South Australia Achieves Self Government in 1857


After 1857, with a new constitution and a Parliament, South Australia was self-governing.

The legislature (the law-making body) was now the elected Parliament, responsible only to the electorate of South Australia. Before, laws were made by the Governor in Council, responsible to the British Government.

The Executive (the body that carries out the day-to-day affairs of government) was now the Ministers drawn from the Parliament, and responsible to it.

There was still a Governor representing the British Crown, but he no longer had the powers to make decisions or appoint people to government.

The new Parliament and Executive now had almost all the powers previously held by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, over who was appointed to official positions in the colony, over immigration, and customs (except for the power to nominate and recall South Australia's Governor).

The new government also had full power over raising and spending government money - through taxes, customs and other duties, fines and levies. It held this power until Federation, when some of the powers were handed over to the new Australian government.

So instead of a Governor responsible only to the British Government, South Australia from now on was governed by ministers responsible to a Parliament elected by the people.


Remaining links with Britain

The Governor's role now was to represent the Monarch in Britain, and as the official link between the South Australian and British Governments. The British Government still retained the right to veto South Australian legislation, until 1986 - the 150th anniversary of the founding of South Australia, but this power was rarely used.




South Australia's Parliamentary Constitution

An advanced democratic constitution

The Constitution which gave South Australia self-government and its first Parliament was passed in 1856, and the first Parliament met in April of 1857.

South Australia now had a Constitution which was one of the most advanced in the world. This was a time when many countries had no representative institutions, or where only the wealthier or landowning groups had the right to vote. There was great pride in this achievement.


The voting system

Parliament had two chambers - the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council. Members had to be elected. Who could vote?

For the House of Assembly - All adult males over the age of 21- Universal Manhood Suffrage.

For the Legislative Council - Males owning property worth £50 or leasing property worth £20, or occupying property worth £25 a year. Although the vote was restricted to men of property, it was set at a much lower level than for the Upper Houses of the other Australian Parliaments. So voting for the South Australian Legislative Council was open to a larger proportion of the population.

The franchise clause in the Constitution had been worded very carefully. John Baker asked for it to be clarified, "otherwise it would give the vote not only to aborigines but also to females". In fact the wording of the Act included Aboriginal men in the vote, but no women were allowed to vote at all.

For the Legislative Council, the whole State was one voting district. This meant that men of property who qualified were entitled to just one vote - unlike other property qualification systems where they had a vote in each of the districts where they owned or rented property.

Voting was to be done by secret ballot. The secret ballot had been talked about and supported in South Australia for many years - since the early days of planning for the colony. But it was a very progressive idea for its time. South Australia, along with Victoria, were the first places in the world to use the secret ballot, and for many years this system was known in the United States as "the Australian ballot".

Voting was voluntary and the winner was the candidate with the greatest number of votes - the "first past the post" system. Preferential and compulsory voting were introduced much later.

The different powers of the two chambers of Parliament were based on the model of the British Parliament, so the House of Assembly was regarded as the more democratic chamber. Money bills had to be introduced into Parliament in that House.


Later Changes

The Constitution of 1857 is still largely the constitution that South Australia operates under today, but there have also been some important changes between 1857 and now.
Votes for women.
Reforming the franchise for the Legislative Council.
Equal electoral districts.
Changes to voting - introducing compulsory, preferential and contingent voting, and reducing the voting age.



The First Elections

The Adelaide Observer, 18 April 1857, p.4


The new Parliament

Elections were held for both chambers of the new Parliament.

For the House of Assembly, 57 candidates stood for the 36 places spread across 17 multi-member seats.
In 7 seats there was no contest. Exactly the right number of candidates stood for election. Once the nominations had been officially registered there was no further electioneering in those seats. Elections were held in the remaining 10 contested seats.

For the Legislative Council, 18 members were to be elected, representing the Colony as a whole.

The newspapers emphasised the historic importance of the occasion.

"The political and administrative changes we have wrought, though achieved in the calmest and most peaceful spirit, amount to an organic revolution, and the people are as temperate in the enjoyment of their triumph as they are loyal and moderate in their demands."
The SA Register, 2 January 1857, Annual Retrospect.



Electioneering was orderly and sedate. Under the new Constitution, candidates were not allowed to attend political meetings in the districts they were contesting. So there was a lot of debate in the newspapers about what a political meeting was and whether candidates had breached the regulations by attending other kinds of meetings.

There were no political parties or policy platforms. Candidates simply ran letters in the newspapers for many days, outlining their philosophy and records of public service.


Election day

The newspapers had given their readers detailed information about how the new system would work, along with encouragement for electors to go out and fulfil their new responsibilities. Instead of marking their chosen candidates, voters crossed out the names of the ones that they did NOT support. (This led to a high number of informal votes so was changed later to the current system of marking the preferred candidate.)

"We need not dwell upon the importance of the duty which every true colonist has to perform today; all we urge upon him is that he should well weigh the merits of the various candidates ... and then ... scratch out the bad names with a good bold hand."
SA Register, Monday March 9th, 1857 - election day.

Election day went off quietly and successfully, in a serious atmosphere. One disappointment was the low turnout. The SA Register estimated that less than a quarter of the eligible voters came out to vote.




The First Days of Parliament

Old Parliament House


The First Session

South Australia's Parliament met for the first time on April 22 1857 under the leadership of the Hon BT Finnis. This was the first day on which the people of South Australia had the right to exercise self-government.

Parliament was opened at 1pm, by Benjamin Boothby, Acting Chief Justice. The Legislative Council elected its President, and the House of Assembly elected its Speaker, before the Governor addressed both Houses, outlining the planned legislative program of the new Ministry.

Outside Parliament, a crowd of about a thousand spectators waited to watch the Governor arrive.

At the end of the day, the newspapers, the "SA Register" and the "Adelaide Times" both commented on the violent language of much of the debate.

Parliament House

The "Old Parliament House" used by the previous Legislative Council could not accommodate the new Parliament, so a ten week renovation had provided double the floor space, as well as galleries for the press and spectators. The Legislative Council met on the renovated ground floor while the larger House of Assembly met in the upstairs room initially built for the expanded Legislative Council in 1855.

This situation meant that the Lower House of the South Australian Parliament actually sat above the Upper House. This arrangement continued until 1889 when the new House of Assembly Chamber of Parliament House was completed.

Source: The Register, 23 April 1857, quoted in The Flinders History of South Australia, p. 108

Acknowledgement of Country

The Parliament of South Australia acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners of this country throughout Australia, and their connection to land and community. We pay our respect to them and their cultures and to the Elders both past and present.