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Expanding Colonization, Development of Political Institutions

property qualifications, colonial independence, land policies, upper houses, British Parliament

Unlike most other British colonies, those in Australia were slow to attain a significant measure of self-government. The colonial wealth generated by gold hastened the movement toward colonial independence. The abolition of convict transportation was also a factor, as the colonies transformed into free settlements. In 1842 New South Wales was granted an enlarged legislative council, with two-thirds of its members to be elected. In 1852 New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Van Diemen’s Land (which changed its name to Tasmania in 1856) were allowed to draw up new constitutions, and these were all approved by the British Parliament by 1856. (Similar constitutions were approved for Queensland when it became a colony in 1859 and for Western Australia in 1890.) The constitutions provided for bicameral (two-chamber) parliaments, with most of the membership elected on a franchise based on property qualifications. Property qualifications were lower for elections to the lower houses, or assemblies, than to the upper houses, or councils. Executive power was held in each colony by a premier and a cabinet or council of ministers, who were required to maintain the support of the lower house. Voting by secret ballot (instead of by raising hands) and other innovations made the new colonial governments quite democratic. In general, the more property-based upper houses tended to counter the reformist leanings of the lower houses.

The colonies then set out to gain control over their land policies. The gold rush generation—the most skilled, best educated, and politically aware in Australia’s colonial history—led demands to break the squatters’ hold on the land. Several colonies passed acts to enable settlers to acquire land on credit and establish small farms.

In the 1860s the gold rush ebbed, although deep-shaft mining sustained the main centers into the 1890s, and new mineral fields continued to be discovered in western New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia. Although wool exports kept the colonies fairly prosperous, colonial debate soon centered on the role of government in the economy. In particular, railroad construction became a government activity because of the huge costs involved.

In 1866 Victoria, followed by South Australia and Tasmania, adopted a policy of high tariffs on imported goods in order to protect its own small industries and markets. New South Wales (and Queensland to a lesser extent) maintained a free-trade policy.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, arguments over free trade versus protection divided the press, the political parties, and the colonies. This, together with the continuing jealousies among them, hindered any significant attempts at cooperation and possible union among the six colonies until the 1890s.

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