Chapter 28 [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 XXVIII

The Commonwealth

(a) Parties and personalities

The three parties — The Barton Ministry — Reid and the Opposition — Watson and the Labour Party — The White Australia policy — Kanaka labour — C. C. Kingston — Conciliation and Arbitration Bill — First Deakin Government — Watson Government — The Reid-McLean Government — Second Deakin Government — Retirement of Watson — Fisher leader of Labour Party — First Fisher Government — The ‘Fusion’ (Deakin-Cook) Government — Second Fisher Government — Cook Government — A ride for a fall — Deadlock — Third Fisher Government — Hughes Government — The great European War.

Historical events, like mountain ranges, can best be surveyed as a whole by an observer who is placed at a good distance from them. Out of the welter of acrimony, stratagem, ambition, generous impulses, lofty aspirations, meanness, selfishness, patriotism, and all the other motive forces amid which the work of the world gets itself done, emerge at length clear to the view certain shining personalities, certain determinations fluent in consequences, which are the stuff of which history is made. Many people who made such noise while they strutted their hour become happily forgotten, and many events which were responsible for large headings in newspapers are seen to be of no particular importance. The student of the history of the first quarter of a century of the Commonwealth who enters upon his task a century hence will see things in different proportion from him who makes the attempt at closer range.

But there are things which we can be sure were not merely ephemeral, because they had to do with the laying down of main lines of policy. Where those lines will run, how they will be deflected, whether they will conduce ultimately to good or ill results, is beyond prediction. But they are important because they are main lines.

In the First Federal Parliament (1901-3) there were three political parties: the supporters of the Barton Government, which was protectionist; the official opposition led by G. H. Reid, which contended for a tariff for revenue-raising purposes only; and the Labour Party led by J. C. Watson. The Ministry comprised five men who had been Premiers of their States before federation — Messrs. Forrest, Kingston, Turner, Lyne, and Fysh; in addition to Alfred Deakin, the most brilliant orator then engaged in politics, and one whose broad culture and personal charm won him influence beyond the political sphere. It was in experience and intellect a strong administration with which to commence operations under a new constitution, though it contained too many leaders to give promise of endurance. It was an army of generals, an orchestra of conductors; and that Edmund Barton did succeed in inducing them all to play the same tune, or fight on the same plan of campaign, during nearly two sessions, was a remarkable achievement in leadership.

The leader of the Opposition, Reid, whom nature designed in a mood of kindness to political caricaturists, was, since the death of Parkes, the most familiar figure in Australian affairs. His fund of humour was not the least of his endowments; and it was employed to give liveliness to a rare gift of dignified and impassioned eloquence, and to a quick-witted skill in debate — which would seize upon a chance word as it flew and return it as a weapon barbed.

The Labour Party counted twenty-four members in the two Houses of Parliament. Generally they supported the Barton Ministry, but they were an independent party, with aggressive aims and a clear if not as yet proclaimed intention to impose their own policy by the work of a Government of their own choice upon the Commonwealth. Their selected leader, Watson, had been a Labour member of Parliament in New South Wales, but had not secured there opportunities for distinction such as he soon showed his capacity for winning in Commonwealth politics. A man of good presence and urbane manners, he was a clear and incisive public speaker, and an astute and tactful parliamentarian.

Although a Labour Government did not come into office till 1904, the Labour Party held the key to the Australian political situation from the very commencement of the Commonwealth. On a few issues the opinions of its members were divided. Before the first Tariff was passed and protection had become the assured fiscal policy of the country, some of them, especially those from New South Wales, were strong free traders. But whenever the party was united, its compact cluster of votes was sufficient to ensure that what it insisted upon in legislation would become law. The only way of negativing the party’s influence would have been for the Opposition to support the Government when the Labour Party did not concur in a ministerial proposal; but, as the main business of the Opposition was to try to turn out the Government, such support was not likely to be accorded often. The Labour Party held the key because on most important issues it assisted the Barton Government, which could not have carried its measures without Labour support. Moreover, the Labour Party had developed methods of party organization to a pitch not hitherto known in Australian politics. On issues which it declared to be essential to the carrying out of its political programme its members were pledged to vote as the majority of its members determined; on other issues they were free to vote according to their personal disposition. This system of party discipline gave to it a solid coherency which increased its strength.

