18 Victoria

Nick Economou

Key terms/names

constitution of Victoria, constitutional reform, cosmopolitanism and wowserism, demographic change, Dick Hamer, economic policy and social policy, electoral systems, party systems and the pattern of government, Henry Bolte, Jeff Kennett, Joan Kirner, John Cain, political economy, regional, rural and metropolitan Victoria, Steve Bracks

The state of Victoria[1] can be thought of as Australia’s ‘second’ state not because of historical chronology (Victoria, previously known as the Port Phillip District, was an administrative province of New South Wales [NSW] until formal separation on 1 June 1851 and was established after both NSW and Tasmania) but rather because of demographics and economics. Victoria is the second most populous state after NSW, and the state’s capital city, Melbourne, is Australia’s second most populous city after Sydney. Victoria provides the second largest tranche of members to the House of Representatives, and the Victorian governor stands second in line to be governor-general should the incumbent vacate the position.Victoria is also important to the national economy, although the nature of its contribution has changed over time. Initially settled (illegally) as an extension of the Van Diemen’s Land fine wool industry by people such as John Batman and Edward and Stephen Henty, Victoria received a massive infusion of free settlers with the official discovery of gold in 1851 – the same year the Port Phillip District was separated from NSW and renamed Victoria.[2] By the 1870s, Melbourne emerged as a major manufacturing centre, and in the 1880s the city experienced a significant real estate boom that was to end in a spectacular crash in the 1890s.[3] At Federation Victoria was a major producer of grains and wool as well as a manufacturer of farming implements, and one of Australia’s landmark industrial disputes occurred at the Sunshine Harvester Works in Melbourne’s western suburbs in 1907 – a dispute that was resolved by Justice Henry Bournes Higgins outlining the concept of a ‘minimum wage’ in his Harvester judgement.[4]Victorian manufacturing was vital to the supply of Australian troops in both world wars. After the Second World War, Melbourne’s armaments manufacturing industry shifted to automobiles, with a race between Ford and General Motors to be the first to develop an Australian car.[5] The consolidation of manufacturing under the auspices of British and American corporations led to Melbourne’s reputation as the preferred home of international capital. As the base for the Australian Council of Trades Union, there was a strong link between the city and the ‘industrial relations club’.For all this industrial activity, the state’s political history was, until comparatively recent times, dominated by conservatives and liberals.[6] Until the 1980s, Labor governments were rare. The state’s politics were invariably a battle between rural conservatives and metropolitan liberals with the nascent Labor Party something of an incidental player (see Table 1).[7]Victoria was the home of such prominent colonial liberals as Henry Bournes Higgins and Alfred Deakin, both of whom were participants in the Federation movement. It was the home of arguably Australia’s greatest liberal-conservative Robert Menzies, and Liberal leader Henry Bolte still holds the record as the state’s longest-serving premier. With the advent of the modern party system, Victoria was often referred to as the ‘jewel in the Liberal crown’. This historical theme stands in stark contrast with more contemporary politics, in which Victoria (and especially Melbourne) is viewed as the epicentre of progressive politics that is governed by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) more often than not, and is arguably the strongest state for the Australian Greens.


The colonisation of the Port Phillip District began with sheep farmers from Van Diemen’s Land such as John Batman and Edward and Stephen Henty making the trip by sea to ‘squat’ on the western plains of what was then part of NSW. The entrepreneurial drive behind this initial land grab, to the cost of both Indigenous people and the authority of the governor of NSW, Richard Bourke, was revisited in 1851 when gold was officially discovered at Warrandyte and a rush of free settlers from around the world descended upon Melbourne.

By the 1870s gold mining went from alluvial activity to deep lead mining undertaken by capitalised mining companies. Those who had rushed to the goldfields but were displaced drifted back to Melbourne’s western suburbs in search of work.[8] By the time of the real estate boom of the 1880s, the vast majority of Victorian residents lived in Melbourne and its suburbs. This demographic characteristic persists: the 2011 Census found that 75 per cent of Victorians live in local government areas classified as metropolitan.[9]

The gold rush reinforced the notion of Victoria as a place for small-scale business operators and entrepreneurs as well as establishing the idea of Melbourne as a cosmopolitan city. The rebellion of miners at Eureka (Ballarat) in 1854 also demonstrated the importance of liberal ideas such as manhood suffrage and no taxation without parliamentary representation, grievances free settler miners had with the colony’s administration. Two years later Victoria obtained a constitution that introduced a Westminster system of parliamentary government.

