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4. Chapter IV First Experiences in Parliament

THE year 1880 was one of my best years for two reasons. It saw me start at last upon my professional and upon my political career. The two were part of the same plan. I qualified for the Bar because it was the one occupation which enabled me to enter public life. The first rungs of every ladder to eminence are within the reach of the youth whose parents can “finance” him. The youth who has to earn his own subsistence finds it difficult to get near them. Still, the odds against the latter are not so great as they seem. In new countries the difference is often in favour of the chances of the poor man's son. Sometimes the difference between the man who has succeeded and the man who has failed is the difference between abilities sharpened by necessity and abilities spoilt by good fortune.

If I may allude to myself again, the preparation I made for a legal career was slight compared with my attention to political work. The man in politics who has no profession at all is really the “professional politician,” whether he be rich or poor.

Four or five years before 1880 I gave up my connection with debating clubs. Such clubs are a splendid sort of mental gymnasium, but you can have too much of them.

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On November 9th I was invited to become a candidate for East Sydney, the “blue riband” of the constituencies of New South Wales. The next day I resigned my position in the Crown Law Offices, and held my first meeting. There were four seats, and eight or nine candidates, including the Premier, Sir Henry Parkes. The polling day was preceded by an appearance on the hustings. I spoke last, and I suppose that helped me to the best show of hands.

The candidate whose nomination deposit was paid last spoke last. My payment was made as the clock struck twelve, and I therefore secured the advantage. The next thing I sought was a good “cue.” Sir Henry offered me one when he referred to candidates “whom nobody seems to know.” The speaker had recently accepted a K.C.M.G. In his youth he had Chartist tendencies, and his new title had still an awkward sound. Hence the opening of my speech: “Gentlemen, Sir Henry Parkes has referred to me as a man whom nobody knows. May I remind him that thirty years ago he stood on this very spot, a candidate for your suffrages, an unknown and untried man, as I am to-day. Gentlemen, if on that occasion you had not honoured him with your generous support, he would not now be a most distinguished knight of the most sacred Order of Saint Michael and Saint George!”

The polling took place two days later, and as I had shaped well, and had no enemies, I was returned at the head of the poll. A very proud moment for me. But, in returning thanks, I could not help saying, “To be too successful is rather a melancholy

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fact, for the higher you place me the greater may be my fall.” I had no reason to complain, however, for in my political career I never left East Sydney and had only one defeat in the fifteen contests, spread over my twenty-nine years of public life. I never had a “walk over,” even in a by-election upon taking office. I do not suppose the whole of my expenses in those fifteen contests exceeded the cost of one election fight in England, if in that one there was a plentiful supply of coin.

In 1880 there were no burning questions. There were two sides, of course—that is always so—but a Coalition Government headed by those two lifelong antagonists, Sir Henry Parkes and Sir John Robertson, dominated the situation. Coalitions in the face of great national dangers are the most proper and patriotic things in the world; but coalitions at other times debase the political currency and prevent the proper working of the Parliamentary machine. It may be said that a Parliament with two evenly balanced parties may do that also, but at least it is not so likely to do both.

Before the General Election of 1880 the main planks of a democratic platform had become fixed. The public lands had been “unlocked,” manhood suffrage was the basis of political power, education had been freed from clerical control, the principles of responsible government had been established.

Considering all these things, the capitalistic interests were “let off” in a wonderful way. They had no land or income taxes to pay. The vast areas of freehold lands in the hands of the wealthier classes

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were not even subject to municipal rates, because only 2,000 square miles in 310,000 were under local government. The public Treasury provided roads and bridges, railways, telegraph and post offices, and in many cases even kerbs and gutters for the other 308,000!

Sir Henry Parkes, the Premier, was a man of commanding ability. His tall figure, leonine head, and curiously rugged features added greatly to the impression his speeches made. Some of his accents and idioms revealed the lowly lot from which he rose. He was “self-educated,” but the diction of his dispatches was of a high order of merit. He lacked gracious manners, was too conscious of his superiority, not affable to beginners, not fond of putting people at their ease; but he had some noble attributes, and did some grand things. His extraordinary genius for getting into, and out of, financial troubles led him, as they have led other men, great and small, to do some inexplicable things. But these were forgiven him owing to the great public services he performed, and because he was quite free from any love of money for its own sake.

