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Who Rules?

Australian democracy

British government in Australia began as one-man rule. The governor in early New South Wales was the government and the maker of local law. It was not until 1823 that he was advised by a small council which he himself nominated. In other colonies the governor had a council from the beginning. Later the councils were expanded, given more responsibilities, and two-thirds of their members were elected by voters who had to pay so much rent or own so much property, as in Britain. This happened in New South Wales in 1842; Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania in 1850; and Western Australia in 1870.

These changes made no difference to the composition of the government. That still consisted of the governor and his officials, who were appointed from Britain. The officials were in effect the ministers, responsible for finance, lands, police and so on. The councils had no voice in the choosing of these people and officials were not responsible to the councils. They and the governors were responsible to the British government.
Rule by governor

The councils made local laws, but not on all subjects. Land policy, which is what the colonists were most interested in, was kept in British hands. Nor did the councils have full control over the spending of taxes. Otherwise, like the early parliaments, they would have tried to control the governor by holding back his salary.

As British settlers overseas, the colonists were entitled by British tradition to govern themselves. Obviously convicts could not govern themselves and the British government was wary of moving too quickly to self-government. The colonists asked for it but rarely with any great sense of urgency. In the 1820s and 1830s ex-convicts agitated for a fully elected local Assembly but chiefly because they wanted their status as free people confirmed by becoming voters for it. In the 1840s there was a stronger demand from the squatters for self-government so that they could turn themselves into the owners of the lands they had seized. This quickly came to an end when the British government granted them not ownership but long leases.
Self-government demands

The movement for self-government was weak partly because the colonists could exert influence on the British government. They petitioned the monarch and the parliament or lobbied at the Colonial Office. John Macarthur, the sheep man, boasted that he had been responsible for the recall of numerous governors. The squatters obtained their leases after a lobbying campaign in Britain.

More importantly, the governor and his officials provided good government. It was not inattentive or grossly inefficient and corrupt or tyrannical. Australians have never known governments like this. They complain about government, but they do not fear it. The one monumental failure by a governor and his officials was the administration of the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. The system of licences to dig had been developed by a British official in New South Wales. There it did not give much trouble because the gold commissioners were attentive and the fields small. The local landowners complained about the British official because he had made it too easy to go digging.

In Victoria the fields were immense, the commissioners remote and the police who checked on licences corrupt. The protest movement at Ballarat in 1854 demanded an end to the licence and the commissioners. Under the influence of Chartists, they also asked for votes for all men and payment of members. The protest ended in bloodshed when a small proportion of the protesters formed a stockade at the Eureka lead and hoisted a rebel flag. British soldiers attacked the stockade and killed 30 diggers.

Eureka has become an important symbol of democracy, but by the time it happened Britain had already promised self-government to the colonies. The British government did not want to govern against determined colonists. It had had bad experiences twice, first with the American colonists in the 1770s and then with the Canadians in the 1830s. The government got into its first serious trouble with the Australian colonists when it decided to resume the transportation of convicts in the late 1840s. This led to popular protests in four colonies and there was a whiff of revolutionary talk in the air, nearly all bluff. With a change of government in Britain, the policy was abandoned in 1852 and the colonial councils in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania were told they could draw up constitutions for self-government. (Western Australia did not become self-governing until 1890. Queensland was still part of New South Wales. When it separated in 1859 it took over the New South Wales constitution.)
Self-government for the colonies

The colonies were to have their own parliaments of two houses. The premier and ministers were to be members of parliament and to have majority support in the lower house. Governors were no longer to be active in government, but to act on the advice of their ministers. This would establish the Westminster system in Australia. It is sometimes called ‘responsible government’ because ministers are responsible to parliament. The colonists would only be self-governing in internal matters. Foreign affairs and defence would remain in British control.
The Westminster system of responsible government

