The Role of South Australia in Australian Federal Politics

South Australia was one of the first colonies to adopt parliamentary government. Its bicameral parliament operates under responsible cabinet government.

In 1894, South Australia became the first state in the world to give women the vote. Since then, the state has been at the forefront of social reform. It has also been an industrial powerhouse.

The House of Assembly

The House of Assembly is the lower house of South Australia’s parliament. It consists of 47 members representing individual electoral districts, and is voted on by citizens at state elections every 4 years. The political party or coalition of parties that wins most seats forms the government and the leader of that government becomes the Premier of South Australia.

The legislative process starts in the House of Assembly, where legislation is introduced and debated. Once it is passed by the House of Assembly, it is sent to the Legislative Council for consideration. Legislation must be approved by both houses to become law.

South Australia has a long history of social experimentation, including its early commitment to religious toleration that attracted a disproportionate number (though never a majority) of Nonconformists. It also pioneered a secret ballot for elections in 1855, and granted women the vote in 1894—long before most other nations did so. It also made voting compulsory in 1942.

While South Australia remained relatively small, its politicians saw many advantages for the state in joining a federation of states, and it played a prominent role in discussions and conventions leading up to Federation. Some of its delegates to the Federation Conventions were considered among the most capable and senior politicians in the country.

In the early 1900s, South Australia had a vibrant economy, with strong agricultural and mining sectors, a healthy manufacturing sector, and a sophisticated steel industry that produced naval submarines. During the 1980s and ’90s, however, the state experienced slower economic growth than other parts of the country and higher unemployment. This was despite the implementation of debt-reduction policies and efforts to diversify the state’s economy into information technology, grain exports, and tourism.

The South Australian government is responsible for many state functions, including primary and secondary education, hospitals, public housing, prisons and police, roads, water supply, and land resources. It has limited control over the state’s finances, and its Commonwealth (federal) government has substantial de facto influence through specific-purpose financial grants to the state. The federal government’s core responsibilities include defense, foreign policy, trade and economic policy, immigration, welfare payments, customs and excise, postal services, and shipping.

The Legislative Council

The Legislative Council is South Australia’s upper house of parliament. Its members are elected for an eight-year term, with half of the 22 seats declared vacant at each state election. Unlike the lower House of Assembly, there is no formal party system in the Legislative Council, although MPs tend to have historical liberal or conservative beliefs. It is not unusual for non-Labor parties to join with a government in order to pass legislation, and the Legislative Council’s power to block legislation is considerable.

Until the mid-1890s progress toward popular representation in the House of Assembly was fitful, with the Women’s Suffrage League led by Mary Lee and Mary Colton, and well-known social reformer Catherine Helen Spence leading the charge for female suffrage. It was only in 1894 that full adult suffrage was achieved, with property qualifications abolished and payment of MPs introduced.

By the 1930s, the emergence of South Australia’s natural gas fields and the discovery of the extraordinary ore bodies in Olympic Dam made it an industrial giant, and the state’s economic outlook improved. The new prosperity brought with it a sense of civic duty to protect the environment, and a resurgence in support for the parliamentary system of government. The Labor Party, much strengthened by the long-term impact of electoral reform, redefined its relationship with the trade unions while appealing to the middle strata of society for electoral support. It was emulated by a reunited Liberal Party and by the small coalition called the Australian Democrats that held the balance of parliamentary power several times in the 1980s.

The judiciary is based on the English Westminster system, with the Supreme Court hearing the most serious civil and criminal cases and the District and Magistrates Courts handling lesser matters. There are also Youth and Children’s Courts, and courts of summary jurisdiction.


The Cabinet is the key decision-making body of the Government. It is led by the Premier and consists of ministers chosen to oversee specific policy areas such as Health, Transport or Foreign Affairs. Cabinet members meet twice a week – on Monday and Thursday mornings. The Monday Cabinet considers the day to day business of government through formal Cabinet papers, while the Thursday Cabinet allows ministers to discuss strategic issues from a whole-of-government perspective.

South Australia has a bicameral parliament with the House of Assembly (Lower House) and the Legislative Council (Upper House). Both houses are elected at state elections. The political party or coalition of parties that wins the most seats forms government and its leader becomes the Premier. Members of the House of Assembly represent single-member electoral districts and are elected for a four year term. The House of Assembly is where most legislation starts, with bills passed after being discussed and voted on in the House. The Legislative Council is an upper house that reviews legislation that has been passed by the House of Assembly.

Parliamentary systems in Australia are based on Westminster models and operate under the principles of responsible Cabinet government. This means that the Governor acts on the advice of the Ministers, headed by the Premier. In South Australia, the Cabinet is known as the Executive Government and its members are referred to as Ministers.

The Cabinet is supported by a number of departments that provide services such as the police, fire service and hospitals. In addition, the state has a tertiary education system with universities such as Flinders University and the University of Adelaide offering courses ranging from TAFE and community college level to research and professional degrees.

South Australians have a long history of supporting Federation and the aims of the Commonwealth of Australia. The state’s representatives in the 1897-98 Constitution Convention, led by the Premier Charles Kingston, argued passionately for women to be granted voting rights at the federal level and helped convince the other colonies that they needed to limit the power of the Senate.

The Judiciary

The state’s bicameral Parliament consists of the 47-member House of Assembly (lower house) and 22-member Legislative Council (upper house). The electoral system is based on a single-member district, full preferential voting, and compulsory enrolment. Members of both houses are elected at a state election every four years. Casual vacancies are filled by by-elections. The political party or coalition of parties that wins the most seats forms government, with its leader becoming the Premier of South Australia.

The decisive intervention of the British government during the financial crisis of 1841-42 curbed many of the experimental pretensions that accompanied the arrival of European colonists, but after that there was a renewed zeal for reform. Partial self-government was introduced in 1851, and the Legislative Council was reformed to include two-thirds elected membership.

South Australia remained a peculiarly image-conscious colony, especially in its commitment to culture. This image largely depended on the affluence linked to industrialization, and it was nurtured by the high level of effective protection given local motor vehicle, household appliance, shipping, and electrical goods industries.

In terms of progressive social policies, however, progress toward equal enfranchisement was fitful. Although it took a while to extend the vote to Indigenous men, it did so in the 1850s; and women gained the right on the same terms as other British subjects in 1894, though property qualifications and bureaucratic interpretation still occasionally conspired against them.

The state was one of the first to abolish slavery, and its constitution provided a model for the other Australian colonies. In addition, the state was one of the first to establish public hospitals and to give workers the legal right to form trade unions.

The state’s political fortunes have fluctuated over the years, but it remains a wild card at Federal elections. The 2022 state election is expected to be close, and Labor has a good chance of winning the marginal Federal seat of Boothby. The success of the Nick Xenophon Team at the double dissolution election of 2016 means that two of the state’s six-year Senate terms will be up for grabs.