The 175th anniversary of the first elections is a significant opportunity to reflect on the strong history of parliamentary democracy in New South Wales.
While a small advisory council had existed in New South Wales from 1823, the advice it gave the Governor was not public and it did little to represent public opinion. By the 1840s growing demands for independent governance in New South Wales led to the Australian Constitutions Act 1842 (UK), providing for a 36-member council: 12 members appointed and 24 elected.
Following months of elections, on 1 August 1843 the Council met for the first time in an extension to the colonial Rum Hospital, what is now the Legislative Assembly chamber.
Parliamentary historian Dr David Clune reflects on the membership of the first Council as ‘overwhelmingly Protestant, prosperous and conservative in its makeup’. Comprising a number of prominent colonial personalities, members were variously described as ‘competent and industrious’ with an ‘an unwavering commitment to his duty and the public good’, to having ‘an unenviable reputation for inefficiency’, and ‘a choleric man who constantly struggled with the confused state of his departmental accounts’.
The Speaker of the Council was the subject of particularly unflattering remarks, with fellow Council members William Charles Wentworth and Major D’Arcy Wentworth referring to him as a ‘twice superannuated octogenarian’, who was hampered in the performance of his duties by his ‘want of distinct utterance and his deafness’.
From the outset the Council established itself as a house of review. Its business was not dissimilar to that of the modern NSW Parliament: legislation, committees, questions, petitions, addresses, notices and scrutiny of the budget. Continued lobbying for self-government and further democratic change eventually culminated in the introduction of responsible government in 1856; a much discussed ‘beginning’ for democracy in New South Wales under the bicameral system still in place today.
The NSW Parliament’s website contains a number of public resources relating to the First Council and the history of the NSW Parliament:
Official papers from the First Councils, 1824 to 1855.
The NSW Parliamentary Record contains records of all members of both Houses, electorates of the Legislative Assembly, Governors, parliaments, ministries and parliamentary officers.