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13. 13 Sydney and Melbourne, 1897–1898

WHEN WE REASSEMBLED in Sydney in September 1897 it was not only a change of scene and of climate but of the whole spirit, temper and attitude of the Convention. Much had happened in the interval—the detailed discussion of the draft Bill in the several Parliaments and in the press; the visit of the Premiers to the mother country where probably some influential persons intimated to the more conservative among them the wisdom of concessions to the popular Chamber, and finally the determination of some who had resisted concessions in South Australia on the ground that the time had not arrived for granting them, but who were nownote willing to go even further than they had originally intended. The most influential of these was Mr Holder who, shaking off his former Confederate ideals, became a warm Federalist prepared to subordinate provincial jealousies to national liberalism. Mr James of Western Australia was a typical example of less prominent but equally decisive development. Undoubtedly the surroundings were not without their influence, of which indeed the more clear-sighted Conservatives like Downer publicly complained. The delegates from the less populous colonies were severed from their supporters and, sensible of the wealth, population and public feeling of a great metropolis, were visibly weakened in their antagonism. As a consequence, instead of the effort now being on the part of the Liberal element to arouse feeling in their favour, it required to be made by the Conservatives to rally their forces against the onward rush of amendments of a radical character.

But for the uncertain attitude of Reid, who had evidently not even then made up his mind as to what he ought to insist upon, even more would have been accomplished; but while abstaining from all canvassing or exercise of influence privately by which he might have smoothed the way, he alternately temporised and threatened in public, no one knowing how far he was in earnest


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or what his ultimate demands would be. The Bill was immensely liberalised, but largely owing to his wavering and bad generalship the work done was not as thorough as it might have been.

What transpired in Sydney is faithfully exhibited in the ‘Hansard’ report of the debates and demands no detail. The change in the relative importance of the delegations steadily continued. South Australia being now more decisively divided, Kingston, Holder and Glynn adopting the national Federal principle openly diminished the resistance offered by Gordon and Cockburn; it lost its momentum as a delegation though its members remained in the front rank of debate—Symon especially improving his individual position by his fine oratory, though his concessions to liberal demands cost him the confidence of Forrest whose legal conscience keeper he had been in Adelaide, and helped in this way to hamstring the forces of Western Australia. The line of demarcation in the New South Wales group also began to declare itself with ominous distinctness, Barton, O'Connor, Wise, McMillan, Abbott and Walker clustering apart from the three Ministers. But it was Reid himself who inflicted the severest blows upon the delegation by his obvious want of grip of the situation and his bad temper. Though chief host of the visitors and chief representative of Sydney, he contrived to alienate all the respect and sense of obligation which were tendered him on these scores. Not only did he talk to the galleries but turned to them as if ignoring the convention altogether, delivering hustings speeches in which there were more coarsenesses and personalities than arguments. Cheap in style though effective, they were worse in manner than in matter. It may have been the solid, sober, studious demeanour of Barton, heart and soul devoted to his task, always at his post, and treated with the most marked respect and admiration by all his colleagues—so pre-eminently the chief and leader of this great intercolonial gathering that Sydney and New South Wales looking on could not fail to be impressed by it and to recognise that its Premier in the opinion of his peers was not even occupying a second or a third place—that stung him into his indiscretions. Or it may have been his own sense of impotence in constitutional constructiveness or criticism, the manner in which his legal readings or comments on principles were met and swept aside by the chiefs of the Convention—but whatever the cause in his own colony, his own capital and his own constituency he fell from his high estate and ceased to be either the most prominent person in the Convention or even in the New South Wales delegation.


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O'Connor had won the confidence and Wise the admiration of the delegates far more conspicuously. His party organ the Daily Telegraph did its best for him but the broad result which could not be concealed in the public sittings in Sydney was his failure.

