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History of the Legislative Assembly

History of the Legislative Assembly



Towards responsible Government

Prior to the introduction of responsible government in 1856, New South Wales went through a number of forms of government.

The period from 1788 to 1824 was a period of autocracy where the military Governors were absolute rulers responsible for putting into effect the statute and common law of England.

In 1823 the British Government passed legislation which made provision for “His Majesty to constitute and appoint a Council, to consist of such persons resident in the said Colony, not exceeding Seven and not less than Five, as his Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, shall be pleased to appoint…” The councillors, who first met in August 1824, had no real law-making power, as only the Governor could initiate a bill and the Governor could override the Council if he did not agree with the proposed legislation.

In 1842 the British Parliament passed New South Wales’ first Constitution Act increasing the membership of the Legislative Council to 36 with two-thirds of the Members elected by men who fulfilled the property qualifications to vote. In 1843 the Governor ceased to be a member of the Council and one of the members was elected as Speaker, to preside at meetings. The Governor still had more power than the Council in that if the Council proposed a law with which the Governor disagreed, the Council could be dissolved and the bill referred to the British Government. In addition, the Governor was financially independent of the Council as he had control over the money raised from the sale of Crown land.

The 1850's saw significant social change within the Australian Colonies. Transportation of convicts to the Colonies was discontinued, gold was discovered, which brought in many newcomers, and there was rapid urban growth and housing booms fuelled by the capital generated by the goldfields. All of these things contributed to a demand for liberal political change.

Responsible Government achieved

The period of representative government under the Governor and Legislative Council was coming to an end as the demand for full self-government grew. In 1851 the Legislative Council sent a “declaration, protest and remonstrance” on the inadequacies of the 1850 Australian Colonies Government Act to the British Government.

Sir John Pakington, the British Secretary of State for War and Colonies, responded in 1852 agreeing that the gold discoveries in the Australian colonies had “imparted new and unforeseen features to their political and social condition” and that “it has become more urgently necessary…to place full powers of self-government in the hands of a people thus advanced in wealth and prosperity”.

The nature of the system envisaged was not only self-government but responsible government: where the executive branch of government is answerable to the people, or to the people’s representatives in Parliament.

Under the doctrine of responsible government:

• The Executive holds office subject to the sanction and control of Parliament; and
• The Governor’s powers are, with some exceptions, exercisable only on the advice of, and through, the Ministers responsible to the Parliament.

Following the receipt of Sir John Pakington’s despatch in May 1853, a Select Committee of the Legislative Council chaired by William Charles Wentworth began drawing up a constitution for responsible self-government. The Committee’s proposed Constitution was placed before the Legislative Council in August 1853 and on the whole accepted. Not accepted however, were Wentworth’s proposals for a Lower House electoral distribution, which would heavily favour the country and squatting interests and an Upper House of hereditary peers, like the English House of Lords. There were widespread objections to these proposals, led by other Members such as Henry Parkes and John Bayley Darvall. The idea of the hereditary peerage was treated with particular derision and was described by Daniel Deniehy as a proposal for “a bunyip aristocracy”.

The revised Constitution was sent to the British Parliament and, with some further amendments, passed into law on 16 July 1855.

The new Parliament

The new Parliament of New South Wales opened and sat for the first time on 22 May 1856. It was a bicameral (two House) legislature, similar to that of England, consisting of an Upper House (the Legislative Council) and Lower House (Legislative Assembly). The new Legislative Council was to consist of no fewer than 21 Members nominated by the Governor on the advice of the Executive Council initially appointed for 5 years and thereafter for life. There were no property qualifications for appointment but public servants could not be appointed.

