Business of Government - Parliamentary Government


The Houses of Parliament of the states, Commonwealth and Northern Territory stand as architectural monuments to the people's pride in democratic and constitutional government. In 1994 Northern Territorians welcomed their gracious building, which looks towards the Timor Sea and our northern neighbours. In 1988 the new Commonwealth Parliament House replaced the provisional one which was opened by the Duke of York in 1927. At that time it was a lonely symbol rising from the Monaro plains. Its construction had been delayed by World War I, and any further flowering of Canberra was almost immediately doomed by the Depression, but today it stands as one of the best examples of public architecture of its time and enjoys a new lease of life as a popular display centre and museum.

South Australians also have an old and a new Parliament House - theirs stand side by side. In 1889 Cassell's Picturesque Australasia noted:

Old Parliament House and New Parliament House stand side by side, and form a great contrast. Simplicity marks the old, and splendor will mark the new, when it is finished. Some hold that the expense of the new building is a burden on the shoulders of the colony greater than it is fairly able to bear, for the cost is estimated at over 100,000 pounds. This expenditure will certainly give a magnificent building, worthy of any legislative body. The outside is to be of Kapunda marble. Surely if we take pride in our Parliamentary system of government, the Parliament of a country ought to be well housed. 1

The new Parliament House was duly finished in 1889 and was later extended in 1939. The older legislative building had been erected in 1854, and incorporated an even older structure dated 1843. Both the old and new parliament buildings are a great source of pride to South Australians.

Similarly, Victorians bask in the glowing descriptions of their building which looks down Bourke Street. An account of the opening of Parliament during Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations in 1897 waxed lyrical:

The ceremony is always carried out with pomp and circumstance; and the surroundings greatly contributed to produce an imposing spectacle. The facade of Parliament House is a colonnade of noble proportions, erected on one of the finest sites in any city of the world. 2

Melbourne also could boast of two parliament houses between 1901 and 1927 when the Commonwealth parliamentarians met in the Victorian Parliament House and the Victorian members moved into the Exhibition Building.

Parliament House in Macquarie Street in Sydney is the oldest, and probably the most simple in design. Joseph Fowles described it in his account of Sydney in 1848:

The Chamber in which the deliberate wisdom of the Legislators of New South Wales decides on the destinies of the Colony, is by no means imposing in its appearance; there is an entire absence of any attempt at grandeur of effect, in its design and architecture.

Built at a time, when the Colony was sorely feeling the effects of former extravagances, the economical mind of the then Governor, Sir George Gipps, discounted any expenditure for the purpose of mere display.

The building in Macquarie Street, however, is far from being disreputable in its outward aspect, while its interior is at least comfortable if not elegant. 3

This building has a fascinating history. When the Legislative Council was initially formed in 1829 it was given premises in the north wing of the Rum Hospital. This was Sydney's main hospital, whose building contractors were given rights to import and sell a large quantity of rum in return for the construction of the hospital. The main section of the original hospital was subsequently demolished in 1879, leaving the parliament in the north wing and the Mint occupying the south wing. The present Parliament House represents the original north wing plus two extensions.

Tasmania's Parliament House in Hobart is interesting as it was originally the Custom House, built in 1835. After the customs officers moved to new premises in 1891, the building was subsequently extended, and today offers Tasmania a worthy place of government.

The buildings which housed the colonies' government ministers and their staff are also worthy of recognition. Probably the most impressive is the building in Macquarie Street in Sydney which housed the Colonial Secretary's Office, but Hobart's Treasury building remains in one's memory. Built with Georgian simplicity in 1837, it served as Public Offices for police and convict officers until being taken over as the Treasury. In more recent times it has served other functions.

Early Colonial Government

On the foundation of the penal colony at Sydney Cove in 1788 the Governor exercised complete control, subject only to the British authorities. Initially administrative duties were carried out by military or naval officers but, by the time of Governor Macquarie (1810 - 1823), officials on the government payroll included a Collector of Customs, Surveyor General, Chief Secretary, Chief Justice, Auditor General, and Principal Surgeon.

Slowly the number of free settlers increased and provision was made for their limited representation in government. The New South Wales Judicature Act, passed by the British parliament in 1823, provided for a Legislative Council to which the Governor appointed five to seven members. The Governor, who initiated all legislation, needed only one supporter to issue an ordinance but all legislation required the approval of the British parliament. In 1827 the number of councillors was increased to between ten and fifteen, and the Governor could issue ordinances only with the approval of the majority of them. When Van Diemen's Land became independent in 1825, the Crown vested authority in Lieutenant-Governor Arthur who was assisted by an Executive Council of five nominated officials. In 1828 a Legislative Council was formed of fifteen nominated members, six of whom were officials. It had the power to pass laws and raise revenue.

Radical changes were made in 1842 when the Act for the Government of NSW and Van Diemen's Land increased the number of members of the Legislative Councils to 36. Two thirds of them were to be elected and they had the right to initiate legislation. Voting for the councillors was open only to those citizens who met the franchise requirements, and the Governor still retained the right to appoint the remaining one third of the group. The councils could raise revenue through customs duties, which made it easier to provide services and reduced the dependence of each colony on Britain. Despite the increase in responsibility to the councils, the Governor was still the central authority with the power to dispose of Crown lands and allocate the proceeds, appoint and dismiss members of the administration and veto recommendations of the council.

In the 1830s other colonies were also developing councils which involved citizens in the process of government. The colony on the Swan River, Western Australia, was established in 1829 as a free settlement without convicts and without the associated input from British authorities. Nevertheless the British government did provide a military presence, and this assisted indirectly in the survival of the colony in the early days when capital resources were scarce. The authority of Governor Stirling was legitimated by an Act of the British parliament in 1829, and by 1832 Executive and Legislative Councils were established. The Executive Council consisted of the Governor, Attorney-General, Colonial Secretary, Surveyor, and Commandant, and initially the same group formed the Legislative Council. In 1838 four non-official members were nominated to the Legislative Council with appointment for life unless they resigned or left the colony. The Governor however retained the authority to initiate all legislation and exercise the right of veto.

The Act of 1834, which was passed by the British parliament to establish South Australia, provided for a constitution, to become effective when the population reached 50,000. This was achieved by 1842 and accordingly the Act for the Better Government of South Australia was passed in Britain to establish a Legislative Council and Executive Council. The governor and three senior officials (the Colonial Secretary, Advocate General and Colonial Treasurer) sat on both of these councils but were accompanied in the Legislative Council by four colonists nominated by the Governor. A Council Chamber was built on North Terrace; when the Legislative Council met on 10 October 1842, the galleries were filled with interested members of the public. It marked the first opportunity for non-official gentlemen to participate in government and for the public to witness the proceedings. Sixteen Acts were passed during the five-week session.

Towards Representative Government

By the end of the 1840s the business of government had diversified from the initial concerns of basic survival and order. The numbers of officials appointed by the governor in each colony were increasing: the list of government salaries in 1840 in Western Australia included the Treasurer, Registrar of Deeds, Superintendent of Government Works, Survey Department officers, Collector of Revenue, Sub-Collector (Fremantle), Tidewaiter (Perth), Tidewaiter and Harbour Master (Fremantle), Gaoler (Fremantle), Postmasters (Perth and Fremantle), Bailiff of the Civil Court, Constables (Perth and three other centres), Housekeeper for the Public Office, Native Interpreter, Confidential Clerk and Clerk of the Councils, Registrar of the Civil Court, and Clock Keeper (Perth). By the beginning of the 1850s, newly discovered land was being surveyed and distributed, limits of settlement were expanding and more extensive public services were needed. Legislation was required to regulate the transport of goods within and between colonies, ensure adequate law enforcement and raise revenue. This was the momentous decade of gold discoveries in the eastern colonies. Not only were sections of the community clamouring for a greater influence in the affairs of government, but the British government was anxious to involve them in a greater degree of self-determination.

