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3. 3 Imperial Conference, 1887

THE ASPECT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS continuing threatening and it being apparent that the Federal Council could neither speak nor act on behalf of an united Australia, it became necessary to adopt some other means of dealing with the pressing issue of naval defence. The ill-fated Admiral Tryon, a man of large mind, large frame and admirable tact, had already discussed with the colonies severally the terms upon which a special squadron of the Imperial fleet might be provided for the Southern Seas, but beyond the formulation of the proposal, nothing had been done and little could be expected while there were seven distinct governments not too certain of their tenure of office, whom it was desired to induce to accept the same terms. Canada was interested in a proposed trans-Pacific Cable and there was as usual a difficult situation in South Africa, so that a proposition for a Conference between representatives of the Imperial Government and of her self-governing dependencies was submitted by a circular from Mr Stanhope, Secretary for the Colonies in the newly formed anti-Home Rule Conservative Ministry, which with the aid of the Unionist Liberals had just been returned with a large majority. The gathering of 1887 differed from the Jubilee Conference of 1897 because deliberation was the first consideration and actual legislation resulted, while in the later meeting, though all the Premiers were present, their attendance at the celebration was the chief motive. Only a general discussion of trade relations was attempted and this was not attended by any result. The proposal for a Conference in 1887 was novel, was welcomed in every colony and sent a thrill of patriotic anticipation through the whole Empire. As India was not represented and as the representatives of Crown Colonies played but formal parts at the meeting, its official title was the ‘Colonial Conference’, though even omitting the great tropical possessions of the Crown it was in spirit and in fact an ‘Imperial Conference’ and was generally so designated.

The Australian representatives were unequal in numbers and in weight. Sir Samuel Griffith as Premier of Queensland and


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President of the Federal Council expected to have taken and might have occupied the post of leader, but his absence of enthusiasm in regard to the questions under consideration and the somewhat marked deference he displayed towards the Colonial Office caused him to exercise far less influence than his ability and knowledge would have justified if they had been boldly exercised. His cynical attitude at the outset placed him out of touch with his colleagues and at no time afterwards did he recover the lead. Sir John Downer as Premier of South Australia was far warmer and more active in private, but in public his sense of responsibility was so keen that he too, though cordially co-operating with his associates, took no specially prominent part. New South Wales was represented, owing to political necessities, by two members of a recently displaced Government and an Agent-General of long experience and great sagacity, none of whom felt sufficiently assured of support from Sir Henry Parkes and his Government to venture upon any initiative. The representation of Tasmania and New Zealand was equally official. Western Australia was still a crown Colony, so that Sir John Forrest, then Commissioner of Crown Lands, had little scope for the exercise of his energies. Victoria sent four representatives, one more than New South Wales and the Cape of Good Hope, which were each content with three. Sir Graham Berry and Mr Service, members of the recent Ministry, certainly compared favourably in capacity and experience with any of those present, while Sir James Lorimer, a leading Melbourne merchant, had mastered the details of the defence questions, which were the most important matters to be discussed, more thoroughly than any one in the Conference. [Mr Deakin was the other member.] The Victorians were all keenly alive to the importance of the issues at stake, especially in regard to the Pacific, and though there was no leader of the Conference or of any section of it they certainly, perhaps because of their superior number, took the most prominent part in the proceedings. Officials of the Colonial Office confessed at the close that they had at first looked forward to the action of the Victorians with most apprehension but that they had discovered in them a better knowledge of the situation and a better disposition to meet it by united action than in the others upon whom they had expected to be obliged to rely.

The debates and proceedings of the Conference are printed, with the exceptions of the confidential discussions which took place on a few occasions with closed doors. One of these attended by the


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Premier, the Marquis of Salisbury himself, in which the future disposal of the New Hebrides was under discussion, was marked by great excitement. The information regarding it which found its way into the English and colonial press at the time was vague and inaccurate. The motive for secrecy having long since passed away, there need be no scruples now in making it public, except those which inevitably embarrass a writer when compelled to speak of himself.

