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The Role of the Governor in New South Wales: 1788 - 1856

The Role of the Governor in New South Wales: 1788 - 1856

In 1786, under an Act of the Imperial (British) Parliament, Captain Arthur Phillip was issued with a Commission appointing him Governor of New South Wales. The following year, under another Imperial Act, the Governor of New South Wales was given the authority, from time to time, to convene a criminal court of judicature to try those people accused of criminal offences against English law, but was given no authority to establish a civil government.

The colony of New South Wales was a penal colony with a military government. The overwhelming majority of European people in New South Wales in the early years were convicts and their military guards.

The Governor was instructed to implement the common and statute laws of England as far as the circumstances of the colony would allow. The colonists had brought their law with them.

1786 - 1822
For the first 35 years after Europeans arrived in New South Wales, the Governor was generally supreme in the colony. The Imperial Parliament - nearly 20,000 kilometres and 8 months away by sea - was the only superior authority but because communications with the British Parliament were slow and infrequent, the Governors could use wider powers than Parliament intended. The first real opposition to this had nothing to do with demands for democracy. When Governor William Bligh (1806-1810) challenged the near-monopoly of trade and land grants being exercised by army officers of the New South Wales Corps and their associates amongst the leading landowners, he was arrested by the army in 1808. This was Australia’s only military coup and for the next two years, until the arrival of a new Governor, officers of the Corps took the role of Governor upon themselves. The arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie with his own regiment in 1810 restored the power of the Governor and saw the New South Wales Corps disbanded.

Over time, the authority of the Governor led to other concerns. The number of free settlers was increasing and there were claims in New South Wales and in England that the Governors were acting outside of their authority and making ordinances in conflict with English law. Many of the free settlers claimed that the Governor had no right to make ordinances that applied to them at all, because there was no civil government. The settlers demanded that an assembly be set up to represent them and to give advice to the Governor.

1823 - 1841
In 1823 the British Parliament responded to these demands and passed an Act "for the better administration of Justice in New South Wales". The New South Wales Act was primarily to regulate the system of courts and the judiciary in New South Wales, but there were provisions in the Act for the establishment of a Legislative Council of between 5 and 7 men to advise the Governor. Under the Act, no Bill could become law until it was approved by the Chief Justice as being consistent with the laws of England, as far as the particular circumstances of the colony would allow.

The first Legislative Councillors appointed were colonial officials and could not initiate laws. In addition to that, all business was discussed in private, and the Governor could override the Council completely. In 1829 the powers of the Governor were limited by another Act and the number of Councillors was increased from 6 to 12. The balance of power swung a little toward the Council because the judiciary was given the power to consider proposed laws before they were introduced. Council meetings were reported by the Press from 1832. The public was admitted to Council meetings in 1838. Interest in the growth of political democracy was increasing. The 1830s saw the introduction and passage through the British Houses of Parliament of the First Reform Act, giving the middle classes in Britain their first taste of political power and opening the way to a widening franchise. The "Sydney Herald" first reported a meeting of the Legislative Council on 23 January 1832, under the administration of Governor Bourke and was also reporting on the passage of the First Reform Act. Each ship arriving in Sydney Harbour from England brought news of the proceedings in the British Parliament and the debates were reported in detail and followed with interest.

1842 - 1856
In 1842 the first Constitution Act was passed by the Council. It introduced a representative element into the Legislative Council. There were to be 24 elected Members who were landowners and 12 Members appointed by the Governor. However, the Governor still had more power than the Council. If the Council proposed a law with which he did not agree, the Council could be dissolved and the proposed law referred to the British Parliament - effectively delaying the process for months or years. The Governor also controlled the money raised from the sale of land in the colony - a factor which made the Office of Governor financially independent of the Council. It was not until 1852 that the Council gained control of the "waste lands" and the finance they generated.

In 1856 saw great changes when responsible government was constituted in New South Wales with a bicameral (two House) Parliament modelled on the Westminster system. It was still not democratic, but in 1858 an Electoral Reform Act was passed, giving most men the right to vote (in a secret ballot) nearly 60 years before this was achieved in England. Women won the right to vote in 1902, also many years before England.

For 90 years after the granting of responsible government in 1856, the Governors were not Australian-born. The first Australian born Governor of New South Wales was Lieutenant-General Sir John Northcott, who was appointed in August 1946. He was born in Victoria. The first New South Wales - born Governor was Lieutenant-General (later Sir) Eric Woodward, was appointed in 1957.