Formally entitled the ‘Imperial Act for the better government of Her Majesty’s Australian colonies’, this statute (13 and 14 Vict. c. 59 of 1850) was passed by the British parliament largely through the efforts of Earl Grey, the British secretary of state for war from 1846 to 1852, to encourage free trade and federal systems in the British colonies. Grey had been influenced by reports from the British high commissioner in Canada, Lord Durham, on intercolonial free trade.

There was, however, little enthusiasm for federation in Australia; indeed, in the Port Phillip District the desire to separate from New South Wales was pivotal. South Australia and Van Diemen’s Land were more concerned with establishing representative government, already in place in New South Wales. Faced with antipodean lack of interest, even hostility, Grey put aside the federation issue and tailored the Act to the concerns of the colonies. His hope was that ‘better government’ would lay the foundations for eventual federation.

The Act passed following a Privy Council committee recommendation that there should be established in each Australian colony ‘a Governor, a Council, and an Assembly’. A despatch dated 24 May 1849 from Earl Grey to South Australia’s governor Henry Edward Fox Young contained the committee’s report ‘on the subject of the proposed Bill for the Separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales and the extension of Representative institutions to Van Diemen’s Land and South Australia’. The committee considered it desirable for the colonies to be ‘brought into the nearest possible analogy to the constitution of the United Kingdom’, with the exception that each of their legislatures should consist of one house only. Despite the Privy Council’s advice, all Australian colonies chose a bicameral system. South Australia’s parliament was reconfigured, under the powers granted by the Act, to comprise one-third nominated and two-thirds elected members. The Act also enabled the colonies to draw up their own constitutions. A new South Australian constitution was established by the Constitution Act, 1855–56, assented to by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on 24 June 1856.

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Combe, GD, Responsible government in South Australia (Adelaide: Government Printer, 1957; Adelaide: Wakefield Press on behalf of the Sesquicentenary Committee of the Parliament of South Australia, 2009)

Gibbs, RM, A history of South Australia: from colonial days to the present (Adelaide: Southern Heritage, 1999)

State Records SA: GRG 2/1/9, Governor’s Office, Despatches received from the Secretary of State

Ward, JM, Earl Grey and the Australian colonies, 1846–1857: A study of self-government and self-interest (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1958)