Chapter 26 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XXVI

The movement towards Federation

Lord Grey’s proposal — The federal spirit — The Federal Council — Its limitations — Henry Parkes — Federal Convention of 1891 — Defection of New South Wales — Corowa Conference — Convention of 1897-8.

When the proposal to confer self-government upon the Australian colonies was being considered in 1849 the Committee of Trade and Plantations, to which Earl Grey referred the subject, recommended that, in addition to the Legislatures established in the various colonies, the Governor-General should have power to convene a body to be called the General Assembly of Australia. It was to consist of a single House, named the House of Delegates, whose members were to be elected, not by the people but by the Parliaments; and it was to have certain powers entrusted to it affecting the common interests of all Australia. It was to take charge of customs and excise, postal business, roads and railways, lighthouses, weights and measures; it was to set up a general Supreme Court to act as a court of appeal from colonial courts; and it was to have power to make laws on any other subject which might be referred to it by the Parliaments of all the colonies. Not a word was said about defence; that was to remain an Imperial concern.

Earl Grey adopted this idea, and endeavoured to carry it out in the measure of self-government which he submitted to the Imperial Parliament in 1850. But the time was not opportune for a movement towards federation. Neither in Australia nor in England were the clauses popular. Grey made no strong fight for them, and they were struck out by the House of Lords.

There was much that was narrow, unsympathetic, and marked by the caste-prejudice of the aristocratic Whig in the colonial policy of Earl Grey, though he wrote two substantial volumes to prove to posterity what a very enlightened policy it was. Yet in this particular he — or the committee whose ideas he adopted — showed a true perception of the inevitable tendencies of Australian politics. Here were five separate communities — six when Queensland was separated from New South Wales — all of British origin, all populated principally by British people, all speaking the same language, all living under similar systems of government. Were they to grow up as foreign nations, jealous of each other, pursuing separate and often antagonistic policies? Or were they to recognize that their place in the sun, their strength in resistance, their trade, wealth, and public convenience would be enormously increased if they pooled their powers in certain respects and presented a united front to the world? Why should not the latter alternative be chosen? The people of the Australian colonies were not different from each other, as Frenchmen were different from Germans, or Russians from Spaniards, or Italians from Swedes. The fact that one Australian colonist had a sheep-run in New South Wales, that another grew wheat in South Australia, and that another was a miner in Victoria, made no radical difference in their disposition. The historical factors which make distinct nationalities were not at work here. A river boundary or a degree of longitude did not convert people of common origin into separate nations. It might have worked out so in the course of two or three centuries, but not in less than one. And even tendencies in that direction were a misfortune. There were enough causes of racial discord in the old world; there was no need to introduce them in the new.

But time was required for the federal idea to germinate and grow. It could not be made to sprout by an Act of Parliament. The Australian people had to learn for themselves how much they lost by disunion. They had to become conscious of the weakening effect of particularist aims. They had to be taught by events that though it was quite a good and an honourable thing to be a Tasmanian or a Queenslander, it was a very much finer, prouder thing, and one that signifies very much more, to be an Australian. Several events impressed the lesson upon their minds. The slippery Bismarckian trick in New Guinea was one of them.

Questions of common interest frequently arose, and for a few years it was sought to deal with them by means of intercolonial conferences. It occurred to Henry Parkes that there ought to be some permanent machinery for the purpose; and in 1883, when a cluster of subjects of urgent importance had to be considered, his suggestion, made two years previously, for the creation of a Federal Council was put into concrete shape by Samuel Griffith, the Queensland Premier. A bill to authorize the establishment of such a Council was passed by the Imperial Parliament in 1885. It gave power to the six Australian colonies, as well as New Zealand and Fiji, to pass Acts enabling the colonies to send two representatives each. Fiji sent her representatives to the first meeting of the Federal Council, held in 1886, but afterwards dropped out. New Zealand never participated.

