Briefing paper

Launching the ship: a constitutional history of Western Australia

15 Jun 1997

At first glance the Constitution of Western Australia seems a dry, legalistic assembly of rules for the organisation and conduct of government. Unlike the emotive "we the people . . ." opening of the constitution of the United States of America, there is little to tug the heart-strings in any of our constitutional documents - no heroic preamble, no grand sentiments, no philosophical reflection. Yet the Constitution Act 1889, which authorised a parliamentary system of self-government for the colony of Western Australia, was popularly welcomed at the time of its Proclamation in 1890. If nothing else, the sheer scale of those ceremonies alerts us to the need for reconsideration of the State's constitutional past and for reflection upon the social meanings of government, then and now. 

From one perspective, the State's constitutional history reads as an exemplar of social progress and political development. It begins with the early, near autocratic rule of the State's first Governor, Captain James Stirling, and unfolds with the slow, incremental growth of political culture and institutions. In 1832, Stirling nominated members to small, exclusive Executive and Legislative Councils; in 1870, the Legislative Council became partly-elected, colonists ran for office and yet the Governor retained considerable personal power; by the 1880s there were increasing calls for colonial self-government; and in 1890 the British Government consented to a new constitution which established responsible, Westminster-style government in the colony. The following year, the new Parliament of Western Australia, comprised of a Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council, sat for the first time. One of the colony's favourite sons, John Forrest, became its first Premier and gave substance to his vision for economic development by adopting an ambitious loans policy to fund public works. Soon after, the rushes to the goldfields at Coolgardie and Hannans, now known as Kalgoorlie, ushered in a decade of unprecedented boom. Politics and political change seemed to be the natural partners of economic prosperity and societal progress. 

Yet this version of the State's constitutional past is all about winners. It does not record the fact that the change to self-government in Western Australia occurred more than 30 years after similar developments in other Australasian colonies, nor does it say much about those consigned to the political margins by the original Constitution Act. Women were excluded from the formal, public sphere of politics and government until 1899, when they gained the right to vote but not to sit as members of parliament; many men also had to fight hard to win voting rights in the 1890s because of restrictive electoral and residency provisions. Aboriginal people were excluded from political processes, they were unable to vote and were left without any real influence or power. Moreover, by the end of the 1890s the colonial parliament had moved to repeal a section of the constitution specifically designed to provide funds for their benefit. Non-British immigrants such as the Chinese - many of them contracted in Singapore as indentured labourers - were prohibited from voting unless they could meet stringent property qualifications. Clearly, the new constitution was not the unequivocal emblem of improvement that some leading colonial citizens presumed. 

At the turn of the century, the constitution of Western Australia was transformed by Federation. The colony became a State in the new Commonwealth of Australia, and at the same time yielded some of its decision-making powers to the Federal Parliament. The Commonwealth constitution then became the key legal limitation on the range and extent of State Government, supplanting British authority in many cases. With the confirmation of the Statute of Westminster by the Federal Parliament in 1942, the ties between Australia's national government and Britain were cut. However, only in 1986 were the States' connections to the British Government finally severed. Today, Australian State and Commonwealth governments are independent of Britain, but still engaged in a long-standing wrangle with each other over respective powers and responsibilities. 

Put simply, the Western Australian constitution is like an historical map of politics and society. Its legislative elements and conventions are indicative of the tenor of social life and political organisation at significant junctures in the State's history. When we look at the development of constitutional government we do more than consider the evolution of political institutions; rather, we engage with a broad sense of how Western Australian society has represented and thought about itself. Study of the constitutional past allows us to trace the lines and shades of power from the time of colonisation to the present. It reveals the connection between colony and Empire, it demonstrates the stratified nature of a society often vaunted as classless and consensual, it shows the gendered condition of our early political and social life, and it exposes the inherent racism of colonial society. The State's constitution is much more than an obscure and uninspiring collection of laws that determine the form and reach of its parliamentary government. If Aristotle is right and we are political animals at heart, then the study of Western Australia's constitutional past is really the study of ourselves. 

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