Before responsible government there had been three elections for a mixed-membership Legislative Council, where generally two-thirds of the Members were elected, with the remainder appointed by the Governor of the day.
Since the first distribution was arranged under the guidance of the earlier, completely appointive, Legislative Council, one clear aim was to protect the interests of landowners in the colony. An independent Electoral Commission was still a long way in the future. Not only was there no attempt to design electorates of approximately equal population, but there was a heavy and explicit bias towards representation from rural districts. For example, the city electorate of Sydney, where there were about 6000 electors, would elect two Members, while a typical rural electorate such as Durham, with about 600 electors, would send one Member to the Legislative Council. There was a property qualification for voting, owning property worth £200, but anyone paying £20 for rental property could also be enfranchised. For many conservatives this meant that the riff raff of the city could vote alongside genuine men of property. In fact, most working men were effectively without the vote. The unequal electorates were designed to prevent them having an effective voice even when they could vote.
While the election of 1848 was held on similar boundaries, a major change was necessary for the Legislative Council election in 1851. Partly this was because of the separation of the Port Phillip district from New South Wales, and the rapid growth of population in what is now southern Queensland, but also settlement had exploded in the squatter-developed west and in the city. The number of Members had been increased to 54 by the Australian Constitutions Act passed by the UK Parliament in 1850. The legislation also lowered the property qualification to £100 and the rental qualification to £10, thus enfranchising many working men in Sydney. The 31 electorates for the 1851 Council election now encompassed much of the map of present day New South Wales, with the addition of southern Queensland. Some continuity with 1842 could be seen in the names of those electorates that still conformed to boundaries of amalgamated Counties from Mitchell’s original survey.
The distribution for the 1851 Legislative Council election was determined by the administration, then sent for approval to the Council. It was prepared under the direction of Colonial Secretary and member of the Executive Council, Edward Deas Thomson. When it became clear that there had been no softening of the bias against city voters – in fact it seemed to have been intensified – the redistribution was labelled by many Sydney liberals and radicals as Thomson’s swindle". Such complaints were fruitless. Landowners clearly had the numbers in the Legislative Council among appointed and elected Members, and Thomson’s plan was approved. The radical clergyman, JD Lang, complained bitterly that his colleagues in the Council had arranged the election so that the Sydney metropolitan districts, with about one half of the electors, would elect only one sixth of the Members.
The 1851 redistribution for the Legislative Council became the basis for the first election of the new Legislative Assembly in 1856. According to the constitutional arrangements sent to Britain and amended by the British Government and Parliament, the Council would cease to be elective. Its former electorates would send representatives to the Assembly. Some changes of boundaries were made to allow for the increased number of elected Members in the new Assembly. Cumberland became two electorates, with a North Riding and a South Riding; Murray, St Vincent, Roxburgh and Wellington became separate electorates. Representation in a number of electorates was increased, although the relative imbalance between representation of city and country was maintained.
By 1851 there was a strong movement of influential citizens pushing for constitutional reform. For conservatives, this meant little more than devolution of legislation and day-to-day administration from Britain to Sydney, with landowners to determine general policy in an elected Legislative Assembly. Many citizens – liberals and radicals, especially in the city – wanted much more than this. One of the fundamental political issues in 1851 was a demand from liberals that electorates be made more equal. As mentioned above, the property qualification had been eased in 1850 but it still remained, and in fact had been reinforced by enfranchising many squatters in the western districts.
The constitutional ferment, focused in fierce debate in the Legislative Council, but mirrored in the local and sectional press, as well as in the general community, led eventually to the formulation of a draft constitution – the Constitution Bill – in 1853. This was guided through the Council by WC Wentworth. The Bill was sent to Britain, where it became the basis for the British legislation of 1855 that granted self government to New South Wales. It was clearly a document designed to protect the interests of landholders, and to put a brake on further liberal, let alone “democratic” reform. As citizens in the colony prepared for an election under the new constitution they divided into two loose political alliances – landed conservatives and city liberals and radicals. It was much too early in the development of New South Wales to talk of political parties in the modern sense, yet electors knew quite well where each candidate stood on the fundamental constitutional divide. They would vote not just for individuals, but also for their vision of constitutional reform.
As the time for the 1856 election drew near, the two-sided nature of the political contest started to unravel. Partly this was because of the great differences of opinion within both camps, but it was also a result of a vacuum of leadership. The architect of the Constitution, and the obvious leader of the conservative camp, was Wentworth, but he had sailed to Britain to help guide the Constitution Bill through the British Parliament, and would not return to the colony for a number of years. There was no one on the conservative side who could command general acceptance except men who were too closely allied with the existing appointed Executive Council, such as Edward Deas Thomson and JH Plunkett. On the liberal side, the leading reformer in the partly-elected Legislative Council had been Robert Lowe, but he also had returned to Britain. The best known figures remaining were the liberal Charles Cowper, a much more radical Rev. JD Lang, and the young editor of a radical newspaper, Henry Parkes. There was almost nothing that united these men except a distrust of the conservatives, a call for fairer elections, and a demand for some kind of land reform. Lang, in any event, had been sidelined by a provision in the new Constitution (repealed in 1858) preventing clergymen standing for office.
The 1851 redistribution, confirmed in the new Constitution, signalled the resolve of conservative landowners, assisted by the administration, that liberal reform would be minimal, even after responsible government. However, that resolve also determined the most important issues to be faced by the new responsible Parliament. There was no doubt that conservatives would win most seats, as they did. Liberal demands for a fairer redistribution, with the gradual abolition of property qualifications and an end to the discrimination against city voters, would be high on the agenda in the politics of the 1850s, before and after self government.
In the event, the electoral legislation designed to keep power in the hands of the landed gentry proved unreliable. The first administration, led by Stuart Donaldson, was clearly conservative, but neither side was able to maintain any consistent and disciplined parliamentary support, so that the First Parliament saw two conservative and two liberal administrations in a period of less than two years. The fact that a liberal leader such as Charles Cowper was able to govern, even if only for short periods, under "Thomson's swindle", meant that a new electoral law designed to soften its bias would not be long in coming. MH