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'Yes-No' South Sydney:
a brief study of how the people of South Sydney
voted in the two federation referenda of 1898 and 1899.
A Centenary of Federation 1901-2001 essay

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Looking back, it all seems so inevitable. Federation. Could we imagine the Australian continent divided into six separate countries - a Republic of New South Wales, a Dominion of Western Australia, and so on? Could we imagine an Australia without the Anzacs?, without Qantas? Could we imagine a national flag without the southern cross and federation star? Could we imagine a country without a capital named Canberra? Could we imagine border disputes, perhaps even wars, between say New South Wales and Queensland over land use in the headwaters of the Darling River? Could we imagine that the word 'Australia' was merely a geographical description? Federation - it seems so sensible, so logical, so inevitable. But, was it always so?

'Yes-No South Sydney'

The men of what is today the City of South Sydney voted for delegates to a Federation Convention in 1897 and in two referenda in 1898 and 1899 on the question of whether to federate. Women in New South Wales did not gain the vote until 1902. The results of the men's voting suggest the possibilities of alternate histories, of federation today not being at all inevitable, of there being no Commonwealth of Australia.

The New South Wales Premier of the time, George Reid, was nicknamed 'Yes-No' Reid for his equivocation over whether to recommend a yes or no vote in the federation referendum of 1898. It is an epithet that could perhaps also be applied to the male South Sydneysiders of a century ago.

It is interesting to consider some of the referendum results of 1898 and 1899. In 1898 the 'no' case in South Sydney won the day with 51% of the vote, while in 1899 the situation reversed when the 'yes' vote just reached 52%. Between the two referenda the 'yes' vote increased slightly in each of the South Sydney electorates except Redfern where the 'no' vote increased and Paddington where it stayed equally divided 50:50. The most consistent 'no' voters were in Erskineville, Newtown-St. Peters and Woolloomooloo, while the strongest 'yes' vote (of 57%) was recorded in Darlinghurst in the 1899 referendum. Generally, the more working class the electorate, the more likely it was to vote 'no'. Thus, Woolloomooloo recorded a 54% 'no' vote and Newtown-St. Peters recorded a 58% 'no' vote in the 1898 referendum. In contrast the 'yes' votes were concentrated around the university in Campderown, the wealthier heights of Darlinghurst, and the city side of Surry Hills. The biggest change between the two referenda was in Waterloo, where a 54% 'no' vote became a 53% 'yes' vote.

Why two referenda, and why such results? The first question is fairly straight-forward to answer, the second rather more complicated. Voters in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia voted in a referendum on 3rd June 1898 on whether to accept federation. In New South Wales the parliament required the 'yes' vote to be greater than 80 000 for the referendum to pass. In the event, the number of 'yes' votes was only 71 595 - although 5 300 more than the 'no' vote. Following the failure of the referendum the colonial premiers met in secret and agreed to several changes to the proposed federal constitution. These changes included more power for the House of Representatives relative to the Senate, and locating the federal capital somewhere in New South Wales. The New South Wales parliament removed the 80 000 votes requirement, and a second referendum was held in five colonies (this time including Queensland). On the 20th June 1899 the referendum passed in NSW, 107 420 'yes' votes to 82 741 'no' votes.

The second question of why such results in South Sydney is a little more complex to answer, and involves issues of labour and capital, catholic and protestant, votes for women, and white Australia. South Sydney is one of the birthplaces of the Australian Labor Party, and the 1896 party conference called for election to the proposed House of Representatives and the Senate to be on a population basis, and was critical of the proposed equal representation of the states in the senate as being undemocratic. In 1897 the party called for a single chamber federal parliament, and the use of the citizen's initiative referendum. The party ran candidates for election to the Federation Convention in 1897 but, like the catholic candidates, failed to have any elected. It then campaigned for a 'no' vote in the 1898 referendum and, although Premier Reid succeeded in having the proposed constitution amended to reflect some of the Labor Party's concerns, it also campaigned for a 'no' vote in 1899.

The Party was, however, supportive of the possibility of extending the colonial white Australia policies across the whole continent by a federal government. They particularly criticized the immigration and use of coloured labour in Queensland and the pearling industry of northern Australia. There was a constantly reiterated fear of coloured labour being paid lower wages than white labour, and thus driving white wages downwards. Keeping Chinese and Pacific Islanders, in particular, out of Australia was argued as the best way of raising white wages. All of the elected Convention delegates subscribed to a White Australia Policy for this or other reasons.

