Voter Turnout for 1899 Referendum on Federation

In The Great Constitutional Swindle Peter Botsman challenges and explores the triumphalist history surrounding Federation. One of the areas he focuses on is how few of the population voted for federation.

He certainly has a point, voter turn out for both the 1898 and 1899 referendums were low. If those results were obtained today we would not consider it democratically legitimate.

Botsman also has a point on the triumphalist nature of federation history plastering over the cracks and dissent. The Australian history of federation is largely Deakin's history. The early basis of Australia, and the policies which took eighty years to flush out of our system are also largely ascribed to the dominance of Deakin in the early years of the Australian parliament.

There is no denying that the modern form of Australian constitutionalism is based on Victorian liberalism from the late 19thC; amongst whom Deakin was the most able, and capable, as a politician and publicist.

Federation was not popular in NSW, it thought it was getting a raw deal, as it would have to adopt the economic policies of the protectionist Victorian liberals (NSW was free trade) and consequently the NSW Premier George Reid was cast as "yes no Reid" because he was an unenthusiastic supporter of Federation. Deakin's "And Be One People" is pretty horrid in its description of George Reid.

It is not a surprise that the referendum barely passed in NSW and Queensland. NSW had a colonial government that was free trade, and both states were hotbeds of republicanism amongst their elites; as is probably shown in the referendum which was likely patronised by the political elites of society in each colony.

Botsman argues in the book that the triumphalist history hides the real problems with the constitution and those from the colonial era that argued for differing constitutional forms; such as Henry Higgins with his admiration of the Swiss Constitution.

There is also Andrew Inglis-Clark who tried to reconcile modern constitutional innovation in the United States, such as a bill of rights, separation of powers and federalism with the Westminster system. Apparently Clark's first draft contained a bill of rights which was taken out by Barton and Griffiths.

There was the dissent of the New Zealanders such as Grey and Russell who, presciently, feared that the constitution in its current form would collapse too much power to the centre of federation. Their concerns have been played out as now the federal government does 85% of taxation. New Zealand was wise to remain out of federation as it turns out.

While the new constitution in 1901 lacked democratic legitimacy, it certainly has legitimacy today, more and more functions are being sucked up into the political vortex of Canberra and the principles of federalism, which it should be noted Griffiths defended to absolute levels, have been largely forgotten or ignored.

Then again, while Australians are avid democratic participants, constitutionally, our knowledge is lacking; and often it is assumed that the American system is the same as Australia's. For instance many Australians believe they have an explicit constitutional protection of free speech, as America does.

cam 2007-07-07 10:34:49.0