(The flaming elections)
Decks clear for action! What matter if a world outside cries horror over thee, Australia? Better be Devil than King Log, croaked over by Frogs. The violent rearrangement of race-standards, too, was merely an incident of clearing the decks, had become, in the fatal course of the stars, thy Necessity. Onward, Australia, now face thy other Necessities.
Only a month has gone by since Parliament wrangled about financial tricks. How ridiculous it looks to-day, this fierce debating of a loan and what should be done to make it attractive! How very simple everything has become! Loans! The whole rich world has not a penny to spare for Australia. Even a usurer would not lend to a dying man who has already pawned his valuables. If thou wilt money, get thee to thy own pocket. Let us count up the cost. Armaments by sea and land: they will swallow millions. Transcontinental railways: tens of millions. Be humble, Australia, thou canst not do it!
It cannot be done? This is election time. What throngs round the platforms! What seas of heads and excitement! What strange mutterings, stranger silences! Listen! Listen to the men to whom the people of Australia listen. They do not talk of impossibilities. Are we not, value calculated for heads, the wealthiest nation on earth? Where are the limits of our rural production? Our mines, but last year, yielded in gold alone sixteen million pounds sterling! Who dares suggest that this treasure, torn from the bowels of our country by our hands, is not ours for the sacred purpose of defending our rights? Private claims? Fatherland before dividends! Traitors and cowards are those who say otherwise.
Traitors! Yet another old-world word, the true meaning of which had never before been fathomed in Australia. Multitudes mutter it, half shyly at first, with downcast eyes. Already they steal furtive glances at each other. Whisperings rise into plain language. Traitors! Are there any such among us? That Hell-Hound, Political Suspicion, is unchained. Its bark shall be heard throughout the length and width of the Commonwealth; its bite, too, shall kill without mercy.
Look at the men who draw the largest crowds. Nearly all our polished orators are gone, Moderates and Extremists alike. They were far too prettily articulate to voice the tempestuous fury now coursing through the veins of the nation. Only a few who have overcome their Parliamentary experience are still tolerated. Beside them other leaders, unknown to fame the day before yesterday, have risen into prominence; persons quite ignorant of diplomatic methods of expression, yet possessed of something infinitely more impressive at the present moment. Note the gloomy fires of conviction smouldering in their feverish eyes! They unburden themselves, in endless procession, at every busy street corner in city and country town, at all times of day and night. Money! Find money! is their eternal refrain. Money to blaze a track to the invaded northern wilderness! Money for armaments to strike at the enemy! Millions of money. And at all times, day or night, listeners crowd round, eager to absorb, to discuss every new suggestion. It is a continual roar, accentuated by yells of defiance, broken into by groans of dissent, and reasserted triumphantly in thundering applause, as some appeal strikes home. What strange words the attentive ear catches above the din! Forced loans! Embargo on gold exports! Absentee taxes! Ah, the money must be found. Shout again, ye patriots! Drown protests in applause! Let universal hoarseness be the badge of patriotism! Roar of storm, roar of sea, what are ye against the roar of a despairing people!
Tremble, therefore, ye Moderates! All those who have to lose most. Call it not spoliation, class war, socialism. Not the bitter partisan would dare to think of faction shibboleths now. It is Necessity! Life or Death of a White Continent! Those pitiless new leaders do not stoop to inquire how a man voted in the past, or what are his general political principles. Even many a smiling Labour orator, happy in the knowledge of having whooped all his life for a White Australia in well-rounded periods, has been pulled up short by them with that icy question: What else did you do for the cause besides talking? and has been ordered rudely to stand down. No Parliamentary procedure here. Down they did step, pale, noiseless, under storms of angry hoots and jeers, to political extinction. Where such things are happening daily, what chance for the faltering Moderate’s excuse: The whole nation neglected its defence! All are equally guilty! All should suffer equally! There should be no singling out by which some are made to lose more than others! Ah, my friends! A continent in convulsions is not a Court in Equity. Those others will have their full share of suffering exacted from them. They will have to hunger, to die; it is all they can give. But the fortunate some ones whose all includes the ability of material sacrifices will also have to give this all, as a privilege and honourable duty; their lives, too, if necessary. What is the use of digging up old party differences, as if they did matter now! Are you willing to lay down everything to save White Australia? Are you for or against the Sacred Will of the People? That is the only test.
