Skip to main content

The settler colonies: Australia

After the first vessels carrying convicts landed at Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia in January 1788, British settlers - initially convicts but later voluntary immigrants - continued to arrive throughout the early 19th century.

Following the advice in the 1839 report of the Canadian governor-general Lord Durham, the British government embarked on a project to give the settler colonies what is known as responsible government. 

Colonial government

An Act of Parliament in 1842 decreed that the original penal colony of New South Wales would be ruled by a governor working with a legislative council, the majority of whose members would be elected.

The penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania), Western Australia and South Australia were established as separate settlements in the early 1830s. However, well into the 1840s all three were ruled by more direct government through a governor and an appointed council.

Government Act

Parliament's Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850 made important changes. A new colony, Victoria, was created in the south-eastern part of New South Wales, along with a majority-elected legislative council.

It established similar elected councils in Van Diemen's Land, South Australia and Western Australia.

It also split off a northern section of New South Wales to form a new colony – Queensland - with responsible government.

Constitutions were drafted to make each colony's government responsible to its particular legislature.  The UK Parliament enacted these measures by statute in 1855.

Federation and Commonwealth

Federation, which had been achieved in Canada in 1867, took longer, but provincial political leaders eventually submitted a draft Bill to Parliament, which was quickly passed in 1900.

From 1 January 1901 a federal government made up of the six states in the Commonwealth of Australia was created, all overseen by a governor-general as representative of the monarch.

The federation achieved complete autonomy from the British Parliament in 1942, when Australia's legislature ratified the 1931 Statute of Westminster.

Did you know?

Did you know?

Convicts were transported to Australia because America was no longer an option. Parliament passed the 'Transportation Act' in 1718 and between then and 1775, some 49,000 convicts were removed to the American colonies. Australia only received around 29,500 between 1787 and 1820.