― 258 ―

22. Chapter XXII Mr. Fisher Becomes Premier

BUSINESS on November 6th was suddenly interrupted by Mr. Fisher, who announced the withdrawal of the support given by his Party to Ministers. No definite reason was given, except perhaps this, “that he had sought to restrain within reasonable bounds adverse criticism, and he could no longer do so.” Mr. Deakin asked: “Does not the hon. member propose to take any further step?” “Not now,” Mr. Fisher replied. I doubt whether any such abrupt proceeding had ever occurred.

Mr. Deakin was now in a position extremely like that in which he placed me—except that Mr. Fisher gave “notice to quit” with a directness which was impossible in the case of so amiable a man as Mr. Deakin. He had now to consider precisely the same questions as those which he forced me to consider: Was he to tender his resignation, now that his basis of support was destroyed? or, Was he to invite the “happy dispatch”? He had from Friday until Tuesday to consider what he should do.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister made a long statement of the position of Government business, but acknowledged that the power of dealing with it had been taken from him. He did not intimate a resignation;

  ― 259 ―
on the contrary, he submitted himself to the pleasure of the House. There may have been a lingering hope in the Ministerial breast that members on our side might come to the rescue of the Government, in which case any move on the part of the Labour Party would be defeated; but we could not lend ourselves to such a transformation scene. Mr. Deakin must have felt as I did, that he could not leave office on a mere verbal intimation, although the “notice to quit” served on him was not one of the description he gave in my case, when he said “a notice to quit may be for six or twelve months or any other period.”

After an objection from me to the motion he proposed without notice, Mr. Deakin submitted the following motion:

“That the House at its rising adjourn until tomorrow at 3 o'clock,” and said that he would accept any amendment as a challenge. Mr. Fisher then moved that all but “that” be struck out. This was done by 49 votes to 13, a striking proof of the weakness of the Deakin Party even when united again.

Referring to the solitary word “that” left in, Mr. Deakin made a good-humoured exit, saying: “In order that the House may give full and profound attention to all the possible meanings that are to be found in the one word of my motion remaining, I propose to move that the House, at its rising, adjourn until Friday.”

When Friday came Mr. Fisher appeared as Prime Minister, and announced the new Ministry. He took

  ― 260 ―
the position of Treasurer, Mr. Hughes that of Attorney-General, Mr. Batchelor that of Minister for External Affairs, Mr. Tudor that of Minister for Trade and Customs; the other offices were filled by Messrs. Mahon, Thomas, and Pearce. Mr. Hutchison became an Honorary Minister, and Senator McGregor became Vice-President of the Executive Council.

The Labour Party had put a very able team together. Of course, in point of ability and energy Mr. Hughes was quite the foremost man. Physically far from strong, his mental power and range, and his volcanic energy, both as a speaker and a writer, were of a high order. His “hardness of hearing,” like that of my old friend and ally, Sir Joseph Carruthers, was a genuine drawback, which had occasionally great advantages. When attacks were sudden and dangerous, it served as a shield of seeming unconsciousness that gave him more time for reflection.

The new Ministry began with a following of 27. If Mr. Deakin and his friends acted as if two good turns deserved another Ministers would have a comfortable majority. When we remember that the Labour Party had kept Mr. Deakin and his colleagues in office for three years 1901–4, and again for three years 1905–8, it seemed that common gratitude should give the new Government a fair show, especially as the Deakinites seemed to think that the public welfare pointed more to an alliance with Labour than with us.

If the new Ministers had any hope of a grateful return, or that the affectionate relations, which existed when the Labour Party was in support of Mr. Deakin,

  ― 261 ―
would continue when the Labour Party was sorely in need of his support, it soon disappeared.

As I have already admitted, to have a leader of the Opposition who had to be away so much was an unprecedented thing. From the first I made it clear that it was impossible to give up my practice entirely, and that I only held the office until the Party was able to make a better arrangement. So long as Mr. Deakin was entrenched behind the Labour Party, as he was for six years, it was simply impossible to bring about his defeat, if I had been at every sitting. But when the Labour Party threw him over a new situation arose, which made an absentee leader of the Opposition impossible. I therefore retired, hoping that Mr. Cook would be chosen in my place. Mr. Deakin and I could never come together again, Mr. Deakin and Mr. Cook might. Mr. Cook was chosen, as he richly deserved to be.

I have among my valued possessions a letter from the Opposition proper, and a salver presented to me by the Opposition Corner, which at that time consisted of Sir John Forrest, Mr. J. Tilley Brown, Mr. George Fairbairn, Mr. Hedges, Mr. (now Sir William) Irvine, Mr. Knox, Sir John Quick, Mr. Sampson, and Mr. Agar Wynne.

But the letter from those hon. members who so loyally and magnificently supported me from first to last in my fight for Liberal principles against league caucus and domination naturally takes an infinitely higher place in my regard. It comes from the pen of that venerable statesman and good friend, Sir Philip Fysh, more than once Premier of Tasmania.

  ― 262 ―

December 9, 1908.


“When your regretted resignation of Leader of the Parliamentary Party in Opposition reached the Members I was deputed to send you a series of Resolutions passed by the Members, expressive of their great regret that circumstances personal to yourself rendered it advisable that, for a time at least, you should resign the leadership.

