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Responsible Government, 1870-1890

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Responsible Government, 1870-1890.(56).

Those who wanted representative and responsible forms of government regarded these two political concepts as inseparably joined inasmuch as the former was considered nothing but a stepping stone to the latter and the latter nothing but a logical result of the former. Thus for conservative Councillors, and that was nearly all of them, representative government was to be opposed because it could only lead to responsible government. Colonel Bruce, it will be remembered, opposed representative government on just this basis. Governor Weld was quick to notice this too and he wrote to Secretary of State Granville and reported that he (Granville) should expect agitation for responsible government to begin soon after representative government was granted. And Weld was right. In 1874, the Legislative Council passed a resolution that it was time for Western Australia to move towards responsible government. Weld promised to introduce a Bill to implement responsible government and to recommend the reform to Secretary of State Carnarvon.(57)

By 1874, what remained of the convict system was beginning to fade. The last convict ship had departed six years previously. All convict depots were either closed or about to be closed. Roads were starting to deteriorate because prison authorities were having trouble mustering enough convicts to form road repair gangs.(58) The view of the same Colony from Number 13 Downing Street, however, was quite different.(59) While the Colonial Office had conceded representative government, it was most definitely not going to concede responsible government. Secretary of State Carnarvon was annoyed at the actions of the Council, but was decidedly less than pleased with Governor Weld’s welcoming accommodation of Council’s motion. Carnarvon learned of Weld’s actions with ‘surprise and regret’ and instructed Weld to leave all aspects of responsible government to his successor, Sir William Clever Francis Robinson. (60) As to the matter of responsible government, Carnarvon wrote.

4.- Nor have I been able to put out of view the difficulties arising from the isolated and scattered character of the population, complicated as these difficulties further are by the presence of a considerable number of convicted criminals still remaining in the Colony,- the great paucity of men of means and experience who would be able to devote their time and personal attention to Legislative duties,- in one word, the general insufficiency of the materials from which Responsible Government is drawn and by which it can only be successfully maintained.(61)

Carnarvon’s despatch was read to the Legislative Council and its Members quickly realised that Weld could do no more for responsible government. Those Councillors who were disappointed with this turn of events were in for a long series of disappointments with Western Australia’s new governor. Sir William Robinson, was a sound man. Robinson was never going to give Secretary of State Carnarvon any cause for surprise or regret. Robinson did not need to be instructed to delay responsible government for as long as possible because he and Carnarvon were as one on that issue. Governor Robinson wrote

I am glad that on the question of Responsible Government your Lordship has decided in the negative; and I feel sure that the absence of the chief agitator [Barlee] will remove [illegible] of the difficulty[.] I should [illegible] have had in reconciling the country to delay. Public feeling on the Question has greatly calmed down of late.

A little wise[?] conciliation on the part of the Governor’s [illegible] , a little wise[?] respect for the reasonable wishes of the representative Members , & Responsible Government need not have been thought of for many years to come.(62)

With both Governor Robinson and Secretary of State Carnarvon opposed, the situation was hopeless. And so the issue returned to the hearts of those who had nurtured it. In the despatch quoted above, Robinson closed his writing on Western Australia with the remark that, ‘One likes Western Australia very much.’ Perhaps it was the absence of responsible government that made Western Australia so attractive.

Councillor Stephen Henry Parker was fond of Western Australia too. On Friday 12 July 1878, Parker put to Council six resolutions which were aimed at the attainment of responsible government. Parker’s resolutions were eventually lost, thirteen votes to five.(63) All of the Members who rose to debate Parker’s resolutions expressed concern that the Colony could not cope without the grant it received from the Imperial government to fund the extra police and magistrates it needed to deal with the remaining convicts. (64) Attorney General Hocking was concerned about that too, but then went where no other Member had gone.

Sir, there is another element which must not be lost sight of in dealing with this question [responsible government]. I have no desire to offend the susceptibilities of any class, but I shall speak plainly, and I may say at once that I allude to the convict element. I would ask any hon.[sic] gentleman who imagines that in Government we shall find a refuge from all evils, is he prepared to admit members of the convict class to a seat in this House? I think I should have but one answer to that question. As I said just now, I should be sorry to hurt the feelings of any man – among that class I know there are a great number who have worked hard, and zealously, and successfully, and many of them have achieved positions of which they have reason to be proud : at the same time, I for one have no hesitation in saying I should not like to see men of that class admitted to seats in this House. Many of these persons already have votes … [and] they would have it in their power to exercise direct pressure upon some members, inasmuch as in some constituencies they form a large proportion of the electors. This is a phase of the question which must not be lost sight of, in dealing with this subject of constitutional reform. It is a difficulty which will have to be faced, and the consequences are inevitable. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that, in great measure, the agitation for a change has proceeded from men of this class, who, under manhood suffrage, would soon demand admission to seats in this House, and it would not be very long before you would have them administering the Government of the Colony.(65)