When the Act for the Better Government of Her Majesty's Australian Colonies was passed in 1850, provision was made for the colonies to draw up constitutions and establish representative bodies as soon as their levels of population and public revenue would sustain them. Within the decade all colonies took advantage of this, except Western Australia where the pastoralists had supported a campaign for the introduction of convicts. Lower houses, known either as a House of Assembly or Legislative Assembly, were established along with Legislative Councils as the upper house. Initially, voting eligibility for the assembly was limited by property, residence or lodging qualifications, except in South Australia where all males, excluding those in prisons or asylums, were eligible. Soon the other colonies moved to widen the male franchise - Victoria in 1857, New South Wales 1858, Queensland 1859, Tasmania 1896 and Western Australia in 1893. The practice of secret ballot for the election of the assemblies, known as the Australian ballot, was first introduced in South Australia and Victoria in 1856. In all the colonies, the franchise for the legislative councils was limited, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland where the members were initially nominated, and although it was gradually liberalised, the restrictive nature of the franchise for upper houses continued well into the next century. When visiting the Australian colonies in the early 1870s, Anthony Trollope, a well known author and public commentator, compared the slow process of full evolution of the British form of government over many centuries with its immediate, unquestioned adoption by the young Australian colonies:

The system has grown up slowly among us, who are a people not loving speedy changes ....But it is very singular that the same system should have been adopted with complacency, - almost without thought, - by our democratic children. The Australian colonies claim to govern themselves in everything, to make what laws they please, to have what public ministers they choose, to spend what money they think right, - to be bound to the mother country only by their loyalty to the Crown. They do choose their own ministers, and give them what names they like. In one colony they have a colonial secretary, in another a chief secretary. In one colony it is reckoned that this secretary must be, and in another that he only may be, the head of government. One colony delights to call its minister the premier, another taboos the name altogether. One colony has seven cabinet ministers, another six, another five...But the system under which ministers go out and come in, dissolve parliament, and live upon majorities, - the exact copy of our political constitutional system at home. 4

Unlike today's procedures, voters did not elect candidates along party lines, but were more influenced by individual policies and personalities, with the consequence that groups were fluid and allegiances changed depending on the issues. This meant that governments did not enjoy the stability of office which is expected today. While the government was dealing with issues of land settlement, public works and railways, this was of little consequence but, by the 1890s, conditions in the growing manufacturing sector and pressures on the mining and pastoral industries contributed to the development of stronger policies and long-standing loyalties to particular groups and ideologies. Workers in Australia were among the first to organise themselves into unions and seek political influence, resulting in the election of the world's first trade union-backed government in Queensland in 1899.


The 1890s was the decade in which Australians addressed the issue of federation. It was becoming obvious that a national government would be an advantage in handling foreign borrowing, immigration, uniformity of customs, post and telegraph services, and defence. After gaining the right to responsible government in the 1850s, the colonies had been more concerned with establishing their independence from each other rather than pursuing thoughts of nationhood. Even Lord Grey's warnings about the desirability of co-operation to rationalise customs collection fell on deaf ears. Unlike movements towards unity in other countries, there was no burning issue and no immediate external threat to hasten the process. Although several issues, particularly customs and defence, can easily be identified as reasons for federation, they alone do not account for the eventual success of the federation movement.

Anthony Trollope, raised the question of future separation from Britain when the accounts of his travels in Australia were published in 1873:

I am not aware that any British statesman has as yet entertained the idea of dividing the mother country from the Australian colonies ... It is impossible that any statesman, or any speculator, that any philosopher should foresee the time. It must depend on the increasing wealth and the increasing population of the country.