In planning the new constitutions, nearly everyone agreed that the British model was the one to follow. The respect for the British constitution was immense. In New South Wales the conservative William Wentworth, the leader of the squatters and large landowners, planned to imitate the House of Lords exactly. He proposed that a colonial nobility be formed so that there would be lords and dukes for the upper house. Middle-class and working-class people opposed the scheme and it was laughed out of court. Daniel Deniehy, a witty democrat, called the scheme ‘a bunyip aristocracy’. But liberals and even some democrats agreed that there had to be a conservative upper house if the local constitution was to be like England’s. They wanted it elected by property holders. This was adopted in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. In New South Wales, after Wentworth’s scheme was abandoned, the upper house was to be made up of people nominated by the governor.
A colonial nobility

Except in South Australia, the lower houses were far from democratic. But as soon as the new constitutions came into operation democratic reforms were carried in New South Wales and Victoria. In those two colonies and South Australia, all men now had the vote, by secret ballot, in more or less equal electorates, and with no property qualification for members of parliament. Four of the six Chartists’ points had become law.
Democratic reforms

From the 1860s Australia was famous around the world for its democracy. In the United States the secret ballot was known as the Australian ballot. In Britain Australian experience was used to debate the pros and cons of democracy. The program for Australian democracy had come from Britain. There, after a long struggle, nothing had been achieved; in Australia at the first time of asking there had been success. Why?

In Australia conservatives were handicapped by the way population was distributed. The main enterprise was wool-growing on huge properties, but the properties employed very few people directly. Wool created more jobs on the roads, in the wayside towns and in the great port cities. These were the centres where liberals and democrats were strong. Then in the 1850s the gold rush produced new democratic communities and towns dotted through the pastoral countryside.
Conservation weakness

In Australia there was also less resistance to democratic reform because the well-off did not fear the lower orders in quite the same way as the aristocracy and middle class did in Britain. There masses of people were wretchedly poor, dirty and ignorant. You did not have to be alarmist to worry about giving them the vote. In Australia there was no such under-class. More working people owned property or rented decent houses and indeed more and more were qualifying for the vote as property values rose in the inflation caused by the 1850s gold rush. In Victoria after Eureka the monthly licence was replaced by an annual miner’s right. If you held an annual licence from the crown, you were entitled to vote so the diggers already had the vote. And no matter how democratic the lower houses became, the upper houses would ensure that the democracy did nothing rash.

The upper houses did turn out to be great brakes on democracy. Time and again popular policies were rejected there. Very little could be done about it. There were no provisions for resolving deadlocks between the houses. At elections for the upper houses only property holders voted and elections were staggered so that it took many years for the membership to change.
Democratic reforms

In New South Wales and in Queensland, which had copied the New South Wales constitution, things were not so bad. The members of their upper houses were nominated by the governor. If they defied the wishes of the people, the government could advise the governor to appoint new members. By this means the government in New South Wales passed its laws to allow settlement on the squatters’ lands in 1861.

Permission has not been granted to reproduce this picture. Please refer to the relevant page in Discovering Democracy: A Guide to Government and Law in Australia on the Discovering Democracy Electronically CD ROM.

The Australian Women's Suffrage Banner
Australia, the democratic pioneer: on this banner used in English demonstrations for women’s suffrage, Australia urges Britain to follow its lead and give women the vote.

The Australian Women’s Suffrage Banner
Artist: Dora Meeson
Reproduction by kind permission of Lieutenant Colonel Simon Hearder on behalf of the heirs in copyright
Photograph courtesy of Parliament House
Art Collection
Photo: Australian Archives

Towards the end of the century there was a strong movement to make the constitutions of the colonies more democratic and some important changes were made. Property holders were no longer allowed to vote in each electorate where they held property (a survival from the days when all votes depended on property). Payment of members was introduced. Victoria had acquired this first in 1870; the other colonies followed in this order: Queensland 1886; South Australia 1887; New South Wales 1889; Tasmania 1890; Western Australia 1900. With the introduction of payment of members five of the six Chartist points had been achieved. Annual parliaments, the sixth point, were never adopted, but parliaments were reduced to three-year terms.
Upper houses

Women were given the vote in 1894, in South Australia, something which had not been demanded by the Chartists. It took some years before the other colonies followed: Western Australia 1899, New South Wales 1902, Tasmania 1903, Queensland 1904, Victoria 1908. Women had to struggle harder and longer to get the vote than men. Against a great deal of mockery, they argued they were citizens and were entitled to political rights. Like the Chartists, they assembled massive petitions to show the amount of support they had.
Votes for women

This second wave of democratic reform attacked the upper houses, but made very little impression on them. It was because of all these disappointments that the Commonwealth constitution drawn up in the 1890s provides that the upper house (the Senate) will be elected by the same people as the lower house and that there is a method for resolving deadlocks between the two houses.

