Since there was little support for proportional representation (PR) in the Parliament either from the Labor, Nationalist or Progressive Parties, the Lang Government's decision to abolish it was not controversial.
Labor preferred the colonial system of first-past-the-post, while the conservative parties preferred some form of preferential voting that would enable Nationalists and Progressives to exchange preferences in individual electorates. Some Members wanted to reduce confusion by making State electorates the same as Federal electorates – but with two Members each. However, neither Labor nor the Progressives could abide the notion of multi-Member electorates. There was general agreement to maintain the size of the Assembly at 90 MLAs. In the event, the Lang electoral legislation was radically amended by a hostile Upper House, mainly to impose a system of preferential voting (the voluntary ability of voters to give numbered “contingent” votes for candidates) in place of the first-past-the-post system favoured by the Government. Preferential voting had already been introduced for Commonwealth Senate elections in 1919, so the system was not unfamiliar to voters.
Although the major parties were happy to dump the system of Proportional Representation that had been used for the NSW elections of 1920, 1922 and 1925, some of the arguments used for its introduction still had strong supporters. This was especially the case with claims for its democratic credentials in widening the basis for representation. If PR favoured the major parties, it made participation in Parliament more difficult for minor parties and fringe groups in society. Variants of the PR system still survived in Tasmania, where it had been introduced in 1907, and were introduced for Commonwealth Senate elections in 1948, and for NSW Legislative Council elections in 1978.
To the dismay of many rural voters, especially those loyal to the Country Party, who had been unhappy with the decision in 1919 to divide the 90 seats equally between the country and metropolitan districts in the PR system, rural representation was even further eroded in 1926. There was some weighting (or “permissible variation”) of the number of voters for each electorate that was likely to give a slight advantage to rural interests, but the fact still remained that there were only 38 or 39 seats for country districts, against 51 or 52 for Sydney and Newcastle. There was some attempt to modify this in an amendment to the 1926 Act in the following year, which increased the weighting available for rural districts and also directed the Electoral Commissioners to provide more seats for the country in future redistributions.
Politics in New South Wales during the 1920s was fought with relatively high levels of conflict between (and within) the major political parties. Following the social divisions that had been opened up by the divisive years of the First World War, the politics of class division, along with sectarian and regional hostilities, were prominent both in the general community and on the floor of the two Houses of the New South Wales Parliament. The fact that many returned servicemen had been unable to find adequate employment in a depressed post war economy served to intensify many of the sectional rivalries. It seemed easier to blame the rich, or the Irish, or the city, or the Catholics, than to find answers to many of the pressing economic and social problems. At the centre of this kind of politics was Labor’s leader, John Thomas Lang, who led his party to victory in the 1925 election with 46 of the 90 seats.
The second half of the 1920s saw significant testing of constitutional boundaries in New South Wales. It began with stress in the relationship between the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council, with Labor’s Jack Lang intent on stacking the Upper House in order to get his legislative programme passed (and perhaps even to abolish it). In order to appoint compliant new members to the Legislative Council, Lang needed the cooperation of the Governor, who was not enthusiastic about such plans. There was also a running battle between NSW and the Commonwealth over loan policy, which was settled by the establishment of a statutory national Loan Council in 1927 and a detailed Financial Agreement with the States in 1928. The conflict between Premier and Governor came to a head in 1932 when Governor Game dismissed Premier Lang to put an end to a confrontation between the NSW and the Commonwealth Government over the repayment of loans.
In retrospect, the reform agenda of the Lang Government of 1925-27 seems relatively modest (as, indeed, it had to be, given the limited fiscal resources available). Lang’s rhetoric, however, tended to be inflammatory, while some of his political allies were leaders of militant trade unions, so that for most of the daily press, as for the business community, his administration was labelled as “Communist” and “revolutionary”. He was neither of those things, but he was a loose cannon – almost as dangerous to his allies as to his foes. Even within his own party he was either elevated to hero status or reviled as an authoritarian demagogue. This reputation was particularly significant in alienating much of the rural support that had been fundamental in Labor’s ability to win elections in the State. While many rural workers still supported Labor, support for the party in most country towns declined markedly during the 1920s. For the long term politics of rural New South Wales this was important, since it not only enabled the still-emerging Country Party to consolidate its regional voting base, but it also confirmed the tendency of the Country Party to be an anti-Labor party, locked into some form of coalition with the more city based Nationalist Party.
The first election fought on the new boundaries was brought on in October 1927 by Premier Lang, apparently more interested in reinforcing his dictatorial authority within his own party than in retaining Government. Labor won only 40 of the 90 seats. Not surprisingly, Lang maintained his standing in Sydney, Newcastle, and mining electorates, but presided over a disastrous decline in Labor support in most rural districts that had been the basis of regular Labor victories since 1910. Although Lang returned to power briefly in the first Depression election in 1930, by 1926 he was already creating chaos in his own party, from which it would not emerge until 1941. MH