The new constitution was promulgated in Victoria in 1856. It provided for a Legislative Assembly that would be elected by men over the age of 21 regardless of property ownership. The assumption was that government would be exercised by a ‘prime minister’ and a ministry with the confidence of the majority of the lower house. The Legislative Council would comprise men of property, elected by men of property, who could exercise a powerful veto over the lower house. Parliamentary salaries were not introduced until 1870. Female suffrage was not legislated for until 1908, and the law that prohibited women from standing for election was not abolished until 1924. The property qualifications that applied to the Legislative Council were abolished in 1951.

Political instability was the dominant characteristic of Victorian parliamentary politics from colonial times until a major split in the Labor Party in 1955, which set the basis for a period of Liberal Party dominance through to the 1980s.[10] Prior to 1955, leadership challenges, bitter fights between rural conservatives and urban liberals, and the threat of early elections by a conservative-dominated Legislative Council were the norm in Victorian politics.

The upper house was a source of some controversy during these times. The 1855 constitution gave the Legislative Council powers commensurate with those of the British House of Lords including the power to defeat Appropriation Bills and thus force governments formed in the lower house to early elections. The Legislative Council exercised the power to block supply on 10 occasions, the last time being in 1952 when it brought down a Country Party government.[11]

The 1952 blocking of supply occurred as a result of a political crisis within conservative politics over the state’s electoral laws.[12] Debates about the structure of lower house representation to accommodate rural fears about being overwhelmed by the population of metropolitan Melbourne were arguably the greatest policy controversy in Victorian politics from self-government until the 1950s. At issue was rural malapportionment, where rural voters had greater capacity to elect representatives than metropolitan voters. Rural political interests fought tooth and nail to protect voter inequality, and this split conservative politics. Spectacularly in 1929, the Labor Party was to form a coalition government with the Country Party by promising to protect rural malapportionment, despite the fact that it was Labor voters, clustered in a handful of seats in Melbourne’s industrial western suburbs, who had the weakest voting power in the state.

Labor’s desire to have executive power overrode its opposition to rural malapportionment. The Labor–Country coalition lasted for only a matter of months, and left in its wake a long-lasting bitterness between the Country Party and the main anti-Labor Party of the time (initially the Nationalists, then the United Australia Party, and then the Liberal Party). The most explicit expression of this antipathy was to be found in the refusal of the two anti-Labor parties to form a coalition – a position that was maintained until 1990.[13]

Table 1 Party governments of Victoria 1909 to 2019.
Source: https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/Results/results-historical-vicpremiers.html



Duration of party government

Liberal (Deakinite)

John Murray

8/1/1909 to 9/12/1913

William Watt


George Elmslie

9/12/1913 to 22/12/1913

Liberal (Deakinite)