Honour where honour is due! Many prominent Moderates are doing their best without any invitation. Among them men who have always held strict views on the rights of property, and of whom unselfishness is least expected. They are spending their cash, they are mortgaging their possessions — God knows at what heavy loss, for the first weeks after the London panic are not the correct time for financial transactions. Some are equipping companies. Orders for four completely armed torpedo boats, payment for which is guaranteed by private deposits, are cabled to Europe. Alas, not everybody can be a hero. Every man of means has already suffered terribly, directly or indirectly, by the funds debacle or the maritime boycott. Wives and children have to be considered. Moreover, who can say that the Commonwealth will win? If not, what then? Good Moderates, we shall have beggared ourselves for nothing! Let us bestir ourselves. Let us appeal to common sense. It may be dangerous, but desperate men must risk something. The call is not made in vain. Some courageous Moderates begin to talk back at the pitiless street leaders. Our battle cry? Filial obedience to England! It is, after all, the grand old Mother Country. Even the Extremists cannot deny that without its help we cannot succeed. Our proposals? Accept unreservedly the intervention of the Imperial authorities in the Northern Territory dispute on condition that the Japanese Government will undertake to stop all further immigration! Unhappy Moderates, not far wrong! — whom fear made drop, by accident, on a constructive idea. So much the worse for you, because you are an hour too early. Blood, red blood of white men alone, can cool the delirious fury of Australia. Meanwhile the new suggestion complicates the confusion. Numbers of the old generation, who were born in Great Britain, listen. Their responsive chord has been struck — for the last time. Good patriots, these old folks, but not good enough for the present emergency. So their sons think — native Australians, who know little of past associations. Bark, Hell-Hound: Father suspect to son, son to father! Families rent by deadly enmity! Tears and curses. Some more poison. Will the cup never fill?
It is filling, steadily. It is brimming over. What hurrying, shouting, haranguing in the busy street! A human torrent surges in front of a newspaper office. Of late the Press has obediently reflected the overwhelming national opinion. But now one important daily has come out in defence of the Moderate proposals. In support, it has published some severe condemnations of the Commonwealth attitude from British contemporaries and has even dared to point the moral in a leading article which seemed to approve to some extent of those strictures. The crowd have set out to ask the meaning of this relapse; they have arrived to give their answer. Down with traitors! Constables, do not strike patriots! Crash of breaking glass; men, mounting on other men’s shoulders, climb through the windows; the police guard, attacked from rear and front, is overwhelmed; the torrent pours its hundreds into the building, whence the terrified staff have escaped by a back entrance. Smash! Those linotypes will never print offensive views again. All the reinforced police can do is to dissuade the avengers from burning down the whole concern. Thus the People have corrected the Press. There will be no need to repeat the lesson.
The mouthpiece silenced, it is the turn of the instigators. Triumphant procession along the main thoroughfares. Those quaint figures dragged in front and kicked at, spat upon by the populace, are the effigies of prominent Moderate spokesmen, which will be cremated publicly. Half the city leaves its work to witness the solemn function in the park. Bright are the flames, more fiery the oratory. What can the police do? They are but men, patriots too. Still they have presence of mind to send urgent warning to the objects of national aversion. It was high time. Excited multitudes returning from the park gather before the offices of some leading offenders. Down with traitors! has become, under the stimulus of mock executions, death to traitors! Thanks to the foresight of the police, the terrible words do not yet become terrible deeds, for the intended victims are in hiding, where they will remain for many a day. Ridicule ruins their cause all over the country.
