previous
next



  ― 99 ―

15. 15 Federation Approved, 1898–1899

WHEN THE COMMONWEALTH BILL was submitted to the electors in 1898 there followed platform campaigns which in New South Wales and Victoria in particular were the keenest ever witnessed. The latter colony was thoroughly well canvassed and owing to the energy of the Federal League embracing organizations of every political complexion and of the Australian Natives' Association whose members with hardly an exception became the active emissaries of union everywhere, a superb victory resulted. In New South Wales the Federal Party was to some extent paralysed by the attitude of Mr Reid and by the vivid provincialism of Sydney, inflamed almost to madness by the extraordinary efforts of the Daily Telegraph which shrank from no suggestion, insinuation or assertion that could stimulate the hate, fear, cupidity, jealousy, envy or animus of its readers. In spite of these odds the Federalists headed by Mr Barton, though poorer in funds and richer in scruples than their antagonists, maintained a most gallant and spirited conflict. Mr R. E. O'Connor, Mr Wise and Mr McMillan spent themselves heroically in the cause with the result that a majority was secured in the colony as a whole, though not in Sydney and not the [8]0,000 required for the acceptance of the measure. South Australia and Tasmania joined Victoria by large votes but the mother colony remaining aloof, the movement came practically to an end. The battle was lost. The work of the Convention seemed fruitless. An alliance between Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania was not of the question. The anti-Federalists everywhere rejoiced. Their victory seemed to them complete and final.

The Federalists of New South Wales however, under their trusted leaders, rallied immediately and resolved to continue the struggle. Time they felt was upon their side and what was more, with a general election close at hand, the fact that a majority at the poll had votes for union enabled them to take heart of grace. They closed their ranks, maintained their organizations and began at once to take ground in readiness for the coming dissolution.


  ― 100 ―
The man who had wrecked the cause was however no less alive to his perils than they were. He dared not allow them a monopoly of the Federal vote and accordingly declared for an amended Bill. So transparent was the trick that South Australia and Tasmania declined his invitation to a Conference of Premiers to consider the situation. He proposed that Queensland should be asked to attend though within the week its Premier, Mr Byrnes, had announced that the question of Union could afford to be discussed for some years before a definite decision need be given upon it. The Victorian Government, acting with the advice of Mr Deakin, on the other hand thought it desirable to give him an opportunity of stating his case and undesirable to allow him to contend that it was because their design upon New South Wales had been defeated that chagrin prevented the other colonies from even listening to his proposals. Sir John Forrest also opposed the Conference because he too wished a definite decision postponed for some years. Mr Reid's position was then rendered more serious by the determination of the Opposition to sink the fiscal issue and appeal to the country as Federalists solely upon the Convention Bill. He began to prepare for another change of front. A caustic article from his antagonist, Wise, appeared in the National Review for July 1899 trenchantly painting his Federal career. At the outset in 1891 he had been an anti-Federalist in opposition to Sir Henry Parkes, and only when it became necessary to deprive him of the leadership did he himself espouse the cause, clutching at the Corowa proposal for a popularly elected Convention as the means. He employed this in a leisurely way so as to maintain his Ministerial position in New South Wales and as he became after Parkes's death the Federal leader of the leading colony, was ardent in his loyalty until first Mr Barton's position above him on the poll and in the Convention robbed his advocacy of all zest. The poor figure he made as a contributor to the framing of the Constitution assisted to alter his attitude. His visit to England at the Jubilee led him to regard the post of Agent-General as one to which he could retire with profit and pleasure when his Premiership seemed likely to draw to a close. He returned to Australia believing that the Convention would fail and at the Sydney and Melbourne Conventions did his best to ensure its failure. Afraid to altogether oppose the Bill when submitted to the electors, he wished it to be defeated and felt sure that it would be defeated without his taking an active part in its overthrow. As however popular enthusiasm grew and it became plain that Mr Barton, his


