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1. I Victorian Federalists

TODAY, SATURDAY MARCH 12TH 1898, after an all-night's sitting and under conditions of great nervous exhaustion and irritability we have practically completed the draft Bill for the Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth. Whether it remains like its predecessor a mere draft marking only another stage in the development of the Federal principle, or whether it prove the bond of union between the separate colonies and the creation of a national Australian Parliament and Government, some notes on the circumstances attending its evolution and final adoption may possibly prove interesting if not valuable hereafter. The outer history and official records of debates and documents of the present Convention cover more than 5,000 pages of print, without reckoning the associated development of the Federal Council or related debates in that Council and upon these Conventions in the several Parliaments, which occupy 5,000 pages more. Ample material lies open to the student of the future to comprehend and criticise their work and it asks but patience, together with some acquaintance with the political methods and social and material conditions of the period to enable him to digest and comprehend its significance and the circumstances of its adoption. But here as elsewhere the inner history of the movement and private aspects of those concerned in it will always be much less easy to restore or interpret. Yet much of the Constitution and more of its fortunes have been determined by the individual idiosyncrasies, attractions and repulsions of those workmen who had a hand in building it. In addition to the obvious influences of the times, there has been a great deal due to causes of which press and public alike have remained in ignorance. In some instances grave misapprehensions have obtained currency as to the parentage of particular proposals. Memory affords a less and less trustworthy witness as the years roll on, and hence this sketch, undertaken while the last series of events are fresh in recollection and almost all the actors in all the stages still upon the scene, may suffice to supplement and to some degree to interpret the outer shape of the Constitution about to be offered to the Australian


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people. A rude outline of the course of public events must be given as preliminary and as framework to the reminiscences.

The Federal Union of Australia, projected even in the days of Wentworth, was discussed in Victoria at an early period. The Chairman of the Royal Commission which even in the fifties considered and recommended a united government was Mr, afterwards Sir Charles Gavan Duffy. His colonial career though brilliant in parts was on the whole unsatisfactory, largely owing to British prejudice against an avowed ‘Irish rebel’ and partly owing to unattractive characteristics of temperament. My acquaintance with him was slight and short. He was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly when I entered it for a day in 1879 but not when I returned in 1880. His intellectual forehead, dignified demeanour and carefully polished utterances well fitted him for the post, though his voice at once weak and harsh, thin and squeaky, and his cold calculating eyes indicated the physical and emotional defects which helped to cripple his efforts and to defeat his soaring ambition. The literary graces and practised craftsmanship manifest in all his writings indicate the natural bent of his abilities and enable him to present in his autobiography a flattering full-length portrait of himself as he believed himself or desired others to believe him to be. He was statesman enough to foresee the future of the Federal movement and politician enough to endeavour to employ this and other issues discernible outside the beaten track of politics to improve his status. During his Premiership, by sheer force of ability he aroused a loyalty among his supporters and a hatred among his antagonists which made its brief existence as marked as it was diversified. His speeches as head of the Government were distinctly superior in power, breadth and finish to those with which the electors were familiar. He fell because of the weakness of his colleagues, the composite character of his following and the personal rancour provoked by his antecedents and his disposition. His own picture of himself discovers a patriot as forgiving as he was unselfish, but the tradition of his opponents emphasises qualities of an exactly opposite nature.

An illustration of his temper is supplied by his treatment of Mr Gillies, with whom he had been politically acquainted for some years and always on friendly terms though they were in no sense intimate outside of Parliament. Even at an early period Duffy aspired to the Chair which he afterwards filled most creditably, and his aim being discovered, was made the subject of a cartoon in Punch in which Sir Charles McMahon was represented regarding


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himself in a mirror as he donned the Speaker's robes, while Duffy in the dress of an Irish peasant, shillalah in hand, crawled from under a table with the exclamation ‘Drop that, ye spalpeen.’ During the illness of the Editor of Punch some year or eighteen months previously, Gillies, who was a friend of his, had conducted the paper gratuitously though most successfully for some time, but upon his friend's recovery had ceased to have any voice or interest in it. Duffy at this time spent his Sundays at Sorrento where, on seeing the cartoon prematurely disclosing his plans, he was seized with a frenzy of rage and in spite of the assurances of his friend O'Grady who was his guest, persisted in attributing it to Gillies. When therefore on his return to town he met Gillies, who had not even seen the cartoon at the time and greeted him as usual, he fixed upon him an angry glare and strode by without the slightest sign of recognition. They remained absolute strangers except when obliged to address each other in the House until on the formation of his Ministry, Duffy sent first O'Grady and then McLellan and others as emissaries to induce Gillies to join his Cabinet, only to be met with a prompt refusal and the assurance that until the amplest apology was made by him, Gillies would neither join him nor, except so far as questions of policy were concerned, give him any personal support whatever. [Even] if Duffy apologised Gillies would not agree to join him, and as he maintained an absolute silence, they never spoke again. To request the alliance of a man to whom he would not extend the ordinary civilities of political and private life, and to cherish an animosity for years, which he must have had a least a strong suspicion and probably had a conviction had been based upon a foolish blunder of his own, indicates the co-existence of passions which must necessarily hamstring the influence of any leader. It was certainly some such defects that occasioned his failure to hold positions for which he possessed many manifest qualifications. But for them he might as Premier have laid an earlier foundation for Australian Union and have ruled the destinies of Victoria for years.

