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From the earliest times, Melbourne has been a centre of politics and political organisation. As the capital of first the colony and, from 1901, the State of Victoria, Melbourne was an important centre of government and home to both the Victorian and, from 1901 to 1927, the federal parliaments.

Until Separation, Melbourne was a part of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, ruled by the largely nominee Legislative Council of New South Wales with its superintendent, Charles La Trobe, subordinate to the governor of New South Wales. Newspapers were an early independent voice. George Arden, editor of the Port Phillip Gazette, libelled Judge John Walpole Willis and was gaoled for contempt. Journalist 'Garryowen' Edmund Finn's lively portraits of politics and personalities in pre-gold rush Melbourne emphasise the origins of the immigrant community and their religious, Masonic and sectarian affiliations. Resentment of Sydney authority grew when salaries were cut following the downturn in the economy in 1841. 'Playing second fiddle' to New South Wales governor George Gipps, La Trobe saw development, self-government and land policy stalled. Land-sales revenue was not returned to the district but used to fund immigration. Sydney's attempts to provide for municipal government were resisted because of the taxation it would bring. There was also resentment at the British practice of exporting convicts as 'exiles' and setting them free, although many early citizens were expirees, who had crossed from Van Diemen's Land. Pastoralists complained they had no security of tenure, while the townsman J.P. Fawkner resented their easy access to Crown lands.

In 1842 one member from Melbourne and five from Port Phillip were added to the 36-member Legislative Council in Sydney, but unenthusiastic about being in Sydney for long Council sessions, many Melburnians questioned the value of this representation. The first member for Melbourne was the mayor, Scottish Presbyterian brewer Henry Condell. However, in 1848 electors chose Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, in order to demonstrate the futility of such representation.

The new Parliament of Victoria, consisting of one chamber, met in St Patrick's Hall in Bourke Street. Condemned as inept and dominated by nominees and the squatter interest, it initiated the building of Parliament House, provision for water supply, police and policing, law and order, changes to municipal government and the 'new Constitution' of Victoria. Melbourne became a focus of political activity. The Argus newspaper, under the editorship of Edward Wilson, articulated the views of the gold-rush immigrants, flaying La Trobe and his administration on a daily basis. It was opposed by squatters, civil servants, professional men and gentlemen farmers, who, Geoffrey Serle argues, believed themselves 'so superior by breeding and education to the rest of the community as to have the right and duty, if necessary, to govern without heed to public opinion'. The squatters were 'self-made men intent on conserving their gains', while the new immigrants, equally keen on self-improvement, were determined 'there was to be no repetition in Australia of the social inequalities of Britain'. They brought with them the English radical tradition embodied in the People's Charter demanding male suffrage, equal electoral districts, abolition of the property qualification, payment of members, annual elections and the introduction of the secret ballot.

La Trobe's successor, Governor Hotham, faced discontent on the goldfields and in the town. Jurors refused to convict the Eureka rebels brought to trial in 1855, and in the following year the success of the Eight Hours' Day movement provided a rallying point for trade unions. The 'new Constitution', introduced in 1855, created a Legislative Assembly elected on popular lines. The secret ballot was introduced in 1856, but the Upper House, elected on a restrictive franchise, served as a brake on democratic 'excess'.

Contests between the two houses were to bedevil politics in Victoria. Melbourne was better represented in the Assembly, while the Council was heavily oriented to rural interests. The first ministry, led by William Haines, lasted only four months and the second, formed by the leader of Melbourne's Catholic community, John O'Shannassy, only 50 days. The parliament hosted lively debate. Irish nationalist hero Charles Gavan Duffy lectured members on parliamentary procedure. Stonemason Charles Don won the seat of Collingwood in 1859, claiming to be the first of his class represented in any legislature within the British Empire, at one stage working on Parliament House by day while representing his constituents in the chamber at night. External interest groups included the Land Convention, with its demagogues' cry of 'unlock the lands', the Tariff League, which supported protection, and the Labor League, with strength in the trade unions. The Eastern Market was the scene of large public meetings, and public order was threatened on 27 August 1860, when impatience over the land question saw parliament besieged.

In 1864 James McCulloch brought together a coalition of radicals and liberals, and seeking to satisfy demands for a protective tariff and better fund the activities of his government, 'tacked' an enabling measure to an appropriation Bill. When the move, which outraged Melbourne mercantile houses and the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, was rejected by the Council, George Higinbotham, a lawyer, former journalist and future judge, took up the cause of the Assembly with a principled vengeance. The subsequent contest lasted for two years and saw the governor, Sir Charles Darling, recalled. Vigorous debates, recorded in Hansard from 1866, focusing on religion and education were finally resolved in 1872 with the passage of the Education Act 1872, which provided for a free, compulsory and secular State education, abolished State aid to denominational schools, to end in 1875, and caused lasting bitterness among Catholics.