Much graver was the defection of New South Wales. As Parkes first promulgated the idea of establishing such a Council, his action in afterwards declining to recommend New South Wales to have anything to do with it was viewed by others as a breach of faith. Parkes was a statesman of large views, but he was also, as every successful leader under a parliamentary system must be, a wily politician with a quick eye to party advantage and the popularity of a project. The Federal Council scheme had not won popularity in New South Wales. Parkes explained that he afterwards came to the conclusion that ‘the body proposed to be created would not succeed,’ and that it would ‘impede the way for a sure and solid federation.’

In truth the Federal Council did not impede the achievement of federation, nor was there any reason why it should. But the abstention of the oldest and strongest colony certainly impeded the work of the Council. Its transactions lacked full authority because they were not those of the representatives of all Australia. Its legislative power was slight, extending only to a few questions, and even as to these it had no executive capacity and no authority to raise revenue. It could legislate on quarantine, or the influx of criminals, but any laws which it might make could only be carried out by the Governments of the colonies, by their own machinery and in their own way. The Federal Council could not order a single policeman to do anything, nor could it spend a single shilling on anything, nor tax any Australian citizen to the extent of a penny stamp. Yet its meetings, which occurred every two years, did call attention to matters of general Australian interest, its debates were on a high level, and its personnel was always distinguished.

Parkes, however, genuinely desired to see the federation of Australia, and when again he set himself to the task he performed noble work for his country. He was in the last quarter of the nineteenth century by far the most picturesque and commanding figure in Australian politics. Very tall and strong-framed, with a great leonine head, maned and bearded white, resting on massive bowed shoulders, his presence arrested attention in any gathering; and when he spoke, in a thin penetrating voice, and with slow, deliberate choice of words, his tongue was gifted with the power to move multitudes and to convince while it charmed. His origin was of the humblest. As a lad in his native Warwickshire, the son of a very poor labourer, he had worked on a rope-walk for fourpence a day, and had groaned under the blows of a brutal master in a brickyard. He had shivered in threadbare shreds as a stone-breaker on the highway, and endured the rigours of an immigrant ship. But always the soul of the man burned bright. In the midst of his poverty he read and thought and wrote, teaching himself and learning to love the fine things in literature with a passion that was never dimmed down to the last days of his very long life. His little book of Immigrant’s Home Letters reveals the struggles and the aspirations of his early days in Australia, whither he came in 1839. His political advancement in New South Wales began with the inauguration of responsible government, and his career extended till Australia was on the threshold of national life under a federal constitution.

Parkes reopened the federal question in 1889. Politicians in other colonies with whom he communicated were still annoyed with him because they thought he had not treated the Federal Council fairly, and he derived at first little satisfaction from endeavours to enlist them in a federal movement under his leadership. But he persisted, and at length succeeded in bringing together a conference of ministers (1890) to consider means of preparing a constitution. This conference resulted in the holding of the first Australasian Federal Convention, in Sydney, in 1891. Its members were chosen from the Parliaments of the colonies, and they were representative of the best political intelligence Australia had at her command at the time.

The Convention of 1891 prepared the first draft constitution: a document which, though not finally adopted, was really the basis of the work of the later Convention, and therefore of the constitution of Australia as it came into being. The ideas embodied in it were discussed in the open Convention, but the drafting of the clauses was the work of a small committee consisting of Samuel Griffith, afterwards Chief Justice of Australia, Edmund Barton, afterwards Prime Minister, Inglis Clarke, afterwards a Tasmanian Judge, and Charles Cameron Kingston, a master hand at legislative drafting, who was afterwards a distinguished minister of the Commonwealth.

