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Historical Overview

 

Opening of the First Legislative Council, 13 November 1851
Opening of the First Legislative Council in St. Patrick's Hall, Bourke
St by C.J. Latrobe November 13 1851 by William Strutt

VICTORIA HAS HAD a Parliament since 1856. It has had responsible government since 1855, and has been self-governing since 1851.

From 1836 to 1851 the region was a district of New South Wales administered from Sydney. It became a colony in 1851 and a State in 1901.

What does it all mean? In the answer lies the emergence of parliamentary democracy in Victoria.

(See 150th Anniversary Timeline (PDF 1.8Mb) for a list of significant events.)


'Where no counsel is, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety'.

Proverbs 11:14
Vestibule Inscription
Parliament House, Melbourne


1836-42 Government from Sydney

The illegal squatting occupation of the region now known as Victoria began in the early 1830s. In 1836 the Government in Sydney officially recognised the area as the Port Phillip District of New South Wales. From this time a small but steady trickle of pioneer settlers moved into the district.

In 1839 a Superintendent, Charles Joseph La Trobe, was appointed to be the Crown's principal representative in Port Phillip. He was responsible to the Governor in Sydney (who was in turn given instructions by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and by the British Parliament, in England).

Even in these early years, however, there were calls for independence from New South Wales. Port Phillip's pioneers believed they could manage their own affairs better than administrators in far distant Sydney.

1 August 1843 The Legislative Council of New South Wales

In 1842, a governmental change of sorts was introduced. The Legislative Council of New South Wales, which advised the Sydney-based Governor, was reformed. As part of this process its membership was expanded to 36. Of this number, six would represent Port Phillip one for Melbourne, five for the rest of the District. Elections were duly held and on 1 August 1843, the reformed Legislative Council, including Port Phillip's representatives, met in Sydney for the first time.

The promise of representation proved false. Port Phillip's members found the cost and time involved in travelling to Sydney too great, while the Legislative Council in turn made decisions that consistently favoured Sydney and other districts of greater New South Wales rather than Port Phillip.

Calls for separation grew ever more insistent. In the meantime Port Phillip District slowly continued to develop.

1 July 1851 The Legislative Council of Victoria

Finally the calls for independence were heeded. In 1850 An Act for the better Government of Her Majesty's Australian Colonies was passed by the British Parliament. It permitted the creation of three new, self-governing colonies: South Australia, Tasmania, and Victoria. Each would be governed by a 30 member Legislative Council which, in collaboration with a Crown representative (a Governor or Lieutenant-Governor), would rule the colony.

On 1 July 1851, formal separation occurred. Victoria was now an independent colony.

Twenty of the thirty member Legislative Council had to be elected by substantial property holders, the rest were chosen by Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe. Polls took place in September.

On 13 November 1851 Victoria's first Legislative Council met at St. Patrick's Hall St. Patrick's Hall in Bourke Street, Melbourne, the site now occupied by the Law Institute of Victoria.

The Legislative Council struggled to govern effectively. The chaos triggered by the gold-rushes would have tested even the most experienced of legislatures let alone one as gauche as this. Yet despite its problems, the Legislative Council made three indelible contributions to the character of Victorian parliamentary democracy:

Victoria's Constitution was drafted in Melbourne between September 1853 and March 1854, and was granted Royal Assent in 1855. Its most important feature was that Victoria would be ruled by a Parliament comprising the Crown, represented by the Governor, a Legislative Assembly, and a Legislative Council. Members of Parliament would be democratically elected, albeit subject to various voter and candidature eligibility criteria.

23 November 1855 Responsible Government

On 23 November 1855 Victoria's new Constitution Act was officially proclaimed in Melbourne. Responsible Government, or government by a ministry which is responsible to the Parliament which is in turn responsible to its citizens, could now exist.

Governor Hotham, however, was confused about how the Act was to be interpreted. Accordingly, rather than wait for a General Election to elect the new Parliament, he appointed Victoria's first ministry (or Government). It was led by William Haines. Victoria therefore had a ministry that was neither elected nor responsible (in that the Parliament did not yet exist).

Victoria's founding Legislative Council met for the last time in March 1856. It had already identified a site, approved plans, and begun construction of Parliament House, Melbourne.

Elections for the Parliament, using the secret ballot, took place in Spring 1856. Sixty members were elected to the Legislative Assembly, or Lower House, which was also the seat of Government. Thirty members were elected to the Upper House, or Legislative Council, which was to act as a 'House of Review'. The Lower House was more democratic, more liberal, even more radical, in orientation. The Upper House was more patrician, less democratic, indeed a bastion of wealth and privilege. More than any other factors, these differences shaped the character of the Parliament of Victoria.

25 November 1856 Parliament of Victoria

On 21 November 1856 Victoria's first Members of Parliament met in their recently completed chambers to be sworn in.

On 25 November the Parliament of Victoria was officially opened.

Constitutional change was soon seen to be a characteristic of the Parliament. In 1857 universal manhood suffrage was introduced for Legislative Assembly voters while all property qualifications for candidates to the Lower House were also abolished (these reforms were not adopted in the Upper House until 1950). As the decades passed, other reforms and modifications were adopted: the tenure of Members, the number of parliamentarians and electorates, the powers of the two Chambers, payment of Members, indeed numerous powers and responsibilities were altered or amended in the light of changing needs and conditions.

Another characteristic was constitutional conflict between the 'democratic' Lower House, and the 'autocratic' Upper House. The 1860s and 1870s saw numerous clashes between the Upper and Lower Houses. Although the subject matter varied, the underlying issue remained the same: did the Upper House have the power to block measures approved by the Lower House which was the seat of Government?

The Government, with the support of a majority of the Legislative Assembly, insisted it did not. The Legislative Council asserted it did; its function was to act as a Second Chamber, as a House of Review. This issue continues to enliven relationships between the two Chambers.

Finally, the Parliament won a reputation for instability. Between 1856 and 1901 the Government changed hands 29 times. A major reason for this was that political parties as they are now understood did not begin to emerge consistently until the 1890s. Before this era Members formed themselves into factions that grouped and dissolved with bewildering frequency. Organised parties were treated with suspicion, while the Independent Member was regarded as the parliamentary ideal.

Victoria's nineteenth century Parliaments were preoccupied with such issues as land settlement; regional development; free, secular and compulsory education; Legislative Council powers; payment of Members; electoral reform.

But these issues were always influenced in turn by a Parliament influenced by constitutional reforms, by constitutional conflicts, and by political instability.

1 January 1901 Federation

On 1 January 1901, Victoria ceased being an independent colony and became instead a State in the newly federated Australia.

This had the effect of altering the nature of the powers assumed by the Parliament of Victoria. It no longer controlled defence, post and communications, and other responsibilities of a national nature. Rather it focused ever more closely on matters of State concern: rail and road development, State education, land management, and so on.

From the 1890s political parties steadily emerged until by the 1920s there were three discernible orientations Labor, Liberal, and Country (although the names of the latter parties were often changed).

Until the mid-1950s, political instability remained a characteristic feature of parliamentary behaviour. Between 1901 and 1935 there were 15 Ministries. Internal disputes within the three political parties, and an electoral distribution that favoured the return of non-metropolitan political candidates, ensured frequent changes of Government.

And then, in 1935, the Country Party under the leadership of Albert Arthur Dunstan, won office. Apart from a five day period in 1943, it held Government until 1945. This was the most stable period so far experienced in the Parliament.

From 1945 until 1955, the Parliament was again buffeted by frequent changes of Government. There were nine ministries in 10 years, including four changes in three months in 1952.

In June 1955 the Liberal Country Party (later the Liberal Party) under the leadership of Henry Edward Bolte won Government. He held office until 1972 for an as yet unbroken record of 6,288 days.

