Inaugural speeches in the NSW Parliament

Australia New South Wales
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This paper argues that inaugural speeches provide a window on the evolving parliamentary culture in New South Wales, along with the broader political context in which it operates.

With many new members elected to the NSW Parliament at the 2011 general election, the start of the 55th Parliament was remarkable for the making of inaugural speeches, a phenomenon that prompts consideration of the history and development of such speeches.

What used to be called “maiden speeches” but are now referred to as inaugural or first speeches play an important part in the parliamentary life of a Member of Parliament, a moment of achievement, a setting off point, as they step onto the parliamentary stage for the first time. At times these speeches suggest the career that is to follow; a reflection of the intellectual scope of the speech and of the debating skills and style on display. For the historian, too, first speeches occupy a particular niche, as insights into a member’s values and philosophy, their policy interests and concerns. Not every inaugural speech is a triumph. Sometimes first speeches may set a false trail, when expectations are not realised, or where a great career is built on the foundations of a shaky or mundane start. But that, too, is of interest, from a biographical and historical standpoint.

Since the establishment of responsible government in 1856, there have always been first speeches, as new Members made their original contribution to debate in some form or other. But from when did the practice of making what used to be called "maiden" speeches start? And did the practice date from around the same period for both Houses?

For the Legislative Assembly, this account, which uses the first speeches of the Premiers of the State, from Reid to O’Farrell as a narrative spine, traces the record back to around 1860. It does not go further back because, of the ten Premiers prior to Reid (in 1894), six were Assembly members from the start of responsible government and could not have made “maiden” speeches in any meaningful sense at a time when all members were new. The only exceptions were James Farnell (elected May 1860), Patrick Jennings (elected December 1869) and Alexander Stuart and George Dibbs (both elected December 1874).

For the Legislative Council, its early constitutional history and character render unlikely the making of inaugural speeches before the 1860s. From 1856 to its reconstitution in 1861 appointments to the Council were for five years only, with lifetime appointments only applying between September 1861 and 1934. It is doubtful that the conventions of first speeches operated in the “quinquennial” Council, if only because it comprised of very experienced men, many of whom had served in the Legislative Council in the pre-responsible government era.

Legislative Assembly: For the Assembly, one finding is that, as in other comparable Parliaments, inaugural speeches were traditionally made, from the 1880s on at least, during the address-in-reply debate where some acknowledgement was made of the relevant conventions, even if those conventions were not always (or even usually) adhered to in many periods. In particular, those speeches moving and seconding the adoption of the address-in-reply tended to operate within expected conventions, while contributions to the debate itself and the reception they were given tended to vary depending on the speaker.

Outside the address-in-reply debate inaugural speeches were often, but not always, treated as part of the ordinary business of the House, subject to the same give and take of political life. Often a speech on a bill was simply not recognised as an inaugural speech, a situation which seems to have lasted well into the 1930s, if not beyond. It was certainly very rare to even remark on one’s constituency in such speeches, when made on a Bill for instance, rarer still for the speech to be proceed without interjection.

It is probably fair to say that, after World War 2 at least, both the intensity of the political atmosphere and, for want of a better word, the larrikin nature often on display in the Assembly declined. In part it may have been the result of post-war prosperity, in part of the culture of greater civility and respect for parliamentary norms engendered in the post-Lang years. Interjections were still common in the 1950s, but they seem to have died down after that.

Legislative Council: A similar pattern is found in the Upper House, although there a less combative political culture prevailed. Before the 1950s, a less formal and settled approach appears to have applied to first speeches, made in the context of the address-in-reply debate or otherwise. Certainly, where a first speech was made on a Bill or in respect to other business of the House, interjections were commonplace, whereas from the 1950s on the conventions were adhered to far more rigidly.

Changing content: In both Houses, but particularly in the Legislative Assembly, since the 1980s and certainly into the 1990s and beyond there has been a noticeable shift in the content of inaugural speeches, towards the more ready public sharing of the details of personal background and experience. Family life and history is discussed, as are autobiographical reflections, matters which to some extent at least would have been considered private and ill-suited to public airing not so many decades ago.

The same applies to the Legislative Council, except that the changing culture seems to have emerged there earlier, in a House where a different atmosphere has prevailed, less intense in its relationship with power politics, with more women members historically and feeling the impact of minor parties from the early 1980s on. The argument of this paper is that, in their modest way, inaugural speeches provide a window on the evolving parliamentary culture in NSW, along with the broader political context in which it operates.


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