Lecture: Crisis and Australian Democracy
Abolition of the Queensland Legislative Council
How democratic was all this?
Given that an appointed chamber is anything but democratic, was the Labor
government right to disregard the outcome of the 1917 referendum? Was it in its
rights to stack the council with its own nominees? And what of the quaint set of
circumstances in which a partisan speaker acts as Governor?
Was Queensland more democratic as a result? Not quite. There were far fewer
electors in country electorates than in city electorates, and it was in the bush that
Labor had its solid support, so there was little incentive to alter the electorates. It
ruled unbroken from 1933 to 1957.
It is worth noting that NSW has twice tried to abolish its own legislative council, in
1925 and the second time as recently as 1961, but on each occasion some Labor
members declined to vote themselves out of a job, and crossed the floor. The
difference in Queensland was that Members of the Council were unpaid.
The Great Depression
The economic collapse that began in 1929 was especially severe in Australia as prices
for wheat and wool, the main exports, fell sharply.
Governments had borrowed heavily from overseas and were now struggling to meet
interest payments as receipts from taxes declined.
Governments had to cut back on spending, which threw even more people out of
work. By mid-1932, unemployment reached 30 per cent – and at first there was no
government help for the jobless.
Agitation from the left, in the shape of the Communist Party, and from the Right, in
the form of the New Guard and other paramilitary groups, made democratic
government look increasingly fragile.
The Labor Party under James Scullin had been elected to office just as the storm
clouds gathered in 1929, and most of the Labor members were suspicious of the
‘sound finance’ school: they had been elected, after all, to protect workers’ wages and
conditions and now they were being urged to cut wages as wel