William Watt

22/12/1913 to 21/3/1917

Alexander Peacock


John Bowser

21/3/1917 to 18/7/1924

Harry Lawson

Alexander Peacock


George Prendergast

18/7/1924 to 18/11/1924


John Allan

18/11/1924 to 20/5/1927


Edmond Hogan

20/5/1927 to 22/11/1928


William McPherson

22/11/1928 to 12/12/1928


Edmond Hogan

12/12/1928 to 19/5/1932

United Australia Party

Stanley Argyle

19/5/1932 to 2/4/1935


Albert Dunstan

2/4/1935 to 14/9/1943


John Cain Sr

14/9/1943 to 18/9/1943


Albert Dunstan

18/9/1943 to 2/10/1945


Ian MacFarlan

2/10/1945 to 21/11/1945


John Cain Sr

21/11/1945 to 20/11/1947


Thomas Hollway

20/11/1947 to 27/6/1950


John McDonald

27/6/1950 to 28/10/1952

Electoral Reform

Thomas Hollway

28/10/1952 to 31/10/1952


John McDonald

31/10/1952 to 17/12/1952


John Cain Sr

17/12/1952 to 7/6/1955


Henry Bolte

7/6/1955 to 8/4/1982

Rupert Hamer

Lindsay Thompson


John Cain Jr

8/4/1982 to 6/10/1992

Joan Kirner

Liberal and National

Jeffrey Kennett

6/10/1992 to 20/10/1999


Steve Bracks

20/10/1999 to 2/12/2010

John Brumby

Liberal and National

Edward (Ted) Baillieu

2/12/2010 to 4/12/2014

Denis Napthine


Daniel Andrews


This also contributed to governmental instability. With the vote split across three parties, absolute majorities in the Legislative Assembly were rare and most of the governments formed between the end of the First World War and the 1950s were minority administrations that could collapse very quickly. Even those governments that did survive struggled to get legislation through a very conservative Legislative Council. So volatile were the times that Labor eventually got the opportunity to govern in its own right, having won a lower house majority in 1947 and again in 1952 as the anti-Labor parties split over proposals to reform the electoral system.[14]

These Labor governments did not last long. In 1949, the Legislative Council blocked supply in protest at Labor’s policy of nationalising the private banks (the federal Labor government had passed legislation to do this in 1947, only for it to be overturned by the High Court). On the second occasion, the Labor Party itself split amidst allegations of communist infiltration of the trade union movement and claims that groups of Labor members recruited to win back communist unions had instead started to turn on Labor members. The willingness of Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, to encourage this anticommunist sentiment within an overwhelmingly Catholic Labor membership added a sectarian element to this internal upheaval.[15]

The impact of the split was devastating for the Victorian ALP. The collapse of the state Labor government was followed by an electoral rout that began an unbroken period from 1955 to 1982 in which the recently formed Liberal Party would be the party of government. For most of this time, the Liberal leader was the conservative Henry Bolte (premier from 1955 to 1972) whose loathing of the left in Victorian politics was matched by his disdain for the Country Party.

Modern Victorian politics

The Labor split in 1955 provided the opportunity for Bolte and the Liberal Party to dominate state politics until the 1980s. It was this period that led to Victoria to be described as ‘the jewel in the Liberal crown’. Bolte led a socially conservative government. His retirement marked a shift towards a more progressive approach as a new generation of urban moderates emerged within the ranks of the Liberal Party. The most prominent of these was Rupert (‘Dick’) Hamer who, as premier, led a government that set about undoing a raft of conservative policies put in place by his predecessor.[16] By 1981, however, Hamer had retired amidst a sense that the Liberal Party had atrophied. In 1982, Labor, under the leadership of John Cain Jr, was elected to government for the first time since 1952. A new era of Victorian politics had begun.[17]

Labor’s success in 1982 showed that the consequences of the 1954–55 split had finally run their course. In 1983, amidst a hail of rotten tomatoes, delegates from the four unions that split from Labor in 1954 were re-admitted to the party, thereby altering the party’s factional balance. It is interesting to note that Labor’s subsequent strong record of electoral success in Victoria dates from the apparent resolution of the split. Meanwhile, there was an end to another old enmity, this time on the part of non-Labor politics. In 1990, and just before the government-changing election in 1992, the Liberal and National parties signed a coalition agreement for the first time.

In contrast to the volatility of the interwar years, and the Liberal dominance from the 1950s, contemporary Victorian politics has seen government shared between Labor and the Liberal–National Coalition. Between 1982 and 2018, Labor exercised power between 1982 and 1992, 1999 and 2010, and from 2014. During these terms in government, there were five premiers: John Cain (1982–91), Joan Kirner (1991–2, and Victoria’s first female premier), Steve Bracks (1999–2008), John Brumby (2008–10) and Daniel Andrews (2014–). The Liberal premiers were Jeff Kennett (1992–9), Ted Baillieu (2010–12) and Denis Napthine (2012–14). The Labor dominance over this period is a noteworthy feature; clearly Victoria is no longer a Liberal jewel.

Table 2 General election statewide primary vote Legislative Assembly, Victoria 1955–2018.
Source: http://elections.uwa.edu.au/index.lasso

Election year

Liberal % (seats)

Country/National % (seats)

ALP % (seats)

Others % (seats)




32.5 (20)






















































































18.9 (0)





10.1 (3)






Table 3 Legislative Council results 1961–2018.
Source: http://elections.uwa.edu.au/index.lasso


Liberal % (seats)

Country % (seats)

ALP % (seats)

Others % (seats)


37.9 (9)






































































34.5 (15)
















(a) Proportional representation system commences
(b) Liberal and National joint ticket

Constitutional reform

The resurgence of Victorian Labor was to have significant consequences for the state’s constitution, with associated consequences for the electoral system and the Legislative Council. In 2002, Labor won its largest ever lower house majority. In addition to winning control of the Assembly, Labor also won a majority in the Legislative Council. Labor had won the Council once before, in 1985, but the overturning of a result in one seat by the Supreme Court and the Liberal victory in the subsequent by-election denied Labor that majority after only a few months.[18] This time there was no question about its majority and, in addition to being certain about getting its legislation through the parliament without amendment, the Bracks government now also had the power to reform the state constitution. At that time, the state constitution could be altered by an Act of the parliament.

