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History of parliamentary democracy in Western Australia

The Parliament of Western Australia, like all other Australian Parliaments and those of many commonwealth countries, is based on the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. An important consideration has been the granting of the franchise, or right to vote, for all citizens.

Western Australia inherited the English system of government and law when it was colonised in 1829. At that time, Western Australian Governors were appointed directly by the sovereign (king) on the advice of the government of the United Kingdom. These Governors had wide-ranging and almost autocratic powers, including the control of the British military and naval forces stationed in the colony.

The colony’s first legislative body was the Legislative Council, which initially met on 7 February 1832. It was presided over by the first Governor of Western Australia, Captain James Stirling, who nominated four other members to his executive. 

Between 1850 and 1868, Western Australia was a penal colony under the Australian Colonies Act 1850, which denied it the opportunity to adopt representative government, or responsible government, like the colonies in the other states. 

As the nineteenth century progressed, some Western Australians agitated for more say in the running of the colony. In 1870, Western Australia was granted representative government, with the Legislative Council consisting of 12 elected members and six nominated by the Governor. In 1890, Western Australia was granted responsible government under the Constitution Act 1889 resulting in the establishment of a bicameral (two-house) system of Parliament with elected membership only in the Legislative Assembly. The first sitting of the 15-member Legislative Council and the newly created 30-member Legislative Assembly was on 30 December 1890. The Governor continued to appoint members of the Legislative Council for a short time.

In 1899, Western Australia was one of the first legislatures in the world to grant women the vote. In fact, on 31 July 1900, women voted in the referendum, which showed support for Western Australia to become an original state in the Federation of Australia from 1 January 1901. In 1920, women also became eligible to sit in the WA Parliament. In 1921, Edith Cowan became the first woman to be elected to the Parliament of Western Australia and to an Australian Parliament.

Aboriginal people were not granted full voting rights until 1962. In 1980, Ernie Bridge was the first Aboriginal person to be elected to the Legislative Assembly and in 1986, to be appointed as a minister.

Until the 1964 election, only those citizens who satisfied a property requirement were entitled to vote in Legislative Council elections. It was not until 1984 that universal suffrage was extended to all citizens to vote in local government elections.

A system of proportional representation was introduced for the 1989 election for the Legislative Council. Proportional voting is based on a candidate obtaining a certain quota of votes in an electorate. This system of voting allows minor parties to be represented as the electoral support for a party roughly reflects the number of seats won by that party at an election. Proportional voting varies from the voting system in place in the Legislative Assembly elections which is known as preference voting.

In the Legislative Assembly, to win a seat, a candidate must gain more than 50 per cent of the formal votes after first preferences and other preferences are distributed. The introduction of preference voting (sometimes called the alternative vote) dates back to 1907. From 1909, it was made compulsory to distribute preferences to each candidate contending for a seat, or district. Western Australia is the jurisdiction with the longest history of preference voting in the world.

In terms of another democratic consideration, Western Australia introduced compulsory enrolment by all citizens to vote in 1919. Western Australia was a latecomer to compulsory voting, which did not apply until the 1939 Legislative Assembly election. However, voting was compulsory for the 1933 statewide referendum, when two-thirds of Western Australia voted to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia.