The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Nicholson, Hon. William

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The Dictionary of Australasian Biography by Philip Mennell
Nicholson, Hon. William
actual death date was 10 March 1865

Nicholson, Hon. William, the "father of the Australian ballot," was a native of Cumberland, and arrived in Melbourne in 1842, where he went into business, and was Mayor in 1850. He entered the old partially elective Legislative Council of Victoria as member for North Bourke very shortly after the separation of the colony from New South Wales. In 1852 he supported Mr. J. S. Johnston's motion of want of confidence in Governor Latrobe, and in Sept. 1853 he was appointed one of the Select Committee to whom was entrusted the task of drafting an autonomous constitution for Victoria. Mr. Nicholson's name will be best remembered in connection with the introduction of the ballot into the electoral system of Victoria, whence it spread to the other colonies, and has since been widely adopted elsewhere. It was in 1855 that the subject cropped up, when the Legislative Council was considering the bill by which the electoral system under the fully elected bicameral Legislature inaugurated in the next year was to be regulated. On the Electoral Bill being set down for a second reading, Mr. Nicholson moved as an amendment "That, in the opinion of this House, any new electoral act should provide for electors recording their votes by secret ballot." On Dec. 19th his amendment was carried by 33 votes to 23, Mr. Childers, Sir John O'Shanassy, Mr. J. P. Fawkner, and Dr. Greeves being in the minority, with Mr. Haines, the Premier, and the other members of the Government. The next day the Ministry resigned, and the Council was adjourned to Jan. 8th, 1856. In the meantime (Dec. 21st, 1855) the Governor, Sir Charles Hotham, sent for Mr. Nicholson, who at the time was on the eve of paying a visit to the old country. Ultimately, however, he decided to abandon his trip and to take office as Premier and Chief Secretary; but he found some difficulty in filling up the other portfolios. This caused delay, and in the meantime the Governor, to whom he had notified his ill-success, died. Major-General Macarthur then became the administrator of the government, and on New Year's Day, 1856, sent for Mr. Nicholson, and asked if he might consider himself at liberty to recall Mr. Haines, the displaced Premier. Mr. Nicholson left the matter entirely in the ex-Governor's hands, with the result that the old Government came back to office. On Jan. 8th Mr. Nicholson explained the causes of his ill-success to the Council, and asked Mr. Haines to leave the ballot an open question in the restored Cabinet. This he was ultimately forced to do, and Mr. Nicholson carried the clauses establishing the present form of what is known as the "Australian ballot" in committee on the Electoral Bill. As this is a matter of considerable political interest, it may be stated that to Mr. H. S. Chapman (q.v.) Mr. Nicholson was indebted for the idea of having the names of all the candidates printed and letting the voter strike out the names of those for whom he did not wish to vote. Mr. Nicholson's own plan was much more rudimentary, as he simply proposed to give each voter a blank card on which he was to write the names of the candidate or candidates he desired to support. Ultimately he adopted the clauses drafted for him by Mr. Chapman, and was the instrument of their being incorporated in Victorian statute law. Against Mr. Nicholson's protest, an additional clause was inserted for numbering the ballot papers and thus preventing their being tampered with. On May 23rd, 1856, Mr. Nicholson, who, though not the author, may be styled the father, of the Australian ballot, carried out his original intention of revisiting England, and was not therefore a candidate for a seat in Parliament at the first election under responsible government. He remained in England two years, and during his stay in London was fêted as the hero of the Victorian ballot. Of this John Stuart Mill wrote to his friend H. S. Chapman as follows in 1858: "The adoption of the ballot in Victoria has made some noise here, and has been a good deal appealed to by its advocates in Parliament. You have heard, no doubt, of the dinner given to Nicholson. It will perhaps surprise you that I am not now a supporter of the ballot, though I am far from thinking I was wrong in supporting it formerly." Mr. Nicholson returned to Victoria in 1858, and in August 1859 was returned to the Legislative Assembly for Sandridge. The following Oct. he turned out the O'Shanassy Ministry on a vote of want of confidence, and became Premier and Chief Secretary of Victoria himself, only, however, to be displaced by Mr. Heales in Nov. 1860. In the meantime he had passed a land bill authorising any person to select to the extent of six hundred and forty acres, at a minimum price of £1 per acre. Selection was to be after survey, but the Government were enjoined to survey within twelve months, and land was to be thrown open to the extent of three million acres in the proclaimed districts. The bill was a good deal emasculated by the Legislative Council, and two of his best colleagues, Messrs. Francis and Service, resigned office in Sept. 1860, thus preparing the way for the downfall of the Ministry in November. Not long afterwards Mr. Nicholson retired from politics, and died in 1870. He was one of the founders of the Bank of Victoria.