A constrained and cautious liberalism: Western Australian parliamentary electoral history 1829-1901

Isla Jean Macphail

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The Australian colonies have often been lauded as a ‘democratic laboratory’ for their introduction, in the nineteenth century, of advanced and innovative electoral reforms. Colonial Western Australia (WA) attained representative and responsible self-government approximately thirty years after the other Australian colonies and, as a consequence, is seldom acknowledged as a contributor to this celebrated reformist tradition. Instead, WA’s electoral development is usually dealt with superficially or dismissively in historical accounts. Typically, WA is represented as having simply followed the path from crown colony absolutism to advanced liberalism that its sister colonies had trailblazed a generation earlier. Some historical accounts are more critical, characterising WA as a ‘delinquent laggard’ for its delayed development, and attributing this delay largely to the supposed conservatism and torpor of Western Australian colonial society.

This thesis challenges the neglect and negative representations in the scholarship dealing with WA’s electoral history, arguing that they do not sufficiently acknowledge the range of challenges that constrained WA’s political development. These challenges included a small population, a backward economy, a late introduction of convictism, and a succession of governments at Westminster that—in the wake of New Imperialism—sought to delay WA’s independence. This thesis demonstrates that notwithstanding these formidable constraints, colonial Western Australians desired and consistently petitioned for elected representation; demonstrated an informed interest in electoral matters; and were prompt adopters and, on occasion, initiators of the liberal electoral reforms that had earned the sister colonies the democratic laboratory epithet.

This thesis further contends that WA’s colonial legislators did not unreflectingly emulate the electoral development of the sister colonies. Rather, having the opportunity to evaluate decades of electoral practice in the sister colonies, WA adopted a cautious and circumspect approach to implementing electoral reform: one which sought to avoid the short-lived ministries, parliamentary deadlocks and tumultuous legislatures for which ‘aggressive’ nineteenth-century Australian democracy was often vilified. As will be shown, WA implemented advanced liberal electoral provisions while still maintaining stability and probity in its political system.

This chronological study of WA’s quest for, attainment, and development of elected legislative institutions from the foundation of the colony until WA entered the Federation, fills a number of gaps in historical knowledge, replaces many crude misrepresentations with a more contextualised and nuanced depiction of WA’s electoral development, and establishes WA as a successful exemplar of the democratic laboratory tradition.

As well as leading to a more accurate understanding of WA’s electoral evolution, this thesis also enriches the wider study of nineteenth-century liberalism and contributes to those studies which chart the spread of elected Westminster-style parliamentary democracies in the British Empire.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Western Australia
Award date30 Jun 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


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