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Title: The Troubles Of Australian Federation
Author: G. B. Barton
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eBook No.: 0607041.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

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The Troubles Of Australian Federation
G. B. Barton

THE Commonwealth of Australia has been inaugurated in Sydney with all
the pride, pomp, and circumstance that can be brought to bear on the
occasion. The Earl of Hopetoun, first of a long line of Governors-
General, was welcomed on his official landing on the shores of Port
Jackson by hundreds of thousands of people gathered together from all
parts of this Continent, and from many other corners of the British
dominions. For some time prior to the event the mighty task of
devising the most appropriate forms, functions, and ceremonies,
without regard to expense, had absorbed the energies of the Government
of New South Wales, aided by a Parliamentary and a citizens'
committee, with numerous sectional sub-committees, to say nothing of a
host of newspaper correspondents brim-full of the silliest possible
suggestions for their consideration. With all this brain-power devoted
to the simple object of constructing a gorgeous pageant, beautifying
the city of Sydney, and providing a round of entertainments during the
first week of the year, it would have been strange indeed if the
spectacle then presented did not rival a Venetian carnival.

One of the most attractive features in the programme will be
contributed by the Imperial Government.

The Duke of York will visit Australia for the special purpose of
opening the first session of the Federal Parliament, and a select body
of troops, to the number of 1,000, chosen from the finest regiments in
the army, and representing every branch of the service, will form His
Royal Highness's guard of honour.

These troops formed part of the procession through the streets of
Sydney on the day of the Earl's official landing; and they were joined
on the march by representative troops from all the federated colonies,
from New Zealand, and also from Canada, including those who have
served with so much distinction in South Africa. The Royal Navy will
also be well represented. In addition to the ships of war forming the
Australian fleet, and the auxiliary squadron, there will be first-
class cruisers and battleships.

Theatrical displays have an irresistible charm for the multitude, of
course, and the multitude will be enthusiastically pleased. But it is
not a cheerful reflection for the student of politics that all this
concentration of thought, power, and purpose, to say nothing of the
money, should be devoted to the single object of amusing a vast crowd
of sightseers. If only a tithe of it were employed on the solution of
the many political problems which lie in wait for the statesmen of the
Federation, there might be something to show for it in the end. The
three primary questions-the Federal tariff, the Federal capital, and
the Federal finance-are complicated enough to defy all the ingenuity
that can be brought to bear on them. As soon as the various amusements
have run out and the crowds have scattered to their home the serious
business of the Commonwealth will have to be taken in hand. When the
writs have been prepared and issued for the first elections, the
people will be overwhelmed with a series of political discussions,
involving bitter party issues, for which no previous experience will
have prepared them. At the present time, for instance, I anticipate
that one of the most commonplace topics of Australian politics is the
degeneracy of the Parliaments and the general incapacity for sound and
prudent administration shown by successive Ministers. After nearly
half a century of responsible government, it is a dismal fact that it
has proved an unmistakable failure, disappointing all the hopes that
were formed of it by its founders, and entailing upon the people an
enormous load of public debt, with a corresponding burden of taxation.

There is evidence enough and to spare to show that these statements
are not unfounded generalizations. During a general election which has
just been concluded in Victoria a Melbourne daily journal of great
note as the organ of Victorian democracy published a series of "Papers
for the People," in which it reviewed the political situation of the
time. It began with an uncompromising exposure of parliamentary
degeneracy, which it attributed largely to the corrupting influence
exercised by payment of members. This system, by the way, was
introduced in Victoria mainly through the strenuous advocacy of the
journal referred to as one of the most cherished planks of the
democratic platform. The result is seen in the degraded condition of
the average member. He is described as nothing better than a greedy
professional politician, seeking every means of increasing his salary
by the fees and allowances paid to members of Boards and Royal
Commissions, appointed at his instance by subservient Ministers. His
greed for office is not less remarkable than his lust for gain. There
is such a dead level of mediocrity among the members that one man
considers himself quite as capable as another, and everyone asserts
his claim to a portfolio with absolute confidence in his own merits.
The manner in which they attend to their legislative duties
corresponds exactly with the standard of parliamentary morality they
have set up. Most of them never take any pains to inform themselves on
the subjects before the House. For half the time it is in session
there is barely a quorum in attendance, and when the division bell
rings they come trooping in from the billiard-room, the refreshment
bar, the hotel across the street, the ante-rooms, or other haunts to
which they retire in order to escape a debate. The only business to
which they pay any serious attention is the town agency of their
country constituents, which includes all sorts of commissions and odd
jobs, from interviewing a Minister down to the most ordinary

Out of such materials as these it is impossible to suppose that
capable and energetic administrators of public affairs can be found.
The Government is of much the same mould and character as the
Parliament from which it is evolved.