At least two of the Convention delegates favoured votes for women. Action to achieve such a goal in the proposed federal constitution was spearheaded by the Women's Federal Leagues. The League had been founded during the 1898 referendum campaign in Sydney by Maybanke Wolstenholme, and early in 1899 a second branch was founded by the Lady Mayoress of Sydney, Mrs Helen Harris. How much the functions and activities of the Leagues influenced the votes of the men of South Sydney requires further research, but it may be relevant to note that the two supporters of women's suffrage at the Federation Convention where amongst the five delegates who also supported restricting the powers of the proposed Senate - a goal of the Labor Party.

The respectable women of the Women's Federal Leagues, however, were also supported to varying degrees by the liberal, middle class men of the Australasian Federation League and the Young Men's Federal Convention. The Federation Leagues had begun in the Riverina border towns in the early 1890s, and when a meeting was called to form a League in Sydney Town Hall in mid-1893 it was disrupted by Labor Party leaders who attempted to have a resolution made supporting a 'democratic republic'. The Young Men's Federal Convention had originated in the St. Paul's Young Men's Union in Redfern, and its convention in Castlereagh Street in early 1897 drew about 250 professional men aged under 30. Their Convention argued for the Crown, for two houses of parliament and a strong senate, for the federal capital to be in Sydney, and for federation to go ahead without Queensland if required. These men generally supported a strong senate with equal representation from each state, which distanced them from the Labor Party goals.

Thus, when the men of South Sydney voted in 1898 there were clear divisions between the working and professional classes. They all supported a White Australia (for different reasons), but differed on most other issues with the powers of the proposed senate being a symbol of those differences. Following the failure of the first referendum Premier Read had succeeded in having the proposed federal constitution amended to reflect some of the Labor Party concerns regarding the senate, and to have the capital located in NSW as advocated by the Young Men. These changes appear to have influenced at least some of the men of South Sydney to change their vote. It is notable that the 'yes' vote in the city side of Surry Hills increased from 51% to 56%. This was the location of Sydney's Chinatown at that time and, despite the threat of a continental White Australia Policy under federation, the Chinese men were reported to favour federation as it would remove the harassment they continually faced at the inter-colonial border posts.

A complex web of motivations can be seen here influencing how the men of South Sydney cast their votes in the federation referenda. The change between the two referenda was not great, although it changed the balance from narrow support for the 'no' case to narrow support for the 'yes' case. This contrasts with the strong support shown in the border districts and the north coast where the 'yes' vote reached into 80 and 90 percentage points. The men of South Sydney, working class and professional, did have an influence of the shape of the federal constitution in areas such as the powers of the senate and the location of the new federal capital, and early Commonwealth legislation such as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 which implemented a national White Australia Policy and the Franchise Act of 1902 whereby white women gained the vote nationally and in NSW.

The South Sydneysiders of a century ago were not whole-hearted federalists and many were no doubt attracted to the rival proposals by the nationalists for NSW to be a separate country, and the unificationists for NSW and Victoria to merge as a single nation without the rest of the colonies in Australasia. In the end, the results were accepted, and South Sydneysiders were no doubt heavily represented amongst the 250 000 people who lined the great parade route through the city and into Centennial Park where the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed at 1pm on the 1st of January 1901.

The new Commonwealth established some of its first functions in South Sydney: the High Court sat for the first time in 1903 in Darlinghurst Courthouse, the first headquarters of the defence forces established in 1901 was in Victoria Barracks, Paddington, and the Commonwealth Pensions Office was first located in Chalmers Street, Surry Hills. Interestingly, these were the 'yes' vote areas.

It is important to understand, therefore, that federation was not inevitable. It is a historical processes that continues today, and it has many varied causes that can be explained and understood. South Sydneysiders today may be more enthusiastic about federation (or at least, about being Australian) but history shows that we cannot inflict that enthusiasm on our forebears, but instead must strive to understand their motivations in their times for what was simply one of several alternate futures.

Premier 'Yes-No' Read probably reflected the mixed attitudes of 'Yes-No' South Sydneysiders a lot more than he realised.


This essay was written by Bruce Baskerville, and presented at a public forum organised by South Sydney Heritage Society Inc. and South Sydney City Council as a centenary event, at the 'new' Florence Bartlett Library in Kings Cross on Saturday, 20th January 2001.