  ― 101 ―
one dreaded rival, Mr O'Connor, his ablest political opponent in the legislature, and Mr Wise, his pet personal antipathy, were likely to achieve a triumph in which he had no share, he threw off the mask, speaking more and more strongly against the Bill. That, in the teeth of the covert opposition and open dislike, a majority of the electors should support the Convention Bill came as a shock to his Ministry and to himself. With ignominious haste he once more tacked so as to sail with the wind and hence his declaration for the bill ‘improved’, upon which he faced the elections. He himself defeated Mr Barton who had chivalrously challengedhim in his own constituency and Mr R. E. O'Connor was rejected owing to the Labour influence for the seat which he contested, but three of the Cabinet disappeared and his majority was seriously reduced. He had already attacked Mr Barton personally more than once and soon after, with his colleagues at his heels, visited and canvassed against him for the seat which a friend had resigned in his favour, revealing by his bitterness and malice the meanness of the motives which had governed and continued to govern his Federal policy. When Barton was elected in spite of him, and chosen leader of the Opposition in spite of his endeavours to prevent it, he at once publicly bespoke his aid on behalf of the national cause—and received it.

Resolutions were proposed and carried in the New South Wales Parliament declaring for Union but requiring that the Bill should be amended in ten particulars of which five were material. The other colonies accepting this act as a pledge that New South Wales was prepared to join upon these terms, agreed to a Conference of Premiers in Melbourne for their consideration. The Victorian Convention delegates met in advance at the request of the Premier to advise him as to his attitude. It was unanimously agreed that the proposals to liberalise the Bill should be supported and even Higgins consented to the view that it would be useless to attack equal representations in the Senate or the counting of the electors by States, in a referendum dealing with proposed amendments of the Constitution. Reid came to the Conference trembling because of the danger of his position in New South Wales and the Conference at once felt that he was at their mercy. He brought with him as counsellors Mr Coghlan, the statist, as his adviser upon financial issues and Mr Garran, the author of The Coming Commonwealth, as his counsellor upon legal and constitutional matters. His own weakness was illustrated in the most remarkable way by his frequent withdrawals from his colleagues in order to consult


  ― 102 ―
Coghlan and Garran, who for that purpose were provided with an adjoining room. Often when a discussion appeared closed he would retire and after being closeted with them return freshly primed to reopen the debate. But if he was unable to make up his own mind he was equally unable to conceal the fact that he must needs accept whatever they were pleased to give him. All his attacks upon the Bill proved to have been merely tactical except the censure of the requirement of a three-fifths majority at joint sitting and the essential vote-catching proviso, that the capital should be in New South Wales and if possible in Sydney. In point of fact in the last resort he must have been content with the local bribe alone if it had not been the wish of a majority of the Premiers to take advantage of the situation and liberalise the measure before a second referendum and to justify taking it. Consequently the two important amendments, providing a simple majority at joint sittings and widening the power of amendment by allowing either House to remit an issue to the electors, were adopted by them as much as by him. They were alterations desired, independently by and for their own sakes, by Turner and Kingston and to which Dickson assented to appease the Liberals of his colony. Braddon, like Reid, was prepared to take what he could get. Only Forrest opposed them. The alterations allowing the Federal Parliament after ten years the power of revising the Customs distribution and financial arrangements generally, and requiring the assent of electors before changes are made in a State's boundaries, were trifling variations of procedure which would have been so expressed at any time. Reid's one and only achievement was in securing the permanent capital for New South Wales. Turner's condition that it must be of at least 100 square miles and 100 miles distant from Sydney were suggested to him by Deakin. The securing of the first meeeting of the Parliament for Melbourne was his own device. Reid even in this regard had practically to accept whatever he could get. If he had been a little more exigeant, the last provision in favour of Melbourne would not have been insisted upon. The Victorians were quite prepared to have accepted a share of the parliamentary annual sittings pending the choice of a permanent capital and to have allowed Sydney a similar compliment and if necessary Brisbane and Adelaide as well. Reid's situation did not allow him any latitude, as became manifest when he presently accepted the rest of the Constitution just as it was. The many baits he had employed during the late campaign to arouse the suspicions, alarms and


