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2. 2 Convention in Sydney, 1883

THE FEDERAL IMPULSE OF 1880 was in the first place a reaction from the ultra-Protectionist policy of 1878–9, some of whose imposts, and the Stock Tax in particular, being directly aimed at intercolonial imports, naturally provoked great bitterness of feeling upon the border. The completion of the connection between the New South Wales line to Albury and the Victorian line to Wodonga in 1883 afforded an occasion for an outburst of sentiment in favour of union, though the way had been prepared for this and the chief stimulus given by the threatening aspect of affairs in the Pacific in the immediate neighbourhood of Australia. The actual impulse came at a little later date from Queensland where Sir Thomas McIlwraith's action in hoisting the British flag in New Guinea having been disavowed by Lord Derby on behalf of the Imperial Government, received the support of the other Australian Premiers in his protest against the supine pusillanimity of the Colonial Office. The first expression of the growing idea had come from Victoria and from the same colony came the heartiest endorsement of the bold act of Queensland. An intimation that any resolutions arrived at by the Australian Governments collectively would receive consideration led to the Intercolonial Convention of 1883. Dread of German aggression in New Guinea and of a French annexation of the New Hebrides coupled with the alarm occasioned by the arrival of escaped criminals from the penal settlement in New Caledonia were the chief operating causes of this gathering. It met in Sydney where the interest in these dangers was least and the New South Wales representatives faithfully reflected the indifference of their colony. The defeat of Sir Thomas McIlwraith at a general election immediately preceding had deprived the meeting of its natural leader, and though afterwards a member of the Convention of 1891, his dominating personality, force of character and warmth of temperament were never really exercised upon the Federal field. He was a man of action, capable and resolute and though a good debater upon practical issues was somewhat out of place in the work of shaping a Constitution.


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His successor, Mr Griffith [afterwards Sir Samuel], offered the strongest contrast possible to his defeated rival and except that both were fair, presented a marked antithesis.

Sir Thomas [was] a man of business, stout, florid, choleric, curt and Cromwellian. Griffith, the leading barrister of his colony, lean, ascetic, cold, clear, collected and acidulated had not at this time developed or at all events exhibited the force and depth of his Federal aspirations. The leadership in consequence fell to Mr James Service, Premier of Victoria, a circumstance which by no means commended the matter to New South Wales or its representatives owing to the jealousy existing between the colonies. Mr Service was a curious combination of McIlwraith and Griffith, a shrewd and successful Scotch merchant of Imperialistic tendencies and daring disposition. Like the first, his early training as a schoolmaster gave him a preciseness approaching to that of a lawyer's, while his general demeanour covered his strong enthusiasms under a coolness, cautiousness and slyness akin to [the] sceptical and almost cynical manner of Griffith, to whom in slightness of build and lack of robust physique he closely approached. Less masterful than the first and less analytical than the second, he was in his prime a better debater and platform speaker than either and indeed under the circumstances of the situation, was undoubtedly the most powerful influence in the Convention. He had some ambition to fill the Chair but discarded it willingly upon learning that the Premier of New South Wales also coveted the post and was only likely to fall into line under some such temptation. His colleagues merely acted as his advisers.

Berry, whose capacity and experience would have entitled him to a place as prominent as that of his chief, was generously anxious not to rival him and was for the matter of that not an ardent Federalist at this period. He would have been more active if he had not regarded the very limited measure of union proposed as inadequate, but at the same time as a Radical he was out of sympathy with most of those present and still more suspicious as a Protectionist of possible advances to Free Trade. With less education, less coolness and a less logical mind than Service, he had more force, fire, resource and daring. Both were seen at their best in debate, when Service's coldly ironical and stinging tongue was devoted to destructive criticism, while Berry carried away his audience and even conquered votes in the House by the irresistible magic of appeals, cogent, apt and ingenious, and what was more, vibrating with electric sympathy. He was a less efficient, a less


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economical, a less methodical, and less consistent administrator, but for all that possessed a store of energy and breadth of view which enabled him, with his extraordinary oratorical gifts, to defend himself against assaults. As a statesman and party leader he was more inspiring than his rival, never losing touch with the sentiments and opinions of the masses on whom he exercised an immense influence. He was a genuine and greatly gifted tribune of the people, much nearer to them and more of them in his weaknesses, and in his strength more reckless, improvident and buoyant than Service. After his great victory in 1877 he was the most powerful chieftain of Democracy since Higinbotham and possessed for a time practically despotic authority ‘On the one condition’, as he shrewdly said, ‘that I did not exercise it.’ He was a warm friend and liable to be too liberal to protégés in his appointments and promotions, but never a bitter enemy. He loved his ease and dignity. His vanity has led him to make indiscreet speeches without premeditation or care of consequences, but he was so superior to his colleagues and to all his later rivals except Service, that such slips may well be forgiven him in view of his dauntless and memorable Victorian career.

