Irresponsible Government


Chapter 5 Conclusions

Assessment of Alliances
Assessment of Political Development



Secretary of State for the Colonies
Lord Stanley
William Gladstone
Earl Grey
Sir John Pakington
Duke of Newcastle
Sir George Grey
Sidney Herbert
Lord John Russell
Sir William Molesworth
Henry Labouchiere


Governor of New South Wales
Sir George Gipps
Sir Charles FitzRoy
also 1851-56 Governor General of Australia *
Sir William Denison
*Governors since 1825 used a council to advise them. As they had no Australian council and thought it unfair to use the NSW council which might prejudice the other colonies, both very properly declined to use this power other than for ceremonial visits.
































































































































































Chapter 5


Assessment of Alliances

Contemporary perceptions that political parties and factions existed in New South Wales in the period 1843-1855 have to be taken as neither more nor less than looseness of expression for alignments which actually did exist. These alignments, however, did not match modern ideas of party, and fell well short of even less formal contemporary definitions. Political factions were distinguished from parties by lack of a platform, manifesto or working agreement. Setting aside the odium which Edmund Burke had saddled on faction politics 1, it was sufficiently respectable and effective to carry the Colony through the reforms and development of the first thirty years of responsible government 2. They arose out of necessity in that period as, in the absence of parties, it was essential to establish a mechanism for supporting a cohesive group of ministers which was necessary for the conduct of unified government rather than the chaos which individual ministers competing for influence, resources and members’ votes would create 3. This necessity simply did not arise before 1856 as the governor and his departmental heads filled that function, as least in its most basic form. But there was a vacuum created by that government’s pursuit of imperial policy and selectivity in dealing with local issues – one which had to be filled by select committee and private member initiatives.

Whilst a committee in itself provided a group which could work out compromises  or agree to differ, private member action was merely vocal unless it could attract a sufficient core of member support, and the appearance of public support, to swing a majority in favour of a measure or committee report. Groupings arose through pacesetting activists such a Wentworth, Lowe, Cowper and Lang rallying support for particular issues, or by like-minded members coalescing for personal or political benefits. Beyond the single-issue affiliations, there were more widely based and continuous alliances built against more general targets such as the ‘anti-Gipps alliance’ and the defence against the various facets of squatter domination, as well as the continuing sagas of colonial responsibility, constitutional reform and transportation. However, as the general pattern of voting alignments previously described demonstrates, there was neither real permanence in any coalition nor stability in the composition of those coalitions, often changing from one vote to another on the same topic 4. Even the putative leaders of so called factions and tails were sufficiently flexible in their approach to attract the epithets ‘weathercock’, ‘slippery Charlie’, ‘piebald’ and ‘arch traitor’ 5.

That this inconstancy could coexist with a ‘generally satisfactory discharge of duties’ 6 is confirmation of the reality of the governor’s government and the general support given by members to necessary basic administrative legislation. It is also witness to their irresponsibility on other matters – both from the point of view of not having responsibility for implementation of their successes and excesses and in the sense of setting their own interests and prejudices ahead of community ones, a statement which has of course to be qualified by genuinely held individual perceptions of what was good for the community. What is quite apparent is that the overriding twin political issues of local power and local control of power were not necessarily prosecuted on the basis of what policies were good for the advancement and well being of the community, but on how sectional interests could best be served. There was a squatting interest led by Wentworth concerned with preservation of its privileges and control of legislative power; a mercantile interest anxious to gain a voice for urban interests; a growing popular interest which looked to Lowe, Lang and Cowper to curtail labour competition and retain and acquire land rights 7 and an anti-democratic umbrella which over-lapped the various squatting, landowning, professional and larger mercantile interests, which a Wentworth–MacarthurThomson alliance sought to promote 8.

With such a disparity of competing and overlapping interests allied to the lack of opportunity or risk of accepting executive responsibility, the absence of political parties is not only understandable but also very predictable. Similarly, faction was to be expected to appear as an alternative to parties in the formation of responsible ministries, but not earlier when that task was assumed by the governor and his heads of department. What was left in the political spectrum amounted to lobbying and fighting for general and sectional interests, and the extension of personal influence; the diversity of these objectives and individual preferences did not demand or encourage stable groupings amongst the small numbers of members. The pattern of divisions in the Council demonstrates that unanimity of opinion on a fairly broad range of issues did result in loose affiliations of elected members, although they continued to exercise their own judgment as they pleased. The extent to which these alliances were affected by the family relationships of the Macarthurs, Thomson, Parker and others is hard to determine. Although there was electoral support and sponsorship, their patterns of voting show the same erratic interest convergences and divergences as has been noted as applying to rural and commercial interests. As members of the self-appointed aristocracy of ‘independent gentlemen’, their family ties probably warranted no further specific political obligations than external support and patronage.

