Victoria

Nick Economou

Key terms/names

Constitution of Victoria, constitutional reform, cosmopolitanism and wowserism, demographic change, Dick Hamer, economic policy and social policy, electoral systems, party systems and the pattern of government, Henry Bolte, Jeff Kennett, Joan Kirner, John Cain, political economy, regional, rural and metropolitan Victoria, Steve Bracks

 

The state of Victoria can be thought of as Australia’s ‘second’ state not because of historical chronology (Victoria, previously known as the Port Phillip District, was an administrative province of NSW until formal separation on 1 June 1851 and was established after both NSW and Tasmania) but rather because of demographics and economics. Victoria is the second most populous state after NSW, and the state’s capital city, Melbourne, is Australia’s second most populous city after Sydney. Victoria provides the second largest tranche of members to the House of Representatives, and the Victorian governor stands second in line to be governor-general should the incumbent vacate the position.

Victoria is also important to the national economy, although the nature of its contribution has changed over time. Initially settled (illegally) as an extension of the Van Diemen’s Land fine wool industry by people such as John Batman and Edward and Stephen Henty, Victoria received a massive infusion of free settlers with the official discovery of gold in 1851 – the same year the Port Phillip District was separated from NSW and renamed Victoria.1 By the 1870s, Melbourne emerged as a major manufacturing centre, and in the 1880s the city experienced a significant real estate boom that was to end in a spectacular crash in the 1890s.2 At Federation Victoria was a major producer of grains and wool as well as a manufacturer of farming implements, and one of Australia’s landmark industrial disputes occurred at the Sunshine Harvester Works in Melbourne’s western suburbs in 1907 – a dispute that was resolved by Justice Henry Bournes Higgins outlining the concept of a ‘minimum wage’ in his Harvester judgement.3

For all this industrial activity, the state’s political history was, until comparatively recent times, dominated by conservatives and liberals.4 Until the 1980s, Labor governments were rare. The state’s politics were invariably a battle between rural conservatives and metropolitan liberals with the nascent Labor Party something of an incidental player (see Table 1).5

This changed in 1982, when Labor was elected to government for the first time since the 1950s. Since then government has been shared by Labor and the Liberal and National parties operating in coalition.

History

The colonisation of the Port Phillip District began with sheep farmers from Van Diemen’s Land such as John Batman and Edward and Stephen Henty making the trip by sea to ‘squat’ on the western plains of what was then part of NSW. The entrepreneurial drive behind this initial land grab, to the cost of both Indigenous people and the authority of the governor of NSW, Richard Bourke, was revisited in 1851 when gold was officially discovered at Warrandyte and a rush of free settlers from around the world descended upon Melbourne.

Tensions arose between miners and the colony’s governor that culminated in the rebellion at Eureka, Ballarat, in 1854. As part of their list of demands, the miners called for full parliamentary reform and adult suffrage. In 1855, the British parliament approved a new constitution for Victoria that met both demands and established the basis for the system of democratic parliamentary government that continues to this day.

The new constitution was promulgated in Victoria in 1856. It provided for a Legislative Assembly that would be elected by men over the age of 21 regardless of property ownership. The assumption was that government would be exercised by a ‘prime minister’ and a ministry with the confidence of the majority of the lower house. The Legislative Council would comprise men of property, elected by men of property, who could exercise a powerful veto over the lower house. Parliamentary salaries were not introduced until 1870. Female suffrage was not legislated for until 1908, and the law that prohibited women from standing for election was not abolished until 1924. The property qualifications that applied to the Legislative Council were abolished in 1951.

Political instability was the dominant characteristic of Victorian parliamentary politics from colonial times until a major split in the Labor Party in 1955, which set the basis for a period of Liberal Party dominance through to the 1980s.6 Prior to 1955, leadership challenges, bitter fights between rural conservatives and urban liberals, and the threat of early elections by a conservative-dominated Legislative Council were the norm in Victorian politics. Indeed, the Legislative Council exercised its power to bring down governments on no less than ten occasions.

