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5. 5 Men of 1891

IF THE CONFERENCE served merely as an introduction to the consideration of Federal issues, the Convention of 1891 marked a serious attempt to solve them under the sanction of seven Parliaments. It was in numbers, in quality and in task, by far the most important representative gathering which had ever met in Australia.

It was presided over by the veteran Sir Henry Parkes who placed himself under great restraint and indeed spoke but seldom in the Assembly which he had been the means of summoning, and except upon one or two important points exercised little influence beyond that attaching to an ordinary member. The Vice-President, who by being afterwards chosen Chairman of the Committee on Constitutional Powers and Functions became practically the leader of the Convention, Sir Samuel Griffith, was seen at his best when in charge of the Bill of which he was the dominating and responsible draftsman. The delight in difficulties and indifferent determination between them which rendered his opening speech on the resolutions the starting point for all the controversies of the debate, but in other respects an unsatisfactory because chilly and negative contribution, disappeared so soon as he had a definite measure to defend. His patience, lucidity and thorough grasp of the subject made him a model leader among men who needed no quickening enthusiasm and would have brooked no assumption of Ministerial supremacy. Mr Clark of Tasmania was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee which did its work well, the right of appeal to the Privy Council which it proposed to abolish being the only subject of any feeling. The Finance Committee brought forward proposals which were subjected to severe condemnation almost on all hands but whose main principles, more carefully elaborated, were afterwards adopted in 1898. Its Chairman was the Hon. James Munro, Premier of Victoria, a fiery Scot, a speculative plunger, at that time thought to be a sound financier, a practised political chief, cunning, untrustworthy and unscrupulous, and an effective but sometimes injudicious debater. Sir


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Joseph Abbott as Chairman of Committees discharged the duties of that position without difficulty.

The most prominent member of the New South Wales delegation besides Parkes, Dibbs and McMillan was the Hon. Edmund Barton, Q.C., M.L.C., who distinguished himself by his first speech and afterwards assisted in drafting the Bill, but who did not take in this Convention anything approaching the commanding position which he obtained in 1897–8. This was largely due to the indolence which had contributed greatly during his political career to keep him out of the leadership of a party. The face in this respect was a true index to the man, the forehead fine, not remarkable in itself but surmounting an intellectual, well-balanced head crested with iron-grey hair, well-shaped features indicative of refinement and eyes of remarkable beauty and expression, glowing like jewels in the ardour of his inspiration. But the lower part of the face fell below this high standard; the mouth was fish-like though its pout often had a pretty effect, the jowl was large, pointing not only to strength of will but love of ease and indulgence. In later years his fine figure became too corpulent to be graceful so that his Apollo-like brow and brilliant capacities were to some extent chained to earth by his lazy love of good living. At no time and in no sense intemperate, his genial, affectionate nature made him so companionable that he spent many hours in his club chair which could have been more profitably spent in his chambers or in his study. A sound lawyer with a judicial dignity of speech, a fine public spirit and high sense of personal honour, he was it might be said too superior to his surroundings to be able to achieve success. Still his manifest powers had won high recognition; he had been Speaker of the New South Wales Assembly while younger than most of those over whom he presided, and had achieved a large practice at the Bar which would have been larger had he only attended to it. His temperament was Conservative yet sanguine, his intellect liberal and enriched by generous instincts, his temper, though even, somewhat too readily disturbed. In debate he was always cogent and impressive but involved in style and sometimes in arrangement, owing to want of preparation. He had comparatively little of the sympathy which keeps a speaker in touch with his audience. A good classic, with an original vocabulary, a noble delivery and an advocate's eye for an opponent's weak points, he was at times an excellent debater and capable of set speeches of a high order of merit. But he could not be relied upon


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to rise regularly to his best level. Of all this in 1891 only the outline was to be seen.

In addition to Sir Harry Atkinson the dauntless warrior and high-minded statesman who, though a Liberal, had been driven into the opposite camp in which his colleague Captain Russell naturally found a place, New Zealand sent one of the most romantic personages in Australian history, the veteran Sir George Grey, military man, explorer, Governor, politician, Premier and friend of native races. A small stooping venerable figure with a silver head, high in forehead, long in nose and chin, softened by age to a quiet dignity of expression. A silvery voice, a cultured English accent, a style clear, concise, persuasive and eloquent which sheathed even bitterness and innuendo in polished grace; he seemed at his best a younger brother of Higinbotham. His foes painted him in the heyday of his power, strong, inexorable, obstinate, tyrannical and vindictive, but upon the platform he was always deferential and in debate courteousness itself. His was the Gladstonian experience of a continuously liberalising growth, until in his age he had become so charmed with the visions of current radicalism that he had ceased to speak the language of the Assembly, or at all events employed it very frequently to dwell upon the vague and emotional aspects of public questions rather than upon those which might be argumentatively presented. When in happy humour, a not very frequent condition at this time, he resembled Lord Granville, though the latter was reckoned by many one of the most winning debaters in the Lords and the best after-dinner speaker in England. With the eye of a statesman Sir George Grey fastened at once upon the question most likely to live and also to confer a reputation upon its advocate, that of ‘one man one vote’ or, as with scholarly punctiliousness and a touch of aristocratic fastidiousness, he invariably denominated it ‘the Single vote’. But his aim was not merely to make the masses the arbiters of political contests. He wished to make them absolute masters of the daily working of the political machine and to reduce the importance of those who became their constitutional representatives. The single vote was to be employed to elect the Government, and to operate by means of the referendum and probably the initiative upon all questions of the day. One was inclined to suspect that these views were pressed further by Sir George because he evidently felt from the first that they would be repugnant to the majority of his colleagues and especially to Sir Henry


