A Blended House - Ray Wright
The Legislative Council of Victoria 1851-1856
I've mentioned this book before, but as I have recently finished it I thought I'd provide a proper review. The Blended House refers to the method of government: two thirds elected members (albeit with quite strict property qualifications for voting) and one third nominees, appointed by the Lieutenant Governor - originally Charles La Trobe. Some of these nominees held offices, some of whom were also on the Executive Council (effectively the cabinet); the most important of which was Colonial Secretary. The first of whom was a reluctant William Lonsdale.
This confusing collection of partially independent bodies came about - as all do - because of prevailing political conditions. Prior to seperation, Victoria - formerly the Colony of Port Phillip - had some representation in the Legislative Council of New South Wales; but, "the cost and time of travelling to and from Sydney, under representation on the Council ensuring that debate never favoured Port Phillip, the reluctance of the Sydney-based administration to support infrastructure works in the district, and the use of revenue raised in Port Phillip elsewhere in the colony soured local settlers. In July 1848, a cynical electorate in Melbourne voted Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies and a world away in London, as their local representative." La Trobe, as Superintendent, was constrained by orders from both Sydney and London; orders which could take several months to reach the colony. Needless to say, when news of separation broke on November 11th 1850, there were joyous celebrations - however, expectations were, perhaps, higher than the new government could meet.
The blended house has been widely criticised for its inexperience, ineptitude and irresponsibility. This can be blamed - at least in part - on the system itself. The Executive Council was responsible to the Governor, who was in turn responsible to his London superiors. The Governor had the ability to initiate, modify or veto any legislation, and was therefore, in some sense, autocratic. It also left the unenviable task of justifying the Governor's policies to his offical nominees, some of whom may have disagreed at the Executive Council level.
The book takes as each chapter, the five sessions of council sittings, starting in 1851-52. In the days before parties, there were mostly local interests - all of which, in the absence of local government except Melbourne and Geelong before 1854 were handled by the central government - and rough coalitions consisting of the squatters, the urban businessmen, and the government appointees. There was another group though - without representation - that would cause the greatest grief for the council. In the last half of 1851 gold was discovered across Victoria. The population, just 77,000 in November 1851, was 168,000 by December 1852, by 1855 it was nearer 350,000. Large numbers of diggers had arrived - almost all male - and they inhabited goldfields containing violence, drunkenness and a simmering resentment of the monthly license fee.
The tipping point came during the period 1854-55. La Trobe had retired, and returned to England. The new governor, Charles Hotham was "direct, authoritarian and not the least bit consultative" and carrying a grudge - having been overlooked for service in the Crimean war - against the backward colony of Victoria saying, "It is a vile hole, and I shall never like it". The years before Hotham's arrival had produced quite a few enduring pieces of legislation, including: the foundation of the supreme and county courts, local government, and a new constitution. However, the public works required to support the rapidly expanding population had resulted in a large budget deficit. Hotham responded by cutting public service, without consulting the council or his executive. His manner isolated him from both the public and the council, and the necessary reform of the miners license never occured. On December 3rd police attacked 150 rebel miners behind a stockade on Bakery Hill. Thirty were killed, and 120 arrested.
The action was widely criticised, and a royal commission recommended a general amnesty; but Hotham pressed forward with trial of 13 prisoners for sedition. Amidst protests and before sympathetic juries, all 13 were acquitted. The fallout resulted in a gold export duty and miner representation in the council. Politically, Hotham became completely isolated, resigned in November 1855, then, unexpectedly died of a "cerebral abscess as a complication of pneumonia" on 31st December 1855. Colonial Secretary John Foster - long an advocate of goldfields reform, but held responsible for the events - resigned under public pressure.
The 1855-56 session started with the news that the constitution had been accepted by the Queen. The "blended house" would shortly be no more, to be replaced by the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council, and Governor with no legislative responsibilities. Wright attempts to find a balance between the "instances of misjudgment and mismanagement" and the enduring legacy of the council under trying circumstances. He succeeds, and it is worth reading to see the political side of the five most important years in the shaping of Victoria.
12th December, 2003 08:45:35