  ― 103 ―
jealousies of the constituencies were now discarded without a struggle or a complaint. Forrest was equally insincere, for while pressing for special consideration for Western Australia he did not exert his utmost influence on their behalf. He wished for the concessions but was prepared to wait for them, not wishing to strengthen the case for the Bill in case it should pass in the eastern colonies. As a fact he was convinced that it would not be adopted in New South Wales and that in any case it would not be accepted in Western Australia. It was his desire to pose as a Federalist in his own colony as well as beyond but at the same time he aimed at delaying the union of the colonies for a few years and in Western Australia for five or ten years, even if she stood alone outside the Federation. The key to the whole position in the Conference was held by Dickson, whom Reid had proposed to use to further his own ends, regarding the consent of Queensland as entirely dependent upon his own. When asked his requirements at the very outset Dickson contented himself with the power to subdivide his colony for the Senatorial elections and this being promptly conceded, declared himself satisfied with whatever else his fellow-Premiers might agree. Seeing that the adhesion of New South Wales was still uncertain and Reid's future policy unpredictable even by himself, this declaration was of the first importance. It not only allowed Turner and Kingston to have their way in their liberalising aim but rendered Reid's position and that of his colony too so isolated that he could not even haggle long over the details of his surrender. He had not obtained the abolition of the Braddon blot, or of the book-keeping, or of the principle of the return of the surplus, or the control of inland rivers, or the immunity of all money bills from Senatorial amendment, or the uniform appeal from State Courts, all of which he had proclaimed essentials of Union. He had got nothing more than his fellows thought fit and much less than they were prepared to concede if necessary. Dickson, though free from most of Reid's embarrassments was equally determined, though in a quieter way, to be the Federal leader in his colony. His adhesion, utterly unexpected by Forrest as by Reid, weakened both and overcame Sir John's strong objections to those provisions which he also detested. Not having the courage to stand alone he fell in with the policy of his fellow-Premiers and a unanimous decision of theirs became in this curious way the means of launching the Federal movement once more. Dickson's position was from a public point of view honourable, that of Turner, Kingston and


  ― 104 ―
Braddon was honourable, consistent and patriotic, that of Reid and Forrest was selfish and discreditable. They were dragged at the heels of their fellows, but in their agreement all was willingly forgotten and forgiven them.

The decline of his reputation [and] of his Ministerial strength coupled with his ambition to secure the Federal Premiership and to take Barton's place as leader of the movement in New South Wales led Reid to conduct the second Federal Referendum Campaign with characteristic vigour, capacity and effrontery. He did not hesitate to admit that his change of front was due to the fact that formerly Barton led and that now he himself was the chief figure in the fray and entitled therefore to the chief reward. His old allies of course bitterly upbraided him and his new allies regarded him distrustfully askance, but to such considerations he was comparatively indifferent. The Premiership of Australia would compensate for and cover all that led up to that eminence and induce the people to forget the devious ways by which he had been driven to accomplish the end he had so long sought to defeat. His platform addresses were far the brightest and most effective of the time but at the same time they scarcely produced the anticipated effect. The alterations made in the Bill in a democratic direction had detached from the anti-Federalists several of their most effective debaters. The Ministerial influence which was formerly adverse was now favourable. Federal feeling had been steadily growing and the slanders of the provincialists fell into the contempt bred of familiarity and reflection. The second referendum was a great victory in every colony, greater than its predecessor and conclusive as to the feeling of the voters. Even the Legislative Council of New South Wales recognised that the battle was over, and the addresses to the Queen submitting the Bill to the British Parliament passed in every colony including Queensland where except for a visit paid by Mr Barton, the honours of carrying a colony hitherto unrepresented since 1891 lay first with Mr Dickson and Mr Philp and then with Mr Drake, Mr Higgs and the Brisbane Courier, always staunch to the cause.

