With many new members elected to the NSW Parliament at the 2011 general
election, the start of the 55th Parliament was remarkable for the
making of inaugural speeches, a phenomenon that prompts consideration of the
history and development of such speeches.
What used to be called “maiden speeches” but are now referred to
as inaugural or first speeches play an important part in the parliamentary life
of a Member of Parliament, a moment of achievement, a setting off point, as
they step onto the parliamentary stage for the first time. At times these
speeches suggest the career that is to follow; a reflection of the intellectual
scope of the speech and of the debating skills and style on display. For the
historian, too, first speeches occupy a particular niche, as insights into a
member’s values and philosophy, their policy interests and concerns. Not
every inaugural speech is a triumph. Sometimes first speeches may set a false
trail, when expectations are not realised, or where a great career is built on
the foundations of a shaky or mundane start. But that, too, is of interest,
from a biographical and historical standpoint.
Since the establishment of responsible government in 1856, there have always
been first speeches, as new Members made their original contribution to debate
in some form or other. But from when did the practice of making what used to be
called "maiden" speeches start? And did the practice date from around
the same period for both Houses?
For the Legislative Assembly, this account, which uses the first speeches of
the Premiers of the State, from Reid to O’Farrell as a narrative spine,
traces the record back to around 1860. It does not go further back because, of
the ten Premiers prior to Reid (in 1894), six were Assembly members from the
start of responsible government and could not have made “maiden”
speeches in any meaningful sense at a time when all members were new. The only
exceptions were James Farnell (elected May 1860), Patrick Jennings (elected
December 1869) and Alexander Stuart and George Dibbs (both elected December
For the Legislative Council, its early constitutional history and character
render unlikely the making of inaugural speeches before the 1860s. From 1856 to
its reconstitution in 1861 appointments to the Council were for five years
only, with lifetime appointments only applying between September 1861 and 1934.
It is doubtful that the conventions of first speeches operated in the
“quinquennial” Council, if only because it comprised of very
experienced men, many of whom had served in the Legislative Council in the
pre-responsible government era.
Legislative Assembly: For the Assembly, one finding is that,
as in other comparable Parliaments, inaugural speeches were traditionally made,
from the 1880s on at least, during the address-in-reply debate where some
acknowledgement was made of the relevant conventions, even if those conventions
were not always (or even usually) adhered to in many periods. In particular,
those speeches moving and seconding the adoption of the address-in-reply tended
to operate within expected conventions, while contributions to the debate
itself and the reception they were given tended to vary depending on the
Outside the address-in-reply debate inaugural speeches were often, but not
always, treated as part of the ordinary business of the House, subject to the
same give and take of political life. Often a speech on a bill was simply not
recognised as an inaugural speech, a situation which seems to have lasted well
into the 1930s, if not beyond. It was certainly very rare to even remark on
one’s constituency in such speeches, when made on a Bill for instance,
rarer still for the speech to be proceed without interjection.
It is probably fair to say that, after World War 2 at least, both the
intensity of the political atmosphere and, for want of a better word, the
larrikin nature often on display in the Assembly declined. In part it may have
been the result of post-war prosperity, in part of the culture of greater
civility and respect for parliamentary norms engendered in the post-Lang years.
Interjections were still common in the 1950s, but they seem to have died down
Legislative Council: A similar pattern is found in the Upper
House, although there a less combative political culture prevailed. Before the
1950s, a less formal and settled approach appears to have applied to first
speeches, made in the context of the address-in-reply debate or otherwise.
Certainly, where a first speech was made on a Bill or in respect to other
business of the House, interjections were commonplace, whereas from the 1950s
on the conventions were adhered to far more rigidly.
Changing content: In both Houses, but particularly in the
Legislative Assembly, since the 1980s and certainly into the 1990s and beyond
there has been a noticeable shift in the content of inaugural speeches, towards
the more ready public sharing of the details of personal background and
experience. Family life and history is discussed, as are autobiographical
reflections, matters which to some extent at least would have been considered
private and ill-suited to public airing not so many decades ago.
The same applies to the Legislative Council, except that the changing
culture seems to have emerged there earlier, in a House where a different
atmosphere has prevailed, less intense in its relationship with power politics,
with more women members historically and feeling the impact of minor parties
from the early 1980s on. The argument of this paper is that, in their modest
way, inaugural speeches provide a window on the evolving parliamentary culture
in NSW, along with the broader political context in which it operates.