Prominent political leaders of the period included Duffy, McCulloch and Higinbotham. Backed by the powerful National Reform and Protection League, the pre-eminent liberal of the 1870s, Graham Berry (1822-1904), won a sweeping election victory in 1877 with a mandate for a program of reform, including protection for native industry, a land tax to 'burst up' the big estates, and the reform of the Legislative Council. A constitutional crisis occurred in 1878, when the Council rejected an appropriation Bill to which provision for continuing payment of members of parliament (provided for earlier as a temporary measure and due to expire) was attached. On Black Wednesday the government dismissed judges and senior public officials. Commentators spoke of the possibility of civil war, but when a special 'embassy' to Great Britain failed to resolve the deadlock, the Legislative Council's powers were strengthened. Detaching himself from his more militant supporters, Berry entered into a coalition with moderate conservatives led by James Service in 1883, demonstrating the degree to which conservatives and liberals shared common ground. The radical liberalism of an earlier generation became accepted wisdom; the problems of protection and payment of members were resolved, while future politicians on both sides honed their political skills in suburban branches of the Australian Natives' Association (ANA), founded in Melbourne in 1871.

With an underdeveloped party system, the local member of parliament was a powerful figure, with localism an important force. In 1871, for example, George Higinbotham was defeated in Brighton by the then virtually unknown former rate collector and market gardener (Sir) Thomas Bent, who, Weston Bate has argued, worked 'skillfully behind the scenes ... carefully selling his vote for benefits to Brighton'. Commissioner for railways in the O'Loghlen government, he introduced the 'Octopus' Bill, promising lines to electorates in order to gain support. As a heavy investor in suburban property in the 1880s, he was also a substantial beneficiary, but Bent was not alone in blurring the line between personal and political interests. Many prominent and politically active men brought their Sabbatarian and temperance views to such issues as slums and prostitution, infectious diseases and pollution, and problems with the water supply and drainage, while during the land boom, James Munro, James Mirams and Matthew Davies promoted financially unsustainable building societies.

The subsequent collapse of the economy brought bank and financial crashes and retrenchments in the public service. After the 1890 maritime strike, class began to make a more direct impact on politics. Trade union and labour leaders, who had considered themselves part of the Victorian liberal protectionist tradition, began to organise politically, providing the basis for the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The first Trades Hall Council-endorsed Labor man to enter parliament was printer John Hancock, a London-born radical who won the seat of Collingwood in 1891. At the elections of 1894, 17 Laborites were returned alongside 47 Liberals and 30 Conservatives. Drawing on the support of Labor members, member for St Kilda George Turner led the longest lasting government to that date, from 1894 to 1899, introducing income tax (1894) and a new factories Act (1895) and reforming banking and finance (1896).

Relocated to the western annexe of the Royal Exhibition Building while the Commonwealth took over Parliament House, from 1901 to 1927 the Victorian parliament saw many of its former responsibilities transferred to the federal level. Over time the federal sphere also attracted State politicians such as Alfred Deakin, W.A. Trenwith, W.A. Watt, H.S.W. Lawson, Maurice Blackburn and R.G. Menzies. Sir Thomas Bent, premier from 1904 to 1909, reformed betting and liquor licensing, and, finally, introduced female suffrage. Although feminist Vida Goldstein fought, through the Women's Political Association, to keep women free of party association, both Labor and Conservatives were quick to engage with the new electors, with the conservative Australian Women's National League becoming Australia's second largest political organisation.

The ministries of John Murray and William Watt (1909-14) were born out of antagonism to Bent. Murray was a liberal of the old school, but Watt, an energetic and determinedly anti-Labor politician, was a product of the ANA and a disciple of Alfred Deakin. He sought electoral reform, introduced preferential voting and, using a clever parliamentary tactic, allowed Labor, under George Elmslie, an ineffectual 14 days in government in 1913. The anti-metropolitan bias became a serious factor in politics. By 1904, in the Assembly, 76 country votes were worth 100 city votes; by 1911 the ratio was 54:100, and by 1914 it was 47:100. In 1906 Williamstown had 6669 registered voters, while Walhalla in rural Gippsland had 2748. The 12 largest electoral districts were all city-based and the 12 smallest all rural, undermining Labor, whose strength was in the populous inner-metropolitan industrial areas. Questions concerning greater Melbourne and city planning were left unresolved, while State socialism became the means of meeting development needs. Labor, however, had a stronger influence in municipal government, although the Melbourne City Council remained elusive.

After initially uniting the community, World War I brought trauma and division. Labor split over conscription, and sectarianism and class tensions increased, while the RSL became a pressure group acting in the name of returned soldiers. An alliance of urban conservative and rural and provincial interests characterised non-Labor State politics, prefiguring the rise of the Country Party (later the National Party) in the 1920s. Labor's short-lived 1924 administration was followed by those of E.J. Hogan (1926-30, 1930-32), supported by millionaire John Wren, former owner of the Collingwood Tote, and Albert Dunstan and the Country Progressive Party. In the 1930s a series of minority Country Party governments came to power with Labor support. The scheming Dunstan was a factor but so too was the compliance of Labor and Wren's influence.

The modern day Liberal Party, which had its origins in Melbourne in 1944, saw spectacular success at the 1949 federal election, led by its founder, R.G. Menzies, the member for Kooyong. Communism, too, gained adherents after the war, largely owing to the heroic role played by the Russian people in the fight against fascism, but the Cold War cast its shadow over the State. Menzies' unsuccessful effort to ban the Communist Party challenged civil liberties, and art patronage and literary controversies took on a political character.

A further decade of political instability in Victorian politics following World War II saw splits in both the Liberal and Labor parties and a protracted battle over the excessively pro-rural franchise. The 1954 Labor split destroyed the government of John Cain senior and kept the party out of power in both the State and Commonwealth parliaments for a generation. After a tentative beginning, the premiership of Liberal leader Sir Henry Bolte (1955-72) brought about stability through his skilful marginalising of the Labor and National parties. Cultivating an earthy larrikin image, he ridiculed his opposition, but he never gained more than 40% of the vote, succeeding because of the continuing support of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Born out of the Labor split, the DLP was more influential in Victoria because of the presence of seminal figures such as B.A. Santamaria, and the support of the Catholic Church under Archbishop Daniel Mannix and of Bolte and his business allies. Strongly pro-development, Bolte took the treasury portfolio, ran regular deficits and blamed the Commonwealth for a poor financial deal at premiers' conferences. He had a capable deputy in lawyer Arthur Rylah, the member for Kew, and support from the Herald-Sun newspaper group. Manufacturing, home-ownership, the development of Central Melbourne and Moomba were all promoted by his administrations. The Housing Commission built high-rise public housing; the National Gallery of Victoria found a new home on St Kilda Road; illegal 'SP' betting was done away with; the six o'clock swill ended, and seat belts and drink-driving controls were introduced for motor cars. But secondary education languished and civil liberties were neglected. Bolte's second electoral victory in 1958 was the first covered by television. He controversially supported capital punishment and State aid for non-government schools, and advocated conscription, facing down opponents of the Vietnam War and student radicals. Under his premiership, city growth was dramatic, but his retirement saw long overdue initiatives in heritage conservation, pollution control and cultural institutions undertaken by his successor, Rupert 'Dick' Hamer, who abolished the death penalty but faced scandals over land sales and protests over freeways.

The Whitlam federal Labor Government (1972-75) ended conscription and Australia's involvement in Vietnam, and implemented the 1969 equal-pay decision for women. Whitlam's victory owed much to the 1970 federal branch intervention into the affairs of the discredited Victorian branch of the party and to new voters in outer suburbs. His controversial deputy was the anti-war campaigner, conscience of the party, sometime rival and treasurer J.F. 'Jim' Cairns, the member for Yarra (Richmond). However, the 25% tariff cut had an impact on Melbourne as a centre of manufacturing, and at the 1975 federal election the city 'split down the middle' politically, with the Yarra River the boundary, the suburbs to the east going to the Liberal Party while the other side of the river, the western suburbs and the north of the city remained unflinchingly Labor.

A decline in conservative power was evident by 1981. Hamer was replaced by Lindsay Thompson, and the following year a Labor government, led by John Cain junior, the son of the last Labor premier, was elected. Labor had new values and a strategy for the economy, and benefited from a revival in building and construction, but faced growing difficulties in hospitals, chronic care and nursing. The government took over city planning, advancing Southbank, Docklands and Swanston Street Walk, and restructuring public bodies such as the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. But its lack of control of the Legislative Council and poor relations with the Hawke federal Labor Government saw Labor falter. Factional conflict forced Cain to resign in 1990, handing over the premiership to Joan Kirner. The collapse of the State Bank and the Pyramid Building Society, rising interest rates and a downturn in the economy were used by Liberals to label Labor 'the Guilty Party', resulting in a resounding defeat in the 1992 election.

Jeff Kennett's incoming Liberal-National Party Government proved surprisingly radical. Asserting the need to regain Victoria's favourable credit rating, the government targeted Central Melbourne, arguing that the 'heart' of an ailing organism needed revitalisation before the extremities. Controlling both houses of parliament, the coalition cut education and health expenditure, privatised ambulance services, transport, water supply, energy supply and prisons, restructured municipal government, extended gambling facilities, commercialised sport and relaxed planning legislation. The Australian Formula One Grand Prix was secured from South Australia, and Museum Victoria's new campus in Carlton Gardens commenced, as did Federation Square. But the chief symbol of the new era was the lavish Crown Entertainment Complex. By the end of the decade, a boom in building, construction and real estate was under way; private consortiums had been lured to run many of the State's former public utilities, and the existing freeways were linked by a private toll road, CityLink. But at the 1999 election, rural and regional voters turned against the coalition, and a minority Labor government led by Steve Bracks came to power. Committed to policies of financial rectitude, Labor was returned with a majority in both houses in 2002.

David Dunstan