Chapter 29 [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 XXIX

The Commonwealth

(b) The wheels of policy

The federal capital — Choice of Dalgety — Choice revoked and Canberra finally selected — Papua and the Northern Territory — The Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta railway — The amendment of the constitution — The referendums — Defence policy — The naval agreement — Compulsory military service — The Kitchener and Henderson reports — The new naval squadron — The Australia — The Sydney-Emden fight at Cocos.

Amid all the distractions which have been described, the Commonwealth Parliament found occasion to exercise powers in a great variety of instances, and it laid down lines of policy which must influence Australia for many generations to come. Together with the subjects already mentioned, there was legislation under at least thirty of the thirty-nine paragraphs of the section of the Constitution wherein Commonwealth powers are defined; in addition to which many laws were passed on subjects over which the Commonwealth has exclusive jurisdiction, and some highly important machinery measures, to enable the processes of government to work efficiently, were brought into being.

About the choice of the site of the federal capital there was thorough inquiry by experts and by members of Parliament. At first, in 1904, Dalgety, on the Monaro tableland, was selected — certainly a beautiful site, watered by the Snowy River, ringed round with mountains, and with the huge mass of Kosciusco dominating the landscape. But the choice did not give pleasure to a number of influential persons in New South Wales, and before the steps necessary for commencing to mark out the federal territory were taken a feeling that the subject should be reconsidered gained ground in Parliament. It was rumoured that Watson had found a place called Canberra some sixty miles to the north of Dalgety, and consequently nearer to Sydney, which would meet the requirement far better. A ballot was taken in 1908, with the result that Canberra was finally selected by the Parliament. The New South Wales Government facilitated the acquirement by the Commonwealth of an area of 900 square mile with a strip of land running down to the sea at Jervis Bay, where also two square miles of land were ceded for the purposes of a Commonwealth port and naval base. The required area was formally handed over by New South Wales to the Federal Government in 1909. The first meeting of the Commonwealth Parliament at Canberra occurred in May 1927, when the new Parliament House was formally opened by H.R.H. the Duke of York.

The manner in which British New Guinea was annexed was described in Chapter XXV. The cost of administering the territory had been shared by the States, but it was felt to be proper that the Commonwealth should undertake the responsibility. An Act for this purpose was passed in 1905. By this measure the old Portuguese name of Papua was restored. The Possession has since been a dependency of the Commonwealth, and is governed by a Lieutenant-Governor and Council, very much as a British Crown Colony is ruled.

The Northern Territory, that great slice of central and northern Australia which South Australia had undertaken to manage, became a Commonwealth possession in 1911.

Norfolk Island, which had been a dependency of New South Wales since 1788, was taken over by the Commonwealth in 1914.

A question of vital interest to Western Australia was that of the construction of a railway connecting Perth with the eastern States. Forrest was wont to say that the principal reason which led the western State to join the Commonwealth was that assurances were given to him that the railway would be built. The railway, he maintained, was the inducement offered to Western Australia, just as the possession of the federal capital within her territory was the inducement to New South Wales. But the Constitution imposed no obligation to construct the line, and nobody had any authority to pledge the Commonwealth in advance to do anything which the Constitution did not require to be done. The alleged compact may not have weighed with the Federal Parliament, but the undesirableness of having a whole State cut off by a great distance from the rest of the Commonwealth, without railway connexion, certainly did. If only for military reasons, it was felt that the chain of steel should be forged. The project was promised in the programme of the Barton Government in 1901, and had been part of the policy of every successive Ministry. The whole of the Western Australian members were continually insistent about it. At length, in 1907, an Act was passed providing money for the survey of the 1,051 miles of route between Port Augusta, at the head of Spencer’s Gulf, and Kalgoorlie, in the western State, whence a railway already ran to Perth. The surveyors found, as was expected, that the country to be traversed by the line is largely unfit for human habitation; but they also found plenty of good grass land which in favourable seasons will be valuable. Acting on the surveyor’s report, the Fisher Government, in 1911, secured the passage of a measure to authorize the construction of the line. It was opened for traffic in 1917.

Very much of the energy, and a large expenditure of the passion, of political parties has been devoted to efforts to amend the Constitution. That instrument itself provides the machinery for its own alteration. A proposed law having amendment in view must first be passed by an absolute majority of each house of Parliament; it must then be voted upon by the people; and if a majority of the electors voting, in a majority of the States, signify their approval, the Constitution is altered accordingly. The Labour Party, after failing to carry out its designs in reference to the scope of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act and the control of commercial trusts and monopolies, decided to ask the people to amend the Constitution in two aspects mainly. First, they desired to remove the limitation which confined the jurisdiction of the Federal Arbitration Court to industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State. They wished to give power to the Court to act as to wages and conditions of labour and employment in any trade, industry, or calling, including disputes which might arise among the employees of state railways. Secondly, they wished to have power to make laws for the control of commercial corporations, for regulating trade and commerce within any State as well as Inter-State, and for ‘nationalizing’ any industry which Parliament might declare to be ‘the subject of any monopoly.’

