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Why was effective voting so important to Catherine Helen Spence?

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For Catherine Helen Spence, effective voting was the most important cause of her life, and she worked for it for the last 50 years of her life. For her the notion of 'effective voting' upholding democracy was more important than 'votes for women'. The state electorate of Spence is named for Catherine in recognition of her work for parliamentary democracy.

She made proportional representation the talk of the colony
Cunning slits in ballot boxes
The gospel of representative reform

She made proportional representation the talk of the colony

The following extracts from Susan Magarey's absorbing biography on Catherine Helen Spence, Unbridling the tongues of women (Sydney, Hale & Ironmonger, c.1985) and held in the Mortlock Library, are reproduced here with kind permission from Susan Magarey.

"The cause which propelled [Spence] into the glare of the public sphere was, characteristically, not one automatically associated with anything particularly feminine or feminist. At her 80th birthday party she proclaimed: 'Injustice in England is not rectified by injustice in South Australia, nor does injustice in Alexandria rectify injustice in Torrens. Injustice rectifies nothing. It is an evil everywhere and always.' She was not talking about votes for women. She went on: 'I who speak here tell you that Proportional Representation is the hope of the world'. In that powerful, but peculiar, assertion she expressed her life's major conviction and mission. Reform of electoral injustice had been, she wrote later, 'the foremost object of my life'. Spence was 66 when she first mounted a platform to explain to South Australians why they should demand the introduction of poportional representation."

"On 17 February 1892 [Spence] took to the public platforms of South Australia. A year later she had delivered 'about forty public addresses to audiences in various places and of various political standpoints', campaigning not only in Adelaide but also in the country, to the south-east and then to the north of the city. She had made proportional representation the talk of the colony."

"Spence made no original contribution to ways of calculating the quota for proportional representation, that is the smallest number of votes necessary to elect a candidate....She did make a contribution to the method of distributing preferences, however. When the surplus votes, cast for a candidate who was already elected, were distributed at full value, the results might be different if in counting the preferences were being taken from the top or the bottom of the pile to be distributed. Spence's first solution sounded like a recipe for plum pudding: 'Let all the voting papers from all polling-places be well mixed together, and then take the votes as they come to hand'. By 1894, she had decided, as have later generations of Australians voting in elections for the Australian Senate, that such random distribution in a large election stood little chance of unjustly affecting the results. But in 1894 she adopted a suggestion made by her friend Annie Martin, to give fractional values to all preferences by the first, ...anticipating that implemented in Tasmania in the 20th century. This then formed the Hare-Spence system of proportional representation embodied in a bill submitted to the South Australian parliament almost every year form 1902 until 1910.

Such technical difficulties clearly indicate why Spence's campaigns never achieved their goals. Proportional representation might be the 'fairest' electoral system that a democracy can devise. But as recently as 1980, an Australian Senator observed 'It is an unfortunate fact, but still a fact, that the fairness of electoral systems has a direct relationship to their complexity'. But for Spence, electoral reform became a creed: it was the necessary condition for the elevation, educational and spiritual, as well as economic, of all humanity. That conviction dominated the last 20 years of her life, becoming so familiar that it was like a habit, so strong that it threatened to make her a bore. But it was also the means by which she realised her childhood's ambitions for greatness. On the platform, Spence achieved an even more important independence from the constraints of a patriarchal social order than she had as a journalist. Moreover, on the platform, she was there to hear when people applauded and cheered."

Cunning slits in ballot boxes

Spence's political manifesto was A plea for pure democracy: Mr Hare's Reform Bill applied to South Australia, in which she expressed her passionate ideals (Adelaide, Rigby, 1861). It is held in the Mortlock Library in various editions.

An extract is included here. Interestingly, this pamphlet was reprinted in 1986 by the Electoral Reform Society with a grant from the Sesquicentenary Committee. Ellinor Walker was a member of this Society, and had been a member of the League of Women Voters which had campaigned for effective voting until its demise in 1979. The Electoral Reform Society is alive and well in South Australia today.

"Reformers have applied themselves to endeavour to arrive at a true system of representation by cunning slits in ballot boxes, by equal electoral districts, and by extension of the suffrage, but all without success; for the principle itself being unjust, the fuller carrying out of it only leads to greater injustice. The more equally the electoral districts are divided, the more the suffrage is extended, the more people exercise their right of voting, the greater is the power of the numerical majority and the less chance minorities have of obtaining a hearing. The genius, the originality, the independence of the country find no majority anywhere to appreciate them, and political life is thronged with second and third rate men; who either have no opinions of their own, or have the art of concealing them.

'Political equality I understand to be something very different from the common views of it. It does not mean that if one man holds an opinion that is popular it shall be of use to him in obtaining a representative; while another man's, which is unpopular, shall be of no use to him whatever. It means this—that every man's vote shall have its weight, wherever he may live, and whatever majority or minority he may belong to. It is by the enfranchisement of minorities alone that we can arrive at the true state of public opinion.'

We want no paternal government to tell us what we ought to hear, do, or say; we want no paternal press to decide for us what we would not like to hear .... We are not children to be coaxed and managed, but men and women fit to think and judge for ourselves ... majorities always will continue to rule; we only plead for a more accurate system of recording votes, so that we may ascertain how great the majority ought to be.

Politicians ... have all gone on the principle that however the constituency was formed, the majority should have a right to their representative, and the minority none .... The minority represented, is the true sharpener of the wits of the ruling powers, the education of the people, the animator of the press.

It may appear to many well-meaning and theoretical people that it would be advisable for educated, propertied, talented, and virtuous men to have more weight in the State than the ignorant, the poor, the stupid, and the vicious. Property, they imagine wants protection; talent, education and virtue should be encouraged; the world would be better governed if they had the larger share in its representation.

But the State in a pure democracy, draws no ... distinctions between man and man ... but ... conceives that all who form the community shall have a right to share in its representation ... views every man as politically equal .... For instance, in a constituency composed of 900 electors who came to the poll, we will suppose that 600 belong to the majority and 300 to the minority. The majority put up three members A, B, and C. The minority combine to return D. The result of the poll may be this by skilful tactics on the part of the majority: - 200 vote for A and B; 200 vote for B and C; and 200 for A and C. Thus the 1000 voters give to each of their three men 400 votes, and the minority of 300 cannot get their man. If each only voted for one man, the principle would be better."

The gospel of representative reform

Catherine Helen Spence talked about her passion for effective voting in her Autobiography completed after her death by her friend and co-worker Mrs Jeanne F. Young, Australiana Facsimile Editions number 199 (Adelaide, Libraries Board of South Australia 1975). Chapter 19 covers the progress of effective voting, extracts here are from pages 81-82, 88. The original manuscript is held in the Spence archive (PRG 88) in the Mortlock Library of South Australiana and can be consulted on microfilm.

"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 very few men with leisure in South Australia, and, if there were, the leisure 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 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 single-handed 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.

Proportional representation was for long talked of as a device for representing minorities. It is only in recent years that the real scope of the reform has been recognised. By no other means than the adoption of the single transferable vote can the rule of the majority obtain. The fundamental principle of proportional representation is that majorities must rule, but that minorities shall be adequately represented. An intelligent minority of representatives has great weight and influence. Its voice can be heard. It can fully and truly express the views of the voters it represents."


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