History of West Australia/Harry Whittall Venn

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THE hurly-burly of politics shows its followers in many lights. The analysis which may be made of the characters of men in other professions is impossible in this. Politics demand that a man must turn to lines of sentiment which appear inconsistent with previous actions. To retain power he must resort to means which tend rather to hide his real sentiments. The astute politician conceals his innermost thoughts, and not even his best friends recognise what he really believes. He is a sphinx, whose riddle none shall read. Hence to definitely gauge the man is very difficult, nay, almost impossible. This must be applied in its broad sense.

Harry Whittall Venn HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

Australian politics in particular exhibit many sudden changes. There are no distinct parties; except, perhaps, that newly-formed body—the Labour party—in the eastern colonies, and even individual Labour members after the lapse of a few years are often not distinguishable from others, so quickly do their political educations mould them. So rapid are the changes in public sentiment, and so many are the new forces which have to be grappled with, that in a forming community, with no definite type, one politician alternately heads several factions. It is the spasmodic growth of colonial political institutions which occasions this. Take the late Sir Henry Parkes. At one period he was the enthusiastic leader of democratic sentiment, with equally energetic and earnest opponents. A few years later he fought for measures with his erstwhile opponents, and formed new Cabinets—with them as colleagues. Sir Thomas McIlwraith in Queensland, Sir Graham Berry and the Hon. James Service in Victoria, the Hon. Thos. Playford and Sir John Downer in South Australia—and other notable Australian public men could be cited—have taken similar parts. The factions are but of a day's duration—then they die, to give place to new ones. Therefore, colleagues with but one thought to-day, five years hence are strong opponents. The history of Australian politics brings nothing in more lurid light than this. Western Australian political institutions are yet young, but already the seeds of the same growth are generating, and the future will place men at present of similar politics in sincere opposition to each other. Our colony has enjoyed Responsible Government for some seven years, and public men of one faction at the beginning of that period are now taking their proper places in different parties. In the absence of defined parties it is well that this is so, for vitality is given to political life, and questions of public moment are more likely to be thoroughly threshed out, leaving enactments suited to the general requirements. No fitter example could be found than the opposition of the Hon. H. W. Venn and Sir John Forrest. For five years these gentlemen bore the brunt and burden of inaugurating stable public departments, and did work peaceably together, which will be remembered in Western Australian history. Then some unfortunate disagreement with regard to inner administrative matters took place. They were no longer able to work together in the same Government, and they separated.

Harry Whittall Venn was born in South Australia on the 27th October, 1844 and in the second son of the late Mr. R. O. Venn, an old pioneer of the sister colony. The young Australian was educated in South Australia, and was subsequently engaged in commercial pursuits, under Ormond and Co., at Robe, S.A. When nearly twenty-one years old he sailed for Western Australia on the ship Warrier, and arrived in Fremantle in March, 1865. He immediately proceeded to the north-west coast as a member of the Denison Plains Company, and then followed years of fruitful service to the colony. In common with some of his late colleagues in the Forrest Government, he took an active part in exploration work, and in opening up new country to the squatter. The Denison Plains Company was managed by Mr. C. E. Broadhurst, and held large interests in the north-west country. Mr. Venn landed at Cossack in April, 1865, and energetically participated in the work of the company. It was not long before he was entrusted with the command of several exploring parties, which inspected the land on every side, under the auspices of the company. He explored country to the west of Roebourne, which was untouched by the explorer Gregory in 186l, and reported on its suitability for stock purposes. Then he traced the Fortescue River to its mouth, and opened up the lands on either side. Next he explored most exhaustively the Ashburton River, and named the rivers Cave and Robe, besides other prominent features of the surrounding country. All this was very valuable work for such a young man to undertake, and entailed considerable toil, with the attendant difficulties always experienced in exploring such regions. But Mr. Venn had the true colonising spirit in him, and was eager to push his way into the most difficult localities. So signal were his services in the exploration and settlement of this country that he was awarded by the Government a free stock lease of 100,000 acres on the Ashburton, and was gazetted a Justice of the Peace by Governor Weld. He became widely known in the north-west country, and will be remembered as among its finest pioneers. In 1866 he settled on the Maitland River, in a beautiful belt of country known as Karratha, and formed a sheep, cattle, and horse station. There he successfully followed grazing pursuits. In 1874 he married Charlotte, fourth daughter of the late Sir George Shenton, and sister of Sir George Shenton, president of the Western Australian Legislative Council. He remained on the Maitland for a few years, and in 1878 or 1879 purchased the Princep Park Estate, near Bunbury, and went there to reside. This is a large and valuable property, and Mr. Venn has materially increased his fortunes during the intervening years. The land under cultivation is suitable for the production of almost anything, and is also valuable for grazing cattle and sheep.

At this time Mr. Venn began to turn his attention to active politics, and having a predilection for the turgent arena, it was soon apparent that he would take no sluggish part in local government. In February, 1880, he was elected a member of the old Legislative Council against Mr. Lee-Steere—now Sir James Lee-Steere—for the Wellington division. It was evident that he possessed peculiar qualifications and useful knowledge for political work, and he was repeatedly heard in debate with effect. He continued to represent the Wellington constituency up to the final dissolution of the Crown Colony Legislative Council and the inauguration of the happier system of self-government. Then he entered the new House of Assembly for his old constituency. As showing how active Mr. Venn was during the ten years of his tenure of the seat in the Council, one or two of the matters he was interested in need only be mentioned. He was chairman of the commission appointed by the Council and the Governor to fully enquire into agricultural matters. The report he wrote on the work of this commission most exhaustively treated on the important questions at issue, and was esteemed as a valuable addition to the literature and general knowledge on the subject. He was also chairman of the commission on "rickets" (a disease in cattle), and collected useful information, and as chairman supplied an instructive report. To him is due a lion's share of the credit of the initiating of the agitations which finally resulted in Responsible Government. Agitations had previously existed without effect until he took the first active steps to secure this supreme concession from the Imperial Government. Throughout the whole course of the agitations he was most prominent, and when the Constitution Act became law and the new Parliaments were elected, he most properly held a place in the pioneer Government which inaugurated autonomy. With Sir John Forrest as Premier, and Sir George Shenton, Messrs. Burt and Marmion as colleagues, he became the first Commissioner of Railways and Director of Public Works. Perhaps the work of these gentlemen is not fully appreciated, but in times to come their unique position will receive that notice which is their due.

Immediately on taking office the Hon. H. V. Venn reorganised the Railway Service—which was really little better than a tramway system—and formulated new regulations for the guidance of the staff. During his term of office he promoted and carried out many salutory reforms in the Works and Railway Departments. As Director of Public Works he personally inspected the harbours of the north-west coast, and designed the excellent facilities for shipping fat stock at Wyndham and Derby. These are allowed to be among the best and most successful arrangements of their kind in Australasia. He also initiated and completed the scheme of a retail market in Perth. In the development of the Collie coal resources he rendered services which will secure him lasting approbation. By his untiring energy and his unflinching faith in the potentialities of these fields, every facility was given for their being comprehensively exploited. His determination influenced the Government and Parliament in voting money for the construction of the Collie Railway. The Collie coal fields found in him one of their most ardent supporters and an energetic pioneer. Mr. Venn was chairman of the committee which took evidence on the feasibility of constructing extensive harbour works at Fremantle. He took a leading part in this question, and successfully combated the views of other members of the Government, who favoured the Owen's anchorage scheme, but he secured the espousal of Mr. O'Connor's views for the construction of extensive moles and other harbour works at the mouth of the Swan. The Government, after finally accepting the plans of the latter, had the provisionary measure passed through Parliament and already much advance has been made in the construction of these gigantic works. Mr. Venn was largely instrumental in securing the removal of the Government workshop from Fremantle to Midland Junction, and his effective speech in Parliament had a material influence over the votes of members. He as Commissioner of Railways also authorised the construction of the Coolgardie Railway and railways to other centres.

On more than one occasion during his useful five years term of office, Mr. Venn was brought into collision with the Premier, Sir John Forrest, in questions of procedure and administration, and the climax came in March, 1896. The colony had expanded phenomenally during this period, and the different departments were tested to their utmost, but none more than the Railways. The traffic suddenly became so large that the rolling stock in the possession of the Government was insufficient to meet the demand. In the beginning of 1896 the congestion was such that large popular demonstrations and indignant remonstrances greeted the Government from every side. Newspapers were severe in their criticisms, and seemed to consider that the Cabinet should have been cognisant twelve months beforehand of an expansion, probably unparalleled in the history of Australia. A serious disagreement took place on this question between Sir John Forrest and Mr. Venn, the political head of the railways. From statements since published it would seem that Mr. Venn proposed in 1894 to expend a certain sum of money in the purchase of increased rolling stock, but the Government would not agree to grant him the sum he asked. The railways being pushed forward to the goldfields called into requisition much rolling stock, and the sum provided was insufficient to cope with the demand, and the serving of the older railways at the same time. This was explained by Mr. Venn by contending that had the sum asked for in 1894 by him and his officers been granted by the Treasurer, Sir John Forrest, and included in the Loan Bill of 1894, a rolling stock sufficient to meet the requirements of 1895-6 would have been in the colony and difficulties would not have arisen. Sir John Forrest, according to Hansard, stated in his speech on the Loan Bill that he could not see his way clear to increase the amount for rolling stock, which he admitted was asked for by the Commissioner for Railways, giving reasons which seemed to him conclusive. In face of this when Sir John Forrest replied to a statement, made by a business gentleman at a public meeting held in Perth to consider the question, which was published in the West Australian, Mr. Venn considered that Sir John discredited him and his department, and at once published a rejoinder. A most unfortunate breach took place between the two honourable gentlemen, and Sir John requested Mr. Venn to resign, and, when he did not immediately do so, giving as his reason his wish to first vindicate himself by means of documents in his department, the Premier approached the Governor, and Mr. Venn was relieved from office.