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Parkes, to whom in strength of will and force of egotism he was no whit inferior. Had fortune placed them in the same political sphere theirs would indeed have been a battle of the giants and though the same wilfulness and incapacity to keep a party or Ministry together would have hamstringed Sir George Grey, he would have proved an adversary superior in craft and in power of thrust to any of those with whom Parkes had been confronted. Better disguised in Sir George Grey, vanity and love of applause were no less potent with him than with the President of the Convention, obviously uneasy from the the first at contact with a man as venerable as himself, with a richer and more varied history, better social standing and more illustrious friends and correspondents. Each had been so long the ‘grand old man’ of his own colony, that it was almost with a feeling on each side of affront at an attempted usurpation by an interloper that they met and from the first moment plainly bristling with hostility to each other.

One of Sir Henry Parkes's besetting foibles was a love of associating himself with the notables of the day, of whom he devoutly preserved all mementoes, of whom he frequently spoke and with whom he corresponded whenever possible. At the Conference of 1890 he managed to introduce with comments a letter from Lecky and to mention by the way that he had been introduced to him by Lord Tennyson. When Sir George first rose Sir Henry watched him from under his lids with great interest and followed every word with the closest attention, though this must have proved a very painful experience. If Sir George Grey had set himself but the one purpose of inflicting the utmost exacerbation upon all the tenderest vanities of his great rival, he could not have better constructed that elaborate address in which he contrived to delicately remind his hearers of his own chief achievements and of some of his distinguished friendships commencing with the Marquis of Salisbury and another unnamed peer, and leading up to Her Majesty and the Prince Consort who personally explained to him their entire sympathy with him at the time when, as he boasted, ‘I was arranging for the federation of all South Africa—triumphantly arranging it’ and he was dismissed from his offices of Governor and High Commissioner of the Cape. What Sir Henry's feelings were could only be guessed, for he by no means wore his heart upon his sleeve, but even he could not refrain from whispering to me, ‘Don’t you think this speech is rather too much about Sir George Grey and his illustrious friends?' No


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doubt it was, but it was also the height of irony that it should be Sir Henry Parkes who should complain of it.

The Queensland representatives who were new to the movement call for no special remark. Sir Thomas McIlwraith, second in the Ministry to his old antagonist, Sir Samuel Griffith, suffering from indifferent health and falling financial fortunes, the final crash of which came in 1897, played but a small part in the Convention. The gallant fiery Macrossan died in its early days speaking twice only, both times with practical effect and in his second speech laying stress upon the influence of party government overlooked or under-estimated by all who had preceded him.

The South Australians included among their new men Mr Kingston, then Attorney-General and afterwards Premier of the colony and President of the Convention of 1898, a man of great physical size and strength, of fine features and large head with rather small eyes and compressed lips. His hesitating pauses in speech came between bursts of rapid dogmatic and pugnacious utterance. Strong passions had crippled his self-development and political career but his great ability, indomitable will, and fearless courage steadily surmounted all these barriers. He was at this time the soul of the Ministry but had not yet attained to the Federal spirit which afterwards dominated his views and like the majority of his colleagues took but a limited part in the debates as the movement was then in advance of their ambition.

Kingston's courage verged upon unscrupulousness and his abuse was always vituperative. When in opposition to Cockburn during the short Premiership of the latter, both wooed with persistence the favour of the Liberal paper of Adelaide, the Advertiser. Cockburn was constant in his attendance by day and Kingston by night. On one occasion when a crisis was threatened they chased each other in and out of the office in search [of] the proprietor and editor until the small hours of the morning. Though there was nothing to distinguish them on this score, Kingston boldly attacked his rival on this very score in Parliament, declaring that the stairs of the Advertiser office were being worn out by Cockburn's constant pilgrimages. He knew that Cockburn knew of his own visits but he also knew his man. Cockburn made no reply and returned no retort to his partner in guilt, if guilt it was to be considered. This little incident stamps the men and indicates why some years after, Cockburn became a recruit and followed Kingston as a colleague for many years.




