As electioneering reaches a fever pitch ahead of Saturday’s polling day, I thought it might be instructive to look back on how electioneering was done back at the first state elections.
The Parliament of New South Wales is Australia’s first and oldest parliament. But the way the parliament has functioned – and who could vote and how – has evolved over decades.
The first thing to note is that we didn’t originally have a two-house parliament. When Sydney was a penal colony, the Governor was in charge.
The British Government allowed us to have a Legislative Council from 1823, but it was led by the Governor, with just five advisers (all appointed by the Governor) to assist him. A court system and judiciary were then established. Between 1825 and 1842 the number of members of the Legislative Council expanded, from five to seven, and then between 10 to 15.
1842 was a landmark year for governance of the city and the colony. The Legislative Council created Sydney Municipal Council to take over some of the infrastructure, police and local governance of Sydney town, and the British Parliament passed The Constitution Act of 1842, massively expanding the Legislative Council and allowing New South Wales to take its first significant step towards democracy.
The new Legislative Council was to be made up of 36 politicians – 12 appointed by the Governor and 24 elected by landowners and householders.
The very first state election of New South Wales was held in June 1843. The first thing to note was that polling in different districts were held across a number of days between June 15 and July 3. This meant that if you didn’t get elected in one seat, you might still have time to be nominated and run in another seat.
The District of Sydney’s polling day was the first day – Thursday 15 June 1843. Sydney was to return two members, and there were five candidates: Captain M C O’Connell, Robert Cooper, W C Wentworth, William Bland, and barrister William Hustler.
I particularly like Mr Hustler’s electioneering style, which included publishing rhyming poems in the newspapers proclaiming his policies and virtues.
Polling day started out well at 9 o’clock in the morning – people were in good spirits for their first bite at democracy. But unlike now, the returning officers announced proportionate votes as the day went along, inciting supporters to get out and about to drum up more votes. This inevitably led to clashes among rival mobs of supporters. There were yells of derision and the occasional scuffle. As numbers grew around Hyde Park, sticks and stones were used to intimidate rival supporters.
The worst melee occurred down around the Rocks and Millers Point. Supporters of Cooper and O’Connell – armed with palings and sticks – stormed the polling booth, pulling down the flags of their rivals Wentworth and Bland, and smashing the chairs and table of the returning clerks.
One of the rival supporters of Wentworth and Bland, who was also a city councillor, Mr John Jones, retaliated by inciting a mob of seamen to attack the Cooperites. They were equipped with harpoons, whale spears, blubber spades and other dangerous weapons.
Fortunately, the mounted police had been called in and drove the mob away before too much damage was done. But the intimidation led to the suspension of the polling booth down in the Rocks until the following day.
There was plenty of pushing and shoving going on in other polling booths as well. Palings were broken off fences and flags pulled down. Riotous behaviour continued into the evening as mobs of political supporters roamed the streets, breaking windows and damaging property.
Up around Brickfield Hill a man was stabbed in the melee and later died of his wounds.
The behaviour of supporters on the first day of polling was widely condemned. Intimidation drove many away from casting their votes. It was an inauspicious start to democracy in Sydney.
Full responsible government came with the introduction of the Legislative Assembly in 1856. New South Wales now had an upper house and a lower house.
In comparison with voting in 1843, the first full parliamentary election in 1856 was a steady affair. It was a closely contested election, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. There was plenty of electioneering, speeches in parks and pubs, cheers and groans, plenty of high spirits, but not a picket or a harpoon in sight:
‘Although throughout the day considerable excitement prevailed, the most perfect order was preserved, and as the poll was announced from hour to hour, it had no other effect than to call to mind to those who had neglected them their electoral duties.’
While there were divisions between conservatives and liberals, there were no political parties as such. Getting agreement among politicians to form ministerial government was trickier than anticipated.
Instability was the constant in parliamentary politics in the first eight years or so – resulting in a rapid turn-over of premiers and ministries. (And we thought we had it bad with our prime ministers!!)
Donaldson ministry: 6 June 1856 – 25 August 1856
Cowper ministry: 26 August 1856 – 2 October 1856
Parker ministry: 3 October 1856-7 September 1857
Cowper ministry: 7 September 1857-26 October 1859
Forster ministry: 27 October 1859 – 8 March 1860
Robertson ministry: 9 March 1860 – 9 January 1861
Democracy was an evolving thing in Sydney in the mid-nineteenth century. The machinery of government had to be worked through and the public service and its relationship to the two houses of parliament established.
Some things, though, never change. There are still plenty of political supporters trying to win our votes on polling day. And there is still catering provided to those who turn up to vote – only now we buy it to support our local public school.
So go out on Saturday, grab your democracy sausage and vote – safe in the knowledge that polling day won’t be quite as boisterous as in 1840s Sydney.
The State Library of NSW is asking for donations of election ephemera, so you can send whatever you collect on the day (or before!) and future researchers will thank you! Head to the Library’s website here for further details.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio