SYDNEY, Dec. 4 1900
THE NEW COMMONWEALTH.
DIFFICULTIES TO BE FACED.
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.
SYDNEY, Dec. 4 1900; Jan. 8 1901.
On the 1st of January the Parliament of Great Britain will be at last enabled to behold, Jove-like, the new power which has sprung full-armed from a head which is aching after even a perfunctory discussion of the future estate of its offspring. The coming new Commonwealth is already hailed as, in some sense, a portent, having discovered to a surprised Europe even in the hour of birth a fervent loyalty to her parent as unforeseen as was her capacity for service. Loyalty to herself she has yet to manifest, for up till now the artificial barriers dividing the Australian Colonies from one another have weakened their prestige and to some extent their sisterly affection for each other. Now that their forces are combined and concentrated for certain definite purposes they attain for the first time the dignity and potency of a national life, of which the future consequences are certain to be conspicuous and of permanent influence within and without their territory. Ultimately their union will be seen to have heralded within them a revolution, perhaps the more profound because entirely peaceful, but none the less a revolution, political, industrial, and social, unprecedented in colonial history. With such a prospect apparent to all onlookers or participators in the achievement, the tendency undoubtedly is to form exaggerated expectations of an immediate transformation in our circumstances which calm consideration must show to be unwarranted. Sudden as the birth will be and richly endowed as is the new-born with the amplest charter of self-government that even Great Britain has ever conceded to her off-shoots, much time and toil will be required before we can hope to actually enter and enjoy our inheritance.
The Constitution, long as it is, contains merely the framework of government, whose substance and strength must come by natural growth. Ministers will, of course, be appointed at the outset to accept the responsibility of preliminary preparations, but the Governor-General, acting on their advice, can do little more in the first three months than take charge of the Departments transferred from the States and arrange for the summoning of a Parliament. From this he will next obtain the requisite legislation providing for the proper control of the public services taken over and the creation of new Federal Departments. Gradually the High Court, the Inter-State Commission, and the High Commissioner’s office in London will be created and endowed with the means of discharging their functions. There must be a further period before statutes embodying the policy accepted by the electors can be passed and put in operation. An immense work of administrative organisation must proceed before the new centres of control are firmly established and common principles of action settled throughout the continent. Fiscal freedom lies still more in advance. The several tariffs of the Colonies now in force require to remain untouched for probably twelve months at least, and the new duties of the Federal Customs House are scarcely likely to be passed without a fierce conflict and prolonged debates.
Other causes of controversy lie thickly around. These are likely to be multiplied and rendered bitter because a considerable proportion of the electors of the Federal Parliament are not yet really allied in sentiment nor ripe for concerted action. It is to be feared that the dividing lines which must be drawn before the system of responsible government on the British model can be seen at its best will not appear at the first election, and that much confusion is likely to be occasioned by the absence of even a fairly complete understanding between the representatives who compose the earliest Parliament. These conditions and many unforeseen hindrances will in all probability exasperate the ardent Federalists, fortify the suspicions of their opponents, and disappoint impatient onlookers, especially among the class which has been described by the late Laureate as expecting all things in an hour. Summing up the position, then, it may be taken for granted that the Commonwealth will not begin its reign without much friction, much misunderstanding, and much complaint. Not even an Act of the Imperial Parliament can remove by its fiat the antagonisms of thought, aim, and situation existing among the scattered four millions of independent Australian Britons who are taking their destinies into their own hands on a far greater scale than they have been hitherto accustomed to essay. Because they are enriched by the acquisition of a Federal in addition to a State citizenship they will not be at once inspired with Federal feelings. There will be no complete break with their past. Their horizon will be wider than it was, but in all likelihood will fall far short of the actual field of influence now opened to them. The Union, as begun, will be formal and legal rather than vital. In a few years, no doubt, common interests will supply links capable of standing the strain of local divergences, and by degrees party lines will be drawn, determined, not as at present largely by geographical considerations, but by principles of national import.
DISTANCES AND AREAS.
