previous
next

I

THE Australian continent and Tasmania were at last united in a federal union. The Federal Parliament controlled national affairs—namely, defence, external relations, Customs, Excise, postal and telegraph matters. To the six State Parliaments were left the management of such local matters as education, state railways, lands administration, agriculture, police, health, etc.

In accordance with the constitution, the Commonwealth Parliament sat in Melbourne until a site was selected on which to build a federal capital.

I was then a young man. It was a never-to-be-forgotten time. It was the beginning of Australia as a nation.

The Parliament was opened in May 1901 by H.R.H. the Duke of Cornwall, subsequently King George V.

The opening ceremony took place at the Melbourne Exhibition, which was specially fitted up for the occasion. The huge building was packed with notables from all parts of the Commonwealth and distinguished


  ― 157 ―
visitors from abroad. On the dais were the Duke and Duchess, also the Governor-General and Lady Hopetoun and the various state Governors and Lieutenant-Governors.

A notable feature of the event was the excellent voice of the Duke. It resounded through the hall, clear and distinct.

The splendour of the gathering was somewhat marred as the Royal Court was still in mourning for Queen Victoria.

In St. James's Palace there is a remarkable picture “The Opening of the Commonwealth Parliament.” It was painted by Mr. Tom Roberts, who was commissioned to do it by the Commonwealth Government. He was required to include in it all the notabilities and federal members. The key to it gives the names of no less than two hundred and seventy-seven persons, so it is not surprising that it is a huge canvas. It measures eighteen feet six inches by eleven feet nine inches.

I sat one morning, also the following afternoon, whilst Tom Roberts painted my head and shoulders in the picture. He had been given sittings by the Duke and Duchess, and various other prominent persons present at the opening ceremony. In two or three instances men were included who were not present. For example, Sir George Reid, Leader of the Opposition, was absent through illness, but he is in the picture.

Roberts had a delightful personality. He put the best he had into all his work, and he was a hard worker. During the sitting, perhaps it was to give


  ― 158 ―
relief to the subject, he frequently said, “Have a rest.” Then, he was most entertaining. He danced and whilst he danced he sang snatches of songs in foreign languages, learned by him in his student days on the Continent.

The picture troubled him a good deal. It was impossible for it to be historically correct and include all the details required and yet be artistic. In the circumstances he did wonderfully well. The background is particularly good. Beams of sunshine are coming down, the atmosphere of the interior is well represented, flags and banners are dimly seen and a framed portrait can be faintly discerned high on the walls showing Sir Henry Parkes, who worked so hard for federal union, looking down on the scene. Parkes had died some years previously, and his picture was not in the building, but it was Robert's idea to put it there. Certainly if the departed could revisit the earth, Sir Henry was present in spirit.

When Roberts had worked for about eighteen months on the picture I asked him about it. “I have begun to hate it,” he said. “It has become mere mechanical work; it is difficult to get people to sit for it, and I'm longing to finish it so that I may get on with more congenial work.”

The picture took two years to finish, and Roberts received for it only £1,100.

Each of the members of the first Commonwealth Parliament got as a present from His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall the Bible on which he was sworn in as a member. The Bible contained the Duke's


  ― 159 ―
signature. Furthermore, each member was given the right to use for life the title of Honourable within the Commonwealth.

It was a Parliament that contained many intellectual giants—leaders of men. The first Federal Ministry consisted mostly of the Premiers of the states who had been invited by Mr. Barton to join his Cabinet. It was a highly prized honour to be a member of that Parliament, and in each state many of the leaders in public life, prominent lawyers and merchants, were elected to it.

It is true that amidst this collection of able and experienced men there were, as happens in all Parliaments, some political “accidents”—men without the knowledge, experience, or capacity to be fitting representatives. One member, Mr. Skene, who, like myself, had never served any parliamentary apprenticeship before election to the first Commonwealth Parliament, admitted that he felt surprised at finding himself one of such a brilliant company. He told me that he asked himself, “How on earth did I get here?” Later, when he knew some of the members better, his chief wonder was not how he had got there but how some of the other fellows had got there!

Still, it is safe to say that of the seventy-five representatives and thirty-six senators—that is, the one hundred and eleven men constituting the first Federal Parliament—there were forty or fifty of exceptional outstanding ability. Most of the others were vastly above the average. In proof of this it is only necessary to glance at the previous and subsequent careers of the


  ― 160 ―
members as ministers, judges, administrators, soldiers and captains of industry.

