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14. 14 The Age and the A.N.A., 1898

THE VICTORIAN SITUATION at the time of the final closing of the Convention was so remarkable that it merits some notice since, if studied from the public point of view, it may soon come to be inexplicable. The chief factor in the crisis was the Age whose proprietor and staff alike were roused to resentment by the defeat of the democratic proposals for the Referendum and were prepared to make these their justification for an attack upon the measure. One real source of their dread was the apprehension that the paper would lose in the Commonwealth the immense influence it possessed in Victoria and preferred to reign in the State rather than be but a powerful factor in the Commonwealth. The other source of apprehension lay in the probable change of the fiscal system likely to follow when the Federal Parliament framed its first tariff. The policy of Protection had been the cardinal doctrine of the paper for many years and it was inclined to refuse as inadequate any duties short of those then existing in Victoria, which were higher than any elsewhere in Australia. The Melbourne manufacturers however were willing to face some reduction in order to gain larger markets and without their encouragement the Age could scarcely begin a crusade. For the agricultural community however the larger markets had less attraction seeing that in meat, grain and timber they were certain to be affected by imports from neighbouring colonies, while their gains could only be in root crops and dairy produce. The stock breeders in particular felt that lower prices must rule when the border duties on cattle and sheep were withdrawn and they at once responded to the Age appeal. The difficulty with the paper was that the duties it desired to retain were impossible under Federation and though after consideration they were prepared to reject the whole scheme in the interest of the stock breeders and grain growers, they had so committed themselves to the cause of union that it was too late to turn back on grounds like these which must have been foreseen from the very first. The jealousy of New South Wales was an element which existed in the journal


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to a greater degree than outside and an endeavour was made to represent the settlement of the rivers, railways and finance questions as injurious to Victoria while unduly favourable to the Sydney side. This was more effective with the provincialists and consequently before the close of the Melbourne sessions, the Age had practically decided to defeat the Commonwealth Bill by whatever means presented themselves, under cover of a plea that if its acceptance were postponed it could be amended in the interests of New South Wales and Victoria as against the less populous colonies and of Victoria as against New South Wales. The design was so improbable that it cannot have satisfied even those who framed it. The proposal that the Convention should frame a tariff for the Future Union was in the first place impracticable, owing to want of information upon which an Australian tariff could be based, again impracticable because of the months that must be consumed upon its details by men not elected with any authority to deal with such an intricate problem, and yet finally impossible because such a tariff as would be acceptable to both New South Wales and Victoria at the outset could not be contrived, and the proposal in every aspect then was aimed at Union altogether. The paper by degrees prepared itself, storing up causes of complaint and objection and accumulating demands which could not be conceded, magnifying every danger, minimising every advantage and representing the proceedings of the Convention and of even the Victorian representatives solely with a view to this end.

The Ministry depended for its existence upon the Age and betrayed no more reluctance in accepting its policy from the paper in this regard than it had done in all minor local affairs. The Cabinet did not doubt but that it was as all-powerful in this connection as in most others and offered no resistance when they were given the cue. This was amazing unless the characters of the two leading Ministers are remembered. Turner had no enthusiasms except for economy and to him the Commonwealth Bill appealed no more on the emotional side than a measure for municipal rating. He had taken it up because it was part of his business to do so. He relied for support upon the Age and upon the labour and radical wing in Parliament which was offended by the rejection of the Referendum. It would clearly be impossible for the Ministry to live if opposed both by the paper and this wing, so that without a pang and without a struggle he prepared himself to yield the Bill. He would have hesitated longer