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Sir Richard Baker was at this time in advance of all his colleagues in federal knowledge and in the federal spirit. A prosperous lawyer, afterwards President of the Legislative Council and one of the leaders of the Conservative party, he had published a handbook for the benefit of his fellow representatives in which the features of the various Federal Constitutions of the world were briefly outlined. A study of these enabled him to perceive the strength which the British Executive placed in the hands of the people and determined him more and more in the conviction that either the United States or Swiss Executive was much more likely to be able to resist reforms such [as] Australian radicals desired. Mr Hackett of Western Australia was the first to grasp this truth in its full force and to state with epigrammatic brevity that either responsible government must kill Federation or Federation would kill responsible government, meaning by responsible government the British form and by Federation the doctrine that the States were to enjoy in the Senate coequal power with the House of Representatives. Sir Richard Baker was his first convert and afterwards the persistent advocate of this view, though his ardour in the national cause enabled him to endure defeat in this regard without prejudice to his efforts in its behalf. Mr Gordon, a graceful speaker with a musical voice, allied to Mr Cockburn in his dread of centralization and in his desire to limit the power of the Federal Government and maintain the sovereignty of the States, won recognition by the spirit of his reply to some unjustifiable sneers from Sir Henry Parkes.

The most picturesque figure and perhaps the most typical representative of Tasmania was the Hon. Adye Douglas, a short, well-built, active white-haired, firm-featured veteran upwards of seventy years of age, who had supported Lord Palmerston in his later elections, had been as Agent-General of Tasmania one of the representatives at the Imperial Conference in 1887, and who retained the boyish courage and energy of a lad whose favourite diversion at school had been the practice of fisticuffs with his fellows. By far the ablest and most influential of his fellows was Mr A. Inglis Clark, whose part in the debates was not great, but who was of much assistance to Sir Samuel Griffith in the drafting.

Among the Victorians Sir Henry Wrixon attracted most attention by his thoughtful and scholarly exposition of constitutional principles. The son of a judge and himself a barrister who had ceased practice when he had no longer any need of earning his bread, he was a well-read and well-educated man and had been


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in the early years of his politics still more developed by being the disciple and colleague of George Higinbotham, the man who then and long afterwards possessed the most commanding and fruitful influence of any public man in Victoria. Without any of the iron resolution of his chief which was sometimes indistinguishable from obstinacy, and with as little of his fine-drawn distinctions, often far more legally logical than practical, Wrixon possessed in a large measure his candour, sincerity, courtesy and integrity. The splendid enthusiasm of Higinbotham, elevating him above his contemporaries and making him the master of the masses, was rarely reflected in Wrixon whose intellectual convictions and warmth of sympathy could not be said to radiate from him as they did from his illustrious leader. The tendency to over-refinement of views and what men termed Quixotism in action was common to both, though Wrixon's easier and less assertive nature made him a much less impracticable colleague and a no less loyal friend.

Sir John Forrest, now Premier of the newly constituted Parliament of Western Australia, was under the influence of his responsibility steadily growing in political knowledge and power though still without that confidence in himself, born of experience, which was very manifest in 1897. His guide, philosopher and friend, the part proprietor and editor of the chief paper of the colony, Mr J. Winthrop Hackett, was an Anglo-Irishman of good family, college-trained at home and with some experience as a University lecturer and as a barrister in Melbourne. Here he had stood for the Assembly in the radical interest and had nearly gained a very difficult seat by his zeal and the ability with which he fought. A man of refined tastes and manners and a thoughful student, his practical business training made him also an excellent judge of men. His speeches were more on the English model than those of any of his fellows, admirable both in diction and delivery and in finish of style. Though rarely on his feet he was certainly one of the most well-informed, critical and capable members in the Convention. Sir James Lee Steere, who represented Western Australia, was a man of similar type and standing with the slowness of the Englishman uniting a very practical sense of all the issues involved and a kindliness of disposition which made him a general favourite.

Mr McMillan, Treasurer for New South Wales, belonged to another class, that of the thoughtful, educated business men, narrow and cold after the manner of the Manchester school of which Cobden was the type and ideal. Prudent but not wanting in


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courage, independent though deferential to his exacting and sometimes inconsiderate chief, patient, painstaking, business-like in manner and incisive in debate; he supplied many of the elements missing in his illustrious leader without undue demonstration. Griffith we have previously seen. His colleague and formerly bitter antagonist, Macrossan, was a small rather shrivelled Irishman with a large forehead and a twinkling eye. A self-educated digger who injured his sight poring over his beloved volumes by the camp fire and a clear but staccato speaker evidently in feeble health, in poor circumstances and without anything of distinction in his appearance or style of address, his was one of the clearest and strongest heads in the Conference, one of the most ardent and far-seeing of Federalists whose speech, packed with matter for thought though one of the last delivered, stood out in most respects above them all, its closing words being delivered with a sincerity of passion that conquered his hearers as it evidently conquered him. His untimely death during the sittings of the Convention of 1891 was a great loss not only to his colony but to the Australian cause.

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