Why is 22 May 1856 an Important Date for NSW?

Why is 22 May 1856 an Important Date for NSW?

On 22 May 1856, the Legislative Assembly sat for the first time as a fully elected lower house in a newly formed bi-cameral Parliament of New South Wales.

Before this, NSW had a partly elected and partly appointed Legislative Council with little power to make lasting decisions. If the NSW Governor opposed one of the bills passed by the Legislative Council, he had the power to dissolve the Council and refer these bills to the British Parliament for approval. By the mid-19th century, this had begun to cause friction in a British colony that had ceased convict transportation and had a fast-growing population of free men and women.

As the call for legislative independence grew, William Charles Wentworth, a wealthy landowner and newspaper proprietor whose mother was a convict and father the Colony’s Principal Surgeon, became a strong advocate for responsible self-government in NSW. In 1853, the committee he chaired drafted a new constitution which would provide a fully elected Legislative Assembly and an appointed Legislative Council for NSW based on the British Westminster system of government. This meant that the Government of NSW would be formed in the Legislative Assembly by the political party or group that won the majority of seats in that House and therefore the Government would be responsible, or accountable to, Parliament.


William Charles Wentworth
(image from State Library of Queensland)


This proposed Constitution Act was approved by the British Parliament. The new bicameral legislature of New South Wales, with 21 Members of the Legislative Council nominated by the Governor and 54 elected Legislative Assembly Members, sat for the first time on 22 May 1856.

Although there has been much constitutional change since 1856, the core of William Charles Wentworth’s vision for NSW remains. He became known as the “father” of the New South Wales Constitution and MPs as well as visitors to the Parliament can see his portrait hanging in the Legislative Assembly Chamber.