Chartism in Australia

Tony Moore, Death or Liberty, Pier 8/9, Murdoch Books, 2010. pp. 206-207

Across the Murray River in Victoria on 3 December 1854, the Ballarat gold miners rose in rebellion over the imposition of licence fees and fought a pitched battle with troops at the Eureka Stockade. The demands they put forward were those of the Chartists. In the capital, Melbourne, one witness later described an atmosphere of 'political excitement and turbulence', invigorated by 'combative Chartists from Glasgow, Clerkenwell, and Chelsea, brim-full of schemes for the reformation of mankind in general and the people of Victoria in particular.'

By 1857 all the aims of the Charter, bar annual parliaments, were instituted in the new democratic constitution of Victoria. Indeed, Victoria has the distinction of being the first jurisdiction in the world to introduce secret ballot, known elsewhere as the 'Australian ballot'. The Chartist program was in turn adopted in the constitutions of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, and the new Federation improved on the Chartists' points by extending the vote to women in 1901. Sensitive to the interests of the working-class vote, liberal colonial governments passed legislation establishing free, compulsory education for all children and schemes providing small land grants, known as selections, to low-income earners who wanted to make a go of farming and be their own bosses. The selection acts owe something to the Chartist National Land Company idea, and while the harsh Australian climate undid the hopes of many small farmers, many other Chartist immigrants made a success of cottage ownership in the growing cities. 'Budding radicalism', far from 'withering in the antipodes' as Robert Hughes argued, was blooming, but they were peculiarly native flowers.

In the increasingly volatile area of industrial relations, the Chartist influence was clear. The Chartist convict-turned-colonial-activist William Cuffay played a leading role in the campaign of the late 1850s and '60s to reform the punitive Masters and Servants Acts in favour of workers. The Hobart Mercury observed in Cuffay's obituary that 'being a fluent and an effective speaker he particularly distinguished himself in the agitation for the amendment of the masters' and servants' law'. He 'was always popular with the working classes' and 'contributed in a great degree to the settlement of the masters' and servants' question on a satisfactory basis'. In the rough democracy of the new colonies the son of a slave and convicted republican conspirator could become a respected labour leader.

After the defeat of the unions in the great strikes of the 1890s the labour movement resolved, in the manner of the Chartists, to seek representation in colonial, then Federal parliaments, to press for working class interests. The Australian Labor Party inherited the Chartist social program and joined with sympathetic Liberal governments to introduce this agenda. Historians John Hirst, Hugh Collins and Neville Meaney have noted the continuity with Chartism of novel reforms from the late nineteenth century and first decade of Federation, notably the erection of architecture for the arbitration and conciliation ofindustrial disputes, centred on the principle of a legally enforced minimum wage based on the cost of living.