It was said of the first Ministry that it was like a ship with too many captains on board. They had all been leaders in their own states and could not get out of the habit of giving orders and having their own way.

The tone was high and an excellent spirit prevailed amongst the members. There was a determination not to permit of occurrences that would be a reflection on the National Parliament of Australia. The Speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, was an ideal occupant of the office. Possessed of a thorough knowledge of the standing orders, prompt and accurate in his decisions, strict but just, he was respected by all. I never remember his ruling to be questioned or that any member was suspended during the three-years life of the first Parliament. All members were anxious to secure for that Parliament a good reputation.

Members were remarkably temperate. A goodly number were teetotallers. There were, however, two or three exceptions, and on one occasion I was involved in an incident that might have had an unpleasant ending, but happily terminated in a rather amusing way. I was one of the deputy chairmen of committee. One evening when the House was in committee, the chairman, Mr. Chanter, who was presiding, sent a message saying he wished to speak to me. When I went to him he asked me to relieve him in the chair, and he whispered that he had been told that Mr. X (one of the members), who was waiting to rise and catch his eye, was so far intoxicated that his friends were afraid he would make a fool of himself,


  ― 161 ―
perhaps create a scene and bring even the House into disrepute. Mr. X had risen three or four times already, but the chairman told me that he had carefully avoided seeing him. Mr. X was furious at not being called on. The chairman asked me to take his place. I was not supposed to know that Mr. X had risen previously, and so I could see other members and call on them. In committee each Member may speak several times on the same subject, but the speeches are almost invariably short.

I took the chair, and as soon as the member who was speaking sat down, Mr. X sprang to his feet, but I saw another member who had risen. Mr. X felt there was a conspiracy not to let him speak. And so there was.

The members were determined to save him from himself.

Leaders have prior claims to be called, and the leaders of the Government, Opposition and Labour Parties each rose to postpone the necessity for calling on Mr. X to speak.

All attempts to get him out of the chamber and so close the discussion, by passing to another clause, failed.

Mr. Deakin had charge of the Bill, and finally I had to let him know that there was no alternative but to call upon Mr. X and to look out for a squall.

Mr. X was sitting in his place on the back cross benches, his face red as fire and his eyes blazing. When the opportunity came he sprang to his feet and I called on him.

His fury was so intense that he could not speak for


  ― 162 ―
a few seconds. When his voice came it was thick with whisky and rage.

“Mr. Deputy Chairman,” he roared, “I have been ignored, slighted, insulted by the chairman and also by you.” Suddenly a spasm passed over his face, he grabbed his side, he looked behind him and collapsed to his seat. Soon after he left the chamber.

What happened was something that the reporters could not see from where they were. Mr. X's friends, in their despair, had brought Mrs. X to the House and had placed her in a gallery immediately behind where he sat. The gallery was level with his seat. She got there just before he rose. She was a stern lady with a long umbrella. When her husband rose she thrust the umbrella through the rails of the gallery and gave him a terrific prod in the ribs. Hence his collapse.

I could not see the prodding from the chair. It was highly disorderly to interfere with a speaker when addressing the chair, but my attention was not drawn to it.

Effective as was the method adopted in the case of Mr. X, a parliamentary official told me of a method that was still more effective. The incident happened in a later Parliament. A member was drunk and troublesome. The Speaker warned him several times. The official spoke privately to the Whip of the unruly member's party. The Whip went to the member. They engaged in an animated discussion in a low tone. Finally, the Whip got up and left the chamber. Shortly after, the member who was causing trouble also went out. When the Whip was asked how he got his drunken colleague from the House, he said: “I went to him and whispered to him that he was drunk


  ― 163 ―
and should leave. He refused, and I said he was a disgrace to Parliament and to the party we both belonged to, and that if he came out I would give him such a thrashing that he would behave himself for the rest of his days, but I knew he was a coward and would not dare to come out. This roused his ire. I then went out and locked myself in a room whilst the irate drunkard went searching for me everywhere.”

