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Constitution Act of 1889

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Part Three

Creating a parliament

" . . . for the peace, order and good government of the colony of Western Australia."

Constitution Act 1889.

THE Constitution Act established the broad form of responsible self-government in Western Australia that we recognise today. It provided for two houses of parliament - an elected Legislative Assembly, and a Legislative Council with members initially nominated by the governor. The constitution was similar to those in force in other Australian colonies, with some added provisions to protect the colonial elite. Parliaments of this sort were British in origin, and much of the understanding and conventions about how they worked had emerged by the middle of the nineteenth century. Today, we refer to this type of government as the Westminster system, but in the 1890s it was usually described as responsible government, because the executive or cabinet was responsible, or accountable, to the legislature. Government was to be conducted by a ministry, or Cabinet, of five members of parliament and not, as in the past, by the governor and appointed officials. This meant that Cabinet could only govern while it retained the support of a majority of members of the lower house and that its power was therefore limited by parliamentary review. Before, governors had served dual roles as representatives of the King or Queen and agents of the British Government, but under the new constitution their role as imperial agents was greatly diminished. Though governors maintained confidential correspondence with the Colonial Office in London, it was expected that they would approve legislation with the advice of local ministers, and not at the direction of the Secretary of State. The British Government retained responsibility for external affairs, defence and Aboriginal welfare, but the new Western Australian Government had control of all other matters. There was no doubt that the colony was still part of the British Empire - it was certainly not wholly independent - but it had gained a large degree of political autonomy. 

The first elections to the Legislative Assembly in November and December 1890 were quiet and remarkably restrained by our standards. There were no formal political parties and most candidates described themselves as independent "free lances". Thirty members were elected for four-year terms from single-member constituencies, of those 19 were elected unopposed. The governor also appointed 15 men to the upper house, the new Legislative Council, in December. Sir James. G. Lee Steere, who had been Speaker of the old Legislative Council, was elected first Speaker of the new Legislative Assembly at a brief sitting of parliament on December 30. John Forrest formed a five-member Cabinet, all of whom had to resign their seats and contest another round of elections allowing voters to judge whether they were suitable for ministerial office. The five - Forrest, Septimus Burt, George Shenton, W. E. Marmion, and H. W. Venn - were all returned and parliament re-convened on 20th January, 1891.

The two houses, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council, sat in different buildings at first. The assembly met in a chamber on Hay Street next to the Town Hall, which had been used by the former Legislative Council between 1870 and 1890. The new council returned to the modest offices on St. George's Terrace, next to Government House, where the old council had sat between 1836 and 1870. There was strong criticism of these ad-hoc arrangements, however, and in 1897 a commission recommended a new building on the St. George's Terrace site. Parliamentary members rejected the advice - not the first nor last time this would happen - and instead chose a location at the west end of St George's Terrace for a new Parliament House. The first stage of the building, much of it designed by Hillson Beasley, was begun in 1902 and opened two years later. Sixty years later an eastern entrance overlooking the city of Perth, and new offices were added to the existing structure. This upgraded complex was opened on 23 March, 1964, and is still in use today.

"While the immediate purpose of such a system was the conservative one of protecting the interests of wealthy property owners, it had the effect of enshrining a constitutional system based on negotiation and compromise which could not be dominated by the government of the day acting solely in the name of the majority of representatives in the lower House."

Campbell Sharman on the two Houses of Parliament, in House on the Hill, 1991.