South Australia, The First Democracy

South Australia, The First
Modern Democracy.

From 29 July 1837 South Australia had its own, locally printed free-press newspaper. Within three years there were three newspapers in Adelaide. All of them fiercely independent. The first election on the continent of Australia occurred at a polling booth, set up in the middle of the road, on the corner of King William and Hindley Streets in Adelaide in October 1840. It was for the election of the Corporation of Adelaide and marked the beginning of the long but successful experiment with democracy in Australia. It also was the beginning of one of the longest periods of continuous democratic rule in the world.

The South Australian later reported that 'Never to our minds, was there a freer or more honest expression of public opinion, than that which was witnessed at the hustings on Friday last'. The English and Scots immigrants in South Australia ruled themselves 11 years before they did in England while the Irish had it 70 years before it was granted in Ireland.

This first effort only lasted for just over two years. Whereas nearly 600 people had casted their vote, at the 1842 election, only 135 bothered to do so. A year later, in August 1843 the Corporation had not even a quorum and was declared defunct. In 1851 South Australians rejected a national church and subsidies to all churches. In 1856 they had the secret ballot, votes for all adult men and religious freedom for all.

On 22 April 1857 South Australians became formally self-governing with an elected parliament. Its constitution provided the vote for all men, two houses of elected parliament, not appointed, and the secret ballot. To vote there was no requirement of British citizenship, so German Lutherans as well as Chinese could vote. Members of parliament were unpaid for their services; there were no free overseas trips, allowances or generous pensions. Even so, making laws was not all that easy. Three ministries were overthrown before a single Bill was passed into law. There were 47 governments in 36 years, which included one that lasted six years.

In 1861 women could vote in local government elections. In 1894 women, including Aboriginal women were granted the vote for state elections.

Another battle fought and won was the 'No taxation without representation' issue. In February 1850 drays, waggons, carts or carriages had to be licensed. The licence fee for large waggons was double the amount for those of small ones. Farmers soon objected very strongly as they were hit hardest. They needed the large waggons to transport their produce to market, in other words to make a living. Why should the gentry only have to pay half the amount for their vehicles used only for recreation? It was repealed in July and the tax already paid refunded.

When Benjamin Boothby, a Judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia, repeatedly disallowed South Australian laws as inconsistent with the laws of England, a special South Australian ministry was formed in 1861 with the specific purpose of removing the Judge. When this was achieved the ministry resigned.

Local farmers and residents also agitated, and got, District Councils. One of the early ones being the Brighton District Council. It held its first meeting on 28 October 1853 at the local tavern at ten o'clock in the morning. A very convenient place and a suitable time for anyone to attend. The road to democracy, and on it, has been a story of astonishing success. Without it our history would have been very different.

Among some of the early supporters of democratic government were William Giles of Adelaide, a fierce Congregationalist, who hated the sins of drinking and the theatre, whose life was devoted to thrift, hard work, his family and God. A completely different kind of supporter was James Hurtle Fisher, popular, devoted to good life and many legally borderline business ventures.

Not everyone was impressed with democracy or democrats. Some thought so called democrats were only democrats as long as they can get an illiterate population to pay for hearing them talk nonsense.

What made South Australia so modern so early? Why did it avoid the chaos, revolution, war or famine, experienced by many European and English colonies and former colonies? How were British institutions radically transformed by British colonists, and why did the Colonial Office allow it? To find out you will have to read Colony, Strange Origins of One of the Earliest Modern Democracies. This easy to read and sometimes amusing history not only answers these questions but also compares South Australia with the other Australian colonies and looks at what happened in Britain, Canada and America. This book will appeal to all who are interested in the origin and development of human rights and democracy.


Written by Reg Hamilton, the book @ $34.95, is available from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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