On 28 November 1855, the day that Victoria’s new Constitution was proclaimed, Governor Sir Charles Hotham claimed powers for himself that were at odds with the new constitution. He announced that in future, he and successive governors, rather than the elected members would choose the Ministry, and that no motion could be introduced into the Parliament without the Governor’s prior approval. The members of the Government at first made no objection. Higinbotham, writing in the Melbourne Herald launched a campaign of opposition to Hotham’s claims and accused the Ministers of acquiescing with Hotham’s demands in the context of receiving financial inducements.
The Ministers who acquiesced in the Governor’s autocratic claims
Top Row l-r 1. Andrew Clark, Surveyor-General: increased pension.
2. Robert Molesworth, Solicitor-General: increased salary.
3. Hugh Childers, Collector of Customs: promotion,
increased salary and pension.
Bottom Row l-r 1. William Stawell, Attorney-General: increased pension.
2. William Haines, Colonial Secretary: increased pension.
3. Charles Sladen; promoted to Treasurer, increased salary.
The Governor’s claims created alarm, particularly among the main representatives of the goldfields, the journalists at the Herald and the Age, and the supporters of the democratic principle in the Legislative Council. A concerted press campaign arose, linking the recent financial gains by the Government Ministers with their failure to defend the principle of responsible government. After a week of escalating criticism from this campaign the Ministers requested Hotham to withdraw his announcement. He did not do so, although he gave them an assurance that it was not directed at the Ministry. The campaign of dissent spurred a lengthy motion in the Legislative Council indignantly condemning the Governor’s claims as an assault on the principal of responsible government, and censuring the Ministry for condoning it. This motion was defeated by one vote, and the Ministry survived with the financial gains intact. The affair showed the precariousness of the principal of responsible government in Victoria. The constitutional crisis ended when Governor Hotham became seriously ill and died on 31 December. No Governor after him ever attempted to revive the claims.