My Life in Two Hemispheres/Chapter 24

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CHAPTER III


IN THE NEW PARLIAMENT


New Year's Day Levée—Opening of Parliament—The method in which the Governor should communicate with Parliament determined—Bill abolishing Property Qualification carried—Select Committee on Federation of the Colonies—Its proposal successful everywhere but in New South Wales—Controversy on the orderly conduct of Parliamentary business—Six cases cited—Errors in building the Victorian Parliament House—Motion respecting Cross Benches—Establishment of Municipal Franchise—Mr. Childers and Mr. Stawell appointed to permanent offices—Fall of the Haines Government—Mr. O'Shanassy commissioned to form an Administration—How the new Government was constituted.


The making of Victoria now commenced, and I need not hesitate to say that for a quarter of a century I took as large a share as any man living or dead in that reproductive work. But I am not writing the history of the colony, or of its party conflicts, but my personal memoirs, and I will concern myself only with transactions in which I was engaged, and which had some permanent consequences, or which illustrate significantly the condition or growth of the country. Before the session commenced the Governor, who was now Sir Henry Barkly, held a levée of which I find a note in my diary:—

"The New Year and the new Governor held a joint levée to-day. 'Full dress' in Melbourne means anything from the silk stocking, buckled shoes, and unexceptional toilet of the Speaker, to the soiled white trousers and vest of old P——, and his cocked hat, of the class long abandoned to coachmen and Leprechauns. He was the most ludicrous figure there, and made one rejoice he has got promoted out of the assembly. The Governor looks a fairly good figurehead of the State ship, and if the engineer and sailing master have the needful skill, we shall have a prosperous voyage." The new Parliament opened with whatever ceremony and state the colony could furnish. The day was proclaimed a holiday; the soldiers of the 4ist Regiment, the Volunteer Artillery, and Rifles were drawn out. Flags and banners streamed from the houses in the line of procession, bands enlivened the scene. The Corporation, headed by the Mayor, the Judges in their robes, the Town Councillors in their uniforms, the Foreign Consuls looking as like Ambassadors as they could contrive to do, and the Governor, accompanied by a staff, and escorted by volunteer cavalry, arrived at a Chamber crowded with ladies. The military display was very unparliamentary, but this was a harmless blunder: a more serious one fixing the relation of the House to the Executive Government followed. The Chief Secretary announced that the Governor when he reached the Council would "command" the attendance of our House. The Speaker sent the Clerk to me with a scrap of paper on which he had written, "Are we to be commanded?" I consulted O'Shanassy and Chapman, and we frankly told the official leader of the House that this phraseology could not be permitted. After some negotiation the Governor "requested" our attendance.

The Ministry were men of respectable capacity, good character, and reasonably good intentions, but some of them were very prejudiced against popular liberty, and they were all (except the Chief Secretary) responsible for a system of government on the goldfields which had fallen with a crash but was still detested. They had been appointed from Downing Street, or by a Governor nominated from Downing Street, and the current of popular sympathy ran high against them. They brought into the Chamber a larger proportion of paid officers than I have ever seen in any legislature, and they had little other steady support but from the squatters who relied upon them to protect their tenure of the public lands, and the bankers who thought they were the only bulwark against a democratic-digger Administration with which we were constantly threatened by alarmists. The Chief Secretary, Mr. Haines, had been educated at Oxford, and was designed to be a doctor, but in Australia he purchased land and settled down to the quiet life of a gentleman farmer. He was notable for a character without stain, and the cordiality which springs from a generous nature. His position in the Legislature somewhat resembled Lord Althorp's in the House of Commons. Men did not count upon him to do anything original or striking, but they were confident he would do nothing that was vicious. The mining members were at this time a third of the House, but it is a curious and suggestive fact that though men who had lived on the goldfields came to office from time to time generally one at a time, the Digger Government which appalled the minds of capitalists neither then nor ever after came into existence.[1]