The first significant change in the States’ upper houses came in 1922 when the Legislative Council of Queensland was abolished. Because it was a nominated house, the government could advise the governor to appoint new members to it. A Labor government persuaded an acting governor to appoint so many new Labor members that the house was prepared to vote itself out of existence. A Labor government in New South Wales tried the same thing in 1925 but some of the new members decided once they were seated that they would rather stay. Queensland is still the only State without an upper house.
Upper house reform

Property holding as a qualification for voting in State upper houses did not disappear until the second half of the twentieth century. Citizens of all sorts were not allowed to vote for the upper house in Victoria until 1950; in Western Australia until 1964; in Tasmania until 1969; South Australia until 1974.

Now that all upper houses (including that of New South Wales) are elected by the citizens, can we say that parliamentary democracy is established? Or is Queensland a better democracy because it has no upper house? There is a tension here between liberal principles and democracy. If we feel that governments have become too powerful and their actions need to be closely scrutinised, we might be glad that an upper house questions them or blocks their measures. If we want governments which have been elected by the people to put their policies into action, we will be opposed to upper houses getting in their way.

Whether upper houses can get in the way of governments may depend on how they are elected. If the two houses are elected in the same way, the upper house may simply mirror the lower house and the government will control both. In most States lower houses are elected by preferential voting. This means that usually one or other of the major parties wins the seats, with the preferences from minor parties and other candidates determining, when the issue is close, which of the parties it will be. Since the minor parties themselves don’t win seats, there is more likelihood that one party will have a clear majority of seats. This helps to make for stable government.
Electoral systems

For elections to the Senate and the upper houses of New South Wales and South Australia proportional representation operates. This gives minor parties a better chance of winning seats and sometimes they hold the balance of power. When this happens the upper house will act as a house of review.

Equal electorates (that is, with the same number of voters) for both houses are necessary for a democratic parliament. For most of our history this has not been well observed. If electorates were more or less equal, they frequently ceased to be so as population drifted from the country to the cities. An imbalance in favour of the country was defended on the old grounds of ‘interest’: since the country produced most of the nation’s exports, it deserved extra representation. Now in the Commonwealth and most of the States there is machinery to review electorates regularly and make adjustments so that they remain equal.

The opponents of democracy always argued that equal electorates was a highly artificial scheme. Parliament should represent society as it actually operates in its social groups and economic interests. Some modern democratic reformers have returned to this view. They propose that people vote as workers, business people, homemakers or students. They argue that this would give better representation of our interests than being lumped together in a geographical area with people of all interests. We would also feel better about the system because we would be more closely connected to it.
Alternative electorates

Whatever the electoral system, governments deal with groups and interests. If a prime minister wants to win acceptance of a new and complex policy he brings together what are today called the ‘stakeholders’, everyone with an interest in the issue. When the Hawke Labor government took office in 1983 it held an economic summit with representatives of employers, unions and State governments. The summit met in the House of Representatives chamber. This offended some people since it made it very obvious that parliament was not being used as the forum for bringing the representatives of the people together and resolving important issues. On the other hand, there was more interest in this summit than in a sitting of parliament. It did seem much more to represent the nation.
Interest groups

In the nineteenth century democrats wanted to reduce the time between elections. Recently State parliaments have been given increased terms: from three to four years. The case for doing this is that governments often have to adopt unpopular measures. If they are worried too soon about getting re-elected, the time when they can govern well is very short. Most parliaments made this change without consulting the people. In New South Wales in 1981 a referendum was held. The voters agreed to the change and so accepted that good government requires that their influence be restricted. Aristotle would have been pleased at this wisdom.
Length of parliamentary terms

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