These propositions were first submitted to the electors in 1911, but were rejected by five States out of the six — Western Australia being the only State favourable to the enlargement of federal power. Regardless of this defeat, the Labour Party, considering that it could make little headway with its policy without the proposed amendments of the Constitution, submitted them to a second referendum in 1913. They were then carried by three States, Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland — but were rejected by the other three. Failing a majority in a majority of States, the attempt failed again. But the affirmative votes in 1913 showed a marked advance on those recorded in 1911. Then the Labour policy was rejected by majorities of over a quarter of a million. In 1913, however, the difference between success and failure was very narrow — less than 30,000. Encouraged by the advance, the party nailed its flag to the mast and announced that it would try again; and there would have been a third referendum on the same questions at the end of 1915 but that the outbreak of the European War induced the dropping of schemes of constitutional alteration.

One of the strongest reasons for the formation of the federal union was in order that a better defence system might be adopted for Australia. Before 1901 each of the six States had its own little military force, under the command of an officer engaged from the British Army; and each contributed towards the up-keep of a squadron of the Imperial Navy, under a Rear-Admiral, which was maintained in Australian and New Zealand waters. But there was no attempt at co-operation between the six military forces. There was no unity of command. There was no common system of training and equipment. If Australia had had to fight for her existence, whatever co-ordination there was would have had to be arranged at the last moment and in the face of the enemy. The forces were militia, with a small corps of garrison artillery in each capital city. There were also small naval forces in some States. But these were not the main factors in the defence of Australia. Everybody knew that, regardless of geography, the country nestled under the lee of the great and efficient navy controlled from Whitehall.

Very early in the history of the new Commonwealth the question of the efficiency of the defence system and of whether it was on proper lines forced itself on public attention. In 1903 a new naval agreement with the Admiralty had to be made, to replace the old agreement between the Admiralty and the separate States. Barton had made an arrangement, subject to ratification by Parliament, that the Commonwealth should contribute a subsidy of £200,000 per annum towards the cost of the squadron. He managed to carry it, but experienced great difficulty in doing so. The idea of a subsidized navy was objectionable to many. Had not the time arrived when Australia should make provision for her own defence, both naval and military?

This view was emphatically urged by many influential men and journals — notably by the Sydney Bulletin, which during the early years of federation, when policy was being formulated, rendered memorable service by some remarkably clear thinking and forcible writing about problems of the future. ‘The alternative to the naval tribute proposed by Mr. Barton,’ wrote this journal in 1902, ‘is the expenditure of a like sum of money, or if necessary a much larger sum of money, on an Australian Navy. This Navy would, in times of peace, be used as a training squadron for Australian men. In times of war it would be available for the defence of Australia, and, there is no doubt, for the assistance of Great Britain in other waters if that were called for.’ That passage embodies the view which eventually gained general acceptance. It seemed in advance of the probabilities in 1902, but there is a very remarkable likeness between what was then proposed and what ultimately happened.

If any one had predicted before 1900 that Australia, with her democratic tendencies, would be the first portion of the British Empire to adopt compulsory military service, he would have been deemed absurd. But, as the defence problem was more thoroughly studied, men asked themselves why it should be considered undemocratic to compel citizens to train themselves for the defence of their country. The payment of taxes is not voluntary, though it is never very agreeable. The observance of health acts and factory regulations is not voluntary. Why, then, men said, should it be left to the choice of the individual as to whether he should make himself efficient to defend the country whose protection he enjoys? And, if a democracy was not prepared to defend itself, had it any more reason to expect that it would survive than other forms of government had done elsewhere?

A remarkable circumstance affecting the new Australian defence policy was that, although the political parties of the country were bitterly at enmity, as shown in the previous chapter, they all, at about the same time, became converts to the principle of compulsory military service, and all became eager supporters of the establishment of an Australian Navy. Indeed, after these two things had been enacted, there was some brisk controversy as to which party had first proposed them. Defence became a non-party issue. At one time it seemed that there could not be such a thing as a non-party issue in Australian politics; but these two very far-reaching changes did actually attain to that unique distinction.

During the first eight years of the Commonwealth its defence legislation made no radical departure from old methods. But opinion had been ripening, and in 1909 Deakin introduced the first measure which embodied the principle of compulsory military training. It also made provision for establishing a military college for the education of officers. The bill passed through Parliament, but, before the proclamation which was to bring it into operation was issued, the Deakin Government was ejected from office. The Fisher Ministry gave its wholehearted support to the compulsory principle, but amended the Act of 1909 in several important respects by an Act of 1910, which was introduced by Senator Pearce, who was Minister of Defence in all the Labour Governments after the first one. Many amendments were made on the advice of Lord Kitchener, who visited Australia at the invitation of the Commonwealth Government in 1909, made a thorough study of the strategic requirements of the country, and inspected its troops during field manoeuvres. Lord Kitchener prepared a report containing many valuable recommendations, which the Government was glad to accept.

Under these Acts provision was made for training lads in two classes, junior and senior cadets, and young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. All male persons liable for training were required to register; and heavy penalties were imposed for evasion of service, or, in the case of an employer, for preventing an employee from rendering the personal service required of him.

The fundamental defence Acts of 1909-10 were amended in detail, as experience showed alterations to be desirable; but their main principle, that of liability to be trained for defence, became a fixed part of Commonwealth policy. A military college was opened in 1911 at Duntroon, within Commonwealth territory, for the training of officers, entrance to it being by competitive examination. A naval college was also established at Jervis Bay.

A wide departure was made when the Commonwealth resolved to build a navy of its own, and to make provision for manning it with Australian seamen. Expert opinion in Great Britain was divided as to the expediency of having separate navies within the Empire, but at an Imperial Defence Conference, held in London in 1909, both the Australian and the Canadian representatives made it clear that the Commonwealth and the Dominion desired to build up what were called local navies. The Admiralty thereupon gave its most valuable advice, and a scheme was prepared to enable Australia to get the best service possible within her means. Rear-Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson was sent out to examine sites for naval bases, and to advise generally; and his report (1911) like that of Lord Kitchener on military defence, was taken as a basis upon which the Government could proceed with a naval scheme.

Great impetus was given to the movement for creating an Australian Navy by the revelations of the desperate efforts which Germany was making to build a fleet of battleships which, professedly, were designed to challenge the sea supremacy of Great Britain. In no part of the British Empire was the significance of this development more fully appreciated than in Australia, whose people thoroughly realized that the safety of their country depended upon the sea power of the motherland. A movement was started to present a Dreadnought to the Imperial Navy, but a more far-sighted realization of the needs of the situation insisted that a comprehensive naval scheme was required; and the Imperial Defence Conference of 1909 brought forth a clear set of principles and a programme of development which satisfied those who wished to work for an Australian Navy. To a very large extent, therefore, the new Navy grew out of the peril disclosed by the revelations as to German preparations.

But it was recognized quite frankly by the most thorough supporters of an Australian naval policy that unity of direction was essential in naval warfare. It was not desired to place up-to-date and well-armed ships in Australian waters, and leave them there in time of war without regard to the requirements of Imperial naval strategy. The legislation affecting the Navy therefore provided that in time of war the squadron should automatically pass under the control of the Admiralty; and that step was taken immediately after war broke out between Great Britain and the Germanic Powers on August 4, 1914.

The British Government treated Australia very generously once the new policy had been decided upon, handing over to the Commonwealth, as a free gift, the whole of the building and equipment at the naval base at Sydney. The Admiralty also offered to contribute a quarter of a million pounds per annum to the upkeep of the Australian squadron, recognizing its value in the protection of British interests in the Pacific and the East. This offer, however, was declined, the Commonwealth preferring to defray the whole cost itself.

The Australia, flagship of the fleet, a battle-cruiser of the very rapid, heavily-armed Indomitable type, was completed in 1913, and her arrival in Australian waters in that year was convincing evidence that the new naval policy was in operation. In a little over a year that policy was justified in a very startling manner, when the great European War broke out, and German cruisers were at large in the Pacific. Australian ports would have been good targets for the guns of Admiral von Spee’s squadron but for the presence of the Australia, with her great superiority of speed and gunnery. Two smaller cruisers, the Sydney and the Melbourne, also arrived from England, where they were built, in 1913. The fight of the former with the German cruiser Emden at Cocos Island on November 9, 1914, gave the young Australian Navy its first battle experience, and the opportunity was very worthily seized. The Australia remained as the most powerful vessel in the Australian fleet until 1924. Under the conditions of the international agreement made at a conference at Washington in 1921, the naval forces of all the Powers were reduced. The Australia was one of the ships condemned to be destroyed. She was then obsolete as a ship of war; but a certain sentiment attached to her as the first Australian capital ship to take part in great naval operations. As, however, she had to be destroyed, she was for the last time put under steam on the morning of April 12, 1924, steered outside the heads of Port Jackson, and sunk in the Pacific.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 331-340

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