previous
next



  ― 26 ―

4. 4 Parkes in Melbourne, 1890

AUSTRALASIAN NAVAL DEFENCE having been provided for, the Imperial Government despatched Major General Edwards to inspect and report upon the military organization of the colonies. His paper indicated with clearness the dangers inseparable from divided forces. The Federal Council was proposing to enlarge its representation, and strengthened by the accession of South Australia was evidently preparing for a further extension of its powers. Under these circumstances Sir Henry Parkes thought it advisable to make his entry upon the Federal stage. This he accomplished in characteristic fashion without the foreknowledge of a single member of his Cabinet, in a public speech at Tenterfield. Once having launched his proposal for a complete Union he sought the summoning of a Convention of the colonies for the purpose of drafting a Federal Constitution forthwith. As the other Premiers regarded his sudden emergence with some suspicion, it was decided to hold a preliminary Conference to which each Government should send two representatives. It met in Melbourne and continued from February 6th to February 14th, 1890. Its business was formal and was discharged in a formal way. Though it was spiced with some personal antagonism there was no real debate. The speeches were a series of essays in which those interested may note the vagueness of conception that then enshrouded the movement. This was due to some extent because of a politic disinclination of the speakers to commit themselves in advance but it was also due to the fluctuating ideals which then obtained. Perhaps the chief importance of the Conference lay in its educational influence upon the public and its greater interest in the men whom it then introduced into the Federal ranks.

First and foremost of course in every eye was the commanding figure of Sir Henry Parkes, than whom no actor ever more carefully posed for effect. His huge figure, slow step, deliberate glance and carefully brushed-out aureole of white hair combined to present the spectator with a picturesque whole which was not detracted from on closer acquaintance. His voice, without being musical


  ― 27 ―
and in spite of a slight woolliness of tone and rather affected depth, was pleasant and capable of reaching and controlling a large audience. His studied attitudes expressed either distinguished humility or imperious command. His manner was invariably dignified, his speech slow, and his pronunciation precise, offending only by the occasional omission or misplacing of aspirates. He was fluent but not voluble, his pauses skilfully varied, and in times of excitement he employed a whole gamut of tones ranging from a shrill falsetto to deep resounding chest notes. He had always in his mind's eye his own portrait as that of a great man, and constantly adjusted himself to it. A far-away expression of the eyes, intended to convey his remoteness from the earthly sphere, and often associated with melancholy treble cadences of voice in which he implied a vast and inexpressible weariness, constituted his favourite and at last his almost invariable exterior. Movements, gestures, inflexions, attitudes harmonised, not simply because they were intentionally adopted but because there was in him the substance of the man he dressed himself to appear. The real strength and depth of his capacity were such that it was always a problem with Parkes as with Disraeli where the actor posture-maker and would-be sphinx ended or where the actual man underneath began. He had both by nature and by art the manner of a sage and a statesman.

His abilities were solid though general, as [were] his reading and his knowledge. Fond of books, a steady reader and a constant writer, his education had been gained in the world and among men. A careful student of all with whom he came in contact, he was amiable, persuasive and friendly by disposition. A life of struggle had found him self-reliant and left him hardened into resolute masterfulness. Apart from his exterior, he was a born leader of men, dwelling by preference of natural choice upon the larger and bolder aspects of things. He had therefore the aptitude of statecraft of a high order, adding to it the tastes of the man of letters, the lover of poetry and the arts, of rare editions and bric-à-brac, of autographs and memorials of the past. His nature, forged on the anvil of necessity, was egotistic though not stern and his career was that of the aspirant who looks to ends and is not too punctilious as to means. He was jealous of equals, bitter with rivals and remorseless with enemies—vain beyond all measure, without strong attachment to colleagues and with strong animal passions note—weak in discussion of detail, unfitted for the minor tasks


  ― 28 ―
of administration, apt to be stilted in set speeches and involved in debate, he yet was well qualified for the Premiership by great and genuine oratorical ability. A doughty parliamentary warrior neither giving nor asking quarter, he struck straight home at his adversaries with trenchant power. He was a careful framer of phrases and of insulting epithets which he sought to elaborate so that they would stick and sting. He confessed that he passed many of the weary hours in which he sat unmoved upon the front bench of the Assembly in mentally summing up his associates and opponents, fitting to each some appropriate descriptive epigram which he treasured in his memory for timely use. One lean long swarthy and hungry-looking enemy he stigmatised as a ‘withered tarantula’. An academic radical from Victoria,note possessed by what he regarded as impractical enthusiasms, was more mildly entitled ‘professor of Democracy’. Dibbs consisted of ‘a weedy nature and a sprawling mind’. He had a copious flood of sometimes coarse vituperation which he was prepared to pour upon any who crossed his path at critical times, and lighter touches of genuine and happy humour emitted under pleasanter circumstances. At times his irony was of the grimmest and most merciless. Very many admired and not a few weaker men loved him; he brooked no rivals near his throne but all found his personality attractive and submitted more or less to his domination. It was not a rich nor a versatile personality, but it was massive, durable and imposing, resting upon elementary qualities of human nature elevated by a strong mind. He was cast in the mould of a great man and though he suffered from numerous pettinesses, spites, and failings he was in himself a full-blooded, large-brained, self-educated Titan whose natural field was found in Parliament and whose resources of character and intellect enabled him in his later years to overshadow all his contemporaries, to exercise an immense influence in his own colony and achieve a great reputation outside it.

