By the 1870s, there were large anomalies in the size of the electorates created by the 1858 legislation.
By the 1870s, there were large anomalies in the size of the electorates created by the 1858 legislation. Even in 1866, the electorate of Parramatta had 632 electors per Member compared to 2356 for The Bogan. However, it was not until 1880 that a new Electoral Act was passed. The 1880 legislation was more an updating of the 1858 Act than a new departure. The franchise provisions remained basically the same. The requirement for three years residence in the colony was, however, removed. The new redistribution adhered to the principles of the 1858 legislation, including rural weighting. As a result, the average number of electors for a country seat was 1549 and 2361 for an urban one. There were 72 electorates returning 108 Members. The new electorates were roughly based on the existing ones but the number of multi-Member seats increased greatly. The University electorate was abolished as were the three gold fields electorates. The justification for the latter was that as the prospectors were now permanently settled on the gold fields they would meet the residential qualification.1
One new feature was that the 1880 Act employed the mechanism of multi-Member electorates to allow for some adjustment in succeeding elections without needing new electoral legislation. Single Member districts where enrolment consistently exceeded 3000 became entitled to a second seat. Similarly, two Member districts became entitled to a third Member when enrolment exceeded 5000 and three Member districts received a fourth Member when enrolment exceeded 8000.2
Following these principles, adjustments to the number of Members to be returned by individual electorates saw the number of MLAs elected increase from 108 to 113 in 1882, to 122 in 1885 and to 124 in 1887. No changes in boundaries were needed to accomplish this.
The minor changes made for the 1889 election could have been achieved in the same way. The far western Division of Wentworth had originally been awarded one Member, on the basis of its having 1901 registered voters in 1880. For the 1885 election extra enrolment (to 3835) entitled it to two Members, according to the established formula. By 1887, despite a population increase sufficient to make it entitled to three Members, it remained with only two. The Division of Mudgee, with 3933 registered electors, returned three Members, while Wentworth, with 5444, was left unadjusted.
Obviously, the formula noted above was not being implemented automatically, as envisaged in the Act. One problem was that some electorates were losing population (as was indeed the case with Mudgee), and there seemed no politically palatable way of adjusting for that. Another consideration was the connection between participation rates of actual voting and the problem of distance. Most multi-Member electorates were in the city, not in rural areas where distance was a consideration. Even in Mudgee, voting participation had been about 56% in 1887, which compared well with city/suburban divisions such as Redfern, Newtown or Canterbury. In the far west, however, only 28% of registered electors had managed to vote in the Wentworth Division; the vast distances clearly contributed to that low figure.
Rather than simply award Wentworth the three Members to which it was clearly entitled, legislation was introduced by the Parkes Government which converted Wentworth into three separate seats – Wentworth, Wilcannia and Sturt – each with one Member. The legislation was not controversial since most legislators agreed that the problem of distance was extreme in that part of the colony, and hoped that more local representation would increase the involvement of voters. In any case, for that 1887-9 term Henry Parkes was dominant in Parliament and had the numbers to push the measure through. Still, the problem of Mudgee and other multi-Member divisions added to the general feeling that an overhaul of electoral law was overdue. There were insistent demands for the abolition of the existing residence and property qualifications. There were even the beginnings of demands for female suffrage, but that did not yet have strong support among legislators. The adjustments of 1889 merely maintained the status quo and thereby increased pressure for the eventual changes that were implemented four years later in 1893.
The Parkes-Robertson Coalition Ministry faced its first electoral test in 1880. The new electoral arrangements created some uncertainty but in the event the Government was returned with a large majority. By the 1880s there was considerable pressure for revision of Robertson’s 1861 land legislation which, in practice, had proved to have many defects. Alexander Stuart, who led a new faction in opposition to Parkes and Robertson, responded to this demand with a programme for land reform that had much popular support. The obstinate Robertson, however, was prepared to make only minor amendments to his original Acts. When Robertson’s amending land bill was defeated in the House, Parkes called an election in November 1882. The Ministry was heavily defeated and Stuart formed a Government. He succeeded in passing a new land act although it took over 12 months to go through Parliament. Stuart resigned as Premier in October 1885 owing to ill health and was succeeded by George Dibbs. An election was held in October and Dibbs was decisively defeated. Robertson then formed a Government. In spite of initially promising support, Parkes deserted his old ally and Robertson fell in February 1886. A supporter of the Stuart-Dibbs faction, Patrick Jennings, then formed a Ministry. Frustrated by the vehement opposition of Parkes and at odds with Dibbs, Jennings resigned and Parkes returned to office in January 1887.
The mid-1880s had thus been a time of considerable political instability, with four separate administrations between the fall of Parkes in January 1883 and his return to office in 1887. When Parkes returned to office after the election of 1887, it was with one of the clearest mandates of the colonial period, claiming support from at least 76 of the 124 MLAs in the Assembly. The old man used his majority to push through some important legislation, especially on infrastructure matters such as railways and public works, but generally Parkes concentrated on cautious fiscal management. It was just at this time that the community was dividing precisely on the fiscal question. Parkes claimed to favour Free Trade, as did a majority of his Ministry, while the Opposition led by Dibbs attacked Parkes from the perspective of a protectionist ideology. With his effective majority, this was of little concern to Parkes, and in fact his strongest opposition came from members of a ginger group on his own side who wanted Parkes to begin implementing the Free Trade agenda – especially William McMillan, George Reid and Bernhard Wise. This was the beginning of a transition from a factional politics driven mostly by personality and leadership contrasts to a more ideological division that foreshadowed the development of a modern party system. For the time being the very presence and dominance of Parkes guaranteed that personality and leadership styles would remain central to electoral politics for some time to come. Nevertheless, events in 1889 sharpened the lines of division between Free Trade and Protection.
The election of 1889 was precipitated by Parkes himself, impatient with criticism from what he regarded as his own side. For the brief period of the election campaign there was a clear movement on the Free Trade side to try to substitute fiscal ideology and extra-parliamentary organisation for the politics of personal leadership that Parkes represented. However, after the Free Traders won the election, although with a greatly reduced majority, there seemed no realistic alternative to re-installing Parkes as Premier. For a slightly longer time (that is, until the formation of the Labor Party and the electoral contests of 1891), factional and personality concerns returned to the centre of New South Wales politics. Not for long; the era of party politics was about to start. DC, MH