Daily Archives: December 1, 2008

It’s Council Election time

Ah democracy!  This weekend has been local election time in Victoria and my enthusiasm for compulsory voting EVEN extends to council elections, shabby and petty little events though they are.  Many councils opted for postal-vote only, but my council had ‘proper’ elections, complete with flyers, Victorian Electoral Commission staff, the little cardboard booths and the stubby pencils.  Although I could have probably survived without this exercise in local democracy, in general I’m very pleased that we have government-funded, compulsory elections.  I look at the queues of people at American elections, and the skewing of issues on all sides to “get out the vote” and I’m glad that there’s no question about it here: you just have to vote.  It only takes ten minutes out of your life because it’s funded on the knowledge that everybody will attend.


Henry Condell, first mayor of Melbourne

The first council elections in the Port Phillip district were held in Melbourne on 1st December 1842. This was a time when the “anxiety” about Judge Willis was reaching a peak, before subsiding briefly to re-emerge the following year.  They were not the very first elections held in the district: there had been elections for the Market Commission in 1841, but few voted for it.

In Britain, the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 provided the first English municipal elections, and the Colonial Office was keen to extend this rudimentary form of ‘representative democracy’ to the colonies as well.  Given the influx of migration into Port Phillip after 1839, many people would have experienced  this new phenomenon of municipal elections ‘at home’, and certainly the English influence on the election process is very noticeable.

Even before the Government announced the final arrangements for the Melbourne Town Corporation election, there was jockeying between factions about how it would be managed.  There was one private meeting that sought to ensure that the ‘right’ sort of people were elected, drawing I suspect, on the British tradition of sorting it all out between gentlemen and avoiding an unseemly election at all costs.  In defiance of this concept of ‘hole and corner meetings’, a public meeting was held in opposition to proclaim the openness of the election to all qualified comers.

The bill for the Melbourne elections was passed in August 1842, providing for four wards.  Candidates had to possess real estate worth 1000 pounds or live in a residence with an annual rental value of 50 pounds. In order to vote, electors had to occupy property with an annual rental of at least 25 pounds.

On 12 September ‘collectors’ were dispatched to inspect properties to see if the rental value was worth 25 pounds.  As rental properties worth less than 25 pounds were exempt from taxation, the occupants were not qualified to vote.  Such a regulation also ensured that tenants had an incentive for downplaying their rental to avoid taxation.   After the Burgess List had been published, its valuations were challenged by a Committee, which heard appeals.

Prior to the election, all candidates were furnished with ‘queries’ – not unlike the questions posed today in more recent times by lobby groups today before an election.  However, these queries were not so much about policies, but more about establishing the integrity of the candidate.  The questions also reflect an intention, at least, to avoid the secrecy, patronage and jobbery of Old Corruption back in England.  Not all candidates answered the questions.  The questions were (roughly paraphrased)

1. Do you have the time and energy to devote to the position?

2. Will you vacate your position if requisitioned by 2/3 of the burgesses?

3. Will you vote for open-door proceedings? (one of the first actions of the newly elected council)

4. Will you select the mayor and aldermen from among the elected council? (because under the Act, outsiders could be appointed )

5. Will you stay in your seat unless faced with uncontrollable circumstances or requisitioned by 2/3 of the burgesses?

6. Will you oppose the election of any candidate to an office in the gift of countil unless their moral character will bear strict scrutiny ?

7. Have you pledged yourself or put yoursdelf under any obligation?

The election itself was treated as a ‘festival’, but not a public holiday as such.  A hotel in each ward was designated as an ‘alderman court’, and it opened at 9.00 a.m. Electors would take their ballot paper to the polling room in the hotel, check their name against the Burgess list, then their registered vote was read aloud to the gathered throng- thus reinforcing the ‘pledge’ that would often be given before the election to vote for a particular candidate.  Electors had more than one vote to bestow- for example, in the Lonsdale Ward each elector had three choices and could, if desired, spread the vote among three individual candidates, or ‘plump’ all three votes for the one candidate of their choice.  The tally was announced hourly and ‘treats’ were laid on.  At 4.00 p.m. the final total was declared, speeches delivered, bands playing and celebrations and commiserations all round.

And where does our Judge Willis fit into all this?  The newly elected town council trooped before him for a public reception followed by cold corned-beef sandwiches where he was noted for wearing a hat of remarkable construction (the mind boggles).  Garryowen has a good description:

“Judge Willis was fidgetting impatiently on the Bench, commanding the crier to keep order; and the Court, now thronged, to be cleared, commands impossible to be enforced, for the crier was irrepressible with excitement, the spectators were in no humour to be trifled with, and this was one of those occasions on which Willis condescendingly left his bouncing unnoticed.  The Judge as he appeared robed on the Judgement-seat cut a rather grotesque figure.  His coiffure was constructed upon an admixture of two or three orders of hat-architecture, a tripartition of the billy-cock, the shovel, and cocked-hat.  It was not unlike the “black cap” in which Judges pass capital sentences, but it was winged, padded, enlarged and ornamented in such a manner as to be unrecognisable. “

Judge Willis’ own contribution to this newly-minted representative democracy was rather equivocal. He declared that the elections were constitutionally invalid because they had not received the Royal assent, even though he was sure that it would be received in due course and even though the Colonial Office had strongly encouraged the holding of municipal elections.  As a result, the new Town Corporation was unable to levy rates for some time.  Furthermore, the candidates split quickly along class, sectarian and ‘party’ lines to the extent that cases were launched in Judge Willis’ court when disagreements amongst councillors reached such a pitch that they refused to sit together in the same room!


All in all, happy times.  Welcome to the Lord Mayorship, Robert Doyle (but don’t even THINK about reintroducing cars to Swanston Street!)


David Scoullar’s uncompleted Ph D thesis in SLV

Bernard Barrett The Civic Frontier: the origin of local communities and local Government in Victoria

M. M. H. Thompson The Seeds of Democracy