The sitting was presided over as usual by Lord Knutsford, then Sir Henry Holland, a highly cultivated, suave, tactful and able English gentleman, a Liberal-Conservative Barrister who had passed through the Colonial Office. By the unaffected sweetness of his demeanour he won the hearts of all the representatives, while the readiness and acuteness of his mind and the breadth of his views commanded respect from the best lawyers in the Assembly, men who like Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Thomas Upington, Sir John Downer and Sir Robert Wisdom were well qualified to test the training of an English expert.

The Marquis of Salisbury, then at the zenith of his powers, was a tall, broad-shouldered, bulky man with large round head somewhat bowed upon his breast, a calm clear eye and an expression of serene self-command which enhanced the grave dignity of his manner and style of speech. At the opening session he had addressed the Conference in carefully weighed and stately sentences, wise, though in the nature of generalities, and displaying abundant caution in his attitude towards any possible form of Imperial Federation or Customs Union between the mother country and its dependencies. In the privacy of the Conference on the other hand, he adopted a different tone, speaking eloquently but carelessly and even cynically until he satisfied all who heard him that his reputation for ‘blazing indiscretions’ was thoroughly well deserved. His tone breathed the aristocratic condescension of a Minister addressing a deputation of visitors from the antipodes whom it became his duty to instruct in current foreign politics for their own sakes. His speech was in all probability unstudied, for though well phrased and diplomatically balanced and blasé, with long experience carefully distilled, it was somewhat inconsecutive and inconsistent. His theme was the comparative worthlessness of the islands; the impatience of the French and the unwisdom of declining their offer to stop the sending of criminals if the group were ceded. When he finished, a representative of New South Wales spoke first in reply with bated breath and whispering


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humbleness, apologising for the strong feeling which had been expressed in the colonies and assuring the noble Lord that when their peoples heard the excellent reasons which he had offered for the surrender of English claims in the New Hebrides to France in exchange for an assurance from the Republic that the deportation of recidivists to New Caledonia would be discontinued, they would willingly concur in his proposal. Griffith followed with a cool and dignified analysis of the case and an implied acceptance of the situation.note Service and Berry both spoke with warmth restating the colonial case, reurging it, and expressing deep regret at the position in which we found ourselves. They appealed for a more sympathetic reply but received no promise. Another representative from Tasmania adopted the same dolorous tone but with less decision.

Deakin followed almost last, because, though official head of the Victorian representatives, he wished to pay all deference to his late Chiefs who preceded him at his request. He broke quite new ground not only with unrestrained vigour and enthusiasm on the general question as his colleagues had before him, but because he did so in a more spirited manner, challenging Lord Salisbury's arguments one by one and mercilessly analysing the inconsistencies of his speech. They were asked to surrender the New Hebrides as of little commercial value and in the next breath were told that the French set the greatest store by them for commercial development. For us to attempt to negotiate a great power like France out of its place in the joint protectorate was presumption and yet a greater power, the British Empire, was asked to consent to be negotiated out of her place without even protest. Their interests in Australasia were spoken of as large, while ours which were really incomparably larger were brushed aside as of no account. All that was offered us in exchange for our sacrifice of an existing treaty was another treaty just as likely to be discounted in the future. We were assured that our alarms as to French intentions was groundless but we should never forget that it was while relying on a similar assurance from the Colonial Office, our trust had been betrayed by a surrender of part of New Guinea to Germany. Australian ideas of British Ministers were now derived from their bitter experience of Lord Derby and such a proposal as this would only confirm them in their impression that Tory and


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Liberal Ministries alike were prepared to sacrifice their dearest interests without consideration or striking a single blow. It was admitted now that the Republic had not kept faith with us, but urged that their chaotic political condition explained the lapse. Had they been brought to London to be taught the disadvantages they suffered from owing to the stability of British Governments? Was this the justification for always conceding and condoning broken agreements? Were we asked to regret the absence of political chaos in the mother country and to pay for that elsewhere? We were reminded that the French were a proud, high-spirited and powerful nation, perfectly prepared to defend their rights by war if necessary. Had then the colonists come thousands of miles to learn that Great Britain was no longer proud nor high-spirited and was not prepared to defend the rights of her people or to resist unjust demands? If so, it was a most unfortunate but very impressive manner of teaching the lesson. Deakin went on to declare in an impassioned manner that the people of Victoria would never consent to any cession of the islands on any terms and that the Australian-born who had made this question their own would forever resent the humiliation of a surrender which would immensely weaken their confidence in an Empire to which hitherto they had been proud to belong.

