This paper was delivered at the 2007 National Labour History Conference in Melbourne, where the prominent liberal historian who commented upon it confessed he had not read the book it was based on. The paper brings into focus the book’s argument about an alternative popular basis for representative government developed since 1833 by radical intellectuals in partnership with the workingmen’s movement. It was published in Julie Kimber, Peter Love and Phillip Deery (eds) Labour Traditions, ASSLH, Melbourne, 2007.

Was There an Alternative to Liberal Representative Government in 1856?

‘To revolutionise Australia’ – that was how Edward John Hawksley in early 1854 described the strategy of the radicals in New South Wales. He was the editor of The People’s Advocate, which he founded in 1848, but his political involvement in the colony stretched back at least to 1839, when as a recently arrived immigrant he had written a letter to the Catholic radical paper, The Australasian Chronicle, arguing that the only way to achieve a democratic legislative assembly would be to form a working-class political organisation. Earlier, probably during the surge of working-class militancy after the Reform Act, he is reported to have had a connection with radical journalism in Nottingham. So Hawksley ought to have known what he was talking about. Yet, believing as most of us do in the foundational liberalism of our political culture, we find it very difficult to take seriously his description of radical strategy. In this paper I suggest that we should, and that Hawksley’s kind of democratic radicalism expressed a major political current in the lead up to parliamentary government.1

Of course, by revolution Hawksley did not mean a bloody uprising or a coup d’état. What he had in mind was the achievement of popular rule by the combination of agitation, education, and electoral campaigning that had been typical of democratic political forces in Britain and other places since the late eighteenth century. In New South Wales it had been developing since 1833, although for the succeeding ten years, when there was no elected institution of governance, the emphasis had to be on agitation and education, and this was a significant fact for the development of democratic practice in the colony, as we shall see.

For over a century and a half we have lived politically as citizens of a liberal, representative state, and we have grown accustomed to thinking of that system of government as equivalent to democracy. We have also become resigned to the political distance that separates what we want from what our representatives want.

However, if we are to understand what Hawksley and his fellow radicals meant by democracy we have to recognise that they were not so resigned. We have to recover the uneasy feelings that liberal representation inspired in them, and the various ways that they sought to allay that uneasiness. Their solution was to engage with practices aimed at ensuring that social power was not removed from the sphere of popular determination. Those of us experienced in pressure groups and social movements will be familiar with these practices: they included public deliberation, accountability, delegation, frequent elections, rotation of offices, and so on. Further, they sought through agitation and education to create a political culture of democracy, called by Hawksley ‘the irrepressible force of common sentiment’.2 Together, these practices and this democratic culture would, they hoped, lay the basis for a representative system based on popular sovereignty and equality among citizens.

That they had reason to be uneasy about representation was manifest in the derogatory and rejectionist statements about democracy made by their opponents. Wentworth notoriously said, when introducing his bill for the New South Wales constitution in 1853, that ‘he had no wish to sow the seeds of a future democracy’.3 James Macarthur, in a heated exchange with the radicals at a public meeting told the audience that:

They had to decide whether they would have the rights of Britons or that vile and bastard democracy which had led to so many evil results in different parts of the world [hisses and groans]. Would they stand up for their rights as Britons or follow those abstract rights by which the cannibals of New Zealand twenty years ago and the savages of these wilds would be admitted to a share of government? [several voices cried: “we’re not savages”] 4

And the Sydney Herald came clean about the class interest at the base of this hatred of democracy when it said that ‘the labouring people’ were not entitled to have a say in how the wealth of the colony should be spent.5 In making these statements, conservatives were not being particularly outrageous; they were doing no more than expressing the political philosophy behind the development of government as a system of representative institutions. Since the English, French and American revolutions, ‘representative government [to its supporters] was not one kind of democracy; it was an essentially different and furthermore preferable form of government’ – one that would prevent the poor, the labouring classes, having equal citizenship rights with them.6

It helps to understand the strength of popular democracy in the colony to recall the political conditions that gave rise to it. Let us look first at the period from the early 1830s to the early 1840s when the institutions of public life – an independent press, public meetings, and voluntary organisations – assumed substantial form, and when the movement for self-government emerged. The critical factor here was the entire absence of any representative element in government, including municipal government. This meant that for ten formative years of colonial public life, the creation of public opinion and the rallying of public support was unaffected by elections. Speeches were made, articles written, organisations set up, signatures gathered on petitions, and delegations sent to the authorities both in Sydney and in Westminster, but nobody ever came before the public to declare that they should represent them in government. Similarly, the idea of representation was simply absent from public discourse. The fact that the British constitution embraced representation, and that the 1832 Reform Act had renovated parliamentary government in the mother country, had no discernible effect of public life at this time in New South Wales, where a struggle developed instead to ensure that the deliberations of public meetings dealing with such issues as immigration, land policy, and the law of master and servant were conducted transparently and inclusively. From 1835 until the early 1840s the Australian Patriotic Association, often mistakenly equated with the voice of the colony on the question of self-government, was bitterly divided because the wealthy controlling clique deserted these principles of public life as it met increasing opposition from ‘the trades union party’.7

Did this situation change when a partly elected Legislative Council began to meet in June 1843? Obviously in one respect it did. The legislature, because it was formally constituted for the purpose, now outranked the public meeting as the legitimate forum for deliberation. Moreover, elections were alternative occasions for mobilisation, feeding into a process that elevated prominent citizens and contributed to social difference, instead of integrating the people, as common agitation aimed to do. But in another respect the situation did not change. The Constitution Act of 1842, according to JD Lang’s Colonial Observer, resulted in 'the Bastard-Parliament of New South Wales'.8 It was not legitimate, at least not to democrats. WA Duncan in his paper, The Weekly Register came to the view that it was useless to consider reforming such a constitution; it should be suspended entirely. The trades union paper, The Guardian, railed against a system that allowed the working man to be ‘legislated for by a class entirely antagonistic to his interests and claims’.9 So, irrespective of its record of class-legislation (that is, laws favouring the pastoralist ruling class), the Legislative Council’s very constitution gave representation a bad name. The majority of people could not vote, an even greater majority could not be elected, and the seats were distributed so as to disadvantage everybody’s interests except those of the pastoralists.

So the 1830s and the 1840s, as well as the early 1850s (the latter being the few years that historians like to concentrate on) were the crucible in which popular and representative traditions of public life were fused to create a democratic movement. To this movement and its impact we turn now, focusing, firstly, on the tradition of public agitation by the trades delegates, secondly, on the model of democratic public life created by the radical intellectuals, ‘the public meeting men’, and thirdly on the linkages between mass activity and representation in this period.10

We discuss firstly the emergence of an alternative public among working-men. In this period, working-class politics had four notable characteristics: it had substance, durability, political aims, and organisation. Before the recent work by Michael Quinlan and his colleagues, the evidence about working-class employment-related activity was negligible.11 We now know that before 1850 there were 560 cases of collective activity by workers, mostly in the 1830s and 40s, and that there were 102 attempts to form trades societies. The latter usually lasted for just a few years – or less – before they had to be re-established, with the result that there was only a handful functioning in any one year. In Sydney, from 1840, the evidence suggests ten or twelve. The building trades were the most successful, and the stonemasons seem to have contributed most of the activists. Press accounts of society events suggest forty or so active members in a typical society, and, recalling the flux of colonial life, there must have been a large turn-over of members. The total membership in Sydney is only occasionally glimpsed; 350 turned up on a cold and rainy night in 1854 to set up a working-class newspaper, but when the societies combined to call public meetings many thousands attended. If there were 300 to 400 active members in Sydney in 1846, that figure would have been about ten per cent of the city’s tradesmen, and my guess is that apart from the hiccup of the gold rushes this was the proportion throughout the 1840s and early 50s. If so, it was comparable to the situation in the United States at that time, and not much worse than present-day coverage by unions of workers in private employment.

Despite the unstable existence of the trades societies and the turn-over of membership there was a surprising degree of continuity among their leaders. More than a dozen tradesmen can be traced from the early 1840s to the early 1850s speaking at public meetings or participating in radical organisations. They were among the ‘delegates of the trades’, the term given to the group who met together from time to time to consider their common problems as workers and to organise public meetings. This was an enduring tradition. We know they met in 1833, in the early 1840s, in 1846 and 1849, and in 1854 when workers were returning to Sydney from the gold fields. Moreover, the activity of the delegates of the trades was as much directed towards the public as it was towards the labour market. They were impelled to action usually by government plans to lower wages or by government neglect of the unemployed. On one memorable occasion they fiercely opposed a new master and servant act, which they correctly interpreted as an attempt to gag them. The fact that the government was prepared to go that far indicated the growing political muscle of the trades societies, and there came the moment when they felt the need for a permanent organisation that would consolidate the trades and reach out to the middle classes. So was born in 1843 the Mutual Protection Association, which in terms of the development of democratic politics in Australia was much more important than the New South Wales Pastoralists Association. It published its own weekly newspaper, which took its place in a line of radical and working-class journalism, stretching from 1838 to 1858. There was never a week when a politicised worker could not buy one, sometimes two, papers advocating his interests.

I have emphasised the substantial, continuing, political and organised activity of the trades societies in public life in order to show that the democratic movement before 1856 had a particular social composition – that support for democracy was not assembled randomly from individuals with a simple affinity to it. By the same token, the democracy that they affirmed in their organisations and proposed for the state was not simply a set of ideas, but a model of acting democratically. It was the radical intellectuals – ‘the friends of the people’ – who articulated its principles and embedded it in the alternative public of the working men.12 Johann Lhotsky, Richard Hipkiss, WA Duncan, James McEachern, Henry Macdermott, Richard Driver, Edward Hawksley – these were the most notable radicals – took the idea of the public meeting and used it to promote the practice of democracy in public. This is the second aspect of my argument.

This democratic practice, constantly defended from 1835 in the writings and speeches of the ‘public meeting men’, had three main characteristics. First, the radicals fought for deliberation in public, that is, in properly advertised and conducted public meetings. This would break with the custom of taking decisions behind closed doors, in suspicious ‘hole and corner meetings’, or in a legislative chamber from which the public felt remote. Public meetings at this time were very numerous and well-attended, rivalling the official legislature as the main forum for political debate. The violence of street politics (in the 1840s there were 14 street riots, in which three men died, 14 directed occasions of political tumult, and six spontaneous incidents of actual or potential violence in political settings) added a menacing dynamic to politics which the radicals both feared and exploited. Second, if certain members of the audience were authorised to take further action, they were to be regarded as delegates, with a responsibility to report back to another meeting. Delegation, not representation, was the radical idea of governance. Third, when the inevitable disagreements arose over policies they were to be settled by conciliation and compromise, in public, not by class legislation favouring the pastoral and urban business oligarchy. Taken together, these principles promoted an active engagement by working-class citizens with politics; they restricted elite manoeuvrings, and opened the door to popular sovereignty.

This democratic model of politics made perfect sense before a representative element was added to the authoritarian government of the colony in the early 1840s, and even subsequently it enabled unenfranchised colonists to exert pressure on Macquarie Street and Westminster. Moreover, it could be adapted to representative government, or rather, representative government could be adapted to it. This adaptation, the third aspect of my argument, was the most important contribution of the radicals and trades societies: a democratic practice of representation, one that is only visible when the Legislative Councillors and the middle-class liberals are not the sole occupants of the public stage.

The challenge of representation for the radicals began in 1842, when the first elections were held in Sydney for the city’s municipal council. The conservative press, unwittingly revealing the nature of this challenge, ridiculed the ‘usefulness of public meetings’, and welcomed representation as a way to move beyond ‘the public of large and promiscuous assemblies’.13 But then there was an unexpected development. The election campaign, which came after three years of intense democratic agitation via public meetings, allowed the trades delegates and radical intellectuals to re-organise their agitational expertise geographically. From that moment, the city’s six wards became the focus of political mobilisation. Moreover, much to the surprise of the colonial Tories and the Governor, the colony’s first election was a victory for the tradesmen and shopkeepers of the city, the voters electing ‘practical men’ and ‘public meeting men’ in preference to ‘gentlemen’. From that moment too radicals accepted the idea that representation could be made to work for them. They decided that election campaigns would be another avenue to create ‘the people’ through political action, and believed that the popular will thus revealed could drive the process of representation. This understanding crystallised between 1848 and 1855 when, in seven of the eight elections to choose representatives for the seat of Sydney, the radicals selected and brought out the vote for the successful candidates.

In the meantime, there were other important innovations in the democratic approach to representation. Almost fifty years before the Labor parties began endorsing candidates, the working men of Sydney in 1843 adopted a program for the city council elections, invited candidates to answer questions at meetings where their adherence to the program could be measured, and endorsed those whose answers were satisfactory. The body in charge of this process, the Mutual Protection Association, boasted that every one of the candidates it endorsed was returned, and that six of the Councillors were members of the Association. This procedure was foreshadowed in its Prospectus, which made clear that it was organised to intervene in the public sphere on behalf of the working classes, and to find allies among the small producers and manufacturers.

The MPA fell apart in 1845 but three years later, at the next general elections for the Legislative Council, the same political forces returned to try to defeat Wentworth for the seat of Sydney. This was when the ‘free election’ model, famously associated with Henry Parkes, was formulated, but it clearly built on the MPA’s intervention and the earlier radical successes in the municipal elections.14 By ‘free election’ the radicals meant that the election would not be polluted by the candidate spending his money to buy votes, and consequently that the vote would be mobilised in terms of principles not connections and influence. It also meant that the election committee would take the initiative in seeking out the candidate on this basis – in effect a form of endorsement. So it was that the radicals in 1848 sought out Robert Lowe, who agreed to stand, and successfully got him elected, albeit behind Wentworth. Parkes called this victory ‘the birthday of Australian democracy’.15 In radical circles what was understood to have been achieved on this occasion was a ward-based campaign that mobilised working men through an intensive series of meetings in local pubs, that was ‘free’ from the influence of the candidate or other ‘notables’, and that therefore allowed them to imagine a government in which accountability to the people was achieved through linking the process of representation to the expression of the popular will in public meetings and organisations.

All this happened before the era of political parties and before the insertion of issues into election campaigns by social movements. Candidates, especially in the agricultural and pastoral electorates, were powerful men who expected the voters to trust them because of their wealth, their status, or their religion. But trust, according to Hawksley, was a term meant to limit the franchise, to preclude the accountability of representatives, and to legitimise the idea that representatives had to come from a superior class. Against these essentially aristocratic ideas the democratic ideology proclaimed by the radicals offered voting as a right of all men, candidates who would be delegates reporting to their electorates, an alliance between the caucus of progressives in the parliament and the organisations of the people, and candidates who had experience in those organisations.

So, was there an alternative to liberal representative government in 1856? In 1855, Hawksley wrote in The People’s Advocate that ‘what is called the radical party … is really the only liberal and progressive party.’16 The ‘other’ liberals, the businessmen and professionals who had led the anti-transportation movement and campaigned for an anti-democratic constitution in 1853, had no public political life to match the democratic political movement created by twenty years of radical agitation and organisation among the working men of the colony. So, as the election of 1856 approached, when radical intellectuals and politicised working men stepped forth to mobilise the people in the campaign, to seek out suitable candidates, and to run the campaign as a defence of radical principles, they were offering to revolutionise the ruling practice of politics at that time, the liberal model of representation, in which elections mobilized individuals, and the formation of the people, the articulation of a public interest, was left to the elected representatives. There was, of course, no chance of the radicals forming an alternative government, but, to their credit, they had placed land reform and democratic reform of the constitution on the agenda of the new parliament.


1. The argument is based on my book, The Southern Tree of Liberty – The Democratic Movement in New South Wales before 1856, Annandale, Sydney, Federation Press, 2006. In this paper I provide references for direct quotations. People’s Advocate, 22 April 1854.

2. People’s Advocate, 8 December 1849.

3. ACV Melbourne, William Charles Wentworth, Brisbane, 1934, p. 81.

4. Australasian Chronicle, 1 March 1842.

5. Australasian Chronicle, 18 October 1839 (reporting the Herald).

6. Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p.3.

7. Sydney Gazette, 26 November 1835.

8. Colonial Observer, 21 December 1842.

9. Guardian, 20 July 1844.

10. Sydney Gazette, 21 July 1838.

11. M. Quinlan, M. Gardner, and P. Akers, ‘Reconsidering the Collective Impulse: Formal Organization and Informal Associations Among Workers in the Australian Colonies, 1795-1850’, Labour/Le Travail, 52, Fall 2003, pp. 137-80.

12. Australasian Chronicle, 7 June 1842.

13. Australian, 19 September 1842; Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1842.

14. The Elector, published by the radical committee, is the best source for the ‘free election’ model.

15. Parkes in People’s Advocate, 10 February 1849.

16. People’s Advocate, 24 February 1855.