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20. 20 Chamberlain's Divide and Conquer

THE GENERAL ATTITUDE of the British Government to the Australian delegates in 1900 differed considerably from that of 1887. At the first Imperial Conference the work had been preliminary, general and tentative. The Home Government then occupied the position of advantage in every respect while the colonies were divided among themselves. The occasion was of importance because it was the first attempt at formal co-operation of the Empire as a whole and its success made it memorable. But if it had failed neither party would have been injured and no bitterness would have arisen. Sir Henry Holland [afterwards Lord Knutsford], most lovable of men, courteous, conciliatory and firm, was supported by the Premier himself both at the opening of the Conference and at the secret session with reference to the New Hebrides, by the Admiralty on the discussions relating to Naval Defence and by other Ministers when matters affecting their Departments were debated. He was the Chairman of all the meetings but the mouthpiece of his Government only on special questions, while his deference to his Chief when he attended was punctilious and marked. When the inevitable photograph of the representatives present was taken, with the modesty and politeness that were natural to him he took his place in the back row, his head just appearing behind three ranks of his guests whom he had placed before himself. The man and the motive of the gathering which was to bring the colonies to the front were dramatically expressed by this grouping.

The second occasion when all the colonies were again present in London by invitation in 1897 was chiefly ceremonial in character. The discussions held were with the Secretary for the Colonies alone, brief, unimportant and without special result. They were not only subsidiary but in the nature of a second thought. The British Government was host and the colonial representatives its guests assembled to do honour to the Queen at her Jubilee. The photograph taken was again significant in itself as well as by contrast with that of 1887. Mr Chamberlain occupied a chair


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in the centre of the front rank of the picture, the only person seated while the Premiers of all the Colonies stood in respectful attention around him though they were his visitors, present in response to his invitation. The motive of this assembly was partly to use the colonies for the benefit of the Ministry of the day. In 1900 there was no photograph. If it had been taken, it ought to have shown Mr Chamberlain and his officials on one side of a table and the Australians upon another, both parties preserving a polite antagonism to each other. They were present again by invitation and to assist the Ministry of the day, but theirs was a business errand of a serious character and upon its issue depended the relations between the mother country and her most distant dependency, that of which the future was most promising, the habitable area largest, the wealth greatest, and whose isolation rendered it more than any other part of the Empire capable of standing alone.

Unlike Sir Henry Holland, Mr Chamberlain brought no other colleague to his Conferences and was from the first to the last himself the British Government so far as the delegates were concerned. He was supported by his Under-Secretaries who said not a word, by the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General who spoke at his bidding upon legal issues only, and the Chiefs of the Colonial Office who merely listened to all that transpired and doubtless privately advised him afterwards. But nothing was clearer than his position of absolute supremacy and theirs of entire submission to him. He and he alone directed the whole proceedings, deciding who of his subordinates should speak and when and upon what topic, reserving entirely in his own hands the settlement of every point and particular, large and small, and making it patent at every step that he and he alone had to be considered. He met the delegates as he would have met foreign ambassadors, if sole representative of his country; he had specific objects in view in meeting them, but relied wholly upon his own force of will, genius for debate, official prestige, and tact in negotiation to win him the victory upon which he counted to add another laurel to his brow. Again all the advantages of the position were his. The delegates were there to ask for the passing of a Bill which he could postpone at pleasure, and without apparent desire to do so, beyond the period for which it was possible for them to stay in England. He had behind him an all-powerful and obsequious majority of both Houses, while the Opposition were utterly incapable of resistance to his will so that by the exercise of the power he possessed he


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could amend the measure upon which Australia's hopes were centred without difficulty and to any extent he pleased. The press and the public of the mother country followed the Ministry almost unanimously, so that inside or outside of Parliament the delegates had no effective allies and no independent court of appeal. His proud, self-reliant, aggressive and dominating spirit, realising to the full his official dignity, reinforced by the consciousness of all the means of coercion he enjoyed, and inspired by the successes which he had recently achieved against his enemies in Parliament and by the victories of the British arms in South Africa which appeared to justify by the event the policy he had pursued and upon which he had been challenged, was also stimulated by a sense of the helplessness of his guests, the possibilities of division among them, and the necessity they were under of arriving at a speedy settlement with him. The odds were thus so heavily in his favour that he may reasonably have anticipated, and did in fact anticipate, an easy triumph in dealing with the Bill as he desired, with the consent of those who had been at his request sent to London as its custodians but who faced him without any power for its protection other than that conferred by the character of the measure itself, its popular sanction and their own confidence in themselves as spokesmen of the Australian people and representatives, who had in the Convention taken part in its making.

How the Salisbury Ministry had intended to treat the Commonwealth Bill when Chamberlain first invited the colonies to send representatives is not likely to be known, but there were slips of the tongue which indicated that other amendments than those submitted to the delegates had been originally intended, though what they were did not transpire. There was evidence that the powers conferred upon the Federation by Section 51 would have been curtailed if possible by the omission of XXIX, External Affairs; XXX, the Relations of the Commonwealth with the islands of the Pacific; XXXVIII, of delegated powers at present exercisable only by the British Parliament; and possibly X, Fisheries in Australian Waters beyond territorial limits, with other minor alterations. It can only be surmised why these amendments were not suggested but it is at least possible that the Conference of Premiers which unanimously instructed the delegates to endeavour to secure the Bill without any alteration whatever, warned the Colonial Office that unless it reduced its demands to a minimum it might arouse the whole of the colonies against its proposals. The first intimation the delegates received of the intentions of the Ministry


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was at the first Conference. This was held on March 15th in the same room as those of 1887, the office of the Colonial Secretary. Instead of taking the head of the long table as Sir Henry Holland did, Mr Chamberlain sat in the centre having Kingston as Privy Councillor on his right, Barton as delegate from the senior colony on his left and Deakin as representing the next senior colony immediately opposite, sitting between the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. Chamberlain rose to his feet at once and after welcoming the delegates went on to say that the Government had decided not to ask for any amendments of the measure except such as it deemed essentially necessary, specifying as objectionable the declaration that ‘this Act shall bind the Crown’ in clause II; the provision that the laws of the Commonwealth should be binding upon British ships whose first port of clearance and whose port of destination are in the Commonwealth and the abolition of the right of appeal from the decision of the High Court upon constitutional questions. He also added that the application of the Colonial Laws Validity Act to Federal legislation should be made clear. He made a special appeal for further consideration of the request of Western Australia that she might be permitted to retain her tariff intact against goods imported from the rest of the Commonwealth as involving but a small concession to colonists whose position was exceptional. His tone, free from aggressiveness or dictation, was stern in substance and unyielding. He held out no hope of compromise and was evidently prepared to pick up any gage of battle on the least provocation. He submitted the irreducible minimum of his demands in a manner which implied that he could not conceive of any refusal as warrantable or possible and though without arrogance, spoke as a lord paramount or at least a predominant partner. Barton's reply while grave and deliberate was somewhat tortuous, as was his habit when unwinding the skein of his thoughts upon his legs. He did not directly deal with any of the points raised and made an unfortunate slip when making his plea for the passing of the Bill ‘with no alteration or with as little alteration as possible’, the last part of the phrase being immediately taken down and afterwards often used against him. Kingston, Dickson and Fysh confined themselves to reciprocating the good wishes expressed and with indicating in a general way the difficulty likely to be occasioned if the amendments were pressed. Deakin spoke last, introducing in a general way the line of defence upon which he thought they ought to proceed, expressing surprise that requests for amendments should have been


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preferred at so late an hour and hinting that if any of them were now pressed, they should be referred to Australia itself. As to Western Australia he bluntly told Mr Chamberlain that the entrance of that colony depended entirely upon himself, that its Premier was only hesitating because of his reliance upon Colonial Office interference and that if he were at once informed that this would not be attempted and advised to come in, his position in his colony was such that he must needs accept the Bill as it stood. Chamberlain scarcely appeared to relish this piece of plain speaking but made no further allusion to that colony. The Attorney-General spoke and a conversational discussion followed in which the line of attack was gradually unmasked. The intention was to demonstrate from a legal point of view that some one amendment was absolutely essential, for having once broken down the barrier interposed by the claim for the Bill without amendment, it was evidently purposed to afterwards press for a reconsideration of the points mentioned; while there were ambiguous phrases employed which might be taken to imply that if the delegates resisted, other alterations as yet unspecified would be made as well and over their heads or that when once the breach in the ‘no amendment’ position had been made with or without the approval of the delegates, the rest of the Bill would be laid open for further incursions. The argument was prolonged at some length, an admission that the ‘Colonial Laws Validity Act’ was intended to apply to Commonwealth legislation being also promptly seized upon and utilised by the Attorney-General. According to pre-arrangement among the delegates in the event of any demand for amendments being sprung upon them, they confined themselves to technical comments of a general kind and refused to discuss the amendments asked for until they saw them in black and white and had time to consider them. The Conference closed with an undertaking that the proposed amendments should be furnished next day and an appointment was made with the law officers at Parliament House the next afternoon to receive them. The contest had now fairly begun.

In spite of this unpropitious beginning, Barton and Kingston continued optimistic as to the Government demands, insisting that they were put forward only to test them and that when it was found that the Australian delegates remained firm they would be gracefully abandoned. It was decided however that as the delegates desired to preserve their unity at all costs and had everything to lose and nothing to gain by individual admissions


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made in the course of debate, it would be best to avoid that means of controversy at all events until they had put on record their case against amendment and so protected themselves against possible misconceptions. It was felt that Dickson and possibly Fysh were better kept in line by this means. Besides none of them felt then as well prepared as Chamberlain and his law officers were to deal with all the developments likely to arise from minor modifications of the language of the Bill.

Barton and Kingston though strong and clear reasoners were not as ready in debate as they were solid in style and little relished the prospect of being pitted against Chamberlain, Webster and Finlay, with the phalanx of legal advisers and official associates behind them. As the attack was legal the rejoinder must necessarily take the same shape, so that Dickson and Fysh at once practically abandoned the task to their colleagues though afterwards criticising and modifying the reply prepared in its general statements. The real difficulty lay to present the case against amendment without making it too manifest that this meant a denial of all argument and, at the outset, a confession that any and all debate was meaningless and superfluous. Consequently the note struck required to be apologetic and the statement an appeal so as to disguise as much as possible the greatness of the demand which was being made upon the British Parliament by dependencies which asked that their own draught of their constitution under the Empire should be accepted practically without criticism or consideration and their legislative independence recognised as amply as was that of the United States after their separation. Chamberlain felt and resented the implications of such a request. He said to Henniker Heaton that if the delegates thought they were going to get their Bill without some amendment, he would tell them that ‘he’d see them damned first' and meant what he said. Apart from the merits of the amendments he was resolved to demonstrate the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament and his own too by insisting upon some alteration however small.

The maxim ‘divide and conquer’ is old as history and the Colonial Office under its astute chief was naturally alive to its importance and determined not to allow the conflict of opinion to have the British Government on the one side and Australasia on the other. Immediately after the Conference the attack on the delegates began on their flanks. The first clear intimation of this unexpected assault came from the St James Gazette, an inconsiderable Jingo evening journal owned by a German Jew, which gleefully published