The new Parliament was opened by Lord Augustus Loftus, the Governor. The self-governing dominions, on such occasions, follow the customs of the British Parliament with singular closeness in all essentials. The openings for display are few and small, but full advantage is taken of them. The two Houses, the summons from one Chamber to the other, the genuflexions, the “Speech from the Throne”—its careful distinction between matters of general policy and matters of finance, between “Honourable Gentlemen

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of the Legislative Council” and “Gentlemen of the Legislative Assembly,” its assurances (always broken) of “a due regard for economy,” the final reference to Divine Providence—are all faithfully reproduced.

There were some men of pre-eminent qualities in our public life at the beginning of our free Constitution: Wentworth, the chief author of our political institutions and the legislative founder of the Sydney University; Robert Lowe, afterwards Lord Sherbrooke; the Dr. Lang to whom I have already referred, a Presbyterian divine of many good works and bitter battles, and a born politician, keen to establish an Australian Republic; Henry Parkes, a born leader of the best kind of democracy; James Martin, writer, barrister, Premier, and Chief Justice, wonderfully quick in the action of his mind, impetuous, sometimes therefore arbitrary in his politics, and occasionally very wrong in his judicial utterances, but fitted to stand in the front rank of intellectual power anywhere; Darvall, a barrister and politician with an accomplished wit, which could reach heights of graceful eloquence and depths of abusive satire with equal facility and finish; W. B. Dalley, one of the most delightful speakers, and one of the most charming personalities I have ever met. Those seven great men—Australians by adoption or birth—could not be mentally equalled, or even approached, by any other seven men who have appeared in the public life of the Colony since that time. Fortunately, our public men of the present day, both in the Federal and in the State legislatures, maintain a good standard of capacity and patriotism, and possess abilities

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perhaps more useful even than intellectual power, now that politics in Australia have so much to do with an ever increasing multitude of business affairs and administrative details, for which the foundations, as a rule, have been “well and truly laid.”

Coming down to the men who composed the Legislative Assembly I entered in 1880, the prominent men on the Ministerialist side were the two leaders, Sir Henry Parkes and Sir John Robertson; Mr. Robert Wisdom, the Attorney-General; Mr. John Lackey, Secretary for Public Works; Mr. J. P. Abbott, a new man of fine promise; Mr. Edmund Barton (in 1882), who was to play such a distinguished part in State and Federal politics; Mr. J. N. Brunker, a staunch friend and a great authority upon land questions; and Mr. Thomas Garrett, another great authority on such matters, and the possessor of a most acute intellect, also one of the best debaters.

Although my practice in debating clubs of the art of public speaking had extended over many years, I felt quite a novice when first I rose to address the House. The first time of anything is quite different from any other time, in the case of any man likely to succeed. On such occasions diffidence is becoming even when a man is shallow enough to be quite confident. The resolution to which I spoke called for the adoption of the “eight-hour system” in public employments, and of a term in contracts for the public service to the same effect.

In a debating club such a proposition, and indeed every other, could be disposed of on those “broad principles” by which very few things in real life are

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finally shaped. In politics, as in most other affairs, broad principles are good things to start with, but common sense often demands that they be adapted, and sometimes succeeds in adapting them, to actual conditions. In the case before the House several public servants were under a heavy strain, whilst others had light and intermittent work. To put one of a number of extreme contrasts actually involved, eight hours in a signal box at a busy railway junction and eight hours on a remote railway platform with two trains a day bear no sort of resemblance to any principle, broad or otherwise.

It is very interesting to observe the course of such a debate. All the rhetorical honours are with the advocates of the “broad principle.” It is the less attractive, but absolutely necessary, duty of others to suggest and enforce just and obvious qualifications. Those qualifications are not always as easy or as popular as the stipulation which attempts, not always with success, to exclude “idiots” in applying the “broad principle” of Manhood Suffrage.

In the case before us the addition, “when practicable,” made the broad principle broad common sense.

In my first Parliament as a private member, I submitted three Bills, aimed at three good objects. One was intended to secure a proper width for all streets and lanes. Another aimed at the reservation of all Crown frontages to our coasts, harbours, and rivers. The third proposed that surveys for new railway lines should carry a temporary reservation of all Crown land to a depth of two miles on each side, to be confirmed, if the proposed scheme were adopted.

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Private members at that time had few chances of carrying Bills into law, and the competition for those chances was very keen. When, as in my case, vested interests were attacked, the chances became even more remote.

Aided by the Government and a large majority of members in both Houses, and a Select Committee in each of them, I managed to get the Width of Streets and Lanes Bill through. It was greatly improved. This arrested a serious evil and baulked the greedy appetites of land speculators in their subdivisions for building purposes. For all time the people of New South Wales were protected from narrow streets or lanes. No street could be less than 66 feet, no lane less than 20 feet, and no dwelling-house could be built nearer than 23 feet from the frontage of a lane, thus securing 66 feet of air space even in lanes. In many cases the lane is the only playground of child life.

The state of things in connection with the Department of Lands was so bad and so injurious to the public interest that I determined to begin an agitation for Land Reform. On October 11th, 1881, I moved “that in the opinion of this House a full and searching inquiry into the working of the Land Laws of the Colony is imperatively called for.”

The noble impulse at the back of “free selection before survey” had become paralysed by the most wonderful combination of fraud, chicanery, black-mailing, false swearing, and other evasions of the law, aided by bad administration, the world has ever seen.

The bushranging excesses of 1861–4 become trivia

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when compared with the land swindlings of 1870–81. The honest selector had to fight for his life. It was the man who trafficked in land, who outfought the genuine free selector on the one hand and the pastoral lessee on the other, who grew rich. The trade of land agent became very lucrative to the honourable man and a mine of wealth to those who were very unscrupulous—there were so many openings for clever abuse of the law and the regulations, either in the interest of genuine or illegal claimants. Surveys before selection would have prevented many abuses; survey long delayed after selection produced universal chaos. To make things worse, the Land Laws were loosely expressed, and some of the regulations made under them were, perhaps as a consequence, so drawn that no one could understand or reconcile them. Even learned members of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council often had to guess. More than one local Act of Parliament was passed to declare that what the Judicial Committee took to be the intention was nothing of the kind.

In moving the Resolution I pointed out that there were on the business paper five Bills and five motions dealing with our Land Laws. Our best lawyers were hopelessly at variance on important points of construction. A climax was reached when we passed an Act declaring that to have been the law which our own Supreme Court and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had agreed could not possibly have been intended. The prevailing system of office work was the perfection of red-tape circumlocution. For instance, the Surveyor-General reported:

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“There are nine stages on each conditional purchase and ten stages on each improvement purchase at which all plans and papers touching the case must be brought together.”


“Draftsmen, employed in charting, have to observe seventy-four rules, of which thirty-six are fundamental.”

All the interest payments upon conditional purchases and all the rentals upon 133,000,000 acres of land were absorbed every year in salaries, fees, commissions, and travelling expenses. Then the great anticipations of agricultural development had been ludicrously falsified. In the gloomy period, 1842–61, the progress of cultivation was as rapid as in the twenty years of free selection. One-third of the selections lapsed or were forfeited. During the past two years, I stated, a fifty times greater area had been forfeited than from 1864 to 1866. I also mentioned that during the four years 1877–80, in which 40,000 free selections were taken up, the increase in the total number of occupiers of land was only 353! Alluding to the rapid sale by auction of some of our best lands, without any real competition, and so worked that the purchase of 1,000 acres secured much larger areas to the pastoral lessee, I pointed out that instead of small settlements flourishing the large estates were assuming immense proportions. Ninety-six persons owned 8,000,000 acres. Out of a recent increase of freehold to the extent of 4,800,000 acres, twenty-six individuals monopolised 2,700,000, more than 100,000 acres each.

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As the motion day for private members came once a fortnight, and private orders of the day came fortnightly also, the debate on my Resolution could not be brought to a close.

As usually happens, the Coalition between Sir Henry Parkes and Sir John Robertson, formed in 1878 and then still in full force, had demoralised the Opposition. The best leader available on our side in 1882 was a city merchant, Mr. Alexander Stuart, of the firm of Robert Towns and Company.