Armed with the recommendations of a constitutional convention that it had commissioned as part of its agreement with rural independents who held the balance of power after the 1999 election,[19] the Bracks government introduced the Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Bill 2003 (Vic) to the parliament in 2003. The reformed Victorian constitution is now the only Australian constitution to make explicit reference to the position of premier and to note the subordination of the governor to the premier unless the premier has lost the confidence of the Legislative Assembly. The amended constitution reinforces the idea of the Assembly as the house of government by providing that Appropriation Bills need only to pass the lower house to become law, thereby explicitly removing the Legislative Council’s previous power to block ‘supply’. The Council’s power to amend or reject all other Bills remains, although the new constitution provides for a ‘Disputes Resolution’ mechanism where the two houses can’t agree on a Bill. It also allows the premier to declare a Bill to be ‘Special’ in that its rejection by the upper house could be the trigger for the premier to be able to advise the governor for the need to call an early election. In another diminution of the power of the upper house, the amended constitution provides for fixed four-year terms for both houses and that elections for both houses be held simultaneously.[20]

The amended constitution states that the Legislative Assembly will consist of single representatives from 88 electoral districts (the constitutional time-bomb of a 44-all outcome at the conclusion of an election ticks away), and 40 Legislative Council members to be elected from eight upper house electoral ‘Regions’ each made up of 11 lower house districts. The amended constitution comprises a number of ‘reinforced provisions’ which means that they can now only be altered by way of a constitutional referendum.

Electoral systems and party systems

Victorian electoral laws were amended in 2002. They now require voter equality across all districts and provide for re-districting to occur after every second election, thus finally laying to rest that venerable controversy of rural malapportionment. The Legislative Assembly continues to utilise single-member districts and the alternative vote (known colloquially as ‘preferential voting’). As the upper house requirements clearly involve multi-member electorates given the changes to the constitution, the single transferrable vote (STV) method of proportional representation favoured in Australian upper house electoral systems now applies in Victoria.

This has had consequences for the Victorian party system (see Tables 2 and 3). Between 1955 and 2006 – the first state election to be held under the auspices of the new constitution – Victorian election outcomes in both parliamentary houses were monopolised by the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the National (formerly Country) Party with the occasional independent securing a seat or two in the lower house.[21] The new electoral arrangements for the Legislative Council were predicated on the understanding that the upper house could only be effective as a house of review provided it was not dominated by either Labor or the Coalition. This objective has been achieved; since 2006 neither Labor nor the Coalition have had an upper house majority, with the balance of power being exercised by an increasingly diverse number of minor parties.

Of the parties that have held seats in the upper house since 2006, the Australian Greens have been the most consistent performer. The rise of the Greens has been another significant development in Victorian politics and has been reflected not just in the party’s ability to win seats in the upper house but also its success in winning seats in the Legislative Assembly. In 2010, the Greens won the lower house seat of Melbourne and since then have secured other inner urban seats. The greatest challenge from the Greens occurs in what used to be very safe Labor seats, but it has also been the case that the Greens have won inner urban seats from the Liberal Party as well.

The correlation between lower house districting and demographics indicate that the Greens’ lower house success reflects changes to the population of inner Melbourne. For much of the city’s history the inner north and west were dominated by blue-collar electors voting for the Labor Party. In the post–Second World War period this constituency was augmented by waves of migrants, many of whom were housed in high-rise public housing blocks constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s, the inner city was highly sought after by well-educated professionals attracted to the employment opportunities arising from the transition of inner Melbourne from industrial suburbs to hubs of post-industrial economic activity. The rise of post-secondary education as a major component of the Victorian economy was also a factor, as many key education institutions leading this development are based in or near the central business district.