Two measures of the first session were designed to give effect to what Barton described as the ‘white Australia’ policy. One of these was for the purpose of preventing the immigration of coloured races, the other for clearing the Kanakas out of the sugar plantations of Queensland. The strength of the feeling in Australia against indiscriminate immigration had pronounced itself very strongly since the days of the gold diggings, and it was understood that one of the earliest acts of the Federal Parliament would be to pass a comprehensive measure of exclusion. The reason for it was frequently represented to be merely that the trade unions objected to the incursion of coloured labour, which would lower wages and the standard of living among the working classes. Undeniably that motive had much weight, but the policy was supported on other grounds connected with the general well-being. Those who had studied the consequences of the importation of negroes to America might well stand appalled at the prospect of saddling the Australia of the future with such a problem, and experience of the Chinese quarters of the large cities provided ample warnings against increasing such an element of the population.

But Barton wished to be careful not to pass Australian legislation which might embarrass the Imperial Government. The Secretary of State had sounded a warning in a despatch wherein he had indicated that disqualification on the ground of race or colour was ‘contrary to the general conceptions of equality which have ever been the guiding principle of British rule throughout the Empire.’ In fact, however, the principle that British possessions were at liberty to regulate their immigration was already established law; and the method which the Barton Government proposed was adapted from an Act already in force in the colony of Natal. That method was the education test. Power was given to require any immigrant to submit to the test of writing not less than fifty words in any prescribed European language. (In 1905 the Act was amended by making the education test consist of capacity to write fifty words in ‘any prescribed language.’) This gave the officials charged with the administration of the Act scope to ‘prescribe’ a language in which they knew that an intending immigrant was not proficient. In practice the test has rarely been applied to European immigrants; the intention was to use it for the exclusion of coloured races. The administration was also enabled to admit merchants, travellers, students, and visitors from Asiatic countries who were provided with passports, which are valid for one year. The criticism levelled against this method by opponents was that it did by a subterfuge what it would have been more honest to do by the simple process of direct exclusion. That process would have been preferred by the supporters of the policy, but it was considered objectionable by the Imperial Government, whilst the education test was deemed by them to be the least disagreeable mode of carrying out a policy which they did not like. The Immigration Restriction Act became law in 1901. It has been several times amended, always with the purpose of strengthening the system.

The legislation regarding the South Sea Islanders was passed at the same time. The story of the importation of Kanakas to Queensland has been related in Chapter XXV. To a large extent the grosser evils of the coloured labour traffic had been mitigated by improved state legislation, but the more it was brought into conformity with the demands of civilization, the greater the danger of Kanaka labour being made a permanent feature of the industrial life of Queensland; and against that the Commonwealth resolutely set its face. The Pacific Islands’ Labourers Act gave power to the Government to return to their islands any Kanakas who should be in Australia after December 1906; but by a later Act all Kanakas who had lived in Australia for twenty years, all who could not be returned to their islands without risk to their lives, and all who owned land, were allowed to remain in Australia. About 3,600 were at length deported. The champions of the planters averred that sugar could only be grown with black labour. Without that, a collapse of the industry was confidently predicted. But the Federal Government imposed a heavy duty on sugar, to secure the Australian market for the Australian growers, and also granted bounties to those who produced sugar with white labour only. The details of the legislation of 1902 have been varied from time to time, but the principle of it has been adhered to. The predictions of failure have not been fulfilled. On the contrary, the sugar industry has prospered. The acreage under cane and the yields of sugar have increased. Whereas in 1897-8 Australia produced 1,073,883 tons of cane, in 1922-3 the production was 2,315,982 tons.

The break-up of the Barton Ministry was heralded before the close of the first Parliament by the resignation of C. C. Kingston. A burly South Australian, whose radical tendencies were in sympathy with the Labour Party’s programme in very many respects, Kingston had, as Minister of Customs, prepared the first protectionist tariff, and had steered it through the Legislature. The Labour Party had pressed for a measure to establish a Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in labour disputes, and Kingston had taken a keen interest in its preparation. But he was not satisfied with the bill after it had been reviewed by the Cabinet. It was especially inadequate from his point of view because it did not extend to seamen engaged in the coastal trade. His colleagues, following the Prime Minister’s lead, considered that the case of the seamen would be better provided for in a Navigation Bill; but Kingston would not endure their exclusion from the purview of the Arbitration Court, and left the Ministry. He was in bad health at the time, and did not figure prominently in Commonwealth politics after his resignation; for he was soon held in the grip of a long illness which ended his strenuous life on May 12, 1907.

A man of haughty temper, notwithstanding his strong democratic leanings, Kingston was at his best intellectually as a draftsman of parliamentary bills. He spoke in a series of emphatic spasms heaved forth with a voice of thunder; but when he took pen in hand to prepare an Act of Parliament he had command of a crisp precision of phrase and a sure sense of the value of words, that could express a meaning in the shortest and most unmistakable terms. Instead of saying that any person charged with an offence against the said section in the manner aforesaid and being without reasonable cause or excuse should on conviction before a court of summary jurisdiction be liable to a fine not exceeding £20, Kingston would write at the end of a tersely worded section, ‘Penalty, £20’ — and, oddly enough, neither courts nor persons affected ever had the least doubt as to what was meant.

A couple of months after Kingston’s resignation from the Ministry the Prime Minister himself retired from the scene of strife to the dignified calm of the High Court bench. An Act constituting the Court, which was an essential element of the constitutional fabric, had been passed, and the office of Chief Justice of Australia was conferred upon Sir Samuel Griffith, then Chief Justice of Queensland. Barton himself took the second judgeship. The third went to Richard O’Connor, who had represented the Government in the Senate since the commencement of federation.

The second Prime Minister was Alfred Deakin, who at the general election, held in December, 1903, made a valiant fight to retain the ministerial party at full strength. But the Labour Party gained at the expense of both the other parties, and emerged from the polls with 24 members out of 75 in the House of Representatives, and 15 out of 36 in the Senate. It held the key to the situation still more firmly in its grip. The Government was entirely dependent upon it for support. If ever the party dissented from a matter of ministerial policy, its solid phalanx had only to be increased by a few oppositionists to place the Government in a minority, for Deakin could count no more than 27 followers, while Reid had 24.

Such a situation arose over the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, the measure which had nearly destroyed the Barton Government. Deakin would not consent to the inclusion of a clause giving the right to servants of the States to appeal to the Federal Court to ask for an increase of pay from the Governments which employed them. Watson and his followers insisted. Aided by a number of opposition members, they carried the clause, and Deakin resigned (April 21, 1904). Then began a bewildering series of changes. A citizen of the Commonwealth might any morning have awakened wondering what Government was in office now.

First, a Labour Government under Watson took office. It endured till August 12, when, having resisted an amendment to that most explosive Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, it was defeated and gave place to a Government formed from the old Barton-Deakin party and Reid’s own faithful band of Oppositionists. Reid was Prime Minister, and his principal lieutenant was the Victorian, Allan McLean. Deakin supported the combination till the end of the 1904 session, and enabled Reid to steer his Government into recess. But during that recess Deakin made a critical speech, from which Reid drew the inference that when Parliament met again he would lose the support of the remnant who looked to the ex-Prime Minister as their leader. He could not stand without them, so he deliberately rode for a fall. When Parliament met in June 1905, the Ministerial programme contained only one paragraph, announcing that an Electoral Bill would be introduced. The meaning was obvious: Reid would pass this bill, bring the session to a close, and secure a general election. He hoped that he would return from the polls with a party strong enough to keep his Government in office without reliance on the Deakin section.

But Reid was playing his cards against two extremely quick and astute politicians in Deakin and Watson. The former apparently thought — certainly some of his party hoped — that if he displaced Reid’s Government at this juncture with the aid of the Labour Party, he would be able to form a coalition with Watson, and to carry out such a policy as they could both agree upon — for on very many points Deakin and his group were not far removed in sympathy from Watson and the moderate section of the Labour Party.

The first part of the scheme worked. Deakin launched a motion of want of confidence and carried it with the aid of the Labour Party, after a long debate full of vituperation, hate, malice, and all uncharitableness. But there was no coalition. If Watson himself had been agreeable, his party were not. They believed — and they were shown to be right by the course of events — that if they exercised a little patience they would soon be strong enough to form a Government of their own. But their apple of power was not yet ripe, and it was better for them to watch it reddening on the tree than to risk losing it by sharing the fruit with another. Their supporters in the country were jealous of ‘labour men’ who did not hold aloof from other parties. Deakin therefore, with seventeen sure supporters in the House of Representatives, of whom seven had seats in the Cabinet, formed a Government which relied mainly for support upon the Labour Party.

This Government, which commenced its career on July 5, 1905, endured till November 10, 1908, a period of three years and four months. Within that time Watson had retired from the leadership of the Labour Party (1907) and had been replaced by Andrew Fisher. Watson’s subsequent retirement from Parliament was regretted by all parties, for he had made his mark as a fair fighter, a clear thinker, and a cool, courteous, and able political leader. Fisher was a Scotsman who had gone to Queensland as a young man, had entered Parliament there, and had transferred himself to the federal arena on the advent of federation. With none of the graces of speech, he had yet by constant practice at the expense of his audiences acquired some readiness in debate. His vein of Scotch caution was allied to a strong will — which, of course, his opponents described as sheer obstinacy. Shrewd, if rather slow, keen, if a little insensitive, he never lacked personal dignity, and when unruffled by the passions of conflict was courteous to all. He once said in public, ‘I know my limitations,’ and he did know them so well that he never attempted what was beyond his powers. That he was also a thoroughly loyal friend and a man of staunch rectitude counted for very much in the attainment of the success that came to him.

Under Fisher’s leadership the Labour Party made its long-contemplated step forward to the attainment of independent political power. It had supported the Deakin Ministry until certain contentious matters of policy, to be discussed in the following chapter, had been disposed of. Fisher then intimated, in cold terms, that that support would no longer be accorded. With the under-pinning removed, the Government collapsed, and the first Fisher Ministry took its place.

What happened simply was that the larger of the two parliamentary groups which had kept the Deakin Government in office now became the governing group, whilst the smaller one helped it to keep its place by giving to it a sufficient though critical support. The question was: how long this state of things would last. The Government had not a majority of its own, and it would naturally try to secure one at the next election. The probabilities were that it could only win extra seats at the expense of the very members who were now its supporters, many of whom represented constituencies wherein there was a very strong Labour element. These members, therefore, were in the position of one who should feed an animal with the certainty that at a favourable opportunity it intended to devour him. Politicians are no more fond of being devoured than are other people. The time for a general election was approaching, and every day made these non-labour supporters of the Labour Government more and more uneasy. Behind the scenes negotiations went on between some of them and the Opposition led by Reid. Both groups thought it would be well for them to join forces to defeat the Government.

But who was to lead the attack? Reid was not persona grata with many of the Deakin group. His political lieutenant, Joseph Cook, was not very acceptable to them either. They must have Deakin himself. He had publicly stated that he did not intend to take office in any Government formed as the result of a combination of parties. But pressure was brought to bear, and Deakin’s nature was peculiarly susceptible to the pressure of friends. He was not in good health, and would have preferred a few years of rest from leadership. But he yielded at length, and forwarded a polite and friendly note to Fisher informing him that the support hitherto given to his Government would be withdrawn. Again the underpinning was removed, and another Government fell from this cause.

The new combination, which took office in June 1909, was known as the Fusion, or Deakin-Cook, Government. Reid was sent to London as first Commonwealth High Commissioner. But at the general election held in April, 1910, the electors of the Commonwealth, many of whom must have become confused by the complicated changes which have been detailed, showed themselves adverse to the Ministry. The tide ran high and full for the Labour Party, and swept it back to Parliament with a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the former House it captured every seat — that is, eighteen, for only half the members of the Senate retire at a general election — and counted 23 votes in a House of 36. In the House of Representatives it secured 42 seats for its own members, and had in addition the benevolent neutrality of two independents.

