no previous
no next

  ― 34 ―

3. The Federal Forecast

WHILE the newspapers arriving by the Australian mails are still full of anticipations of the nativity of the Commonwealth, the cables nearly four weeks ago flashed across to us the details of that auspicious event, and day by day announce the satisfactory headway that the young nation is already making. The Federal Ministers are all men in the prime of life, with the experience of a generation actively spent in the highest offices of State; and the zeal, tempered with prudence, which the Government has already displayed, gives warrant of progress both sound and rapid. The chief interest at present centres in the steps taken to complete the Legislative equipment of the Commonwealth. The Parliament is to consist of the King, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, and a novel and interesting course has been adopted in incorporating the British tradition of responsibility of Ministers to Parliament with the Federal feature of two Houses which are almost co-ordinate in their functions, and derive their origin from the same electoral franchise. Prior to the

  ― 35 ―
assembling of Parliament, which, under the Act, must take place within six months of the establishment of the Commonwealth, the Ministers are masters of the situation, and many were under the impression that the election campaign would not commence until March. Mr Barton has, however, taken time by the forelock, and on January 17th made a pronouncement of Ministerial policy, prefacing his remarks with the statement that the Federal Elections would be held at the earliest possible date that the State machinery and statutes permitted. In thus accelerating the creation of the Legislature, on which their own existence will, in turn, depend, Ministers resemble self-reliant directors who, conscious of their capacity, are eager to summon a meeting of shareholders in order to give an account of their stewardship.

Nor is the verdict of Parliament likely to prove other than favourable. Parliament, presumably, will be the mirror of public opinion, and had the Federal Ministry been elected by the people themselves, it would not greatly vary from the present personnel. Three out of the four statesmen who headed the poll in their respective Colonies on the occasion of the Convention election are included in the Cabinet. The choice of United Australia, coincident with that of New South Wales, would have placed Mr Barton at the head of the Administration. Mr Deakin is the idol of young Australia; Mr Kingston is the tried and trusted leader of democracy; and Sir

  ― 36 ―
William Lyne, Sir George Turner, and Sir John Forrest, as the Premiers of their respective Colonies, have the complete confidence of the people. There is every reason, therefore, to believe that the policy enunciated by the Premier will be endorsed by both people and Parliament. The first election will be held under the Electoral Acts and franchise at present in force in the several states, but plural voting, which still, in the some corners, lingers as a relic, will not be permissible. The Federal Authority will issue the writs for the House of Representatives, which, being constituted on the basis of population, will represent Australia as a nation. On the other hand, each State Government will issue the writs for the election of its own senators, who collectively are to represent State entities.

Mr Barton courageously tackled the capital question of the Capital site, which was one of the bombshells thrown by Sir George Dibbs into the Convention of 1891, and on several other occasions it has threatened to break up the Federal consentaneity. Mr Barton takes his stand on the firmest Federal ground, when he declares his belief that Parliament cannot be satisfactorily carried on in the Capital of one of the more powerful states. The Federal Authority, in the discharge of its duty, cannot expect always to be able to satisfy the demands of each state, and may at any time find itself in uncomfortable opposition to local opinion. The Commonwealth is entitled to the fee simple of

  ― 37 ―
its own house and offices. The methods of the hermit crab are compatible neither with Federal dignity nor efficiency. The Federal territory in which the Capital is to be situated is to be not less than one hundred square miles. Speculation is rife as to the locality, but at present there are no data on which even a surmise can be hazarded. There is a strong feeling that both public and private advantage will ensue from a system of leasing instead of alienating the Federal lands. Australia has experienced some of the disadvantages of land booms, and is not eager for a recurrence of burnt fingers. The prospect of a constant public revenue from the building sites in the Federal streets is alluring to the national owner, and a reasonable rent instead of a profit-devouring freehold would be equally satisfactory to settlers.

The chief Public Departments to be administered by the Commonwealth are Customs, Defence, and Posts. Customs and Excise were transferred to the Commonwealth on January 1st, and on that day all Customs officials became Federal officers. Posts, Telegraphs, and Telephones, are to be taken over as soon as possible. A conference of officials was lately held to arrange the details of amalgamation. Federal postage stamps will be substituted for those used by the Colonies. It is probable that an Imperial penny rate will, at no distant date, follow the institution of an Inter-State penny postage.

