Australian Confederation
Author: Grey, J. Grattan
Australian Confederation

1901



It has always been a question with geographers whether to class Australia
as an island or as a continent, some arguing that it is too small for the one,
and others that it is too large for the other. However that may be, its
isolated situation has almost constituted it a world by itself. Persons still
living remember the time when it was thought of mainly as a penal colony, and
"Botany Bay" was a term of reproach; but since the discovery of gold, in 1851,
the desirable growth of the habitable portion has been rapid and steady, while
the establishment of lines of swift steamships and the laying of ocean cables
have taken the point out of Charles Lamb's famous essay on Distant
Correspondents. These facilities for communication, perhaps more than
anything else - more even than racial customs and traditions - have served to
keep those colonies in willing subjection to the British Empire. They are
virtually nearer to England to-day than were the revolted American colonies in
1776. Though a great part of Australia is a desert - probably irreclaimable -
there is enough of the remainder to sustain a very large and prosperous
population; and it can hardly be doubted that the confederation will tend to
increase immigration and foster every kind of legitimate business. That the
Australians should still consider it necessary that their chief magistrate be
sent to them from the other side of the world is only another instance of the
force of tradition and precedent.

Although little more than a decade had passed since the movement for the
federation of the Australasian colonies was taken seriously by the public men
and people generally of Australia, it must not be supposed that the idea was
not entertained at a very much earlier period of Australian history. Indeed,
as early as 1857 a select committee of the Legislative Council of New South
Wales recommended that a meeting should be held of delegates from the
Legislatures of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania, with
a view of devising a plan for a general assembly for all the colonies, which
should deal with all matters of federal importance and concern. It
unfortunately happened, however, that very little attention was paid to this
recommendation, because the council that promulgated it accompanied it with a
proposal to establish a hereditary aristocracy. This proposal brought the
council into very bad odor with the public, who, while they laughed the
hereditary nobility idea to scorn, allowed the federation question practically
to lapse altogether. From that period up to the 'seventies it remained almost
entirely forgotten, and its revival was due to Sir Henry Parkes. At first
Australian federation met with little encouragement; generally speaking, its
advocates were subjected to a great deal of ridicule; t hey were called
dreamers, and "faderation" was the nickname applied to the project, its
advocates being called "faderationists." This ridicule did not dishearten
those who had embraced the faith of a united Australia, and the movement
derived a great impetus from a very able speech in support of Australian
federation which was delivered by Sir Hercules Robinson, then Governor of New
South Wales, at the border town of Albury, in 1876. From that time the
movement took practical shape, and its supporters pushed the question to the
forefront of Australian politics. They had still to work for ten years before
they could succeed in bringing their agitation to a state in which the various
colonies interested could be induced to take united action. The British
Parliament passed an act providing for the formation of a federal council, and
in January, 1886, the first meeting of the federal council was held at Hobart,
Tasmania. Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, and Fiji sent
delegates to this Federal Council. Strange to say, the colony that gave birth
to the idea of federation (New South Wales) was unrepresented, and New Zealand
and South Australia also declined to join in deliberations of the first
Federal Council, but South Australia sent representatives to the council at a
subsequent period.

The greatest advance toward federation was made at the conference that
assembled in Melbourne in 1890, under the presidency of Sir Henry Parkes.
Resolutions were passed affirming the desirableness of an early union of the
Australian colonies on principles just to all; that the remoter Australasian
colonies should be entitled to admission upon terms to be afterward agreed
upon; and that steps should be taken for the appointment of delegates to a
national Australasian convention to consider and report upon an adequate
scheme for a federal constitution. Accordingly, on March 2, 1891, the
National Australasian Convention, consisting of delegates appointed by the
various colonies, assembled at Sydney, under the presidency of Sir Henry
Parkes. This convention was representative of all the colonies in the
Australasian group, and one of the first delegates sent by New Zealand was the
late Sir George Grey. At this convention a series of resolutions was offered,
and these, after discussion and amendment, were adopted in the following form,
affirming:

The powers and rights of existing colonies to remain intact, except as
regards such powers as it may be necessary to hand over to the Federal
Government;

No alteration to be made in States without the consent of the
Legislatures of such States, as well as of the Federal Parliament;

Trade between the federated colonies to be absolutely free;

Power to impose customs and excise duties to be in the Federal Government
and Parliament;

Military and naval defence forces to be under one command;

The Federal Constitution to make provision to enable each State to make
amendments in its constitution if necessary for the purposes of federation.

Further resolutions were passed for the framing of a federal constitution
that should establish a senate and a house of representatives, the latter to
posses the sole power of originating money bills; also a federal supreme court
of appeal, and an executive consisting of a governor-general with such persons
as might be appointed as his advisers.

One would have supposed that when the movement had progressed so far as
this, the federation of the colonies was close at hand, but no action was
taken by Parliament to give effect to the resolutions of the Sydney
Convention. The apathy evinced upon the subject was most surprising, and for
three or four years the federal movement remained practically in abeyance.
Ultimately Mr. G. H. Reid, the Premier of New South Wales, came to its rescue,
and to that gentleman's action must be attributed the successful march of
federation from 1894. At his invitation the Premiers of the other colonies
met in conference at Hobart in 1895. All the Australasian colonies were
represented at this conference except New Zealand, which had withdrawn from
the federation movement at an early period, and has ever since maintained a
policy of isolation in regard to it. At this Hobart Conference of 1895 it was
decided to ask the Parliament of each colony to pass a bill enabling the
electors who were qualified to vote for members of the lower house in each
colony to choose ten persons to represent the colony in a federal convention,
whose work would be the framing of a federal constitution to be submitted to
the people for approval. It was this thoroughly democratic principle in Mr.
Reid's scheme that led to such satisfactory results. In 1896 what were called
enabling acts to give effect to Mr. Reid's proposals were passed by New South
Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania; and Queensland eventually
joined. All the colonial Parliaments except that of Western Australia passed
these enabling bills, and by the referendum the Federal Constitution was
adopted by large majorities in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South
Australia, and Tasmania. Western Australia held aloof for some time, but at
the eleventh hour its Parliament passed the Enabling Bill, and the referendum
gave the electors' sanction to it by a large majority.

Consequently the whole continent of Australia and the island of Tasmania
are now comprised within the Australian Commonwealth.

New Zealanders are beginning to see that the Commonwealth's tariff may
seriously affect their interests, more especially as the producers of that
colony have hitherto had a very large trade with New South Wales, Victoria,
and other portions of the continent. Under the circumstances, the Federal
Parliament expected to frame a customs-tariff specially favorable to New
Zealand, and therefore the inhabitants of that colony see, when it may be too
late, that by standing aloof from the federation movement their own interests
may have been seriously endangered. It was this feeling that prompted the
appointment of a royal commission to inquire into the whole subject and report
to Parliament at its session of 1901.

The Federation Act passed by the Imperial Parliament gives to the
Australian Commonwealth the most extensive powers of self-government, while
retaining to the various States of the union absolute control over their own
local and internal affairs. It is in all essential particulars the measure
adopted by overwhelming majorities of the people in Australia and Tasmania,
and their mandate to the delegates taking the measure to Westminster was "the
Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill." With one exception, these
delegates loyally adhered to their trust - a trust confided to them by the
voice of a free and enlightened people desiring the fullest measure of
self-government. The public of Great Britain and of Australia are fully
acquainted with the persistent attempts made by Mr. Chamberlain and others to
weaken that measure of self-government, and know that these-attempts were
defeated one after another by the uncompromising attitude of Mr. Barton, of
New South Wales, Mr. Deakin, of Victoria, and some of the other delegates. Had
they not been successful a very awkward situation might have arisen, because
the people of Australia were determined upon having their bill, and they
viewed with considerably indignation the efforts in the Imperial Parliament to
weaken it in a way that would have so materially curtailed their rights and
powers of self-government.

It is much to be regretted that anything should have happened to cause
friction at the installing stages of the Commonwealth. Everybody in Australia
was pleased when Lord Hopetoun was appointed as its first Governor-General.
He had been Governor of Victoria for a term, and was very popular with the
people there. It was believed, therefore, that he would be equally successful
and popular in the higher office to which the British Government appointed
him; but no one was prepared for the initial mistake he made when he reached
Australia to enter upon his new functions. Opinion was unanimous that Mr.
Barton, by his strenuous exertions in behalf of federation, and his loyalty to
the wishes of the people while in London, had established a claim far above
that of anyone else to be intrusted with the information of the first Federal
Government. It was decreed otherwise, and it will take a great deal of
explanation to remove the impression in Australia that he was purposely passed
over because of the uncompromising attitude he had taken during the passage of
Commonwealth Bill through the Imperial Parliament. Be that as it may, and
whether or not Lord Hopetoun acted upon his own motion or by instructions from
the Colonial Office, the public were taken by surprise when Lord Hopetoun sent
for Sir William Lyne, and intrusted him with the task of forming the first
Federal Ministry. Sir William Lyne had been one of the strongest opponents of
federation, and why he should be the first one sent for to form a cabinet no
one could understand, except for the reasons already stated. It is true that
he happened at the time to be the Premier of the "mother colony," as New South
Wales is called, and that fact is urged as an ample justification of Lord
Hopetoun's action in the matter. Sir William Lyne had no hand in the
business. He recognized at once that Mr. Barton's claims were superior to his
own, and lost no time in recommending Lord Hopetoun to send for that
gentleman. Mr. Barton was sent for accordingly, and soon succeeded in forming
the first Federal ministry. This was composed as follows: Rt. Hon. Edmund
Barton, Prime Minister and Exterior Affairs; Hon. Sir W. Lyne, Home Affairs;
Hon. Alfred Deakin, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice; Rt. Hon. G.
Turner, Treasurer; Rt. Hon. C. C. Kingston, Trade and Customs; Rt. Hon. Sir J.
Forest, Postmaster-General; Hon. Sir J. R. Dickson, Minister for Defence.