There followed a backwash of a totally unexpected character and within a few months Mr Reid, Sir George Turner, Mr Kingston, Sir Edward Braddon and Mr Dickson were all ejected from office. After a very short interval Mr Holder in South Australia and Mr Philip in Queensland reconstructed the defeated Cabinet and Mr Dickson himself took office as lieutenant instead of leader. In these colonies as in Tasmania and Victoria the


  ― 105 ―
change was brought about from local reasons. The Turner Ministry fell because it had outlived its usefulness and its reputation. The fact that the new Premier, Mr Allan McLean, had been the leader of the country wing of the anti-Federalists was a mere coincidence. He was the ablest debater available to head the attack upon his old colleagues and hence his selection for a post which one or two others declined. Mr Reid however fell because the Federal Opposition owed him no allegiance, his own party were becoming weary of his tergiversations and the Daily Telegraph had been transformed into a furious enemy by his somersault back to the Bill. But his place was not taken by Mr Barton, who resigned the leadership of the Opposition in order that Mr Lyne might secure the support of members who found him a more malleable chief and more nearly akin to themselves. The anti-Federal feeling was against Reid sufficiently to turn the scale, because Lyne who openly opposed the Bill at the first Referendum while Reid did so in an underhand fashion, had again opposed it in its amended form at the second Referendum and though he had neither the ability nor platform power which rendered him at all formidable, as the ex-leader of the Opposition and of the Protectionists his name carried a certain weight. He had some estimable and some amiable qualities which attached his friends [to him] in private life and in personal relations. In public life, like Reid, he had but the one aim—his own aggrandisement. Reid's one consistency was his adherence to Free Trade, though his last Budget was regarded by the fiscal stalwarts among his supporters as a betrayal of its principles. Lyne's one consistency lay in adherence to Protection and though the necessity of opposing Reid doubtless counted for a good deal in hardening his faith, he appeared to be sincere in this regard. Beyond this his politics were a chaos and his career contemptible. Though a Tasmanian born he appealed at all times to the narrowest Sydney and New South Wales provincialism by the pettiest and meanest acts and proposals. He was an anti-Federalist from the first except upon terms which should ensure the absolute supremacy of his own colony as a stepping-stone to his own elevation. He cut the sorriest figure of any member of the Convention and was one of the feeblest leaders of an Opposition ever beheld in Australia. Slow-witted, clumsy of speech and figure, suspicious to the last degree and parochial in every conception, he was little more scrupulous than Reid whose brilliancy, aptness and readiness in debate he set off to the utmost advantage, acting as his butt and chopping-block


  ― 106 ―
with a painful pertinacity, whose only merits were its patient endurance and dogged resistance. As an administrator and financier he was sounder in a plodding way than his dazzling rival, perhaps from sheer want of capacity to kite-fly with the same royal magnificence. His one idea of leadership was to obey his party and keep them together. Their principles were his and his one test of a policy was the votes it commanded. Weak and obstinate, stubborn and plastic, cunning but slow, the electors of New South Wales welcomed with cordiality if not with enthusiasm this drab, doleful and monotonous Premier as a relief because of his contrast with the scintillating insincerity of his jovial predecessor. Conservative by disposition and by opinion so far as he had any, he purchased the support of the Labour party and by the help of Mr Wise, who was his Attorney-General, and of Mr See, his Treasurer, continued to clutch the coveted keys of office in momentary terror lest he should lose them. Under an exterior of unpretentious plainness he cultivated the ambition of repaying the debts he owed to Barton who had placed him in power by either translating him out of politics or superseding him as opportunity might arise. He cherished no more regard for the ally who had saved the party than he did for his antagonist, Reid, who had so long mocked at him and at his paltry schemes for office which that dashing soldier of fortune foiled with derisive address for so many years. Neither to Reid nor Lyne did the Federalists remain under any real obligation. Aiming only at their own advantage, they rendered great services to the cause not for its sake but to serve themselves. The same reproach in some degree attached to Parkes and even to Turner at one crisis but in their case these were but aberrations and in Turner's was not based merely upon personal considerations. Parkes too was fired by an adequate conception of what Union must mean and by an honourable ambition to found it upon the broadest principles. Reid and Lyne would have founded it upon anything the electors wished, but only either under pressure of necessity or because of its promises of power. Forrest in his clumsier way used the movement for his own ends as well as those of Western Australia. Dickson adopted it somewhat later. The Premiers are the chief figures with Mr Barton in the history of the movement but their part in it is by no means the most praiseworthy.

previous
next