[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]
Australia was feverish. But its symptoms were quite different from those manifested in the sister dominions, where the colder climate makes people heavy and pessimistic. Of the chorus of rage and fierce denunciation of Japan which resounded there, Australians caught only the note of sympathy and applause which cheered them on to aggressive efforts. The British attitude was not understood at this early time and for this reason people refrained from criticizing it, the more readily as the Prime Minister, in a speech before the House immediately on the opening of the session, had recommended that nothing should be said or done to prejudice the position of the Imperial authorities. The members of the Federal Government chose to take a cheerful view of the future. They recognized — or said so — that caution on the part of the Empire was quite appropriate. So far, London had given no intimation that it was not prepared to insist on the evacuation of the Northern Territory by the undesirable aliens. Its fancy of exhausting, in the first place, all peaceful means to bring about that end, was certainly very trying. But the Australian nation, as a whole, had no suspicions of insincerity, being firmly convinced, in the consciousness of its own importance, that there was too much at stake for Great Britain, for Anglo-Saxondom, for White Humanity, to allow of any lukewarmness. A little bewildered by the delay abroad, the citizens felt relieved to turn their attention to the drastic measures and more drastic proposals of their own leaders. There, at last, was forward movement. Australia experienced the exalted sensations of a young hero girding his loins to beard the prowling enemy in his den. It had so much to do, so many duties to fulfil, that it really had no leisure for sad-eyed reflection. Everybody discussed the possibility of linking up Port Darwin by railway with the South and how long it would take; or how many men the Commonwealth should be able to put into the field — some day-dreamers approached the half-million in their speculations. Of course, they all presumed that Great Britain would be there to back them up.
On the opening date of the Federal session, May 30, 1912, a proclamation was issued calling to arms Class I of the War Militia, comprising all the unmarried men, and the widowers without children, from eighteen to thirty years of age. The fact was immediately communicated to Parliament and justified as a measure of “Resistance of an armed invasion of Commonwealth Territory.” This, under the Constitution, amounted practically to a declaration of war.
The mobilization came as a glad surprise after the tension of the last weeks. The liable class precipitated itself into the ranks; if there was any regret, it was that of half-boys and older men that their time for active service had not yet come. Parliament reflected this happy unity. For the moment, all party strife was hushed. Even the action of the Government, which curtailed the time customarily allowed for the discussion of the Address-in-Reply, met hardly with any opposition. On Monday, June 3, the Coloured Inhabitants’ Registration Act was introduced and passed through all stages in both Houses within three days. This measure was dictated by the fear of treachery and espionage. It had been the boast of Japan, that before the Russian war every one of its subjects abroad, regardless of social station or individual calling, had served as a spy, whenever an opportunity offered. People were justly afraid that similar tactics might be repeated in Australia. The only means of minimizing the evil was strict control of all Asiatics. Under the new law, every coloured alien was bound to report himself to the local authority within a stated time, and after that once a year regularly. A pass was handed to him, and whenever he travelled from his registered place of residence for more than three days, his movements had to be officially recorded on the back of it. If he could not show his pass, or if the endorsements were not in perfect order, he became liable to imprisonment until such time that he should prove his good faith and harmlessness. And should he fail to satisfy the authorities, who were ordered to keep detailed lists, then he was to be deported from the Commonwealth.
It is to be regretted that these restrictions were necessary, on account of the very serious consequences. The terrible cry of treason had been raised now and must inevitably swell in volume as long as the causes of the national agitation lasted. So far, Australia had treated the inferior races with good-natured contempt. Their influx had been stopped, but those who had already entered were left alone. Now, quite suddenly, they were officially held up to popular hatred and fury. The stigma of outlawry was affixed to all, Japanese, Chinese, Hindus, Afghans, Syrians, Negroes and others, with the single exception of the native aboriginals, who were not credited with sufficient intelligence to be dangerous. Some delay occurred before the white citizens became fully imbued with the sternly repressive spirit which shaped the Registration Act. But the seed had been sown, and in due course the growth of vengeful suspicion convulsed the whole community, causing endless suffering to the innocent as surely as the few who were possibly guilty.
Contrary to routine, this Bill was at once presented to the Governor-General for the King’s assent. Meanwhile the House debated an Amendment to the Defence Act providing new rules with regard to exemptions from military duty. The mobilization was being carried out very thoroughly. Some murmurs of discontentment arose now because of the strictness with which every able-bodied man of liable age was enlisted. Commercial Britons have always loved to let others do the fighting for them. It is therefore easy to imagine what were the feelings of many prosperous parents and relatives who prided themselves on their English descent and habit of mind, when their young men were placed among the common rank and file and subjected to severe drill, with the prospects of a tropical campaign before them. In no country and at no time has it been considered a disgrace to dodge the recruiter. And it was the same in this instance. Forged and bought medical certificates, even artificial crippling, were resorted to, and many a pampered young fellow fled by sea.