The new Legislative Assembly of 54 Members could be anyone qualified and registered as voters except for holders of office or pension under the Crown, public servants, active military officers and ministers of religion. Sixteen of the 34 electoral districts would return more than one Member (four in the case of the Sydney (City) district). Voters had to be men over 21 who met a fairly modest property or income qualification, such as owning freehold land worth at least £100, earning a salary of £100 p.a. or renting a room or lodging for at least £40 p.a. Voters who fulfilled the qualifications in more than one district could have multiple (plural) votes. Money bills had to originate in the Assembly and amendments to the Constitution required two-thirds majorities in both Houses.

Both the Governor’s instructions and the New South Wales Constitution Act required the continuing existence of the Executive Council, but there were no formal requirements that its members should be the Ministers of Departments. Ministers did not even have to be Members of the Parliament. Under Westminster convention, however, Executive Councillors were both Members of Parliament and Ministers of the Crown thus forging a bridge between the Parliament and the Executive. This convention was followed in New South Wales.

There were five “official” members, or Ministers, in the Legislative Assembly. These, with the Governor, made up the official body, the Executive Council. The Council’s role was to advise the Governor in carrying out his functions in the administration of the State.

Electoral reform: 1856-1900

The establishment of responsible self-government in 1856 was an important basis for liberal democratic government but was not in itself the achievement of democracy. Universal suffrage, the secret ballot, equal value votes, a universal right to stand for Parliament, payment of Members, and an elected Upper House, had still yet to come.

Until 1858, only landowners or men who met an income qualification had the right to vote. In 1858, despite strong resistance from the Legislative Council, an Electoral Reform Act was passed. This Act gave the right to vote to almost every adult male in New South Wales. Every male over the age of 21 years could vote if he was “natural born or who being naturalised…shall have resided in this Colony for three years”. Workers, such as the miners who had flocked to the colonies in the 1850s, now had the right to vote. Electors for any Gold Fields Electoral District could vote after holding a miner’s right, business licence or mining lease for 6 months. The wealthy and better-educated of the colony still, however, had a disproportionately strong voice in government.

Plural votes continued and the number of registered voters may have been as much as 15% higher than the actual number of individuals entitled to vote. For example, the University of Sydney or at least “100 superior Graduates who shall have taken therein any or either of the Degrees of Master of Arts, Doctor of Laws or Doctor of Medicine...shall return one Member to serve in the Assembly...”.

The Electoral Reform Act of 1858 also introduced the secret ballot into New South Wales. This was two years after the secret ballot had been introduced in Victoria and South Australia. It was such a new feature of voting that it was known for a time around the world as “the Australian ballot”.

Electoral boundaries were changed in 1858 to be more in line with population, but there were still great disparities between electorates. Pastoral districts sent one member for approximately 3,000 voters, while Sydney elected one member for 5,900 voters. This meant, in effect, that the pastoral vote was worth twice as much as the urban vote.

In 1893 plural voting was abolished. From then on, the principle was espoused of “One man, one vote” which, one might argue, is fundamental to democracy.

Running for Parliament

While most male residents had the right to vote by 1858 and could in theory stand for Parliament, very few could afford to, as Members did not receive any remuneration until 1889. Candidates also needed money to run election campaigns because until the 1880s there were no clear divisions into political parties to meet Members’ election expenses.

Until 1893, elections took place over several days and were held at different times in different electorates. This meant that a candidate defeated in one electorate could then run for another seat.

New South Wales Parliamentary sessions in the mid-nineteenth century could last as long as 10 months. Country Members often needed to be at home during shearing and harvest time, so it is not surprising that many country electorates came to be represented by city lawyers, merchants or professional men.

Federation and the New South Wales Parliament

When the Australian States federated in 1901 the New South Wales Parliament resigned its control over the areas specified as Commonwealth powers by the Australian Constitution. These included such areas as defence, customs and excise, coinage and postage. Momentarily, some wondered if there was a real role left for the state Parliament, but in fact the powers retained were substantial and limited only by specific exclusions made in the Federal Constitution.