Keeping the administration of the Colony on an even keel fell to the nominee members. As much as non-official members protested their independence, in practice they provided a fairly reliable bloc to augment the official members where major issues of government administration and confidence were at stake. The officials, as heads of department as well, were surrogate ministers and generally acted accordingly, except that there were fairly frequent ‘free votes’ where government interest was not at stake, and there was some obviously mixed voting on tactical moves where there was official disagreement on whether to bring a matter to a head immediately or to defer action as long as possible. The status of the Colonial Secretary as something more than a leader of the house and considerably less than a premier was often tested in controlling both attendance and voting of official and non-official nominee members. For their performance was crucial. They could provide the most predictable voting alignment in the Council, and a high disciplined turnout could usually ensure a majority in the chamber wherever loose elected interest convergences allowed the usual leakage of votes to the government. Exceptions were eventually confined to the comparatively few issues of direct confrontation of colonial and imperial interests.

Assessment of Political Development

There were two separate perspectives against which political development in the blended council should be viewed. The first was that enunciated by Gipps as an experiment in conflict avoidance – that the bicameral Home model had failed in other colonies, and the blending of nominated and elected representation, under strong control of the governor, gave the only alternative under which self government could exist; its failure meant a return to Colonial Office domination 9. This was paradoxically not conflict avoidance but the very essence of conflict, as the alternative viewpoint of the colonists was that the Colony should move to responsible government 10 local disagreements swung not about this end but on how it should be implemented.

The confrontation which Gipps faced effectively scotched hopes of a blended legislature as a means of avoiding the North American experience of governor and legislative council against representative assembly. It simply focused animus against the governor locally and the imperial power overall. With the objective not as a form of local administration but of complete local control, responsible government after the form developing in Canada 11 was both demanded and achievable. The Gipps experience made this plain not only in New South Wales but also to the Colonial Office. Lord Grey’s proffered solution of 1847 was rejected essentially on the basis that it left landed interests apprehensive of loss of influence and control, and their adversaries fearful that it would entrench pastoral dominance. Both sides for the time being preferred the status quo 12, which perplexed Grey and made him wary of further unsolicited progressive constitutional initiatives, declining future action other than on advice from the colonial legislature 13. That placed the advantage squarely with the establishment and pastoral majority within the Legislative Council, which was able to both criticise the 1850 constitution’s lack of progress towards responsibility 14 and use its provision for self amendment of the constitution to push through the 1853 constitution bill replete with nominated upper house, limitation of franchise and electorates, and a two thirds amendment provision 15.

This manoeuvring was the nub of the course of political development. There was colonial unanimity on the nominal ultimate objective, but a considerable diversity of ideas and interests on how responsible government should be effected. If there had been a simple oligarch-democrat split, a two party political system would have been within immediate reach. However, there was such a dispersion of interests, affinities and approaches that there could be no permanence of convergence of interest once the basic decision on the shape of the constitution had been passed. Within the 27 votes which overwhelmed the six dissenters 16 on the constitution bill lay the division between landowning aristocracy and ‘mere squatters’, and urban mercantile and professional interests not anxious to see a perpetuation of rural and official domination 17. And within the dissenters, woefully few as they were, was the wedge which split avowed liberals from the taint of outright republican and radical 18.

With limited electoral accountability, lacking the discipline of party and factional loyalty 19 or the prospect of having to administer the consequences of their voting decisions, elected Council members continued to pursue their predictable and unpredictable voting and absenteeism patterns. This was followed to a lesser extent by non-official nominees and even some officials. As noted earlier, even the certitude of having to face the demands of responsible government failed to attract tangible improvement - this was a problem for the new legislature. But there were areas in which valuable experience was gained – in select committees and legislation. The Colony’s early government had necessarily been interventionalist because of its newness, isolation and military origins. There was no slackening of pace during the blended council era, indeed the pace quickened. Its first five year term brought down 193 bills; the second three year term 177; and the final five year term 327 20. The mechanics of that aspect of government were well tested, even if the mechanisms of the much sought after responsibility were left to be solved by the blended council’s successors.


From whichever point it is viewed, government in New South Wales in the period prior to 1856 was irresponsible. The Governor, with his executive council and bureaucracy together with his statutory powers on finance and legislation, was in permanent government, governing according to his imperial instructions and his perception of the Colony’s best interests, not necessarily to the inhabitants’ wishes. So his responsibility lay to the British Government, which was responsible to its British electorate and viewed colonial preferences as significant but third to British interests and British responsibility for the acts of its colonies. The heads of department were paid public servants, not responsive to the confidence of the legislature but to the patronage of the governor, and so failing any real comparison with ministerial responsibility. The executive, insulated from curtailment of supply by the Constitutions’ fixed civil lists, owed no response to the representatives of colonial taxpayers. Nominee unofficial members of the Legislative Council were even more irresponsible - having some implied obligation of loyalty to the general programme of the government, but neither bound to follow that lead nor subject to the judgment of electors on their performance.