In 1871 a handful of young men, of whom Mr J. L. Purves was the most able and conspicuous, met together to establish an Association which should be at once a benefit society and a National political organisation. At the time of its foundation and indeed for years afterwards so far as it attained to notoriety at all it was chiefly to be ridiculed because membership was limited to those born in Australia, though generally [it was] ignored. It grew quietly and unobtrusively for about ten years when a few young


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men of marked enthusiasm and ability attained to its control. In the hands of a very Sir Galahad, Thomas J. Hart, a deeper and truer note was struck which even after his lingering and untimely death inspired a number of sincere disciples. In 1880 a resolution in favour of Federation was tabled in the Legislative Assembly by Mr James Munro, a politician who before the fighting days of 1876–80 had forged to the front, and during them, though largely absorbed in making his fortune, had frequently endeavoured to create an independent party. He was supported by Dr Quick and discouraged by the then Premier Mr Graham Berry, to both of whom we must return at a later period. The debate never reached a division and so far as I remember aroused little interest. The Australian Natives' Association from time to time stirred the languid pulse of public interest and it was about this time that it began to emerge upon the stage of public affairs. Its centre at this time was in Ballarat and district, where Mr T. J. Hart of Stawell breathed into it a higher sentiment of duty and power than had up till then inspired its members. Of a sensitive and delicate organisation, a religious habit, and singularly pure and noble character, he impressed himself powerfully upon his association and would have taken a high position as the leader of the Association had not his untimely death cut short a life of remarkable promise. He was well read, thoughtful, and an excellent speaker, all but winning the seat for Stawell against a very popular representative. His work lived after him, and as he had foreseen and provided the Association as a national patriotic force came to the front with a rush in 1883. Hart's mantle soon after fell upon another Australian of splendid promise, a young Bendigo lawyer, Mr T. Jefferson Connelly, afterwards Councillor and Mayor of that City, who brought to bear upon its counsels uncommon mental capacity, great force of character and an intellectual energy which enabled it to retain and improve the position thus gained in public regard. He too unhappily and prematurely was taken from us. Still it may fairly be said that from 1883 onwards the growing influence of this Association was never absent from the consideration of Federal issues and that the steady work done in its branches contributed in a large degree to render the movement actual and persistent.

Its influence was consolidated under the judicious direction of Mr G. H. Wise of Sale and Mr Peacock (afterwards Chief Secretary), but it was largely due to the return to active service of one of its founders, Mr J. L. Purves, a Q.C. and one of the leaders of the Bar, that its prestige was enlarged and public attention


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attracted to its proceedings. The son of one of the early Victorian squatters, Mr Purves was educated partly in Germany and partly in England where he was admitted as a barrister. A typical Australian in his devotion to sport in all its branches, an exceptionally good shot and endowed with a powerful physique hardened by outdoor exercise, he flung himself into all the pleasures of his time and surroundings, including some continental gambling escapades in which he lost his own money, then that of his friend, then that which he borrowed to enable them to return to England, and only avoided having to beg their way home by a lucky accident. Poverty drove him to the press, at first in London where he earned a precarious livelihood on a now forgotten comic paper, and afterwards in Melbourne, where for a time he contributed to the Age. His first years of attempted practice at his profession proved as unprofitable as usual. The money he received from his family was spent as soon as received, if not all anticipated and pledged in advance. It was under these circumstances that he received a brief to appear in a remote country town for which he left with his usual heedlessness at the last moment, to find that there was no coach from the terminus to the town in which the court was to open next morning. The landlord was aware of his emergency, and demanded an extortionate sum for the hire of the only available buggy and pair, whereupon the wrathful young advocate with characteristic heat described him in terms which rendered further negotiation impossible, and set out to walk the 40 miles which separated him from his destination. His boots were new, purchased no doubt none too soon and in honour of his windfall, and after a few miles' tramping his feet were so tortured that he had to halt at a wayside public house. Here he was appealed to by a couple of laborers who had just finished digging a tank for a neighbouring farmer at a price per yard and who found themselves utterly unable to calculate the sum they were justified in charging for the excavation made. Purves, though never a careful or accurate calculator, boldly attacked the problem with results in the way of charges which filled his employers with wonder and delight. Next morning he was up at daylight to make another start, but his feet proving too tender for him to proceed, he was reduced to turn in to the first house he came to, where a scene of some excitement was proceeding between three men on the front verandah. His arrival was hailed as most opportune by all of them, for they included his two clients for whom he had undertaken the marvellous calculation of quantities, and an infuriated