Significant gentrification of the inner urban suburbs has created the conditions for a Greens-voting constituency. Beyond the inner city the Greens vote falls away and the party’s role in these lower house districts is confined to influencing the outcome between the major parties by way of preference distribution. Notwithstanding this, the Greens now rank alongside the major parties as participants in the Legislative Assembly, thus providing grounds for describing Victorian politics as a four-party system. This also has the potential to make for a very close contest for the Assembly. In theory, single-member electoral systems should reward the successful party or parties with a clear lower house majority. Since 1999, however, Victoria has experienced minority government twice (1999 to 2002 and towards the latter stages of the Coalition government between 2010 and 2014) and some election outcomes have been very close.

The policy debate

Given the significant constitutional and administrative capacity state governments have to make public policy, the list of potential policy controversies on the state policy agenda is vast. However, in the case of Victoria, the policy record can be usefully assessed under two broad headings: the provision of infrastructure (which is of critical importance to the state’s approach to economic policy), and ‘social policy’. In both cases, something of a major transition occurred in the Victorian approach to both economic and social policy during the 1980s and 1990s. In the case of infrastructure provision, Victoria enthusiastically embraced the neoliberal argument about the desirability of a reduced role for government, particularly in relation to the provision of services that could instead be provided by the private sector. Social policy, meanwhile, underwent no less a significant change, the consequence of which was to erase the state’s previous reputation for conservatism and prohibition – an approach to policy that was known to an older generation of Victorians as ‘wowserism’.[22]

Infrastructure, economy and the state sector

Historically, the public sector has been a major presence in Victoria’s economy. Until the 1990s, the Victorian economy comprised the private sector operating with or through major state corporations providing energy, fresh water, transport, port facilities and financial services.

The extent of this mixed economy was so renowned it was even recognised in the USA. In 1934, the Melbourne-based head of car manufacturer General Motors Holden, Sir Laurence Hartnett, visited Detroit to persuade the American parent company General Motors Corporation (GMC) to support development of an ‘Australian’ car. His first task was to explain to GMC president, Alfred Sloan, that the state of Victoria was not a socialist state simply because ‘the government ran the railways’.[23]

Given that the Labor Party had hardly ever been in government between 1856 and 1982, the development of the state’s extensive public infrastructure was not the legacy of socialist ideology but, rather, liberal and conservative pragmatism.[24] Put simply, Victoria’s political leaders were not averse to the idea of creating a state corporation to build or run something considered vital to the advancement of the colony/state.

Consequently, the rise of Victoria as an industrial state was linked with the preponderance of a small number of very large state corporations providing transport (the Victorian Railways, especially under the leadership of Sir Harold Clapp), energy (the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, SECV, under the direction of Sir John Monash and then, in the 1960s, following the discovery of oil and gas in Bass Strait, the Gas and Fuel Corporation), fresh water and the disposal of sewage (The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works), and financial services (The State Savings Bank of Victoria). By the 1980s, the aforementioned corporations and others such as the Port of Melbourne Authority, the Grains Elevator Board, and the Country Roads Board were at the heart of the Victorian industrial and agricultural economy. Given their responsibility to build infrastructure, they were also major employers of labour.

Reducing the public sector: privatisation

By the 1980s, public and political attitudes towards the public sector began to shift. Those corporations that had been at the centre of the development of Victoria as a major manufacturing state were now being critically scrutinised. The fact that they were monopolies did not sit well with emerging economic theory about the need for competition. Their very bureaucratic method of operation was sometimes interpreted as being impervious to the needs of customers, and their corporate approach to planning had the unfortunate political consequence of them being seen to be beyond political control.[25] A new generation of politicians tended to have a less benign view of these corporations than their predecessors, and, in this environment, arguments about the need to break up large state corporations and allow a diversity of private players into the market resonated in the political debate.[26]

The election of the Liberal–National coalition government headed by Jeff Kennett in 1992 marked a period of intense privatisation in which few corporations were spared, although it was also true that the previous Labor government had been forced to sell the State Savings Bank and had started the disintegration of the SECV.

