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5. Chapter V Ministerial Offices and Incidents

IN the new House the Government found itself in a miserable minority. An hour before Parliament met the Opposition had a meeting at which it was made evident that Mr. Edmund Barton was available for the Chair, and I was asked to nominate him. I did so with great pleasure, as I felt sure he would make an admirable Speaker.

When the Premier tendered the resignation of the Ministry to Lord Augustus Loftus, His Excellency sent for Mr. Stuart, who accepted the task of forming a new Administration.

Mr. Stuart began by asking Mr. Dalley, Mr. Farnell, and myself to join him, and assist him in the selection of other Ministers. Mr. Stuart honoured me with a request that I should accept the position of Colonial Treasurer. Two reasons influenced my refusal—one a personal, the other a public reason.

I had been for so many years and so recently a subordinate in the Treasury, that I thought it better not to return to that department so soon as Minister. But the stronger reason was that I preferred the junior office of Minister for Public Instruction. Public instruction, a matter of supreme importance everywhere, called in New South Wales at that time, I


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thought, for important changes, including a State system of technical education; evening classes in the National University; High Schools to bridge the gap between the primary schools and the University; provision for the teaching of history in a systematic way in all our schools; more economy in the building of our city schools, and less economy in the provision of schools in the remote districts, where emergency tents were often used.

Mr. Stuart expressed his readiness to support me in those objects, and I joined the Administration.

The Ministry was finally constituted as follows:

                   
Premier and Colonial Secretary The Hon. Alex. Stuart. 
Vice-President of the Executive Council Hon. Sir Patrick Jennings. 
Colonial Treasurer Hon. G. R. Dibbs. 
Attorney-General Hon. W. B. Dalley. 
Secretary for Lands Hon. J. S. Farnell. 
Public Works Hon. Henry Copeland. 
Public Instruction Hon. G. H. Reid. 
Minister for Justice Hon. H. E. Cohen. 
Postmaster-General Hon. F. A. Wright. 
Secretary for Mines Hon. J. P. Abbott. 

We were sworn in on January 5th. Mr. Dalley represented the Government in the Legislative Council.

On January 17th the new Ministry met Parliament, and the Viceregal Speech was delivered.

It announced an intention to confine the session, begun at such an unusual and awkward time, to the necessary financial business, leaving the question of Land Reform to a special session. But some four measures were to be carried into law without delay.


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Of these the most important was a measure codifying the Criminal Law, which had been before Parliament for a long time. It was a measure prepared with immense care and ability by Sir Alfred Stephen, Chief Justice for more than thirty years, and Mr. Alex. Oliver, our Parliamentary Draftsman.

We made a good start in one respect. Although the session lasted for three and a half months only, every Bill promised for the session in the Governor's Speech was duly passed into law. The difference between the promises made in vice-regal speeches and the actual performances of the session are generally startling.

On February 7th the Treasurer made his Budget Speech. He stated that the accumulated surplus on the Consolidated Revenue Fund at December 31st, 1882, was £1,846,000. For 1883 the estimated revenue left a surplus over estimated expenditure of £336,000, therefore the estimated surplus was £2,182,000, although our Government had practically stopped that great source of revenue, auction sales of land.

During the year an arrangement was made with the Imperial Government, in virtue of which the Admiralty established the Imperial naval base in the South Seas on Garden Island, in Sydney Harbour. We handed that island over, receiving in exchange a valuable site at Dawes Point, the extensive military barracks at Paddington, and other areas of land which belonged to the Home Government.

The next session of Parliament was probably the longest in the history of New South Wales. It extended


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from October 9th, 1883, to November 1st, 1884. The proceedings in relation to the 1884 Land Act began on October 11th, 1883, and the Bill passed its final stage on October 14th in the following year. The clash of conflicting interests was terrific, and a multitude of abuses had powerful influences behind them. I omit a review of this vital measure in its final shape in order to deal with the earlier events of that protracted session.

The Budget Speech was delivered by Mr. Dibbs on January 24th. He had to explain the disappearance of the balance of the surplus, in various new appropriations subsequent to the former Financial Statement, and brought forward into the 1884 accounts an estimated balance of £257,000 only. Mr. Dibbs then outlined a scheme of new taxation, including additions to the schedule of customs duties and a tax of 1d. in the £ on all property, real or personal. A number of vexatious duties on imports which yielded small returns were to be abolished. The produce of the new taxation was estimated at £1,000,000.

Ministers were, of course, equally responsible with the Treasurer for the management of the public finances, and the character of taxation proposals; but Mr. Dibbs, who had many fine qualities, was not a “heaven-born financier” at any time. Our proposal to put a direct tax on all property, personal as well as real, was open to so many obvious objections that it reflected no credit upon us, and had to be dropped.

While this unpopular policy was before the country I lost my seat owing to a somewhat peculiar technicality. The holders of certain Ministerial offices


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named and five in number were capable of sitting in Parliament, and by a notice in the Government Gazette five additional Ministers could be declared by the Governor in Council to be also capable of sitting. It happened that the office of Minister for Public Instruction had not been so gazetted. The point was raised, and proved fatal.

In seeking re-election I was not allowed a walk-over. My opponent was Mr. Sydney Burdekin, very rich, very generous, and a good landlord in the electorate. He was also a man with no enemies, and no pronounced views—in every way a popular man.

Our taxation proposals were a well-deserved handicap. I was beaten by forty votes. The polling day was February 29th. At the declaration of the poll I was able to offer one consolation to my supporters: an anniversary of our defeat could happen only once every four years!

Several of my fellow members offered to resign their seats in my favour, but I declined those generous offers, preferring to wait for a chance of regaining the confidence of the electors of East Sydney.

I look back with unalloyed satisfaction to my work as Minister for Public Instruction. Some may think that in advanced democratic communities equal opportunities for all have been reached. I do not think so. I do not think they can be reached until the poorest child can enjoy the best education its mental promise warrants. Even when a good education was not within the reach of the poor some wonderful people forced their way to fame, and rendered useful service to mankind. Many minds of rare


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quality and value might be discovered if a zealous search were made for them.

The system of public instruction in New South Wales was based on generous lines. Every child was sure of a sound elementary training. But there were, I thought, many gaps to be bridged before we had a truly national system.

I was in office for less than fourteen months, but I managed, with the cordial assistance of my colleagues and the Parliament, to remove in that time all those defects. Tent schools were exchanged for more comfortable buildings. Extravagance in building the city schools was stopped. A conference of school experts vastly improved the standards of proficiency. The teaching of history was enforced. A system of High Schools was established in the leading towns, with special provision for the future of scholars of promise. A national system of technical education was established—the first of the kind anywhere at that time, I believe. The University was opened to the masses by means of evening lectures, leading to the ordinary University degrees. Many thousands of young men and young women have passed through these technical schools and University classes. Sir Joseph Carruthers, who succeeded me a few years later, and Ministers who followed him, have added numerous beneficial reforms. I suppose there is no country where a capable youth can get more help from the State in striving to develop his intellectual powers, and achieve his laudable ambitions.

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