The divisions of the South Australian and New South Wales delegations relatively enhanced the position of the Victorians who, even when Higgins supported by local radicals came forward more boldly with his proposals to substitute an unified democracy for a federal union in which the States should continue to be entities, remained as a whole in harmony upon most of the questions submitted. Further than this as Reid's brilliancy was obscured Turner's sterling qualities of fairness, thoroughness, sincerity and reliability shone by contrast, placing him in a far more dignified place. Isaacs too with magnificent self-restraint subordinated his sense of personal injustice and won high appreciation by the keenness of his legal criticisms and the fullness of his general knowledge. The demeanour of the delegation as a whole was still subdued and patient, so that in this respect also flattering comparisons were drawn between their restraint and consideration when seen side by side with the domineering insolence of Reid. These favouring circumstances assisted to balance the superior abilities of the delegations of South Australia and New South Wales so as to place them in point of effectiveness upon about the same level. The Sydney press and the Daily Telegraph in particular were unfriendly to Victoria, as indeed was much of the public opinion of their city, but inside the Convention these outside voices had but small influence.

In Melbourne the Sydney experiences were repeated with very slight variation. The fierce contest between South Australia and New South Wales in regard to the rivers enabled Victoria's position to still more improve, though the agreement between her delegates was less complete. Despite occasional infirmities of temper and undue though natural impatience. Barton's authority steadily increased. The tactics of Reid which had become somewhat more systematically and consistently provincial, forced him into some difficulties from which he emerged as a New South Wales delegate instead of a leader of the Convention but these lapses were few and inconsiderable while the general standard of his conduct was high and worthy of his trust. O'Connor's reputation for judicial ability and solid workmanship grew increasingly as it deserved. Downer's native insouciance asserted itself when the work wearied him but he too advanced in favour


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with all, though not to the same degree as O'Connor. Holder by patient thoroughness had come to rank with Turner as the financial adviser by whom all were swayed. Kingston under severe provocation maintained at all times the dignity of the Presidency and his own prestige. Baker proved almost a perfect Chairman of Committees, his one weakness being a delicacy in keeping eminent transgressors against the standing orders in check. The chief and almost the sole offender was Reid who, having failed in all his attempts to induce the Victorians to wrestle with him upon their several rivalries, turned upon the South Australians, the Tasmanians and the Western Australians in turn with studied offensiveness and vulgar jibes until he who had entered the Convention at Adelaide its most popular, most influential, and most generous leader left it the most unpopular, least trusted and least respected of all its members. His career had gone full circle, in the old phrase, or rather more accurately a half-circle from the zenith to the nadir. Conscious of the fact though only half-conscious of the causes of his decline, he left it a thoroughly disappointed and still undecided man. He always boasted that he never made up his mind until an emergency requiring action arose. True to his customary policy he had never made up his mind during the Convention as to what was the irreducible minimum of his demands and when he returned to Sydney it was to bury himself in a solitude where he could get in touch with those who could supply him with the decision he lacked. The Daily Telegraph had made and could unmake him and the paper declared against the Bill. Yet there was a large body of public opinion strongly in its favour and Barton with his laurels of leadership upon him was a possible Opposition Chief of a very different type from Lyne, who had already declared against the measure. It was simply from the incapacity to make up his mind, that is to determine which was the safer course for him to pursue, coupled with the ambition to take some step which would enable him to oust Barton and assume the leadership for himself, that naturally and indeed inevitably led up to his final adhesion to the famous ‘Yes-No’ policy which has become historical.

Whatever justification he might have claimed for his attitude, if it had been forced upon him under stress of a rivalry that had left him no alternative, was removed by a frank and explicit offer of loyal support for his leadership and full recognition of it at every stage made to him in Melbourne by Barton and O'Connor for themselves and for those like Wise and McMillan in their


