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7. Chapter VII Federation Takes Shape

THE rapidly increasing growth of public opinion in favour of a much larger measure of federation than that of the Federal Council was shown by a paragraph in the Governor's Speech at the opening of the Session. Negotiations with the other Australian Governments were announced “with a view to this momentous step in national life being taken at no distant date. The birth of a nation is an epoch which can have no succeeding parallel, and the national sentiment awakened in the parent colony is a sure presage of the august time which is approaching in her fortunes.”

Sir Henry Parkes proposed a Conference between the various Governments, to be followed by a Parliamentary Convention. The Federal Bill produced by that Convention was to be transmitted by Address to Her Majesty, with a view to Imperial legislation passing it into law.

Mr. L. F. Heydon, a member of the Legislative Council, moved a Resolution asking the House to place on record its objection to any form of federation which would include power to deal with our boundaries, railways, public lands, or tariff. He advocated an “offensive and defensive alliance.” Voicing views then generally and strongly held in New South

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Wales as to the grasping policy of Victoria, he dwelt on the danger of aggrandising Victoria and Melbourne at the expense of New South Wales and Sydney. Alleged designs on the South-Western districts (known as Riverina), on the trade of those districts and others, and on our river system, formed the backbone of Mr. Heydon's speech.

Although short, this session of the Legislative Assembly was a very disorderly one. One feels now more than ever astonished at the venomous verbosity which its records reveal. I could not help frankly expressing my opinion to the House:

“There is more unfairness, more reckless and utter disregard of the common decencies of fair play in political circles in New South Wales than there is in the lowest circles of the country.”

The strange anomaly was that, taking the House as a whole, no body of men could be more generous in spirit or forgiving in practice. Indeed, these good qualities ran to such an extreme that to offend outrageously, provided you apologised afterwards, seemed a far more popular proceeding than to act so as to avoid offending and apologising. During these later sessions, as previously, Sir Henry Parkes and Mr. Dibbs made sometimes the most awful onslaughts upon one another, and yet, as a rule, both leaders were generous, even chivalrous.

At the close of 1889 Sir Henry Parkes made memorable speeches bringing the larger project of federal union under public notice. He also got in touch with the various Governments, including that of New Zealand, and brought about a meeting of

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Ministers in Melbourne in the month of February in the following year. Resolutions, for submission to the respective Parliaments, were adopted. The necessity for a real union, with legislative and executive powers, was affirmed, and the members of the Conference undertook to obtain Parliamentary sanction “for a national Australasian Convention to consider and report upon an adequate scheme for a Federal Constitution.” It was also agreed that the delegates should be selected by the Parliaments from both sides.

Sir Henry Parkes submitted the matter to our Legislative Assembly on May 7th, a few days after Parliament met, and named the following members in his motion, in addition to himself: Mr. McMillan (the Colonial Treasurer), Mr. J. P. Abbott, and Mr. J. P. Garvan. Sir Henry sought to justify the omission of the leader of the Opposition, Mr. Dibbs, on the ground that he was anti-federal.

Another important part of this Resolution was that the Constitution drafted by the proposed Convention should be submitted for the approval of the Parliament of each Colony.

In addition to the four named for the Assembly the Legislative Council was to be asked to nominate three members, and the Government proposal was that those three should be Mr. W. H. Suttor, the Vice-President of the Executive Council; Mr. Edmund Barton, the former Attorney-General; and Sir Patrick Jennings, Prime Minister in 1886.

Mr. Dibbs strongly resented the omission of his name. He denied that he was an opponent of federation.

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He considered that Parliament was exceeding its mandate, and that the people possessed a right to be heard before any step was taken. Passing that by, he said he was in favour of federation, but he declared that if we departed from our present state it should be to form the United States of Australia “with a flag of our own.”

In spite of the opposition of the Government, the delegates were chosen by ballot. The name of Mr. Dibbs was inserted and that of Mr. Garvan was removed.

The Financial Statement delivered by Mr. McMillan on the accounts for 1889 and 1890 (estimated) was very satisfactory. It showed as to 1889 that the Treasurer's estimated surplus was better than he expected, and as to 1890 that there was every hope of a substantial surplus, in spite of the charge of £150,000 as the first of a series of annual payments in reduction of the deficiencies of 1888 and previous years. Another good feature was the absence of those large supplementary estimates which had upset our finances so often. One of the causes of financial confusion and uncertainty was the fact that votes for expenditure were kept open for uncertain periods.

Mr. McMillan made a step in the right direction by inserting in his Appropriation Bill for the year a clause enacting that balances of votes for 1890 should be written off on December 31st, 1891, payments under contracts still unfinished to be a charge upon the following year's accounts.

During the same session I moved Resolutions impressing

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upon the Government the need of law reform, which were cordially agreed to.

Radical changes had been made in other Colonies on the lines of the Judicature Acts of England, but it was not so in New South Wales, which had adopted the English Common Law Procedure Acts of 1853 and 1857. The old distinctions between Courts of Law and Courts of Equity were continued. The ancient forms of pleading were still followed. On that point I found eminent judges and lawyers, both in England and Australia, who much preferred the ancient system of pleadings to the new method of Statements of Claim and Defence.

This session was disfigured, as so many others were, by wild imputations made against the personal probity of hon. members of the House. It was in those days a lamentable weakness of some members that they seemed to delight in extravagant personalities, which were nearly always ill-founded. There were only a few offenders, but their activity and recklessness were extraordinary. The Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, tried by the standard of such attacks, was one of the worst bodies in the world. In actual fact, as I have already said, it was a very honourable and, but for a few wild spirits, well-conducted body of men.

The “Australasian National Convention” met in the Legislative Assembly Chamber, Sydney, on March 2nd, 1891. The six Colonies were represented, also New Zealand. The delegates, as I have stated, were chosen from both sides of the Houses.

Although New Zealand took a full share in the

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deliberations, she had no intention of joining in a federation with Australia. The distance of 1,200 miles, the absence of any special interest in common except that of defence, made any such union impossible.

The two men with the greatest careers behind them were Sir Henry Parkes and Sir George Grey. The former had evolved from Radicalism of the Chartist type to Liberalism of a broad but rather conservative type. The latter had made a far more violent transition from the despotic type of Colonial Governor to the most extreme Radicalism conceivable. Their venerable years, and picturesque appearance, and vivid force of intellect, all combined to save them from that handicap of advanced age and growing infirmity which suggests second childhood.

Sir Samuel Griffith, the Premier of Queensland, was in the prime of life, and possessed perhaps the most acute intellect of all.

Mr. Gillies, who was not then, but for many years had been, Premier of Victoria, was probably quite the best all-round man in the whole Convention. In point of eloquence and charming personality no one could surpass Mr. Alfred Deakin, also a representative of Victoria, and afterwards more than once Prime Minister of Australia. Mr. Edmund Barton, of New South Wales, who afterwards was the first Prime Minister of Australia, was not so eloquent as Mr. Deakin, but was quite as able, and counted for more in the strenuous phases of a public career. In point of personal charm, combined with intellectual weight, I should assign to Mr. Barton an even higher place than Mr. Deakin.

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Charles Cameron Kingston, the Premier of South Australia, could hold his own in any intellectual or political struggle. In a larger sphere than the South Australian he would have been a much greater man. As communities diminish in size, personal antagonisms seem to increase in violence. Mr. Kingston, who had a perfect mania for short cuts—in spite of which he was one of the best Parliamentary draftsmen I ever knew—seemed to arouse ridiculous hatreds amongst his political opponents, although a delightful companion for everybody else. I liked him immensely. He was a Radical of the most advanced school. Mr. R. C. Baker, another South Australian delegate, and afterwards the first President of the Senate in the Commonwealth, had made a special study of federal constitutions, which he summarised to the great advantage of the movement.

Mr. A. J. Clark (afterwards Mr. Justice Clark), of Tasmania, was also a man well up in all such studies.

Sir John Downer, several times Premier of South Australia, was an able lawyer, and everyone liked him in spite of the bluntness of his speech.

Mr. Dibbs was more than once Premier of New South Wales. He was another man whom everyone liked, in spite of his roughness of speech and crude methods. His great ability would have made him far more useful than he was if he had blended with his force of character a remembrance of the fact that his head was not strong enough to upset stone walls.

Her Majesty had not a more loyal subject; but Mr. Dibbs had a Republican tendency, and indulged in dreams of a glorious future in which the “United

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States of Australia” would flourish as an independent nation.

Dr. (now Sir John) Cockburn, a former Premier of South Australia, was, and is, gifted with abilities which make him valuable as an ally and formidable as an opponent. He was a politician whose love of humanity was as bright as his visions of its future.

Sir Alexander McIlwraith was of a different type altogether—a keen man of business, not at all susceptible to visionary ideas. He was one of the few Australian merchants who excelled in the political arena.

Sir William McMillan was another merchant who became a considerable figure. We had been friends from boyhood. He took charge of the business of the Convention when his Chief was in the Chair.

Mr. John Forrest was Premier of Western Australia, recently raised to the rank of a self-governing Colony. His exploits as an explorer were extremely interesting, and greatly helped him in his political career. His very long term of office as Premier was of signal benefit to that one-third of the whole Australian continent. Its capital, Perth, was near Fremantle—the last point of departure from, and the first point of arrival in Australia, on the southern route. This gave Mr. Forrest—later he became Sir John—many chances of offering hospitable attentions to visitors, of which he made a most generous and agreeable use.

The intellectual level of the members of the Convention, viewing it as a body, was very high indeed.

There were several cross-currents which quite

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upset the ordinary political equilibrium of the delegates. Men who were red-hot Democrats where the Houses of Parliament in their respective Colonies were concerned, in working out a plan for the two federal Houses found themselves in close sympathy with the most Conservative elements of the Convention, the obvious reason being that the Conservatives were nearly all from the smaller States, and so were nearly all the Radicals. Antagonistic in the provincial arenas, they worked together in the federal gathering, to give the Senate—in which all the Colonies were to have an equal number of representatives—as large a share of active power as they could get for it. For the same reasons they were reluctant to put in black and white the principles of responsible government, although these were universally in operation in the Colonies. This reluctance sprang from the fact that a Government which was responsible to Parliament could only be made responsible to one House—that was clearly perceived. To make it only responsible to the House of Representatives, as Sir Henry Parkes suggested, was therefore very distasteful to a large majority, and it was afterwards struck out of his series of resolutions.

Then a very Conservative method of electing the Senators was adopted. They were to be chosen in each State by the two Houses of Parliament. This brought in all the nominee Legislative Councils—most conservative bodies—and the elected Upper Houses, also conservative chambers elected upon a restricted franchise. The Premier of Victoria, Mr. Munro, got so impatient at the strong Conservative tide that

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had set in, that he threatened to “pack up his carpet bag.”

The tariff came up, too. That did not divide the Convention much, but it divided the people outside very strongly. The anxiety of the Victorians to safe-guard their protective tariff, and of Mr. Dibbs, who thought New South Wales should begin a policy of Protection at once, to make up for lost time, was amusing, but of course came to nothing.

Australians are a very enthusiastic and emotional community when they gather together for purposes of demonstration or amusement. But when they come to business they are as keen and stubborn in their fight for their own interests as any body of Scotsmen, or men in the north of Ireland, could possibly be. Questions as to the few important rivers which could be used for navigation and for irrigation, or water conservation, but owing to dry seasons not always for all three at the same time, were burning issues between New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, in connection with three rivers—the Murray, the Darling, and the Murrumbidgee. The watercourses of all three belonged to New South Wales, except when the first, having received the waters of the other two, flowed through South Australia into the South Pacific Ocean. Much, probably most, of the Murray waters came from highlands in the north-east corner of Victoria. The railways also raised burning questions, which mainly turned upon the railways constructed in our South-Western districts. Victoria had a great interest in the trade of those districts, and South Australia in our far-western

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and Darling River trade, because their seaports were more accessible than Sydney was.

But the chief struggle was over the powers to be conferred upon the Senate in reference to Money Bills. The two most populous Colonies—New South Wales and Victoria—were bound to have for many years more members in the House of Representatives than the other four Colonies combined. To make federation possible the two had to concede equal representation in the Senate. The main controversy from beginning to end—apart from river and railway questions—was that between those who wanted to diminish and those who wanted to enlarge the powers of the Senate. The smaller populations wanted to enlarge, the larger to lessen them. Bills relating to finance were the battle-ground. All other Bills, of course, had to be open to amendment or rejection, just as freely by one House as by the other.

Sir Samuel Griffith led the “State Rights” party. He claimed for the Senate the same powers over Money Bills as over ordinary measures. Sir Henry Parkes proposed that the House should possess the sole power of originating and also the sole right of amending Bills “appropriating revenue or imposing taxation.”

During the debates there was frequent reference to the disputes in the State Parliaments over the powers of their two Houses. All the Assemblies claimed the rights of the British House of Commons in such matters; all the Councils repudiated that claim. The Councils rested their case on the written Constitutions of the Colonies; the Assemblies rested their claim on the unwritten laws of the British Constitution.

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Strangely enough, the Constitution conferred upon Victoria, the sister Colony, is quite different from that of New South Wales in two important respects. It enacts that at least four of the seven Ministers must be members of Parliament. It not only provides that Money Bills must originate in the Assembly, for it enacts that although such Bills might be rejected, they must not be amended by the Council.

In Queensland, whose Constitution, like that of New South Wales, does not define the respective rights of the two Houses in dealing with money Bills, except that they must originate in the Assembly, a crisis arose over an Appropriation Bill, and both parties agreed to refer the dispute between the Houses to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, with a result in favour of the Assembly.

The solution of the difficult problem as to the powers of the Senate over Money Bills was extremely well thought out. It was as follows:—

  • 1. All laws imposing taxes, or imposts, or appropriating revenue, to originate in the House of Representatives.
  • 2. Equal powers otherwise to both Houses, except in the case of taxation Bills or “laws appropriating the necessary supplies for the ordinary annual services of the Government,” which the Senate may affirm or reject, but not amend.
  • 3. The Senate to have no power in any case to increase any proposed charge or burden upon the people.

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  • 4. Taxation laws, except those of customs, to be confined to one subject of taxation.
  • 5. In all cases in which the Senate may not amend Bills, it may return them with requests for the omission or amendment of any provision contained in such Bills.

In the vital matter of responsible government, words were chosen which made it equally easy to adopt the British, Colonial, or American, or any other sort of executive. Ministers were “capable” of being chosen and of sitting as members of either House of the Parliament.

The Convention, having finished its labours, had to determine what was to be done with the Bill it had drafted. Sir Samuel Griffith, who was really the leader of the Convention, proposed that the respective Parliaments should pass measures submitting the Bill for the approval or rejection of the electors.

The Premier of South Australia suggested that the people might want to make some alterations in the Bill, and he moved that instead of remitting the Bill for the “approval,” it should be remitted for the “consideration” of the electors. Mr. Baker was “not at all satisfied with the Constitution, and voted with the minority on most occasions,” but said “the Constitution must be swallowed as a whole”; “or not at all,” interjected Sir Samuel Griffith, to which Mr. Baker added, “Exactly, one or the other.” He thought the amendment “absurd,” and that to invite the different Colonies to make such amendments as they thought fit to make was to waste all the time they had spent over the Bill. The amendment was

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rejected and Sir Samuel's motion adopted by 23 to 7. The majority included Sir Henry Parkes, Mr. Gillies, Mr. Deakin, and Mr. Munro. The minority included Mr. Dibbs, Mr. Kingston, Sir John Downer, Sir Phillip Fysh, and Mr. Wrixon.

It was then decided that so soon as any three of the Colonies had adopted the Constitution, the Imperial Parliament should be asked to establish the federation. In this confident spirit the Convention concluded its labours.