Sir Edmund Barton was ponderous in speech and appearance. His language was involved and appeared to have been given to him to conceal his thoughts. His parliamentary speeches were difficult to follow. One paper accurately described the Prime Minister's speeches in pointing out that an ordinary person would say, “To-day is a fine day,” but Barton, in his parliamentary language, would say it thus:

“I have considered all that bears on atmospheric conditions, that is so far as they apply since sunrise, and having taken them fully into account—and duly weighed them—I have no hesitancy in stating that from the point of view of the person who considers firstly his personal comfort rather than what perhaps may be best for those interested in, say, the agricultural industry, the climate is favourable, in fact fine, but I wish it to be clearly understood that in making this statement I am speaking only of what exists at the present moment and am not prognosticating what changes may take place before nightfall.”


  ― 164 ―

Amongst members of the first Federal Parliament Sir Edmund was extremely popular, and properly so. He was unfailing in his courtesy and never personal in his criticism of opponents. He was generous to all; he did not value money, though he was known to be in anything but affluent circumstances.

When the term of the Parliament was drawing to a close there was much discussion as to who should be the first judges of the Federal High Court. Amongst members the hope was general that Sir Edmund would be the Chief Justice. It was felt that he was in every way eligible. His standing as a lawyer justified the appointment, and it was also a fitting reward for his services towards the accomplishment of Federation. It was stated in the Press that he would be Chief Justice. That evening he solemnly informed the House that the announcement was incorrect, as he would not take the position. His exact words were, “I find that a constant misrepresentation has been made and is being reasserted each day to the effect that I intend to appoint myself to be Chief Justice. I wish to state that the idea of doing so has not been present in my mind, and that nobody knows better than the Attorney-General that it is not and never has been my intention to do so.” Mr. Deacon said, “Hear, hear,” and Mr. Andrew Fisher voiced the feeling of the House by interjecting, “The Right Hon. gentleman is quite entitled to the position.”

Most of us regretted his decision, but we did not realise that he did not pledge himself not to go on the bench, and a few days later were surprised to hear that he was one of the three who had accepted High Court judgeships, Sir Samuel Griffiths being Chief Justice


  ― 165 ―
and Sir Edmund Barton and Senator O'Connor his colleagues.

The day the appointment was officially announced he remarked to me that it was not without regret he left public life for the placid atmosphere of the High Court bench. “Public life,” he remarked, “with all its worries and striving, is diversified and has compensations.”

I was a member of the Revenue Tariff party that sat in opposition to his Government because of its policy of protection. Knowing that he could have got the senior position had he wanted it, I said to him:

“As you are going on the bench, I am certain the members on both sides of the House are sorry you did not take the Chief Justiceship.”

“I would not take it, as I am convinced that Sir Samuel Griffiths is a better man for the post than I am.” Such was the reply of Sir Edmund Barton.

Probably Sir Edmund was right. Griffiths enhanced his reputation on the High Court bench. Barton's brilliancy was universally admitted, but his friends said he was lazy. He could not have been as lazy as they represented or he never could have done all the work he got through both before and after he became Prime Minister. Certainly, after he became a judge, he seemed to lose energy and the bonhomie that was his great attraction. His most characteristic utterance from the bench was, “I concur.”

Alfred Deakin, who succeeded Barton as Prime Minister, was tall and handsome, dark featured and


  ― 166 ―
with a full black beard; the most charming personality in the first Parliament; a delightful conversationalist—bright, witty and novel. When Parliament adjourned each evening for tea there was always a spare three-quarters of an hour, and he usually spent that time walking in the delightful garden at the back of Parliament House. I was often his companion, and I look back on my talks with him as amongst the happiest of experiences. He loved reading, and his knowledge of English literature was extensive, and whatever subject he discussed he adorned.

“Come, Kirwan,” he would say to me, “let us have a walk and a talk.”

That meant we walked and he did the talking. It was as I wished. I was a deeply appreciative listener, and he seemed to know it.

It amazed me the length and variety of the passages from great writers that he could quote in verse and prose.

Our views were far apart on the subject of protection, which was then the bone of contention between federal parties. We never talked about politics, and he rarely mentioned his work to me, but I remember his confiding in me his wish to produce a speech worthy of the occasion when as Attorney-General he was introducing the High Court Bill.

“I am,” he said, “cursed with the fatal gift of fluency.”

His words, he said, always carried him away and he wished he could deliver the speech slowly and deliberately. We had more than one talk about it, and I was naturally interested and was in my place when the time came for him to deliver it.