Some of this had been done in response to pressure coming from the federal Labor government whose treasurer, Paul Keating, was an advocate of privatisation as part of his commitment to economic reform. The Kennett government’s extensive privatisation was described by some as being the product of ideology, but the new government declared that it had been elected to deal with Victoria’s burgeoning public sector debt and it was simply following through on its commitment.[27]

The initial purpose of the privatisation was to address the budget deficit. Receipts from the sale of public corporations went to retiring debt. Privatisation also sought to reduce the size of the state’s public sector workforce. Commencing with the SECV and extending to other corporations, the government’s enthusiasm for this approach extended to other areas of policy including corrective services and local government. The reform of local government was quite extensive and involved a suspension of local government elections for a number of years. Other changes resonated with the small government agenda, and included capping rate rises, amalgamating councils and requiring councils to contract their service provision functions out to private providers.[28] This reform hit rural councils particularly hard, and it was noticeable that a collapse in support for both the Liberal and National parties in regional and rural districts contributed to the unexpected defeat of the Kennett government in 1999.[29]

The state as co-ordinator

In the period between its re-election in 1996 and its defeat in 1999, the Kennett government’s approach to the policy debate began to shift. Whereas debt retirement was a primary objective in the previous electoral cycle, the government used its second term to undertake some major public works. Arguably the most significant of these was a major road construction project to connect various freeways by tunnelling under previously sensitive locations such as the Royal Botanical Gardens adjacent to the central business district. This project was constructed by a privately owned corporation which was also able to charge tolls. The role of government was basically that of co-ordinator and regulator of what was otherwise a private construction program.

The ‘City-link’ project was the harbinger of a new approach to infrastructure provision that was to be adopted by governments that succeeded the Kennett administration. This included Labor governments, none of which reversed the privatisations undertaken by Kennett with the exception of some rural and regional passenger rail services. The Bracks and Brumby Labor governments developed the concept of the ‘public–private partnership’ as the basis for constructing the major ‘East-link’ tolled freeway between Ringwood and Frankston and a major water desalination plant at Wonthaggi in south Gippsland. The Andrews Labor government used receipts from the sale of the Port of Melbourne Corporation to fund a major underground rail project and an underground connector for the West Gate Freeway (another privately constructed road with tolls).

This by no means exhaustive list of infrastructure projects commissioned by both Labor and Coalition governments provides an insight into contemporary thinking about the role of government and the public sector in the state’s political economy. The previous method of creating large statutory corporations to build and run infrastructure has been replaced by a preference for private interests undertaking construction and operation of roads, rail and ports. The state sector’s role is to decide what projects will be undertaken and then establish regulatory regimes by which the functions performed by private providers can be overseen. In some instances statutory bodies will also ensure the compliance of private providers in relation to meeting social obligations: energy companies, for example, are overseen by energy industry regulators and consumer watchdogs. The role of the state sector has moved towards co-ordination and regulation as well as assisting ministerial departments to formulate policy advice to government. In this respect, the state sector is still a vital component of Victoria’s political economy, notwithstanding the extent of the privatisation that has occurred since the 1990s.

Social policy

The transition in policy approach overseen by successive Victorian governments since the 1980s has been even more starkly evident in the realm of social policy. The retirement of Liberal premier Henry Bolte in 1972 marked the turning point. Under Bolte, Victoria had capital punishment; homosexuality and pregnancy terminations were illegal (this led to a network of ‘backyard’ abortion providers which, in turn, led to the corruption of sections of the police); prostitution was illegal; shops closed at 5.30 pm and did not open on Sundays, restaurants were not permitted to sell alcohol and hotels had to close by 10 pm. There was scant weekend trading, there were few conservation constraints on developers, urban planning laws prohibited residential development in the central business district, and the only gaming permitted was that run by the Totalisator Agency Board and applied only to horse racing. Victorians who wished to partake of gaming machines (known colloquially as ‘poker machines’ or ‘the pokies’) had to travel to NSW. These prohibitions reinforced the notion of Victoria as a staid, conservative and prohibitionist state. The term ‘wowser’ emerged to describe this conservative Victorian mindset.