Party

Premiers

Duration of party government

Liberal (Deakinite)

John Murray

8/1/1909 to 9/12/1913

 

William Watt

 

Labor

George Elmslie

9/12/1913 to 22/12/1913

Liberal (Deakinite)

William Watt

22/12/1913 to 21/3/1917

 

Alexander Peacock

 

Nationalist

John Bowser

21/3/1917 to 18/7/1924

 

Harry Lawson

 

 

Alexander Peacock

 

Labor

George Prendergast

18/7/1924 to 18/11/1924

Country/Nationalist

John Allan

18/11/1924 to 20/5/1927

Labor

Edmond Hogan

20/5/1927 to 22/11/1928

Nationalist

William McPherson

22/11/1928 to 12/12/1928

Labor

Edmond Hogan

12/12/1928 to 19/5/1932

United Australia Party

Stanley Argyle

19/5/1932 to 2/4/1935

Country

Albert Dunstan

2/4/1935 to 14/9/1943

Labor

John Cain Sr

14/9/1943 to 18/9/1943

Country

Albert Dunstan

18/9/1943 to 2/10/1945

Liberal

Ian MacFarlan

2/10/1945 to 21/11/1945

Labor

John Cain Sr

21/11/1945 to 20/11/1947

Liberal

Thomas Hollway

20/11/1947 to 27/6/1950

Country

John McDonald

27/6/1950 to 28/10/1952

Electoral Reform

Thomas Hollway

28/10/1952 to 31/10/1952

Country

John McDonald

31/10/1952 to 17/12/1952

Labor

John Cain Sr

17/12/1952 to 7/6/1955

Liberal

Henry Bolte

7/6/1955 to 8/4/1982

 

Rupert Hamer

 

 

Lindsay Thompson

 

Labor

John Cain Jr

8/4/1982 to 6/10/1992

 

Joan Kirner

 

Liberal and National

Jeffrey Kennett

6/10/1992 to 20/10/1999

Labor

Steve Bracks

20/10/1999 to 2/12/2010

 

John Brumby

 

Liberal and National

Edward (Ted) Baillieu

2/12/2010 to 4/12/2014

 

Denis Napthine

 

Labor

Daniel Andrews

4/12/2014

Table 1 Party governments of Victoria 1909 to 2019. Source: https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/Results/results-historical-vicpremiers.html

Modern Victorian politics

The Labor split in 1955 provided the opportunity for Bolte and the Liberal Party to dominate state politics until the 1980s. It was this period that led to Victoria to be described as ‘the jewel in the Liberal crown’. Bolte led a socially conservative government. His retirement marked a shift towards a more progressive approach as a new generation of urban moderates emerged within the ranks of the Liberal Party. The most prominent of these was Rupert (‘Dick’) Hamer who, as premier, led a government that set about undoing a raft of conservative policies put in place by his predecessor.7 By 1981, however, Hamer had retired amidst a sense that the Liberal Party had atrophied. In 1982, Labor, under the leadership of John Cain Jr, was elected to government for the first time since 1952. A new era of Victorian politics had begun.8

Labor’s success in 1982 showed that the consequences of the 1954–55 split had finally run their course. This election was to mark a new era in which executive government would be shared by both Labor and the Liberal–National Coalition. Labor exercised executive power between 1982 and 1992, between 1999 and 2010, and from 2014. During these terms in government, five people served as premier including John Cain (1982 to 1991), Joan Kirner (1991 to 1992, and Victoria’s first female premier), Steve Bracks (1999 to 2008), John Brumby (2008 to 2010) and Daniel Andrews (2014 to ). Between 1992 and 1999, and 2010 and 2014, the Liberal and National party governed in coalition. The Liberal premiers included Jeff Kennett (1992 to 1999), Ted Baillieu (2010 to 2012) and Denis Napthine (2012 to 2014).

Election year

Liberal % (seats)

Country/National % (seats)

ALP % (seats)

Others % (seats)

1955

1958

1961

1964

1967

1970

1973

1976

1979

1982

1985

1988

1992

1996

1999

2002

2006

2010

2014

2018

37.8(34)

37.1(39)

36.4(39)

39.6(38)

37.5(44)

36.7(42)

42.3(46)

46.1(52)

41.4(41)

38.3(24)

41.9(31)

40.5(33)

44.1(52)

43.9(49)

42.2(36)

33.9(17)

34.4(23)

38.0(35)

36.8(30)

30.4(21)

9.5(10)

9.3(9)

7.1(9)

8.7(10)

8.6(12)

6.4(8)

5.9(8)

7.1(7)

5.6(8)

4.9(8)

7.3(10)

7.8(9)

7.8(9)

6.7(9)

4.8(7)

4.3(7)

5.1(9)

6.8(10)

5.5(8)

4.7(6)

32.5 (20)

37.7(18)

38.5(17)

36.2(18)

37.9(16)

41.4(22)

41.6(18)

42.2(21)

45.2(32)

50.1(49)

50.1(47)

46.5(46)

38.4(27)

43.1(29)

45.6(42)

47.9(62)

43.0(55)

36.2(43)

38.1(47)

42.8(55)

19.9(2)

15.6(0)

17.9(1)

15.3(0)

15.9(1)

15.5(1)

10.0(1)

4.5(1)

7.5(0)

6.6(0)

0.8(0)

4.9(0)

9.5(0)

6.3(1)

7.2(3)

13.7(2)

17.3(1)

18.9 (0)

10.1 (3)

21.0(6)

Table 2 General election statewide primary vote Legislative Assembly, Victoria 1955–2018. Source: http://elections.uwa.edu.au/index.lasso

Election

Liberal % (seats)

Country % (seats)

ALP % (seats)

Others % (seats)

1961

1964

1967

1970

1973

1976

1979

1982

1985

1988

1992

1996

1999

2002

2006(a)

2010

2014

2018

37.9 (9)

40.1(9)

38.5(10)

37.6(10)

43.1(11)

48.3(15)

43.7(12)

39.2(9)

41.1(8)

43.5(10)

43.5(14)

43.8(14)

39.7(11)

34.5(3)

34.5 (15)

43.1(18)(b)

36.1(14)(b)

29.4(11)(b)

6.2(4)

8.9(4)

9.5(4)

6.1(4)

6.4(3)

7.9(2)

5.8(2)

5.5(2)

6.6(3)

7.5(3)

8.7(3)

6.6(3)

7.3(3)

4.3(2)

4.4(2)

38.9(4)

35.4(4)

36.9(4)

42.0(4)

40.8(4)

42.6(5)

45.3(8)

49.5(11)

47.3(11)

48.1(9)

38.5(5)

40.5(5)

42.2(8)

47.5(17)

41.4(19)

35.3(16)

33.4(14)

39.2(18)

17.0(0)

15.5(0)

15.1(0)

14.3(0)

9.7(0)

1.2(0)

4.9(0)

5.6(0)

4.8(0)

0.8(0)

9.9(0)

8.9(0)

10.5(0)

13.4(0)

18.6(4)

21.2(3)

29.3(10)

30.8(11)

Table 3 Legislative Council results 1961–2018. Source: http://elections.uwa.edu.au/index.lasso.
(a)Proportional representation system commences
(b)Liberal and National joint ticket

Constitutional reform

Armed with the recommendations of a constitutional convention that it had commissioned as part of its agreement with rural independents who held the balance of power after the 1999 election,9 the Bracks government introduced the Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Bill 2003 (Vic) to the parliament in 2003. The reformed Victorian Constitution is now the only Australian Constitution to make explicit reference to the position of premier and to note the subordination of the governor to the premier unless the premier has lost the confidence of the Legislative Assembly. The amended Constitution reinforces the idea of the Assembly as the house of government by providing that Appropriation Bills need only to pass the lower house to become law, thereby explicitly removing the Legislative Council’s previous power to block ‘supply’. The Council’s power to amend or reject all other Bills remains, although the new Constitution provides for a ‘Disputes Resolution’ mechanism where the two houses can’t agree on a Bill. It also allows the premier to declare a Bill to be ‘Special’ in that its rejection by the upper house could be the trigger for the premier to be able to advise the governor for the need to call an early election. In another diminution of the power of the upper house, the amended Constitution provides for fixed four-year terms for both houses and that elections for both houses be held simultaneously.10

Electoral systems and party systems

Victorian electoral laws were amended in 2002. They now require voter equality across all districts and provide for re-districting to occur after every second election, thus finally laying to rest that venerable controversy of rural malapportionment. The Legislative Assembly continues to utilise single-member districts and the alternative vote (known colloquially as ‘preferential voting’). As the upper house requirements clearly involve multi-member electorates given the changes to the Constitution, the single transferrable vote (STV) method of proportional representation favoured in Australian upper house electoral systems now applies in Victoria.

This has had consequences for the Victorian party system (see Tables 2 and 3). Between 1955 and 2006 – the first state election to be held under the auspices of the new Constitution – Victorian election outcomes in both parliamentary houses were monopolised by the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the National (formerly Country) Party with the occasional independent securing a seat or two in the lower house.11 The new electoral arrangements for the Legislative Council were predicated on the understanding that the upper house could only be effective as a house of review provided it was not dominated by either Labor or the Coalition. This objective has been achieved; since 2006 neither Labor nor the Coalition have had an upper house majority, with the balance of power being exercised by an increasingly diverse number of minor parties.

Of the parties that have held seats in the upper house since 2006, the Australian Greens have been the most consistent performer. The rise of the Greens has been another significant development in Victorian politics and has been reflected not just in the party’s ability to win seats in the upper house but also its success in winning seats in the Legislative Assembly. In 2010, the Greens won the lower house seat of Melbourne and since then have secured other inner urban seats. The greatest challenge from the Greens occurs in what used to be very safe Labor seats, but it has also been the case that the Greens have won inner urban seats from the Liberal Party as well.

Significant gentrification of the inner urban suburbs has created the conditions for a Greens-voting constituency. Beyond the inner city the Greens vote falls away and the party’s role in these lower house districts is confined to influencing the outcome between the major parties by way of preference distribution. Notwithstanding this, the Greens now rank alongside the major parties as participants in the Legislative Assembly, thus providing grounds for describing Victorian politics as a four-party system. This also has the potential to make for a very close contest for the Assembly. In theory, single-member electoral systems should reward the successful party or parties with a clear lower house majority. Since 1999, however, Victoria has experienced minority government twice (1999 to 2002 and towards the latter stages of the Coalition government between 2010 and 2014) and some election outcomes have been very close.

The policy debate

Given the significant constitutional and administrative capacity state governments have to make public policy, the list of potential policy controversies on the state policy agenda is vast. However, in the case of Victoria, the policy record can be usefully assessed under two broad headings: the provision of infrastructure (which is of critical importance to the state’s approach to economic policy), and ‘social policy’. In both cases, something of a major transition occurred in the Victorian approach to both economic and social policy during the 1980s and 1990s. In the case of infrastructure provision, Victoria enthusiastically embraced the neoliberal argument about the desirability of a reduced role for government, particularly in relation to the provision of services that could instead be provided by the private sector. Social policy, meanwhile, underwent no less a significant change, the consequence of which was to erase the state’s previous reputation for conservatism and prohibition – an approach to policy that was known to an older generation of Victorians as ‘wowserism’.12

Infrastructure, economy and the state sector

Historically, the public sector has been a major presence in Victoria’s economy. Until the 1990s, the Victorian economy comprised the private sector operating with or through major state corporations providing energy, fresh water, transport, port facilities and financial services.

Given that the Labor Party had hardly ever been in government between 1856 and 1982, the development of the state’s extensive public infrastructure was not the legacy of socialist ideology but, rather, liberal and conservative pragmatism.13 Put simply, Victoria’s political leaders were not averse to the idea of creating a state corporation to build or run something considered vital to the advancement of the colony/state.