“It has since been considered fitting that the Members so loyal to you should in a more formal way convey the text of those Resolutions in a permanent shape. Therefore accompanying this you will receive an illuminated address, which may be treasured as a memento expressive of the continued unity of the Party which you have for so many years led in Parliament, and bound together by your uncommon gifts of eloquence and judicious leadership.—I am,

“Yours very sincerely,

“PHILIP FYSH (Chairman).”

Very soon after Mr. Deakin's retirement from office he and Mr. Cook came together.

The House was prorogued on December 11th.

After many contests and changes of opinion, the site for the Federal Capital was finally settled in both Houses. The contest between the advocates of the different localities was very fierce. Two famous political strategists—Sir William Lyne and Mr. Austin Chapman—had been fighting for once on opposite sides, for each had more than one site in his electorate.

  ― 263 ―
At last the contest was narrowed down to one between Dalgety and Yass-Canberra.

Dalgety was in a good climate, was near the Snowy River, but in all other respects was unsuitable. Yass-Canberra contained a fine site, not far away from the main line of railway between Sydney and Melbourne. It was, as the Premiers' Conference of 1899 agreed it should be, “at a reasonable distance from Sydney.”

The final choice was in favour of Yass-Canberra—in the House, by a substantial majority; in the Senate there was a tie between Dalgety and Yass-Canberra. Then Senator McColl (Victoria) changed his vote, giving Yass-Canberra a majority of two. Two conditions annexed were, that the area of the Federal territory should be 900 square miles, and that it should have access to Jervis Bay. The last point probably decided the choice.

The Invalid and Old Age Pensions Act, 1908, as amended, gave all old people of 65 and upwards—if permanently unable to work, of 60 and upwards—a pension not exceeding 10s. a week, less if there is other income, none at all if the income is £52 a year, Any person over 16, if permanently unable to work, was placed on the same basis.

The Parliament was summoned for May 26th, 1909. Before that date the two wings of the old Opposition and Mr. Deakin and his followers coalesced, and Mr. Deakin was, on Mr. Cook's motion, elected leader.

A very ingenious, if rather rude, method was adopted by the Deakin-Cook Party, which defeated

  ― 264 ―
Ministers at once. Mr. W. H. Kelly, after Mr. Deakin and the Prime Minister had spoken on the Address in Reply, rose and moved the adjournment of the debate. Under our Standing Orders there could be no debate on this. The result was the immediate defeat of Mr. Fisher's Ministry by 39 to 30.

Mr. Hughes, the present Prime Minister, poured out all the vials of his wrath upon Mr. Deakin. Incidentally—more, I fear, to sharpen the point of his sword—he bore striking testimony to the fairness of my dealings with Labour Parties. The compliment is really such a pretty one that I must quote it:

“Let me ask what he has done for us? What has he done for the right honourable Member for East Sydney? It was my fortune to be associated with the right honourable Member as a member of the New South Wales Labour Party in the State Parliament for five years. We have often said things of each other which might perhaps with advantage have been left unsaid, but this I will say, that that right honourable Member never gave us his word that he did not faithfully carry it out. Whenever he made a pledge to us, it was carried out to the letter and in the spirit, whether it extended to a small thing or encompassed a large one. We have differed, and we are now in separate camps. But he has never pretended, since we broke with him, or he with us, to regard us alternately with that fawning affection, or that intolerant antipathy, that the honourable member for Ballarat, at different intervals, has displayed.…”

  ― 265 ―

Mr. Fisher having resigned, the new Administration was sworn in as follows:

Premier (without Portfolio)   Mr. Deakin. 
Minister for Defence   Mr. Cook. 
Treasurer   Sir John Forrest. 
Trade and Customs   Sir William Best. 
External Affairs   Mr. L. E. Groom. 
Attorney-General   Mr. Glynn. 
Postmaster-General   Sir John Quick. 
Home Affairs   Mr. G. W. Fuller. 
Vice-President   Senator Millen. 
Honorary Minister   Colonel Foxton. 

When the Ministry met the House Mr. Fisher moved a vote of censure. This gave him and his followers a full chance of saying the things which they had been prevented from saying by Mr. Kelly's stratagem.

From this time the strain of feeling was great. Sir William Lyne, who was one of the most amiable of men in private life, in debate could be one of the rudest, and he made frequent vitriolic attacks on his former chief.

The Speaker had done his best to keep the warring factions in order; but his health was gradually ruined, and after an all-night sitting he had a seizure whilst in the Chair at 5 o'clock in the morning, which proved fatal a few hours later.

The sorrow of the House was profound. Sir Frederick had been an admirable Speaker, a clear-sighted, efficient public man, and had besides a personality which won and never forfeited cordial esteem.

Mr. Deakin, before the House rose for a Christmas

  ― 266 ―
adjournment, made an exceedingly able speech, unfolding the defence policy of the Government, and including a system of universal compulsory training, in the case of cadets and young men, coupled with new departures in the naval defence of our ports. The Prime Minister also favoured the termination of the Naval Agreement and the concentration of the ships on the China, India, and Australian stations in one fleet-a course that war would make inevitable.