The task of undoing the Bolte legacy began under his successor, Dick Hamer. His government moved to solve the police corruption crisis by decriminalising abortion. This government also put in place extensive urban and rural conservation laws. It abolished capital punishment and decriminalised homosexuality. The Cain Labor government legalised and regulated prostitution and began deregulating liquor licensing laws in a bid to encourage a cafe approach to wining and dining that was emerging from Melbourne’s large ethnic communities, thereby setting Victoria on course to enjoy a tourism boom. The Kennett coalition government issued an apology to the Stolen Generation in 1997. It also deregulated retail trading hours and radically expanded the gaming industry to include poker machines, and backed the development of a major casino complex on the southern bank of the Yarra River, where factories and warehouses once stood. The Bracks Labor government instituted a bill of rights, and the Brumby Labor government oversaw the decriminalisation of abortion. The Andrews Labor government committed Victoria to ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions. In 2017, it also oversaw the introduction of ‘dying with dignity’ laws, thereby permitting euthanasia in certain circumstances.

Some of these reforms precipitated bitter political exchanges, as the state’s conservative forces within the community, politics and some of the churches maintained their opposition to abortion and euthanasia. Other reforms have been the subject of ongoing debate about their social consequences. Gaming liberalisation has been the subject of intense criticism on the grounds that it has caused unacceptable social consequences. Strong concerns have been expressed about the link between excessive alcohol consumption and violence, as well as its impact on road safety. It is the prerogative of government to respond to these concerns and formulate policy accordingly, but the significance of the extent to which social policy has changed since the 1980s cannot be denied. Victoria generally, and Melbourne in particular, are very different places to what they were at the height of the ‘wowser’ period under the auspices of the Liberal Party conservatives of the Bolte era.


The government and politics of Victoria reflect both stability and significant change. Stability is to be found in the basic institutions of government where, in the aftermath of the Eureka rebellion, colonial and British political actors were quick to institute a Westminster system of parliamentary government that continues to this day. Modifications to the constitution occurred periodically, with arguably the most significant of these being the changes in 2003, although all they really did was codify the core Westminster conventions that the lower house is the house of government, the upper house is a house of review, and the governor acts on the advice of the premier.

The significance of change is to be found in the state’s politics and, through it, the policy debate. The three-way division of the party system after the First World War led to political volatility and obsession with electoral laws. Planning and development of the state was left to the major state corporations that delivered transport, resources and energy and this was to be a feature of the Victorian state sector until it was comprehensively dismantled by the Kennett government in the 1990s. In the meantime, the Labor split in the 1950s led to one-party government in Victoria, as a particularly conservative Liberal Party secured a series of election victories and found little opposition to its agenda from the Legislative Council.

Although the decline of the conservative hegemony started with generational leadership change in the Liberal Party, the key moment was the election of a Labor government in 1982. This was significant for two reasons: first, this election marked the end of Liberal dominance of the state’s politics and the beginning of a new era where government could be led by either Labor or the Liberals and Nationals working in coalition. Second, the election of Victoria’s main social-democratic party began the process of converting Victoria from the prohibitionist conservatism of the Bolte era into a more cosmopolitan and socially progressive community. The modern Liberal Party has aligned with this, and brought a commitment to economic liberalisation.

Both Labor and the Coalition have assisted in this transformation of Victoria into a post-industrial economy with a strong reputation for being socially progressive and remarkably cohesive for a community with such a diversity of ethnic and racial backgrounds. As with all policy debates, there have been disagreements on various aspects, and challenges arise as to how to cope with the growth of the Melbourne metropolis in particular. Despite the decline of manufacturing, the state continues to be a major driver of the national economy, and the policy-making process – based on an elected parliament and an extensive if transformed public sector – has been at the centre of this. Victoria’s record is a confirmation of the significance of politics, the making of policy, and the importance of state governance in Australia’s federal system.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2012). Population by age and sex, regions of Australia, 2011 – Victoria. Cat. No. 3235.0. Canberra: ABS. https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Products/3235.0~2011~Main+Features~Victoria

Cannon, Michael (1995). The land boomers. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Conlon, Robert, and John Perkins (2001). Wheels and deals: the automobile industry in twentieth century Australia. Oxford: Ashgate.

Considine, Mark, and Brian Costar, eds. (1992). Trials in power: Cain, Kirner and Victoria 1982–1992. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Costar, Brian (2006). Tom Holloway: the bohemian. In Paul Strangio and Brian Costar, eds. The Victorian premiers 1856 to 2006. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

—— (1999). Coalition government: an unequal partnership. In Brian Costar and Nick Economou, eds. The Kennett revolution. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Costar, Brian, and Nick Economou (1992). Elections and electoral change. In Mark Considine and Brian Costar, eds. Trials in power: Cain, Kirner and Victoria 1982–1992. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Dunstan, Keith (1974). Wowsers. Melbourne: Angus & Robertson.

