Australia's First Federal Election

March 29, 2018

On this day, 29 March in 1901, Australia held its first federal election*. 

This election came three months after the six colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania agreed to federate and form the Commonwealth of Australia from 1 January 1901 under our new Constitution.

In the interim, the 'Protectionist Party' and its leader (Edmund Barton) were appointed caretaker government and Prime Minister respectively – although not before the “Hopetoun Blunder” – giving this party of high tariffs the advantage of incumbency during the election campaign with no past to live down.

Barring a few teething problems, our first federal election was seen as a success, both politically (average turnout of 60%) and logistically (given technology at the time and the vastness of many electorates). Voting was voluntary with a “first past the post” system.

While no party won sufficient votes or seats to have a majority in either House of our new Parliament (75 seats in the Reps, 36 in the Senate), Barton's Protectionist Party (31 seats) got the most votes and seats in the lower house. The main opposition was the Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association, which won 28 seats, with 14 state-based Labour members and two Queensland independents.

In the Senate, the Protectionists won 11 seats, the Free Traders 17 and state-based Labour parties had 8.

During the first sitting of Parliament (on 8 May 1901 in Melbourne’s Parliament House), the state-based Labour members caucused to form the Federal Parliamentary Labour Party (founding the ALP). Labour leader, Chris Watson, decided to support Protectionists in minority government as, politically, they were more closely aligned. This made Edmund Barton our first elected PM.

Compared to the Protectionists (whose brand colour incidentally was “red”), the Free Traders were more to the political right, being anti-socialist, anti-tariff, smaller government, liberalist, pro-market regarding goods and labour and “blue” in brand colour.

Labour held the balance of power with the Protectionists until April 1904, when Protectionist PM Alfred Deakin (Australia’s second PM) resigned over a dispute with Labour, making Watson Labour’s first PM (and Australia’s third). But his minority Labour government only lasted 4 months before George Reid, leader of the Free Traders, became PM of yet another short-lived minority government (11 months) – Australia’s first without the control or support of Labour.

In 1906, the Free Traders changed their name to the Anti-Socialist Party and, in 1909, merged with the Protectionists to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party (CLP). This is the earliest direct ancestor of the current Liberal Party of Australia.

On 29 March, celebrate the anniversary of Australia’s first federal election under our (then new) Constitution by:

  • researching the political beginnings of our federal democracy,
  • using this Action Plan to stage a family quiz on Australia's history,
  • reflecting on how far Australia as a federation and Constitutional Monarchy has come since 1901, and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post with friends, family and those curious about Australian politics, history and democracy.

* Voters in the States of Qld and SA voted on the next day, which was a Saturday.

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