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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, federation, multiculturalism, national identity, power, 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


1. Forming hypotheses
One thing we often do is to use limited evidence to draw preliminary conclusions or form hypotheses about what we think happened. These can later be tested with more evidence.

Here are 10 statements. Decide from the limited evidence you have in the Velvet Soap advertisement whether these statements are more likely to be true or untrue.

  1. The White Australia Policy was popular.
  2. It was a well-known policy.
  3. It was a respectable policy.
  4. Australian people did not take the policy seriously.
  5. It was a national policy.
  6. Australians believed they were superior to others.
  7. People at the time believed in racial differences.
  8. There were few black people in Australia.
  9. Australians had a fear of invasion.
  10. The White Australia Policy was made by male leaders.

You can now test these statements by further research.

2. Empathy in history

The Velvet Soap ad tells us about people’s attitudes and values at the time. Often we look at such attitudes and values from the past and reject them as inappropriate for our own society. However, we must be careful to realize that we are rejecting them from our own present viewpoint, and not from the viewpoint or standards of the past society.

Here is an exercise to help you develop empathy with a past society without necessarily accepting its values.

As a class list some attitudes, values or behaviour that we generally accept today, but that could possibly in the future be considered unacceptable. For example, you might suggest smoking; or eating meat; or using petrol in cars; or not believing that humans cause climate change; or believing that humans cause climate change!
As you list possibilities, consider these questions:

  • Explain why most people follow the accepted belief or behaviour
  • Explain why some people do not
  • Explain why the minority view may not be accepted
  • Explain what might happen to show that their view is in fact the more acceptable one over time.

If you follow the majority view now, how will you feel about being criticised for this belief in 50 years’ time?

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