Appalled by the excessive punishments doled out to convicts, Bourke initiated 'The Magistrates Act', which simplified existing regulations and limited the sentence a magistrate could pass to fifty lashes (previously there was no such limit).
The bill was passed by the Legislature because Bourke presented evidence that magistrates were exceeding their powers and passing illegal sentences, in part because regulations were complex and confusing.
However, furious magistrates and employers petitioned the crown against this interference with their legal rights, fearing that a reduction in punishments would cease to provide enough deterrence to the convicts, and this issue was exploited by his opponents.
In 1835, Bourke issued a proclamation through the Colonial Office, implementing the doctrine of terra nullius by proclaiming that Indigenous Australians could not sell or assign land, nor could an individual person acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown.
With this he was able to void Batman's purchase of land (in Melbourne) from the local aboriginal owners.
Bourke continued to create controversy within the colony by combating the inhumane treatment handed out to convicts, including limiting the number of convicts each employer was allowed to seventy, as well as granting rights to freed convicts, such as allowing the acquisition of property and service on juries.
It has been argued that the abolition of convict transportation to Australia in 1840 can be attributable to the actions of Bourke.
He abolished the distinction of the Anglican Church as the state church of New South Wales, declaring each religious community on equal footing before the law, increased spending on education and attempted to set up a system of national non-denomination schools.
He was credited as the first governor to publish satisfactory accounts of public receipts and expenditure.