previous
next



  ― 231 ―

11. Chapter XI Western Australian Parliament

I am elected to the Western Australian Parliament—Evil of centralisation—Members of Parliament—Premiers—State trading—Land settlement—First lady member.

I

IN response to a requisition, signed by a large number of electors, including many representative men, I became a candidate for the Legislative Council at the biennial elections of May, 1908. I was duly elected, and have been a member of the Western Australian Parliament from then up to the time of writing—a period of some twenty-seven years.

A prominent question on the goldfields was the growth of centralisation. One of the promises I made on the hustings when first elected was to do all in my power to check it if returned. Western Australia extends over one-third of a continent. Its population in proportion to its area was at that time a mere handful—a couple of hundred thousand. Yet nearly one-half of that population was crowded together in the immediate vicinity of the capital. Instead of endeavouring to get people into the backblocks to help to develop the state's great natural resources, legislators and administrators favoured a policy that was certain to draw people towards the metropolis. The railways all led to Perth. Huge expenditure was incurred making a harbour at Fremantle, whilst Albany, with its magnificent


  ― 232 ―
natural harbour, and Geraldton were neglected.

One way to strike a blow at centralisation was to secure the construction of a railway from the state's main railway system at Coolgardie southward to Esperance Bay, where a harbour could be constructed at comparatively small cost. As already pointed out in the references to the federation movement, Esperance, which is most picturesque, is not only the natural seaport, but should also be the holiday and health resort for the goldfields during the warm summer months, when a change to the coast is essential. The opening of the Port of Esperance during the early days of the goldfields would have caused a large population to be established in that part of the state. That population would naturally be opposed to centralisation. In fact, the whole battle of centralisation or decentralisation in Western Australia resolved itself round the Esperance Railway.

The struggle against decentralisation had been in progress some fourteen years when I was elected to the State Parliament. It took some thirty years of continual struggle before the Coolgardie-Esperance Railway was completed, and it was only secured in sections. First the Coolgardie-Norseman Railway was completed. Then a great many years later—in 1915—it was decided to build a railway sixty miles north of Esperance to Salmon Gums. It was not until the beginning of 1927 that the gap between Norseman and Salmon Gums was completed. In Perth for years the mere suggestion of the Esperance Railway was sufficient to arouse the warmest resentment. The case in its favour from the viewpoint of the whole colony was irresistible.


  ― 233 ―
There was nothing reasonable to be said against it, but the Perth people simply would not have it. No ministry could hold office and build it until after years and years of strenuous effort.

Goldfields members were all pledged to the Esperance Railway, but if they were in earnest over it they could not hold ministerial office. Some goldfields members flagrantly betrayed their pledges. During my absence in Perth a leader writer on the Kalgoorlie Miner, whilst I was editor, in an article condemning three goldfields members, who were Ministers, for outraging the promises on which they were returned, made some comments that might bear an interpretation different from what was meant. The three Ministers took an action for libel, and a Perth jury gave them a verdict. At a general election held soon after, the Ministry were almost wiped out of existence, their rejection by the electors was so emphatic. Only one of the three Ministers ever dared again to face a goldfields constituency, and he was defeated.

Had the Esperance Railway been built a quarter of a century earlier than it was it would have hastened considerably the progress of Western Australia. The life of many of the mines would have been prolonged, owing to the reduced cost of working by reason of cheaper supplies, and the agricultural and pastoral country between Norseman and Esperance, and to the east and west of that area, would be peopled by thousands of prosperous and contented farmers. Probably that part of the state would have had a hundred thousand people, whereas the rest of West Australia would be no less populous than it is to-day.




  ― 234 ―

To me the work of the state Parliament was of intense interest. The problems were complex. There were the usual industrial questions, and I saw the institution of the Arbitration Court and its operations, and the endeavours to make it perfect, and to ensure that its decisions were respected by both sides. The trouble is that whilst the arbitration law can be enforced towards the employer, it becomes a dead letter when the employees refuse to obey it.

What, however, is the most attractive work in Australian politics is the peopling of the vacant spaces of so vast and empty a continent. In Australia, perhaps more than in almost any other country of the present day, statesmen have the satisfaction of being able to “read their history in the nation's eye.” It was a common occurrence for, say, a railway to be built through virgin bush and then for those responsible for its construction to travel through the country served by the line a year or two later and find it dotted with hundreds of homesteads and carrying a large population.

Future generations of Australians will probably say of the men of to-day that they “builded better than they knew.” The great bulk of men think only of the immediate present, and hardly realise how much they are working also for the future. It is amazing what Australians have done in the way of work. Take Western Australia, and considering that the population to-day is still less than half a million, yet the length of railways built, the harbours constructed, the roads made, the country cleared and cultivated, is an almost staggering record.

The Australian public man possesses considerable ability. He may not have much book learning, but he


  ― 235 ―
is well educated as regards practical knowledge. Often his ways of solving problems are rough and ready, but they are effective. And he is honest. Like politicians in all parts of the world, he may at times break his pledges and sacrifice his political convictions to expediency. No ministry could hold together a week if members were not prepared to surrender their convictions on minor points in order to achieve some more important objective. It would not be possible for Ministers to agree on every question that arises, and it is only by a spirit of compromise that unity can be attained. There are those who consider compromise dishonesty, and it may be in some instances, but what I refer to as honest in the Australian public man is the absence of corruption. In parliaments all over the world, even in the House of Commons, cases of corruption have occurred. That is inevitable, for there are black sheep in every flock, but no legislative bodies anywhere are freer from corruption than those of Australia. Statements may be made to the contrary. In Australia evil-minded persons occasionally insinuate that legislators are open to receive bribes, but such statements are made by those who cannot verify them. Australian members of Parliament are incorruptible. Most of them live and die very poor men.

They do not stand high in public estimation. Perhaps some of them, as well as back-country pioneers, find consolation in the words of Kingsley Fairbridge:

“Yet in the end they will fathom our secrets:

Say it was easy to make what we made:
Turn us and criticise, handle, dissect us,
See where we fail'd and forget where we conquered—
Point us a way that was better and surer—
Show us a road that was swifter and straighter.


  ― 236 ―

We, who are moulding the hope of a People:
We, who are finding a world for our nation;
We, who are giving our lives and our efforts:
We shall be blamed that we did not do better.
Blamed? But who cares—as the lights that we follow
Have shown us a Thing to be done, to be lived for—
Just so shall we struggle, just so shall we labour,
Just so, though unthanked, we shall live for and do it.”

Often Australian public men make immense sacrifices of time and money. Sir Edward Wittenoom told me that in 1883, when he first became a member of Parliament, he had to ride on horseback three hundred miles to attend Parliament, and the same distance back, covering fifty miles a day. That was before payment of members was in operation. As a rule, entering Parliament is injurious to a man's business or profession, yet, notwithstanding, large numbers of men go into public life well knowing the cost. Members of the Federal Parliament representing states distant from the seat of Government must be either wealthy men or professional politicians. A member representing, say, Western Australia must be away from the state for many months each year—in fact for most of the year. Even when Parliament is not sitting there is usually work for him to do at the seat of Government. Much the same thing applies in the state Parliament to a member representing a distant constituency. If he lives in his constituency he must also have a home in the capital. Numbers of men in the Federal and State Parliaments travel each week-end from the capital back to their country homes. It is said that this constant travelling has shortened the lives of many members, especially


  ― 237 ―
of the Federal Parliament, amongst whom the mortality has been at times heavy.

For more than twenty years I travelled over seven hundred and fifty miles by train each week (that is between my home in Kalgoorlie and Perth) whilst Parliament was sitting in Perth. I was not conscious of its affecting me in any way injuriously, though it was tiring.

