Irresponsible Government


































































From a detached point of view, the transition of New South Wales from a penal station under military government to a self-governing free colony required a carefully regulated, progressive transfer of institutions and power attuned to the development of capacity to absorb them and use them responsibly 1. So it is in theory with all colonial disengagements, but in practice it is rare for subject peoples to share the same perceptions of timing and readiness with colonial masters and their local sympathisers. New South Wales in the first half of the nineteenth century was not one of the exceptions: constitutional changes, delayed by local and home conservatism, vested interests and communication problems, were in common view successive errors of too little too late 2. Colonial aspirations and colonial problems were consistently ahead of the ability of the Colonial Office to assess the real state of affairs, needs and opinions in the colony, and of its ability to translate that intelligence into satisfactory political adjustments.

Whilst political tempers periodically ran hot within the colony, until the contrived conflict at Eureka, sedition advanced no further than rhetoric
3. The failure of widely held resentments to reach the flash points which occurred in North America in 1776 and 1837 can be attributed in part to an increased willingness on the part of the British parliament and executive to recognise the inevitability of extended self rule, and to grant this when it could be sure that concessions were earned and justified 4. However, the very slowness and uncertainty of this process, particularly when allied to the intensity of the feelings generated in New South Wales by the convict, lands, immigration and financial policies of the home government, meant that there had to be other reasons for the colony not following Upper Canada’s attempted solution to its grievances. Opinion in New South Wales prior to the unifying issues of the 1840s was very much divided. Whilst there was widespread unanimity on the need for greater local control and responsibility, there was also a wide range of attitudes on just how that control should be apportioned, resolving itself into a confused medley of suspicion, confrontation and alliances amongst the overlapping interests of exclusivists, emancipists, landowners, squatters, merchants, tenants and workers 5. This confused divisiveness ensured that revolutionary sentiments were not transmuted into cohesive action.

By the time of the belated advent of a partially representative legislative council in 1843, the exclusivist-emancipist issue had subsided 6, but drought and depression had sharpened economic issues. The Council became both forum and arena in which the questions of responsibility between colonists and colonial power, and sectional interests between colonists, were contested. This adversary situation made the transitional ‘blended council’ not the instrument of developing the responsibility which would naturally earn responsible government 7, but rather an outlet of individual and collective opposition which often placed the cause of special interests ahead of that of the colony or its inhabitants as a whole: a training ground of irresponsibility rather than responsibility.

Although some modern authors find no difficulty in describing early colonial politics in terms of political parties and factions, it is a mistake to take the political terminology used in source material at the face value of modern conceptions
8. Edmund Burke had given the words ‘party’ and ‘faction’ formal if coloured meanings a half century earlier 9, but popular use in the mid-nineteenth century carried a variety of meanings. So the Sydney Morning Herald reference to the ‘party’ of Therry, Macarthur and Nichols was implying something less than a political party; and Charles Harpur’s reference to Robert Lowe’s ‘faction’ was describing a disparate opposition rather than a faction grouped around an acknowledged leader. Even the word ‘politics’ gained unusual interpretation in Gipps’ equation of politics to political parties, wishfully imagining that the incoming blended council, being without the British failing of parties, would be free of politics 10.

In consequence, an assessment of the realities of political alignments requires a detailed analysis of the patterns of mutual support, voting alignments, coincidence of interests and opinions, and contests for influence and preeminence. The application of such labels as liberal, liberal conservative, conservative and radical neither explains nor answers the question of the basis of the complex political groupings which bedevilled the partially representative legislative councils. It is intended in this paper to examine these alignments within the contemporary political setting and associated economic and social issues for the period of the blended New South Wales Legislative Council from 1843 to 1855.


1. Sydney Morning Herald 11 October 1842, p2 Editorial.

2. Votes and Proceedings New South Wales Legislative Council (1844) vol 2, p701; (1851) vol 1, p31-2.

3. Samples of the rhetoric are reported in: Sydney Morning Herald 11 April 1843, p 2 Bathurst Meeting; Atlas 28 June 1845, p361 Dispatches; 19 July 1845, p395 J.D. Lang Letter; 31 January 1846, p51 Wentworth Speech; D.W.A. Baker John Dunmore Lang ch 15, p41-2.

4. United Kingdom Parliamentary Debates (1841) 3rd Series LVII, p997-8.

5. M. Roe Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851 Sydney 1965, p91ff.

6. Suspension of transportation put a terminus on this as a principal issue; it had ceased to be regarded as a factor by the Colonial Office (Historical Records of Australia, Series I vol XXI, Sydney 1924, p442 Russell to Gipps of 21 July 1841) and had already been given an epitaph by James Macarthur’s public declaration of unity (Sydney Herald 6 February 1841, p2 Public Meeting), at least as long as emancipists tacitly adopted a low public profile commensurate with the general desire to bury the penal past. However, see also Sydney Morning Herald 20 February 1843, p2 Editorial on the Petition Society position.

7. H.G. Grey The Colonial Policy of Lord John Russell’s Administration 2 vols, London 1853, vol I pp 34-5; vol II, p 108.

8. For example: R. Knight Illiberal Liberal Melbourne 1966, p 227; Roe Quest for Authority p79, 87. This idea is convincingly disposed of by P. Loveday and A.W. Martin Parliament, Factions and Parties Adelaide 1966, pp 23-6, 121 for the responsible government era, and formal groupings are even more suspect prior to 1856.

9. E. Burke The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke vol 1, London 1899, pp 474-5, 530-1.

10. Sydney Morning Herald 9 February 1843, p 2 Editorial.