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Victoria: State Parliamentary Library research officer has released a new book and has organised an exhibition on Victoria's parliamentary heritage

JENNY HUTCHISON: And now let's go south to the Victorian Parliament, and Dr Ray Wright, who's a research officer with the Parliamentary Library. He's just produced a history of that Parliament, and in the process, unearthed some intriguing things, such as the fact that Victorians celebrated their jubilee and centenary on the wrong day. I asked Ray Wright how that could have happened.

RAY WRIGHT: Oh, well we're talking about politicians here, Jenny. There's probably all sorts of explanations for this, but basically what happened was the Constitution of Victoria was proclaimed in November, 1855 - 23 November, 1855 - and the first Victorian Parliament met a year later, on 21 November, 1856; and somehow, in the minds of many people, the two dates got terribly confused, so that when the anniversaries of one kind or another came up, they thought they were celebrating 100 years of responsible government or 50 years of responsible government, but the date they chose was the meeting of the first Parliament. I'm not sure that it's a terribly important error but it just indicates, I think, something of the confusion involved with the Parliament and with the Parliament's history.

JENNY HUTCHISON: One thing that has always intrigued me - with Federation, a meeting place had to be found for the new Federal Members of Parliament because it was, of course, 27 years before their own special building was constructed in Canberra. Now, the Victorian MPs agreed to give up their own building for their Federal colleagues. Why was this?

RAY WRIGHT: Well, I think there are a number of reasons. First and foremost, there was an agreement struck between the various colonies that when the new Federal Parliament met, it wouldn't sit within 100 miles of Sydney. And as a result of that, the Victorian Parliament - much to, I think, the surprise of themselves as anybody else - agreed to loan Parliament House in Spring Street, Melbourne, to the new Federal Parliament, so the Federal Parliament came to Spring Street. The State Parliament, in turn, moved over to the Exhibition Buildings. Now this caused a great deal of controversy at the time, particularly as Victorian Parliamentarians were firmly convinced that the only reason the Federal Parliament moved to Melbourne was to get hold of the Parliamentary Library. This was considered to be the best library in Australia at the time. I mean, that's obviously debatable, but that's what was thought by some. And our local members, here, were convinced that they were simply trying to get the Library. And in fact, they began to call the Federal Members carpetbaggers and complained quite bitterly. It became, really, quite an interesting little sidelight to the whole development of federalism and of State parliament.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Although, one would have to say that Victoria, as a State, did very well out of this because, of course, all the Federal departments made their home in Victoria, and it was a long, long time after the Federal Parliament moved to Canberra before most of those Federal public service departments had moved also to Canberra.

RAY WRIGHT: Absolutely. I mean, I think Victoria also did very well out of it by the very fact that it could boast that it had the two best parliaments in Australia. So there were all sorts of consequences. In fact, of course, Victoria could in fact boast that it had three parliaments in this period because in 1904 and 1905, the Women's Political Association formed it's own parliament down in Collins Street, Melbourne; but this was, of course, very rarely publicised and was treated with some disdain. But in fact, people who were supporting the right of women to vote and to be parliamentary candidates would meet there and discuss issues of the time. And what they showed, of course, was that they had .. their insights were just as appropriate and just as good as anything that came out of the other two parliaments.

JENNY HUTCHISON: In several States, at the moment, we have instability, where the State Government has a very slim or even non-existent majority. Looking back through Victoria, there's nothing new in that, is there?

RAY WRIGHT: Absolutely not. In fact, the last 30 years or so, or, basically, since 1955, have been the most uncharacteristic period in Victorian state politics in that they have been such .. or it has been such a stable period. The period from 1856 right through - well, for the whole 100 years - was characterised by unbelievable instability. In some cases there were up to five ministries in one year. I mean, I think there are all sorts of explanations for this. Certainly during the 19th century, political parties as we now understand them, didn't exist, and it was all based on factions that grouped and dissolved with sometimes bewildering frequency; and then later, the rise of party politics and particularly three-party politics very much complicated the issue so that you frequently had minority governments, factions within parties, great personality clashes, all of which promoted this instability. So, I guess my view is that it probably became a quite expected part of Victorian politics, certainly for the first 100 years of the parliament's existence.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Personalities - you mention personalities. I was intrigued to read of people such as George Prendergast who insisted on wearing his top hat in the Assembly.

RAY WRIGHT: Oh, yes, well, he was a famous character, a very important Labor figure. Members of Parliament throughout the 19th century would wear their hats in the Chambers; there was nothing terribly new about that, but Prendergast was one who maintained the tradition long after others had abandoned it; and there's some splendid photographs of him sitting in the Legislative Assembly, very sternly sitting there with his hat on and everybody else bare-headed. It's one of those quirks, I guess, one of those old traditions.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And now we worry about people who won't wear ties or want to wear cardigans.

RAY WRIGHT: That's right.

JENNY HUTCHISON: And there's also Mr Illingworth, an intriguing Victorian Member.

RAY WRIGHT: Oh, Frederick Illingworth's one of my favourite characters. He was a member of the Legislative Council in the late 1880s and like a lot Members, was terribly involved in the land boom excesses. He was involved with one particular bank that collapsed and left him with personal debts of about 280,000 pounds, which was an extraordinary sum in those days. So what he did - he had a very good response to this - he told everybody he was taking leaving of absence from the Parliament; caught a boat and told everybody he was off to England. But when he got to Western Australia, he disembarked. The curious thing was that having set up a whole new life in Western Australia, leaving behind a vacant seat in Victoria, a couple of years later he was elected to the West Australian Parliament and in 1901 became, lo and behold, the colonial Treasurer of Western Australia. So, I'm not sure what the message is there for all of us, but it's a bit of a worrying story, I think.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Ray Wright's book is titled `A People's Counsel' and it's published by Oxford University Press. And Dr Wright has also organised an exhibition on Victoria's parliamentary heritage. That's in Queens Hall in Parliament House on Spring Street; it's open weekdays between 9.00 and 4.30 until Friday, 3 April.

In a future program, we plan to bring you excerpts from a series of lectures by former women Senators. The previous Australian Democrat Leader, Janine Haines, will be talking in April, drawing on her forthcoming book, `From Suffrage to Sufferance'. And in May, The Honourable Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, who was the Minister for Finance during the Fraser Government, will also be giving a lecture for the Department of the Senate. These are free and open to the public, so why not try to attend on Monday 23 March when former Labor Minister, Susan Ryan, has the catchy title: `Women in Parliament - fishes on bicycles'.

Well, until next week, it's goodbye from the Parliament Program and Jenny Hutchison, Jim Trail and Sammy Marjanen.