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but for the influence of Isaacs, which ran decisively and strongly in the same direction. He was the Ministerial channel of communication with the Age so exclusively that even his colleagues in the Convention, Turner and Peacock, complained when in both articles and paragraphs the paper supported him as against them when they differed, as they did on several occasions. From the first, Isaacs had cast in his lot with the newspaper, had spared no pains to ingratiate himself with its proprietor and the staff and exercised no small influence in pressing the Age itself into antagonism to the Bill. He had not forgotten the manner in which he had been publicly and privately humiliated in Adelaide and could not overlook the fact that in all the sittings his amendments and criticisms were received with scant consideration, unless they commended themselves to the drafting Committee. He was a strong-willed as well as a self-willed man, who under his exterior of calmness keenly felt these indignities, especially those to which he was subjected in Melbourne under the eyes of their parliamentary supporters and consequently, loyal as he was to his leader, did not shrink from using the paper against him as well as against his opponents in the Convention. They resented this deeply but could not cope with him in strategy. In the Age he stiffened the determination to attack the Bill, supplying their article writer and reporters with all the points that could be urged against it, while in the Cabinet he again employed all his arts of special pleading, threats and his untiring energy to carry his colleagues by the same road. Peacock, a Federalist before all else, resisted to the best of his power and for a time sustained the Premier, but at last when Turner declared definitely for the Age he too collapsed, and the whole team prepared for opposition except Peacock, who most reluctantly and with great regret still resisted the colleagues he was not prepared to leave. The closing days of the session therefore saw not only incomparably the most powerful paper in Victoria but also the Ministry and the three official delegates of the Convention together with Higgins and the labour and radical wing, definitely determined to defeat the Bill. Isaacs openly stated to Graham and other country members that they intended to declare against it and that it was thoroughly unacceptable to the colony. The outlook was serious and the conflict promised to be hard. Turner was in extremely bad health and about to submit to an operation. He was weaker than he otherwise might have been and Isaacs acting in his stead was continually closeted with the Age article writer in the Ministers' room during


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the last sittings of the Convention where they prepared together the explosion that was to follow the promulgation of the Bill. Reid's attitude was encouraging to all opponents of the measure and with both governments against the measure and both great papers (the Daily Telegraph in Sydney was for other reasons already even more openly hostile than the Age), it was clear that, doomed in these two colonies or indeed in either, the Bill was doomed altogether and any effort for Federation would require to be begun over again in some indefinite future.

Only those acquainted with Victorian politics from 1875 could realise the enormous influence exercised by the Age upon its 100,000 readers or at all events the great majority of them. The Times in its palmiest days was not more omnipotent in London nor the Tribune of Horace Greeley in New York. Its opposition meant that it would be almost hopeless to attempt to obtain the necessary 50,000 votes. Then the Ministry had but lately been returned to Parliament with a majority of nearly forty in a House of ninety-five and was still in the full flush of its prosperity. With its official standing and its members as official opponents of the Bill, its chances of even securing a majority of votes polled were small. But there are occasions in democratic Communities when all the powers that be are made to feel their subjection to the popular will, and this was one of them. The Government attitude was closely watched and clearly understood by a small group of six or eight young members of Parliament either belonging to the Australian Natives' Association or associated with it. Finding that Deakin and Quick at all events were prepared to champion the Bill at all hazards and against all adversaries, they met and agreed to united action. Their first step was to privately allow Peacock to understand that his opposition to the Bill meant a severance of all the ties which had untied him to them and to the Federal cause—a prospect from which he at once recoiled. They further conveyed to the cabinet through him, their resolution to make this a test question and if necessary to go into direct opposition to the Ministry in the Assembly upon it, making it the occasion of a final and irrevocable breach. Seeing that these young men included Mr Hume Cook, Mr Fink, Mr Kirton, Mr McCay, Dr Salmon, Mr Toutcher, Mr Watt and Mr Hamilton, who contained a large percentage of the ability and promise of the House, this intimation was serious for it was clear that their example would be followed by at least as many more Ministerial supporters and threaten at once the life of the Cabinet. Peacock