Straightforward Moderation is dead. With their battle-cry: No surrender of the White Australia doctrine! the Extremists will carry every electorate. It is madness to fight them on that issue. Instinctively, the remnant of Moderates tries a diversion by the introduction of minor questions into the election campaign. Rattle, rattle, old bones: Sectarians, Single-Taxers, State-Righters, to your guns! Political extinction threatens all of you! Fate offers you a rallying-point. A session of the State Parliament of New South Wales has begun. All eyes of a continent are looking towards Sydney.
New South Wales Parliament has been convened (July 16), for the purpose of assisting the Federal authorities in the organization of defence. Very laudable intention! Why, then, are various hostile allusions to the growing pretensions of the Commonwealth tolerated? Why do not Ministers state more definitely their conviction that everything, even constitutional points which might be interesting in peaceful times, has to be subordinated to the vital needs of the hour? Could not a more suitable moment be found for the airing of the well-known grievances of the Mother State? Defence is hardly mentioned. The Moderates, dominating the Government Party, are fighting tooth and nail for a diversion, in the forlorn hope of inflaming party passion. Who can blame them? It is their last chance. Alas, the floodgates of Parliamentary talk are opened again; who can shut them? Not the Labour Opposition. It is very strong, and most patriotic. But it is not foolish enough to terminate this opportunity of exhibiting its patriotism in brilliant colours. So it only creates scenes in the House, which end in the exclusion of the majority of its members for three sittings. Finality seems as far off as ever. Sydney grown restless. Those pitiless street leaders, who have no time either for Moderate tricks or Labour tactics, become attentive. What! shall the world think that Australia is disunited because a handful of professional politicians cannot hold their tongues? Much good have they done!
On Tuesday, July 23, the debate on the Address-in-Reply is to continue, after having swallowed all last week. Suddenly it is interrupted by a hoarse roar outside. Honourable members pale visibly. Macquarie Street is a sea of heads, all turned in gloomy menace towards Parliament Buildings. The officiating Senior Constable whispers to the Speaker. The House begins to thin rapidly. Mr. Speaker, in a great hurry, adjourns it. Too late. Ghosts of all departed Parliamentarians! Some thousand rude feet of unelected persons trample upon the sacred precincts. A few dare-devil members who strike the attitude of Roman Senators are hustled, flung out bodily. It is the end of the Mother State dignity. Ministers have fled for their lives. Until nightfall, New South Wales is without a Government. Then, under cover of darkness, a semblance of order is restored. The Cabinet, as many of it as can be found, agree on the needful: indefinite prorogation of Parliament. Henceforth the Federal rulers may sleep quietly, if the utter collapse of State assertion can lull them in the present circumstances. The entire East, nerve centre and backbone of the Commonwealth, is solid. All the old fads, bugbears but four months ago, have dissolved in the furnace-heat of national excitement.
And now commences — retribution! The first days of August witness the growth of the movement known to history as the Baiting of the Moderates. Alas, unhappy Australia, how changed thou art in so short a time! For a hundred years, thy men, whatever their political differences, have fought each other on terms of equality; they have never yet forgotten that antagonists, though misguided or wilfully blind, were men and brothers; they have listened before they struck; they have reasoned; above all, they have forgiven. But to-day? Proudly be it said humanity dies hard in Australia even in this frightful crisis. Innumerable instances are still told how men generously risked their lives to save others whom they loved not, how political enemies of a lifetime rushed to rescue each other and, clasped in mutual silent embrace, disarmed for the moment the mob fury. What are such isolated rays of light upon the surging sea of national despair, clamorous of victims! Ever since the race riots, it has been dangerous to express any opinion not concurrent with the popular conviction. Now it becomes a crime even to say nothing. It seems so suspicious. If one is a good patriot, why not state the fact boldly? Aye, and act up to it? Suspicion is the great sickness of this people so bitterly disappointed in the Empire. After that experience, what is not possible? What if by some mysterious means the Moderates should manage to control the New Parliament? The idea is extravagant, ridiculous. Yet otherwise sane citizens discuss it under their breath, their brows clouded with grim determination. Rather anything, rather death! Smash the Moderates’ organizations! Burst up their meetings! Hunt down their partisans!