The many alterations to the New South Wales Constitution since 1855 were consolidated in a new Constitution Act in 1902 and following a referendum, the Legislative Assembly was reduced to 90 to take account of the narrower responsibilities and the new level of political representation which electors now had through their Federal Parliamentarians.

The Parliament also contributed substantially to the membership of the new Federal Parliament. Of the 32 representatives elected from New South Wales, 27 had previously been Members of the New South Wales Parliament, including two former Premiers. The group included Edmund Barton, who became Australia’s first Prime Minister, and four others who also later became Prime Ministers (John Watson, George Reid, Joseph Cook, W.M. Hughes).

The electoral system for the Legislative Assembly: 1900 to present

At the beginning of the twentieth century voting was by the “first-past-the-post” system, whereby the winning candidate was simply the one with the largest number of votes. So if there were ten candidates and the one with 30% of the votes had the highest number, that candidate was declared the winner even though 70% of the electorate had voted against them. In 1910 a second ballot was introduced in instances where no candidate had an absolute majority.

From 1918 to 1926 a proportional representation system was tried with multiple representatives from each electorate. It proved very difficult to administer and was replaced by the contingent vote in 1926 and a return to single member electorates and shortly followed by the modern form of preferential voting in 1928. Preferential voting involves the voter voting for all candidates in order of the voter’s preference and, if no single candidate has a clear majority, the votes of those first preferences whose totals are too small to win are passed on to their second preferences and so on until someone does have a clear majority. In 1979 the system was modified to allow optional preferential voting where either a single vote or a full list of preferences could be shown by the voter.

Postal votes were introduced in 1918 and voting was made compulsory in 1928.

Until 1979 electoral distribution favoured the non-metropolitan areas of the State. All electorates, rural and urban are now required to have approximately an equal number of electors.

Since 1874, elections were required to be held at least every three years, although most occurred a little earlier than that. In 1981 the maximum term of Parliament was increased to 4 years. However, an election could be called earlier at the discretion of the governing party. This was seen to be an advantage to the government, so in 1995 the term of the Parliament was fixed to four years following the passage of legislation through the Parliament in 1993 and a referendum endorsing the Bill, which was held in conjunction with the March 1995 general election. Under section 24 of the Constitution Act 1902, the Legislative Assembly expires on the Friday before the first Saturday in March four years after the previous general election for the Legislative Assembly. Under section 24A of the Act, general elections for the Legislative Assembly are to take place on the fourth Saturday in March. The Governor has the power to dissolve the Assembly prior to its expiry under certain circumstances, such as if a motion of no confidence in the Government is passed by the Legislative Assembly or it rejects a bill which appropriates revenue or moneys for the ordinary annual services of the Government.

The membership of the Legislative Assembly has varied in size throughout the twentieth century. At the turn of the twentieth century there were 125 Members in the Legislative Assembly. It was reduced to 90 in 1904 and increased to 99 in 1973 and to 109 in 1988. The membership was reduced to 99 again in 1991 and was further reduced to 93 in 1999, which is the number of Members in the Assembly today.

Women’s suffrage

Women gained the right to vote in Federal elections in April 1902, and New South Wales gave women the vote in August 1902. However, women could not become Members of the Legislative Assembly until 1918. The first woman elected to the New South Wales Parliament, Millicent Preston-Stanley, (the second woman to be elected to any Australian parliament), served in the Legislative Assembly from 1925 to 1927.

Indigenous suffrage

Unlike the situation in a number of other Australian states and the Commonwealth, Indigenous Australians in New South Wales were never officially prevented from voting. However, welfare and protection acts together with residential requirements and prevailing attitudes effectively denied them the vote. In 1949 all Indigenous Australians who had served in the military forces or who could vote in state elections were able to vote federally. However, it was not until 1962 that all Indigenous Australians gained the right to vote in all State and Federal elections. Voting was not compulsory for Indigenous Australians until 1984 when it was made compulsory for all Australians.