  ― 167 ―

He began as he had intended, carefully choosing his diction and avoiding rapidity of speech and super-abundance of words. That continued for about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, then some interjections came and he verbally bolted—the usual torrent of words flowed freely.

I watched, and perhaps looked disappointed.

In the midst of his outpourings he caught my eye. My face must have reminded him of his original intention.

He paused and once more proceeded to deliver his speech as he had arranged in his own mind, but further interruptions again caused him to rush along, and finally he seemed to abandon any attempt of departing from his usual style as hopeless. He raced through what he had to say—a torrent of words.

He was most careful in his personal expenditure. It was said he would never take a cab when a tram would serve.

A close friend of his has written that Deakin's philosophy on lying was a curious inconsistency, for he certainly believed that a lie was justifiable if the higher interests of the state demanded it. I cannot think that of Deakin.

Though I was in opposition to the Government, Deakin was kindness itself to me. When I lost my seat at the general elections he immediately wired to me—he was then Prime Minister and I was an Oppositionist—his personal regret, and added, “Hope fortune of war will not discourage you at one rebuff.” It was just like him to say that. He could never be other than thoughtful and considerate, and was specially kind to the


  ― 168 ―
younger men in politics, even those who were opposed to his views.

Sir George Reid delighted in a hostile audience, and by his witty replies to interjectors [?] he could always put it in good humour and so get a hearing.

He always drew enormous crowds when billed to speak. People flocked to hear his humour and his eloquence, and before his political foes realised what had happened to them he had won them to his views and were wildly cheering opinions that they had come to condemn.

I was a member of the parliamentary party of which Reid was the leader. When as leader of the Opposition he was preparing his first speech in the Federal Parliament, he was desirous of showing that whatever fiscal policy the Government decided on, a majority of the members were returned to support a tariff framed for revenue rather than for protection purposes. He asked a couple of the younger members, including myself, to find out from the election speeches what were the views expressed by members when on the hustings. We made investigations and were doubtful only about one man, a Labour member, Mr. Bamford. Someone said he was a free trader and Mr. Reid put him down as such. The galleries and members' benches were crowded, and when Mr. Reid came to this part of his speech in his notes the names of members were arranged alphabetically and the individual in question happened to come first. “The first name on my list of Revenue Tariffists,” said Reid, “is Mr. Bambord.” A member with a scraggy white beard in a


  ― 169 ―
far-away corner interjected, “No, I am not.” The Government benches cheered. Reid was not disconcerted. He adjusted his eye-glass and, looking at Mr. Bamford, remarked, “Thank you, that is just what we wanted, we were doubtful about you; our wish is to separate the sheep from the goats; and so you wish us to put you down amongst the goats.” The reply so fitted in with the member's scraggy beard, the whole chamber rocked with laughter.

When addressing a public meeting he was asked to explain some seeming inconsistency with his present views and those expressed in the past.

“Since then,” he replied, “much water has been under the bridge.”

“Which bridge?” cried an interjector.

Quick as lightning Reid replied, “The bridge the water ran under.”

Much of Reid's humour was unconscious. His rotund appearance, his big body, short legs and strange, rather plaintive voice excited humour.

During his later years in public life in Australia he was engaged in a constant effort to appear before the public as a serious-minded statesman. His opponents sought to injure him by representing that he was the “funny man” of politics and nothing else. He strove hard to avoid creating that impression.

One evening on the Western Australian goldfields, before he went on the platform to address an immense crowd that was waiting evidently expecting to be amused, he turned to me and said, “I must not make them laugh.” When he appeared they laughed, and in every sentence the audience sought to discover some humorous hidden meaning, and they often did, though


  ― 170 ―
it was not meant, and they laughed. No matter how he tried he could not help creating humour.

Reid rarely used his humour except when replying to bitter personal attacks or interjections. He did not indulge in

“The aimless jest that striking has caused pain,
The idle word that he'd wish back again.”

Reid once told me how troubled he was about a remark he had made in the House a day or two previously. He was grievously concerned about it. There was a kindly, well-meaning and industrious member of the first House of Representatives from Tasmania named Piesse. Mr. Piesse was blind of one eye, but Reid did not know it.

Piesse was endeavouring to explain something in one of his speeches in the House. Mr. Reid could not follow his remarks, and he interjected, “I cannot see what the honourable member has in his eye.”

When Mr. Reid was told that Piesse had a blind eye, he could not explain or apologise. It worried his kindly nature for some time afterwards.

