Australian federal election, 1901

Australian federal election, 1901



Following the federation of:

*1856 - New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria
*1857 - South Australia
*1860 - Queensland
*1890 - Western Australia

on 1 January 1901 to form the Commonwealth of Australia, an election was announced for 29 March (in Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania) and 30 March 1901 (in South Australia and Queensland) to elect the inaugural members of federal parliament. New Zealand self-excluded from the federation of Australia, resulting in Richard Seddon being the first Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Edmund Barton had been called upon to form the first Commonwealth Cabinet in December 1900 and his cabinet would be contesting the poll as the incumbent government.

Voting and Enrolment

Voting franchise was according to each state's specific electoral laws. South Australian and Western Australian women were enfranchised while in the other states they could not vote. Tasmania retained a small property qualification for voting, but in the other states all males over 21 could vote. Only in South Australia and Tasmania, however, were indigneous Australians even theoretically entitled to vote. A few may have done so in South Australia. Voting was voluntary throughout Australia and candidates were elected by a first past the post voting system. In South Australia, voters were required to mark the box opposite their preferred candidates while in other states voters were required to cross out the names of non-preferred candidates.

Parties Contesting the Election

The parties contesting the election were the Protectionist Party, led by Prime Minister Edmund Barton, and the Free Trade Party, unofficially led by former New South Wales Premier George Reid. There was no national Labour party, but in five of the six states local Labour parties contested the elections - in Tasmania, where there was no Labour party, King O'Malley was elected as an independent labour candidate. There were also a number of independents of various political leanings and a New South Wales Senate ticket called the "Socialist Six", comprising Labour members in conflict with the official party. The Protectionists advocated the protection of local industries through the imposition of tariffs on imported goods, the construction of a transcontinental railway, a uniform railway gauge, uniform suffrage, aged pensions and defending the Australian constitution from radicals. The party used the colour red throughout the campaign. In addition to Barton, Protectionist candidates included many of the leading political figures from colonial Australia, including future Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, Charles Kingston and Sir John Forrest. Originally William Lyne was chosen over Edmund Barton as interim Prime Minister by the Governor-General, John Hope, 1st Marquess of Linlithgow, in what would later be known as the Hopetoun Blunder.

The Free Traders (to give their official title "Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association") advocated the dismantling of the tariff system, a transcontinental railway, and believed that aged pensions should be left to the states. As many of the policies of the Protectionists and Free Traders were similar, the Free Traders campaigned heavily on tariffs, with Reid stating that he wanted the election to be a plebiscite on tariffs. The party used the colour blue throughout the campaign. In addition to Reid, who believed he should have been appointed Prime Ministercite book
title=George Reid
publisher=Melbourne University Press, Melbourne
id=ISBN 0-522-84373-5
] instead of Barton as he considered himself the bigger political figure, Free Trade candidates included Reid's unofficial deputy Patrick Glynn, future Prime Minister Joseph Cook and William Irvine.

Labour advocated old age pensions, electoral reform, a national army, compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes and a national referendum to decide issues that would otherwise lead to a double dissolution of parliament. Senior Labour candidates included future Prime Ministers Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes and Chris Watson. Labour candidates were elected as individual state-based candidates - they met before the first sitting of Parliament on 8 May 1901 and agreed to form a federal Labour Party. Chris Watson, a Sydney printer and former member of the New South Wales Parliament, was elected the first leader of the Party.

All parties were in support of a White Australia as was the norm at the time, with only Bruce Smith, a Free Trader, fully opposing the legislation.Rutledge, M. (1988) Smith, Arthur Bruce (1851 - 1937), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.]


The candidates were contesting 75 House of Representatives and 36 Senate seats. The 75 House of Representative seats were determined by population of each state, so that New South Wales was allocated 26, Victoria 23, Queensland nine, South Australia seven, Western Australia five and Tasmania five. The South Australian and Tasmanian colonial parliaments had not legislated for single member electorates and so their House of Representative members were elected from a single state wide electorate. Each state elected six Senators regardless of population. The Senate was elected on a "winner take all" basis rather than the current proportional representation system.


The campaign period officially commenced on 17 January 1901, although some candidates, particularly Reid, had been unofficially campaigning since December the previous year. The campaign was delayed when the death of Queen Victoria on 19 January caused a cessation of campaigning, but soon got into full swing as candidates travelled widely to address lively public meetings. Reid drew the biggest crowds, including 8000 to a rally in Newcastle and he campaigned widely, travelling to Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, while Patrick Glynn organised the Free Trade campaign in South Australia.