II

Both as a journalist and as a member of Parliament I had singular opportunities of meeting the various men who were in public life in Western Australia. Full responsible government was granted in 1890, and I was intimately acquainted and worked with the different Premiers. The first, Sir John Forrest, a surveyor and successful explorer, ruled for more than ten years with autocratic power. Loud-voiced, domineering and far-seeing, he had the courage to carry out public works that were stupendous for so small a population. When the Commonwealth was established and he went into the Federal Parliament, the absence of his great ability and strong personality caused state politics to become unsettled.

The second Premier, George Throssel, was hardheaded and practical, but lacking in imagination, barren of humour and without qualifications for leadership. He was handicapped (his opponents said he was helped) by deafness. A large sheet of cardboard was held by him against his chest, and, putting a corner of it in his mouth, it acted as a sounding-board. When requests were made to him as Premier he acknowledged hearing only what he wanted to


  ― 238 ―
hear. For instance, he never admitted hearing any request for public expenditure. Some said that was why his Ministry only lasted three months.

George Leake, K.C., next became Premier; he had led the Opposition to Forrest, was brilliant, witty and popular. In six months he was succeeded by A. E. Morgans, a mining man and member for Coolgardie. Morgans had been but a few years in Western Australia, had had an adventurous career in Central America, was a Welshman with the courteous, cultured manners of an old-time Spanish aristocrat, had great ability, was opposed to the policy of centralisation, and favoured a railway between Coolgardie and Esperance. His Ministry lasted only thirty-two days. He was the forerunner of that influence that was later to be exercised by new arrivals that the gold discoveries had attracted to Western Australia.

George Leake came back to office, but his second term lasted only six months, when he died. Another lawyer, Sir Walter James, followed. He was cheery, eloquent and democratic. His Premiership lasted two years. An ex-detective, Henry Daglish, then led the first Labour Ministry for a year, and after that Sir Hector Rason was Premier for nine months.

Stability was brought into Government affairs by Sir Newton Moore becoming Premier in 1906. In four and a half years he resigned and went to London as Agent-General. Later he was for many years a member of the House of Commons, and afterwards accepted an important position in Canada. His tact, wonderful knowledge of men, and shrewdness enabled him to win a reputation in three continents—Australia, Europe and America.




  ― 239 ―

Mr. Frank Wilson, a keen business man and decidedly capable, but without broadness of vision or political acumen, succeeded as Premier. A Redistribution of Seats Act passed by his Government aroused great public indignation, and after holding the Premiership for a year his Ministry was heavily defeated at a general election.

A Labour Government came into office under the leadership of John Scaddan, a truly remarkable man; a miner who when elected to Parliament seven years previously was utterly ignorant of all that should make for success in politics; a poor speaker and ill-educated. He was a quick thinker and had the capacity and desire to learn; he was wise enough to realise his own deficiencies, and set to work to make himself efficient. He was seven years in Parliament and had no ministerial experience when he became Premier. The Daglish Labour Ministry had not behind it a majority of Labour members. It had office but not responsibility. When the Scaddan Government was returned the Labour Party held a large majority of the Legislative Assembly seats and the party proceeded to put its policy into practice. Various socialistic ventures were started. Amongst them were Government-owned and controlled hotels, brick-works, sawmills, implement works and ships. Meat preserving works were established at Wyndham in the far north, and the Government purchased the Perth trams. Most of these Government concerns were non-paying, but their supporters claimed that, though they showed a direct loss, yet they were all a source of indirect gain to the community. They said the state ships and the Wyndham meat works helped


  ― 240 ―
the country's development, and other state activities improved public conveniences or lessened the charges made on the goods produced. The merits of state trading concerns has long been the main bone of contention between politicians.