A complete Federal coinage may also be expected

  ― 38 ―
as an early token of union. In the Dominion of Canada the modern custom of decimal coinage has been adopted. It is to be hoped that similar good counsels will prevail in Australia. The Commonwealth Act stipulates that Departments of Defence are also to be transferred on a date to be proclaimed, but as the raising or maintaining of a Naval or Military force is among the powers forbidden to the states, the existing forces may be said to be already subject to Federal control.

The fiscal policy of the Commonwealth forms a subject of engrossing interest to the commercial world. Mr Barton's statement was free from all ambiguity. The tariff would be protective, not prohibitive, and considerate of existing industries. This is precisely the announcement which, under the circumstances, was to be expected. Mr Reid, the Free Trade leader, at a great Chamber of Commerce banquet, recently threw down the gauntlet and announced his determination to conduct a prolonged and determined Free Trade campaign against the Government. There is no one more competent than Mr Reid to take the lead in such a trial of strength. He has the rare endowment of combining with unsurpassed platform oratory an equal excellence, both in general Parliamentary debate and in the close detail of committee work, but he is heavily handicapped by the position. Quite apart from the question whether a majority in Australia favours a system of Protection without which no country has

  ― 39 ―
risen to greatness, a protective policy is predicated by the necessity of raising about £8,000,000 from Customs duties. The task of fitting the Federal machinery demands the co-operation of the ablest men who are available in each State, and despite the fascination of a great Federal fight on a paramount fiscal issue, Free Traders and Protectionists will in many cases be found casting their votes and influence for those candidates who, apart from this question, appear to be the best fitted to render good service to their State and the Commonwealth. The fiscal problem was the second famous bombshell in the Convention of 1891, as it had previously been the “lion in the path” in 1890, but prudence in giving a wide berth to a problem involving such dangerous similitudes has resulted in its sinking into insignificance when confronted by men who have a practical appreciation of the necessities of the position.

Mr Barton also alluded to the probability of early acquisition of the railways by the Commonwealth. This is one of the optional powers which can be exercised with the consent of the states concerned. A transcontinental railway was also mentioned, the construction of railways in any State with the consent of the State being also a Federal power. At present all the capitals are connected by railway, with the exception of Perth, which is four days by sea from Adelaide. The construction of an overland communication is a necessity, both from the point of view of internal development and common defence.

  ― 40 ―
The completion of the line at present constructed nearly half-way across the continent to Port Darwin comes under the same category. The undertaking of such lines by the Commonwealth would push into prominence the question of the acquirement of existing trunk lines, and as the exercise of one power leads to another, so does this question bring into view the problem of taking over the State debts which are represented by the railways.

The passing of a uniform Federal franchise will probably engage the attention of the second or third Parliamentary Session, and this will result in sweeping away the last vestiges of restriction on Manhood Suffrage. Mr Barton is also in favour of Women's Franchise, and in his Cabinet are Mr Kingston and Sir John Forrest, who were Premiers respectively of South Australia and Western Australia when the franchise was conceded to women. The Legislative Assembly in Victoria has also repeatedly passed a Bill for this purpose, and similar action was recently taken in New South Wales, so that there is every prospect of the second Federal Election being conducted on the lines of Adult Franchise.

The introduction of a Bill for conciliation and arbitration, for the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State, is a fitting feature of the policy of a Cabinet in which Mr Kingston is Minister of Trade and Customs. Mr Kingston was the pioneer of this form of Legislation, which gives promise of

  ― 41 ―
far-reaching benefit in removing the possibility of internecine industrial strife. The declaration as to the exclusion of Asiatics was to be expected, and will give profound satisfaction. It has sometimes been assumed that this was simply a Labour question; but that is a mistaken view. A profound instinct against racial admixture pervades all classes and has led to the firm determination to preserve Australia as a white man's country. The task of erecting and setting in motion the ponderous machinery of the Commonwealth demands the adoption of reasonable and common-sense measures and of these the personnel and pronouncement of the Commonwealth Cabinet afford a substantial guarantee.

no previous
no next