It was plain to an experienced eye that there was no party organisation among the Opposition; they had elected no officers, Mr. O'Shanassy was tacitly accepted as leader, but there was no secretary to summon the party, and no Whip to secure their punctual attendance. When there are not great political passions at work the political activity of a new country is like the movements of an anthill, and the absence of permanent relations in public or private life robs it of one of the x centres round which party combinations gradually form. In other respects the meeting of the new Assembly was a pleasant surprise to me, though I had come recently from the House of Commons, and had in memory the encounters between its leaders, and the fundamental fact which is always its chief attraction, that there are men there who are experts on every subject of human interest—often men who never open their lips in debate, but can tell you, if they choose, all that it is requisite to know of the mysteries of politics, commerce, literature, and science. I was rejoiced to recognise that in this Assembly there were men who understood the interests of Australia, and, perhaps, the agencies which make a country prosperous, as well as any man in the new Palace of Westminster understood his wider range of duties. The Chamber consisted chiefly of barristers, attorneys, doctors, squatters, miners, and wholesale traders.

Shortly after this Parliament had assembled I asked the Government, who were proposing an extension of the franchise, whether they intended to accompany it by a kindred and equally urgent reform—an abolition of the property qualification for members of the Assembly. The Chief Secretary replied that they did not, and I immediately gave notice of a Bill of my own for this purpose. The reform was a very necessary one, as the qualification in Victoria was the most restricted in the world. In England, Mr. Bright had qualified out of his mill, another member out of a deposit receipt for £10,000, but in Victoria it was necessary to have an income arising out of real property situated in the colony. There was no property qualification in France, in Belgium, in the United States, or in almost any colony in the empire. Was Victoria likely to hold the foremost place she ambitioned in the march of freedom if she continued to maintain this system? It was said a member of Parliament ought to have an interest in the soil, but why, I asked, ought he? The judge, the naval or military commander, or the diplomatic agent has as serious duties to perform, but no one expected this qualification from him. A property qualification was not required in Scotland, or in English or Irish universities; it was abolished in order that competent men might not be shut out of Parliament by the want of it. This was the principle I desired to apply in Victoria. What reason was there to expect that the diggers, for example, who paid half a million to the revenue, should be owners of freehold? or the members of the learned professions? And were not both classes who ought to be in Parliament? There was another reason for desiring the reform which needed to be handled delicately, the rigid system produced, as such a system commonly does, a crop of evasions, and there were many bogus qualifications. The result of my proposal was satisfactory. A local journal of the period, the Age, says: "Apropos of Mr. Duffy and Parliamentary business, it is rather remarkable that he has been the first to lead the Opposition to victory against the Government, and the first to get a Bill carried through all its stages." This was a Bill to abolish the property qualification required by members of the Assembly. The Ministry opposed it and were defeated; but though beaten on a vital point in the Constitution they did not resign office. The most important of the provincial journals which had supported the Government up to that time declared that their inane policy in this business foreshadowed their speedy fall. The Opposition were much encouraged by this success.

The next measure I took in hand was the federation of the colonies. I proposed the appointment of a select committee to consider the necessity of federation and the best means of bringing it about.[2] The Government assented on this occasion, and the Commissioner of Customs, Mr. Childers, afterwards so well-known in the House of Commons, became a member and took a genuine interest in the question. The committee was chosen judiciously, of the twelve members ten afterwards became Ministers of State, and three of them in the fulness of time Prime Ministers. The committee consisted of:—

Mr. Gavan Duffy, Chairman.
Mr. O'Shanassy Mr Griffith
Mr. Childers Dr. Evans
Mr. Moore Mr. Marker
Mr. Michie Mr. Smye
Mr. Foster Mr. McCulloch
Mr. Horne

It will be convenient to pursue the subject at once to the end of the session. After deliberations extending over several months the Committee reported, specifying the motives for Federation, and the best method of bringing it about. The waste and delay created by competing tariffs, naturalisation laws, and land systems were exposed as well as the rival schemes of immigration, and of ocean postage, the clumsy and inefficient method of communicating with each other and with the Home Government on public business, by which so much time and force were wasted, and the distant and expensive system of judicial appeal. By becoming confederates so early in their career the Australian Colonies, it was manifest, would immensely economise their strength and resources, and each of the existing States would be enabled earlier to apply itself, without conflict or jealousy, to the special industry which its position and resources rendered most profitable. It was recommended that the colonies possessing Responsible Government should be invited to select delegates to consider the necessity of a Federal Union and the best means of accomplishing it. I submitted the report and the resolution arising out of it to the Assembly, and carried them with general assent, and they were afterwards communicated to the Legislative Council, which concurred in them. We then communicated with the other colonies. In New South Wales a Select Committee of the Legislative Council, including some of the most experienced statesmen in that colony, reported on the question generally, and recommended that the method of proceeding suggested in the Victorian Report should be adopted. They sent their report to the Legislative Assembly requesting its concurrence. In South Australia Select Committees of the two Houses accepted the invitation of Victoria, and appointed delegates to attend the proposed conference. In Tasmania a similar course was adopted, and delegates were selected. This was regarded as a triumphant success, as we had obtained the assent of all the colonies possessing Responsible Government, for Queensland had not yet come into existence, and Western Australia was a Crown colony. But there was one fatal impediment to action. The Legislative Assembly in New South Wales had not responded either to our invitation or to that of their own Legislative Council. Mr. Cowper, the Colonial Secretary, was unwilling, as my friends informed me, to allow Victoria the initiative, and we were unwilling to begin with the aid of only two small colonies. My friends, Parkes and Butler, were of opinion that Mr. Cowper would not long be an impediment, and that it would be better to wait for his successor, and this was the course we took.

I applied myself early to the task of getting the public business conducted after the method of the House of Commons. Our Constitution required us to act under British standing orders until we had framed standing orders if our own. As men going to battle first sharpen their weapons, so it seemed to me our first duty was to make Parliament, which was the weapon whereby we must defend our liberty and prosperity, as effective as possible; but the Government, to whom these formularies were new, were impatient under what they regarded as offensive tuition, though it was in fact a simple insistence on the actual law. The need of reform was urgent. In the old Council a competent critic described the proceedings as sometimes resembling a tandem, where the first horse suddenly bolts round and faces the wheeler. It was told as a good joke that when Mr. Fawkner was called to order with the cry "Chair, chair," he responded contemptuously by vociferating "Stool, stool." The pro-Government Press, however, and especially the Argus, accused me of impeding the public business, and thwarting the Government by mere pedantry. In later years the Argus has adopted the practice of the London Times with opponents—the practice of reporting them fairly and censuring them whenever it thinks fit—but at this time it was shamefully unfair, and made its reports of Parliament a vehicle of its prejudice.[3] On the question of supporting the Victorian Hansard—a reprint of the Argus—the subject of fair reporting turned up, and I took up the charge of having impeded the public business and thwarted the Government, and answered it in a manner which I can still recall with satisfaction, as it proved I had done the exact reverse. There were six cases, I said, in which the Government Press had complained of my conduct, and I would glance at them in succession.

"On the day Parliament opened I recommended that we should adopt the House of Commons practice of adjourning for two hours before taking the Governor's speech into consideration, in order to enable the Opposition to determine what course they would take in relation to it. The Government would not consent to any adjournment, and what was the consequence? Why, that they found it necessary to adjourn four-and-twenty hours a little later for the same purpose. This was the first point of practice I raised, and I need scarcely insist that it was not impeding public business to recommend a course that would have saved the waste of a day. On the second occasion the leader of the House gave notice of a motion to make five a quorum in committees, and he very graciously indicated that he did so at my suggestion. I might ask the House to consider the bearing and significance of that fact. No select committee can proceed to business in the absence of any of its members, unless a quorum has been fixed, and if I had desired, as had been shamefully alleged, to thwart the Government I had only to hold my tongue, and all the committees appointed would be paralysed until a complete attendance was obtained, but I crossed the floor, and mentioned the difficulty and its remedy to the leader of the House, and to no other person whatever. This is the course I would have taken on all similar occasions, but that on the debate on Cross Benches an arrangement unknown in the House of Commons and established here in total ignorance of Parliamentary usage, the gentlemen on the Treasury Benches took a tone of contemptuous indifference to Parliamentary usages which demanded a signal lesson, and they got the lesson they needed. Under the Parliamentary practice which we were bound by the Constitution to follow, some class of Bills must originate in Committee of the whole House, and if by mistake this form has been omitted all subsequent proceedings are void, and must be commenced again. Would any man venture to say I retarded public business by preventing Bills being carried through several stages in error, which in the end would have to be withdrawn and commenced anew? The Commissioner of Customs, in fact, did introduce a Money Bill without the necessary preliminary, and when I pointed out the consequences he silently withdrew' it and introduced it anew. One other instance is the last I would mention. On the day of the Budget speech, Mr. Michie very properly insisted that the financial statement should be made in Committee, and the Government were in consternation, as they had not yet appointed their Chairman of Ways and Means, and thought it could not be done without formal notice, and once for all. Well, how did I exhibit my propensity to impede public business and thwart the Government? I pointed out that they were entitled to move a gentleman into the chair for that occasion only, and without any previous nomination or any obligation to continue him in the office, which was immediately done, and the public business proceeded. The duty of a member of the House is sufficiently onerous without being driven in self-defence to review cases like these. I had hardly time to look hastily into the facts that day. At ten o'clock in the morning, I was sitting in a committee on the completion of Parliament House; at twelve o'clock I was sitting in a committee on the Postal System; at two o'clock in a committee on Standing Orders; at half-past three in the committee of Elections and Qualifications, and the House met at four, and sat till seven o'clock, leaving barely time to read the Parliamentary papers when I went home."

Looking back at these transactions through the serener light of experience, I cannot but admit that I was sometimes too peremptory and brusque in these controversies. I had taken a fierce part against the Administration at the General Election, and it was not easy for them to look on me with a friendly eye, a relation which ought to have suggested more courtesy and forbearance on my part. In the Parliamentary Buildings Committee, to which I have alluded, the Commissioner of Public Works produced his plan for the new Parliament Houses. I pointed out several errors in it, and one most serious one; in the House of Commons no one can enter or leave except by a single porch where the door-keeper is on duty, but the Chamber itself may be entered from the lobbies at various points. In the Victorian House it was proposed to have three entrances, and the Chamber itself was reached by folding doors on each side through which a carriage might be driven. With a little more suavity on my part these errors would no doubt have been amended, but party spirit was now awake, and the supporters of the Government on the committee thought it their duty to insist on the unamended plan. The result was that the two clumsy and useless entrances to the Chamber were locked up at my instance a few weeks after the House was occupied, and in five-and-twenty years after I never once saw them opened. The other error, of making several entrances to the House instead of one, did not admit of so easy a remedy, and during forty years the country has been paying the salary of messengers to guard entrances which ought never to have existed.

The earliest question on which the Opposition took issue with the Government was on a manifest departure from convenient Parliamentary usage, which had been the result of long experience.

The Continental legislative chambers are circular a method convenient for seeing and hearing. The seats in the House of Commons, on the contrary, are arranged for two parties, who sit face to face. But in the Victorian chamber the seats were arranged for three parties, though Responsible Government contemplates only two; there was no bar, though a bar might at any moment be necessary for the examination of witnesses or prisoners; and instead of one entrance there were four.

Under Responsible Government those entrusted with the conduct of public affairs, who must maintain a constant majority in the House, ought to have a reasonable means of estimating the number of their supporters present, which was ascertained by their position in the House. The present practice of cross benches might result in establishing a Pretorian band ready to make a majority for either party for an adequate consideration. The Government in reply offered to establish a bar, and to consider the other objections, and the motion was defeated; but after a little while all the arrangements which the Opposition objected to were silently amended as far as it was practicable.