A great service was rendered to Western Australia by Sir James Mitchell. The Labour Party always have had a definite policy. Sir James Mitchell as Minister and later as Premier came into public life with an alternative policy in the form of constructive statesmanship. He never forgot that Western Australia is a vast empty land with immense areas of fertile country awaiting settlement. The policy he advocated was to encourage land settlement and the development of the agricultural areas. To him more than anyone else is due the credit of opening up the wheat belt and establishing thousands of settlers on the land. His broad-visioned immigration policy was not as successful as it deserved, but that was not his fault. The failure of his group settlement scheme to realise expectations was due to errors in selecting the proper type of settlers and to faulty administration of the scheme. The value of his work will be appreciated when ultimately the agricultural resources of the state, including the south-west, have been fully developed. Setbacks and disappointments are inevitable in carrying out great projects, especially in the settlement of new land, but wheat growing and mixed farming have been established on a sound basis in Western Australia as a consequence of his work and foresight.

In Western Australian state politics the struggle during recent years has been between three parties.


  ― 241 ―
There is the Labour Party, who mainly represent wage earners, and opposed to them are the Nationalists, whose stronghold is amongst city and commercial people, and the Country Party, who are the special champions of farmers. As happens in parliaments in most other parts of the world, it is not unusual for the Government of the day, whether it be Labour or otherwise, to put into operation much of the policy of its opponents. The political stage in Western Australia is small, but the drama that is acted is identical in all its features, good and bad, with that of the great parliaments of Europe.

III

It would be tedious to go through the more or less important achievements of various Premiers and public men with whom I was brought into contact during some thirty years' membership of the Western Australian Parliament. Besides, it is not my desire to deal with the more serious questions of state politics. In looking back my mind rests more upon individuals.

The Western Australian Parliament was the first Australian Legislature to include ladies amongst its members. Mrs. Cowan, the first lady member, was viewed at first as something of a curiosity. A charming white-haired lady, she was born in Western Australia, and took herself and her duties very seriously.

She devoted herself to social work. Her husband was a police magistrate at Perth. As illustrating how much she had to be away from home attending to her countless duties, she told me that when a lady called


  ― 242 ―
at her residence and, meeting Mr. Cowan outside in the garden and not knowing him, asked, “Does Mrs. Cowan live here?” “Well,” answered Mr. Cowan, “she sleeps here.”

Soon after Mrs. Cowan's election she was much concerned because ladies were not admitted to the Speaker's gallery. She could get her husband admission to it, but other members could not get their wives there. Finally she got this altered, but the ladies' gallery was made available for men.

When advocating on the floor of the House that ladies should be admitted to the Speaker's gallery, she reminded her hearers that not only did the Bible tell us that it was not a good thing for man to be alone, but that “male and female created He them and gave them dominion over all things.”

It is not always wise to quote Scripture. One of the members, Mr. Walker, cruelly pointed out that “He made woman out of a man's rib” and “brought her unto the man.” He added that St. Paul said that woman was created for man, and quoted the same authority as saying:

“Let your women keep silence, for it is not permitted unto them to speak, but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything let them ask their husbands at home.”

Mr. Angelo appropriately remarked that St. Paul was an old bachelor.

Two remarkable members were Frederick Charles


  ― 243 ―
Burleigh Vosper and George Taylor, both of whom had served terms of imprisonment in Queensland in connection with a shearers' strike in the eighties and early nineties of the last century.

Vosper's appearance was striking. He was tall; his face was clean-shaved; his features were clear-cut—a well-formed prominent nose, a firm mouth, bright intelligent eyes, and he looked young; he was about thirty years of age. But what was most noticeable about him was that he wore his hair long like a woman. It was thick, glossy black and hung to his shoulders. He had kept it long since his imprisonment some years previously.

Originally Vosper came from St. Dominic, Cornwall. He was a polished speaker, cultured and well educated, and had a thorough scientific knowledge of mineralogy and geology. Highly intellectual, a deep student, a magnetic personality and a wonderful platform speaker, he had also brilliant qualifications as a parliamentarian. Had he not died about 1900, when but thirty-three years of age, he would have become a power in the public life of the Commonwealth. His political views were advanced, but what he advocated then is to-day universally accepted, and though he was amongst the radicals yet the bent of his mind was actually towards conservatism. His subsequent career would have tended towards hostility to violent change and strong support of Empire unity and imperialism.