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farmer whose opinion of their honesty and greed was being expressed in the most unqualified manner, Nothing daunted he faced the situation, corrected the account and harmonised the contending parties, after which he succeeded in borrowing a mare big with foal, upon whose back he completed his journey in time to hold his brief and gain his case. Never a studious man, though well read in the lighter literature of France and England and in the biography of adventurous men, he remained as little of a case lawyer as was possible and indeed as little of a lawyer of any kind as was compatible with the large practice which accrued when his great powers of cross-examination, his worldly wisdom, and remarkable gifts as an advocate carried him to the top of his profession. In spite of faults of temper which limited the numbers of his friends and multiplied inordinately those of his enemies, his attractiveness and force as a public speaker, added to the weight of his position combined to render his Presidency of the Australian Natives' Association for two years a memorable period of its history. In his political life he had been a fierce opponent of Sir Charles [Gavan] Duffy, but as head of the Association he did much to advertise and popularise the cause of which the brilliant Irishman had been one of the first prophets in Australia. The alliance of opposing local politicians in the National cause was evidence even then of the breadth and height of Federal feeling in Victoria.

The fact that Purves did not achieve anything more for Federation at any time than his powerful platform addresses was due to more serious faults than those of temper. His negligence in correspondence with constituents and the irregularity of his attendance at the House helped to drive and keep him out of Parliament which he had merely made a theatre for the display of his oratory or the gratification of his humour. But it was his want of application and of a sound foundation for his views which proved permanently fatal to his ambition. He had little taste for study, less perseverance, and least of all concentration. He was by inclination and habit a sportsman on land and water, happiest with gun and line in hand and attached to his profession only for its excitements and emoluments. His politics were those of his class, picked up at hazard and modified by judgment or necessity. Except upon larger patriotic issues he was always upon the unpopular side and never sufficiently qualified or sufficiently in earnest to conduct a consistent campaign. When the tide set towards what was called Nationalism in New South Wales he was prepared to regard the ultimate independence of the colonies as


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assured but at a later date went even more strongly in the direction of loyalty [to the Empire]. This instability was fatal to his chances of success in politics and limited those won at the Bar to his triumphs of cross-examination and his consummate art in handling juries. The part he played in the Federal movement was that of the stirring and effective speaker whose appeals to the emotions of his hearers were repaid with tumultuous applause. The strength of his constitution and frequency of physical exercise enabled him to lead in town for some [time] a life as fast as that of a roystering squire and man-about-town. He had no lack of adherents and followers in this as in his other essays. As a business manager he was a mere figure-head but as a centre of public interest and inspiration he far surpassed all the Presidents of the Australian Natives' Association who either preceded or succeeded him. His arrogance, uncertainty of mood, and unevenness of style were compensated for, if not concealed, by his generosity, placability, flashes of judgment and prevailing good fellowship. His enthusiasm for the cause was sincere and the courage with which he faced prosperity, adversity and all the chances of fortune was that of a man. The Australian Natives' Association played a great part from first to last in pushing on the time-servers among the politicians and in securing popular approval to the Bill when it was framed. Its leaders were young men of varied ability and information, most of them well trained in debate and all deeply in earnest in the National cause. They merited great praise for all that they accomplished, but Purves was the only one of their chiefs whose personality stood out when in office and out of office as a powerful Federal champion. The association was powerful only in Victoria.

One man who left the deepest impress upon the public life and parliamentary traditions of Victoria was equally potent in his influence upon its patriotism. The greatest of Australian orators and of Australian Liberals, the noblest nature and the most refined, George Higinbotham was at the same time the most ardent of Imperialists in policy and more than any other man or group of men stamped that sentiment upon his associates in the House and his followers throughout the country. None of the other colonies exhibited just the same firm alliance between radicalism and loyalty to the mother country because no other colony had a Higinbotham. His practical career whether at the Bar, in the Assembly or on the Bench was never an unqualified success in the ordinary acceptation of that term. His standards were too high,


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his temper too unbending, his scrupulousness too undiscriminating to render him a colleague whom it was easy to co-operate with or to understand. Just to a hair's-breadth and generous to a fault, he was yet tyrannical as duty itself and uncompromising as chastity in little as well [as] great affairs. But if he was too great for the great positions he filled, he was filled with a holiness of purpose that in many a crisis crowned as with an aureole his singularly beautiful head and face, and thrilled through his rich harmonious voice. His manner in its simple dignified courtesy surpassed that of any man in Victoria or Great Britain no matter how high his station or important his office. As a speaker he was at once cultured, simple and effective, passionate and yet self-restrained. His influence was more magnetic, his thoughts—political, religious and social—more radical, and his will more dominating than Morris'[s] Memoir describes. Such a man, rare in the world, seemed rarer still in Australia where his inflexible purity of life and aim, his irresistible charm and grace, and his transcendent power of convincing and being convinced, left an indelible impression upon so many minds and characters, that, Federalist heart and soul, though his position [as Chief Justice] sealed his lips upon the question, it was he who imparted to [the Federal Cause] in Victoria a special note of undeviating loyalty to the Empire.

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