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Establishing Representative Government

Government in the Colonial Era - 1840-51

Map of South Australia
Early Map of South Australia, reproduced from South Australia's Foundation: select documents, p.70.

 

The Governor and Legislative Council

text

The planners of the South Australian colony had hoped that the Colony would get a representative government early in its history. The original South Australia Act which founded the colony had promised that this would be granted when the population reached 50,000. The Act was repealed in 1842. The new legislation setting out the government of South Australia did not include this promise - only that it could be possible for South Australia to have representative government at some stage.

From 1840 to 1851, South Australia was governed by the Governor and a non-elected Legislative Council.

In 1842 the Legislative Council was expanded to include four prominent and wealthy members of the colony, in addition to the three paid officials. Although this increased the number of people that could put their opinions to the Governor in Council, it did not lessen the Governor's powers. The public was allowed in to listen to the Council's debates.

 

The Powers of the Governor

The Governor still held most of the power. He did not have to listen to the views of the people of South Australia. He was the only official who could introduce legislation to the Council. He appointed all government officials, as well as all the members of the Council that governed with him. If the colonists disliked any of his decisions, all they could do was to petition the Governor, or complain through the newspapers, or to send petitions back to the Colonial Office in London.

Governors and the colonists disagreed about several issues

Policies on finance and taxation.
Governor Grey, the third Governor, imposed tight restrictions on government spending after South Australia went bankrupt in 1840. He was blamed for causing an economic depression, and his policies of imposing port and customs duties were very unpopular with business people.
Governor Grey
Governor Grey

State aid to religion. text
The 1842 Act guaranteed freedom of religion, but many colonists supported the "voluntary" principle ie that each religion should be supported by its own members, not by the government, to prevent the government from interfering in religious matters. In 1847, Governor Robe insisted on passing regulations allocating money for church buildings, divided proportionately between all the religions. The idea of any government "interference" in religious matters was strongly opposed by many colonists, and was considered one of the most important principles that South Australia was based on.

Mining royalties on sale of Crown land.
South Australia had been the only colony where land was sold without reserving the rights to minerals and metals in the ground to the Crown. Governor Robe introduced these in 1849, arguing that the revenue this raised was in the interests of the colony as a whole.

Delays in getting decisions from the British Government.
Government decisions that had to be referred to the Colonial Office in London took a minimum of 6 months to get a reply - and could take several years.

 

Demands for Representative Government

Many of Adelaide's newspapers strongly supported the idea of representative government. They kept the idea alive through the 1840s by printing fiery editorials and publishing passionate letters about representation. The colonists had a strong sense of being different from the other colonies, of being established by free settlers, not convicts, and being founded on principles of independence and freedom.

The four non-official members of the Legislative Council were seen as selfish and irresponsible, further encouraging the demand for some say in selecting the government.

The complete dominance by the Governors came to an end in 1851 when South Australia, together with the other Australian colonies was granted a partially elected Legislative Council.