The amendment dealt with such evasions, providing that only the certificates of medical men who had been sworn in as Federal officers should be valid. Every competent physician was admitted to the oath. High penalties were enacted against attempts to corrupt the officers and against all malpractices. It was also enacted that men who got married after the date of the proclamation, could not thereby escape liability to military service. And the excuse that a liable person had made arrangements to leave the country prior to the proclamation was especially excluded from the grounds for exemption.
The new clauses were put into operation immediately. Their harshness was, of course, resented violently. Young Englishmen, who had come out on business or for Colonial experience and had remained for over six months, but without any intention of settling permanently in Australia, were debarred from leaving and compelled to join the army. The outgoing vessels were kept under close supervision; escapees who in despair had stowed themselves away or had signed on as common seamen, were hauled back and enlisted. Cable reports of such occurrences found their way into the British Press and the ordinary reader, ignorant of the merits of the case and very shocked at the signs of oppression, looked upon Australia with more unfavourable eyes day by day.
Both the Registration Act and the Defence Amendment may be described as non-contentious measures. Their passage terminated the happy unity of Parliament, for now the main problem had to be faced: the necessity of financing the defence of the Commonwealth, the method of which could not be considered apart from party principles. Enormous sums were wanted to maintain the standing army and to improve its armaments. Moreover, the Railway Bill providing for the immediate construction of the transcontinental railway to Port Darwin would call for millions. It was here the first cleavage occurred between the Moderates, who represented the more conservative interests, and the ardent patriots, who preferred to suffer everything rather than surrender the White Australia ideal and who included not only people of every political persuasion willing to place fatherland before faction in the hour of national danger, even at the risk of offending British traditions, but also the entire Federal Labour Party. Mainly because of their connexion with the latter, they were soon dubbed “Extremists” by their opponents. Under that name, used at first as a reproach, and then appropriated as a term of distinction, like so many political appellations of the past, they will go down to history.
Once the Party spirit revived the Parliamentary struggle became very confused. Until then, the Commonwealth, as apart from the States, had never raised a loan. Now, Government proposed to do so. In addition, it introduced fresh taxation. To begin with, a Federal income-tax of two shillings in the pound on all annual incomes exceeding £150. Though this was an enormous impost, even the Moderates agreed to the principle, well aware that sacrifices were necessary, and only strove to reduce the rate. But it was merely a commencement. For the Government also insisted on the graduated land tax. So far the advocacy of such a measure had been associated exclusively with the Labour Party, who had never been able to convince a majority of the people of its expediency. That the present crisis was used to push it forward, enraged the Moderates. It was felt as a party affront. And the representatives of vested interests resented this attempted socialistic spoliation, as they termed it, and resolved to resist firmly.
The Moderates, on the whole, were certainly as patriotic as other Australians. True, they paid more deference to the sentiment of the Mother Country, which to many of them was “Home.” And they were naturally more cautious, since they stood for the commercial and industrial proprietors, for the men of means and big landholders, who had most to lose. Some of their acknowledged leaders had not always been over-careful in their utterances as to the merits of the Commonwealth case. But they would have died as gladly as any of their compatriots in defence of their country’s rights against the invasion of the Asiatic Power. Their objections to a graduated land tax were quite natural. Once the latter had become law, its principle acknowledged, law it would probably remain long after the immediate cause for its adoption had passed away. Before Federation, the predecessors of the modern Moderates had ruled the various States. In those days, the remedy for every financial difficulty had been borrowing. The result was that to-day four millions of people owed nearly 250 million pounds sterling to the British investor. It did not seem to hurt them. Why not follow the time-honoured device? The Moderates advocated another big loan, and were willing to vote a solid income-tax for the interest service. Further they would not, could not, dared not go.
On the other hand, the Government insisted on its graduated land tax. There was no party spirit prompting it. The crisis had not swept away political principles of a lifetime, but no reasonable Australian thought of faction strife just then. The facts were plain. The Commonwealth was entering the gates of a future of which nobody could foretell the portents. Was it wise, was it dignified to pledge the public credit at once to its utmost limits, without an honest attempt to pay out of the national pocket for the national cause? Was it even possible? London was not exactly enthusiastic, to say the least. A financial rebuff at this juncture might be disastrous. (Nobody, of course, had any idea of what was to happen shortly.) But London might be humoured by the creation of good security. The income tax was one means. And the graduated land tax? It was the only other way of raising a large annual amount. It had been talked about for many years. It had many supporters. It would not come as a shock to the people, because they were already acquainted with the idea. And money had to be found. That was why the Government was so determined about it.
