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Early Government

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Part Two

The Governor and Legislative Council


Captain James Stirling,
first governor of Western Australia.

``A Colonial Governor is a ruler who has no permanent interest in the colony he governs; who perhaps had to look for it in the map when he was sent thither, who takes years before he really understands its parties and its controversies; who, though without prejudice himself, is apt to be a slave to prejudices of local people near him; who inevitably, and almost laudably governs not in the interest of the colony, which he may mistake, but in his own interest, which he sees and is sure of."

Walter Bagehot, 1867.

AT first Captain James Stirling ruled the small, transplanted society of Western Australia by virtue of personal will and at the vague direction of the British Government. Then in 1831 Stirling was formally appointed as governor of the fledgling colony and he formed Executive and Legislative Councils, which had common membership and were based on similar bodies in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania). The Executive Council was responsible to the Crown and was made up exclusively of the governor and his senior officials, who obeyed his directions as a matter of course. The Legislative Council was also wholly nominated and hardly representative, but it slowly developed into a kind of mini-parliament with added members appointed from the ranks of the colonial elite. The first bill Stirling presented to this council, in February 1832, was designed to establish civil courts in the colony. Like almost all other bills proposed in these years, it was passed without dissent.

The governor was the representative of the Crown and the paramount political figure in the early phase of settlement, and his authority to make policy and determine government business went virtually unchecked in the colony. He was bound to confer with the Executive Council, and present his proposed laws, or bills, to the Legislative Council, but he could veto their decisions and retained considerable personal power to decide daily issues. The only brake on the governor's authority was that occasionally applied by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in London, a minister in the British Government. The Secretary of State was responsible for overseas territories and possessions of the British Empire and was kept informed by letter of major decisions in Western Australia, as with all other colonies. He generally appointed governors from the ranks of military men and Imperial servants to serve for fixed periods of time.

Government House was the political headquarters of the colony, as well as the focus of the landowning elite's social life. It served as a material and symbolic reassurance to wealthy settlers, who sought to consolidate their property gains and assert their social importance. Beyond this coterie, whose personal standing gained them influence and possible nomination to the Legislative Council, other colonists had little say in the affairs of early Western Australia. When settlers wanted to publicly voice their opinions they usually called a meeting, passed a series of motions and addressed a memorial to the governor. Anyone who wanted to bring an issue or grievance to the attention of the British government had to do so via the governor's office. The only other alternative was to make one's views known in the flourishing local press, as copies of all colonial newspapers were regularly sent to the Secretary of State in London. The Perth Gazette, forerunner of The West Australian, was first published in 1833 and became an avenue for moderate political expression, but it was left to the Inquirer, founded in 1840, to take a more independent and robust line on colonial affairs.

Members of the Legislative Council met in a modest building on St George's Terrace in the shadow of Government House next door. The physical relationship of the two buildings signalled a political reality, with the council dominated by the imposing executive office of governor. Despite occasional rumblings, council members willingly played their deferential parts in this theatre of a well-ordered society, wearing formal dress to meetings and adhering to the standing orders of the House of Commons in the British Parliament. George Fletcher Moore wrote in 1834 that . . . "We are required to appear in full dress there . . . The Governor appears in full dress (naval uniform), Captain Daniel in full military dress, Messrs. Broun and Roe in blue coats with red collars and Crown buttons . . .".

Tentative calls for a measure of elective government came from colonists in 1835, but were ignored. Western Australia simply seemed too small and insignificant for many years to warrant political change. Even by 1850, the colony's population stood at the remarkably low figure of 5,886, excluding Aboriginal people who were not counted in the census, and the total value of its exports was just 22,135 pounds. Then the decision to send convicts to the colony meant that moves for a partly-elected legislature were again delayed. The first shipment of prisoners arrived at Fremantle in 1850, 21 years after the first free colonists had stepped ashore on the west coast. In the same year, the British government passed the Australian Colonies Government Act (later known as the Australian Constitutions Act No. 2) which allowed its Australian possessions to become self-governing. This Act drew inspiration from the recommendations of Lord Durham's Report of 1839, which had set out the theoretical basis for colonies in North America (now Canada) to gain a measure of political independence. As a result of the 1850 Act, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania became self-governing in 1855, South Australia in 1856, and Queensland in 1859. In Western Australia, the prerequisite conditions for political change were met in 1856 but it was thought impossible to allow popular elections while convicts were being transported. So while all other colonies in Australia had self-government by 1860, political development in Western Australia was simply postponed.

"For . . . forty years Western Australia was a crown colony ruled by governors who were primarily responsible to the British government rather than the colonists over whose welfare they presided. After the first two-and-a-half years the governor had to work with and through a small Legislative Council but the members of this body were officials, who were subject to his authority . . . The politics of the day therefore revolved around the governor and his officials rather than around elections, parties or cabinets."

B. K. de Garis, in A New History of Western Australia, 1981.

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.