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Establishing Representative Government

The birth of democratic ideas in South Australia

Reforming Ideas in the United Kingdom

The ideas behind the founding of South Australia were developed in the 1830s, a time of major parliamentary reforms in the United Kingdom. The great Reform Act of 1832 reformed the British Parliament and gave the vote to more of the population. Most of the old laws that discriminated against Catholics, Jews and nonconformist Protestants had recently been repealed.

These reforms gave a political voice to more of the population, including the newly wealthy factory owning and trading classes. But politics was still dominated by the wealthy landowning aristocracy. Senior well-paid positions in the Church, army and public service in Britain still went mainly to men with family connections with the rich and powerful. There were still restrictions on freedom of speech, particularly through the high tax on newspapers, and many government restrictions on trade, through duties and regulations.


The Ideas of South Australia's Founders

The promoters of South Australia wanted a colony with greater political and social freedoms. They wanted efficient, inexpensive government and a minimal role for the British Government. Many came from Nonconformist backgrounds and wanted guarantees of religious freedom and an end to being obliged to pay for an official State church to which they did not belong. They wanted greater representation in government - but not necessarily a vote for all adults - and greater freedom to become wealthy through land ownership and trade. A number of them were also republicans.

The British Government did not grant everything they wanted, but some important ideas were agreed to and included in the South Australia Act which set up the arrangements for the colony.

Religious freedom was agreed. The official Anglican Church was not given any privileges or advantages over other religions. This was seen as one of the most important and attractive features of the new colony. It was one of the main things that attracted German Lutherans from Prussia to settle in the Barossa Valley.

The colony was to have no convicts, only free settlers. "Respectable paupers" would have their travel to South Australia paid for by the sale of land and would provide labour at reasonable wages, but would also have the chance eventually to buy land with their savings. The colony was to be ruled by a Governor, but in partnership with the Resident Commissioner who was in charge of land sales.

The Act also allowed for the colonists to set up their own representative government once the population reached 50,000.


The Significance of these Ideas

The founding of South Australia was unique in a number of ways. It was planned. It had no convicts, only free settlers. Its founding Act incorporated important political and social freedoms. It was given a promise of representative self-government at the start. This was a great advance for the period.

These factors gave South Australian colonists a commitment to democracy and representative government and a strong sense that they were different from the other colonies. This was an important influence when they came to draft their first representative constitution in the 1850s, and to consider votes for women and Federation in the 1890s.