Even elected representatives, whether united in confrontation with Gipps, in confrontation with each other and the imperial power under FitzRoy’s more permissive regime, or simply following their own interests or inclinations, were subject to comparatively loose constraints on their individual and collective conduct. From an electoral point of view, they generally maintained a right of voting on their own judgment, relying on terms of up to five years, a restrictive franchise and selection of a sympathetic electorate to maintain their tenure of office. And as well as the freedoms from close constituent pressure and party discipline, they were also free of responsibility for the results of their acts or of having to implement their proposals: permanent opposition carried no accountability. Gipps quickly put his finger on this difference from British constitutional opposition which ‘may be called on and hope to be called on to assume government’ 21. For twelve years the opposition was quite certain that it would not be so called, and whilst genuinely aspiring to responsible government, was quite willing in the interim to pursue measures oriented to sectional interests rather than the general benefit of the Colony. This latter responsibility fell squarely on Governor, Executive Council and departmental heads.

Politics from 1843 to 1855 were not those of party, faction or majority but of issues. Whilst it was obvious that certain Council members such as Deas Thomson, Wentworth, Lowe, Cowper and even at times Lang exercised a form of leadership over fairly identifiable groups, the loyalty of support or degree of consensus of those loose affiliations was sufficiently unreliable and unspecific to defy definition of some formal alliance. These flexible groups were not proof against self interest, electoral pressure or even simple personal preference. The governors represented imperial interests and their own view of local equity; the official nominees represented their own view of local interests and personal inclinations as far as these could be exercised within the governor’s patronage. Non-official nominees protested their independence, and often followed an indefinable variety of voting with or against the government, which can only be generalised as normal support for important government policy tempered by following their own persuasions or interests on specific issues. Elected members followed interests, whether they were property oriented, philosophical, practical or demagogic; unanimity of approach on issues produced some uniformity of voting and the semblance of alliance, until other issues arose which realigned the groupings.

The tags of conservative, liberal and radical have little utility. Few colonial politicians were not conservative: radical democracy and universal franchise were not real issues. Few, including governors and officials, would not imagine themselves as having some liberal persuasions: the pace and beneficiaries of reform were the points at issue. What radical forces there were quickly captured and submerged in progressive opposition to imperial rule and insensitivities, then the struggle for power in the responsible government era. The politics of the blended council period were those of alliances of interests – individual and sectional, and the struggle to win local power and for control of that power. Yet within that welter of irresponsibility were laid the foundations of stable administration and future political development and reform - a clear witness to the fact that, as much as the political protagonists indulged in the luxury of parochial feuds, there was a strong undercurrent of responsible legislative activity directed towards the progress of the Colony.



Acronyms and Abbreviations

1. Burke Works vol I, p474-5.

2. Loveday and Martin Parliament, Factions and Parties p151.

3. Irving ‘Responsible Government’ p205.

4. For example see V&P NSW LC (1850) 25 September 1846; (1850) 30 August, 21, 30 September, 1 October 1850; (1851) Committees 17, 22 April 1851.

5. Messrs Lowe, Cowper, Donaldson and Wentworth respectively: Knight Illiberal Liberal p215; H. Parkes Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History vol 1, London 1892, p116-7; Ward James Macarthur p197; Foster Colonial Improver p111.

6. Atlas 1 July 1848, p318 New Legislative Council; also Sydney Morning Herald 13 October 1849, p2 Editorial.

7. Martin Henry Parkes p131-2; Powell Patrician Democrat p53.

8. V&P NSW LC (1853) vol II, p119, 123; Ward James Macarthur p183.

9. Sydney Morning Herald 24 February 1843, p2 Legislative Council.

10. HRA I.XXIV, p249 Gipps to Stanley of 13 February 1845.

11. V&P NSW LC (1844) Report from the Select Committee on General Grievances p7, 15; V&P NSW LC (1851) vol II, p463-7 Report from a Select Committee Appointed to Prepare a Reply to Earl Grey’s Answer to the Council Declaration and Remonstrance.

12. PP (1849) XXXV, p37.

13. HRA I.XXVI, p529-531 Grey to FitzRoy of 31 July 1848 paragraphs 1,6,10.

14. V&P NSW LC (1851) vol I, p145-6 Report from the Select Committee on the New Constitution.

15. V&P NSW LC (1853) Report from the Select Committee on the New Constitution; 21 December 1853.

16. V&P NSWLC (1853) vol I, 21 December 1853.

17. Ward James Macarthur p183.

18. Empire 12 December 1853, p3114 Dr Lang and Independence; CMH Clark A History of Australia vol IV, Melbourne 1978, p36.

19. Acknowledged, but still without a twelfth hour sense of urgency, in Empire 24 April 1856, p4 Editorial.

20. V&P NSW LC (1843-55) Summaries of Bills.

21. V&P NSW LC (1843) 19 October 1843 Gipps’ Message.