An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Progress Of Effective Voting

My journalistic work after my return was neither so regular nor so profitable as before I left Adelaide. The bank failures had affected me rather badly, and financially my outlook was anything but rosy in the year 1895. There was, however, plenty of public work open to me, and, in addition to the many lectures I gave in various parts of the State on effective voting, I became a member of the Hospital Commission, appointed that year by the Kingston Government to enquire into the trouble at the Adelaide Hospital. That same year saw a decided step taken in connection with effective voting, and in July a league was formed, which has been in existence ever since. I was appointed the first President, my brother John became secretary pro tem, and Mr. A. W. Piper the first treasurer. I felt at last that the reform was taking definite shape, and looked hopefully to its future. The following year was especially interesting to the women of South Australia, and, indeed, to suffragists all over the world, for at the general election of 1896 women, for the first time in Australia, had the right to vote. New Zealand had preceded us with this reform, but the first election in this State found many women voters fairly well equipped to accept their responsibilities as citizens of the State. But in the full realization by the majority of women of their whole duties of citizenship I have been distinctly disappointed. Not that they have been on the whole less patriotic and less zealous than men voters; but, like their brothers, they have allowed their interest in public affairs to stop short at the act of voting, as if the right to vote were the beginning and the end of political life. There has been too great a tendency on the part of women to allow reform work--particularly women's branches of it--to be done by a few disinterested and publicspirited women. Not only is the home the centre of woman's sphere, as it should be, but in too many cases it is permitted to be its limitation. The larger social life has been ignored, and women have consequently failed to have the effect on public life of which their political privilege is capable.

At the close of a second lecturing tour through the State, during which I visited and spoke at most of the village settlements, I received an invitation from the Women's Land Reform League to attend a social gathering at the residence of Miss Sutherland, Clark street, Norwood. The occasion was my seventy-first birthday, and my friends had chosen that day (October 31, 1896) to mark their appreciation of my public services. There were about 30 of the members present, all interesting by reason of their zealous care for the welfare of the State. Their President (Mrs. C. Proud) presented me, on behalf of the members, with a lady's handbag, ornamented with a silver plate, bearing my name, the date of the presentation, and the name of the cause for which I stood. From that day the little bag has been the inseparable companion of all my wanderings, and a constant reminder of the many kind friends who, with me, had realized that "love of country is one of the loftiest virtues which the Almighty has planted in the human heart." That association was the first in South Australia to place effective voting on its platform.

My long comradeship with Mrs. A. H. Young began before the close of the year. A disfranchised voter at her first election, she was driven farther afield than the present inadequate system of voting to look for a just electoral method. She found it in effective voting, and from that time devoted herself to the cause. Early in 1897 Mrs. Young was appointed the first honorary secretary of the league. January of the same year found us stirred to action by the success of Sir Edward Braddon's first Bill for proportional representation in Tasmania. Though limited in its application to the two chief cities of the island State, the experiment was wholly successful. We had our first large public meeting in the Co-operative Hall in January, and carried a resolution protesting against the use of the block vote for the Federal Convention elections. A deputation to the acting Premier (Mr.--afterwards Sir Frederick--Holder) was arranged for the next morning. But we were disappointed in the result of our mission, for Mr. Holder pointed out that the Enabling Act distinctly provided for every elector having 10 votes, and effective voting meant a single transferable vote. I had written and telegraphed to the Hon. C. C. Kingston when the Enabling Act was being drafted to beg him to consider effective voting as the basis of election; but he did not see it then, nor did he ever see it. In spite, however, of the short sightedness of party leaders, events began to move quickly.

Our disappointment over the maintenance of the block vote for the election of 10 delegates to the Federal Convention led to my brother John's suggestion that I should become a candidate. Startling as the suggestion was, so many of my friends supported it that I agreed to do so. I maintained that the fundamental necessity of a democratic Constitution such as we hoped would evolve from the combined efforts of the ablest men in the Australian States was a just system of representation and it was as the advocate of effective voting that I took my stand. My personal observation in the United States and Canada had impressed me with the dangers inseparable from the election of Federal Legislatures by local majorities--sometimes by minorities--where money and influence could be employed, particularly where a line in a tariff spelt a fortune to a section of the people, in the manipulation of the floating vote. Parties may boast of their voting strength and their compactness, but their voting strength under the present system of voting is only as strong as its weakest link, discordant or discontented minorities, will permit it to be. The stronger a party is in the Legislature the more is expected from it by every little section of voters to whom it owes its victory at the polls. The impelling force of responsibility which makes all Governments "go slow" creates the greatest discontent among impatient followers of the rank and file, and where a few votes may turn the scale at any general election a Government is often compelled to choose between yielding to the demands of its more clamorous followers at the expense of the general taxpayer or submitting to a Ministerial defeat.

As much as we may talk of democracy in Australia, we are far from realizing a truly democratic ideal. A State in a pure democracy draws no nice and invidious distinctions between man and man. She disclaims the right of favouring either property, education, talent, or virtue. She conceives that all alike have an interest in good government, and that all who form the community, of full age and untainted by crime, should have a right to their share in the representation. She allows education to exert its legitimate power through the press; talent in every department of business, property in its social and material advantages; virtue and religion to influence public opinion and the public conscience. But she views all men as politically equal, and rightly so, if the equality is to be as real in operation as in theory. If the equality is actual in the representation of the citizens--truth and virtue, being stronger than error and vice, and wisdom being greater than folly, when a fair field is offered--the higher qualities subdue the lower and make themselves felt in every department of the State. But if the representation from defective machinery is not equal, the balance is overthrown, and neither education, talent, nor virtue can work through public opinion so as to have any beneficial influence on politics. We know that in despotisms and oligarchies, where the majority are unrepresented and the few extinguish the many, independence of thought is crushed down, talent is bribed to do service to tyranny, education is confined to a privileged class and denied to the people, property is sometimes pillaged and sometimes flattered, and even virtue is degraded by lowering its field and making subservience appear to be patience and loyalty, and religion is not unfrequently made the handmaid of oppression. Taxes fall heavily on the poor for the benefit of the rich, and the only check proceeds from the fear of rebellion. When, on the other hand, the majority extinguishes the minority, the evil effects are not so apparent. The body oppressed is smaller and generally wealthier, with many social advantages to draw off attention from the political injustice under which they suffer; but there is the same want of sympathy between class and class, moral courage is rare, talent is perverted, genius is overlooked, education is general, but superficial, and press and Pulpit often timid in exposing or denouncing popular errors. An average standard of virtue is all that is aimed at, and when no higher mark is set up there is great fear of falling below the average. Therefore it is incumbent on all States to look well to it that their representative systems really secure the political equality they all profess to give, for until that is done democracy has had no fair trial.

In framing a new constitution the opportunity arose for laying the foundation of just representation, and, had I been elected, my first and last thought would have been given to the claims of the whole people to electoral justice. But the 7,500 votes which I received left me far enough from the lucky 10. Had Mr. Kingston not asserted both publicly and privately that, if elected, I could not constitutionally take my seat, I might have done better. There were rumours even that my nomination paper would be rejected. But to obviate this, Mrs. Young, who got it filled in, was careful to see that no name was on it that had no right there, and its presentation was delayed till five minutes before the hour of noon, in order that no time would be left to upset its validity. From a press cutting on the declaration of the poll I cull this item of news--"Several unexpected candidates were announced, but the only nomination which evoked any expressions of approval was that of Miss Spence." I was the first woman in Australia to seek election in a political contest. From the two main party lists I was, of course, excluded, but in the list of the "10 best men" selected by a Liberal organization my name appeared. When the list was taken to the printer--who, I think, happened to be the late Federal member, Mr. James Hutchison--he objected to the heading of the "10 best men," as one of them was a woman. He suggested that my name should be dropped, and a man's put in its place. "You can't say Miss Spence is one of the '10 best men.' Take her name out." "Not say she's one of the '10 best men?'" the Liberal organizer objected, "Why she's the best man of the lot." I had not expected to be elected, but I did expect that my candidature would help effective voting, and I am sure it did. Later the league arranged a deputation to Mr. Kingston, to beg him to use his influence for the adoption of the principle in time for the first Federal elections. We foresaw, and prophesied what has actually occurred--the monopoly of representation by one party in the Senate, and the consequent disfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters throughout the Commonwealth. But, as before, Mr. Kingston declined to see the writing on the wall. The Hon. D. M. Charleston was successful in carrying through the Legislative Council a motion in favour of its application to Federal elections, but Mr. Wynn in the Lower House had a harder row to hoe, and a division was never taken.

