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Broadening Democracy

Extending the vote for the Legislative Council

The property qualification for the Legislative Counciltext

South Australia's 1857 Constitution set up a two-Chamber Parliament. Voting for the House of Assembly (the Lower House) was by adult manhood suffrage. But voting for the Legislative Council (the Upper House) was restricted to adult males owning property worth £100 or paying rent or lease of £10 per year. This restricted the right to vote for the Legislative Council to a small proportion of the adult males in the State.

The property qualification for the upper houses of the other Australian colonies was even higher than this, so they were dominated by the wealthy landed classes - the "squattocracy" - in a way that South Australia's Legislative Council never was.

"Squatters" dominated the 19th century politics of New South Wales and Victoria. South Australia had a different history of Crown land sales and encouraging agriculture, so it was more of an agricultural state and never had a dominant wealthy landed gentry. But the Legislative Council was still a conservative chamber that represented the wealthy landed and business class.

This situation was seen as reasonable in the 1850s. Many people accepted that men with land or other wealth had more of a stake in the colony than others and should have a role in moderating the decisions of the House of Assembly which was elected by a more popular vote. The House of Assembly would represent the people, while the Legislative Council would contain

"the Education, Wealth and more especially the Settled Interests of the country, ... that portion of the community naturally indisposed to rash and hasty legislation."
Source:

 

Attempts to reform the franchise for the Legislative Council

Over the next 120 years the Legislative Council held firm against efforts to reform the property franchise.

In the 1890s, Premier Kingston's government made nine attempts to broaden the Legislative Council franchise. All of them were defeated. A limited reform was passed in 1906 and another in 1913, when the Legislative Council vote was extended to any person who owned, rented or leased any dwelling house. However, this excluded joint occupiers, which effectively allowed only one vote to a married couple, disenfranchising one partner.

 

Successful efforts at reform

The final reform did not come until 1973, after determined efforts to broaden the franchise under Premiers Steele Hall and Don Dunstan. As Opposition Leader, Don Dunstan made it a campaign issue in the 1968 election, and introduced reform as a Private Members Bill. The Bill failed again in the Legislative Council.

Premier Steele Hall continued to push for these changes but his government fell because of other issues. The reforms were finally passed into legislation under Premier Don Dunstan in 1973. Voting for the Legislative Council was now open to all adults. The first elections under the new adult franchise were held in 1975. South Australia was the last State to reform its Upper House.