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The Move for Self-Government

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Part Two
Popular politics and reform


The WA Bulletin published a series of cartoons in the late 1880's
arguing for self government in Western Australia.

"In these days of advancement it does not do to stand still, and when we find the powerful cry of progress raised in our colony, it is obvious that it must be to the interest of all to meet it half way. The change which has been gradually coming about for the past few years in spite of all opposition is now close at hand, and, although we may always look for persisted croakings on the part of a few, still we cannot conceal from ourselves that it is a step in the right direction, and that until the Colony throws off the lethargy in which it has been steeped for so many years we shall always rank as the Cinderella of the Australian group."

Eastern Districts' Chronicle, 1888.

COMPLETE reform of the colony's political system seemed just around the corner in the early 1870s. Most members of the partly-elected Legislative Council and even the governor Frederick Weld, supported a draft constituton for a new parliament. They planned for two parliamentary houses, a wholly-nominated upper house and an elected lower house, and this met with the approval of electors when it was put to the vote. However, the British government was less sanguine about the prospect of self-government  and it instructed a new governor, Sir William Robinson, to dissuade popular interest in the scheme. Sir William (who served three times as governor, in 1875-77, 1880-83 and finally 1890-95) was successful in deferring the popular movement for self-government, but not in eradicating it. In fact, by 1878 a young lawyer elected to the Legislative Council, Stephen Henry Parker - popularly known as "the people's Harry" after his defence of a convict in 1870 - and two colleagues established a Reform League to work for political change. Parker had been schooled in the relative affluence of Bishop Hale's School on St George's Terrace, where his classmates had included John Forrest. Though his league proved to be a limited force, the young lawyer staked out a reputation as a perennial supporter of political reform. Parker's campaigning motivated popular interest in constitutional change through the early 1880s and his league was eventually relaunched as the Reform Association in 1886. Within days it had signed on 400 members.

A rise in the colony's population, an increase in public works, and a rush to the Kimberley goldfield revealed the colony's potential for economic development in the 1880s. The population (excluding Aboriginal people) stood at 29,561 in 1880; while by 1890 the corresponding figure was 48,502. Government spending on public works, such as telegraph lines, railways, and water and sewerage services, also grew. The first railway line, between Geraldton and Northampton, opened in 1879 and soon after, in 1881, Fremantle, Perth and Guildford were connected by a rail service. This line reached York and then Beverley before a private concern, the Western Australian Land Company, extended it to Albany in return for land grants. Railways were, as historian Geoffrey Bolton has argued, a badge of economic power and advance . . . "The Victorian era, the age of great agricultural and commercial expansion throughout the whole world, was also the age of the railway". In 1886, reports of gold finds in the Kimberley attracted thousands of men but the quality of the deposits was nowhere near that to be found on the eastern goldfields in the 1890s. Some colonists glimpsed the promised land in the economic development of these years, but other events and episodes in the decade shook remaining confidence in the existing government. By 1887, the effects of an economic recession had begun to bite and, in 1888, government expenditure on public works was dramatically cut-back. At the same time, the population decreased marginally, when previously it had been growing year by year. For many colonists the culprits were the British Government and its political instrument, the governor. They condemned the Government House incumbent, Frederick Broome, for what they considered was his overly cautious approach to raising loans for public works. At the same time, a series of disputes between Broome and his officials, in particular the suspension of Chief Justice A. C. Onslow in 1886, turned the Executive Council into an acrimonious `bear garden' and discredited the government in the eyes of a public ready for change. After the Secretary of State overturned Broome's decision and reinstated Onslow in 1887, more than 2,000 people marched through Perth and stopped outside Government House to give three 'groans' for their  governor.

In this atmosphere of political disillusionment, the by-election for the Legislative Council seat of Perth in 1888, fought between John Horgan and Septimus Burt, was "the most exciting in the history of Western Australia". Horgan was an immigrant Irishman, a Catholic, and a solicitor who believed in "responsible goverment, payment of members, manhood suffrage, a land tax, and a single chamber legislature". Septimus Burt was a member of the colonial elite, a habitue of the exclusive Weld Club and son of a former chief justice of the colony. The fiery Horgan raged that . . . "the press has been teeming with instances of gross mismanagement on the part of the Governor - and I say the Governor because he is the Czar of Western Australia. He is the despot of Western Australia, and we are actually nauseated with the attacks of that man".  Horgan's abuse of the governor and rich landowners, in particular the "six hungry families" of the Stones, Leakes, Lee Steeres, Shentons, Lefroys and Burts, saw him condemned in the conservative West Australian newspaper and in the halls of the respectable classes, but it resonated with the experiences of many townspeople barred from politics. In a tight contest, Horgan won the seat by just three votes, polling 420 votes to Burt's 417. His election gave heart to those seeking to broaden political activity in the colony, but it did not represent the end of domination by the landowning elite. Soon after, a petition against self-government was circulated in Perth by colonists worried at the threat of mass political action. In the end, the purported threat posed by Horgan petered out - he lasted just nine months in office before losing his seat.

The Legislative Council passed a resolution in principle calling for self-government in 1887, despite a warning from the Colonial Office in London that the price of change might be division of the colony. Secretary of State Sir Henry Holland cautioned Governor Broome that if self-government was allowed . . . "it would not be practicable for Her Majesty's Government to surrender to a Parliament representing a small population principally resident in the southern districts the control of all the vast territory now included in Western Australia". Sir Henry suggested the colony might be divided at the 26th parallel, near Shark Bay, with all land to the north remaining under control of the British Government. However, after strong opposition from members of the council, the threat of division was reluctantly dropped. The following year, after Horgan had won the hotly-contested Perth by-election, Governor Broome drafted a Constitution Bill and presented it to the Legislative Council for consideration. In January 1889, an election showed strong popular support for the Bill, which was promptly returned to the council for further fine-tuning and seemingly interminable debate on electoral details. On April 26th, 1889, the Bill was passed and sent to London, for the proposed changes needed the approval of the British government. Even then, the long wait for self-government was not over. The House of Lords passed the measure without delay, but the bill hit a snag when the House of Commons postponed its decision till 1890. This unexpected delay caused consternation in Perth. Three delegates - Governor Broome, Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell and Stephen Henry Parker - were despatched to London to shepherd the measure past opponents in the Commons. They argued their case at a series of meetings with the sceptics, many of whom were more concerned at the conservative nature of the proposal rather than any supposed loss of British control and influence. Finally, in 1890, the Bill was passed by both Houses of Parliament and confirmed by the Royal Assent of Queen Victoria.

"The constitution which emerged from these discussions was deeply conservative, far more so than any of those in force in the eastern colonies of Australia. The Constitution and Electoral Acts of 1890 formed the framework of political life in Western Australia in the 1890s and early 1900s. They gave the 'sandgropers' - the 'ancient colonists' - a firm defence against the winds of change which were shortly to blow in strongly from the east."

C. T. Stannage, People of Perth, 1979.

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.