The Coming Colony/Chapter 10

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X.


Responsibilities of Responsible Government—A Capable Governor—The Premier, a Son of the Soil—The Leader of the Opposition—Practical Parliamentarians—A Model Speaker.


Before entering on a more detailed description of such por­tions of the vast colony of Western Australia as it was possible for me to traverse in a stay of three weeks, I will make a few general observations, suggested to me as I travelled along, on the success which has attended the introduction of responsible government, and will attempt to give your readers some idea of the feeling with which the proposal to federate with the rest of the Australian colonies is regarded in this—the Cinderella of the group. Those who fought the battle of West Australian self-government during the crucial period in which the Enabling Bill was under discussion in the British Parliament, and who assisted in obtaining its concession upon an even broader basis than was at first contemplated by some of its promoters on this side of the world, have up to date no reason to be ashamed of their attitude.

As one crosses the south-western corner from the natural harbour of the colony at Albany to its less favoured rival of Fremantle, which the exigencies of the capital and the present trend of settlement will, to all appearance, compel the local parliament to convert into the main port for ocean-going shipping, one realises what a tiny area out of the total of a million odd of square miles has yet been subdued by right of actual tillage under the constitutional sceptre wielded from Perth. Looking to the pregnant fact that there is only ·04 of a man to each square mile in Western Australia, and that the larger part of even this small population is aggregated in the close vicinity of the capital, one might be inclined to think that it would have been judicious to have adopted Sir John Forrest's suggestion, and, whilst conceding responsible government to the south-west, to have reserved a large area to the north-west, and another large area to the east, under imperial control. If such a policy would have had the effect of concentrating the attention of the publicists of the colony on the more limited area allotted to their care, such a subdivision might have proved a boon and blessing to the community, as even in the more settled districts of the south-west the resources of the country are only yet in the first stages of exploitation and development. But this was scarcely feasible in view of the immense pastoral interests held in the north-west and east by the inhabitants of what may be called "Western Australia proper," and who, whilst they would have had one hand on the plough in their own colony, would have been using the other to influence territorial legislation in the reserved areas. That Western Australia will be subdivided when its population and circumstances ap­proximate to those of Queensland does not admit of doubt, and in the mean time the interests of the inchoate states to the north­ west and east are not likely to suffer seriously under the sway of the Government at present centralised at Perth. From time immemorial the Britisher has reconciled himself to the anomalies of his own much-boasted Constitution on the plea that it "works well," and the same justification seems likely for the present to cover any blemishes in the almost excessively generous measure of self-government conceded to this colony by the Imperial Parliament last year. Hitherto, at any rate, there have been no symptoms of the wild "rush" to dissipate their territorial patrimony which was predicated of the colonists by Sir George Campbell and his supporters during the discussions on the Enabling Bill; neither has any justification been afforded for the sinister predictions indulged in as to the stop­ page of immigration under the new régime. On the contrary, there seems to be a general desire for the influx of a suitable class of immigrants—a desire which is strikingly emphasised by the fact that Western Australia has not as yet adopted the stringent policy of the other colonies in reference to the intro­duction of Chinese.

The newly launched colony has been singularly fortunate in having its infant destinies presided over by such a Governor as Sir William Robinson. His two previous terms of office have given him an intimate knowledge of the needs of the country and the personnel of its public men, to whom his wide experi­ence as one of the despised class of "professional Governors" has proved invaluable in their initiatory labours. Sir John Forrest, as he became on Queen's Birthday amidst the universal acclaim of the colony, would, I am convinced, be the first to admit that his premiership owed much—I was going to say most—of its success to the steady impetus imparted to it by Sir William Robinson's comprehensive and common-sense grasp of the minutiæ of constitutional government. The Carringtons, Onslows, Kintores, and Hopetouns may dazzle by the social brilliancy attached to their regimes, but the experience of Western Australia proves that there is still room for the tried capacity of trained officials in the colonial service. It would be unjust in the highest degree to overlook the fact that in his efforts to make the wheels of constitutional government work smoothly Sir William Robinson has been admirably seconded by the gentleman whose pride it must ever be to have been the first Prime Minister, as Sir Henry Parkes insists he should designate himself, of his native colony. A son of the soil, bred as well as born in Western Australia, Sir John Forrest's name is associated with some of the best exploration work undertaken within its almost limitless expanses. For his services in this line he was rewarded with the control of the Lands Depart­ment under the old regime, and he thus unites considerable official experience with the sturdy common sense which has been nurtured by many a feat of endurance and bushmanship. It is pleasant to remember that there is still an old settler down in Bunbury to whom his son's success is a matter of worthy pride. Mr. S. H. Parker, who was one of the delegates who championed the cause of responsible government at home last year, was regarded as Sir John Forrest's rival for the premier­ ship. He is a trained lawyer and an excellent speaker, and
Sir John Forrest, K.C.M.G., first Premier of Western Australia.jpg

Sir John Forrest, K.C.M.G.,
First Premier of Western Australia

was regarded as something more than the "rising hope" of the Conservative party in this essentially Conservative colony. His heart, however, does not seem to be in politics, and unless a man is ambitious for himself he cannot expect to have a party at his back ambitious for him.

In Mr. Septimus Burt, the Attorney-General, who went home to supervise the loan arrangements of the colony, rendered necessary by the inauguration of responsible government, the Ministry possesses one of its most weighty though withal most unassuming members. He is associated with the "first families" of the colony, and may be regarded as a standing guarantee against any financial or other extravagance on the part of the Administration, the other members of which, Messrs. Shenton, Venn, and Marmion, are men of varied colonial experience, and honestly desirous of doing their duty in the station to which they have been called. In fact the Ministry as a whole seems more likely to fall into the error of doing too much than too little. It is, no doubt, desirable that they should become familiarised with the details of the working of their respective departments. But there is reason in all things, and when once they have become "initiated" they will see the wisdom of doing less work and accepting more responsibility. There is at present no real parliamentary opposition to the Ministry, but when this becomes intensified, as it is sure to be as time goes on, no doubt the pressure of work in the House will correct any harmless tendency to fussiness in the public offices. To the Legislature of the colony praise is due equally with the Executive. High-flying notions seem as much at a discount in the Lower House as one would naturally expect to find them in the nominated Upper Chamber. The thirty members returned are of the right type, men who have proved them selves centres of light and leading in their several districts, and who in combination may be expected to do as much to advance the colony generally as they have done locally in their single capacity. The Speaker of the West Australian House of Commons, Sir James Lee Steere, is a master of precedent, and would preside as competently at St. Stephen's as he does over his thirty novices in Perth. He comes of a good old Surrey stock, and his father, who died very recently, was formerly one of the representatives of that county in the House of Commons. Sir James is a sturdy Conservative of the best sort, and acts as a brake on the wheel of Western Australian go­-aheadism with a straightforwardness and steadiness which stamp him as a true Englishman as well as an invaluable colonist.