previous
next



  ― 107 ―

16. 16 Delegates to England, 1900

WHEN IT BECAME CLEAR that the Commonwealth Bill would pass, Barton's friends proposed privately to the Government of Victoria through Deakin that he should be placed in charge of the Bill and sent to London to superintend its passage through Parliament. To this Sir George Turner declined to accede on the ground that no ambassador was required and that his presence might tempt proposals for amendment. The South Australian Government were understood to be equally unresponsive and as the suggestion of his appointment was to have been made through them, the project fell to the ground. The suggestion had been made with a double purpose. First, to as far as possible secure him the Premiership of the first Federal Government, and next with the idea that he might, for such a mission, be asked to accept a handsome retaining fee and thus recoup him to some extent for the losses he had sustained by his devotion to politics and particularly to the Federal cause. Although occupying a leading position at the Bar and in receipt of a considerable income for many years, Barton resembled Fox and the politicians of his day not only in appearance but in his inability to live within his income and his indifference to resulting embarrassments. The next movement privately conducted was to raise a fund among his friends which should start a public subscription for the purpose of paying his debts and if any surplus accrued, of investing it for the benefit of his wife and children. While this was hanging fire an unexpected event occurred which postponed this purpose and promised to achieve the first and higher aim of his admirers.

Early in 1900 Mr Chamberlain came to the conclusion that it would be necessary to amend the Commonwealth Bill which he was about to lay before the House of Commons in his capacity as Secretary of State for the Colonies. There was the further prospect that amendments might be moved in either House, of a character which, if they were aimed at the most radical portions of the measure, a Tory Government could scarcely resist, except under pressure of those responsible for them. There was also


  ― 108 ―
the circumstance that explanations might be demanded of matters upon which the Colonial Office was but imperfectly informed. In order if possible to divide the responsibility of any changes which might be made, and to prevent these from being multiplied so as to render the Bill unacceptable in Australia, he took the natural course of confidentially cabling an invitation to the federating colonies to appoint representatives and despatch them at once to London. No reference was made to the possibility of amendment. No explanation whatever was offered as to the purpose of the mission. It was an invitation in the nature of a command.

Probably the two men in Australia most exasperated at this occurrence were Reid and Lyne, for if New South Wales were to be represented at all it was plain that there was but one man whom the public voice would without hesitation or division indicate as her representative. Slow and secretive as usual, Lyne pondered as to what was best to be done for New South Wales and for himself, deciding that as Barton must go it would assert the supremacy of the mother colony if her delegate were chosen to represent all the group. Before he had advanced so far in his purpose and perhaps before he had even acquainted Barton with his intention, he was informed by telegram that his more enterprising neighbours to the south were already acting. The Victorian Government had appointed Deakin at the first moment they could obtain an acceptance from him, while South Australia, ever economical, proposed that one representative should act for all and mindful of the previous plan expressed its willingness to accept Barton. This may have been the origin of Lyne's later action. Tasmania certainly and Queensland probably would have been quite content to adopt the South Australian proposal. It was Victoria that blocked the way, though that colony had always been friendly to Barton, and Deakin his close ally throughout all the Federal campaigns. A Conference of Premiers was called to consider the situation but by the time it had assembled Victoria had acted and its emissary was on his way to England. Kingston had ceased to object to undertake the task and Dickson of Queensland was eager to join him. Each colony agreed to despatch a representative of its own, though all were to unite in appointing each of them so that each would represent the whole of the federating colonies. Their task was defined with most unequivocal plainness. They were to secure the passage of the Bill without amendment of any kind. A fortnight after Deakin left, Barton, Kingston and Dickson embarked, meeting him at Marseilles and arriving in


  ― 109 ―
London within a day of each other where Sir Philip Fysh as Agent-General for [Tasmania] acted in its name. Shortly afterward Sir John Forrest appointed Mr S. H. Parker, one of the oldest and ablest of the politicians of Western Australia to follow them and endeavour to obtain such alterations of the Bill as would encourage him to submit it to his Parliament and people. The Premier of New Zealand cabled his Agent-General, Mr Reeves, to take action to protect the interests of that colony and provide by anticipation favourable means for its entrance into the Union at pleasure. Consequently in April 1900, in response to Mr Chamberlain's cable every colony of Australasia, though two of them had not been included in his invitation, was represented at the centre of the Empire engaged in a struggle with one another and with the British Government in the interests of the several communities from which they came. The contest was nominally but only nominally, Australian. As a fact each delegate was in direct touch by cable with his own colony through its Ministry and was prepared if necessary with or without instructions to maintain its rights and fight for his own hand in more or less Federal fashion and with more or less Federal aims according to the ideal he most cherished and the interests of the colony for which he spoke.

