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.
SOUTH AUSTRALIA MAKES EARLY LEAPS IN STRUCTURE FOR DEMOCRACY
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.
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.
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.
LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES ORGANISE IN RESPONSE TO LABOR
FORMER PREMIERS KINGSTON, HOLDER, PLAYFORD, DOWNER KEY PLAYERS
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.
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.
ENDING THE RURAL-BIAS GERRYMANDER AND LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL POWER IN 20th CENTURY
GOVERNMENTS FORMED IN THE HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY; LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL THE UPPER HOUSE
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.