Birth-Pangs of Twentieth Century Nationhood
Storm-clouds gathering in the West
On August 12, 1912, two days after the Federal election riots in Perth and Freemantle, ss. Katoomba, under charter to the Commonwealth, steamed into the latter port, and landed the Federal District Commandant, Colonel Ireton, and two staff officers. His instructions were most severe. For the ease with which the entire East had been brought to bow to the supremacy of the central authorities, had led these to believe that the adoption of similar measures would have similar results in West Australia. Colonel Ireton was the right man for the task, but with the wrong orders, into the composition of which no spirit of forbearance had entered, nor any consideration that the State might have a mind of its own.
Even before the arrival of the Commandant, the local Government had received a peremptory wire from Melbourne demanding the punishment of the ringleaders in the election disturbances. And on the day following his return, the State legislative discussed the matter. It was a stormy sitting. Ministerial partisans pointed out that Western Australia was by no means the only place where acts of political violence had occurred. The Attorney-General denied that there were any ringleaders in the case, which he termed a spontaneous mob excess. In the end a resolution passed regretting the incident, and appealing to the Federal authorities to let bygones be bygones and to fix a near date for another polling, when care would be taken that the irregularities should not be repeated.
Though this attitude was studiously moderate, the temper of the local governing classes was not, as Colonel Ireton soon discovered. He found the coast militia totally disorganized. Owing to his prolonged, though unwilling, absence, Federal influence in the army was dead. Class I had been duly recruited in accordance with the proclamation, but it had fallen under the control of the State Government, which had appointed officers from the leading families on the coast, who were known for their separatist leanings. The Commandant’s first act, therefore, was to call upon the Premier to cease all interference and to assist him to re-establish Commonwealth authority. In reply the Cabinet insisted, before everything else, on a guarantee that the constitution would be respected in all particulars. Colonel Ireton declared that such an undertaking was outside his department.
Immediately the cry of Federal insolence was raised. Another debate took place in the Assembly, the Premier calling attention to the fact that the arbitrary resolution of the late Federal Parliament had removed legal means of safeguarding the constitutional rights of the State. Other speakers complained that nothing had been done to strengthen local fortifications, although money had been poured out for such purposes in the East; that would show the danger of trusting entirely to the Commonwealth rulers for the defence of the State. The outcome was another resolution affirming the need that Western Australians should remain masters in their own house, and authorizing the Premier to retain control of the army unless constitutional guarantees were given.
Colonel Ireton received due information of this decision together with the intimation that the local forces would be organized on Federal lines, to which end his advice would be welcome. Moreover, he was assured that the troops would always act in harmony with the Federal army, provided that there would be no demands the fulfilment of which would leave the State defenceless. This was a plain hint that the local levies would not serve outside West Australia. The Colonel refused to recognize restrictions. He boldly proceeded to Perth barracks and appealed to the patriotism of the rank and file. His antagonists evidently did not care to employ personal violence against him. But they hit upon a means much more effectual and insulting. The soldiers were ordered out of his presence by their own officers and marched off rifle on shoulder, leaving him in possession of the empty building.
The Commandant, in a towering rage, wired a detailed account of the affront to Melbourne. It made a profound impression there, and from that moment, probably, may be dated the triumph of Extremist policy against the obstinate State.
He was instructed by telegraph to allow nothing to stand in his way, and to seize control of the militia at all hazards. It was simply to be insistent from a safe distance. The Colonel could not help noticing how fierce passions were being worked up. Harsh measures, he knew, would precipitate a crisis. He was not merely a military man, but a patriot. And it caused him intense pain to think that his actions might end in bloodshed. For two days he tried to come to a friendly understanding by a judicious use of private persuasion. But he was quite unsuccessful. Even Labour men and advanced Radicals, who had the reputation of being staunch Federalists, held aloof. For the issue was no longer theoretic. By the resolution of the late Parliament, and by subsequent developments in the East, the Commonwealth rulers had shown disrespect of constitutional obligations. Whatever their private opinions were as to the necessity, or otherwise, of this policy, Western Australians, within the circle of influence of the local authorities, now drew together in defence of their State. History repeats itself. It was the same thing in America fifty years ago. There, in the southern parts, many citizens lived, whose hearts were with the north for the abolition of negro slavery. Yet, when the call to arms sounded, they enlisted loyally under Confederate colours, in the cause of their home states against overbearing Washington. Matters were not advanced so far in Western Australia, but the current ran already in that direction.
Colonel Ireton recognized that his mission on the coast had failed. He could do nothing there. The naval detachment on board ss. Katoomba was not under his direct orders, and in any case too weak to be of any use. For a moment he thought of throwing up his commission. But that would merely have meant his professional ruin. Australia had no need of men in high positions who lost heart in a crisis. Moreover, his retirement would not improve the outlook. On the contrary, it would probably increase the madness of the State-Righters, There was still one chance for the Commandant — the miners of the interior were true Federalists. If he could get away to the goldfields, he might win their allegiance and, by training them to war, overawe the coast.
To gain time, and to throw his enemies off the scent — for they closely watched him — he fell ill. Nothing could have pleased the local authorities better, since it allowed them to postpone harsh measures while they quietly strengthened their hold on the masses. Colonel Ireton sent for the commander of ss. Katoomba, a naval lieutenant born in South Australia, whom he trusted and with whose assistance the escape was arranged. It was certain that, as soon as it became known in Perth that the Colonel was in the interior, his telegraphic connexion with headquarters would be interrupted. For this reason he wished to take with him the wireless apparatus fitted on the Katoomba as well as two experts to work it. As for the electricity required Kalgoorlie would not miss it.
The young lieutenant played his part well. Colonel Ireton got worse and worse, so bad, in fact, that he could not receive visitors for several days. Long cyphergrams were exchanged with Melbourne, but, under the circumstances, no suspicions were aroused. The two experts, with the wireless apparatus, left by rail, in ordinary garb, without attracting any attention. And on August 21, after the arrival of the mail steamer from Europe, a middle-aged gentleman of commercial aspect booked passage to Kalgoorlie by first train. It was the Colonel! SS. Katoomba remained in port for the best part of another week. Then she, too, steamed away. The entire Federal establishment on the West coast, which was looked upon with so much hatred and annoyance, had vanished suddenly.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909