The Liberal Party eventually lost Government in 1982 to the Australian Labor Party. It in turn held office until 3 October 1992 when it was defeated in a General Election by the Liberal Party under the leadership of Jeffrey Gibb Kennett in coalition with the National Party. At the September/October 1999 election the Australian Labor Party regained office led by Stephen Phillip Bracks. Since 1955 the Government has only changed hands three times.

MEMBERSHIP AND ELECTORATE NUMBERS, 1855 - Current
  LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY
  Provinces
(Regions)
Members Districts Members
1855 (1856) 6 30 37 60
1858 (1859) - - 49 78
1876 (1877) - - 55 86
1882 (1882) 14 42 - -
1888 (1889) - 48 84 95
1903 (1904) 17 35 65 68
1906 (1907) 17 34 65 65
1953 (1955) - - 66 66
1965 (1976) 18 36 73 73
1974 (1976) 22 44 81 81
1983 (1985) - - 88 88
2003 (2005) 8 40 - -

Note: First date indicates the year of enabling legislation, date in parentheses the electoral year in which the legislation first applied. Between 1904 and 1907 one Legislative Councillor and three Members of the Legislative Assembly represented railway employees and public servants; they did not represent electorates. View a graphic of the original

Political stability is now the defining characteristic of the Parliament of Victoria. The adoption and then the imposition of party discipline on Victoria's parliamentarians, liberalisation of the Legislative Council, electoral reform, and stable social and economic conditions have all contributed to this development.

Nor, with the advent of Federation, did Victorian parliamentary reform halt. Among the various changes promoted by the Parliament have been the enfranchisement of women in 1908; the adoption of preferential (1911), absentee and postal voting; the holding of elections exclusively on Saturdays; the adoption of a policy of one vote/one value in elections; acceptance of compulsory voting.

Procedural reforms within the Parliament have also contributed. In 1969 Questions Without Notice were adopted in the Lower House, and in 1976 in the Upper House. In 1973 the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 years. In 1975 the Constitution of Victoria, which had always been an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain, was formally proclaimed as an Act of the Parliament of Victoria. And, from the late 1970s, the Parliament began to develop an extensive and influential investigatory committee system. These, and other developments, helped make the Parliament more accessible to all Victorians.

Parliament Today

The Parliament currently comprises 128 Members. There are 88 Members of the Legislative Assembly, and 40 Members of the Legislative Council. Lower House Members each represent a single Electoral District. Legislative Councillors share 8 Electoral Regions, with five Members representing each region. Each Electoral Region is made up of 11 Electoral Districts.

All Members of both Houses are now elected for four year Parliamentary terms. The tenure of members of the 56th Parliament is governed by the provisions of the Constitution Act 1975, as particularly amended by the Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Act 2003. Section 38 of the Constitution Act 1975 now provides that the current Legislative Assembly and each subsequent Assembly shall expire on the Tuesday which is 25 days before the last Saturday in November which is nearest to the fourth anniversary of the election day on which the Assembly was elected. The date of the election of the 57th Parliament will be Saturday 27 November 2010.

The Parliament of Victoria has had a sometimes insightful, sometimes tumultuous history. Yet it is worth recalling the inscription that greets all visitors to Parliament House in Melbourne: 'Where no counsel is the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety'.

In this sentiment lies the future, and the safety, of parliamentary democracy in Victoria.

Further Reading

Browne, G., A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1900-84,Government Printer, Melbourne, 1985.

Garden, D., Victoria. A History, Nelson, Melbourne, 1984.

Hay, P. R., Ward, I., Warhurst, J., and Costar, B., (eds.), Essays on Victorian Politics, Warrnambool Institute

Press, Warrnambool, 1985.

Sayers, C. E. (ed.), One Hundred Years of Responsible Government, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1958.

Thompson, K., and Serle, G. A., A Biographical Register of the Victorian Legislature, 1856-1900, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1972.

Wright, R., A People's Counsel. A History of the Parliament of Victoria, 1856-1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992.

 

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