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Parliament of Victoria

Victoria's Constitution acknowledges but does not duplicate Westminster precedents. The parliament comprises the Crown, represented by the governor, Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council. The Assembly or Lower House is the seat of government, the Council or Upper House a house of review. Bills may be initiated in either chamber, the exception being money Bills, which must originate in the Assembly. A Bill must be agreed to by both houses and receive Royal Assent - conferred by the governor - before becoming an Act. The ministry may not exceed 22 members, of whom not more than six must be legislative councillors and not more than 17 members of the Legislative Assembly. In 1975 the Constitution, which in 1855 had been proclaimed as an Act of the British Parliament, was repealed and re-enacted by the Parliament of Victoria.

The passage of the Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Act in March 2003 significantly reformed the parliament. From 25 November 2006, the Assembly will comprise 88 members, and the Council 40 members. Members of both chambers will serve fixed, four-year terms, with Assembly members being elected by preferential voting and Council members by proportional representation. Each Lower House member will represent one of 88 electoral districts, while each of the eight electoral regions will be represented by five Upper House members.

The first Parliament of Victoria was formally opened on 25 November 1856. Since then the parliament has convened 55 times and passed more than 12 000 Acts of Parliament. There have been some 1600 members, 52 presiding officers and 26 governors. The debates of the parliament are recorded in 462 volumes of the Victorian Hansard and the Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), with those of the last decade being accessible electronically.

From 1836 to 1851, as the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, the region was ruled from Sydney. From 13 November 1851 until 20 March 1856, the colony of Victoria was governed by a single-chamber, part-elected, part-nominated Legislative Council, which met in St Patrick's Hall, Bourke Street. Following elections by secret ballot in the spring of 1856 (a world first), the new members were sworn in on 21 November 1856 in the partially built Parliament House located in Spring Street.

The democratic promise of the new gold-rush parliaments was soon confronted by the Realpolitik of a two-chamber legislature. The consequences won for the parliament a reputation for instability. The Upper House, elected on a limited franchise, was constitutionally charged with controlling the liberal tendencies of the more democratically elected Lower House. Seeking always to preserve the status quo, reform Bills associated with land settlement, education, mining, trade protection, social and industrial measures and the Constitution - indeed with the full panoply of a progressive community's needs - were either ruthlessly amended or contemptuously rejected by the Council. Supply was rejected in controversial circumstances 10 times between 1865 and 1952, provoking bitter inter-chamber conflicts, particularly during the premierships of James McCulloch (1863-68), Graham Berry (1877-80, 1880-81) and John Cain senior (1945-47, 1952, 1952-55). Governments insisted on their mandated right to pass legislative programs, the Council on its constitutional right to reject proposals with which it did not agree. The merits of bicameralism continue to be debated.

Inter-chamber confrontations were complicated by the transition from factional to party politics. For much of the 19th century, Victorian members of parliament grouped into temporary aggregations and factions, which encouraged ever-shifting alliances and, as a result, rapid changes of government. Between 1856 and 1956, the reins of government changed hands 60 times. It was not until the 1890s and the rise of organised labour that parties as they are now understood began to determine parliamentary and political outcomes. The adoption of party platforms, organisational structures, tactics and, particularly, intra-chamber discipline encouraged more stable parliaments. Since 1956 the government has changed just three times (Liberal Party, 1955-82; Australian Labor Party, 1982-92; Liberal- National Party coalition 1992-99; Australian Labor Party since 1999).

Another factor influencing the conduct and, therefore, public perceptions of the parliament was the variable pace of parliamentary reform. The Assembly was more responsive to change than the Council. In 1857, for example, universal male suffrage was adopted in the Assembly; it was not until 1951 that the Council fully adopted the same principle. Preferential voting was employed in Assembly elections from 1911 and in Council elections from 1921. Other significant reforms included payment of members (in 1878 for the Assembly and 1922 for the Council), compulsory voting (1926 and 1935), absentee voting (1927 and 1935), the abolition of plural voting (1899 and 1935) and the rationalisation of polling days from elections held over weeks to a single day (1876), then to a Saturday (1926). Although female suffrage was granted for both chambers in 1908 and candidature rights in 1923, it was not until 1933 that the first female member was elected to the Assembly, and not until 1979 that women entered the Council. More recent reforms include the adoption of questions without notice (1969/1976), the expansion of the investigatory committee system (from 1979), and, in 2003, major changes to the parliament's electoral system, Upper House numbers and electorates, Legislative Council powers and inter-chamber deadlock-breaking provisions.

The variable pace of reform was never more evident than in the question of electoral boundary biases. Victoria's Constitution sought to ensure that 'interests', rather than population, were the basis for representation. As a result Melbourne, with the largest concentration of population, was under-represented in the parliament compared with provincial centres and rural districts. In 1920, for example, 39 country votes were worth 100 city votes. Although there were various attempts to rectify the imbalance, it was not until 1982 that the principle of 'one-vote, one-value' was finally adopted.

A final influential factor was, and still is, personality. The Parliament of Victoria has been peopled by some of Australia's most formidable politicians. William Stawell, George Higinbotham, Graham Berry, Thomas Bent, Alfred Deakin, the two John Cains and Jeff Kennett are just a few of the elected members who have sought to shape the political landscape of Victoria.

The parliament occupies an equivocal place in the estimations of Melburnians. For some, the parliament is a target of community opinion: since 1856 interest groups have converged on Parliament House to convey their viewpoints directly to members of parliament. This has led occasionally to confrontation, most notably in 1860, when a mob, frustrated by the failure of the parliament to pass progressive land legislation, stormed Parliament House. Yet more recent rallies are as likely to be concerned with international issues or Commonwealth Government responsibilities as they are to be focused on State or metropolitan concerns. Parliament House has thus become symbolic not only of the constitutional sovereignty of the Parliament of Victoria but also of more amorphous notions of 'institutional authority'.

For others, the parliament simply baffles. Melburnians, for example, have long sought to disassemble the respective roles of parliament, State Government and municipal government, particularly with regard to the management both of the central business district and of the wider metropolis. While the parliament has long served as a forum in which matters of Melbourne's governance and, particularly, the merits of a greater Melbourne council, are debated, the parliament qua parliament has no direct involvement in city management, which remains the provenance of Treasury Place, the Town Hall and local municipalities.

Still others view the parliament as a seat of 'power' not always susceptible to the electorate's regulation. Media and fictional speculation, combined with ill-judged and occasionally venal behaviour - for example, involvement in the land-boom excesses of the 1880s, or the parliamentary mace mystery - have shaped an imagined parliament. When combined with parliamentary forms and legislative procedures that are the currency of Westminster rather than the street, Melburnians have been known sometimes to look balefully on their parliament.

Yet regard also plays a part. Since the mid-1850s Melburnians have gathered before Parliament House to watch opening-of-parliament ceremonies, to farewell military contingents, to welcome veterans, to mourn at funerals, to applaud processions and to participate in concerts. And when, from 1901 to 1927, the parliament loaned Parliament House to the new Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia and moved to the purpose-built western annexe of the Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton, Melburnians boasted that they now hosted the two premier parliaments of Australia.

Responses to the parliament are thus rarely neutral. Nineteenth-century parliamentarian and jurist George Higinbotham wrote of the Legislative Assembly that it is 'just what the people of Victoria have made it; and although it may not be better, it is assuredly not worse than the source from which it has sprung'. Higinbotham's observation might as readily be applied to the parliament as a whole.

Ray Wright