Reducing the public sector: privatisation

By the 1980s, public and political attitudes towards the public sector began to shift. Those corporations that had been at the centre of the development of Victoria as a major manufacturing state were now being critically scrutinised. The fact that they were monopolies did not sit well with emerging economic theory about the need for competition. Their very bureaucratic method of operation was sometimes interpreted as being impervious to the needs of customers, and their corporate approach to planning had the unfortunate political consequence of them being seen to be beyond political control.14 A new generation of politicians tended to have a less benign view of these corporations than their predecessors, and, in this environment, arguments about the need to break up large state corporations and allow a diversity of private players into the market resonated in the political debate.15

The election of the Liberal–National coalition government headed by Jeff Kennett in 1992 marked a period of intense privatisation in which few corporations were spared, although it was also true that the previous Labor government had been forced to sell the State Savings Bank and had started the disintegration of the SECV.

The initial purpose of the privatisation was to address the budget deficit. Receipts from the sale of public corporations went to retiring debt. Privatisation also sought to reduce the size of the state’s public sector workforce. Commencing with the SECV and extending to other corporations, the government’s enthusiasm for this approach extended to other areas of policy including corrective services and local government. The reform of local government was quite extensive and involved a suspension of local government elections for a number of years. Other changes resonated with the small government agenda, and included capping rate rises, amalgamating councils and requiring councils to contract their service provision functions out to private providers.16 This reform hit rural councils particularly hard, and it was noticeable that a collapse in support for both the Liberal and National parties in regional and rural districts contributed to the unexpected defeat of the Kennett government in 1999.17

Social policy

The task of undoing the Bolte legacy began under his successor, Dick Hamer. His government moved to solve the police corruption crisis by decriminalising abortion. This government also put in place extensive urban and rural conservation laws. It abolished capital punishment and decriminalised homosexuality. The Cain Labor government legalised and regulated prostitution and began deregulating liquor licensing laws in a bid to encourage a cafe approach to wining and dining that was emerging from Melbourne’s large ethnic communities, thereby setting Victoria on course to enjoy a tourism boom. The Kennett coalition government issued an apology to the Stolen Generation in 1997. It also deregulated retail trading hours and radically expanded the gaming industry to include poker machines, and backed the development of a major casino complex on the southern bank of the Yarra River, where factories and warehouses once stood. The Bracks Labor government instituted a Bill of Rights, and the Brumby Labor government oversaw the decriminalisation of abortion. The Andrews Labor government committed Victoria to ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions. In 2017, it also oversaw the introduction of ‘dying with dignity’ laws, thereby permitting euthanasia in certain circumstances.

Some of these reforms precipitated bitter political exchanges, as the state’s conservative forces within the community, politics and some of the churches maintained their opposition to abortion and euthanasia. Other reforms have been the subject of ongoing debate about their social consequences. Gaming liberalisation has been the subject of intense criticism on the grounds that it has caused unacceptable social consequences. Strong concerns have been expressed about the link between excessive alcohol consumption and violence, as well as its impact on road safety. It is the prerogative of government to respond to these concerns and formulate policy accordingly, but the significance of the extent to which social policy has changed since the 1980s cannot be denied. Victoria generally, and Melbourne in particular, are very different places to what they were at the height of the ‘wowser’ period under the auspices of the Liberal Party conservatives of the Bolte era.

Conclusions

The government and politics of Victoria reflect both stability and significant change. Stability is to be found in the basic institutions of government where, in the aftermath of the Eureka rebellion, colonial and British political actors were quick to institute a Westminster system of parliamentary government that continues to this day. Modifications to the Constitution occurred periodically, with arguably the most significant of these being the changes in 2003, although all they really did was codify the core Westminster conventions that the lower house is the house of government, the upper house is a house of review, and the governor acts on the advice of the premier.

The significance of change is to be found in the state’s politics and, through it, the policy debate. The three-way division of the party system after the First World War led to political volatility and obsession with electoral laws. Planning and development of the state was left to the major state corporations that delivered transport, resources and energy and this was to be a feature of the Victorian state sector until it was comprehensively dismantled by the Kennett government in the 1990s. In the meantime, the Labor split in the 1950s led to one-party government in Victoria, as a particularly conservative Liberal Party secured a series of election victories and found little opposition to its agenda from the Legislative Council.

