The House of Assembly in the South Australian Parliament in North Terrace, Adelaide. This is where the government in formed.
Image courtesy Parliament of South Australia

, total male suffrage, secret
ballot, 1895 women's right to stand for election


SOUTH AUSTRALIA HAS BEEN A WORLD LEADER in advancing rights through parliamentary democracy and social change. The colony’s 1851 constitution was among the most democratic in the world – ahead of other Australian colonies, the United Kingdom and most European countries.

It allowed voting by all adult males (including Aboriginals), secret ballots; one vote, one value; no property qualifications to vote for members of the House of Assembly; and three-year parliamentary terms.

In 1891, three United Labor Party members were elected to the South Australian parliament: the first involvement by political parties. Tom Price, a Labor member elected in 1893, became state premier of the world's first stable Labor government in 1905 with the support of liberal MPs.

South Australia was second only to New Zealand in granting women (including Aboriginals) the right to vote and the first to give women the right to stand for parliament (1894).

In the debates leading up to Australian federation and statehood in 1901, South Australia was crucial to sustaining the process and shaping the nation's constitution. 

But unfairness crept into in the state’s 20th Century voting quotas. In the 1960s, Labor's Don Dunstan criticised the gerrymander (or “Playmander”, developed under long-time previous premier Tom Playford) where rural seats dominated parliament with fewer electors.

With the support of the Liberal Country League's new leader Steele Hall, Dunstan ended this bias to rural seats. He also lowered the voting age to 18 and overhauled the Legislative Council that had clung to its control of parliament through restricted suffrage favouring the wealthy and large landholders.


as South Australia becomes a world leader in democratic rights

Jeremy Bentham strong philosophical force for democracy in plan for South Australian colony

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was one of four guiding authors – with Robert Gouger, Anthony Bacon and Charles Grey – of the first Proposal to His Majesty's Government for founding a colony on the Southern Coast of Australia submitted to the British government Colonial Office in 1831. The proposal was for the colony to be set up by a private company that would be able to remove the governor, despite the appointment being made by the king. It also proposed free trade, a legislative assembly – once the adult male population reached 10,000 – and a circulating library of such works of moral, political and general knowledge as would fit the colonists for self-government. Proposals of free trade, self government and the power to select the governor were all seen by elements of the British government as radical and republican. Bentham had declared his republican stance in 1818. Nor was the colony proposal able to attract the investment required by the British Colonial Office before it would grant approval. Anthony Bacon attempted to force the British government's hand by misleading potential investors. The failure of the proposal led to the South Australian Land Company being formed and Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s Plan of a company to be established for the purpose of founding a colony in Southern Australia, purchasing land therein and preparing the land so purchased for the Reception of Immigrants. This didn’t vary much from previous proposal and the Colonial Office was no more enthusiastic.  Again, grand plans for a colony in South Australia fell through.

Turmoil over first two governors followed by limited seven-member Legislative Council

The South Australian colony started with virtually two systems of government, with authority split between the governor and the resident commissioner in charge of land sales. This division led to turmoil during the terms of the first two governors John Hindmarsh and George Gawler. From 1843-51, South Australia was governed by a Legislative Council of seven members, all nominated by the British crown, who ran the colony, directed by the governor.



but parliament unstable with Legislative Council an obstruction

William Boothby starts 1850s South Australian secret voting ballot that spreads across world

William Boothby, the commissioner in charge of every South Australian parliamentary election from 1856 to 1903, pioneered the secret ballot system that was followed later by the rest of the world. On April 2, 1856, South Australia enacted a law introducing the secret ballot that had been adopted two weeks earlier in Victoria. But Boothby developed the system and prepared the clauses of the South Australian Act 1856 that instituted voting by ballot. In 1858, he introduced placing of a cross against the name of the favoured candidate on pre-printed ballots papers that would be place in sealed box. This was a big change from the British practice where voters assembled at election centres and called out the name of their chosen candidate. That public process made the voter vulnerable to bribery and intimidation. A secret ballot was one of six demands of Chartism that the British parliament refused to consider in 1842. Boothby’s system was adopted for federal government elections in Australia when he was the state returning officer for the first House of Representatives election in 1901. The South Australian federal seat of Boothby was named in his honour in 1903. First used by South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania, the “Australian ballot”, as it became known internationally, was later adopted by other Australian colonies, by New Zealand in 1870, United Kingdom 1872, Canada 1874 and a United States of America presidential election in 1892. Seven USA states didn't have government-printed ballots until the 20th Century. South Carolina created them in 1950, Georgia in 1922.

'Squattocracy' avoided but Legislative Council represents wealthy rural and business class

Voters for South Australia's Legislative Council after 1857 were restricted to adult males owning property worth £100 or paying rent or lease of £10 per year. The property qualification for the upper houses of other Australian colonies was higher so they were controlled by the wealthy landed classes - the "squattocracy" - in a way that South Australia avoided. But South Australia's Legislative Council was still a conservative chamber representing wealthy rural and business class.


47 governments in 36 years; Charles Kingston tries changing vote for Legislative Council

South Australia had 47 governments in 36 years during the parliaments that followed the 1857 reforms. Instability was part of all parliaments in the Australian colonies but South Australia's was one of the worst. One reason for instability was that political parties didn’t emerge in South Australia until the 1890s. Another was the obstruction by conservatives in the Legislative Council. In the 1890s, liberal premier Charles Kingston made nine attempts to broaden the Council voters' franchise. 

Henry Ayers, premier seven times; Louis Vaiben Solomon, for a week, reflect instablity

Henry Ayers, premier seven times between 1863 and 1873, and Louis Vaiben Solomon, premier for a week in 1899, illustrate the instability of the South Australian parliament in the latter 19th Century. Ayers, made wealthy through the Burra Burra copper mines, was the Legislative Council's youngest member  in 1857 and continued for 36 years. The colouful Solomon entered the House of Assembly in 1890 representing the Northern Territory, then administered by South Australia.



RIGHT TO STAND FOR ELECTION but a long wait for female MPs

Suffrage cause grows from alliance for temperance, working conditions, social purity

The main groups involved in the South Australian campaign to get the women's right to vote were the Women's Suffrage League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Working Women's Trade Union. The Women's Suffrage League, set up in 1888, organised petitions, lobbied MPs and mustered many women to attend debates. Mary Lee was secretary, Rosetta Birks treasurer. Mary Colton became president in 1891 and Catherine Helen Spence joined that year.


Ebenezer Ward's move backfires as women gain rights beyond Edward Stirling's vision

Edward Stirling had unsuccessfully introduced the first bill to grant women’s suffrage into the Legislative Council in 1886. Premier Charles Kingston was persuaded by colleagues John Cockburn and Frederick Holder and lobbied by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union to reintroduce the bill in 1894. Legislative Council member Ebenezer Ward, who wanted to wreck the bill, thought adding the right for women to be elected would be mocked and the bill would collapse. It did not.


Long wait for female MPs but Susan Benny an Australia first for SA local government

After winning the right in 1895 to stand for election, South Australian women had a long wait for one of them to become a member of parliament. The state’s first female MP was Nancy Buttfield, nominated in 1955 to fill a Liberal vacancy in the federal senate. In local government, South Australia added to its firsts in 1919 when Susan Benny became the first woman councillor in Australia when ratepayers asked state parliament to appoint her to the new Seacliff Ward on Brighton Council

Catherine Helen Spence pushes involvement; temperance scores big referendum win in 1915

Although South Australian women had a long wait to be elected as MPs, they were inspired by the vote campaign to be politically involved. In 1895, Catherine Helen Spence, with niece Lucy Morice, founded the Women's League “to educate women politically and to work for the interests of women and children”. The temperance movement, another force in vote campaign, had a big win was in the 1915 referendum when 100,000 out of 176,000 voted for 6pm closing of hotels.



UNITED LABOR EMERGES IN 1890s, WINS GOVERNMENT IN 1906 and solidifies political party system as Liberal Union becomes LCL

United Labor in the early 1890s brings first political party system to the SA parliament

South Australia had no formal political party system until the first three United Labor Party of South Australia members arrived in the Legislative Councl in 1891. Before that, members of parliament were roughly divided into conservatives and liberals grouped around influential individuals. In 1891, gaining 10 of the 53 House of Assembly seats and the balance of power, United Labor supported liberal premier Charles Kingston, ousting conservative John Downer’s government.

Tom Price's world-first Labor government in 1906 the legacy of unions legalised in 1876

Thomas Price became South Australia's first Labor premier in 1905. He headed a minority government, relying on support from Archibald Peake's liberals. Elected again in 1906, Price headed the world’s first stable Labor government. Price died in 1909 and Peake became premier until John Verran took Labor to its first majority government in 1910 – another world first. United Labor was the result of another South Australia first: leading the British empire in 1876 by legalising trade unions.


Archibald Peake merges conservative, liberal anti-Labor forces as the Liberal Union party

Archibald Peake formed the Liberal Union, an alliance of conservatives and liberals that became the basis of anti-Labor politics in South Australia. When Labor won the 1910 state election in its own right, two independent conservative parties, the Australasian National League (formerly National Defence League) and the rural Farmers and Producers Political Union, joined with Peake’s Liberal and Democratic Union to form the Liberal Union.


