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Political Parties

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Part Three

Political action and parliamentary control
 

"The Forrest Ministry will never die. They only reconstruct. They have 17 members (which is a majority) who will vote with them under almost all circumstances."

Frederick Illingworth, 1895.

PERSONALITIES, rather than political philosophy, dominated the first decade of self-government. The Constitution Act 1889 made no mention of political parties, nor of the part they have come to play in our parliamentary system of government. Members were unpaid till 1900 and most regarded their political careers as part-time interests rather than careers. John Forrest garnered support by force of will through much of the 1890s, but by the turn-of-the-century his 'Ministerialist' faction was in decline. The ranks of the "Oppositionists" in the parliament were also fluid, with members choosing to support some Government Bills and reject others. Both groupings were parliamentary alliances struck between members sharing common interests, rather than political parties with concrete organisations and programmes.

Stephen Henry Parker had led a short-lived Reform Party in the old Legislative Council during the campaign for the new constitution. However, when self-government was granted there seemed little else within the purview of the party's political vision and it quickly faded from view. Other organisations, such as the Western Australian Liberal Association and the Eight Hours Association, which campaigned for workers' rights, had little real impact on the parliament. While there was more emphatic parliamentary opposition among liberals and goldfields members to the Forrest Government by 1895, this was not organised as a formal political party. Not until Charles Oldham was elected as the first Labor member in 1897, did party politics take root. Oldham was sponsored by the Political Labor Party, "a new offshoot" of the Trades and Labour Council founded in 1891. His success prompted more political action by labour organisations in Perth and the goldfields, and brought surprisingly good results in the first federal and state elections in 1901. Forrest's departure to the federal arena further weakened his 'Ministerialist' group in the State Parliament, and in 1901 the liberal George Leake formed a new Government with conditional Labor support. It was a turbulent time in Western Australian politics, however, and by 1904 the mould of parliamentary support had been completely recast. Non-Labor members, including liberals like Walter James, formed a 'Ministerial' grouping opposed to Labor. Henry Daglish led a short-lived Labor Government between 1904 and 1905 but was replaced by C. H. Rason's 'Ministerial' group, which formally became known as the Liberal Party in 1911.

". . . party discipline has not only transformed the nature of electoral choice but has had a dramatic effect on the operation of parliament. Instead of a government being dependent on building loose coalitions for support of its legislative programme in the lower House, it can now rely on party discipline to ensure fixed majorities on the floor of the Legislative Assembly."

Campbell Sharman, in House on the Hill, 1991.