Nomination Day arrives (July 31). It seems to confirm the secret fears, for Moderate candidates stand for a good many electorates. Poor fellows, at any other period they would be sincerely pitied. Not among them are the traitors to be sought after who would destroy the Commonwealth. Every one would bear arms for his country. But patriotism, too, has its bounds. It is the courage of despair which animates them. Shall they all be beggared? Shall their women and children starve? They will, if those stern street leaders get their way. No, a thousand times no! While the Moderates, who have to lose most, can help it, the Extremists shall not conquer, come what may.
The roar of the streets has become deafening. The Moderates have no chance there. They met by invitation, their electioneering takes the form of a vigorous house-to-house canvas of all possible supporters. The streets scent danger. Patriots meet and speak openly. Why this sneaking conspiracy? It must be stopped. But how? There is only one means. And so the last, worst happens. The canvassers are tracked down, private houses entered, law and order completely set at naught. Riot and flame! Death cries! The Moderate cause extinguished by terror! Yet with all its terror, wonderful is the oratory of the streets, which glorifies every deed of violence. Heartbeat of a maddened nation! Not the desultory talk of former elections, when some party or persons tried their best to divert Australia from its vital interests for the sake of their own aggrandisement. Lifegiving talk, straight to the point! Like panting of enormous machinery getting up steam ready to rush, to crush down, to create!
August 10 is Polling-Day. Such enthusiasm was never seen. Dying citizens totter to the booths to record their votes; they know it is their last sacred duty upon this earth. All country roads are black with the multitudes of vehicles and passengers streaming to the polling-stations. Some districts poll nearly every registered vote, in none does the percentage fall below ninety. And now the returns roll in. Four Moderates have just squeezed into the Senate, six into the Representatives; all the rest are Extremists. Many brilliant men of all the old parties find themselves left in the cold. Their places have been usurped by those pitiless street leaders. For once Australia has chosen a Parliament of Necessities, not of Ornaments.
Triumph! Triumph! And a deep, sudden hush! Do the people realize what this victory has cost and that it is only a beginning? Not a long respite is granted. Already a new tremor of excitement issues from Melbourne. The Federal Government is thrown into feverish activity. Again something has happened. Several elections have been prevented by riots in Western Australia.
Western Australia! Why, nobody has thought of it! Accessible only by sea, hidden behind the turbulent waters of the Great Bight, it slipped from the popular mind during this convulsive period. There are less than 300,000 souls thinly fringing its coast or dotting its desert goldfields. Less than 300,000 human beings in a million square miles, in complete isolation. They cannot be a great help, and the Commonwealth has more important matters to trouble about. The seaboard, it is said, does not cultivate Federal sympathies. Its numbers are not awe-inspiring. As long as the East is solid, nobody need worry about the West, which will follow the example of the former. Such are the notions of the average Eastern citizen.
The Federal authorities have so far shared this point of view; the more indignant are they now. Western Australia, of all places! Did we not place entire confidence in it? When after the conference in Melbourne of all our District Commandants prior to the mobilization we dismissed the others again did we not keep back here the Commandant of the West because he was of more value for the pressing work at headquarters than for drilling the scarce recruits in his own department, who might be licked into shape just as well by local soldier men? True, the Commandant himself, an officer of merit, by name and title Colonel Ireton, warned us that his absence might lead to complications. At any rate, we have now sent him back at last. He is on the water this very moment. Wait till he has landed if he will not make things hum!
Things are humming already, it seems. Perth, too, has its streets, but they roar a tune very different from the East. The maritime boycott has made the loose connexions with the nerve-centres of the Commonwealth looser still. Listen, for a change, to the particular Western note. It started right in the Australian key. We, too, have raged and trembled about the invasion. Then came, at the most inopportune time, the financial debacle. We had just negotiated a huge loan, sufficient to counteract for some years our chronic deficits. Of course, all these sweet hopes have now come to nothing. Should we not be disappointed? Are our politicians wrong in charging the failure against the Federal embroilment? For we have solid grievances. We joined the union on the distinct understanding that the construction by the Commonwealth of a transcontinental railway across the deserts to South Australia would be taken in hand at once. Nine years have passed and only a survey has been sanctioned on the result of which, it is now said, the execution of the work will depend. Meanwhile, South Australia, which has always done its worst to block our scheme, need not wait for its own transcontinental railway. Do they not talk of unheard-of sacrifices to be borne by the whole continent to make it possible? Sacrifices! Nothing else has ever been our share! Under the rules of continental free trade, the more advanced East pours in manufactured goods and agricultural produce in cut-throat competition with our local articles. Are we ever to suffer thus and to get nothing in return?
There is in this world a sure retribution in store not only for every sin of commission, but for also every sin of omission. Cut off by waterless wastes of land, by watery wastes of sea, the West has little in common with the main body of Australia. Such an isolated detachment must bear bitter fruits. Many public men of the State have been pronounced Anti-Federalists. Of late there has been a lull in the expression of their sentiments. But the financial failure revives the criticism. Mistrust follows in its wake. Is it to be pay, pay, pay, without end? And for what purpose? Can the Commonwealth, which spurns the advice of Great Britain, win? We, the State, have every reason to be friendly with England, our Mother! At any rate, she cannot fail us. She may not wish to fight on account of the incursion of a few thousand Orientals upon the Northern Territory. But if ever Japan should descend upon the west coast, which commands the routes to India and South Africa, she cannot remain inactive. So what have we to fear? Why should we ruin ourselves for the Commonwealth, which laughs at the idea of straining its purse for our sake?
Thus the talk grows wilder. Of course, it is only talk. None of the glib critics has any clear idea of what is to be done. None of them is conscious that they are firing a train connected with a hidden mine of latent rage the explosion of which will rain blood upon all Australia. But if men walk the brink of a precipice they should beware of giddiness. This continual play upon grievances may yet inflame popular passions which the talkers never reckoned with.
The election campaign is now at its height in the West. And here the Moderates, shouted down and hunted out in the East, get a hearing. The sea coast, in contrast to the interior, has always been Moderate. Its well-to-do middlemen have been struck hard at their most vital point, their pockets, by the maritime boycott. The farmers, too, conservative and parochial as everywhere else, back them. They know that the goldfields, Federal to the back-bone, will return Extremists. All the more reason why the Coast should see to it that the other side is not quite silenced. But is it possible? Labour-in-politics, with its White Australian platform, is strongly organized even here. In the last Parliament, one of the seaside constituencies was represented by a Caucus man. Can he be ousted? It shall be tried!
All the time, the telegraph is transmitting confused reports of the terrible struggle in the East. Still, they are quite sufficient to embitter the campaign of the coast. The Moderates, feeling themselves in strength, are fighting like demons! They have hit on a happy name: the Great Westralian Party! So violent are their arguments, so strong their grievances, that many a good Labour man cannot quite shut his ears against them. Nevertheless, the toilers are too strictly disciplined as that they could be relied upon. They may humour the loudest talkers, but who knows how they will vote? The nearer draws that fatal hour of decision, the more soul-racking grows the suspense of the Moderates. They cannot explain away the complete mastery of the Extremists everywhere else. Will they be extinguished here, too? Their antagonists pursue the campaign steadily, without the wild fever of the East, yet without laxity. This calmness is aggravating. We Moderates are in force in this corner. Why not use it? Why not do as we are done by all over the Continent? Is not the Commonwealth devouring us? Rouse party fury! Burst up meetings! Shout down the enemy! Alas, it is not always that two can play at a game. The Extremist gatherings are thickly attended, every attempt to break them up is stoutly resisted; they hurl defiance with mocking cheers: “Federation for ever!” And so it happens on the eve of Polling-Day that the surging crowds of State partisans, beaten back with hard blows in their last great effort and despairing of success, yell answer: “Down with the Commonwealth!” The streets of Perth resound with the echoes of popular fury, which die away in the night, little heeded.
