Summary information on parliamentary government, elections and periods in office
Summary information on Parliamentary Government in New South Wales
Parliament is the key institution in the system of representative government in the state of New South Wales. It is the link between democratic elections and the formal machinery of state government, and the forum through which government is held accountable to the people of New South Wales; see parliamentary system. Although the general role of parliament is clear, the structure and operation of parliament in New South Wales has a number of distinctive features:
- The New South Wales Parliament is bicameral: Bicameral parliaments have two houses; a lower house from which the premier is chosen and on which the government depends for its continuation in office; and an upper house which can undertake a variety of functions but which usually concentrates on reviewing legislation. The lower house of the New South Wales Parliament is the Legislative Assembly, and the upper house is the Legislative Council.
- ‘Parliament’ and ‘legislature’: The term parliament is usually used to refer to the two chambers of the New South Wales Parliament, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. Before a law can be made in New South Wales, it must gain support from a majority of members in both chambers. For this reason, parliament is often referred to as the legislature. But parliament (and law making) includes the executive branch of government; laws cannot be implemented without the consent of the Governor of New South Wales, acting in the name of the Crown on the advice of the premier and other ministers. Part of the inheritance of a British-derived parliamentary system is that the executive retains control over much of the legislative process in parliament.
Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council
These two chambers of the New South Wales Parliament have very different histories and perform different functions. The relations between the chambers have sometimes been stormy and there were several attempts to abolish the Legislative Council before its reconstitution as a directly elected chamber in 1978.
The Legislative Assembly has been the most important link between the people of New South Wales and their government since the members of the Legislative Assembly were first elected in 1856. Under a parliamentary system, governments must gain and maintain support from a majority of members elected to the Legislative Assembly.
- 1856 to the present: Information on each New South Wales Legislative Assembly general election from 1856 can be found in the ‘Elections’ section of this website. Summary information on the electoral system used for Assembly elections and on the role of parties in the Assembly is set out in the pages on elections and parties in the ‘Summaries’ section of this website dealing with New South Wales.
- More information on the Legislative Assembly: Details of the history and operation of the Legislative Assembly can be found in David Clune and Gareth Griffith, Decision and Deliberation: The Parliament of New South Wales 1856-2003, (Sydney: Federation Press, 2006, ISBN 186287591X); and Anne Twomey, The Constitution of New South Wales, (Sydney: Federation Press, 2004, ISBN 1862875162), and in the notes for the entry of each general election for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly on this website.
The Legislative Council began as an advisory body to the governor of the colony of New South Wales, and predates the coming of self-government for the colony in 1856.
- 1856-1934: In 1856, the Legislative Council became the upper house of the New South Wales Parliament; it was intended as a conservative brake on popularly elected governments based on majorities in the Legislative Assembly. Its members were appointed for life by the government of the day.
- 1934-1978: From 1934 until 1978, the 60 members of the Legislative Council were indirectly elected for staggered twelve year terms (a quarter of the members retiring every three years) by the members of the Legislative Assembly and the non-retiring members of the Legislative Council using a system of proportional representation; see the notes for the first election for the Legislative Council in 1978.
- 1978 to the present: Since 1978, the members Legislative Council have been directly elected by proportional representation using the single transferable vote method at statewide elections held at the same time as general elections for the Legislative Assembly; see the notes for the first direct election for the Legislative Council in 1978. Information on each New South Wales Legislative Council election from 1978 can be found in the ‘Elections’ section of this website. Making the Legislative Council directly accountable to the electorate has changed the role of the Council, and given it the legitimacy to be more involved in scrutinizing government legislation and the activities of the government.
- More information on the Legislative Council: Details of the history and operation of the Legislative Council can be found in David Clune and Gareth Griffith, Decision and Deliberation: The Parliament of New South Wales 1856-2003, (Sydney: Federation Press, 2006, ISBN 186287591X); and Anne Twomey, The Constitution of New South Wales, (Sydney: Federation Press, 2004, ISBN 1862875162).
The New South Wales Legislative Assembly and parliamentary support for governments
This website has information on the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and the pattern of support that governments have had in the Assembly since 1856. The information is summarized in the table and subject headings set out below:
- Dates of general elections for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly since 1856: Parliamentary terms have been fixed at four year since 1995; the shortest parliament was the one formed after the January 1858 election and dissolved in June 1859 (see the notes on these elections in the 'Elections' section of this website.)