It was necessary to see Parkes in his own home, on the platform and in Parliament to appreciate his versatility. In the first he was a literary connoisseur, dilettante and author, retired from a world in which [he] held the foremost place at will; on the platform he was the candidate whose transparent candour could not conceal his great services but whose humility was ceremonial until he was roused to passion, when he became a turbulent tribune of the Democracy. His sly humour marvellously helped him in encounters with the mob-wits of his meetings. When challenged


  ― 29 ―
at Manly by an elector who professed the utmost faith in his sincerity, but none the less marvelled that he had not during all his three years in office as Premier since he last addressed them fulfilled his express promise to have the Quarantine removed, he replied in his low soft squeaky tones that he had no recollection of having ever made any such promise, but if he had, his heckler should be the happiest man in the room since, having announced entire confidence in his good faith, he must feel himself just three years nearer its fulfilment. He could play the fox on occasion to perfection and at other times a loftier role which gratified his sense of superiority as well as his humour. One of the most characteristic incidents related of him occurred when, without his knowledge, the son of an old friend of his who belonged to a Staffordshire regiment was selected for a military vacancy in the colony by the Agent-General in London. Sir Henry, known or believed to be in debt to all his acquaintances, was at once assailed by his opponents with torrents of abuse for what was termed a corrupt exercise of Crown patronage. The sums he owed the father were named and it was protested about the House that he had obtained a complete quittance as consideration for his dishonourable act. To this storm Sir Henry turned a deaf ear and a head unbent, scorning all reply or rather reserving it until it could be made most effectively. The tumult raged among the lesser men but he gave no sign of being even aware of it. The young officer arrived and in full uniform accompanied his General for the purpose of being introduced to the generous Premier who had suffered so much on his account. What he may have proposed to say by way of sympathy with the calumniated statesman will never be known. When ushered in and duly announced, Sir Henry with weary accent and eyes that told of abstracted thought, after a pause expressed his pleasure at meeting him and apparently regarding him as an English visitor, added ‘And pray how long do you propose staying in Sydney, Captain—?’ The young man sat paralysed, his gratitude and sympathy frozen on his lips, while the General hurriedly explained once more that the officer had accepted a commission for seven years in the New South Wales forces and desired to thank Sir Henry for his appointment immediately on reporting himself for duty. Sir Henry again appeared absent-minded, for he requested that his caller's name should be repeated; then after another painful pause with a slight gleam of interest continued: ‘May I enquire if you [are] any relation to my old friend Frederick—?’ naming the father of his supposed


  ― 30 ―
protégé with whom the corrupt bargain was said to have been made. The bewildered and stammering Captain admitted his paternity whereupon with stately courtesy Sir Henry welcomed him to the colony and permitted the perplexed son to withdraw to meditate upon so extraordinary an interview. The story leaked out as no doubt was expected and long formed matter for jest among those familiar with the parties.

When he arrived in Melbourne a private interview was held at the Victorian Premier's Office between Sir Henry Parkes, Mr McMillan his colleague, Mr Gillies and Mr Deakin. At this time what was termed a National Party was still active in Queensland where it opposed the Naval Defence Bill and had an influential organ in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the mouthpiece of two of the ablest and most spirited pressmen of the Continent, Mr Ward, afterwards Editor of the Brisbane Courier, and Mr Gullett, afterwards Assistant Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. By some very strong utterances in connection with a Chinese Exclusion Bill. Sir Henry had secured the enthusiastic support of this party whose aims were an ultimate separation of Australia from Great Britain. His sudden adherence to the Federal cause which he had never opposed but which he had allowed to slumber for some ten years, was suspected of being fostered by the so-called Nationalists as a necessary means to their end and consequently the motive which actuated the Victorians was to discover his attitude in this connection and to take care that any resolution which he, as the Convener of the Conference might intend to move, should not be ambiguous in any of its expressions as to Australian attachment to the Empire. Deakin retained the original resolution drafted by Sir Henry at his hotel and submitted by him to the Victorians. It reads as follows: ‘That while recognising the services of the authors of the Federal Council in 1883, this Conference declares its opinion that the seven years which have since elapsed have developed the national life of the Australasian colonies, in population, in wealth, in the discovery of resources, and in self-governing capacity, to an extent which justifies the higher act, at all times contemplated, of the union of these colonies under one legislative and Executive Government.’ Mr Gillies had prepared four resolutions, only the third of which, borrowed from the Canadian Conference, was discussed that morning. It ran thus: ‘The best interests and present and future prospects of Australasia will be promoted by a Federal Union under the Crown of Great Britain, provided such Union can be effected on principles just to the