Voting is brisk next day. The polling, proceeding orderly during the morning, soon leaves no doubt that the Extremists will retain Perth and may win Fremantle. These startling rumours are whispered round among excited mobs of State-Righters, whose temper is swiftly rising beyond control. And suddenly, the mine blows up. There is a wild rush upon a polling-booth in the threatened constituency. The officials are attacked, the ballot boxes seized and smashed, voting-papers and lists torn up and scattered. After that, nothing can hold back the rioters. Mobs, continually swelling in numbers, hurry to the next booth and repeat the work of destruction, among cries of: “What’s the good of Federation!” “We don’t want the Commonwealth!” “Down with the Federal black-guards!” Fate flies swiftly. By five o’clock in the afternoon, nearly every polling-station within the three metropolitan divisions had been similarly ransacked.
That is the news which agitates the Central Government and penetrates on stormy wings into the remotest recesses of the Commonwealth. What matter that Perth sobers down, that State authorities and local Press declare with one voice that the whole affair has been a mere street disturbance caused by a spontaneous impulse due to disappointment and fear, totally unpremeditated? Quite right; but what are facts against frenzy? Do not argue, act! One thing only is clear: Federation has been insulted, the elections are cancelled. Why are not the culprits brought to justice? The whole solid East gasps but two words, which the Federal Executive duly telegraphs: immediate satisfaction: the Coast receives the imperious message indignantly. Why are we to prosecute every second citizen? Men, too, who have done nothing worse than allowing themselves to be carried away by a mistaken outburst of State loyalty? Let the East mind its own business. How is it that their own jails are not overflowing? Such violence as they indulged in we never thought of! The State hesitates; its Parliament is being convened; that may decide how amends are to be made. Delay therefore. And the Commonwealth has time to reflect. What kind of reflection! The new members, those pitiless street leaders, look to it that the insult is never forgotten. Western Australia! Is it not there that public men dared to boast, among great applause, that they were willing to draw swords to sever the bonds of Federation? At that time, the Commonwealth, being then in its right senses, smiled and went about its work. Now, in its mad hour of disaster, the Commonwealth remembers! What if they meant it? So this insult, and all that led up to it, was merely accidental? Listen to the reawakening roar of the East! Is not Western Australia our biggest gold producer? Do we not propose an embargo on gold exports? Is there nobody who might be interested to thwart us? Questions like these, once asked, shape their own answer in such a crisis. Ah, it is conspiracy! An attempt to rend to pieces our indivisible continent! Bark, Hell-Hound of Suspicion! Gnash thy teeth! Out of thy hundred throats spit black poison! Westralia, a human life is staked on every minute of delay! Quick, for God’s sake and thy own! Strike down the offenders with iron hand! Or thyself shall thus be struck down.
The Flaming Elections may be said to have terminated the first great epoch of Australian history. So far the young community has developed largely on the lines of older civilized white nations, sheltered for all purposes, as it fancied, beneath the world-sweeping draperies of the British Empire. That illusion has now been shattered. Upon the outer gates of the Commonwealth a relentless enemy hammers, with whom there exists no possibility of mutual understanding and conciliation. Within, those who have to lose most and whose most sacred duty it should have been, for this reason, to organize the defence, are victimized of necessity. The accompanying convulsions are paralyzing the national vigour. Still worse, one of the links binding the component parts of the Continent is on the point of snapping under the strain of misunderstanding, jealousy, suspicion, and the spectre of fratricide rises against a background of inextricable confusion. To crown all, public credit, the life-blood of modern defence, has been cut off without mercy at the critical moment. All the bonds of nationhood, in the accepted sense of the term, seem to break together.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
[Editor: Corrected “Our propoals” to “Our proposals”.]