Equality and Australian democracy

Citizenship Australia

This paper explores how the struggle between the political rights of property and the political rights of the people shaped the design of Australian political institutions and how this legacy continues to affect Australian democracy.

The principle of political equality, the idea that every person should count for one and no person for more than one, is central to democracy. It inspired the movements for democratic reform in 19th century Australia and the struggle for the vote. Reformers wanted to replace the political privileges of property with the rights of the people. They were heavily influenced by both Chartist and Benthamite ideas, and these were to shape our electoral institutions from the middle of the 19th century. Such democratic innovations were met by a strong response, which included the constitutional entrenchment of powerful upper houses based on property franchises.
The interests of property were also protected by the retention of plural votes for property owners in lower houses, everywhere except South Australia. This is often forgotten when recalling the democratic victories of the 1850s when male workers won the vote. Another means to shore up property was the use of unequal electorates, whereby the electorates dominated by large landholders had far fewer voters than working class electorates. So while for reformers democracy meant giving people the vote to balance the power of property, the bias in favour of property continued to be reinforced through electoral institutions despite the arrival of manhood suffrage. This is a different story from the versions of Australian democracy celebrated in venues such as the Museum of Australian Democracy.
This essay will focus, then, on the struggle between the political rights of property and the political rights of the people as articulated by reformers. It will explore how this struggle shaped the design of Australian political institutions and how this legacy continues to affect Australian democracy.

Publication Details
Access Rights Type: