― 50 ―

6. Chapter VI Federal Beginnings

IN the month of November, 1883, an Australasian Convention met in Sydney to consider various questions of general importance. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia, also New Zealand and Fiji, were represented.

This gathering was composed of me bers of the various Administrations. The Crown Colony of Fiji having no Ministers, was represented by its Governor, Sir William des V[oelig]ux. There being no system of responsible government in Western Australia, that territory was represented by its Colonial Secretary.

This gathering of Australasian statesmen had two main objects in view, the extension of British annexations and protectorates in the Western Pacific, and the establishment of a Federal Union of limited scope as the beginning of greater things.

Earlier in the year the Premier of Queensland, Sir Thomas McIlwraith, had visited the adjacent island of New Guinea, and, without authority from the Imperial Government, he had hoisted the British Flag and declared the whole of the island, except the part belonging to the Dutch, to be British territory.

This audacious step was promptly repudiated.

  ― 51 ―
However wise the step, the British Government would not sanction it.

The Convention did not attempt to justify Queensland's action, and did not reproach the British Government; but the members unanimously adopted a series of Resolutions favouring a forward policy in the South Seas. Sir William des V[oelig]ux, as an Imperial official, naturally abstained from joining.

The Convention then considered and approved “a Draft Bill to constitute a Federal Council of Australasia.”

Its scope was very small, although other powers could be added by mutual agreement. The only really important duty it included was that of adjusting “the relations of Australia with the islands of the Pacific,” and that was an extremely vague power at the best.

Each of the Premiers pledged himself to take steps to enact the necessary Bill, and all the Colonies but New Zealand and New South Wales did so without delay. New Zealand was too far away to be really in earnest. New South Wales was dealing with its great Land Bill, and the closing day of the session had arrived when Mr. Dibbs, in the absence of Mr. Stuart through a sudden attack of illness, moved that the House resolve itself into Committee of the whole to consider the Resolutions of the Convention.

The debate included a speech from Sir Henry Parkes. He challenged the right of Ministers to appoint to a body which proposed to create a Constitution. He also expressed a belief that the smaller

  ― 52 ―
project would interfere with the larger enterprise of a real federation. His able speech killed the proposals so far as New South Wales was concerned. The Legislative Council approved on a division of 13 to 9 the Government proposals.

Victoria, Queensland, South Australia (for a time), Tasmania, and later Western Australia sent representatives to the Federal Council; but its career was inglorious. The extent to which it paved the way for the greater scheme is a matter of conjecture.

One of the features of the debates in the Sydney Parliament was the strong suspicion expressed as to the bona-fides of Victorian statesmen. These doubts were widespread. I know I shared them. The Victorians put our feelings down to jealousy and petty provincialism. But we thought they pushed a proper regard to self-interest to extremes. We used to call our ways British, their style American. As a matter of fact, our “British” needed quite a lot of their “American”!

There was in 1872 an Intercolonial Conference on the Ocean Mail Service, in which Victoria scored a triumph which touched us in a tender spot. The oversea mails were carried by the P. and O. Company, and the terminus for their steamers was Sydney. By majority the Conference decided that Melbourne should be the terminus, our mails, passengers, and cargo to be sent on by a branch line. From that time our people cultivated a livelier interest in public affairs, and gradually recovered that leading position to which the resources of the Mother Colony fully entitled her.

The second reading of our Crown Lands Bill was

  ― 53 ―
carried by the magnificent majority of 76 to 16. A long struggle then began in Committee. A more intricate series of problems had never been presented to our Parliament in a single measure.

Mr. Farnell had the qualities necessary for his task: sound knowledge of the questions involved, patience, good temper, personal popularity, no imagination, no nerves—cuteness sheathed in simplicity.

The third reading was passed by a majority of 65 to 30 on August 7th, 1884.

The Legislative Council made a number of amendments in the Bill, some of which, on the return of the measure to the Assembly, were brought by Mr. Speaker under the notice of the House as an invasion of its rights and privileges. But so great was the anxiety to get the Bill on the Statute Book that the House by majority refused even to place a protest on its journals.

A short session of Parliament was convened for the purpose of sanctioning the course adopted by the Government in sending a contingent of troops to the Sudan. The Premier (Mr. Alexander Stuart) was absent in New Zealand owing to ill-health, and the Attorney-General, Mr. (afterwards the Right Hon.) W. B. Dalley, was acting Premier. This was the first Australian offer of troops for foreign service.

Mr. Dalley, speaking in the Legislative Council, referred in touching terms to the failure of the expedition sent to relieve General Gordon, “the illustrious man upon whose fortunes and forlorn heroism all eyes had been fixed,” and added, “I felt that the time had arrived when we in these distant colonies

  ― 54 ―
might do something to help the Empire. I was not foolish enough to suppose that our aid was essential, but I believed that it would be at least acceptable. I did not think that England required our help; but I indulged in the ambition that she would be pleased at our tendering it. I felt that the time had arrived when a great opportunity was afforded of showing in the first place to England herself, and in the second to the world, what were the true relations of the Colony to the Empire—that we were not a weight on the arms of England, and an encumbrance of her glory—that the Colonies were not the impedimenta of her triumphant march, but that they could give substantial and valuable and immediate aid in moments of disaster and difficulty.”

The dissolution of Parliament later in the same year, 1885, gave me a chance of returning to the Legislative Assembly. I stood for East Sydney again, and was returned second on the poll for one of the four seats. Thus was restored my connection with East Sydney, which continued for twenty-four years afterwards.

When Parliament met on November 17th very few changes were seen. The two important ones were the transfer of Sir Alexander Stuart, who had resigned the position of Premier, to the Upper House, and a similar step in the case of Mr. Farnell.

Mr. Dibbs had become Premier; Sir Patrick Jennings, Colonial Secretary; Mr. J. H. Want, Attorney-General; Mr. J. P. Abbott, Secretary for Lands; Mr. Lyne, Secretary for Public Works; Mr. John See, Postmaster-General. Mr. George Thornton became

  ― 55 ―
the representative of the Government in the Legislative Council, in place of Mr. W. B. Dalley, who resigned office owing to failing health, but retained his place in the Council, where his brilliant oratory and delightful personality had made him universally beloved.

Photograph facing p.54. Sir George Reid in a characteristic speaking attitude

Mr. (afterwards Sir George) Dibbs remained in the Treasury. He was what one would call “a strong man”; but he lacked tact, and his good qualities as a man never made up for his failures as a Treasurer. One of the many good points in Sir George Dibbs was his voluntary payment in full of his creditors, many years after his estate had been released. Sir Patrick Jennings, another good fellow personally, had more tact than Mr. Dibbs, but he lacked force. Sir Patrick, who was the very soul of amiability, had succeeded “on the land.” He was a leading Roman Catholic citizen, and was created a Marquis by Pope Leo XIII.

Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Lyne was a singular mixture of good nature and wiliness. He succeeded both in State and Federal politics to an extent beyond the range of his abilities, considerable as they were. I cannot help thinking that if he were alive he would probably say the same about me!

Mr. John See was a successful merchant, and was generally esteemed. Although we became strong opponents in politics, I asked him, in the thick of our party fights, to act as my arbitrator in a case connected with an election campaign account. One could not give a better proof of his good opinion.

The Address in Reply to the Governor's Speech was the subject of an amendment declaring want of

  ― 56 ―
confidence in His Excellency's Advisers. The result of the division showed how near Ministers were to defeat, because in a total vote of 114 they had only a majority of 2.

On December 14th Mr. Dibbs delivered the Budget Speech estimating the finances of 1886 and dealing with those of previous years. The Treasurer dwelt upon the ravages of a recent drought which had destroyed live stock numbering many millions. Then came the startling announcement that an estimated surplus for 1885 of £87,000 had been converted into an estimated deficiency of £1,052,000.

There was one night's debate on the Budget Speech and then the Premier announced that he had tendered his resignation and that of his colleagues to the Governor.

On the 22nd Mr. Fletcher announced to the House the names of the new Ministry.

This Ministry was a very weak one. Sir John Robertson had to encounter many refusals. Sir Henry Parkes, who would have been a tower of strength, would not join.

Mr. Burns delivered the Financial Statement on February 4th, 1886. The first startling disclosure was that Mr. Dibbs's estimate in November, 1884, of the revenue for 1885 was £896,000 more than the receipts. The Treasurer stated further that the Estimates of Expenditure for 1885 had been so under-estimated that the Supplementary Estimates for that year came to the unprecedented total of £841,000.

Mr. Burns made the following proposals for new taxation:—

  ― 57 ―
  • 1. A tax of ½d. in the £ on real estate of all descriptions.
  • 2. A tax at same rate on the capital of Banks and on the value of goods in warehouses.

With an exemption of £500 Mr. Burns expected from the above sources an addition of £500,000 to the revenue. Increases in stamp and probate duties were to yield £150,000 more. Any further moneys required were to be raised by means of Treasury Bills.

Mr. Garvan moved a vote of censure on the policy proposed by the Government. I did not speak, but I supported the censure, which was carried by 52 to 44. Sir John thereupon applied for a dissolution to Lord Carrington, which His Excellency refused to grant. The Premier then tendered the resignation of the Ministry. In the course of the interview between the Governor and the Premier, the former said, “Now, Sir John, man to man, if I were in your place and you were in mine, and I asked you for this dissolution, would you grant it to me?” Sir John at once replied, “I'd see you d—d first!”

Sir Patrick Jennings was sent for. He made an attempt to form a Coalition Government consisting of Sir John's supporters and his own, which failed; but after many refusals formed a Ministry. One of the evil consequences of the unsettled condition of parties was the delay in dealing with the public finances. The third attempt for 1886 was made on April 6th by Sir Patrick Jennings.

The estimate of a deficit of £1,269,000 on 1885, made by Mr. Burns, was more than confirmed, Sir Patrick stating it finally at £1,309,000.

  ― 58 ―

There is no doubt that the Treasurer faced the very serious position of affairs in a more full and comprehensive manner than his predecessors. Mr. Dibbs made no serious proposals, and ran away from his post. Mr. Burns made an honest attempt to cover the deficiency, but it was not a feasible one, being almost as bad as our proposals in 1883, when Mr. Dibbs was also Treasurer. The proposals of Sir Patrick were broadly as follows:—

  • 1. Increased duties of Customs.
  • 2. Land tax, ½d. in the £ on the unimproved value, with an exemption of £1,000.
  • 3. Income tax, 4d. in the £, with a £300 exemption.

The estimated yield each year from the land and income taxes was from £400,000 to £500,000, stamp duties £130,000, and increased revenue from customs about £500,000, making an addition of about £1,100,000 to the annual taxation.

We had reached a stage at which something had to be done, and that was all in favour of Sir Patrick's chances. But as the Upper House was constituted the chance of passing the duties of customs was vastly better than that of passing the taxes on land and incomes. Those in favour of “Protection” liked that, but those in favour of making the richer classes bear a fairer share of the public burdens did not. Sir Patrick could never be got to give a clearer pledge as to his adherence to all his proposals than this, “They will be taken pari passu!

My view was that the amount of new taxation proposed was too large for the emergency, and that

  ― 59 ―
interference with our tariff was unnecessary and undesirable. I was heartily in favour of the land and income taxes.

The debate on the taxation proposals occupied the attention of the Committee of Ways and Means for a considerable period.

The Treasurer declared that the duties of Customs were only put forward as a temporary measure, whilst the direct taxation was to be part of the permanent policy of the country. I strongly opposed the duties, pointing out that as the shortage on the year 1886 was estimated at £184,000 only, the direct taxation proposed would meet that and provide £446,000 a year in reduction of the deficiency of £1,300,000 on the previous years.

The proceedings in Committee on the Customs duties were of an extraordinary character: protracted speeches, violent scenes, even more violent language. The Bill emerged from Committee on July 29th, and it was passed by the Legislative Council with the utmost dispatch. When the Land Tax Bill came before the same body it met with a different reception, the Committee resolving by 23 votes to 7 to read the Bill “this day six months”! The Income Tax Bill never reached the Council at all.

Parliament was prorogued on October 25th, the session having, under weak guidance, lasted within a few days of twelve months.

On my return to the House, I sat on the Government side, as the Land Policy for which I had fought so earnestly was not safe if Sir John Robertson or Sir Henry Parkes returned to power. Also, and

  ― 60 ―
largely, because my former associates in office and in Party politics were on the Government side of the House.

The financial proposals made by Sir Patrick Jennings had, except as to the duties of Customs, a strong attraction for me. A singular state of things existed. The Colony, although under manhood suffrage since 1858, was a perfect paradise for capitalists and the land-owning classes. Even moderate proposals for land and income taxes had been rejected by the Legislative Council. There was no country in the whole world in which the “masses” carried a larger and the “classes” a smaller share of the burdens of taxation. There was another factor greatly aggravating that state of things. As I have already stated, only about 2,000 square miles in 310,000 had been municipalised. The whole of the cost of railways, roads, bridges, post offices, schools, police, harbour and other public works, and the maintenance of all those services, came out of the public Treasury.

That was a terrible blunder in our law which stipulated that no area could be incorporated unless its inhabitants presented a petition to the Governor praying for incorporation. If an adverse petition more numerously signed were sent in no order could be made! Bills for compulsory systems of local government had been promised for many years before and many years after 1886. They were often introduced, but never passed. This disastrous and demoralising state of things lasted until 1905.

As the session advanced, I found the chances of the land and income taxes diminish and the driving

  ― 61 ―
power behind the Customs duties increase. The issues lying beneath those loose expressions, “Free Trade” and “Protection,” began to force their way to the top. I came at last to the conclusion that I could not continue to support the Government, and made this clear on the second reading of the Bill.

Although the Government closed the session with a much stronger following in the House, that was by no means the case anywhere else. The three leading Sydney dailies and a large majority of the country newspapers, conducted a powerful and destructive campaign against the Government. I must mention the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and the Evening News as the three great dailies to which I refer.

During the recess the Cabinet fell to pieces owing to a matter quite foreign to political affairs—an outside agitation and an inside division of opinion in regard to sentences of death passed upon certain youthful offenders. The end of it all was that Sir Patrick, who was on the side of mercy, broke up the Cabinet, and on January 15th, 1887, Sir Henry Parkes was sent for.

The position was a difficult one. In the previous session Sir Henry and his followers were in a decided minority. The new Ministry was a weak one; Sir Henry Parkes and Mr. Thomas Garrett were the only strong men in the team. Sir Henry's attempt a few years before, to expel Mr. Garrett from the House interfered greatly with the prestige of Ministers.

Sir Henry Parkes had raised the fiscal issue as the main plank in his platform, and I determined therefore

  ― 62 ―
to support him. But when he asked me to join the Ministry I declined. For one thing, there was no sort of cordiality in our relations, and I felt that it was better to avoid assuming a position implying a state of things which did not exist.

On January 26th the Parliament was dissolved. In the elections that followed the battle raged over the fiscal issue, Sir Henry having raised the flag of Free Trade and “nailed it to the mast.” I warmly supported him, as I absolutely and enthusiastically believed in that principle, especially as applied to young countries blessed with great natural resources.

The result of the General Election was an over-whelming majority in favour of the Government.

The new Parliament met on March 8th. On the 30th the Colonial Treasurer (Mr. J. F. Burns) delivered the Financial Statement. The deficiency on the accounts for 1885 was stated at £1,707,000. Taking this deficiency and the deficiency on the year 1886 together, the total was no less than £2,568,000!

The Treasurer's proposals to repeal the customs duties passed in 1886, substituting revenue duties only, became law.

In this session Sir Henry Parkes brought in a Bill to provide for the celebration in 1888 of the first centenary of the foundation of the Colony. His proposals included: (1) Acquiring permanently a public park, then known as Moore Park, quite near the City; (2) the erection of a national building, to be called the “State House,” including (3) a great Hall for national assemblages; (4) a museum for historical purposes; (5) a gallery for the reception of

  ― 63 ―
statues and pictures of eminent men, also (6) a resting place for “eminent persons who shall have been ordered a public funeral by both Houses of Parliament.”

In speaking to these proposals, I suggested that the park should be known not as the “Queen's” Park, but as the “Centennial” Park, and that was the name adopted. I urged that a Technical College should take the place of the State House.

The Bill was passed by both Houses in the form proposed by the Premier. I may add that of all these projects only one was accomplished—the Centennial Park.

The Premier desired also to alter the name of the Colony from New South Wales to Australia. The proposal aroused indignation in the other Colonies, and was so manifestly absurd that it was abandoned.

During the session another Supreme Court judgeship was created. As in a former case—that of Mr. Edward Butler, his Attorney-General in a former Ministry, and Sir James Martin—Sir Henry Parkes had encouraged his Attorney-General, Mr. W. J. Foster, to believe that he would be preferred; and again Sir Henry, in the estimation of the public, made a better choice—Mr. M. H. Stephen, Q.C., rather than Mr. Foster. The correspondence was very interesting. When Sir Henry wrote of another possible vacancy, Mr. Foster, who was a man of perfect uprightness, and generally very careful in his language, quoted in reply the homely adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” and resigned.

In November, 1887, Sir Henry moved the second reading of the “Australasian Naval Forces Bill.” The Bill provided that the Mother Colony should, in

  ― 64 ―
unison with the other Australasian Colonies, make an annual contribution to the Imperial Government towards the maintenance of a squadron of the Royal Navy in Southern waters. Various stipulations were made as to the area of operations and the strength to be maintained, and the agreement was to endure for a period of ten years. Our contribution, which was to be £35,000 a year was based on a total cost of the new ships, £700,000 at 5 per cent. The previous force was not to be diminished in any way. This agreement began out of negotiations conducted by Admiral (then Commodore) Tryon, when that lamented sailor commanded in our waters. It marked a most interesting evolution in Imperial defence. At first both military and naval defences were entirely at the cost of the Home Exchequer. In 1870 we undertook local military defence and coast fortifications. In 1887, we were undertaking a share, however small, of Imperial responsibility. In that respect it was an event of singular interest and importance. Sir Henry considered it “a noble opportunity for us in reality to join in a true federation with the other Colonies for our united defence.” The Bill was passed by a large majority.

The session, which closed on July 24th, 1888, was memorable for many things on which I need not dwell. Two invaluable measures were passed, one placing the management of the State railways in the hands of three independent commissioners, the other referring all proposals for the expenditure of public money on public works, exceeding in any case an estimate of £20,000, to a Standing Committee of both

  ― 65 ―
Houses. These two were amongst the best measures Sir Henry Parkes ever passed.

The proceedings of the Assembly at this time were a singular study in everything that ought to be avoided. The firm methods of that accomplished Speaker, Mr. (now Sir Edmund) Barton, were greatly missed. His successor, who was equally anxious to do his duty, lacked his judicial temperament and his tact.

The third session of the thirteenth Parliament opened on October 23rd. Lord Carrington, in reading the Viceregal Speech, made a prominent reference to the need for water conservation and irrigation works—in Australia questions of the first importance, because of the flatness of the interior, the absence of mountain ranges, the scarcity of surface water, the uncertain and slender rainfall away from the coast, the rapidity of evaporation, the sparseness of the population, the rarity of rivers, and the cost of labour. High wages are a splendid indication of national well-being. But Nature, which helps so many other forms of enterprise in Australia so generously, fights hard against the pioneer in water conservation away from the artesian area.

The intention of the Imperial Government to appoint Sir Henry Blake, Governor of Hong Kong, to Queensland, awakened strong opposition in that Colony because of his former connection with Irish affairs. The movement was so strong that the Imperial Government had to withdraw Sir Henry's name.

Out of the appointment of the Railway Commissioners arose a storm in a teacup, which ended in the defeat of the Government. But so quickly did events

  ― 66 ―
move in those days that the new Ministry formed by Mr. Dibbs was itself unable to survive, and the House was dissolved.

During the session which preceded the elections the Right Hon. W. B. Dalley passed away. I have already referred to his brilliant gifts and lovable character. My intimacy with him as a colleague during the year 1883 only added to the admiration with which I had regarded him at a distance.

The result of the elections was not favourable to the new Administration, but the Ministry did not resign. When the House met the Government was defeated on the Address by 68 to 64 votes. Thereupon Sir Henry Parkes formed a new Ministry, and one much stronger than usual.

Sir Henry Parkes again invited me to take office, but I declined.

The Financial Statement was delivered by the Treasurer on April 10th, 1889. He placed the accumulated deficiency at £2,600,000. His estimates of revenue and expenditure for the year then current left an estimated surplus of £25,000. Fiscal reforms he postponed until the following year.

After many rejections of a Payment of Members Bill the Legislative Council surrendered and passed the Bill. It provided an allowance of £300 a year. I opposed the Bill strongly, and urged that if it must pass it should not take effect until after the General Election, when the people would have the wider choice which was the strongest point in favour of the Bill. The majority would not consent to that. I drew my allowance for the current Parliament and then repaid

  ― 67 ―
the amount into the Treasury. Simply to refuse to draw the money leaves the member in a position to take it afterwards. In one case a member, who had refused years before to receive the allowance, actually did apply for and receive the accumulated arrears.

Parliament was prorogued on October 10th, and reassembled at a very unusual date, the 26th of the following month.

The deficit of £2,600,000 was included in a Treasury Bills Deficiency Act, and repayment out of revenue at the rate of £150,000 a year was provided for.

The only vote of public money by our Parliament towards the erection of a statue to a public man was agreed to in the session under notice, in honour of the memory of the Reverend John Dunmore Lang, D.D. Dr. Lang's career covered a long period in the history of Australia. A Presbyterian minister, yet a politician, a member of Parliament, and a newspaper conductor, the father of a scheme of immigration quite the best in our history, a man who sacrificed a private fortune in the cause of education, who had a craze for separation from the Mother Country, a fearless exposer of abuses in high places, an eloquent and humorous speaker—Dr. Lang, on the whole, well deserved the singular honour bestowed upon his memory. When he was reproached for mixing his sacred duties with those of politics, he quoted Dr. Arnold of Rugby for the proposition, “the desire of taking a part in the concerns of government is the highest desire of a well-regulated mind.”