The effect of such a bold protest was electrical. Lord Salisbury several times stared at the speaker, as well he might, in considerable amazement at his plain speaking and in some discomfort at the stern debating retorts to his inharmonious contentions; but he appeared rather pleased than otherwise at the strong condemnation of Lord Derby's surrender of New Guinea and was evidently superior to all personal irritation against the speaker. One or two others supported the line of resistance then taken, though it afterwards transpired that overtures had already been actually made in tentative form to the French Ministry on the advice, it was said, of the British Ambassador, Lord Lyons, for the withdrawal of British claims to the islands in return for the cessation of deportations. A few nights afterwards Lord Salisbury forced his way through a packed throng in Lord Knutsford's drawing room to whisper to Mr Deakin that instructions had been despatched to Lord Lyons, the British Ambassador at Paris, not to yield on any terms any of the British interest in the group, and afterwards went out of his way to speak of him privately and publicly in the warmest way as belonging to a type of men to whom the destinies of Australia might safely be entrusted.




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This after all was but a negative success. The positive work of the Conference was the settlement of the conditions upon which a special squadron of the British [Navy] should be created in Australasian waters. Here again Victoria found herself in the minority who held out for better terms than those which the majority accepted. New South Wales followed Sir Samuel Griffith as did Tasmania, so that Victoria and South Australia, as the question was one of money and not of principle, were obliged to agree. The Naval Defence Bills were passed in all the colonies, though in Queensland only after considerable delay and in the teeth of strong opposition. This was conducted for party ends and would probably not have been affected if better terms had been secured. The importance of the agreement thus arrived at by a Federal Conference at which the Imperial Government was represented can scarcely be over-estimated. It furnished a final reply to those who were clamouring for a step towards separation, and endorsed as it was throughout the whole continent, was a distinct declaration which might almost have been styled unanimous in favour of union. Had the Federal Council embraced all the colonies, it would have been the body to which must have been delegated the task performed in this instance by members and nominees of the several ministries of the day. The difficulty and delay in Queensland was another illustration of the manner in which any one member of the group could thwart or defeat concerted action. Still the Conference not only fulfilled the end for which it had been summoned but taught all present the risks of trusting to such occasional gatherings the great and growing interests of great and growing colonies. The divisions in their almost chance constituents not only led to our paying more than was necessary for our Naval defence but went very near to costing us our interest in the New Hebrides as well. This would have meant a blow to patriotic sentiment and to some extent to the Federal spirit which at that date was still inspired chiefly by the necessities for union in foreign affairs.

It was in 1888 or 1889 that the inner Cabinet of the Victorian Government, consisting of the Premier, the Chief Secretary and the Minister of Defence, prepared a stroke on the lines of the New Guinea annexation attempted by Sir Thomas McIlwraith. There were once more rumours of French preparations for the seizure of the New Hebrides which on enquiry seemed to be well founded. It was therefore decided to forestall them by despatching a detachment of the Victorian permanent military forces in a swift steamer


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with orders to hoist the British flag and keep it flying. The boat was to be chartered privately and the men taken off when supposed to be away at Westernport in practice. This time it was not intended to allow the flag to be hauled down except upon express instructions from the Home Government. With the assistance of the other colonies who were to some extent sounded as to their feelings, but none of whom were acquainted with the project, it was believed that these instructions might be prevented and that the islands in which it was proposed at once to undertake settlement and investment would not again be allowed to pass from under British control. On the eve of the execution of this enterprise it became clear that the French cherished no intentions of taking action and consequently the plot was at first postponed and then abandoned. Taking into account the electrical conditions which then obtained, this decisive action might have had the gravest consequences. It must at least have forced the hands of the British Government to some extent, if indeed it did not provoke a final settlement of the vexed question. At this time Australians had grown tired of appealing and protesting and were determined to act for themselves on behalf of the Empire should the necessity arise. Fortunately perhaps it did not then arise and the project then on foot remained not only unexecuted but even unsuspected till this day.

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