  ― 31 ―
several colonies.’ It was soon agreed to combine these two and Deakin at once wrote out a rough draft which Sir Henry corrected as follows: ‘In the opinion of this Conference the best interests and the present and future prosperity of Australasia will be promoted by an early Union under the Crown and while fully recognising the valuable services of the members of the Convention of 1883 in founding the Federal Council, declares its opinion that the seven years which have since elapsed have developed the national life of the Australasian colonies, in population, in wealth and in the discovery of resources and in self-governing capacity to an extent which justifies the higher act, at all times contemplated, of the union of these colonies under one legislative and executive government on principles just to the several colonies.’ With the alteration of ‘Australasia’ where it first occurs to ‘the Australasian colonies’ and of ‘the Australasian colonies’ lower down to ‘Australasia’ the resolution was proposed and passed in this form. But even then the suspicion of Sir Henry Parkes's loyalty broke out in the speech of Mr Playford, the leader of the Opposition in South Australia and one of its representatives at the Conference.

Mr Gillies, President of the Conference and Premier of Victoria, afforded an excellent physical contrast to Sir Henry Parkes, being short, stout, sturdy, florid, with clean-shaven face and close thin hair; an excellent constitutional authority and man of ripe experience in parliamentary affairs, a master both of the motives and dialect characteristic of the Victorian Chamber, clear-headed, and cold in temperament, he was without even a tinge of the poetry which occasionally infused its glow into Parkes's orations as when at the banquet in honour of the opening of the Conference he referred to ‘the crimson thread of kinship’ uniting the colonies to the mother country. Not that in debate Gillies lacked force and fire or any quality of the successful party combatant, for, though with a tendency to Fabian tactics in action [and] to fall to common-places and repetitions in speech, he was a good general either in victory or defeat, without intimate friends but loyal to his associates and enjoying the confidence even of his opponents in his judgment and fairness. At the opposite pole to him in every respect was Dr Cockburn, the young Premier of South Australia, oppressed by the sense of his responsibilities and the presence as his colleague of the late Premier and his present rival Mr Playford. An extremely handsome man with regular features, dark hair and complexion and a well-proportioned figure, his enthusiasm glowed in his eye and overflowed in his fluent but not easy


  ― 32 ―
speech. A visionary by nature and a dreamer by habits, a professional man of miscellaneous reading and limited experience, full of recent heterodox ideas in politics, religion and medicine, weak in will and unstable in opinion, he was condemned to be cautious and to strive to appear practical under considerable disadvantages. A most charming companion and man of unblemished personal character, he was faced by a huge giant, an ex-market gardener known as ‘honest Tom Playford’ whose force of character and general disposition had pushed him to the front where, owing to the temporary disability of his bosom friend Kingston, he became Premier. Carefully equipped by Kingston with the necessary information as to constitution-making his own strong good sense and rugged grasp of affairs enabled him to acquit himself with credit, though his want of tact brought him at once into collision with the never too tolerant Sir Henry Parkes. He was quick-witted enough to seize the first occasion of speaking even without some of his notes in order to forestall Cockburn and put him in a secondary position. In this he succeeded to some extent though it soon became plain that neither of them was specially anxious to see the accomplishment of Sir Henry Parkes's ideal.

Mr Inglis Clark, Attorney-General of Tasmania, was also the son of his own works though in his case he had won a high standing in his profession by sheer talent and industry. Small, spare, nervous, active, jealous and suspicious in disposition, and somewhat awkward in manner and ungraceful in speech, he was nevertheless a sound lawyer, keen, logical and acute. A persevering student, his sympathies were republican, centering upon Algernon Sydney among Englishmen, upon Mazzini in Italy and especially upon the United States, a country to which in spirit he belonged, whose Constitution he reverenced and whose great men he idolised. He brought in consequence a highly trained mind and a large fund of legal and constitutional knowledge to the work of this and the succeeding Convention. His colleague, Mr Stafford Bird had been a dissenting minister before he became a politician and was as sound and sober in thought as he was solemnly impressive in appearance and manner. New Zealand sent two cultured and wealthy gentlemen, Captain Russell and Sir John Hall, whose courtesy if it did not conceal at all events sweetened their unruffled good sense and friendly criticism as of onlookers rather than actual participants or even prospective partners.

previous
next