The constitution so prepared had to be adopted by the people of the colonies, the intention being that if it were accepted by any three of them it should be passed as an act of the Imperial Parliament, and become law. But New South Wales again proved to be an obstacle to union. Parkes had to encounter strong opposition in his own Parliament, where a party led by G. H. Reid — who had not been a member of the Convention — condemned it as the work of ‘the great ambitious statesmen of Australia,’ as insufficiently democratic in structure, and as being especially objectionable in its clauses affecting finance and trade. There was a feeling in Parkes’s own Cabinet against federation on the terms proposed, whilst in the country the opposition seemed likely to be formidable. After testing the opinion of Parliament, therefore, Parkes did not proceed with the bill. In the other colonies it was deemed to be useless to take action unless there were a reasonable probability of New South Wales forming part of the federation, and, failing a lead from Parkes, nothing was done. The work of the 1891 Convention seemed, therefore, to have resulted in failure.

Parkes’s period of leadership was over, and he died in 1895. The new chief of the federal party in New South Wales was Edmund Barton, then in the ripeness of his great powers, a constructive statesman of wide grasp and deep learning who had determined to make this the main purpose of his political life.

The federal movement was soon to be transferred to another arena — that in which the power of a democracy resides. Popular leagues were formed to advance the common cause; and at a conference of such bodies held at Corowa in 1895 a new plan of campaign was adopted at the suggestion of John Quick, a delegate of the Bendigo Federal League. His guiding idea was that a fresh impetus towards federation should emanate directly from the people; that a constitution should be drafted by a convention elected directly by the people; that the constitution, when drafted, should be submitted to the people for acceptance or rejection; and that, if it were accepted in two or more colonies, it should be passed by the Imperial Parliament and become law. The movement was to be popular in origin and directly dependent upon popular control throughout. From the adoption of this scheme in 1893 dates the irresistible march of the federal movement to victory. Jealousies, personal ambitions, particularist interests, the tinkering pettiness of party manoeuvring, might sprog the wheels for a while, but there could no longer be more than temporary hindrances.

To the Convention of 1897-8, which prepared the instrument that became the constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, came ten representatives of each colony except Queensland, whose Parliament did not pass the Enabling Bill for the election of delegates. The ten from each of the other colonies were elected directly by the people, except the representatives of Western Australia. The Parliament of that State feared to adopt the method of popular election, because the gold-fields population was so overwhelmingly large that it would have swamped the voting power of the agricultural portion, which, under the franchise then in force, dominated the Legislature. Consequently, the ten representatives from Western Australia were chosen by the Parliament, and there was not amongst them one who could authoritatively voice the view of the gold-fields, where the federal feeling was very strong.

The Convention held three sessions — in Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne. In personnel it was the most richly endowed assemblage of political ability which had ever been brought together in Australia. Griffith now occupied one of the ‘seats above the thunder,’ as Chief Justice of Queensland; but the method of popular election had secured the inclusion of nearly every other man who on grounds of experience, character, weight in leadership and personal distinction, counted for very much in the politics of the time.

The problem of arranging for the surrender, by a group of self-governing States, of a large part of their independence and powers to a newly created Government erected above them is one of peculiar complexity. Rarely has it been achieved except under external pressure, or the menace of internal disruption. The federation of the United States of America was born of revolutionary warfare and the grave prospect of ills that would accrue from disunion. But there were no such impulsions in Australia. The country had never known war. It was safe from outside aggression, protected by the bulwarks of the Imperial Navy. It had never endured rebellion, or any disturbance that could not be overcome by a handful of soldiers and policemen. It was brought to federation by good reason and sound political appreciation of the disabilities of disunion. The success of the federal movement was the fruit of popular education and of the experience of a democracy in thinking out and settling its own problems. A celebrated Imperial statesman in the House of Commons spoke of the constitution drafted by the Convention as ‘a monument of legislative competency.’ It owed nothing to the guidance of any masters from outside, wise in affairs of State and cunning in the fashioning of laws. The Australian democracy chose its own men from its own ranks, and set them to build for it a constitutional house to dwell in. Nearly all the leaders of the Convention were native born, and had been schooled in their own land. All were of British origin. Amongst the fifty names of the members, not one is of foreign derivation.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 298-305

Speak Your Mind