A Historical Overview of South Australia’s Political Landscape

South Australia has a long history of pioneering democratic and land reform. It was one of the first places in the world to institute a system of property titles known as Torrens title.

It was also one of the first to introduce a bicameral Parliament. The lower house, the House of Assembly, has universal suffrage while the upper house, the Legislative Council, was restricted to those with property qualifications until 1973.

The Settlement of South Australia

South Australia’s founders set out to establish a colony that embodied what they believed were the best qualities of British society. They aimed to prevent the reliance on convict labour found in other colonies; to promote religious tolerance; and to make the colony self-sufficient.

By the 1860s South Australian pastoralists were achieving considerable wealth from their wool production. The development of a well-organized rail system integrated with many seaports facilitated wool and grain trade with other colonies.

Saint Mary Mackillop founded the first order of nuns in Australia and was made a saint in 2010. South Australian suffragette Catherine Helen Spence was the first woman in Australia to be granted the vote and the right to stand for parliament. Her efforts would inspire other women to follow her lead. The state also led the way in the legalisation of trade unions.

The First Parliament

With a new constitution and Parliament, South Australia became self-governing. From now on, its laws would be made by an elected Parliament. This is the basic structure of all Australian states and territories today.

The South Australian Parliament adapted the British Westminster system of responsible Cabinet Government. The Government was formed by the party or coalition with a majority in the House of Assembly. The Governor acted on the advice of Ministers (who are Members of Parliament).

South Australia also adopted a bicameral Parliament with an upper house called the Legislative Council. Both houses are elected at state elections. The lower house, the House of Assembly, is where most legislation starts. The Supreme Court handles the most serious civil and criminal cases; and the District and Magistrates courts handle less serious matters. All of this was very revolutionary for the time.

The Second Parliament

Despite the decisive intervention of the British Government during the financial crisis of 1841-42, South Australia renewed its experimental pretensions and developed a form of democratic self-government that included triennial parliaments, manhood suffrage, and no property qualifications for the lower house. It was one of the first colonial governments to abolish religious enfranchisement and to promote a secular, universal educational system.

South Australia’s new parliament began meeting in a room in the Old Parliament House built for the Legislative Council. The House of Assembly met on the ground floor while the Council sat upstairs, and both were able to accommodate crowds of spectators. A new electoral system was also introduced to redistribute votes toward the metropolitan population, and a permanent Electoral Commission was established. Its decisions were not always wise or popular, but they constituted a significant step forward.

The Third Parliament

After achieving self-government in 1856 the South Australian ‘free men’ drafted a constitution for their state, which was one of the most democratic in the world at the time. It included universal manhood suffrage and a bicameral Parliament.

It was an elected House of Assembly and a legislative council (upper house). Members were elected using the preferential voting system in single-member electoral districts. Casual vacancies (where an incumbent resigned or died) were filled by holding a joint sitting of both houses.

The Legislative Council was a body of 22 members, which served as a review chamber for legislation passed by the lower House of Assembly. It was a ‘closed’ house with a higher property qualification than the other Australian upper houses. It was not until 1973 that all property qualifications were removed and the Council became a fully open house.

The Fourth Parliament

After the first four years of the colony, local citizens sought and won power for their communities. They also wanted to make decisions for themselves, and were eventually rewarded with the very first local government body in Australia in 1840.

The South Australian Constitution Act of 1856 established a state parliament with two chambers – the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council. Both houses are elected by the people using universal suffrage and the ideal of one person, one vote.

The House of Assembly is the ‘lower house’, and legislation starts here. Members are elected every 4 years at state elections. The political party or coalition that wins the most seats forms the government. The Governor retained the right to veto legislation passed by the legislature, but this rarely occurred. The state was among the first to introduce women to Parliament in 1894.

The Fifth Parliament

South Australia has always been a state with a strong sense of local political identity. Despite the decisive intervention of the British Empire during the financial crisis in the 1840s, progress toward self-government was fairly rapid, and South Australian parliamentarians established some of the most advanced arrangements in the empire. These included triennial elections, manhood suffrage and the absence of property qualifications in the lower house.

Its constitution also introduced the secret ballot and the ideal of ‘one person, one vote’ and provided for low property qualifications in the Legislative Council – a chamber that reviews legislation passed by the lower House.

The first sitting of the new Parliament took place on 2 January 1857 in a newly renovated Parliament House. The newspapers emphasised the occasion as a ‘historical event’. This was a Parliament that was a model for the colonies in its progressive and experimental ideas.

The Sixth Parliament

A key function of Parliament is to gather feedback from the community on issues and draft laws for the benefit of society. This is done through a bicameral legislature called the House of Assembly, which has 47 single-member electoral districts, and the Legislative Council, which has 22 members elected at state elections.

Both chambers have a role in passing money bills. The party that wins the most seats in the House of Assembly forms government and its leader becomes the Premier. There were some important accelerations in progress toward popular representation, including property qualifications for the upper house and full adult suffrage. However, it was still a long way from the kind of democracy experienced in Europe and America. There were many problems with parliamentary procedures, such as inconsistent application of rules and lengthy sessions that went until midnight or later.

The Seventh Parliament

The South Australian constitution of 1857 established a bicameral Parliament with power shared between the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council. This represented the most advanced form of democracy in the British Empire at that time and included universal manhood suffrage.

The new legislature was to make laws and the executive (those responsible for carrying out government) was to be Ministers drawn from the Legislature. The Governor still had the right to veto legislation, but he would only act as the official link between the colony and the British government.

The parliamentary system was based on the Westminster model and it retained the property owning franchise for the Legislative Council. It also kept the parliamentary principle of having different chambers with differing powers and responsibilities. This remained the case for most of Australia’s history. South Australia maintained a strong attitude toward social experimentation and religious freedom.

The Eighth Parliament

South Australia (abbreviated SA) is a state of Australia, bordered by all other states and the Northern Territory. It covers a large area that ranges from urban Adelaide to some of the most arid parts of the country. Like other Australian states, it has a system of responsible cabinet government headed by a Premier.

Its Parliament, which includes the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, is based on the British Westminster system. Its citizens elect Members of Parliament who are bound to represent the interests of their constituents and to act on behalf of the whole community.

Elections are contested by political parties organised at the state level. The campaigning that produces the resulting representatives often mixes national and local issues. The politicians are subject to the full gamut of locally sourced political pressure, including from parliamentary opposition, journalists and media, business lobbies, trade unions and professional associations, environmental groups and community activists.

The Ninth Parliament

South Australia had moved ahead of other colonies with regard to self-government, and its system of responsible Cabinet Government operated under a Governor acting on the advice of Ministers. It also had some of the most advanced arrangements in the British Empire for manhood suffrage and removal of property qualifications from the lower house, the House of Assembly.

In 1882, a further constitutional amendment allowed propertied male colonists to vote for 16 members of a newly expanded 24-member Legislative Council. Eight members continued to be appointed by the Governor.

In 1975, the Council was reformed using proportional representation, making it more difficult for any one party to control it. The electoral boundaries have since been redrawn after every election. Since 1986, the Governor has no power to veto South Australian legislation. In this way, the South Australian Parliament operates as a representative democracy.