His retorts were clever if at times somewhat rude. A Minister in Parliament in an endeavour to emphasise his remarks was in the habit of saying the same thing over and over again. The Minister happened


  ― 244 ―
to say “History repeats itself.” “Yes,” interjected Vosper, “but not so often as you.”

When Vosper was speaking on wheat growing a member interrupted with the remark, “You don't know what you are talking about. You never ploughed an acre in your life.” Quick came the retort from Vosper: “It is strange you ever had a chance to be anything but a ploughman.”

Once he told a persistent interjector in Parliament that he was a “tergiversating, tantalising troglodyte.” The member thus described rose to leave the chamber. “Why run away like that?” remarked a colleague. “He's not running away,” said another member, “he's going to get a dictionary to see the meaning of the names he has been called.”

Of a somewhat different type, George Taylor was self-educated, a rough diamond, original and possessed of a keen sense of humour. He was one of a small batch of Labour members who were returned to the State Parliament early in 1901. A few months later there was a by-election consequent on the acceptance of the Attorney-Generalship by a lawyer of exceptional ability and of high standing at the Bar. He was opposed by a Labour candidate, a barber by trade, without parliamentary experience or qualifications. To the surprise of the public, the lawyer was defeated, and Taylor exultantly declared, “We, the Labour Party, put up a barber, and had we put up his poll it would have been elected.”

Taylor was in the habit of entertaining parliamentarians in the lobbies of Parliament House with stories of his prison experiences. One story that he asserted was true was of two Queensland policemen bringing


  ― 245 ―
a Chinese to jail to be tried for murder. They stayed at a wayside inn, the policemen got drunk, and during the night the Chinese escaped. The constables left the inn before the innkeeper knew of the escape; they went to where there were some Chinese working in a garden, seized one who could not speak a word of English, and, despite his evident indignation and anger, rode off with him. He was found guilty, sentenced to death, but the penalty was commuted to penal servitude for life. The Chinese nearly went mad and was viewed as a lunatic. Some years later the truth was discovered, and he was released and compensated.

Both in speech and appearance George Taylor when he was first elected was “the wild man” of Parliament. He did not mind what he said, and he was rugged and fierce-looking, with a great growth of hair. His beard was full and wide and long and thick. It was said birds might build their nests in it with perfect safety. The strange grotesque and fantastic scrub tree was likened to him, and not inappropriately he was called “Mulga.”

Time showed he was adaptable to his environment. He was more than three years in Parliament when Labour came into office, and he became Colonial Secretary. It was not long before he had his hair cut; his beard was shortened and trimmed to a point of exceptional smartness. He occasionally appeared in Parliament in all the glory of a well-fitted dress suit; his manner became suave, and when the judges of the High Court sat in Perth it was his duty to preside at a dinner given by the State Government to them. The Chief Justice, Sir Samuel Griffiths, sat on the


  ― 246 ―
right of the man whom as a Queensland judge he had sent to prison for five years.

Whilst Colonial Secretary, Taylor asked the Queensland Government to grant leave to the superintendent of the jail in which he had been imprisoned to visit Western Australia and recommend improvements in the conduct of the state's prisons. Leave was granted, and the recommendations made were adopted. Taylor was in fact responsible for the drafting of reformatory principles for first and second time offenders that have been embodied since in the penal systems of most of the Australian states.

The Great War brought about a split in the Labour Party over the question of conscription. Taylor sided with those who favoured conscription and thus parted from many of his old political comrades. For twenty-three years he was a member of the Legislative Assembly, and during the last seven years he filled the position of Speaker. In that office he was no longer the rough, uncouth “Mulga” of former days, but a white-haired, carefully dressed, alert and charming old gentleman, who as Speaker was fair, correct and consistent with the best parliamentary traditions. He was universally respected and popular.

previous
next