My motion for an inquiry into the abuses of our land system, and the discussions upon it, had been taken up by the newspapers, which kept the agitation for land reform alive, and multiplied instances of hardship and chicanery. There had been amending laws since 1861, but they avoided with singular success a grapple with the evils caused by a system whose main provisions were hopelessly absurd, and whose good intentions were universally abused.

At last the Government resolved to bring in a measure to consolidate and amend the Land Laws. The other members of the Cabinet were dominated by Sir John Robertson, the father of all the good intentions and of some of the absurdities of the law and its working. Sir Henry Parkes was too keen an observer to be blind to the need for sweeping changes, and he must have known that it would be dangerous to ignore that fact. But, great man as he was in so many ways, neither when he was fighting Sir John, nor when he was his colleague, did Sir Henry, in dealing with this vital question, do justice to his great opportunities.

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In the Governor's Speech the Bill was described as one to consolidate and amend the various Land Acts. I knew well that any such Bill, produced under the auspices of Sir John Robertson, would fall infinitely short of the needs of the situation. I knew that instead of the sweeping changes called for there would be a great deal of consolidation and very little amendment. I thought I was justified in painting the proposed Bill in vivid colours in advance in the debate on the Address in reply. I remarked, correctly as the event proved, that the concessions Sir John would make would be as narrow as he could contrive, and therefore I declared my conviction that the Bill would “consolidate and amend rottenness, perjury, evasion, spoliation, blackmailing, and disaster.”

Sir John Robertson, who had resumed the office of Secretary for Lands, moved the second reading of the Bill on November 8th. It was based on the fond imaginings of its author, who could not see the horrible mess that had been made of his well-meant measures of 1861. Ministers hoped that their proposals to consolidate would checkmate our resolve to reform. They relied upon the prestige of Sir John's name, and upon a disposition to be satisfied with any promises and assurances that came from him. Sir John Robertson's uprightness and patriotism were undoubted, but the belief he retained in the wisdom of his measures, in spite of their disastrous results, does seem extraordinary.

Sir John could not have described the “consolidating” as contrasted with the “amending” of the existing Land Laws more exactly than when he said,

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“The Bill will be found to contain the provisions of ten Bills.”

During the course of the debate the Opposition rapidly gathered strength. The overwhelming merits of their case against the Bill, and the general conviction that radical changes were necessary, amply accounted for that. But the resources of the Government were great, and up to the last moment the chances were in their favour. There were a few members, strongly identified with the pastoral interest, who knew how they ought to vote, but were afraid of the consequences. They feared the extremists on our side, of whom the chief was a man who combined honesty of purpose with extravagance of language and recklessness of method. On this occasion the member to whom I refer reached a high level. His earnestness, his knowledge of the question, his assurances of fair treatment for the great interests at stake, decided the issue. Shortly after that speech the House divided, and the Bill was defeated by ten votes. Ministers advised a dissolution, and Lord Augustus Loftus accepted their advice.

The campaign that followed the dissolution was centred upon the one great question. The Opposition did not leave the electors in the dark as to the policy they proposed as an alternative to the Government measure. Usually appeals to the electors on one question are largely affected by other issues. In this case the electoral contest turned upon the central subject to a degree beyond my recollection.

Naturally, I took an active part in the struggle.

The changes I looked upon as most important

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were: The stoppage of auction sales; long leases, with security of tenure of the large areas of Crown lands not yet required for bona fide settlement; making the condition of residence on free selections, not for a limited period, but perpetual, on the part of selector or transferees; the transfer of land business from Sydney to provincial centres; stopping, or at least reducing, the openings made for false declarations, and other frauds on the policy of our land legislation.

I often used diagrams showing in a vivid way the results of the abuses of which we complained. They were very effective. The senses help the inner processes of some minds immensely. It is most interesting to watch the effect upon the attention of juries of documents submitted for their inspection. The average juryman feels more at home in scrutinising things he can see and handle than in following chains of reasoning. Some skilful advocates tender, for the inspection of juries, exhibits as if the seales of justice were turned more by avoirdupois than by evidence.

When the contests were concluded the Parkes-Robertson Coalition, which had reigned for four years with absolute power, was utterly smashed.