Just as occurred in 1998, when the numbers of seats in the Parliament were reformed, 137 years earlier a Constitution Amendment Bill caused considerable public debate and petitioning of the Tasmanian Parliament. While 1998 saw the Tasmanian Parliament reduced in size from 54 to 40 Members, in 1861 an increase in the number of Members of both Houses was proposed. The proposal was that the 15 Member Legislative Council would increase to 16 and the 30 Member House of Assembly would become 32.
The 1861 Bill was introduced into the House of Assembly on 20 August and reached the Legislative Council on 3 September 1861, with its second reading taking place there on 16 October. Even before the debate in the House of Assembly several petitions were tabled supporting and opposing the increase. In fact, at the end of the session it was recorded in the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Assembly that 237 had been lodged.
Although 37 of these were printed, several of the more noteworthy petitions tabled were not. This is hardly surprising because over a dozen so-called petitions carried only a single signature! Nevertheless, on 26 September Thomas George Gregson (MHA Richmond) tabled ten separate petitions. One of these was given No. 134 and contained the names and signatures of 2,965 ‘inhabitants of Hobart Town’. They were in favour of the increase in parliamentarians, which was described in the ‘prayer’, or request of the petition, as a ‘grand and paramount political necessity of the Colony’.
The petition was not only interesting because of the high number of names from the relatively low population (at the time the island’s population was still under 90,000). The Hobart Town Advertiser described it as ‘most beautifully engrossed, mounted on rollers and when opened out [it] extended further than from the end of the Chamber to the other’. Sadly, the ‘rollers’ suggested here have not survived, unless they are the wooden edges attached at the top, as shown in this photograph. In addition, perhaps the journalist exaggerated the length of the petition or simply referred only to length of the Members-only area of the Chamber. Either way, the petition only measures about 15m long.
Despite the petition’s so-called ‘beauty’, it was ultimately unsuccessful. On 16 October Thomas Horne (MHA Hobart Town) attempted to adjourn debate on the increase in parliamentary numbers for ‘six months’. Ignoring the innocent wording of Horne’s motion, in parliamentary practice if successful it would have permanently adjourned or ‘killed the Bill’. When voted upon, Horne’s attempt to scuttle the increase in the size of the Parliament was lost at a division by 20:7 votes, the Bill passed and was forwarded to the Legislative Council for its concurrence.
After a speedy and successful passage through the Legislative Council, it seemed inevitable that the prayer in the petition would be met. However, when the Bill was returned with amendments from the Legislative Council, the House of Assembly considered and rejected them. The debate on the proposed increase extended after midnight into the early hours of 18 October and as it did so Horne moved again to stymie the increase in number of parliamentarians. He first proposed a motion that the Bill ‘be read now’, which may have led to more Members voting against the Bill because they didn’t approve of the changes to it, but this was lost by 12:16 votes.
Undaunted, Horne again moved that the Bill be read in six months, and on this occasion he gained greater support. At his second attempt to kill the Bill he succeeded at a division by 16:12 votes. Consequently, the size of the Tasmanian Parliament went unchanged, but did it not remain static for long, as the proposal was successful in 1870. The Tasmanian Parliament reached an apogee of parliamentarians in 1899, when the House of Assembly had 38 Members and the Legislative Council 19 Members. This attractive scrolled petition has survived intact for 145 years!