Australia’s first federal election–29 and 30 March 1901

Receiving and collating election returns at the Electric Telegraph Office 1901
State Library of Queensland

With speculation firming on May 11 as ‘the most likely date for a 2019 federal election’ it seems timely to mark the anniversary this week of Australia’s first federal election.

Prime Minister Edmund Barton, who had been commissioned by Governor-General Lord Hopetoun to form an interim Government on 1 January 1901, opened the federal campaign with a speech at the West Maitland Town Hall, declaring:

Ransack history, and you will find this is the first time in which it has been committed to one body of men to undertake … the government of a whole continent. ….. We shall in our electoral campaign have to deal with a whole continent, … and we shall have to remember that a continent of three million square miles is rather too large to canvass. (Laughter and applause.)

 (Barton and his ministers were able to hold office prior to any election by operation of section 64 of the Constitution.)

One hundred and eighty-one candidates contested the 75 House of Representative seats, and 127 candidates contested the 36 Senate seats. Party structures were embryonic and ‘selection processes varied’.[1] Some House of Representatives seats had one candidate only; others had up to nine—‘including several who claimed to be from the same political party’.


Most of the candidates were associated with one of three loose political groupings contesting the election: the Protectionists (led by Barton and called variously the National Liberal Association (Vic) and the Australian Liberal Association (NSW)); the Free Traders or Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association (led by George Reid); and Labour. (Chris Watson was elected leader of the Federal Labour Party—as it was then generally spelled—at its first caucus meeting on 8 May 1901.)

Australia’s population was only 3.77 million, and ‘individual electorates contained only a few thousand, or even a few hundred, electors’. Across the country, campaigning was intense, gruelling, and enthusiastically reported in the press. (There were 21 ‘daily capital city newspapers … and the volume of political content was high’.) Candidates journeyed by train, steamer and buggy to deliver speeches at public meetings in hotels, coffee shops, mechanics institutes, town halls and parks. Barton and his cabinet enjoyed the benefits of incumbency, campaigning ‘while going about their duties and [with] local governments and organisations such as the Australian Natives Association …. [providing] lavish receptions’. [2] With no budget, staff or party administration to call upon, Reid was at a ‘distinct disadvantage’ throughout the campaign. [3] However, he advocated the cause of Free Trade in 50 speeches at public meetings in every state except WA. [4] Labour ran state-based campaigns, depending for support and votes on an estimated 97,000 members of trades unions.[5]


Electoral boundaries for New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia were determined by the Parliaments of the respective states. In the absence of such legislation, Tasmania and South Australia voted as a single electorate. (Members for these states were elected as ‘members-at-large’ and each was known as the ‘member for South Australia’ or the ’member for Tasmania’).

As there was as yet no federal electoral legislation, the election took place as six separate elections held according to the legislation in place in each of the states ‘for the more numerous House of the Parliament’, leading to significant differences in electoral procedure and franchise across the country. Review of Reviews observed that:

Perhaps there never was a more distracted election. The issue in each State was different … again, each State followed its own electoral method, and the result was the strangest patchwork of suffrages and of systems…

 Neither enrolment nor voting were compulsory. There were 976,511 registered electors around the country; of these, only 587,045 (or around 56 per cent) cast their ballot for the House of Representatives. Voter turnout was lowest in Western Australia (36.6 per cent), leading that state’s Premier John Forrest to declare the result ‘most unsatisfactory’:

Such apathy was much to be regretted. The interest taken in the elections was not equal to that of the Perth Mayoral elections. The result was but a feeble indication of public opinion.

 No one of the three political parties was able to win the necessary majority to govern on its own. As the Protectionists won only 31 seats in the House of Representatives, Barton relied upon the support of the Labour members (14 seats). Reid and the Free Traders formed the official Opposition (28 seats), and two members were elected as independents. Labour Party candidates also held the balance of power in the Senate with eight seats; the Protectionists won 11 and the Free Traders 17.

Sir Robert Garran would later reflect that:

The main line of division was between free traders and protectionists, but there was a third party, the Labour party which was divided on this question. There was also a line of division, somewhat blurred, between the more and the less conservative members … None of those lines was very sharply drawn, and many of the seats were decided on personal rather than political grounds. [6]  

The election set the pattern for the first decade of Parliament and  government, with none of the three parties able to win a majority of seats in the lower house—a situation which Alfred Deakin later famously described as three cricket teams playing the one match.

Of the 111 new Commonwealth parliamentarians, 87 (29 senators and 58 members of the House of Representatives) had previously served in a colonial parliament, and a remarkable 14 had been premiers.

Among the new members was William Groom who provided a tangible link between the new nation and its convict origins, having been transported from England to Australia in 1846 for stealing.[7] He became the first member of the Commonwealth Parliament to die in office (on 8 August 1901).


Not until Stanley Bruce became Prime Minister in 1923 did Australia have a Prime Minister who had not first served at colonial/state level and in the first federal Parliament (1901–03).

[1] M. Simms, ‘Election Days: Overview of the 1901 Election’, pp. 1-17 in M Simms (ed), 1901: The forgotten election, UQP in association with the API Network and Curtin UT, St Lucia, 2001, p. 6.

[2] Ibid, p. 5.

[3] J Fitzgerald, On message: political communications of Australian Prime Ministers 1901-2014, Clareville Press, Mawson, 2014, p. 25.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 26.

[6] R Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth, Angus and Robertson, Melbourne, 1958, p. 144.

[7] ML Simpson, From convict to politician, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 2014.


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