In 1982 the Sydney Labour History Group noted that the concept of the State had received 'little attention from Australian historians' and social science studies were confused and divided over its nature and role. Should the State be conceived as 'a political abstraction or as a concrete structure of institutions', or, following the liberal pluralist tradition, as 'a neutral arbiter between conflicting interests', or, taking the Marxist view, as 'a board of management of the ruling class'? The situation is more complex than these simple dichotomies suggest. For example, seeing the State as a neutral arbiter hides the fact that it often perpetuated the interests of certain social groups. Moreover, it is too simplistic to view the State as reproducing a stable social order for the benefit of the capitalist ruling class to the exclusion of other reasons. It should also be recognised that state institutions charged with mediating policies are complex entities and often social forces have 'negated policy proposals'. Historically specific studies of the State at different times and places can show the complex issues at play more clearly than theoretically-informed but historically-naive social science research. For the purposes of this essay the State can be 'understood as comprising that set of bodies (parliament, bureaucracy, military, judiciary, police) which determine, implement, and maintain the processes and policies of governing a society'.
Australian historians have not completely neglected the study of the State. In his book Australia, WK Hancock highlighted State dominance in Australian historical development. He noted the strong tradition of State involvement in land settlement, sponsoring migrants, building public works, and, in some colonies, supervising convicts. Noting how this tradition was built upon between 1860 and 1900, economic historian NG Butlin stressed the crucial role of the State 'in capital formation and in creating an economic infrastructure', which underpinned the 'partnership of private and government institutions'. This was necessary in 'the imperfect stage of development that pertains to a very young country'. By 1900 government ran the largest enterprises in the economy, including those involved in transport, communications, and water and sewerage. Butlin called this development colonial socialism; others, such as John Hirst, prefer the term state socialism.
Hirst perceives 'little ideological support' for state socialism and canvasses various pragmatic reasons for government involvement in different enterprises. For example, the State built railways, some argued, because large distances and sparse populations made it unviable economically for private enterprise. Although private companies might have begun to build railways, they often lacked capital, forcing the State to take over lines. The State could raise large amounts of capital more easily and became crucial to economic development. If pragmatism had a theoretical basis, it was, argues Hirst, a form of Benthamite utilitarianism, which in Australia shored up the State apparatus and made it 'perform all manner of tasks for the general good'. In the twentieth century the commonwealth government, with its ever-widening revenue base, increased its functions and brought the State to the height of its power in Australia.
Historians of Tasmania have given little explicit attention to the State. At first sight this is puzzling. The State was a powerful force while Van Diemen's Land was a penal colony, and lieutenant-governors resisted attempts to weaken their autocracy, which 'implied uncompromising power'. The power struggle over rights and liberties showed that the State was a site of conflict between the autocratic lieutenant-governors and a section of wealthy landowners and merchants, as well as more liberal sections of society.
The omission of the State in Tasmanian historiography is less puzzling when it is realised that, once convict Van Diemen's Land became free Tasmania, there was a conscious withering away of the State. After 'the high centralization' necessary in the penal colony, Tasmanians 'almost perversely' moved to 'a fragmented and illogical system'. This development shows that, in the island colony at least, the State was 'an historically changing formation of institutions and agencies'. From self-government in 1856 there was a backlash against centralisation and a large bureaucracy, which reversed the trend in other Australian colonies. State power had to be minimised, or the State had to become quiescent until needed as a last resort, declared decentralists, mainly wealthy landowners, who wanted power and responsibility devolved to local government bodies. Parliament kept a 'jealous watch' on attempts by 'the executive to expand and centralise its powers', but also sought 'to place the maximum responsibilities on local government authorities in the belief that it was both more economical and responsible to do so'.
In Tasmania the central State could only expand its collective action with the consent of society, but this was normally withheld, especially between 1856 and 1900. As in Britain, local government, voluntary associations and private enterprise assumed control over many services and functions, with the central State regulating or subsidising these activities. As in Britain, too, Tasmanians failed to 'develop a political theory of a strong state': for some time they feared that 'a strong or bureaucratic state' would result in a return to the despotism of the convict period.