Two notable events

Dismissal of the Lang Government: 1932

The dismissal of the Lang Labor Government in 1932 is the only time a Governor of New South Wales has used their reserve powers to dismiss a Premier and his Ministers. The dismissal was brought about due to the actions taken by Premier Lang to deal with the fiscal crisis brought on by the Great Depression. To deal with the crisis Lang had formulated a plan (known as the ‘Lang Plan’), which included the suspension of the payment of interest on overseas debt in order to give priority to the payment of pensions and other social services. New South Wales defaulted on its obligations to pay interest to overseas bond-holders in April 1931.

The Federal Labor Government took over the payment of the State’s interest obligations and commenced legal proceedings against New South Wales to recover the debt. The fiscal crisis and the struggle for financial control across jurisdictions resulted in a split in the NSW Labor Party between those who supported Lang and those who supported the Labor Prime Minister Scullin. The Lang supporters in the Federal Parliament withdrew their support from the Scullin Government in November 1931 and at the Federal election held in December 1931 the United Australia party, led by Joseph Lyons won by a large majority.

The Lyons Government quickly passed legislation permitting the Federal government to seize State revenues to pay outstanding interest. The Lang government ordered State public servants to refuse to cooperate with these Federal laws. The next day (13 May 1932) the NSW Governor, Sir Philip Game dismissed Lang on the ground that directing State officials to disobey Federal laws was illegal.

Providing the Speaker with a voice in Parliament

In 2007 amendments were made to the Constitution Act 1902 to provide the Speaker with the ability to cast a deliberative vote and to participate in debate in the Assembly when not presiding.

The amendment was an important one in that it has provided the Speaker, who is an elected Member of the Legislative Assembly, with a voice in the Parliament to represent their constituents in the same way that all other Members are able to represent their constituents.


Responsible Government introduced in New South Wales. The New South Wales Parliament becomes bicameral with an elected Lower House (Legislative Assembly – with 54 Members) and an appointed Upper House (Legislative Council – with no fewer than 21 Members).
1858Full manhood suffrage (men only). Prior to this only those men who met a modest property or income qualification could vote.
Secret Ballot for voting introduced.
1859Queensland was formally separated from New South Wales. The Legislative Assembly was reduced in size from 80 to 72 by the loss of the Queensland seats.
1874Elections required to be held for the Legislative Assembly at least every three years.
1889Allowances introduced for Members of Parliament (prior to this Members were not paid).
1893Plural voting abolished (prior to this voters who fulfilled the qualifications in more than one district could have multiple votes).
1901Federation. The New South Wales Parliament handed legislative control of a number of matters to the Commonwealth Government.
1902Women given the right to vote (April for Commonwealth elections and August for New South Wales elections).
1918Women permitted to be elected as Members of the Legislative Assembly.
Proportional representation system introduced for the Legislative Assembly (with multiple representatives from each electorate).
1925First woman elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (Millicent Preston-Stanley).
1926Return to single Member electorates.
1928Preferential voting for the Legislative Assembly introduced (prior to this a number of systems were tried including the “first-past-the-post" system and the contingent vote).
1929Compulsory voting introduced.
1932Lang Government dismissed by the Governor of New South Wales.
1962Indigenous Australians gained the right to vote in all States and in Federal elections (prior to this Indigenous Australians, while not officially prevented from voting in New South Wales, were effectively denied the vote through a range of discriminatory regulations and practices).
1975Electorate office provided for Legislative Assembly Members.
1979Optional preferential voting for the Legislative Assembly introduced.
1981Maximum term of Legislative Assembly increased from 3 to 4 years (an election could be called earlier at the discretion of the governing party).
1991Legislative Assembly reduced from 109 to 99 Members.
1995Fixed four-year terms introduced for the Legislative Assembly.
1999Legislative Assembly reduced to 93 Members.
2007Amendments to the Constitution Act 1902 to enable the Speaker, when not presiding, to take part in any debate or discussion and vote on any question in the Legislative Assembly.

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