In forming his Cabinet Mr. Barton selected two Ministers from New South
Wales (himself and Sir William Lyne); two from Victoria (Right Hon. Sir G.
Turner and the Hon. Alfred Deakin), one from South Australia (Right Hon. C. C.
Kingston), one from Queensland (Hon. Sir. J. R. Dickson), and one from Western
Australia (Right Hon. Sir J. Forest). The Hon. N. E. Lewis, Premier of
Tasmania, was included in the Cabinet without portfolio.

The Hon. J. R. Dickson died soon after the formation of this first
Federal Ministry. The Hon. J. G. Drake, Queensland's Postmaster-General and
Minister of Education, was appointed Federal Postmaster-General, and in a
rearrangement of portfolios Sir J. Forest became Minister for Defence.

The birth of the Australian Commonwealth was celebrated amid great
rejoicings at Sydney on January 1, 1900 - one hundred twelve years after the
arrival of Governor Phillip in Botany Bay. The elections for the Senate and
the House of Representatives were held in the various States in accordance
with the electoral laws in force in each. The first Parliament met in
Melbourne at the beginning of May. The act provides that the capital shall
not be situate less than one hundred miles distant from Sydney.

It was Mr. Barton's intention to postpone consideration of the fiscal
policy until a later period, but the free-traders of New South Wales, led by
Mr. G. H. Reid, forced the issue, and consequently the first elections, which
took place on the 29th and 30th of March, 1901, were upon the question of
protection or free trade. Mr. Reid favored a free-trade policy and an
arrangement of the tariff for revenue only. Mr. Barton supported a policy of
moderate protection, for the establishment and encouragement of local
industries as well as those already in existence. Mr. Barton also advocated a
"white" Australia, meaning that it should be settled by a white population,
and that the importation of colored labor from the islands should be
discontinued after sufficient notice of its intended discontinuance shall be
given to the planters in Queensland and other parts of the continent. This
declaration secured for him the support of the labor party; but it is
difficult to see how white men will be able to work in tropical parts of
Australia, where the heat in summer is very intense.

In analyzing the results of the federal elections, it appears that in the
Senate the Government has a majority of about five. In the House of
Representatives Mr. Barton secured a solid majority of about a dozen. Even in
the free-trade stronghold, New South Wales, the low-tariff members are only
six more than those who support a high tariff; while in Victoria (the
protectionist State par excellence) the victory of the high-tariff candidates
was pronounced, only four out of the twenty-three seats being secured by the
free-traders. The most remarkable feature of the elections is the success of
the labor party. For the Senate its candidates won eight seats out of a total
of thirty-six, and for the House of Representatives sixteen seats out of
seventy-five.

The Australian Commonwealth was established under conditions that give
promise of a marvellous development and prosperity. The natural resources of
Australia are so great and varied, and its mineral wealth apparently so
inexhaustible, that it cannot fail to progress by leaps and bounds. It offers
so extensive a field for settlement, for farming and pastoral pursuits, and
for industrial and commercial enterprise in all their branches, that its
present population of four millions and a half is certain to be trebled in
half the time it has taken it to reach these figures; and, no matter from what
standpoint it is regarded, Australia is apparently destined to become one of
the great nations of the earth. What stands Australia in good stead on
setting out upon its new career of practical independence is that a great
spirit of colonial patriotism animates its people; that its public men are
able, broad-minded, and progressive, well qualified in every way to assist in
the work of nation-building which has begun so auspiciously.

 

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