Fisher was thus for the second time Prime Minister. His Government was chosen on this occasion by a method that was quite new in the history of constitutional government. The usual mode in Australia, as in England, was for the Governor-General — in England the Sovereign — to send for the political leader who was indicated by the debates and divisions to possess the confidence of the majority, to commission him to form a Ministry, and for the Prime Minister so chosen to select his ministers. But the Federal Labour Party was differently organized from other political parties. Its members were pledged to a political programme drawn up by an annual Labour Conference. This Conference in 1905 had registered the decree that henceforth Labour Governments should not be chosen by the Prime Minister, but should be selected by the full body of the federal Labour members. Fisher, recognizing that his strength depended upon the wide-spread and very powerful organizations of the party in the country, initiated the observance of this rule. The members of the Government which held office from April 1910 till the next general election in May 1913 were therefore chosen by ballot by the party which supported them in Parliament. During Fisher’s second period as Prime Minister, the Commonwealth Bank was established by law, and it commenced business in January 1913.

The election of 1913 witnessed the retirement from active politics of Deakin, whose health had been shaken by the strain of so many years of official work and bitter conflict. Cook was chosen to head the Fusion party, and fortune turned a rather wry smile upon him at the polls. So wry was it that it was hardly a smile. The Labour Party lost some seats, and Cook was able to re-enter the House of Representatives with a majority of one. That meant that when his supporters had elected a Speaker they had no majority at all. Moreover, the Labour Party still had an overwhelming preponderance in the Senate. So that the new Cook Government could not carry a scrap of legislation without the grace of its opponents, who very soon showed their determination to exert their power to the full. The parliamentary machine was clearly unworkable under these conditions. Cook met the situation by a bold, deliberate challenge. He was pledged to two items of policy in regard to which the issue between his party and Fisher’s was clearly drawn. These were, a measure to restore voting by post, which the Labour Party had abolished because of allegations of improper practices in the use of it; and a measure to destroy the preferential treatment of trade unionists by the Arbitration Court. The two bills were forced through the House of Representatives after very tough fighting, and were promptly rejected by the Senate. Planning then to bring into use the machinery of the Constitution for the removal of deadlocks, the Government forced their bills through the House of Representatives again, expressly to provoke the Senate to reject them a second time. This having been done, the Prime Minister advised the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses.

A new Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, had only just assumed office, and the situation was a very perplexing one for him to handle. The Labour Party denied that there was justification for dissolving a Parliament not yet one year old, and in which only one political leader had been tried. There was no precedent for such a stroke in the history of constitutional Government. But there was no precedent for the situation which existed.

Munro-Ferguson was himself a very experienced parliamentarian. He was no amateur amid the whirl and clang of party, for he had been a ‘whip’ in the House of Commons; and he was endowed with a capacity for cool judgment and firm decision. Moreover, he knew what his own powers were under the Constitution. His reading of the position was that no satisfactory results could be expected from a Parliament such as the last election had provided. He therefore dissolved both Houses. Events justified the discretion which he exercised. The Labour Party at the election of 1914 was returned with an ample majority in both Houses, and the third Fisher Government took office less than six weeks after the outbreak of the great European War. The difficulties they had to face then were not parliamentary, but imperial and international.

Fisher resigned at the end of 1915 in order to take up the duties of High Commissioner in succession to Reid. The Prime Ministership then fell to his brilliant and energetic Attorney-General, William Morris Hughes.

Such then, in brief, is the history of party warfare under the Commonwealth during its first fifteen years. To the superficial and cynical observer it may have seemed a ‘scuffling of kites and crows.’ But these confused and clamorous happenings meant more than that. Political forces, like the forces of nature, often tear and rend in a manner disturbing to the placid ease of good-natured equanimity. The men who fought these battles were not mere self-seeking ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth,’ but sincere and serious leaders of opinion, who were contending for different sets of principles. The rapid rise of a new party — that is, of a new force — necessarily entailed a fresh adjustment of political relations.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 318-331

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