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Edmund Barton and the Velvet Soap Advertisement

Video clip synopsis – The Velvet Soap advertising campaign is a tongue-in-cheek reminder of Edmund Barton’s hand in formulating the White Australia policy.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - Australian History, biography, colonisation, federation, national identity, Prime Ministers, White Australia Policy, see all tags


Edmund Barton and the Velvet Soap Advertisement

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About the Video Clip


Edmund Barton and the Velvet Soap Advertisement is an episode from the series The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures, produced in 2007.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures
Award winning cartoonist and yarn spinner, Warren Brown, reveals the emotional lives of Australian Prime Ministers through 10 objects they used every day or even adored – from Robert Menzies’ home movie camera, to Joseph Lyons’ love letters, Harold Holt’s briefcase and Ben Chifley’s pipe. These treasures reveal the nation’s leaders, as you have never seen them before.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures is a Film Australia National Interest Program produced in association with Old Parliament House and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Curriculum Focus


Key history outcomes:

  • Citizenship: Preparing young Australians to be active and informed citizens
  • Identity: The diverse and multiple identities of a multicultural nation
  • Perspectives: The continent, the region and the world
  • Thinking and Linking: Connecting the past, present and future
  • Historical literacy: Essential and specific skills

This is an extract only. Go to The National Curriculum Statements for English
Teachers and students should consult their State’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information


The first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, was born in Sydney on 18 January 1849 and qualified as a lawyer from the University of Sydney after lecturing in Classics. A passionate politician, Barton was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in 1879.

Barton endorsed Henry Parkes’ call for Federation in 1889. Some sort of federation of the Australian colonies had been suggested as early as 1846. But progress was agonisingly slow. The colonies often agreed in principle to the desirability of Federation, but found the devil in the detail.

At the first session of the Australasian Constitutional Convention, held in Adelaide in April, 1889 Barton said: 'We all lose something; we all gain something, not only in the method and manner of Federation, but our gain is limitless, if we are to consider, as we must, what the outcome of Federation will be to all these colonies.’

Between 1893 and 1897 Barton passionately devoted himself to the Federation movement. Federation seemed likely in the early 1890s but foundered because of the reluctance of New South Wales. However as the nineteenth century drew to a close, an agreement seemed again achievable.

By the end of the century Barton had overseen the drafting of the amended Constitution, its protracted and difficult passing through the NSW Legislative Assembly and Council, as well as an extensive campaign through two referenda to its eventual approval by the British Parliament in 1900.

Barton was appointed the nation’s first Prime Minister, taking the portfolio of Minister of External Affairs.

The Velvet Soap advertising campaign is a tongue-in-cheek reminder of Edmund Barton’s hand in formulating the White Australia policy. Barton also helped draft the Federal Constitution, created the High Court, and presided over the formulation of federal industrial relations and the legal system. Without him the wayward states may never have federated.

Edmund Barton (1849 -1920) was Prime Minister of Australia from January 1901 to September 1903. The Velvet Soap ad is held at Old Parliament House in Canberra

Classroom Activities


Interrogating objects

History sometimes involves the study of artifacts — often in a museum, as part of a site study. Objects and artifacts can tell you about a person or a time — but only if you can ‘interrogate’ them to find out what their story is.

Here are questions that you can use on museum objects, such as this one about the Prime Minister, to help reveal the meaning and significance of objects.

  • Describe the object. (Size, shape, materials, function etc.)
  • What does it show? — People? Symbols? Words? If so, who or what are they?
  • What is its context? (Time, place, social group etc.)
  • Who produced it?
  • For what possible purpose/s?
  • Who was it meant for? (Just one person, or a whole audience?)
  • What might it tell us about attitudes and values — that is, those things that people believe are the right way to behave?
  • What does it tell us about how people behaved at the time?

Now write a summary sentence beginning:

‘This object helps me understand or realise that . . . ‘

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia – Australian Prime Ministers

Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography

STUDIES Magazine (Ryebuck Media) 3/2005
Taking a walk through the White Australia Policy at the National Museum of Australia (STUDIES magazine is sent free of charge three times a year to every Australian secondary school)

Robert Lewis, Nation, Race and Citizen 1888–1914, Eagle Resources, Melbourne, 2005 for extracts from the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act debates