One of its distinguishing features is its anxiety to shirk its proper
responsibility on every matter of importance by appointing a Select
Committee, a Board, or a Royal Commission to deal with it. At least
thirty instances of this kind have occurred within the last year or
two, comprising all kinds of inquiries, from Law Reform, Old Age
Pensions, and State Banks, to complaints of personal grievances and
petitions for redress. Some of these questions are manifestly such as
to require considerable technical knowledge; but that makes no
difference, they are handed over as a matter of course to men who do
not even pretend to have any knowledge of the kind. The most flagrant
case in point is that of the Railway Standing Committee, to which
Parliament has entrusted the business of reporting upon all proposals
for the construction of new lines, and also of public works generally-
say a question of water supply. The members who compose this body know
nothing of railway or civil engineering; there are no experts among
them, although they are allowed fees at the rate of 1 1s. for each
sitting, and 1 11s. 6d. for the chairman. A similar body in New South
Wales, by the way, is paid at the rate of 2 2s. for each sitting, and
3 3s. for the chairman; and sittings are adjourned from day to day so
often that the fees paid amount to a substantial salary.

This line of criticism was applied to the chief departments of the
public service, and with similar results.

Incapable administration and wasteful expenditure were found to be
their common characteristics, while the theory of parliamentary
responsibility was proved to be a sheer delusion. It is not too much
to say that these strictures might have been directed at the state of
affairs in New South Wales with equal point and accuracy. In that
colony, or State, as we may say now, the same degeneracy has shown
itself in its Parliament. Its members can hardly claim to stand on a
higher level than their neighbours, and the administration of affairs
is open to the same censure. The Parliaments of the other States may
have a better record to show; but whether they have or not, the
question arises, What is the prospect before us with respect to a
Federal Parliament?

Every country, it is said, is governed as well as it deserves to be;
and since the same electors who have deliberately returned these
corrupt and time-serving politicians to represent them will choose the
members of the Federal Parliament, is it to be supposed that they will
return men of a higher class to represent them in its two Houses?
There is no difference in the franchise, and there are no conditions
to be met by candidates other than those existing under the present
system. There is nothing to show that candidates at the Federal
elections will be materially different, in point of character and
capacity, from those who have so often hoodwinked the provincial
electors. Laws have been proposed, and will probably be passed, to
prohibit dual representation, so that no one will be allowed to hold
seats in the Federal and provincial Parliaments at the same time.
There are indications, too, that the few able and experienced men in
the latter will sever their connection with them in order to confine
their attention to Federal politics and posts of honour. That, of
course, would mean the perpetuation of provincial degeneracy.

The one thing needed in order to realize the dreams of Federal
enthusiasts is a complete revolution in the character of Australian
politics and politicians, and without that there seems very little
prospect of the new order of things being much better than the old.
The appearance of a higher order of candidates than those we have been
so long accustomed to would certainly give confidence in the future of
the Federation; but up to the present time there is no reason to
suppose that the type of representative so much needed is likely to be
seen in practice. There is a special reason for a thorough change in
the character of our representatives, and a remodelling of our
legislative methods. For nearly ten years past each of these
Parliaments has been dominated by a small section of its members,
known as the Labour Party, mostly men of the working class, elected
for the sole purpose of advocating and enforcing their class
interests. This purpose they have succeeded in effecting to their
hearts' desire. Forming a third party in the House, and acting
independently, they have held the balance of power in their hands, and
have given their support to Ministers on the single condition that
their policy is embodied in the Ministerial programme. Each Ministry
in its turn depends for its very existence on the votes of this
section. However powerful or popular a Premier may be in the country,
his position is no better than that of Faust with Mephistopheles at
his elbow.

This condition of affairs is inexpressibly degrading to Parliament and
Government alike, since both are deprived of their independence. While
it is undoubtedly right that the working classes should be represented
in the Legislature, it is not right that they should be in a position,
simply through the weakness of party government, to exercise a
controlling influence of this character over the legislation of the
country. They insist on "majority rule" as their basic principle; but,
tested by it, they form but one-sixth of the total number of electors
in New South Wales, and probably not more in the other colonies.