- Number of seats in the Legislative Assembly: The Legislative Assembly began with 54 members to represent a settler population in colonial New South Wales of fewer than 290,000; it now has 93 members to represent a population of more than 6.7 million. Over the period since 1856, the number of Legislative Assembly members grew to 141 in 1891 in response to population growth, but was pegged at 125 between 1894 and 1901. Federation and the creation of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1901 prompted a reduction in the membership of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly to 90 members, a number which was maintained until the 1947 election. There were small increases until 1989 when the Assembly was increased to 109 members, only to shrink to 99 members in 1991, and 93 members at elections since 1999. (For commentary on the relationship between the relative stability of parliamentary membership in spite of the extensive growth in the number of ministers, see Bruce Stone 'Size and Executive-Legislative Relations in Australian Parliaments', Australian Journal of Political Science, 33(1), March 1998: 37-55.)
- Support for the government formed after each general election: Once a general election for the Legislative Assembly has been held, the existing government is confirmed in office or, if it looses the support of a majority of members in the Legislative Assembly, it is replaced by another government. If the extent of support for the government in the Legislative Assembly after the election is not clear -- something which was often the case in the days before the emergence of disciplined political parties -- the process of determining whether a government had majority support in the Legislative Assembly could take some time (see government after election). Government support can fall into two broad categories shown by the combination of the two columns under this heading:
- majority and coalition support: Governments with a majority in the Legislative Assembly can derive that support from a single party (majority support)), or from a coalition of two (and very occasionally more than two) parties. In either case, the government has a secure majority in the Legislative Assembly -- assuming the coalition arrangement persists -- and has the numbers to regulate the business of the Assembly.
- minority and minority coalition support: Governments may hold office even though they do not control a party or a coalition majority in the Legislative Assembly. Such governments are called minority governments and remain in office because of the support of independent members or minor parties who do not wish to become part of the government (become ministers), but are willing to support the government. This support may be conditional on the government following certain policies or changing the way the government organizes the business of the Legislative Assembly. Minority governments can fall if the independents or minor parties withdraw their support for the government in the Legislative Assembly on a matter of confidence.
- Party of the premier in office after the election: As with the formation of a new government after an election, the selection of a premier may de delayed until well after the election if it is unclear which party has majority support in the assembly, or if there is dispute between coalition parties over the choice of premier. The premier is usually the leader of the party with with the most seats in the assembly, or the leader of the larger party in a two party coalition.
- If coalition government, coalition party: The coalition party listed under this heading is regarded as the minor partner in the coalition. While coalition parties in government usually control a majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly, it is possible to have a minority coalition government.
- Number of seats held by governing party or coalition: The entries in this column refer to the number of seats held by the governing party or coalition in the Legislative Assembly. Before the emergence of disciplined parties in the 1890s, it is hard to make precise statements about the number of members supporting the government. For this reason, the entries before 1890 are shown as zero. For information on elections before 1890, see the entries for each general election before 1890 in the 'Elections' section of this website.
- Seat share of governing party or coalition: This provides the same information as the previous column but expressed as a percentage of the total number of seats in the Legislative Assembly; the same disclaimer applies to elections before 1890. Governments with a seat share of more than fifty percent are majority governments. Governments with fifty percent or fewer seats, are minority governments; a government with exactly fifty percent of the membership of the Legislative Assembly has to provide a speaker for the Assembly whose vote can only be called upon when the government and combined opposition vote is tied. By providing the speaker from its own ranks, the governing party or coalition loses its majority; in such circumstances, a government can provide the speaker and become a minority government, or it can find an obliging independent or minor party member who is willing to become speaker and use his or her casting vote to support the government.
Sources and references
The summary information on this page has been compiled from records in the Australian Government and Politics Database at the University of Western Australia. The individual records for each general election and period in office in New South Wales -- available through this website -- include references to sources and references. The Government of New South Wales sponsored a wide range of publications on New South Wales politics and government as part of the celebrations in 2006 for 150 years of self-government in New South Wales, (see Sesquicentenary of responsible government in NSW), which provide more detailed information on the history, politics and government of New South Wales than is available from this website.
Much more information on parliament in New South Wales can be found in David Clune and Gareth Griffith, Decision and Deliberation: The Parliament of New South Wales 1856-2003, (Sydney: Federation Press, 2006, ISBN 186287591X); and Anne Twomey, The Constitution of New South Wales, (Sydney: Federation Press, 2004, ISBN 1862875162) which are the sources for much of the material on this webpage.