There is very much to be done before the question of separation can be regarded as one that is imminent, or fit for the immediate manipulation of statesmanship. Australia must be one whole before she can settle herself and take her place among the nations. There must be some federation of the different colonies before separation can be considered. The states must bind themselves together with the united object of making themselves a nation ... As Australia becomes older, and as the number of her leading children who are Australian born becomes greater, as the tendency to lean upon the mother country becomes slighter, the feeling for the new patriotism will grow up; and with the feeling of Australian pride will grow the conviction that Australia, to be great and strong, should be one. 5

The dream was realized when the British government passed the Australian Constitution Act in 1900. The constitution retained the Queen as the Head of State, and provided for a Federal Parliament consisting of the House of Representatives, and an upper house, the Senate. The areas in which it could legislate were clearly defined, and its laws took precedence over state laws if there were inconsistencies. The birth of the Commonwealth of Australia was celebrated on 1 January 1901, three weeks before the death of Queen Victoria who had presided over the expansion of the British Empire for 63 years. When Australians went to the polls to elect the first federal government, party lines were drawn on the issue of protectionism or free trade. It was not until the 1910 election that electors had a clear choice between conservative and Labor candidates such as occurs today. The first parliament was opened on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne's spacious Exhibition Building. The 75 members of the House of Representatives and 36 members of the Senate then met in Melbourne's Parliament House: Edmund Barton became Prime Minister, leading the supporters of Protectionism, and George Reid led the Free Traders on the opposition benches. The House of Representatives boasted 10 former premiers and 12 former colonial ministers among its members.

The development of the site for the nation's capital was time consuming, and interrupted by the First World War. It was not until 1927 that the seat of government moved to Canberra. As a result, Melbourne not only hosted the parliament but also the nucleus of the Commonwealth Public Service, whose establishment was the first task of the new government. On 1 January 1901 staff of the Customs offices became officers of the Commonwealth, followed in March by the transfer of personnel from post and telegraphs and defence establishments. Despite the move to the Commonwealth, these administrations continued to operate through their established offices in the states. They were joined by the new departments of the Prime Minister, External Affairs, Home Affairs, and Attorney General. By 1905 there were 22,300 public servants in the Commonwealth administration.

The first legislation of the new parliament addressed immigration. It permitted entry only to Europeans, requiring any others to pass a language test, and it terminated the use of Pacific Islander labourers in Queensland. The new nation was to be of British stock, and British immigrants were actively encouraged. Aboriginal affairs were left to the states where Australia's indigenous people were left unrepresented even in census statistics. On 12 September 1901, Attorney General, Alfred Deakin, explained the nation's immigration policy:

Members of both sides of the House and all sections of all parties - those in office and those out of office - with the people behind them, are all united in the unalterable resolve that the Commonwealth of Australia shall mean a 'white Australia' and that from now henceforward all alien elements within it shall be diminished. We are united that this Commonwealth shall be established on a firm foundation of unity of race, so as to enable it to fulfill the promise of its founders, and enjoy to the fullest extent the charter of liberty under the Crown which we now cherish. 6

The second immediate concern was customs, addressed by the Customs Tariff Act 1902 which abolished all internal tariffs, imposing five to twenty per cent tariffs on imported goods to protect local producers as well as generate income. The third pressing issue was defence. On 1 March 1901 the Commonwealth took control of the defence facilities of the states, but naval forces and establishments continued under state Acts and Regulations until February 1904. The Defence Act of 1903 provided for the enlistment of volunteers in peacetime. In introducing the Bill, Sir John Forrest explained:

The measure recognises that the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth shall be constituted almost entirely of citizen soldiers, and that the primary duty of such forces is to defend Australia from invasion or attack. Provision is to be made for a permanent force, which will, under existing conditions, be only sufficient for the purpose of manning the forts and ships, working the submarine mines, and instructing the citizen forces. 7

How the work is done

The Australian colonies, and subsequently the Commonwealth, adopted the British system of government known as the Westminster system. However, unlike Britain, which traditionally had a unitary system in which one parliament made the laws for the whole country, Australia chose a federal system in which individual states govern themselves except in matters which require national legislation. The situation in Britain has changed since the 1990s with the devolution of legislative power on local issues to Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Under the Westminster system, the parliament makes the laws, the courts interpret them and the public service implements them. The constitutions of the states and the Commonwealth follow the British principles of interaction between the Crown, (King, Queen or their representative), the Executive (the Crown, head of government and cabinet ministers) and parliament.