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own colony, like Quick and Deakin in Victoria, like Kingston and Holder in South Australia, who put the cause of union above and beyond all party aims and who were bound by the undertaking then tendered. He declined the proffer upon the declared ground that too many of his party were opposed to the Bill as it stood, and announced his [in]tention of keeping his hands free; a clear intimation that he intended to be guided only by what he believed to be his own interest and not at all by any sympathy with the Federal cause. Immeasurably superior in ability to Lyne, his policy, though better disguised, was equally contemptible and he walked always with one eye upon the movements of his rival, determined at all hazards to avoid being supplanted by him in the Premiership. Lyne was according to his lights and tortuous disposition absolutely and honestly anti-Federal. Reid was neither federal nor anti-Federal but either at need and as far as possible both at once. It is difficult indeed to describe so extraordinary a man without appearing to caricature him. Yet it would seem as if many of his characteristics had attached to an illustrious predecessor for it could be said of him with absolute truth that ‘In the foremost rank of orators a place must certainly be assigned to—(Reid). He was not at his best in the House (in the Convention). His coarseness, violence and cunning were seen to the worst advantage in what was (after all) an assemblage of gentlemen. His powers of ridicule, sarcasm and invective, his dramatic and sensational predilections, required another scene for their effective display…. The raciest wit gave point to the most irrelevant personalities and cogency to the most illogical syllogisms; the most daring perversions of truth and justice were driven home by appeals to the emotions.’note Reid was a less fiery, a less lofty, a more colloquial, a more prosaic O'Connell but far more truly his son than anyone who has ever borne his name.

Symon scarcely maintained in Melbourne the oratorical primacy which he had approached in Sydney and was certainly surpassed by Wise in his elaborate attack upon the Referendum—perhaps the most exhaustive and ornate speech of the Convention. McMillan had been most in evidence in Adelaide. Carruthers was at odds with Reid who, knowing him to be in an embarrassing situation owing to local attacks, did not hesitate to publicly humiliate him. Gordon's fight on behalf of the waters of the Murray tributaries, elaborate and ingenious, eloquent and powerful, was somewhat


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marred by its partisanship. Glynn, with greater assiduity of research, splendid and carefully polished diction and stiff delivery, never caught or kept the ear of an Assembly, like all popular bodies jealous and antagonistic to scholarship and style, unless forced upon them by more practical merits. Symon and he laboured alike under the lack of political experience and office responsibility. Cockburn fell back into the ruck from whence Henry of Tasmania emerged in financial issues. Douglas and Zeal, the two veterans, displayed the testiness of vigorous age and the force of character which had pushed them on. Sir John Forrest was to the fore as leader of the stalwart Conservatives in resisting with undaunted courage and inexhaustible persistency common-sense objections to every innovation. Braddon and himself resented with power and self-command the violences of Reid and proved themselves unsleeping watchdogs of the interests of their colonies. The Victorians on the whole gained ground up to the last. Turner became more trusted for his business qualities, Isaacs more appreciated for his unflagging energy, industry and acumen, and Trenwith for his bold, broad common sense and grip of essentials. Yet of all, Higgins by his independent isolation, his courage in fighting against desperate odds, his unflinching devotion to doctrinaire principles and his capacity for clear reasoning made up most leeway of all. It was solid intellectual power coupled with force of character that brought him to the front and kept him there. Quick, too earnest in his feeling and too sincere in his loyalty to do himself justice in debate watched over the Bill in its infancy as if it had been his own child. He too was respected and trusted by all. The fact that the Victorians were Federalists in heart brought them more abreast of their abler rivals, so that with the weight of their colony behind them they finished about abreast of the abler delegations of their rivals. The Convention had lived long enough to become a Parliament and to manifest that distinctive faculty which enables representative assemblies to exactly gauge their members, of course only by the standards of its own needs and aims. Men can be too great to be so measured or too handicapped by circumstances, physical or social, to get placed in the rank of their attainments. Orators like Burke were above the House of Commons standard, philosophers like Mill, men of letters like Lytton, or Birrell. Statesmen can be too profound and too wise or far-seeing for their associates—Tennyson, Spencer, Martineau, T. H. Green, George Meredith would have been only brilliant failures in debate. The House would have had little or


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no use for them. But for its own special purposes and within its own sphere it is an infallible judge. At the close of the Convention, without assigning their precise individual order even in their colonies, it may be said that the first rank of men of influence at the final sitting when staying power had asserted itself consisted of Barton, O'Connor, Reid, Kingston, Holder, Turner, Isaacs and Forrest. Close behind them as a second rank came Braddon, Wise, Downer, Symon, Trenwith and Higgins.

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