Tom Playford rides on South Australian rural bias of Liberal-Country League merger in 1932

With more Labor election victories under a first-past-the-post voting system, the Country Party merged in 1932 with the Liberal Federation (merging the Liberal Union and National Party from 1923-32) to form the South Australian Liberal and Country League (LCL). The key concession for the merger demanded by the Country Party was a 2:1 ratio to favour rural areas in the LCL structure and the state’s electoral system. Tom Playford's 27 years as premier would benefit from this gerrymander.


and plays  important part in shaping 1901 national constitution

Former premiers key to federation debate as South Australians vote 80% for concept

The state of South Australia was born on January 1, 1901, after the colony enthusiastically led and enabled a campaign to federate Australia. . A second referendum on the constitition passed in 1899, with nearly 80% support in South Australia. Former premiers Charles Kingston, Frederick Holder, Thomas Playford II and John Downer were among senior South Australian politicians who shaped the federation debate and took key roles in the federal parliament. 


John Downer among drafters of Australian Constitution adopted in 1899 referendum

John Downer, former South Australian premier, was one of a trio who made the final draft of the Australian Constitution adopted in 1899. The committee, led by Downer’s friend (and first Australian prime minister-to-be) Edmund Barton, worked at Downer’s Pennington Terrace, North Adelaide home, now part of St Mark’s University College. This South Australian influence on federation, out of all proportion with its wealth and population, came from its politicians’ experience. 

John Cockburn leads insistence on women's vote nationally but unsure of free trade

Dr John Cockburn, former premier and most progressive of South Australia’s federation delegates, was strong on state rights. But he wanted two rights gained by South Australians – voting for women  (adopted) and Aboriginals (rejected) – carried into the national area. Cockburn was ambivalent on one reason for South Australian enthusiasm for federation: eliminating tariffs. Cockburn feared this would expose infant South Australian industries to powerful interstate competition.


Tom Playford II comes up with compromise for Senate as guardian of the smaller states

The Senate as the Australian parliament's upper house was designed to protect individual states' rights, especially with big population differences reflected in House of Representatives seats. The 76 senators are made up of 12 from each state and two each from the territories. South Australia's Thomas Playford II came up with a compromise to a federation convention deadlock over the Senate’s powers in dealing with spending proposed by the House of Representatives.



Legislative Council opened to all voters; bias to rural seats axed

Steele Hall makes first move to end Playmander 2:1 bias toward rural seats in the Assembly

The first steps to end the electoral gerrymander or “Playmander”, that helped premier Tom Playford and the Liberal Country League (LCL) government keep power for 27 years, were made by Liberal premier Steele Hall in 1968. The LCL depended on a 2:1 weighting favouring rural electorates. But the conservative/rural wing of the LCL was unconcerned by this, especially when the party held a 16-4 majority in the Legislative Council, where restricted suffrage, based on wealth, land ownership.


Don Dunstan starts reform of Legislative Council controlled by rural conservatives

Don Dunstan, as leader of the Labor party during Steele Hall’s premiership (1968-70), first moved to reform the Legislative Council by replacing its voters’ property-based qualifications with voting opened to all adults. Again, the Legislative Council, led by conservative Ren DeGaris, blocked the reform. This opened the split between the Liberal and Country League’s rural conservative such as DeGaris and urban based-progressives and led to the breakaway Liberal Movement.


Legislative Council polls opened to all voters in state, with quotas deciding its 22 members

South Australia was the last Australian state to broaden voting to every adult for its parliamentary upper house: the Legislative Council. This change in 1976 ended the bias, from 1941 to 1973, when every Legislative Council election returned eight for the Liberal Country League to two Labor members. The whole of the state again became the Council's electoral district. The Council's 22 members were elected on a system of quotas representating one 12th or 8.33%. of the total vote.


House of Assembly seat boundaries still being adjusted to get elections decided on 50% vote

Electoral fairness has turned to the 47-member House of Assembly in the 21st Century, aiming to have the party receiving more than 50% of the state vote forming government. This hasn’t happened in three elections won by Labor. The Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission, set up in 1975, seeks to give each seat equal population, within a 10% tolerance, and electors with common interest. A party can form government with independents, as happened with the Labor party in 2014.



under the Westminster system, with its lingering colonial relics

Governments formed or fail in the House of Assembly where they introduce law bills

Most South Australian laws are introduced in the 47-member House of Assembly. This is because the group – a party or coalition – with most seats in the lower house can form government. The person voted leader by that group becomes premier who choses ministers for various portfolios such as treasury, education, transport etc. The leader of the opposition heads the second biggest group. The opposition “shadow” ministers watch government performance in the portfolios.

Legislative Council, as house of review, can amend or reject bills from the Assembly

The Legislative Council is South Australian parliament’s house of review of law bills usually started by the government that is formed from the majority group in the lower house: the House of Assembly. The Legislative Council in turn still holds the power to veto all law bills, including the Budget, coming from the House of Assembly. When the two houses disagree over passing a law, there is no way to resolve the deadlock. The Legislative Council has the final say.


Committee work an ongoing extra activity on sidelines of two houses of parliament

One of the major areas of parliamentary activity for members outside the House of Assembly and Legislative Council chambers are the committees. These committees are made up of members of parliament with both houses working jointly or separately to gather information and opinions of the community on their needs and concerns. MPs have other constant commitments such as their ministry, electorate and their party.


Royal assent for laws a colonial hangover, with governor and cabinet as executive council

South Australia’s past as a British colony is reaffirmed in the final stages of laws passed today by its parliament. All laws still require the assent of the British monarch. In the Legislative Council of the South Australian parliament, the royal arms are carved into vice-regal British oak throne that has been used since 1855. The state governor heads the executive council, the formal arm of the government giving legal force to certain cabinet decisions, appointments and similar matters.



MULTIPLE WAYS FOR CITIZENS TO GET INVOLVED, individually and collectively, in South Australian democratic system, activity

South Australia brings referenda to Australia; makes prolific use of royal commissions

South Australia conducted Australia’s first referendum in 1896 and its governments have called more than 180 royal commissions since 1859. The success of the first 1896 South Australia referendum – on religious instruction in state schools – led to the practice across the nation. South Australia's first royal commission was set up by the government in 1859 to inquire into the loss of ship Admella. Commissions usually come from pressure on governments to investigate important matters. 

Demonstrations on the steps and youth sessions part of public access to Parliament House

Public access to Parliament House, including demonstrations on its steps, and a youth parliament are part of the democratic process in South Australia. Sittings of the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council are open to the public who are welcome to sit in the visitor galleries. A radio broadcast of sittings can be heard through the parliament website that also presents education resources. When parliament isn't sitting, a guided tour is available at 10am and 2pm weekdays.


Standing for election in South Australia open to all over 18; independent, minor parties effective

Standing for election to the South Australian parliament is open to individual Australian citizens aged over 18 who register through the Electoral Commission.
Political parties have dominated South Australian parliament but independent candidates have found themselves in powerful positions in supplying an extra seat to keep a government in charge. The Legislative Council voting system has been a way for minor parties, notably Nick Xenophon's, to gain seats and be effective.

Citizens juries and country cabinets get people involved beyond forced election vote

Compulsory voting for the South Australian House of Assembly didn’t arrive until 1942. South Australia in recent years has swung towards ways to getting citizens at large involved in parliamentary decisionmaking beyond just being forced to vote at elections. A prime example has been the Citizens Jury. Another way for citizen involvement has been meetings of the state government cabinet meetings in regional areas. Locals get the chance to question ministers at the meeetings.


ELECTORAL COMMISSION RUNS ELECTIONS for governments, councils and others; keeps watch on political funding/donations

South Australia still a leader in election techniques and with its unique voting rules

The Electoral Commission of South Australia was the world’s first electoral administration to use computers to produce an electoral roll and the first to develop electoral roll scanners and the use of cardboard ballot boxes and voting compartments. The commission’s internationally innovative drive is part of a tradition set by William Boothby, who refined the use of secret ballots in elections in the 1850s. Boothby was last of South Australia’s sheriffs (who also ran the jails and courts system) to conduct elections.


Commission hones its expertise and adds new access for special-needs voters in 2018 election

The 2018 state election, with 1,201,775 South Australians enrolled to vote, gave the state’s electoral commission another chance to test and extend its record for innovative procedures. These included the new EasyVote card used by 85% of voters to reduce waiting times. The commission’s mobile polling team flew on a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft for eight days travelling 10,000km to 29 remote locations in the Outback. The commission also tried an ambassador program for particular cultural communities and bilingual staff at selected polling booths.


Donations to parties and public funding of polls overseen by electoral commission

The watch on donations to political parties, and thus influence on government policy, has been tightened by the South Australian election public funding rules that started in 2015. This watch on political influence extends to instances such as the $350,000 paid to Business SA by the Sydney-based Australian Bankers’ Association to campaign against the state Labor government’s $370 million bank tax in 2017. It also highlighted thousands raised for the Labor party through its associated entity SA Progressive Business.


AEC runs the federal elections; state body available to conduct fee-for-service polls

While the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) runs federal elections, the South Australian electoral commissioner in 1980 was empowered to conduct elections beyond those for state parliament and local councils (from 1990). Fee-for-service elections and ballots, with an independent returning officer, are conducted for statutory authorities such as Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara executive board, Super SA, the Architectural Practice Board of South Australia, and South Eastern Water Conservation and Drainage Board.


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