A short history of Parliament

Closer Look – A Short History of Parliament [PDF 3.40Mb, 13 pages]

Australia established its first federal Parliament in 1901. Compared to some parliaments around the world, Australia's is quite young, but it is based on practices and ideals from parliaments in centuries past. A parliament is an assembly of elected representatives of a people or a nation, which forms the supreme legislative (law-making) authority for that people or nation. However, the fundamental parliamentary concepts of assembly, representation and legislation go back thousands of years.

The word parliament comes from the French word parler, meaning 'to talk'.

The origins of the concepts of parliament

Many ancient cultures featured the gathering of leaders to discuss and decide matters of importance. There is evidence that citizens' assemblies were held in ancient MESOPOTAMIA (modern-day Syria and Iraq) as far back as 2500 BC. However, some of the first established assemblies which had elements of the modern parliament were held in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Around 500 BC the ANCIENT GREEKS established an Assembly, or Ecclesia, which convened on the Pnyx, a hill in central Athens, Greece. The Ecclesia met 40 times a year and was attended by male citizens over the age of 18. Decisions were taken by vote, which was conducted by a show of hands with the majority vote prevailing.

The ROMAN REPUBLIC, which was founded around 509 BC, was ruled by two elected Consuls, who acted on the advice of a Senatus or council of elders. The Senatus comprised 300 members drawn from wealthy and noble families. Laws were approved by various assemblies, who represented the nobles and common people. These assemblies did not initiate new laws, but only met to vote on legislation or elect officials.

Early assemblies in England

Witan comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase 'Witana Gemot' which means 'meeting of the wise men'.

The British Parliament has its origins in two early Anglo-Saxon assemblies, the Witan and the moots.

The Witenagemot, or Witan, dates back to the eighth century and advised the King on matters such as royal grants of land, taxation, defence and foreign policy. The Witan did not have a permanent membership, but was made up of advisors and nobles who met when called by the King. Although the Witan had no power to make laws, the King was careful to consult the assembly because he relied on the support of the nobles to rule.

In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded Britain in what is referred to as the Norman Conquest. William ruled with the help of a much smaller but permanent group of advisers known as the Curia Regis (the King's Council). It consisted of noblemen and church leaders appointed by the King. They were not elected and so did not formally represent anyone.

Like the Witan, which it replaced, the Curia Regis only offered advice at the King's request and he was under no obligation to act on this advice. The King sometimes consulted a larger group of nobles and churchmen known as the Great Council (magnum concilium). Over time, the Great Council evolved into the House of Lords.

The moots were local assemblies held in each county (or shire) to discuss local issues and hear legal cases. They were made up of local lords, bishops, the sheriff and four representatives from each village in the shire. The practice of local representatives making decisions for their community eventually led to the creation of the House of Commons.

Early assemblies in England