An important political question was thus opened up as to the reserved power of Premiers. Mr. Venn accused Sir John of caprice, and of taking a step unique in constitutional law, when the attendant circumstances were taken into consideration. Mr. Venn held a high and responsible position under Constitutional Government. He conferred years of useful service on his country; and internal disagreement which was brought before the public by extraneous means, left a doubt as to which gentleman was in the wrong. It may be assumed that the Premier has power to relieve his Government of any unruly Minister. Todd, the eminent authority, in vol. II., page 198, says: "The position of the Prime Minister toward the Cabinet is peculiar; although he is head of the Administration, and necessarily its most important and influential member, yet he meets his colleagues in Council upon a footing of perfect equality. At the meetings of Cabinet the only one who has precedence is, in fact, the President of the Council; but inasmuch as the entire responsibility for the Government devolves on the First Minister of the Crown, he naturally must possess a degree of weight and authority in Council, which is not shared by any other member; ordinary questions may be put to the vote and decided by a majority adverse to the opinion of the Prime Minister, but if he chooses, he may insist upon Cabinet dealing in any matter in accordance with his own particular views, otherwise he has the power by his own resignation of office to dissolve the Ministry. In cases of irreconcilable differences with his colleagues he may require the resignation or a dissolution of the Cabinet. But it is not usual for the Prime Minister to proceed to extremity with the Cabinet until he is convinced that there is no other alternative between enforcing the adoption of his views and his retirement from office. For a compromise is the natural result of all differences between men in official stations and a Constitutional Government—it is even so when they are not co-equal in authority."

This statement applies to a ministry collectively, and the exponents of Mr. Venn's rights maintain that if the differences were irreconcilable between him and the Premier, the latter should have asked for his resignation, failing which he should have done all in his power to bring about an adjustment of the differences by compromise. Todd mentions no word about summary dismissal—an extremity which would not apparently be exercised except in eases of treason or fraud. Mr. Venn held that his case was not on all-fours with that of Lord Palmerston when he was dismissed from office by Lord John Russell in 1851, for neglect of royal instructions. Moreover, Lord Palmerston was not dismissed until after his Chief wrote him a letter pointing out his irregularity, and called on him for an explanation or written statement, and delayed taking any action until that statement was in his hands, and even then did not proceed to extremity for some days.

Mr. Venn and his political friends affirm that the procedure in his case was quite different. Sir John Forrest made a statement to the press which Mr. Venn conceived to be incorrect, and which, inferentially, reflected upon him and his department. He thought that at that period of strong public feeling with regard to the railways, the Premier should have defended his colleague, and admitted that the Government in 1894 was not prepared to grant all the supplies for rolling stock asked for by Mr. Venn. Mr. Venn was irritated, and perhaps too hastily published a rejoinder in the press, in the form of part of a copy of memorandum previously sent to Sir John, which embodied Mr. Venn's views on the whole question of rolling stock. In this Mr. Venn alluded to the Premier's want of loyalty to himself. After a few days, and when a metropolitan newspaper had animadverted on the matter, Sir John called upon Mr. Venn to resign forthwith. Logically, Mr. Venn's position as a colleague of Sir John Forrest was untenable after the publication of his memorandum, and he doubtless intended to resign the moment his written defence reached the Cabinet. Indeed, putting aside compromise, two courses must follow: either that Mr. Venn must resign, or that Sir John must dissolve his Cabinet and reconstruct. The two gentlemen were tried friends, who had honourably laboured side by side for five years, but in a moment they were face to face behind a public barrier. Mr. Venn conceived that Sir John broke the unwritten law of Cabinets when he published his defence without consulting his Cabinet or his colleague, and considered that the Premier had practically abandoned him at a most critical juncture, when serious statements were being circulated as to the administration of the railways. This was Mr. Venn's justification for defending himself. He accused Sir John of personal feeling, and of seeking to preserve himself, and would not at once resign until he had made his written statement to the Cabinet in justification of his action. It was thought by some that the Governor should have encouraged an interview with Mr. Venn and seek his resignation by wise and friendly counsel, rather than go to full lengths without hearing Mr. Venn on the matter. Mr. Venn subsequently stated that after few days when he had laid his case before the Cabinet he would have undoubtedly resigned.

Perhaps a Premier under a constitutional Government should have the power to dismiss a colleague in extreme circumstances, but it is a dangerous procedure, and could be used so arbitrarily as to banefully influence public life. A policy of temporising might be better.

To turn from this difficulty it is pleasant to observe that the Hon. H. W. Venn has not wasted many days in contributing to the general weal of Western Australia. Whether in explorations and grazing pursuits or in politics, he has done his best, and acted in accordance with what he considered the true interests of the country. Throughout his Parliamentary career he evinced laudable activity, and his several years' term of office as Commissioner of Railways and Director of Public Works will redound to the advantage cf the colony and to his own credit. He was the first to inaugurate Responsible Government in those State Departments, and is among the best pioneers of Western Australia, and being yet in the prime of life and full of mental activity he should wield a future influence over local political life. He is at all times respected for his integrity and fearless independence of thought and action.