The largest number of representatives they have been able to return is
twenty-two in a House of 125 members. Under normal conditions their
votes would be of no great account, but when it happens, as it
generally does, that the rest of the House is about equally divided,
they hold the key of the situation, and make or unmake Ministries at
their pleasure.

And yet, despite the obvious dangers arising from the tyranny of a
class, the other sections of the community-representing as they do the
various producing and commercial interests, and consequently the
stability and prosperity of the country-cannot shake off the apathy
with which they have regarded the situation from the first. Conscious
as they must be of their own political strength if they should choose
to exert it, they prefer to remain inactive, and to leave their
representation in the hands of the professional politicians who have
consistently betrayed them. It needs only a glance at the course of
recent legislation to see the necessity for immediate action, in order
to avert the disasters with which the country is threatened. At the
dictation of the Labour Party the electoral laws have been re-cast, in
order to strip property-holders of their plural votes and establish
the principle of One Man, One Vote; the colony has been divided into
single electorates, in order to facilitate the return of democratic
candidates; and now the suffrage is about to be conferred on women, as
it has been in South Australia and Western Australia, without anything
to show that the great majority of them desire to have it. In the same
manner the system of taxation has been altered, in order to shift the
burden as much as possible from the poor to the rich. Customs' duties,
never felt to be oppressive, have been removed, and their place
supplied by land and income taxes, the latter undoubtedly
inquisitorial and obnoxious to all whose incomes exceed 200 a year.
At the same behest the laws regulating the relations of employer and
employed have been revised entirely in the interest of the latter. The
climax has now been reached in an Arbitration Bill, which proposes to
set up a court with power to enforce its awards against employers,
virtually placing them at the mercy of the trade unions, whose
liability in case of defeat is said to be mythical. Not the least of
these triumphs has been achieved by simple thumb-pressure on
Ministers. A minimum rate of seven shillings a day has been fixed as
the amount of wages to be paid to labourers on all contracts for the
public service, one result of which is that employers in the country
districts find it increasingly difficult to obtain labour.

There cannot be any cause for wonder, in the face of such facts as
these, that the leaders of this omnipotent party should openly boast
of their successes, and proclaim their intention to repeat in the
Federal Parliament the tactics which have won such victories in the
States. They have already opened their campaign in New South Wales,
where they confidently expect to secure five or six seats in the House
of Representatives, which will number seventy-six. Supposing that an
equal proportion of seats should be obtained in the other States,
their combined strength would certainly place them in a position to
hold the fate of every Federal Government in their hands. Their
programme would include, in addition to more class legislation,
several amendments in the Federal Constitution for the purpose of
enabling them to make what alteration they pleased in it by the votes
of a simple majority on a Referendum. The spirit in which they have
entered on the campaign may be seen in the words of one of their
members, in a speech delivered at a recent meeting of the Political
Labour League. He declared that "the working classes during the past
five years had shown the country that they were masters of the
situation. Prime Ministers had been taught that their lease of power
would only last with their fidelity in regard to the demands of the
workers. They had revolutionized the politics of the country. Some of
the enthusiastic advocates of the Federation Bill believed that they
were going to abolish the Labour Party, and it was the desire of that
party to defeat that object, and break down beyond restoration the old
rgime which reigned a few years ago."

A striking instance of the power exercised by this section was seen
towards the end of last year, when five out of the six Australian
Governments were displaced by their votes. Their defeat was attributed
to the anti-democratic action of the Premiers during the two
Referendum campaigns on the Federation Bill, the second of which took
place in the previous June. On both occasions there had been a violent
contest between the Democratic and Conservative forces, in which the
former suffered a severe defeat, chiefly through the influence of the
Premiers. This was especially the case in New South Wales, which
formed the battlefield of Australian democracy. The Premier of the
time (Mr. Reid) was the first to go under, and the votes which destroyed
his Government were those of the Labour Party, to whom he owed his five
years of office and his Jubilee honours. The votes were given on a
question which had nothing to do with federation; but it served the
purpose of the Democrats just as well-indeed, much better-because it
deprived their unexpected hostility of any appearance of revenge.