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at once declared his loyalty to be unimpaired and Turner relapsed into silence and meditation. The first blow had been struck. Isaacs alone declined to be intimidated and declared for the Age and its policy. Just then the time for the Annual Meeting of the Australian Natives' Association most opportunely arrived. It happened to be held in Bendigo and as most of the young members referred to belonged to its Board of Directors, a great effort was determined upon to capture this organization. Foreseeing the importance of this assembly, Isaacs and Higgins accepted invitations to be present. But the patriotic feeling was too strong. Toutcher, the President, who had been alarmed by Isaacs, might have hung back but in the hands of Cook, Kirton, Salmon and Watt neither he nor Peacock had any escape and they carried a recommendation from the Board in favour of the acceptance of the Bill. Deakin was sent for to the Age office before he left for Bendigo and subjected to an argument with the chief members of its editorial staff, who urged him to use his influence in moderating the anticipated action of the Natives' Conference in favour of the Bill. Its members however, who had been for years making this the one plank of their political platform, welcomed and unanimously approved the decision of the Directors. Still they almost trembled at their temerity and the Banquet the same night afforded Isaacs and Higgins an opportunity to plead for delay. It was in vain. Isaacs received an angrily hostile reception, mainly due to the manner in which he insisted upon proceeding with his carefully prepared plea for hesitation and further consideration coupled with attacks upon the measure, even after he knew the Conference and those at the Dinner were against him. Higgins, though better received because franker and because less was expected from him than from Isaacs who was Australian-born, made little or no impression. Purves and Deakin made passionate appeals to them to seize the opportunity to leap to the front and make the measure theirs, and the gathering which contained sixty or seventy delegates from all parts of the colony, rapturously responded and pledged themselves to the task in a scene of the wildest enthusiasm. They spoke for the youth of the colony and appealed to its heart so that the Banquet created an immense sensation. The second blow was struck.

When the Convention held its final sitting a day or two after, the colony was ringing with the Bendigo declaration of war. Turner was ill and Isaacs, who faced the situation with the same defiant resolution, spoke in a more diplomatic manner though


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without retreating from his position. But meanwhile other influences had been brought to bear upon Trenwith, who had already decided to support the measure, to speak at once and he did so with effect. This evidence that the one labour representative was satisfied to take the Bill on the part of the working men of Victoria, coupled with the evidence that a band of young politicians were prepared to join hands with him and with the Australian Natives' Association went home to the hearts of the people everywhere. Trenwith's adhesion was of the highest value as a reply to the Age declarations that the measure had been wholly shaped in a Conservative direction, and consequently on the very threshold of the contest, rendered this contention but partially tenable. The third blow was struck.

Without an instant's delay the Federal League and the Australian Natives' Association commenced to address meetings and prepare for a popular campaign. The Ministry hung back in silence. The Age suddenly wavered and, feeling the tide of public opinion running strongly against it, almost in spite of itself retracted some of its censures and while sneering at the patriotic enthusiasm of the young members of the Australian Natives' Association went so far as to admit that from a democratic point of view there was after all nothing to censure in the Bill. Its fault was that it was a bad bargain for Victoria and not just to vested interests. After this the paper relapsed into sulky silence, endeavoured to pose as impartial while finding all possible fault with the measure and at last gave a qualified dilatory and half-hearted declaration of acceptance of the Bill. The Ministry felt that the current was running from them, formally adopted the Bill and stepped among its warmest supporters and headed the battle on its behalf. A determined struggle against it was undertaken by Higgins, whose temper at last got the better of his judgment under the strain and whom the prominence and popularity he acquired with the Labour party carried for a time off his feet, but whose wonderful courage, endurance, resource and force of will won him a high place as leader of a forlorn hope. Nothing succeeds like success. Men of all parties joined hands to support the cause of Union which in Victoria attained an overwhelming victory. It would be idle to attempt to conjecture what might have been, if the few ardent Federalists of the Convention had Wavered or if the handful of young members and the Australian Natives' Association had not intervened just when and where they did, courageously burning their boats behind them. On the other hand


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but for the dangers, the Bill if it had been accepted at all in Victoria would have been adopted with far less éclat, with far less patriotic feeling and with far less emphasis than was the case when it became clear that the labour of years was imperilled and, even at the eleventh hour, the National Cause in imminent danger of defeat. (30.7.98)note.

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