Economou, Nick, Brian Costar and Paul Strangio (2003). Victoria. In Jeremy Moon and Campbell Sharman, eds. Australian politics and government. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Economou, Nick, and Margaret Reynolds (2003). Who voted Green? A review of the Green vote in the 2002 Victorian state election. People and Place 11(3): 57–68.

Gerritsen, Rolf (1985). The drive for monopoly: the Gas and Fuel Corporation as an interest in Victorian politics. In Peter Hay, John Halligan, John Warhurst and Brian Costar, eds. Essays on Victorian politics. Warrnambool, Vic.: Warrnambool Institute Press.

Hartnett, Laurence (1981). Big wheels, little wheels. Melbourne: Windgrass.

Holmes, Jean (1976). The government of Victoria. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Homes, Jean, John Halligan and Peter Hay (1986). Victoria. In Brian Galligan, ed. Australian state politics. Melbourne: Longman.

Kiss, Rosemary (1999). Local government to local authority: the new order. In Brian Costar and Nick Economou, eds. The Kennett revolution. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Lack, John (1991). A history of Footscray. Melbourne: Hargreen.

Murray, Robert (2007). 150 years of Spring Street: Victorian government 1850s to the 21st century. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

—— (1970). The split: Australian Labor in the 1950s. Melbourne: Cheshire.

Parkinson, Tony (2000). Jeff: the rise and fall of a political phenomenon. Melbourne: Viking.

Rawson, Don (1977). Victoria. In Peter Loveday, A.W. Martin and Richard Parker, eds. The emergence of the Australian party system. Sydney: Hale and Iremonger.

Rickard, John (1984). H.B. Higgins: the rebel as judge. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.

Rodan, Paul (2006). Rupert ‘Dick’ Hamer: the urbane Liberal. In Paul Strangio and Brian Costar, eds. The Victorian premiers 1856 to 2006. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Rosenthal, Stephen, and Peter Russ (1988) The politics of power. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Taylor, Greg (2006). The constitution of Victoria. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press.

Victoria, Constitution Commission (2002). A house for our future. Melbourne: Government Printer.

Woodward, Dennis (1999). Privatisation: policy or ideology? In Brian Costar and Nick Economou, eds. The Kennett revolution. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Woodward, Dennis, and Brian Costar (2000). The Victorian election of 18 September 1999: another case of electoral volatility? Australian Journal of Political Science 35(1) 125–33. DOI: 10.1080/10361140050002881

About the author

Dr Nick Economou is a senior lecturer in politics in the School of Social Science at Monash University where he teaches Australian politics and government. He is also a media commentator on Australian state and national politics.

  1. Economou, Nick (2024). Victoria. In Nicholas Barry, Alan Fenna, Zareh Ghazarian, Yvonne Haigh and Diana Perche, eds. Australian politics and policy: 2024. Sydney: Sydney University Press. DOI: 10.30722/sup.9781743329542.
  2. Legislation from the NSW Legislative Council authorising the separation was passed in 1850 upon passage of the Australian Colonies Self Government Act 1850 (UK) in Britain. Promulgation of the Act and actual separation occurred on 1 June 1851.
  3. Cannon 1995.
  4. Rickard 1984.
  5. Conlon and Perkins 2001.
  6. Murray 2007; Rawson 1977.
  7. Holmes 1976.
  8. Lack 1991.
  9. ABS 2012.
  10. Murray 2007.
  11. Holmes 1976.
  12. Costar 2006, 248.
  13. Costar 1999, 90–1.
  14. Costar 2006, 235–8.
  15. Murray 1970.
  16. Rodan 2006.
  17. Considine and Costar 1992.
  18. Costar and Economou 1992, 251.
  19. Victoria, Constitution Commission 2002.
  20. Taylor 2006.
  21. Economou, Costar and Strangio 2003, 162–7.
  22. Dunstan 1974.
  23. Hartnett 1981.
  24. Holmes, Halligan and Hay 1986, 26–7.
  25. Gerritsen 1985; Rosenthal and Russ 1988.
  26. Woodward 1999.
  27. Parkinson 2000.
  28. Kiss 1999.
  29. Woodward and Costar 2000.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Australian Politics and Policy Copyright © 2024 by Nick Economou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book