Hocking was completely wrong in his claim that a convict could be elected to the Legislative Council and being the Colony’s chief law officer he must have known that. Any person, whether transported convict or not, who was convicted of ‘treason, felony or other infamous offence’ was rendered ineligible to stand for election to the Legislative Council.(66) Of the convicts who were able to satisfy the property qualification, only those who had served their entire sentences (expirees) and those who held conditional pardons were permitted to vote. Convicts who were still in prison or released on ticket of leave were not permitted to vote regardless of how much property they owned. Attorney General Hocking was the only Councillor, during that particular debate, to raise the idea that the presence of convicts was a huge problem to the grant of responsible government and, as it subsequently turned out, he proved to be the last Councillor to do so. This objection was never raised again in Council even though Parker attempted to get Council’s approval of responsible government in August 1882, April 1883, August 1886 and, finally, in July 1887. (67)

By 1887, Western Australia’s convict past was a pale memory. Convicts stopped coming a generation ago, Fremantle prison had been transferred to the Colonial government and the Imperial subsidy had ended.(68) It is, perhaps, not surprising that Parker was able to persuade Council to endorse his resolution for responsible government in July 1887. This success, however, caused the convict issue to take a very interesting, perhaps even bizarre, turn. Anti-responsible government sentiment, very similar to that expressed by Hocking, was articulated by some of British Western Australia’s most influential landowners. Walter Padbury, for instance, arrived ten months after the Colony was founded. By 1887, Padbury held considerable wealth and influence and on 27 December of that year he wrote to Secretary of State Holland.

…I have lived in this Colony since its commencement and known every Governor in it.
… My object, Sir, in now writing to you is to ask you to pause [original emphasis] before you grant Responsible Government to this Colony… and in this I know I am borne out by almost every settler of any standing in this Colony, and were a memorial to go round for signature to that effect, it would be signed by almost every man of any standing

A ‘memorial’ did ‘go round’ circa December 1887. In those days, the correct protocol for all petitions was that they were to be sent to the governor who would make an assessment and forward both documents to the secretary of state in London. Governor Broome, in April 1888, wrote to Secretary of State Holland.

This petition is signed by a body of most respectable and sterling settlers, every one of whom, I believe, has a substantial stake [i.e., owns lots of property] in the Colony. I notice also the names of the managers of two of the principal banks in Perth.(70)

The 1887 memorial contained two sections in which it was alleged that convicts were still a problem.

20. The electorate is not more than 4,500 by the last official information ; and this important body is largely composed of ex-convicts : who, while they enjoy the privilege of voting, cannot be members of the Legislature.

23. That it [responsible government] would be an experiment… and that until matters should be further advanced, it would be not imprudent to withhold the exercise of that experiment until at least the convict element should have ceased to exist in the electoral body … (71)

Whoever wrote the petition – and, at that time, there was great interest in who had written it – seemed to have been naively unaware as to how unfashionable such attacks had become by 1887. The Daily News, on 4 June 1888, hurled a hailstorm of outrage at the petition and its writer or writers in its editorial, which was headlined, ‘A Cowardly Attack’. Horace Stirling, the editor, described the petition as a ‘despicable document’ which contained ‘disgraceful and mendacious assertions’ that were ‘untruthful … and false’.72 The writers of the petition were, and still are, unknown because they did not put their names to their work, a fact which Stirling condemned.

… they have succeeded so far in concealing their identity [sic] from the general public, and thereby as yet escaped the opprobrium they have so richly merited for the underhand and disgraceful action they have taken - and of them it may be truely [sic] said that they “hate the light, because their deeds are evil.”(73)

The bitterest invective, however, was reserved for the assertion of the existence of a convict taint.

But these traitors to the reputation of the country of their adoption or birth display the most extreme malignity of unpatriotic vindictiveness, when they refer to the social condition of this Colony. Taking the electorate of Perth as evidence of the state of the rest of this dependency, these unworthy colonists falsely assert that “this Electorate is not more than 4,500 (sic) by the latest official information ; and this important body is largely composed [original italics] of ex-convicts.” That statement is (to use plain English) is an unmitigated lie.(74)

Even the Colony’s most conservative newspaper, the West Australian, rejected the petition.

