In 1851, the Port Phillip District of New South Wales officially separated from its parent colony to become the colony of Victoria. Under the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850, Victoria, like Van Diemen’s Land and South Australia, was granted its own limited form of representative government. The colony was officially governed by a Lieutenant-Governor (who reported to the Secretary of State for the Colonies) and a small Executive Council appointed by the Crown. However, under the Act a Legislative Council was established, one-third of whose members were nominated, and two-thirds of whom were elected on the basis of a limited male suffrage. Only those who owned or occupied property worth ten pounds a year or more, or who held a pastoral licence, were eligible to vote. While, as the Queen’s representative, the Lieutenant-Governor retained power of veto, all legislation and expenditure had to be passed through the Legislative Council.
Charles La Trobe – previously the superintendent of the Port Phillip District and subordinate to New South Wales’s Governor George Gipps – was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of this new colony. Almost immediately, he – and his new, inexperienced government – had to begin to grapple with the unprecedented chaos that followed the discovery of gold. Difficulties began almost immediately. Pending official authorisation and direction from London, La Trobe, with his Executive Council, attempted to control the management of the goldfields and gold revenue without the Legislative Council. Elected members of the Council were annoyed that they were being denied involvement in decisions regarding the goldfields. They attempted to exert control by voting to withhold much ordinary revenue. Thus, monies needed for general expenses (such as public servants’ wages and infrastructure) were withheld making it difficult for the government to administer established parts of the colony, let alone the burgeoning gold communities. Although this issue was soon resolved, friction between the government and the Council continued to hamper the management of the goldfields – significantly, it delayed the conception and introduction of an alternative to the contentious licence system.