The Government and the Opposition were fairly evenly divided—the former had a few more votes than the latter. The Labour Party with sixteen members in a house of seventy-five was able to hold the balance of power. Sir Edmund Barton was accused of pandering to the Labour Party, and his successor in the Prime Ministership, Mr. Deakin, was subjected to a similar accusation. Mr. Chris Watson, the leader of the Labour Party, was spoken of as the Dictator of the


  ― 171 ―
Government policy. Sir George Reid invariably represented the Prime Minister in an obsequious attitude, answering “Yes, Mr. Watson” to all demands, no matter how preposterous. Whatever truth there may have been in this, it is certain that the Legislation passed by the First Parliament was more democratic than that of any Parliament previously known in Australia.

Mr. Watson was a compositor by trade, possessed of considerable common sense, moderate and practical in his views and direct in his speech. He was a young man, still in the early thirties, and had served for six years in the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, where he was credited with having secured the amendment of the Municipal Act by abolishing plural voting by property owners and giving a vote to occupiers. His party had frequent meetings, and the various aspects of questions coming before Parliament were discussed in detail. The party consisted of twenty-four members, including eight Labour Senators, and, as Mr. Watson invariably was the first of them to speak, it was said that it was not surprising that he had a great reputation for ability, as he voiced the ideas of not one but twenty-four brains. This did not apply to the other parties, as they rarely met and did not discuss either the general principle or details of the Bills presented by the Government. There was, in fact, a certain soreness amongst some of the Labour members because all the kudos went to the leader.

In the first Parliament W. M. Hughes was one of the brightest of the Labour Party. I remember his short erect figure, whilst he delivered a speech on the first Address in Reply. His pronunciation was good, his


  ― 172 ―
grammar perfect and his utterance indicated culture. The speech was an advocacy of the Swiss system that then existed of compulsory military service.

Like Lloyd George, he was born in Wales. Their characteristics in many respects are similar. In each case their parents were poor; they were both born in 1864 and are self-made men. Lloyd George became an attorney early in life, and Hughes also took to the law, but not until he was thirty-nine years of age. Lloyd George entered Parliament in 1890, was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1916 to 1922. Hughes became a member of Parliament in 1894 and Australian Prime Minister in 1915, an office that he retained until 1923. Lloyd George, however, never had the experience of life of Hughes in battling for existence in a new country. After Hughes came to Australia a young man of twenty he was stone-breaking, a carpenter, boundary riding, sank post holes, shed building, droving stock, a hand on coastal vessels, “super” in Shakespearian performances, small shopkeeper and repairer of locks and umbrellas. When engaged on such odd jobs little did he himself or anyone else expect him to become what he was during the war—one of the Empire's foremost public men.

Though Forrest and Kingston did not like each other pesonally, they had several characteristics in common. They were both tall and heavy, hard workers and never spared themselves. In his early life as a surveyor and later as an explorer Forrest to his associates seemed tireless. Mr. W. A. Saw, who accompanied him as a surveyor on some of his bush trips,


  ― 173 ―
has described how at peep of day he would arouse the party by saying, “We must not eat the bread of idleness.” The horses had to be found and brought in before anyone had breakfast, after which the men put the packs on the horses and started off. It was frequently ten or eleven at night before camp was reached, and then they had tea. Forrest came in on one occasion at 2 a.m., and he left again at sunrise. Many times the party were short of water. After breaking camp in the morning none were allowed to drink until other water had been found, and no food was eaten until a new camp was fixed. The party carried two small kegs and water bags as a standby. The water found was frequently too salt and brackish to use, and on one occasion the party had to tie up the horses all night and continue the search next day. Forrest cared little for food. He was always in good condition and happy, and when travelling to a new camp he would never think of stopping for a mid-day meal. The principal food his party had was pork or bacon and damper, but at times the men ate almost anything they could shoot—shags, cranes, kangaroo rats, etc.—but they did not get down to snakes and iguanas. There were no vegetables, and a boiled plum pudding on Sundays while the raisins lasted was quite an event.

That spirit of cheeriness shown by Forrest in the bush was maintained in Parliament, where he had the qualities of a leader, was good-tempered, displayed a marvellous memory, was tolerant towards views that differed from his own and was ever ready and in fact eager to placate his opponents. Amongst Federal members there were few who were better liked.

previous
next