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Democratic Struggles

Teacher notes

The Chartist movement in nineteenth century Britain, the Eureka Rebellion and the struggles of women and Aboriginal people to gain democratic rights provide contexts for exploring some basic features of Australian democracy. These features include universal suffrage, secret ballot, electorates of equal size, all adult citizens being able to stand for parliament and payment of parliamentarians. The strategies used to achieve political change are also explored.

About the unit | Indicators of student achievement | Background notes | Discovering Democracy resources | Links to other units | Notes

About the unit

Key elements of democracy

Contexts: Chartism in mid-nineteenth century Britain, the Eureka Rebellion, the Australian Constitution, the 1938 Day of Mourning and the 1967 referendum

Indicators of student achievement

The student can:

Background notes

Chartism was a working-class movement to initiate political change in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. The working class was excluded from the political process, having neither the right to vote nor parliamentary representation. The Chartists set about changing this situation as a means of improving their working and living conditions. Their efforts were unsuccessful, the movement dying out after the failure of their last petition in 1848. Their six-point Charter demanded manhood suffrage, secret ballots, the abolition of property qualifications for parliament, payment for parliamentarians, equal electorates, and annual elections.

Chartist ideas reached the goldfields in Victoria and rose to prominence in the weeks leading to the Eureka rebellion in 1854. The miners wanted an end to the hated licence system as well as the right to vote.

The notions of responsible and representative government spread throughout the Australian colonies in the second half of the nineteenth century. The events at Eureka are seen by many as a catalyst for this, although there is some question about the extent to which they influenced the reform of the political process outside Victoria.

By Federation in 1901 the right of men to participate in the political process was generally accepted in Australia. Women were successful in achieving the right to vote for Commonwealth elections in 1902. The last State to grant this right to women was Victoria in 1908. For Aboriginal Australians, however, Australian citizenship, including the right to vote, took more than half of the twentieth century to achieve.

The Chartists, the miners at Ballarat, the women's movement in the late nineteenth century and Aboriginal activists all used a variety of methods to achieve their goals, ranging from peaceful forms of protest, such as petitioning the parliament, to violent protest.

Discovering Democracy resources

Parliament at Work CD ROM - interactive simulation on electoral boundaries creates a fictitious region of Australia where it is possible to manipulate the electoral boundaries

Stories of Democracy CD ROM - interactive and a range of primary source material, for example, the resolutions of the diggers at Bakery Hill, a ballad composed at the time of the sentencing of the Chartists involved in the Newport rising, and a cartoon commenting on the introduction of the charter to parliament

Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia

Discovering Democracy website

Further teacher reference material can be found in Discovering Democracy Lower Secondary Units, pages 136-138.

Links to other units

  • 'Should the People Rule?' (lower secondary) provides useful groundwork for a study of the arguments of the Chartists and the diggers at Eureka against aristocratic rule and for giving power to the people. It would be advantageous to have done this unit prior to 'Democratic Struggles' but not essential. The final focus question of 'Should the People Rule?', on representative democracy in Australia, might provide useful additional material for classes that have not had the opportunity to study the full unit.
  • 'Men and Women in Political Life' (lower secondary). This unit, with its focus on particular individuals, the issues they fought for (including women's suffrage and rights for Aboriginal people) and the strategies they used, complements 'Democratic Struggles' with its focus on groups of people or movements.
  • 'Human Rights' (middle secondary) focuses on the nature of human rights and struggles to achieve them.
  • 'A Democracy Destroyed' (middle secondary) focuses on the loss of democratic rights in the context of Nazi Germany.


The core teaching ideas of 'Democratic Struggles' include the nature of democracy - just what it was that people were struggling for - and methods which those involved used to press their cases. It will be helpful if students are clear that the idea of comprehensive suffrage is relatively recent and until the end of the twentieth century suffrage was based on property, gender and race.

Back to 'Democratic Struggles - At a glance'

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