So the Parliament battle began. Meanwhile the people looked on stupefied. They only knew that the Continent was in danger, that every moment was precious, that millions of money were wanted. Why was a whole week wasted in talk? Why could not their Representatives agree? Land tax or no land tax, the people were not in the mood for listening to technicalities. Deeds, not words! Find money! In the heat of the financial contest, each side overstated its case. The Moderates were quite willing to pass the income tax, even two shillings if it could not be helped. But as good Parliamentarians they could not have done so without pointing out the enormity of their unselfishness. Was not direct taxation reserved to the States? Look here, how patriotic we are! We sacrifice all ancient traditions — it should entitle us to consideration in other respects! The people outside are muttering: the States! Who thought of them? Commonwealth in danger, not States!
The other side is as explicit. Behind Government, the Labour Party is fighting. None of their responsible leaders would think of taking mean party advantages now. The people outside regard them with friendly eyes. They have always stood for White Australia. Also the graduated land tax has for long been a plank in their platform. But why re-state these things? It takes time even to tell truth, and time is precious! They have not the slightest wish to dwell on these facts. And yet, in the heat of debate! Ah, the people outside are out of order. Parliament, with the best of intentions, is settling down to raise points. The Long Parliament did so, once, around a tottering throne. Likewise a Congress, while a Sub-Continent was blazing to the sky. And a National Convention of France, with Hell hissing from every crevice beneath it. It is the chief delight, the second nature of all elected persons at all times.
A whole week lost! Something will have to happen. Ah, what is this, this fierce cry of rage, like the shout of a Continent? Something has happened! In the midst of hopeless confusion the Governor-General has announced that he has been instructed to withhold assent from the Coloured Inhabitants’ Registration Act, on the ground that it is directly opposed to British principles of fairness and offensive to the coloured subjects of the Empire. A bombshell could not have had an effect more deadly. All Australia is suddenly awakening to a sense of its isolation. Government resigns at once (June 19). Melbourne, faithful Melbourne, threatens to lynch everybody who gives way on the colour issue. Did not some prominent Moderates counsel confidence in England but a short while ago? These Moderates will have to live in the House. Woe to those away in the country. They are marked men, exposed to the first fury of a disillusioned populace, insulted, even maltreated. Let nobody dare to form an administration while the Imperial authorities refuse to sanction the Registration Act. His blood upon himself! The State Governors even are moved to action. They report that no living soul can accept responsibility for the public peace as long as this matter remains unsettled. Never before have the cable operators worked so feverishly.
London listens. London waits. Nearly another week is gone. The excitement has not abated one jot. Instead, it has spread round the globe, to the Sister Dominions. They all call on the Mother to honour the will of a free Daughter Nation. London wavers. In the British Parliament the Colonial Secretary explains that the measure includes all coloured races and is therefore not directed specially against the Japanese. (Hear! hear!) Australia holds its breath. Yes, the Crown grants assent at last (June 26). But listen! On the understanding that the Federal Executive is sure of its own ability to enforce the Act. So let it be law!
Government is reconstructed at once. Nobody cares about the singular British reservation, which, in plain language, means that England disavows its obligation to see that the law is respected. Australia will look to that! But shall the financial haggling now start afresh? Wait a moment! Did not some hunted persons, during the period of national delirium, appeal to the authority of the States, since the Commonwealth was headless, heedless? Were there not some responses of smothered eagerness? Nothing has come of it, nor shall ever come of it. Resolution proposed by the Leader of the Federal Labour Party: “That until after the expulsion of the Japanese occupation force the High Court shall not hear appeals on behalf of the States against any action of the Federal Executive as approved by Commonwealth Parliament.” Inter arma silent leges. In vain the Moderates fight to the last ditch. The resolution passes the Representatives by a majority of seven, the Senate by three.
It is the end. The same majorities vote two shillings income tax, land tax, loan of two millions, which, alas, shall never eventuate. Outside the people cry with one voice: Dissolution! New elections! The Sovereign of Australia wants to take his fate into his own hands and to re-fashion his court. Some time, of course, has still to be spent, usefully now.
On July 12 the Fourth Parliament of the Commonwealth dies. Double Dissolution it is, befitting the national crisis. The Orators have had their day. Now let the People act!
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
Inter arma silent leges = (Latin) “For among [times of] arms, the laws fall mute”, usually rendered as “In times of war, the law falls silent”
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