But so ill-judged is this petition, so illogical is its tenor, so unpractical in its object, that even the most retrogressively-inclined of our colonists will, we trust, on reflection, realize [sic], not only how little they could gain, but how much they might positively lose by positively identifying themselves with such a movement.(75)

As for the … objection, that the “convict element” in the electoral body is a source of danger, we much regret that we should have even to allude to such an argument, fished out of the political waste-paper basket of ten or a dozen years ago. Whatever might have been said as to the past, he [whoever wrote the petition] must be absurdly ignorant of the conditions of the present … . Those [convicts] amongst our fellow colonists alluded to by the petitioners who still remain amongst us and exercise the [voting] franchise can be as safely trusted with the latter as any other part of the community. … They are completely merged in the general population, and contribute as large a share to the political stability of the country as any other class.(76)

Apart from one aberration in 1874, the Legislative Council had been a solid bulwark against responsible government, but once the pro-responsible government flag was hoisted over that citadel, the opponents of responsible government had no political focal point with which to resist that reform. So they tried an appeal to the prejudices of the past and not only failed but also found themselves publicly ridiculed by the West Australian, which had, until very recently, been the clarion trumpet of ultra-conservative and anti-responsible government sentiment.(77) The West Australian announced to the entire Colony that

…the Old-Conservative party in Western Australia … are … Buried in the remembrances of the past, their minds cannot emancipate themselves from the good old times when Governors were omnipotent and “humble petitions” the highest exercise of popular rights. They cannot follow the rapid advance of recent years … .(78)

The West and the Daily News were Western Australia’s principal daily newspapers and both rejected the petition and supported responsible government. The age of convicts being a reason to obstruct self-government for Western Australia had passed. A protracted period of negotiation ensued. On 21 October 1890 - three years after Parker’s original resolution - responsible government was proclaimed in Western Australia. For West Australians, this was a time of great historical moment, but, seemingly, a time also for a dash of ironic humour from the Colonial Office. The first Governor of Western Australia under responsible government was Sir William Robinson: the man who in two previous terms had done nothing to advance the cause and who did much that delayed it.


 (56) Responsible government is a system of democratic government in which the executive (in this case, Premier, Cabinet and all Ministers) are all responsible to, and drawn from, the legislature. The term responsible is drawn from this arrangement and not from the idea that politicians should exhibit responsible behaviour.
(57) Bills could only be introduced by the governor. In so doing, Weld showed his support for responsible government.
(58) WAVP 1875-76, Report on the Blue Book for 1874, p.3.
(59) The business address of the Colonial Office.
(60) SROWA, Earl Carnarvon to Governor Robinson, 18 November 1874, Carnarvon Papers, Reel 6101, Piece 253.
(61) Lord Carnarvon to Governor Robinson, 5 August 1875, WAVP, report no. 15, pp.5-6.
(62) SROWA, Governor Robinson to Earl Carnarvon, 18 September 1875, Carnarvon Papers, op. cit. The ‘chief agitator’ was Colonial Secretary Barlee. In a previous despatch, Carnarvon remarked on his pleasure that Barlee had returned to England because ‘…his absence will I think facilitate the progress of those measures which are desirable.’ In 1876, Carnarvon again wrote to Robinson about Barlee. In this letter Carnarvon appear to have formed a plan to keep Barlee out of Western Australia. Carnarvon wrote ‘ … I have seen Mr. Barlee & if I can see my way to giving him employment elsewhere I shall hope to do so. He would be a difficulty to you if he should return … .’ In July 1887, when Parker finally got Council’s approval of responsible government, Thomas Cockburn-Campbell remarked that the departure of Governor Weld and Colonial Secretary Barlee effected a serious setback to the cause of responsible government. See SROWA, Secretary of State Carnarvon to Governor Robinson, 16 July 1875 and 16 March 1876, Carnarvon Papers, Reel 6101, Piece 253. See also SROWA, WAPD vol. XI, p.89.
(63) SROWA, WAPDebates, vol.III, op. cit, p.249.
(64) Ibid., pp.230-240.
(65) Ibid., p.244.
(66) J. S. Battye Library (hereafter, JSBL), Statutes of Western Australia, 34 Vic., No.30, sect. 1 & 6.
(67) Councillor Harry Venn put the resolution of August 1886, Parker put all the others.
(68) Fremantle prison was transferred to the colonial government on 31 March 1886.
(69) JSBL, Correspondence Respecting the Proposed Introduction of Responsible Government into Western Australia.
(70) Ibid.
(71) Ibid.
(72) JSBL, Daily News, 4 June 1888.
(73) Ibid. ‘For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light …’ See, John 3:20, King James Version.
(74) Ibid.
(75) JSBL, West Australian 2 June 1888.
(76) Ibid.
(77) Under the editorship of Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell (1879 to 1887) the West opposed responsible government. Opposition was changed into support under the editorship of John Winthrop Hackett in 1887. See Brian de Garis, ‘Constitutional and Political Development’, in D. Black (ed.) House on the Hill, op. cit., p.53.
(78) JSBL, West Australian, 2 June 1888.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.