do with foreign countries had to go through Britain. One early Australian prime minister made the British government very angry when, without asking for Britain's permission, he invited American naval forces to visit Australia.
The British also insisted that the highest court for Australian cases should remain the British Privy Council rather than the Australian High Court. The head of state for Australia remained the British monarch who was (and still is) represented by a governor-general whom the monarch appointed. Until recently, the monarch could override Australian law if s/he chose to.
In the early years after Federation the High Court was established (see image 3). If people from any Australian state were unsatisfied with the outcome of a case they could appeal, eventually, to the High Court. The High Court settled disputes between the federal and state governments and could prevent laws from being made if the laws were not in harmony with the Constitution.
Another court that was set up soon after Federation was the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. This court dealt exclusively with problems between workers and employers.
The rules and structures mentioned above are features of democracy. They give Australian people access to the structures that govern their lives. They spread power across different groups: the federal government, the courts, the state governments and so on. Power is not concentrated in one group and, through the voting system, people have some control over who makes decisions that affect them.
But the information above shows that things were not entirely democratic in the early years of Federation. Not all sections of the Australian population had a say in how the system was set up. Some people were locked out of government, particularly through not being able to vote, and Britain still had some control over aspects of Australian governance.