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State Government in the 20th Century

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Part Four

Alteration and progress?
 

`` . . . our pride in the future, and it will be a very great pride too, will not be so much that we are Western Australians as that we are Australians. Our pride will be in our country, the whole of Australia, the same as is the case with the Canadians and the Americans; and we have this to guide us also, that in Canada and the United States - and this is a good argument which may be used by anyone - the people have not suffered through federation."

Sir John Forrest, 1900.

THE constitutional history of Western Australia did not end with Federation in 1901. Rather, the process of amending and adding to the State's Constitution has continued till the present. Our system of State government still bears the marks of its founding document, the Constitution Act 1889, but much of the way that government is run depends on changes in legislation, convention and practice since then. However, there is still a governor, with reduced powers, and there are still two houses, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council, in our parliamentary system.

Changes to electoral law have meant that the right to vote in elections for either house is now open to all adults, as long as they are Australian citizens or, in some cases, British subjects. The same is true of the rules governing the eligibility of candidates; in 1920 women finally gained the right to run for office and the following year Edith Cowan became the first woman to sit in a house of any Australian parliament. Electoral rights for Aboriginal people took much longer to achieve; not until 1962 did they enjoy the same electoral opportunity as other Western Australians. In 1964, voting for the Legislative Council, which had retained a property qualification ever since it had become elective in 1893, was finally liberalised and made uniform with the Legislative Assembly. In 1970, the voting age was lowered to 18. As well as these progressive alterations to political franchise, there have been periodic changes to other features of the State's electoral system. Preferential voting was introduced in 1908 and three years later it became mandatory  for voters to rank all candidates in this manner. In 1922, the State parliament transferred responsibility for deciding electoral boundaries to independent commissioners, and there has been a series of seat redistributions for both houses since then. Compulsory voting was officially introduced in 1939, and eight years later the requirement for prospective ministers to re-contest their seats at by-elections was finally abolished. In 1987, four-year terms were reintroduced for the Legislative Assembly, and the same term newly-applied for members of the Legislative Council.

The State's constitutional relationship to the British government has changed dramatically since the early days of self-government. For much of the first three decades of this century, the governor still sent lengthy reports to the Colonial Office, later known as the Dominions Office, and later still as the Commonwealth Office, in London. In 1933, Sir James Mitchell, a former Premier, became the first Australian-born vice-regal representative in Australia, though he took the title of lieutenant-governor till 1948 when he was commissioned as a full governor. This break with the tradition of appointing a British citizen further eroded the argument that the governor looked to British interests, rather than those of the State. In another step, the Statute of Westminster, ratified by the Australian Government in 1942, allowed for the full political independence of the nation of Australia. This new sense of sovereignty was bolstered in 1948 by the introduction of Australian citizenship; previously Australians had been known formally as British subjects. Yet despite these developments on the national stage, State governments in Australia retained residual links with the British Government, as well as the Crown, for many years. Through the 1950s and 1960s, State governors still sent periodic reports to London and the Privy Council was maintained as the last court of appeal. Only with the passage of the Australia Acts in 1986 were links between the governors and British Government, though not the King or Queen, finally severed. The only constitutional limitation on the Western Australian Government now is that exerted by the Commonwealth of Australia, not the British Government.

Of course the State's relationship to the Commonwealth has rarely been tranquil. In 1933, a referendum recorded a startling two-to-one vote in favour of Western Australia seceding from the Australian Commonwealth, and the newly-elected Collier Labor Government was forced to send the petition to London, where it was simply ignored. While commentators have since regarded that vote as a protest at Commonwealth ignorance of the State's desperate circumstances during the early Depression years, it is true that secessionist calls have recurred periodically ever since. Subsequent claims for separation have failed to win the same kind of support as in 1933, but they indicate Western Australia's particular regional accent within broader themes of national politics and identity.

One of the most significant, yet little-known, episodes in the State's constitutional past occurred two decades ago, when special legislation entrenched elements of Western Australia's parliamentary government in the Constitution. These amendments, passed in 1978, mean that the key roles of the governor, and the Legislative Assembly and Council, can only be abolished or altered by a two-thirds majority vote at a referendum, rather than by Act of Parliament as was the case formerly. Whereas the State's Constitution was once a parliamentary document in its entirety, now it is subject in part to the will of the people.

Problems with the conduct of government in the 1980s and the subsequent Royal Commission have refocussed public attention on the State's Constitution and its Parliament. In particular, these events have provoked questions about the extent to which the Parliament - the legislative arm of government - is dominated by its executive, the Cabinet. The Constitution Act 1889 provided the framework for a parliamentary system to prevent the arbitrary use of executive power by the governor and his elected officials. Under this system of responsible government, executive officers - known as ministers - were members of parliament who could only act while they had the support of a majority of their colleagues. In theory, this meant that the decisions and actions of the executive were to be open to close parliamentary review. In practice, the rise of political parties in the twentieth century has allowed Cabinet to marshal support behind party flags and so avoid independent scrutiny.

In the 1990s, two bodies have re-examined the Western Australian Constitution and the form of government it authorises within broad discussions on the need for governmental reform. The Western Australian Constitutional Committee was particularly concerned with the growth of Federal power, while the Commission on Government looked at broad, systemic problems in the present system of State Government. Both groups issued reports that advocated reform (in the case of the Commission on Government, a staggering five volumes of findings and recommendations) but it remains to be seen whether their work will translate into legislative action. At the same time, there is reconsideration of the meaning and practice of citizenship, with special regard to political and economic rights and responsibilities in liberal democracies. Some critics have suggested that political institutions modelled on those in Britain, which have their roots in eighteenth or nineteenth century political practice and philosophy, may be inadequate to deal with new global forces, such as transnational companies, in the defence of individual freedoms. They argue that constitutionally-limited government cannot adapt and reform itself quickly enough in the face of rapidly-changing economic and technological conditions. If that is the case, and more and more political and economic decisions are taken at an international level, then the fate of regional and even national governments may be that of increasing irrelevance. Whether or not these predictions prove accurate, Western Australians looking to re-fashion their political futures have never had greater cause to examine their constitutional pasts.

``The preservation of a strong and esteemed Parliament in Western Australia is dependent upon our willingness to review critically the success of our adaptation to the Westminster derived system of responsible government as a whole. Apart from being frequently misrepresented even by some parliamentarians, the underlying principles and apparatus of responsible government is facing increasing challenge from political and constitutional theorists."

P. Boyce, in House on the Hill, 1991.