Sign In

Introduction

Text Size a a a Print Print this page

Many people will be surprised to learn that Western Australia has its own constitution. In a sense their ignorance is understandable, for the State's constitution - which sets out the broad rules and framework for its parliamentary government - has rarely come before public notice. Unlike the founding documents of the Australian Commonwealth or the United States of America, the Constitution of Western Australia has been changed and amended many times by Acts of Parliament and without the approval of the people. As a result, the State's constitution today includes a baffling array of acts and amendments passed since the original Constitution Act 1889 conferred self-government on the then colony of Western Australia.

In recent years, however, we have had cause to reflect on the State's constitution and the parliamentary system of government it authorises. The revelations of the `WA Inc.' Royal Commission have provoked searching questions about the operation of government and, in particular, the relationship of the executive to the legislature. At a national level, argument continues over the respective rights and responsibilities of the States and Commonwealth. Throw in the issue of a future Australian republic, and discussions on the meaning of citizenship, and one discerns a lively, contemporary background to any examination of the State's constitutional past.

When the original Constitution Act was proclamed on October 21, 1890, the system of self-government it established was deliberately cast as a collective achievement with a roseate glow. For some, it signalled that the colony had attained a high point of political maturity which, in retrospect, seemed to justify the whole enterprise of colonial settlement. Even today, the political history of self-government is easily co-opted to the task of proclaming the State's progress, a tale routinely marked by the `triumphs' of economic and political development. Tom Stannage has written that the notion of progress has often been conjoined to the `gentry' tradition in accounts of Western Australian history . . . "Central to the gentry myth is the idea of progress: of a relatively uninterrupted march towards economic prosperity and political democracy, of a society which was and is open to the thrifty, the temperate and the hardworking individual, and a society marked by harmonious social relations and general well-being". This view of a mythologised Western Australian past is both instructive and cautionary. Instructive, in the sense that it provokes reflection on the way in which a constitutional document was (and still is) connoted with broader notions of progress and development, and cautionary in that it warns of the pitfalls that await any history which glibly reaffirms a progressive view of the constitutional past.

This volume considers the emergence of self-government in Western Australia and particularly examines the Constitution Act 1889, its meaning, and its effects in that exceptional decade of the 1890s. It is divided in four sections and, as it was originally tailored to the needs of a public exhibition, does not always follow a conventional structure for historical writing, nor pretend to be an exhaustive survey of the field of constitutional history.

The first section slices through time to reveal an historical moment -  the day in October 1890 when the new constitution authorising self-government was proclaimed in the colony. It re-presents popular images of ceremony and celebration and then asks what this social elaboration of the change to self-government actually meant.

The second section looks at the history of early governmental forms and structures in the colony, from the time of its foundation in 1829 through to the calls for self-government in the 1880s. It is based on a loose chronology of political change and emendation over the period when Western Australia was an undistinguished colony under the direction of the British Government in London.

Section three introduces the Constitution Act 1889 which established responsible self-government in the colony; it then considers some key features of the new system of government and develops a thematic view of its meaning and relevance to the broader context of 1890s Western Australia. It looks at issues of electoral rights and suffrage; constitutional provision for Aboriginal people; the era of stable government led by John Forrest; government support for public works; the goldrush and its effect on constitutional change; federation and the limitations on State sovereignty; and the development of political parties.

In section four, the report briefly considers some specific issues of constitutional change in the twentieth century and concerns about government procedures in recent years.

This report draws heavily on existing published and unpublished research in Western Australia's social and political history. It is largely based on the work of Professor Brian de Garis and Professor Tom Stannage, both of whom have written exhaustively on Western Australian politics and society in the nineteenth century. Some sections also reveal their debt to the volume edited by Associate Professor David Black, The House on the Hill: A History of the Parliament of Western Australia, and the authors of its individual chapters. I have tried to condense a popular historical understanding of the State's constitutional past from the work of these and other scholars, and then add specific documentary and other primary material to flesh out the tale. Every sub-section begins with a quote from a contemporaneous source and ends with a reflection from a leading Western Australian historian or commentator, to create a dialogue of sorts between past and present.