Australia Felix: Jeremy Bentham and Australian colonial democracy
AffiliationSchool of Social and Political Sciences
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2016 Dr. David Geoffrey Matthew Llewellyn
Jeremy Bentham considered that society should be ordered on the idea of the greatest happiness. From this foundation, he devised a democratic political system. Drawing on others’ ideas, this included: the secret ballot; payment of members of parliament; equal electoral districts; one person one vote; universal adult male and female franchise; and annual elections. It also included: a single parliamentary chamber; law made by legislation, including codification of the common law; a strong but highly accountable executive; peaceful change; and eventual colonial independence. Bentham inspired several generations of radical reformers. Many of these reformers took an interest in the colonies as fields for political experiment and as cradles for democracy. Several played a direct role in implementing democratic reform in the colonies. They occupied influential positions in Australia and in London. They sought peaceful change, and looked towards the eventual independence of the colonies. This thesis traces the influence of Bentham, and those who followed his ideas, on democratic reform in the Australian colonies. It also examines the Benthamite input into the 1838 Charter in Britain, and relationships between the Charter and subsequent reform in Australia. The thesis notes ideas implemented in Australia that emerged from the experiences of other colonies, especially Canada. The Wakefield land and emigration system, and responsible government for the colonies, both saw their genesis in the Canadian experience, and both were theorised or taken up as causes by people who were members of the Benthamite circle. South Australia was founded as an experiment for ideas promoted by Bentham and his followers. Liberal agitations for democracy in New South Wales and Victoria were influenced by Bentham’s followers. The successes of Benthamite reformers in the Australian colonies included the first secret ballot system as we recognise it today, introduced to parliaments in Victoria, South Australia and Van Diemen’s Land almost simultaneously. The system of government favoured positive liberalism. Generally proponents of the small state, Bentham’s followers played a considerable role in laying the constitutional foundations that allowed the growth of the mixed Australian system, which looked both to the freedom of the individual coupled with a strong role for the state. The thesis does not claim that Bentham’s ideas were the only influence in colonial constitutional reform. Nor does the thesis uncover activity that has not been recognised elsewhere. Rather, the thesis identifies the influence of Bentham’s ideas on actors already recognised for their role in colonial reform. The thesis adds coherence to a story that is generally presented as a series of unconnected ideas expressed in unconnected acts by unconnected actors. Recognising the Benthamite association of the relevant actors adds coherence to the story of Australian colonial democratic reform and challenges some existing interpretations. It also helps confirm the observations of some scholars that Australia is fundamentally utilitarian or Benthamite.
KeywordsJeremy Bentham; philosophical radicals; democracy; Australia; colonialism; Kingston; Chapman
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