The most important work done in the session was the establishment of a municipal system for the towns of the colony, carried through the House by Captain Clarke,[4] and a system of assisted emigration with a Chief Commissioner resident in London. This office was undertaken by Mr. Childers and developed in time into an office, entitled Agent-General with certain diplomatic functions, which has since been imitated by all the Australian colonies. Mr. Childers's retirement was a serious blow to the prestige of the Government, but when Mr. Stawell, the Attorney-General, became Chief Justice it suffered a graver loss. The official party was outnumbered by the Opposition, and in the temper of the times the fall of the Government was inevitable; it only remained uncertain which of the two or three opposition groups it had to encounter would succeed it. It fell by a chance stroke, and as Australian Governments have been scrupulous in the promptitude of resignation after defeat, Mr. Haines and his remaining colleagues immediately requested the Governor to relieve them from office.

The Governor sent for Mr. O'Shanassy and authorised him to form an Administration,[5] and as he consulted me throughout, I can speak freely of the errors which I think we committed in creating the first free government under the new Constitution. The vote against Mr. Haines was carried by the democratic opposition, eager to see new opinions in power, and by moderate, or as they were called respectable, reformers, who thought they could govern better than the men in possession on principles not widely different. Mr. O'Shanassy sought the assistance of the latter class in the first instance, but their prejudices were stronger than their convictions. Nobody had ever seen Irish Catholics in Cabinet office under the British Crown. There were French Catholics in office in Canada, and Italian Catholics in the Mediterranean possessions, but Irish nowhere, and they were not prepared to countenance so startling a novelty. He met refusals to an extent which amazed him, and he had recourse in the next instance not to the democrats, but to the remainder of the party who had declined office. He got together an Administration not deficient in ability or experience, but who represented very inadequately the spirit which overthrew the Haines Government. The new Treasurer was a man who had been Colonial Secretary before Responsible Government existed, and who had been sacrificed by Governor Hotham without any resistance by his colleagues. The Attorney-General had held office in Canada and New Zealand, and was the doyen of the new Administration. The Solicitor-General occupied a good position at the bar, and was a debater of great efficiency. The Commissioner of Lands was a solicitor in good practice; the Commissioner of Customs an old colonist of undoubted capacity and experience, but who unfortunately had not succeeded in securing the confidence of his class, and I was Minister of Public Works and Commissioner of Roads and Bridges.

The House adjourned for a month to provide for the new elections.


  1. The admission of mining members was a reform effected in the old Council; originally there were no members conferred on the goldfields.
  2. January 16, 1857.
  3. I should state that before this time Mr. Edward Wilson had relinquished the management of the Argus, appointing an editor to whom he left a free hand, but he had not lost his interest in my career, and wrote to me occasionally such notes as the following in relation to an early pre-Parliamentary speech:—

    "Argus Office.

    "My dear Sir,—It would be less than justice towards you to abstain from conveying to you a hint that your speech is very much approved of indeed by those with whom I more immediately associate. Stick to that and avoid damaging alliances, and there is an Australian future for you which will not be unworthy of a place beside your Irish past. And all this Mr. J. P. Fawkner notwithstanding.—Yours very truly,

    "Edward Wilson."

  4. Now Lieutenant-General Sir Andrew Clarke.
  5. An incident which excited a good deal of quiet laughter occurred at this time. While the new Government was in course of formation Mr. O'Shanassy and I dined with the Speaker, on an invitation issued before that event, and Mr. Haines and some of his colleagues were among the guests. The genial old habit of taking wine with any one to whom you desired to express friendly feelings still existed, and Mr. O'Shanassy directed the servant behind his chair to request that Mr. Haines would do him the favour to take wine with him. The Irish servant, who was quite agog with the good news that was current, saluted Mr. Haines, and murmured in a voice that was not inaudible, "The Chief Secretary requests you will take wine with him, sir." A general burst of laughter followed this maladroit stroke.