But for the persistency of the McLean Ministry there was every probability that Lyne's hand would have been forced and that Barton would have gone to England as sole representative of Australia whatever his Premier's wishes were. If the Turner Ministry had remained in power it is almost certain that this course would have been followed. When Deakin, having been confidentially asked to accept the post of Victorian delegate and [having] taken time to consider the situation, waited upon Mr McLean to accept, he attached three preliminary conditions. First that as the purpose of the invitation was not plain, he thought that if amendments were contemplated the request ought to be respectfully declined with an intimation that the colonies were unable to sanction any alterations of a measure adopted by the electors or to nominate any persons who could sanction them. If the invitation was merely a compliment and for the purpose of ceremony, he thought it might be waived or some persons already in England appointed. Second, if no important amendment was to be proposed, one delegate could be selected to speak for all and recommended that Barton be chosen for the post. Finally he expressed himself willing to support the appointment of Sir George


  ― 110 ―
Turner or Dr Quick who polled higher than he did for the Convention, or of Mr Isaacs who was then on his way to England to appear as Counsel before the Privy Council in a Victorian appeal case. The latter would be an economical appointment for the Government and involve Isaacs in no loss, while to him acceptance meant the sacrifice of half a year's professional income at least. Mr McLean's position was so peculiar as to amuse even him with its irony. He allowed it to be seen that he was anxious in no respect to fall behind Lyne and was eager if possible to anticipate him before the public, both being anti-Federalists and both eager to give them the most unequivocal evidence of their official loyalty to the Bill now that its fortunes were to some extent committed to their charge. McLean was already keenly on the watch for some of Lyne's characteristic tricks by which he would seek to exploit the situation to his own profit. He put the whole position to Deakin with pleasant sincerity. He was anxious to demonstrate his Federal zeal, and his selection and that of the Cabinet had not been dictated by any affection for Deakin or any desire to do him honour. He was under no obligation to them for their choice which was simply that of the man to whom they thought the least objection could be taken. He scouted the names suggested, emphatically affirming that the Government meant to accept the invitation because to decline would be discourteous. They meant to send Deakin as the recognised Federal leader in Victoria so as to put their policy and themselves above suspicion. He pressed acceptance very strongly and was eager to announce the appointment in the press. Upon Deakin's insistence upon the necessity for further delay to learn the intentions of the other colonies, he very reluctantly consented to wait a few days longer till the following Tuesday but his apprehensions lest Lyne should forestall him led him to break his agreement. He telegraphed Deakin, who was at the seaside, on Friday that he could delay no longer and on Saturday the announcement appeared in the papers. As it then transpired that South Australia had suggested Barton, Deakin saw McLean again and offered to withdraw in his favour; a proposition to which the Premier absolutely refused to listen. Deakin then warned him that if Barton would accept the sole representation he (Deakin) would not consent to be the means of preventing this, but McLean at once retorted that the Government was resolved some Victorian should be sent and if Deakin declined another would take his place. The Ministry was subject to so much suspicion because four of its members were anti-Federalists


  ― 111 ―
that it was determined in its own interest to insist upon having its own delegate and one as wholly Federal as they could find. All he would agree [to] was to propose that Barton and Deakin should together act for Australia. To this however Queensland took exception as by this time apparently Dickson had decided to accept and in the end as usual each colony relied upon its own envoy. McLean made offers to Deakin similar to those made as was announced to Barton and Kingston, of a handsome allowance to compensate him for his professional losses during his absence, but these were declined by him on the ground that as a member of Parliament on public service he was only entitled to have expenses. Barton and he, having been in communication, understood each other's position before he left but few if any realised that it was simply because McLean as an anti-Federalist felt bound to advertise his full acceptance of the Bill which the electors had twice accepted and he had twice opposed, that Barton was prevented from being the sole ambassador. He would have welcomed such a distinction but on his return publicly rejoiced that the invitation had been accepted and that he had been associated with colleagues who could share the burdens it imposed. Not foresight but the accident of McLean's position decided that for him.