Mr Alexander Stuart, [N.S.W.], was like Service a Scotch merchant, canny, honourable, a hard worker and careful administrator without the fire or exceptional ability of his distinguished fellow countryman. He was even then breaking down under his unsparing devotion to business and politics, though a man of sturdy frame. He enjoyed the reputation of being the plainest-visaged man in politics or, as some said, out of it. He acted in the Convention and afterwards, mainly as a brake upon Service's enthusiasm. His chief colleague, Dalley, then Attorney-General, applied no spur to his chief. His great oratorical gifts, his general disposition and the spirit afterwards displayed by him in offering the Soudan contingent for service [in] Egypt two years later, were not manifested at this meeting, though in all probability its discussions contributed by enlarging his outlook to prepare him for the bold stroke which was to win him fame a little later. Stuart's other colleague Mr George Dibbs was also little in evidence at this period. A splendidly built man of towering height but never unwieldy, with a high forehead, keen eyes glittering through his spectacles, strongly marked features, and manly address, his many charms of character and some powers of mind were ill conjoined. He was not only prejudiced even among the New South Welshmen of his day, but obstinate, eccentric and changeable. Converted


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from an ardent Free Trader into a strong Protectionist almost without an interval long enough to permit of baptism, he compared it, himself, to the miraculous conversion of St Paul. By turns he was radical and conservative on particular questions with apparently no sufficient motive for change, so that it will be hard for the historian to do justice to his many amiable qualities and his statesmanlike action at one juncture. For the greater part of his later career he was overshadowed by the superior dignity, authority and eloquence of Sir Henry Parkes, who was accustomed to define him as ‘a man of a weedy nature and a sprawling mind’; yet it was the same Dibbs who at the time of the financial crash of 1893 when a feeble Victorian Ministry rather increased a panic which they interfered to avert, saved New South Wales the extremity of disaster by his courageous action. Bank after bank was closing and the Directors of the Bank of New South Wales were trembling and about to close their doors when, entering their Board room, he dashed his umbrella upon the table as he told them that the Bank must not close; that it should not close, and that he was prepared to employ all the resources of the Government to support it. This deed and the acts he passed, though both of them involving a tremendous responsibility to the State and a possibility of disastrous failure, saved Sydney from much of the suffering into which Melbourne was plunged and gave the former city its first decided advantage over its rival in the race for commercial supremacy. This was just the result which Sir George Dibbs, as he had then become, would have preferred almost to any other. The New South Wales Ministers cared nothing for Federation. Dalley at the outset sought to have the Convention termed only a Conference and Dibbs threw cold water upon the vigorous proposals of Victoria and Queensland; but both were subordinate to their chief, Mr Stuart, and loyal to him as Chairman, as certainly Dibbs would not have been if any other Premier had held that office. As soon as the Convention was over they relapsed into their pre-existing hostility to the whole movement. Next to the Scotch element in the Convention in prominence came the Australian represented by Dibbs, Bray and Downer. Mr Bray was one of the men who by reason of being general favourites are able to reach to positions which they are able enough to retain. In local politics he was considered a trimmer and in the shock of the Conventions his kindly courtesy and tact contributed always to compromise. His colleague, afterwards Sir John Downer, was made of sterner stuff and took a far more important part than his


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chief both in 1883 and 1891. Australian as he was, appearance and character alike were thoroughly and typically English. Bull-headed, and rather thick-necked, clean shaven as a priest, and with the dogged set of the mouth of a prize fighter, of medium height and strongly built, his smallish eyes lit up with animation or twinkling with humour only partly disclosed his combination of resolution with kindliness. As a speaker he was always suave, clear, courteous and effective whenever he took pains to prepare. He was Conservative to the core though not reactionary and only prevented by reserve and indolence from playing a far greater part than he did both in South Australian and Federal politics. As it was, his influence increased from 1883 to 1891 and from 1891 to 1897–8. His attitude was always independent. Sir Henry Atkinson, Premier of New Zealand, was a man of kindred temper but much more enquiring and possessed by a desire to keep abreast of the march of the times. A most upright, candid, modest, sincere and gentle disposition disguised the firmness of will and tenacity of purpose which distinguished him throughout his career. He was a warm supporter of the Imperial policy urged by Mr Service. In 1891 his health was so undermined and the interest of his colony so remote, that he took little part in the proceedings. Mr Nicholas Brown, then Minister of Lands for Tasmania, was also a member of the Conventions of 1891 and 1897–8 and in both, though with some timidity, displayed a truly Federal spirit. His Premier, Mr Giblin, a remarkably impressive man too big for his colony, died before the next Convention and though Sir Graham Berry sat in that of 1897–8 he was so enfeebled by age that he took little part in its deliberations. The astute Attorney-General for Victoria, afterwards Mr Justice Kerferd, Mr Garrick of Queensland and Mr Whitaker of New Zealand passed out of the movement at this stage though the last was an active participator in the work which was done in 1883. It was Mr Service's Convention, in fact as well as in name, for he supplied it with all its motive power and material. Having neutralised the antagonism of New South Wales by placing Stuart in the Chair, he was fortunate enough to be able after a long private interview to induce Griffith to support his programme. When unfolded it won the approbation of Giblin, Atkinson and Downer, though to meet the views of New South Wales the scope of the Union was so restricted as to render its creation at all a doubtful gain. Even then the draft Federal Council Bill proved unacceptable to the Sydney representatives and came so near shipwreck during the sitting