Although the decline of the conservative hegemony started with generational leadership change in the Liberal Party, the key moment was the election of a Labor government in 1982. This was significant for two reasons: first, this election marked the end of Liberal dominance of the state’s politics and the beginning of a new era where government could be led by either Labor or the Liberals and Nationals working in coalition. Second, the election of Victoria’s main social-democratic party began the process of converting Victoria from the prohibitionist conservatism of the Bolte era into a more cosmopolitan and socially progressive community. The modern Liberal Party has aligned with this, and brought a commitment to economic liberalisation.

Both Labor and the Coalition have assisted in this transformation of Victoria into a post-industrial economy with a strong reputation for being socially progressive and remarkably cohesive for a community with such a diversity of ethnic and racial backgrounds. As with all policy debates, there have been disagreements on various aspects, and challenges arise as to how to cope with the growth of the Melbourne metropolis in particular. Despite the decline of manufacturing, the state continues to be a major driver of the national economy, and the policy-making process – based on an elected parliament and an extensive if transformed public sector – has been at the centre of this. Victoria’s record is a confirmation of the significance of politics, the making of policy, and the importance of state governance in Australia’s federal system.

References

Cannon, Michael (1995). The land boomers. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Considine, Mark, and Brian Costar, eds. (1992). Trials in power: Cain, Kirner and Victoria 1982–1992. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Dunstan, Keith (1974). Wowsers. Melbourne: Angus & Robertson.

Economou, Nick, Brian Costar and Paul Strangio (2003). Victoria. In Jeremy Moon and Campbell Sharman, eds. Australian politics and government. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Gerritsen, Rolf (1985). The drive for monopoly: the Gas and Fuel Corporation as an interest in Victorian politics. In Peter Hay, John Halligan, John Warhurst and Brian Costar, eds. Essays on Victorian politics. Warrnambool, Vic.: Warrnambool Institute Press.

Holmes, Jean (1976). The government of Victoria. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Homes, Jean, John Halligan and Peter Hay (1986). Victoria. In Brian Galligan, ed. Australian state politics. Melbourne: Longman.

Kiss, Rosemary (1999). Local government to local authority: the new order. In Brian Costar and Nick Economou, eds. The Kennett revolution. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Murray, Robert (2007). 150 years of Spring Street: Victorian government 1850s to the 21st century. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Rawson, Don (1977). Victoria. In Peter Loveday, A.W. Martin and Richard Parker, eds. The emergence of the Australian party system. Sydney: Hale and Iremonger.

Rickard, John (1984). H.B. Higgins: the rebel as judge. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.

Rodan, Paul (2006). Rupert ‘Dick’ Hamer: the urbane Liberal. In Paul Strangio and Brian Costar, eds. The Victorian premiers 1856 to 2006. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Rosenthal, Stephen, and Peter Russ (1988) The politics of power. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Taylor, Greg (2006). The Constitution of Victoria. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Victoria, Constitution Commission (2002). A house for our future. Melbourne: Government Printer.

Woodward, Dennis (1999). Privatisation: policy or ideology? In Brian Costar and Nick Economou, eds. The Kennett revolution. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Woodward, Dennis, and Brian Costar (2000). The Victorian election of 18 September 1999: another case of electoral volatility? Australian Journal of Political Science 35(1) 125–33. DOI: 10.1080/10361140050002881

About the author

Dr Nick Economou is a senior lecturer in politics in the School of Social Science at Monash University where he teaches Australian politics and government. He is also a media commentator on Australian state and national politics.

1 Legislation from the NSW Legislative Council authorising the separation was passed in 1850 upon passage of the Australian Colonies Self Government Act 1850 (UK) in Britain. Promulgation of the Act and actual separation occurred on 1 June 1851.

2 Cannon 1995.

3 Rickard 1984.

4 Murray 2007; Rawson 1977.

5 Holmes 1976.

6 Murray 2007.

7 Rodan 2006.

8 Considine and Costar 1992.

9 Victoria, Constitution Commission 2002.

10 Taylor 2006.

11 Economou, Costar and Strangio 2003, 162–7.

12 Dunstan 1974.

13 Holmes, Halligan and Hay 1986, 26–7.

14 Gerritsen 1985; Rosenthal and Russ 1988.

15 Woodward 1999.

16 Kiss 1999.

17 Woodward and Costar 2000.