Colonial Politics


Government House, Hobart, 1836 (AOT, PH30/1/1069)

Tasmanian politics between 1803 and 1856 saw a constant tension between the determination of lieutenant-governors to retain a tight control over the colony, and efforts by colonists to reduce that centralised power. Sir James Stephen of the Colonial Office described Van Diemen's Land as 'a gaol before it was a colony and the interests of the former should prevail'. It was therefore 'essential that the Governor's power be unimpaired', though the consequence for colonists was the denial of 'British liberties'. This British settlement had no elected assembly, its residents were subject to harsh 'pass laws' and censorship, and it was controlled by a tough police force overseen by magistrates with police powers.

Yet Tasmania's first half-century was notable for the way colonists pushed to gain what they believed was their 'pride and birth-right', namely the institutions of freedom. From the first days political activity was evident, if only in the writing of 'pipes', the rolled-up pieces of paper expressing individual grievances against those in authority that were left in prominent places at Port Dalrymple to be picked up and read.

Once settlement began outside Hobart, much of the colony's early political activity related to land questions, with settlers criticising the way land was granted, and watching anxiously over the arrangements for gaining convict labour to work it. Over time, other issues emerged, including taxation (seen as unfairly levied), unhappiness over Whitehall's ignorance of colonial life and its needs, physical threats from Indigenous people and from bushrangers, the nature of the system of education, freedom of the press and the continuance of transportation.

Colonists' political activity was repeatedly justified in terms of what they saw as their British birthright: 'we are most devoted advocates of liberty'. As early as 1827 there were calls for a representative assembly and trial by jury. At times the political activity was dramatic. The anger caused by the Dog Act (1847), the walk-out of the 'Patriotic Six' that crippled the Legislative Council in 1845, or the passion of the Launceston anti-transportation meetings of the 1840s, were evidence of transplanted Britons who were determined to be treated as full members of the British family.

Tasmanians were encouraged to demand their rights by the reaction of those lieutenant-governors who could understand many of the local resentments. Sorell (181724) and Franklin (183743) were naturally disposed towards listening to what people were seeking Franklin noted how he 'threw open' the doors of the Legislative Council to the public. Even Lt-Governor Arthur (182436), who could describe settlers as a 'most troublesome set' and worked hard to stifle the press, made no determined effort to shut out the political clamour, noting ruefully 'the endless memorials and petitions' that flooded his office. Much of his time was taken up with people seeking something from the government, for Tasmanians believed the lieutenant-governor was there to be petitioned, in person whenever possible.

At a later date Lt-Governor Denison (184755) complained of 'the ardour of public meetings', but could not deny the right of assembly to Tasmanians. Over the years popular discontent with paternalistic government brought its rewards. The achievement of separation from New South Wales (1825), the creation of a Legislative Council (1825), the first elected parliamentarians (1851), the replacement of the detested 'Van Diemen's Land' with 'Tasmania' (1856), and a bicameral, fully elected parliament (1856) had all been sought and, eventually, had all been granted. Self-government in 1856 was celebrated, with Tasmanians now able to 'make our own character and mould our own destinies'.

With the gaining of the new parliament, the politics of the years after self-government saw a marked reduction in centralised power as the politics of locality and region came to predominate. Whereas in the earlier period there had been much political common ground among colonists, marked political differences across the Tasmanian community became clearer. Essentially, a number of defining characteristics of Tasmanian politics emerged.

The creation of a legislature changed the nature of Tasmanian politics. Elected governments, which replaced governors as the centre of governmental power, had to deal with a parliament lacking party discipline, wherein members naturally responded to political pressure from their electorates often at the expense of the needs of the wider community. Although severe parliamentary instability was only a debilitating factor in the immediate period after self-government and in the 1870s, even governments that survived for several years could not be sure of gaining the numbers to see their legislation approved by parliament.

An underlying reality for Tasmanian governments was the fact that the sparsely populated island colony was never wealthy enough to pay for all that a settler society needed. It suffered a dreadful depression from the late 1850s until the mid-1870s (and another in the early 1890s), it had few industries, its labour force was convict-dominated and inefficient, and its nearest neighbour across Bass Strait soon closed its doors to Tasmanian exports, such as they were. At the same time there were pressures for government to push ahead with essential public works, and to support railway developments when they appeared likely to collapse. The realisation that government in Tasmania always meant sailing close to the financial wind even influenced the new national constitution that came into being in 1901. Tasmania's main contribution in the constitution-drafting meetings of 189798 were sections 87 (the 'Braddon Blot') and 96, which were attempts to ensure the poorer states' financial stability in the new nation.

Regional politics weakened the efforts of government to develop the colonial economy. Manhood suffrage for the House of Assembly was introduced only in 1900, and for much of the post-1856 period parliament was dominated by the representatives of the merchant and wealthy landowning sectors of society. This was particularly apparent in the Legislative Council, a powerful body that was quite prepared to reject Supply legislation, insisting on its right to do so. The response of governments to economic malaise typically focussed on the need to raise money by taxation, but this was invariably opposed. During the period five governments were brought down over the issue by members of parliament determined to protect their supporters. Retrenchment, on the other hand, was generally approved. With the development of the north-west coast the influence of the landed families declined, but the politics of regionalism stayed alive and potent.

The dominance of the wealthy was aided by the restricted franchise, but society was politically placid. Although there was some industrial activity, Tasmania lacked a significant union presence. In the 1890s this began to change with the opening up of the west coast mines, but an important union movement and a labour party were slow to emerge.

Tasmania's politicians were sensitive to the colony's isolation. They were barred from trade with Victoria, many young men emigrated in search of employment, and there was a concern about Tasmania's vulnerability to foreign attack. The uncertainty bred by isolation produced politicians who worked to develop intercolonial relationships, in a society that fretted over the need for strong defences, that rushed to the Empire's call in the Crimean and South African wars, and which voted overwhelmingly for the new national constitution. Federation offered the smallest of the colonies a lifeline: 'Tasmania would be part of a vast and glorious empire in the southern seas and meat would be cheaper'.

Further reading: W Townsley, Tasmania, Hobart, 1991.

Scott Bennett