This situation had changed by 1939. Then the State was becoming more assertive and political parties were more inclined to augment state power, but local government and the Legislative Council kept restraining hands on central power. Local government gradually reduced in strength after the Second World War, while the central State grew in power. The course of this development can be traced by dividing the development of the State into four phases: 1803–55, 1855–1900, 1901–39 and 1939 to the present.
Early lieutenant-governors had small 'civil establishments' to administer the colony. In 1817 Lt-Governor William Sorell re-organised administrative arrangements and 'laid the foundations' for controlling convicts, but had difficulties in dealing with bushrangers and Aborigines. After JT Bigge found transportation an ineffective deterrent, the British government in 1824 appointed the strict disciplinarian George Arthur as lieutenant-governor. Arthur believed that a strong State was the best way to rule a penal colony. He wanted to dominate colonists, not bow to their demands, to centralise power, not disperse it, and to restrict liberty, not extend it. Arthur tightly controlled the Executive Council and the Legislative Council. He expected 'unquestioning obedience', not only from convicts and convict officials, but also from landholders and merchants. The State put its own interests ahead of special interest groups.
To establish order, in 1826 Arthur created a powerful police force answerable to him. Arthur described the police as the 'pivot' of his convict system for providing him with unceasing surveillance and control over the convict population, for maintaining order, and for reducing crime. Arthur allegedly supplemented police control with more clandestine practices. Forsythe described Government House as 'a conning-tower from which the autocrat saw through a thousand eyes and heard from hundreds of listening-posts'. This system engendered distrust. Arthur's State displayed its coercive power by trying to gag newspapers through taxing and licensing measures.
In addition to the Police and Convict Departments, small bureaucracies developed around various official heads. Whatever the department and its administrative arrangements, power radiated from the top. Arthur dispensed his power of patronage by appointing favourites to official positions and granting them land, thereby creating an independent landowning class that became the greatest threat to state power from 1856.
Although Arthur's successors, Sir John Franklin and Sir John Eardley Eardley-Wilmot, lacked his autocratic personality, the fundamental character of Arthur's system did not change. The final lieutenant-governor of the convict period, Sir William Denison, was more in Arthur's mould and tended to be 'dictatorial'. He favoured strong central direction, but ruled in changed times and was forced to make concessions, which weakened gubernatorial power. In 1851 the Legislative Council became partially elected and was used by colonists to assert their independence. In 1853, after campaigning by anti-transportationists, the British government ended convict transportation and reduced its own say in the running of the colony. Finally, Denison encouraged the development of municipal institutions. This was one principle of government where Denison and colonists reached substantial agreement. Many colonists wanted state power to be much reduced after self-government was granted in 1855 and demanded that power be decentralised.
The decline in state power from 1856 can be attributed to push and pull factors. Push factors included the central government's willingness to give local government as many responsibilities as it could to save money. Moreover, the central government expected commercial interests or charitable bodies to take over some responsibilities.
Pull factors related to how many colonists had been scarred by centralised government during the autocratic period. Municipalities wanted to take over some functions, such as police, but local government developed in different ways. By 1901 there were 21 municipalities, 19 town boards, 100 road trusts, 29 local boards of health, 10 water trusts, 32 cemetery trusts, 22 school advisory boards, 32 fruit boards, 25 recreation ground trusts as well as library and public hall trusts, and local marine boards and harbour trusts pushing the number to over 350. These bodies had a vested interest in resisting interference from central government. Thus a range of 'community services' from roads to schools were administered at the local level, but their quality varied widely. The State did sometimes intervene 'to castigate and correct bad practices' and could do so because it at least partly funded many 'local activities'.
The constitution of the Legislative Council ensured that government remained minimalist or at least more minimalist than in other colonies. The report on the new 1854 constitution expected the Council to be 'a conservative break [sic] on hasty legislation' and to resist change 'if not fairly and fully proved to be beneficial'. Increasing the power of the central State, especially its financial power, was rarely seen as beneficial. Paradoxically, municipal control by elites virtually created mini-despotisms across the colony, in their own way as dangerous as the despotism of the early governors.
Unstable ministries, inadequate revenue, slow population growth, and a depressed economy until the 1880s were not favourable conditions for increasing central power. However, in some areas, essential to the progress of the colony, the State had no choice but to intervene because of the failure of private interests. Railways were needed to open up the country and transport goods to market. When private companies faltered, the central government used its extensive borrowing powers and 'technical resources' to complete and manage major railway lines. For similar reasons the different regions supported a Department of Lands and Works in 1869, and in the 1880s even the Legislative Council supported public works programmes. In response to the development of new sectors of the economy or to make more viable existing activities, the central government became a regulator and co-ordinator in the areas of mines, fisheries and agriculture.
The State had its own paternal interests to further and these included a healthy and educated citizenry. Sometimes new state powers, such as public health, were devolved to municipal authorities. The Premier, Adye Douglas, declared it 'the duty of all Governments to protect as far as possible the public health'. Despite bitter opposition from the Hobart and Launceston Councils, the Public Health Act (1885) established a Central Board of Health to supervise municipal bodies, to enforce the Act if councils neglected their sanitary responsibilities, and to confirm by-laws. The 1885 Act and later amendments strengthened municipal powers over some areas such as infectious disease control, housing demolition and environmental problems.
As school age numbers grew and the need for an educated populace became more important than ever to staff the growing and diversifying economy, there was a perceived need for greater State involvement in education. The Education Act (1885) imposed centralised control through a Department of Education. Education became compulsory for children between seven and thirteen. The development of technical education raised the status of workers. Higher education received attention when the University of Tasmania was founded in 1890. After pressure from moral reform groups in the early 1890s, the Neglected Children's Department dealt with children who preferred the streets at night to school during the day. Thereafter lower-class children were scrutinised more carefully by the State.
One major reversal of decentralisation involved the police. Local control of the police had failed due to a lack of impartiality, abuse of patronage by appointing relatives or friends as policemen, low pay and poor conditions, and police inability to cope with disorder. Police centralisation in 1898 reflected a changing attitude. As Launceston's Daily Telegraph argued, 'the administration of the law of the country is essentially a State prerogative'. Even so, only when the Braddon government capitulated to Legislative Council pressure to fund the police did the councils succumb.
After federation there were reductions in government as some state functions were handed to the commonwealth government. The most important were defence, posts and telegraphs, and customs and excise. There seemed popular support for reductions in the remaining departments, but enquiries concluded that these would damage efficiency. Despite revenue from a new income tax, the state government depended on commonwealth largesse, and the slender revenue base retarded any plans for extended state action. The Commonwealth state grew in economic strength over the twentieth century, but Tasmania became a claimant state.
While the commonwealth government grew in strength, local government remained well entrenched. Rationalisation occurred in 1906 when the Local Government Act abolished trusts and boards, and formed 49 municipalities. As legislation conferred functions on councils through permissive and not compulsory legislation, many municipal functions were not undertaken because councils did not wish to raise rates and risk alienating ratepayers. Launceston and Hobart extended their services, but smaller councils concentrated on roads, sanitation and recreation. The Municipal Association of Tasmania defended 'the municipal status quo' against growing evidence that municipalities were too small to cope with their growing responsibilities. Launceston's 1903 smallpox epidemic underlined poor local management of public health and a small Department of Health was established. After 1901 the central State expanded its activities beyond health, extending the compulsory school leaving age to fourteen and establishing state high schools. The formation of the Tasmanian Government Tourist Bureau, the Scenery Preservation Board, and the National Parks Board between 1914 and 1918 underlined the economic importance of tourism. After the war came more new developments including from 1920 a Forestry Department to make better use of forest resources after decades of waste. Not all such developments were acceptable to Tasmanians. For example, there was much resistance to the government's new forestry regime, showing that anti-bureaucratic and centralising feelings remained strong. The support of greater state action was a feature of the Labor Party after its formation in 1903. But when in power in the 1920s and 1930s, Labor did not always push this support too far, and seemed happy when the Legislative Council prevented it from implementing the party platform. One exception was the decision of the Earle Labor government to buy out the private company building a hydro-electric works at the Great Lake in 1914. Transformed into a more autonomous Commission in 1929, all parties saw the 'hydro' as a crucial arm of state power, which could attract industry to the island and create jobs.
Despite new industries, attracted by cheap power, population growth was slow, the economy suffered depression and taxable capacity was low, which retarded state action. Recovery came in the late 1930s when the Ogilvie Labor government, seeking to reduce unemployment, expanded its public works and hydro-electric development. Ogilvie's mission was not maintaining finances, but making the people happy and prosperous. He established the first state Tourist Bureaux in Australia and the autonomous Transport Commission, free of political control, to control rail and road transport. Education and health provision expanded in response to community expectations. The Social Services Department sought to co-ordinate government, church and voluntary work.
Commonwealth power 'continued to grow' after 1945, intruding 'into every Australian's daily life'. The revenue-rich Commonwealth left the state government with limited finances and reliant on commonwealth grants. The Legislative Council remained guardian of 'the rights of the State against the encroachment of the Commonwealth'. Local government powers 'continued to be entrenched and to find expression through the Legislative Council', but people began to demand equal treatment in service provision. Although the state government acquired growing 'legal and financial powers' over municipalities and marine boards, these powers had to be 'exercised with due care for local sensibilities and material interests'.
Despite constraining factors, the modern state system emerged after 1945. Ogilvie's administration acted as a circuit breaker and the trend for greater State involvement was strengthened by unprecedented state 'planning and controls' during the war, post-war reconstruction, and post-war expansion of industry and population. Encouraged by the State, industry was attracted by cheap power, abundant land and a relatively docile labour force. Full employment through economic planning was the thrust of post-war reconstruction plans, necessitating a shift towards greater central direction and co-ordination. The Hydro became central to Labor governments' post-war reconstruction plans. Indeed, the Hydro became 'a State within the State'.
Using the Hydro model, government used commissions to run public enterprises. Increasing housing supply was the task of the State Housing Commission, later Housing Department. Conservation, production and fire protection of forests was from 1947 the job of the Forestry Commission, which came second only to the Hydro in power. By the 1960s forestry contributed sizeably to the economy as did the mining industry as the State gave overly-generous concessions to large companies. The Public Works Department greatly expanded as public buildings, bridges and new roads kept pace with the prosperous economy and growing population. Government expanded its involvement in tourism by turning the Tourist Bureau into a public enterprise. A measure of state expansion was that state bureaucrats grew from 1160 in 1938 to over 5000 by 1968. By 1994 about a third of all employees worked for government.
State power was augmented in social areas. Cosgrove's government increased the school leaving age to sixteen and the number of state schools grew. New high schools and area schools reflected the changing face of state education. Health provision broadened, and powers formerly held by medical heads were 'relocated in the Minister' in 1960. Hospital services steadily expanded as private hospitals came under central control.
Areas where local government or voluntary effort failed were taken over by the central State. A State Library Board took over library services. From 1945 the Fire Brigades Commission co-ordinated the work and improved the variable standards of local fire boards. Owing to the failure of rural municipalities to fund necessary water and sewerage schemes, the Rivers and Water Supply Commission gained 'extensive powers over the control and use of the state's water resources' in 1957. As Hobart and Launceston could not cope with water shortages, in 1961 the state government set up the Metropolitan Water Board. Valuation work, poorly done by municipalities, was taken over in 1950 by the Lands and Surveys Department. To achieve greater efficiency, in 1955 the new Metropolitan Transport Trust took over Hobart's and Launceston's tram services and later some private operations.
In the 1970s the virtues of state planning were espoused by a modernising group of Labor politicians. The Department of Industrial Development played a central role and Cartland's review of the public service recommended reducing departments to ten. Ministers and their senior advisers would direct 'the whole government administration'. The Premier's Department and Cabinet Office would co-ordinate information and advice from departments and agencies and form public policy on issues sent to Cabinet. These recommendations aimed to create 'the state machinery for government administration befitting the needs of a modern state'.
The Gray government adopted the recommendations in 1982 and began 'to reduce the perceived presence of government in the state' by selling off government enterprises. Both major parties showed sympathy for privatisation, but have not sold off government assets as decisively as other state governments. Unprecedented rationalisation occurred in local government in 1993 when amalgamations reduced municipalities to 29: from 2000 partnerships developed between central and local government, continuing the process of making local authorities agencies of central policy. This reinforces the point that the increasing centralisation of power and the concomitant decline in the power and independence of local government was the dominant feature of the history of the State in the post-1939 era.
For footnotes for this article, see the book version of The Companion to Tasmanian History.