Traditionally parliamentarians sit in one of two houses, the lower house and the upper house. The Party with the majority in the lower house forms the government and appoints the leader, known as the Premier (in the states) and as the Prime Minister (in the Commonwealth). Experienced members of the government are eligible for appointment to the cabinet, which acts as the "engine" of the parliament and initiates most of the bills which are placed before it. The size of the cabinet may vary from one government to another.

The bill (proposed legislation) usually goes first to the lower house, where it is debated and a vote taken. If passed, it goes to the upper house for the same procedures. If it passes again it is signed by the Governor (Governor General in the Commonwealth), then it is proclaimed and becomes an Act which is then published as part of the law. The application of the Act usually takes effect through regulations drawn up by relevant government departments and advisers, then sent to the Executive Council for approval. If the upper house votes against any bill which has been approved by the lower house, it is returned for a second vote, and, if rejected again, both houses of parliament may be dissolved and a general election held.

The upper house is essentially a house of review, and many people have questioned the need for it, particularly in Queensland where the Legislative Council was abolished in 1922. The exclusive nature of the councils was intended to reflect the character of the House of Lords, the upper house in Britain, and this was achieved by making the franchise for elections of the councils much more restrictive than that for the assemblies. It was not until 1950 that Victoria finally removed its restricted franchise for the upper house and opened the vote to everyone on the electoral roll.

In the Commonwealth, the upper house, known as the Senate, was structured so that states with low populations were represented equally with the more populous states, an arrangement which gave a measure of protection against undue influence by New South Wales and Victoria. Although the Fathers of Federation saw the Senate as a means of protecting the interests of all the states within the structure of the Commonwealth, this safeguard has been weakened by the increasing need for party loyalty which often takes precedence over members' loyalty to their states.

The two Territories do not have upper houses: in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory the elected representatives sit in a Legislative Assembly, and the leader of the party in power is known as the Chief Minister.

Public Service

Once legislation is enacted, it is the responsibility of the relevant government departments to give it effect. The body of government departments, known as the Public Service, needs to be independent of political influence and interference. In addition it must be a stable body which is able to continue to work effectively despite changes of government (although restructuring is common when new governments come into power).

The departments with the longest traditions are those dealing with customs, treasury, lands, public works and prisons. Then followed departments such as the Titles Office, Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, along with Railways, Post and Telegraph, Education, Mines, and Immigration. Relatively new departments are those which manage areas such as 'Sport and Recreation' and 'Science and Technology'. The departmental head consults closely with the responsible minister to ensure that government policy is implemented, and the minister in turn is responsible to parliament. The ministers and Prime Minister (Premier in the states) form the cabinet which makes the executive decisions. At federation, customs, immigration and postal services became Commonwealth government departments, but their existing facilities continued to be available to the public in capital cities and regional centres. In the following sections, we look at the work of the government departments which provided services in the 19th century and whose buildings, designed by the Government Architects, stand as monuments to their work.


  1. Australia's First Century, 1788-1888, Facsimile edn. of Cassell's Picturesque Australasia, Child & Henry, NSW, 1980, p. 171.
  2. Knowles, James, (ed.), The Nineteeth Century, A Monthly Review, vol. XL11, July - December 1897, Leonard Scott Publication Co., New York, vol. XL11, p. 357.
  3. Joseph Fowles, Sydney in 1848, facsimile edn, Ure Smith in association with The National Trust of Australia (NSW), 1973, p. 79.
  4. Simpson, D.H. (ed.), Australia and New Zealand by Anthony Trollope, Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1968, The Colonial History Series, vol. 2, p. 59.
  5. Simpson, D.H. (ed.), Australia and New Zealand by Anthony Trollope, vol. 6. 2nd edn, Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1968, pp. 356-7.
  6. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates. House of Representatives, 12 September, 1901, vol. 4, pp. 4805-7, 4817. Quoted in Frank Crowley, A Documentary History of Australia, Thomas Nelson, West Melbourne, 1973, vol. 4, p. 17.
  7. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 16 July, 1903, Vol. 14, pp. 2266, 2277-8. Quoted in Frank Crowley, A Documentary History of Australia, Thomas Nelson, West Melbourne, 1973 vol. 4, p. 47.