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Representative Government

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Part Two

The first elections

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Volunteer militia outside the new Government House
built with convict labour on St. Georges Terrace, 1863.

"The Petition of the undersigned, being more than one-third of the Householders of the said Colony, humbly prayeth - That an Ordinance may be passed for establishing in this Colony a Legislative Council according to the provisions recited in the Act of the Imperial Parliament 13 and 14 Vict. Cap. 59."

Petition for Representative Government, 1865.

INTEREST in elective government re-emerged as the convict era drew to a close in the 1860s. A public meeting at the Freemason's Hotel in Perth decided to draft a petition calling for a more representative Legislative Council, as provided for in the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850. When the petition was presented in June 1865 it had 1,303 signatures, representing more than a third of colonial households required under the Act. However members of the Legislative Council favoured reform to allow for an elected majority, rather than a complete overhaul of the existing constitution. They pressed the British Government to allow the council to remain a nominated body and so protect the entrenched power of the colony's wealthy elite.

While the Colonial Office in London hesitated on the issue of constitutional change, the governor of the day, John Hampton, decided to allow informal elections in six districts of the colony. He proposed to nominate the winners of these ballots to the Legislative Council, so establishing a kind of de facto partly-elected legislature. The first of these elections were held in November and December 1867 and all free men were allowed to vote. There were no special ballot papers and instead voters wrote their name and address, and the name of the candidate they supported, on a blank piece of paper (the secret ballot was only introduced in 1877). Five successful candidates were appointed to the council and the governor nominated a sixth to represent Champion Bay, where settlers had refused to accept Hampton's compromise. For the first time, elected members sat in a parliamentary chamber in Western Australia.

The change to a more representative political system was formalised in 1870, when the new governor, Frederick Weld, agreed to regular elections for two thirds of the seats on a reconstituted Legislative Council. An ordinance passed in the same year provided for 18 members in the council, six of them nominated by the governor and 12 elected from ten constituencies, with Perth and Fremantle returning two members each. Despite the more representative character of the new council, the interests of the colonial elite were well-protected. Only men who could show they owned or leased property of a certain value were allowed to vote. So although there were about 15,000 men in the colony in 1870, not including Aboriginal men, only three thousand of these could vote. Prospective candidates also had to own property which was worth 2,000 pounds or which earned 100 pounds a year before they could nominate for office. The Legislative Council now sat in a larger building on Hay Street next to the recently-built 'people's palace', the Perth Town Hall. Symbolically it appeared that the partly-elected body had moved out of the influence of the governor's circle and closer to the people. It is true that under the reforms of 1870 the governor was no longer a member of the legislature. However, he still wielded formidable power as head of the Executive Council and he alone could introduce money bills to the legislature through his nominated representative, the Colonial Secretary. The governor and his appointed officials retained day-to-day power to run the colony, though the opening of a telegraph link to the eastern colonies and London in 1877 placed them more firmly under the control of superiors in London. Yet the executive and legislative arms of colonial government were still divided, and in that separation lay the seeds of future conflict. Through the 1880s, elected members of the Legislative Council increasingly vied with the governor and Executive Council to assume greater responsibility for the colony's destiny.

"It was 'representative' in the sense that the Legislative Council was for the first time composed predominantly of men elected to represent their fellows. The Council was little more than an exclusive debating society however and real power remained with the governor, who was answerable primarily to the secretary of state for the colonies in London."

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