Barton, Kingston, Fysh and Deakin were old comrades in both great Conventions and knew each other well. Dickson was not a stranger but a comparatively recent Federalist. The oldest of the party, bald, white-haired and whiskered, below the middle height, with blue unexpressive eyes, an almost roman nose and a dapper figure, rather spare but in which the stomach was beginning to be prominent, he carried himself with the smartness of the city man of business. He was commercial by instinct and training, cold, cautious, calculating and Conservative, somewhat distrustful of his fellows and with the cynicism of the counting house in his conceptions. In private life he was stiff and punctilious but with a warm heart in his family and a brightness among friends which his general demeanour hardly promised. As a speaker he inclined to be tedious and monotonous and his tone had a complaining or querulous ring, but he was clear, precise, logical, employed good English, could strike a good blow and with an effort impart a good deal of heat to his address. A quiet, unobtrusive man, fully conscious of the dignity of his position, very sensitive to slight or ridicule, easy to appease but slow to forget, his methodical mind debiting his adversaries' account or crediting it according to his


  ― 112 ―
own reckoning of what was due. When annoyed he retained something of the auctioneer's strident and insistent gabble and a certain spitefulness but was at most times frigidly polite, circumspect and self-contained. There was much to respect and something to admire in this elderly politician, who like so many of his contemporaries had become a Liberal in spite of himself and in contradiction to all his tastes and inherited opinions. The sudden death of Byrnes had left the succession of the leadership an open question. Philp, by far the more popular of the eligible Ministers, was a strenuous Federalist and when he withdrew to the second place in Dickson's favour it appeared to be upon condition that the latter should espouse the same policy. This he had resisted as stoutly as Byrnes when the subject was discussed in the Federal Council at Hobart, where both displayed much bitterness towards the Convention movement and combined to prevent Queensland from being represented in it. When to be Premier it became necessary for Dickson to become moderately Liberal and strongly Federal, he did so with a good grace and from that time forward pursued his new course with admirable consistency. When Barton and Deakin visited Queensland as Federal missionaries he took his place beside them upon the platform and was unhesitating in his declaration for union though his Government was by no means unanimous, Parliament itself distinctly critical, the Assembly about equally divided, the Council emphatically hostile and Brisbane as a whole against a measure which was supposed to threaten its trade. He faced all these odds and fought the Referendum through with a quiet unflinching fealty and ability that did a great deal to secure its victory. No man in Queensland had a better right to represent the colony in London. The Federal debt to him for his invaluable aid was in no way discharged by this compliment. Out of the weaknesses, waywardnesses, personal antagonisms, pettinesses, ambitions and party necessity of the Premiers the movement shaped its own course and arrived with very varying obligations to those who were most prominent in giving effect to the deep, instinctive, popular will for unity.

Mr Parker, the representative of the tardiness of Western Australia, despatched at the last moment to haggle for further concessions, was a plump, well-mannered and pleasant little lawyer, fluent, astute, and flattering. At the beginning of self-government in Western Australia he had been long looked upon in society as its certain first Premier and leading politician but though he was everything that Forrest was not, quicker, brighter, more sympathetic,


  ― 113 ―
better educated, better read, more polished, more presentable, a constitutional student, and fertile in political expedients, his instability, want of principle, and stamina soon left him hopelessly in the rear. Whether as colleague or opposition leader, he was equally powerless against the downright vigour, robust common sense and homely hard-headedness of Sir John, whose envoy he now consented to be, discharging the difficult task allotted to him with much address and judgment, despite the rather contemptuous treatment he received both from Mr Chamberlain and the Colonial Office and the Australian delegates in opposition to whom he appeared in London. His was a forlorn hope from the first though the Secretary of State for the Colonies was most anxious to secure some concession for a colony still retaining a closer relation with Downing Street than its neighbours, partly because it had scarcely outgrown its Crown Colony habits and partly because Forrest himself had been so long in power before and after its enfranchisement that he was almost a permanent official. All the future States of the Commonwealth were represented upon the stage at the last scene of the last act which closed the contests of ten years with a last wrestle against no less antagonists than the British Government in general and its most capable negotiator, Mr Chamberlain, in particular.

previous
next