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that Berry left the Convention in despair. When he returned from his walk, he found that by diplomacy the rocks had been avoided and that those assembled had agreed to pass something more than declaratory resolutions. Griffith had been anxious to prove to his colony that he was no less eager than Mr McIlwraith to protect its interests in the Pacific and no less capable of playing his part with the other Premiers. Beginning from this narrow standpoint he steadily broadened into an absolute Federalist. South Australia was affected through her Northern Territory, while New Zealand in consequence of her position necessarily developed a Pacific policy. No one at that date thought it possible for the colonies to unite upon any matters of domestic politics. The Conservatives present were in a large majority and like Service approved of a cautious step by step advance; consequently resolutions and Bill alike were aimed chiefly and almost solely at the protection of Australian interests in the surrounding seas.

Up to this point all had gone well and promised better. After the Convention, Service committed his one irreparable blunder in connection with the Federal cause. A grand dinner of welcome to the South Australian, Tasmanian and Western Australian representatives, who returned to Melbourne with him, was given in the new Queen's Hall of Parliament House at which, exulting in his success, he spoke as he might have been pardoned for speaking in Cabinet but as no politician could be excused for speaking in public. Forgetting that he had to deal with the most susceptible city in the colony of this group, most sensitive to criticism and with the keenest rivalry for Victoria in general and its capital in particular, he told his astonished audience how, in going to the Convention, he had found Sydney asleep and how with the help of his friends who rallied around him he had awakened the slumberers and led them to do their Federal duty. The statements were perfectly [true] but so mal à propos and indiscreet that even his Victorians looked at each other in surprise and Mr Downer did not fail to bluntly repudiate any rally around any person. The response from Sydney, when the report of his remarks reached them, was naturally severe and all the more severe because the facts were just as he had declared. One indignant parliamentary orator declared amid the cheers of the Assembly that New South Wales was as far above Victoria as Heaven was above the earth. Sir John Robertson politely referred to Victoria as a mere cabbage garden and a considerable quantity of bitterness was thereafter infused into the always jealous relations of the two colonies. Worst of all,


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it was made perfectly plain that the Convention held in Sydney had really been Victorian and thus the Federal Council became branded as a Victorian invention. As such it became a point of patriotism with many New South Welshmen to belittle and oppose it. During the passage of the Bill through the Imperial Parliament the endeavour of the New South Wales Cabinet was to weaken, and of Victoria to strengthen the new legislature and in the final result New South Wales and South Australia both remained out of the tentative Union on the ground of its insufficiency. Enfeebled by their abstinences added to the very limited scope of its authority, the Council struggled on till 1889 when for a single session South Australia was also represented and it was resolved as a preliminary to an expansion of its powers that the number of representatives from each colony should be increased from two to five. They would still continue to be nominees of the Government or Parliament of the day, but it was intended that they should include members of the Opposition as well as of the Ministry. Even this change did not secure the continuance of South Australia in the Councilnote. It remained little more than a debating society, though very useful as a milestone and meeting place for the representatives of the four colonies included. But above all it was a constant menace to the anti-Federalists of the mother colony. The one great service it can fairly claim is that it alarmed them with a possible loss of the pre-eminence they so coveted. It was after its expansion in 1889 and when it appeared likely to commence a career in which all the colonies except New South Wales would be united, that Sir Henry Parkes discovered the necessity for taking the immediate action which led to the Melbourne Convention of 1890. It was in 1895 while the Council was determined to use the legislative powers it possessed, which it had hitherto refrained from exercising out of consideration for New South Wales and South Australia, that the Conference of Premiers decided on the summoning of an elective Convention to draft a Federal Constitution. Its purpose to act was once more a spur to New South Wales so that, weak as has been its policy, the Council can fairly claim to have twice forced the hand of New South Wales.

Other causes of a personal kind contributed to the same results, but for all that the pride of New South Wales was perpetually pricked at beholding an assemblage which the adherence of South


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Australia and any sudden opportunity might render the most important Australian factor. To be excluded from such a body or to be compelled to crave admission to it after having vainly endeavoured to destroy it by neglect was a prospect so humiliating that, in order to avoid it, men of all parties in Sydney were from time to time stimulated to make some effort to displace or replace it, so as to shift the centre of interest to their own city and restore the hegemony of New South Wales. The local feeling coupled with an enjoyment of a sense of superiority in Sydney was always a much more potent influence than in any other State capital. It proved throughout the whole history of the movement one of its most serious obstacles and most important factors. The Federal Council became influential by the excitement it occasioned around Port Jackson.

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