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Law and government in the 1850s

Only 150 years ago, Australia was comprised of just four colonies: New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land, Western Australia and South Australia.

Only New South Wales had a partially representative legislative council. Two thirds of its members were elected, thanks to the 1842 New South Wales Legislation Act, which established a council made up of 36 members, 18 elected by the voters in New South Wales and 6 by voters in the Port Phillip District (later renamed Victoria). The remaining 12 members were appointed by the Queen on the advice of Her Ministers. Eligibility to vote was based on ownership or occupation of property of significant value.

The elections based on the 1842 Legislation Act were violent and unruly, and at least one person died. Despite this move towards representative government, the Governor (appointed by the Queen) still had more power than the Council. If the Governor disagreed with a bill proposed by the Council, the Council could be dissolved and the bill referred to the British government. Lengthy delays in decision-making were frequent.

British ministers appointed by the Queen wholly governed all other colonies at this time.

A time for change

The political landscape of Australia changed significantly in August 1850, when the British Government passed the Australian Colonies Government Act. It marginally increased the powers of the New South Wales Legislative Council on matters including control of revenue, and granted representative government to South Australia, Van Diemen’s Land (renamed Tasmania in 1855), and the Port Phillip District, which was officially separated from New South Wales and renamed Victoria in 1851. Provision was also made for eventual representative government in Western Australia.

The Last Of The Reform. - The Council Passing The Bill.
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

For New South Wales, the Australian Colonies Government Act also empowered the Governor and the Legislative Council, with Britain’s approval, to form a parliament with two houses, either appointed or elected.

Although convict transportation had ceased to New South Wales by 1843, some, including explorer, lawyer and landholder William Charles Wentworth, began to advocate a resumption of transportation as a cheap solution to labour shortages. He also resisted the "federation" movement of the Australian League. Wentworth was faced with limited support as Australia began to blossom as a destination for "free men". Between 1848 and 1850, 62,000 free immigrants arrived from Britain, adding not only to the workforce, but to the demand for greater representation in government.

In 1850, as the colonies began to prosper, the Australian League was created by the Reverend John Dunmore Lang, James Wiltshire and Sir Henry Parkes. The league began a sustained campaign in Australia and the United Kingdom for the end of convict transportation.


A new middle class

The discovery of gold in New South Wales in May 1851 saw migration flourish and dramatic social and economic changes. Subsequent discoveries in Victoria swept in a sudden and even more significant influx of people. Rapid population growth and burgeoning mining communities led to a growing call for legislative representation. These calls were further fuelled by the imposition of gold licenses and other restrictions by a legislative in which the miners had no say.

Thirty shillings a month for twenty-six days work, payable in advance. It was taxation without representation, and a hefty taxation at that. A squatter with a vote and 20 square miles of land paid an annual tax of just 10, yet a digger with no vote, no land, and no influential friends would pay 18 for a year’s worth of gold licences.

Labour shortages in the cities during the gold rushes drove wages and conditions well above those in the rest of the world and created the first truly "middle class" with economic and political influence. This middle class led demands for political change, as well as improved education, public works and transport infrastructure.

The discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales was instrumental in persuading the British government that sending convicts to a colony close one of the richest goldfield in the world was bad policy. In 1853, the last convicts were sent to the eastern colonies. Western Australia was the only colony that chose to remain a port for convict transportation, remaining so until 1868.


The path to self-government

In 1853, a select committee chaired by William Wentworth was formed and began drafting a constitution for responsible self-government for New South Wales. After several amendments, it was finally passed as law in July 1855. The New South Wales Constitution Act 1855 established a bi-cameral parliament with a Legislative Assembly elected on a broad property franchise, and an appointed Legislative Council. It provided for wide powers over domestic matters, including revenue raising and land. Britain still retained the power to disallow colonial legislation.

From 1856-57 South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania all opened bi-cameral parliaments in the same model as New South Wales'.

The Moreton Bay District separated from New South Wales in 1859 and was renamed Queensland. This brought the total number of colonies to six, each with it’s own capital city.

The need to protect and promote common interests led to a series of inter-colonial conferences of premiers, held at irregular intervals from 1863. A draft federal constitution was drawn up in 1891, and after intense debate at a colonial conference in 1898, it was submitted to the British Parliament for approval. The British Parliament ratified the constitution, and after the Australian people had shown their support for federation and the constitution in a series of mini statewide referendums, the Commonwealth of Australia came into being on January 1, 1901.


by Nicole Grant


Robyn Annear, Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852. The Text Publishing Company, 1999.


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