Tuesday, 1 May 2012

From convict society to responsible government

From 1788 until 1823, NSW was a penal colony.[1] This meant that there were mainly convicts, marines and the wives of the marines although free settlers started to arrive in 1793. Law courts may have been established when the colony was founded, but, for the first thirty-five years, successive governors were absolute rulers. The British Parliament could control their authority, but England was eight months away by sea: by the time a complaint was heard and decided, nearly two years might have gone by. By 1820, Australia was beginning to look prosperous and sentiments of Australian patriotism were being expressed at gatherings of ex-convicts. The sense of belonging to a new nation must have been encouraged in 1817 when Governor Macquarie recommended the adoption of the name ‘Australia’ for the entire continent instead of New Holland. A growing number of colonists were unhappy with total control in the hands of one person and urged the British Parliament to allow the colony to establish a legislature. The result was significant territorial and governmental changes: first, the British government separated VDL followed, four years later in 1829 with the addition of Western Australia; there was a second subdivision of NSW to create South Australia founded in 1836, and, in parallel, the development of the Port Phillip district founded in 1835 though it did not gain separation from NSW until 1851.

The problems of governing NSW and the other emergent colonies can be illustrated by the question of land. From the foundation of the colony in 1788, all lands were vested in the Crown. Prior to 1856, the whole responsibility for government rested with the residing Governor under direction from the British Parliament. In that time, NSW could almost be classed as a department of the Colonial Office in London, with the Colonial Secretary in Sydney holding the position of permanent Under-Secretary and acting the official link between all other officials and the Governor. The Governor was the supreme authority in the colony with autocratic and personal powers though, almost from the outset these were challenged and defined in the courts. All important correspondence that required either decisions or action on the part of the Governor was addressed to the Colonial Secretary. Matters of minor importance or mere detail were directed to the relevant offices.

In Australia, both the Imperial Government and the various colonial legislatures tried to direct the pace and character of settlement expansion by various modes of land disposal.[2] According to Jeans, the bureaucratic structure above shows

...a basic unit or segment of political organization, stretching from the highest reaches of policy-making to the most subordinate officials who carry out policy by contact with the public. A government may be seen as composed of many such segments, each dealing with its special sphere of administration. Surrounding the components of the segment are external institutions and individuals whose views and needs impinge on the decisions being made at some level within the segment.[3]

Between 1788 and 1850, public business was not separated into different departments and many branches of the public sector were involved in selling, leasing and granting Crown land. Much of the work was routine and many tasks were duplicated. Delays stemming from confusion over responsibilities saw land administration fall further and further into arrears.[4] As the colonies expanded, centralised administration under imperial authority became increasingly ineffective and public business became so vast and complex that the Governor and Colonial Secretary could not cope with the demands of the administration. This was particularly evident in Victoria under Sir Charles Hotham in 1854 when his relationship with his Colonial Secretary broke down and he attempted to rule alone. In 1851, the Australian Colonies Government Act passed by the Imperial Parliament and gave authority to the colonial Legislative Councils to prepare democratic constitutions for the colonies but the problems confronting colonial administrators in NSW and the newly established Victoria were compounded by the onset, development and legacies of the Gold Rush that began in 1851.[5]

In 1855 and 1856, by imperial legislation, responsible Government was granted to the Australian colonies. That Act vested in the colonial legislature the entire management and control of waste lands belonging to the Crown.[6] The establishment of responsible government marked a significant departure from the previous administrative framework for Crown land decision-making and policy-making and the outcomes and impacts of Crown land legislation and policy of this early period in Australian settlement influenced land settlement patterns for many decades after the colonies was granted responsible government.


[1] Melbourne, pp. 8-46 remains useful on the governance of New South Wales under governor rule.

[2] Powell, J.M., The Public Lands of Australia Felix: Settlement and Land Appraisal in Victoria 1834-1891 with Special Reference to the Western Plains, (Oxford University Press), 1970.

[3] Jeans, D.N., ‘The impress of central authority upon the landscape: south-eastern Australia 1788-1850’, in Powell J.M. and Williams, M., (eds.), Australian Space, Australian Time: Geographical Perspectives in Australia, 1788-1914, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press), 1975, p. 5.

[4] New South Wales Commission of Inquiry into the Surveyor General’s Department, Report from the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Surveyor General’s Department, with Minutes of Evidence and Appendix, (William Hanson, Government Printer), 1855.

[5] Williams, M., ‘More and smaller is better: Australian rural settlement 1788-1914’, in ibid, Powell J.M. and Williams, M., (eds.), Australian Space, Australian Time: Geographical Perspectives in Australia, 1788-1914, pp. 61-103.

[6] For the debate on waste lands see, Hansard, Vol. 138, (1855), cols. 719-736.

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