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CQU historian presents on anniversary of UK Secret Ballot Act

Published:08 August 2022

Benjamin Jones

CQUniversity historian Dr Benjamin Jones has presented to the British houses of parliament history group on the 150th anniversary of the introduction of secret voting in the United Kingdom.

The presentation was an initiative of the Institute for Historical Research at the University of London where Dr Jones was joined in the international conversation by history and political experts from around the world including Dr Philip Salmon (History of Parliament Trust), Kathryn Rix (History of Parliament Trust) and Dr Gary Hutchison (Durham University).

“In my presentation, I highlighted that secret voting did not originate in Australia but rather a specific type of secret voting was introduced in the Australian colonies from 1856,” Dr Jones explained.

“It was the particular Australian method of secret voting, with a government-printed ballot and a private room to vote, which was later adopted in the UK in 1872.”

Although the Australian form of secret voting was quickly adopted in the Anglophone world, Dr Jones said that the origins of the idea could be found in Britain as well as Australia.

“If the mechanics of effective secret voting were pioneered in Australia, the case for it can be traced to the English radical tradition before Australia was colonised,” he said.

“In 1776 the great reformer John Cartwright argued for it in his pamphlet Take Your Choice. Jeremy Bentham, the intellectual leader of the philosophical radicals argued for it in the early 19th century along with George Grote and James Mill, though oddly enough his famous son John Stuart Mill was against secret voting.”

The Chartists also took up the cause and after gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851 when thousands of Britons came to Australia, bringing these ideas with them.

“Cutting a long story short, there was a democratic zeitgeist in the mid-19th century and following the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, there was a palpable sense that Victoria was the place for a democratic experiment and secret voting seemed to go hand in hand with the rapidly expanding male franchise.”

Although Victoria has the distinction of being the first place to introduce the Australian form of secret voting – narrowly beating out Tasmania and South Australia – Dr Jones said the argument for secret rather than open voting belonged to an older political tradition.

“The influence of the Victorian example and the other Eastern states on Britain and then the United States is undeniable, but the instigators of the reforms certainly would have considered themselves to be British,” he explained.

“So, while the contribution of the Australian colonies is important, it's part of the larger transnational story of the secret ballot, which is now of course a global phenomenon.”

Dr Jones will visit the University of London to present another paper on the history of secret voting in Australia next month before travelling to Germany to take up a visiting fellowship at the Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Cologne.