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an interview accorded by Mr W. Pember Reeves, Agent-General for New Zealand. Originally a journalist and what is much more profitable, a proprietor of a Christchurch paper, Mr Reeves while yet young entered the New Zealand Parliament and soon after, its Government, as an advanced radical, achieving considerable success as legislator, administrator and debater. His capacity for intrigue, restless ambition, and a cold temperament which rendered him incapable of loyalty caused him to accept the Agent-Generalship rather than continue in a Cabinet in which he could neither be Premier nor master. In London he speedily made his mark for he was energetic, a good business man, presentable and educated. As an old journalist he used the press with persistent ingenuity so as to be admirably advertised and speedily popularised himself with the Liberal party by his speeches and essays descriptive of the success of socialistic experiments in his own colony. He had early resolved to leave the narrow sphere of colonial for the larger radius of British politics and directed his unsleeping activities patiently towards that end. He had the knowledge not only of the colonies and their legislation which no English parliamentarians possessed, but was able to model himself after the current type of public man most acceptable in the mother country. His literary ability was exceptional as witnessed by his Long White Cloud. His after-dinner speech at the City Liberal Club was not only far the best delivered there but the best the delegates heard in London, carefully prepared, elaborately finished and brilliant with flashes of humour. A spare, stooping, sallow-complexioned, dark-haired, keen-featured and dark-eyed man whose piercing and rather shifty eyes were much too near together, he was perhaps insincere, selfish and wanting in aggressive courage according to his local reputation but certainly as able and as ambitious as any man then aspiring to a seat in the Commons, where his expectation was that he would soon achieve an appointment to a seat on the Treasury benches. Hostile to Australian Federation because of its injury to New Zealand trade, its relative importance and that of its representative in England, he like all the Agents-General except Cockburn was jealous of the delegates and eager to defeat their mission. He might have done much to embarrass their labours had he not been unwise enough in the course of conversation with a friendly reporter to speak his whole mind on the matter without reserve, finding to his unmitigated horror and dismay the whole of it reproduced in print next day as an interview which he was unable to repudiate or even correct


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except in a trifling detail or two. What New Zealand desired was the privilege of coming in at any time after the Union at her own will and pleasure and without the consent of the States already federated being necessary. There was no real anticipation that this would be conceded, but it was to serve to cover the secret hope that the Union might be postponed or defeated. For this reason and to curry favour with the Colonial Office, the amendment of the Bill so as to secure the unrestricted rights of appeal to the Privy Council was ardently advocated. The object was ingenuously admitted by Mr Reeves in the statement that ‘This section of the Bill has not received sufficient attention from the Australian electorate. There is nothing to be lost and a great deal to be gained by referring it again to the people. If they wish to retain the clauses then they can say so. Nor need there be any hurry to pass the Bill as it stands nor any reason why after waiting twelve years before becoming a burning question, Australian Federation which we all desire, may not wait a short twelve months more. … The delegates naturally wish to pass the Bill on the best terms they can. They naturally wish for their own personal credit as lawyers and representatives of their governments to hurry it through unamended if possible. I need hardly say that Mr Parker of Western Australia and myself will oppose this course, claiming the right as future States under Clause VI to be heard and advocating a new Referendum to the electorate.’

So frank a disclosure of his projects defeated them and him. He had asked the delegates to grant him a Conference and they necessarily could not say no, though to have New Zealand and Western Australia formally asking for the same amendments as the British Government would have much hampered their argument and possible alterations suggested by them in regard to their own colonies might thus come to be considered and perhaps added to the Bill. This interview at once afforded them an opportunity of calling his attention to it and inviting [a] disclaimer in the same paper, as a preliminary to any conference, because of the personal imputations contained. As he was unable to supply this the proposed conference by his own act became impossible. He could not press for it or complain because he was excluded. Mr Parker of Western Australia, who had by this time arrived, promptly disavowed any connection with him or participation in his plot against the Bill. But though thus happily delivered from a Conference out of which no good could possibly come, but which might have been made most injurious, the delegates could not conceal from


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themselves that London opinion had been much prejudiced against them by the undeniable fact that both New Zealand and Western Australia had protested against the limitation of Australian appeals to the Privy Council so that the Colonial Office appeared to be merely protecting the interests of the minority of the colonies against the effort of the majority to sever what was always called a link of the Empire. Both colonies were popular in the metropolis, New Zealand by the enthusiasm displayed in sending troops to South Africa and Western Australia by the vast mining interests held in the city and the close relations maintained with the Colonial Office. The whole strength of the delegates lay in their claim that the Bill was Australian and that they spoke for Australia when asking that it should be passed unaltered. At the very outset, and from Australia itself their claim was now publicly impugned.

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