The Protectionists were forced to modify their immigration policy following an outcry from Queensland Protectionist candidates who feared that a White Australia policy would impinge on the importation of Kanakas to work on Queensland sugar plantations. Their policy was revised to read that Kanakas would be only be sent back to their country of origin when they were no longer of any use to the sugar industry. On the whole, however, a white Australia was extremely popular with the electorate and most candidates outdid themselves to prove how much they supported it. It was left to Free Trade candidate for Parkes Bruce Smith (a leading representative of the employers) to oppose anti-immigration measures. Andrew Fisher argued that any Kanaka who had converted to Christianity and married should be allowed to remain in Australia. Both were elected comfortably.

The Free Traders also had to modify part of their election platform when they realised that to advocate for the removal of all tariffs protecting Australian industries would be political suicide. Many employees in these industries considered the removal of tariffs as likely to mean the end of their jobs.

The Protectionists enjoyed the support of the powerful Australian Natives Association (ANA) throughout the campaign as well as the endorsements of "The Age" and "The Sydney Bulletin" while Free Trade received support from business interests and the endorsements of "The Sydney Morning Herald", "The Daily Telegraph", "The Brisbane Courier", Melbourne's "The Argus" and "The Adelaide Register". Labour could only rely on union owned newspapers, although some of these enjoyed a great level of influence in some electorates (the "Gympie Truth" for example is considered to have played an important role in the election of its part-owner, Andrew Fisher, in Wide Bay).

There were only two cars used in the 1901 election campaign; William Lyne, who was a candidate for the Division of Hume while still Premier of New South Wales, used his official Premier's car to great advantage while the shipping magnate and candidate for Melbourne Sir Malcolm McEacharn, enjoyed the use of his car while travelling around his electorate.

Election Day

Floods in Queensland delayed polling in parts of the state until April while complaints were received by polling officials about the earlier than advertised closing of polling booths in some electorates, the poor quality pencils supplied to fill in ballot papers (they apparently blunted easily, leaving many votes incomprehensible to officials) and the Senate ballot paper in New South Wales which listed 50 candidates, confusing many voters and leading to an increase of informal votes [cite book
last=Simms (ed.)
title=1901: The forgotten election
publisher=University of Queensland Press, Brisbane
id=ISBN 0-7022-3302-1

These complaints aside, the administering of the first federal election was seen as a great success and a credit to the polling officials who, in some cases, were responsible for electorates larger than some European countries.


The results showed the strong regional basis that has always characterised Australian politics. The Free Traders won most of the seats in New South Wales, apart from the border areas where the Protectionists were strong. The Protectionists won most of the seats in their stronghold, Victoria. Labour won some inner urban seats but most of their members represented pastoral and mining areas. In the smaller states many members had no fixed party loyalty and saw themselves as representing the interests of their states. Seven Prime Ministers of Australia (Barton, Deakin, Watson, Reid, Fisher, Joseph Cook and Hughes) were elected at this election, as were a number of influential former state Premiers (Sir John Forrest, Lyne, George Turner, Anderson Dawson, Philip Fysh and Charles Kingston among them).

With no past to live down, Barton's Protectionist ministry had all the advantages of incumbency with none of the problems, which meant that a Protectionist victory was almost a certainty. Barton and his ministry were returned, although they had to rely on Labour support to pass legislation. Although the Protectionists remained in government, however, many observers saw the result as a moral victory for Free Trade (who won more seats than the Protectionists in the three smallest states of South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia). Labour also performed better than expected, particularly after the post-election recruitment of O'Malley. In the federal Parliament, where Labor was the smallest of the three parties, but held the balance of power, Chris Watson pursued the same policy as Labor had done in the colonial parliaments. He kept the Protectionist governments of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin in office, in exchange for legislative concessions including the immensely popular White Australia policy. Such was the overwhelming support for a White Australia by the electorate and the three political parties that the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the first piece of legislation passed by the nascent parliament.

The average national voting turnout was 60% of enrolled voters, with the Division of Newcastle gaining the best result of 97% while the Division of Fremantle recorded the lowest turnout (30%).

Of the two elected independents, both were from Queensland. James Wilkinson, elected to the seat of Moreton, was a former member of the Labour Party , and rejoined the party in 1903. Alexander Paterson, representing Capricornia, had no political affiliation, but retired in 1903.


* [ State and federal election results] in Australia since 1890
* cite book
title=The Light on the Hill; the Australian Labor Party 1891-1991
publisher=Oxford University Press, South Melbourne
id=ISBN 0-19-554966-X

* cite book
title=Edmund Barton
publisher=Bookman Press, Sydney
id=ISBN 1-86395-377-9

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