To understand their action, it is necessary to recollect that all
through the sittings of the Convention he acted as the advocate of
their principles, notably in connection with the provisions of the
Bill for securing "majority rule" in disputes between the two Houses,
and also on a Referendum on any proposed amendment of the
Constitution. On the former question the Convention agreed, mainly at
his instance, to a clause for the prevention of deadlocks. It provided
that, in the event of a Bill being rejected by the Senate a second
time, after an interval of three months, that body, although elected
for six years on the rotation principle, might be dissolved at the
same time as the House, elected for three; and, further, that after
their re-election a joint sitting should take place if they again
disagreed, at which the question should be decided by a three-fifths

This proposal, however, proved to be utterly distasteful to the
Democrats, who insisted that a three-fifths majority would mean the
defeat of the House on every division, and consequently of majority

To prevent such a disaster, they demanded the substitution of a simple
majority, and carried their point in the New South Wales Assembly when
the question of amendments in the Bill was under discussion.

At a conference of the Premiers held in Melbourne, in January, 1899,
at Mr. Reid's instance, to consider this and other amendments, he
endeavoured to get a simple majority in place of a three-fifths one.
The other Premiers, however, substituted an absolute majority of both
Houses, and the Bill was finally so amended.

So far from pacifying his imperious supporters, this last amendment
served only to inflame their discontent. The hubbub grew louder and
louder. "Majority rule is in danger," they cried, and as the day fixed
for the final Referendum approached, every Democrat in town and
country was adjured to vote against the Bill. At their instance a
public holiday was proclaimed, and electors' rights were issued to all
who applied for them, whether their names were on the rolls or not, in
order that "the manhood of the country" might decide the event.

Although it might seem obvious enough that the dead-lock provisions,
even with a three-fifths majority, placed the Senate at the mercy of
the House, the Democrats contended that the House would be defeated
whenever a trial of strength should take place between the two. They
worked out the sum in this fashion. Supposing that there should be six
colonies in the federation-as there are-the number of members allotted
to each would be as follows:

                  House of Representatives.   Senate.
New South Wales         26                      6
Victoria                23                      6
Queensland              10                      6
South Australia          7                      6
West Australia           5                      6
Tasmania                 5                      6

                        76                     36

Total 112

A three-fifths majority of 112 being sixty-eight, it follows that the
sixty-one members representing the two largest colonies, with a
united population of over 2,500,000, would be defeated by the fifty-one
members representing the four smaller, with a joint population of, say,
1,200,000. They would be seven votes short on a division. On the other
hand, although it is not less clear that, with an absolute majority
in place of a three-fifths one, the sixty-one members would have a
majority of ten over their fifty-one opponents, they assumed that
the representatives of the larger States would always be caught napping
by those of the smaller.

The main source of their dissatisfaction lay in the principle of equal
State representation in the Senate, undoubtedly one of the radical
defects in the Constitution. The stock arguments in its favour as a
basis of union made no impression on them. They were not reconciled to
it by the fact that the State of Nevada, with 45,000 people, has equal
voting power in the Senate of the United States with that of New York,
notwithstanding its 6,000,000 inhabitants. Majority rule is their
basic principle, and without absolute safeguards for it, they would
view with suspicion any constitution, however liberal it might be in
other respects. The fact that the island of Tasmania, with a
population of 170,000, is to enjoy the same voting strength in the
Senate as New South Wales with 1,450,000, amounts, they say, to giving
one man in the former eight times the voting power of one in the

The result of the polling at the last Referendum proved a still
bitterer pill for them. Notwithstanding their vigorous and well-
organized efforts to defeat the Bill, it had a majority of 25,000 in
New South Wales, and that majority might have been more than doubled
had it not been for the opposition of a strong Conservative section,
who objected to the financial clauses of the measure. The Labour Party
was utterly routed. The defeat was hard to endure, but it might have
been endured with some patience had it not been attributable so
largely to the double-dealing of their once-trusted leader. To grasp
the prize of the Federal Premiership, he threw all his democratic
professions to the winds, and appeared on the platform as the eloquent
and earnest champion of a measure which they regard as undermining the
first principles of democracy.

The sore humiliation from which they suffered in the defection of
their too versatile chief was not the only unpleasant experience they
had to put up with. They were equally deceived and disappointed in the
working of the Referendum. Looking upon it as an infallible weapon of
offence, they saw it easily turned against them, and used with deadly
effect against their own ranks. When it came to a trial of strength
between them and the rest of the population, they proved to be in a
hopeless minority. It was not in human nature that disappointments of
this kind should be tamely endured, still less forgotten, by fighting
politicians, and it speaks well for their organization and tactical
skill that they should have been able, in the face of such crushing
defeats, to possess their souls in patience until the whirligig of
time brought in his revenges. Now it remains to be seen whether the
Federal Parliament and Government are destined to pass under their
control, and with them the Constitution itself.


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