Mrs. Young and I spent a pleasant evening at Government House in July of the same year, as Sir Fowell and Lady Buxton had expressed a desire to understand the system. In addition to a large house partry, several prominent citizens were present, and all were greatly interested. On leaving at 11 o'clock we found the gate closed against us, as the porter was evidently unaware that visitors were being entertained. We were amused at the indignation of the London-bred butler, who, on coming to our rescue, cried with a perfect Cockney accent, "Gyte, gyte, yer don't lock gytes till visitors is off." This was a memorable year in the annals of our cause, for on his election to fill an extraordinary vacancy for North Adelaide Mr. Glynn promised to introduce effective voting into the House. This he did in July by tabling a motion for the adoption of the principle, and we were pleased to find in Mr. Batchelor, now the Minister for External Affairs in the Federal Government, a stanch supporter. Among the many politicians who have blown hot and cold on the reform as occasion arose, Mr. Batchelor has steadily and consistently remained a supporter of what he terms "the only system that makes majority rule possible."

When Mrs. Young and I began our work together the question was frequently asked why women alone were working for effective voting? The answer was simple. There were few men with leisure in South Australia, and, if there were, the leisured man was scarcely likely to take up reform work. When I first seized hold of this reform women as platform speakers were unheard of. Indeed, the prejudice was so strong against women in public life that although I wrote the letters to The Melbourne Argus it was my brother John who was nominally the correspondent. So for 30 years I wrote anonymously to the press on this subject. I waited for some man to come forward and do the platform work for me. We women are accused of waiting and waiting for the coming man, but often he doesn't come at all; and oftener still, when he does come, we should be a great deal better without him. In this case he did not come at all, and I started to do the work myself; and, just because I was a woman working singlehanded in the cause, Mrs. Young joined me in the crusade against inequitable representation. For many years, however, the cause has counted to its credit men speakers and demonstrators of ability and talent all over the State, who are carrying the gospel of representative reform into every camp, both friendly and hostile.

It was said of Gibbon when his autobiography was published that he did not know the difference between himself and the Roman Empire. I have sometimes thought that the same charge might be levelled against me with regard to effective voting; but association with a reform for half a century sometimes makes it difficult to separate the interests of the person from the interests of the cause. Following on my return from America effective voting played a larger part than ever in my life. I had come back cheered by the earnestness and enthusiasm of American reformers, and I found the people of my adopted country more than ever prepared to listen to my teaching. Parties had become more clearly defined, and the results of our system of education were beginning to tell, I think, in the increased interest taken by individuals as well as by societies in social and economic questions. I found interesting people everywhere, in every mode of life, and in every class of society. My friends sometimes accused me of judging people's intelligence by the interest they took in effective voting; but, although this may have been true to a certain extent, it was not wholly correct. Certainly I felt more drawn to effective voters, but there are friendships I value highly into which my special reform work never enters. Just as the more recent years of my life have been coloured by the growth of the movement which means more to me than anything else in the world, so must the remaining chapters of this narrative bear the imprint of its influence.