It would be unreasonable to expect such a development at once, though why delay must be anticipated may not be plain to the Englishman who has never visited the Southern Seas. He needs at the very beginning to realise the vast distances and areas which have just been knitted together as one Dominion. Canada has her Trans-Continental Railway, but we as yet have none, and a general election with us will mean a continental campaign covering a section of the globe as large as a Presidential contest in the United States, though at present with means of inter-communication no better than it possessed forty years ago. Our population is but a coastal fringe, whose sole promise of density as yet is at the south-eastern angle. Here it is coagulated in a few capitals, containing in three of them nearly one half of the total of the peoples of three chief Colonies. Greatly preponderating in commerce, finance, and politics, even these are in most senses wide apart. It is farther from Sydney southward to Melbourne or northward to Brisbane than from John o’Groat’s to Land’s End, and nearly twice as far to Adelaide. Yet these cities are contiguous by comparison with Hobart and Rockhampton. Townsville, the rising emporium of Northern Queensland, is as remote from us in Sydney as Moscow is from London, and takes longer to reach. Perth, the centre for the south-west and west coasts, is only to be attained after a sea voyage of two thousand four hundred miles, which occupies more time than you spend in going from Charring-cross to Tobolsk. The unexplored possibilities of the north-west, lying one thousand miles beyond Perth, or by way of Thursday Island from Sydney, demand a sea voyage of nearly three thousand miles. Difficulties of communication render even these measurements more serious than they appear. For instance, as the crow flies the rich silver mines of Broken Hill are about five hundred miles from here, but, there being no direct line constructed, a visit to them necessitates a railway journey one thousand four hundred miles in length, absorbing three and a half days and three nights. To put a Ministerial programme before the cities and towns will be a herculean task. How the hamlets and immense tracts merely dotted with homesteads scores of miles apart are to be informed is a still more arduous problem. Our country districts are now often politically isolated, caring much more for railways, roads, and bridges than for any questions of policy agitating the capital and its appanages. Our agriculturists are slow to unite even with their neighbours, while pastoralists find union impossible except for certain general purposes of self-protection. The line of communication with the seaboard is the line of travel and of interest to each district. It is drawn as straight as possible to the seaboard, and almost invariably to the capital. Separated from others in their own Colony, the various districts are still less in touch as yet with those across its borders. The picture is not easy to present and very difficult to realise, and the situation is too spacious to be focussed. But it must be comprehended and remembered before the trials of the Commonwealth can be understood.
No wonder, then, that to very many in each Colony the Mother Country is nearer in thought and more frequently visited than their relations next door. The “home” ties are very strong in all colonists, and are in no small degree inherited by their children. Everywhere there is a more intimate knowledge of British politics and public men than of those of our fellow-subjects on the other side of an imaginary border line. The political system under which we have lived has connected each Colony directly with the heart of the Empire, as it has each of our provinces with the capital of the Colony, and the bulk of our commercial and financial operations have tended in the same direction. We have been in law foreign States one to the other, and did, in fact, in times past make commercial treaties with each other, just as in our later years we have waged fiscal war among ourselves and guarded our frontiers with lines of hostile Custom Houses. Each Colony has followed its own line of politics according to what it believed to be its interest. Though men of the same stock, of the same type of thought, and living, broadly speaking, in similar surroundings, our differences, small at first, have been multiplied and increased until some marked divergences have become manifest and have been gradually intensified by various rivalries. When these conditions of Antipodean life are realised it will be seen how vain would be the expectation that the prejudices of years, the ignorance which is the characteristic note of parochialism everywhere, and the inter-colonial jealousies begotten by these are to be dissipated at once by an Act of Parliament, even though drafted and adopted with the approval of the great majority of those whom it is to affect. The Commonwealth Constitution will begin to take effect on the 1st of January, but everything which could make the union it establishes more than a mere piece of political carpentry will remain to be accomplished afterwards.
Of course, there are issues on which something approaching unanimity already obtains, and these, it is gratifying to note, include what may be called the Imperial questions of the day. Australia has always been “solid”, to use an Americanism, for the maintenance of the closest relations with Great Britain. The Colonies have vied with each other in their proffer of troops for South Africa, and even continued their friendly rivalries on the field as to who should be first at the foe and last to stay his pursuit. The recent election in Victoria was signalised by the rejection of practically all the small minority of its Assembly who ventured at the outset of the war to doubt some the wisdom, some the necessity, and others the propriety of sending colonial contingents to the field. With scarcely an exception they had since recanted their opinions, and some had made themselves conspicuous by the zeal with which they supported the despatch of the later contingents. But it was of no avail. Only one of those who remained defiantly Pro-Boer retained his seat, while the half-dozen others who to a greater or lesser extent had sympathised with him were all defeated. A similar experience would have occurred in any other Colony in which a general election had been held. We are just welcoming home the first considerable body of returned Australians, and everywhere the occasion is being seized for a patriotic display. A casus belli was almost created at Albany, where the troopship Harlech Castle arrived on a Sunday, because Colonel Price, the commanding officer, declined to allow his men to land. They have been detained at Adelaide till Saturday last in order that they might receive a fitting public welcome. It proved a most successful demonstration—a march by day through streets, which were illuminated at night, and packed with eager patriots of all ages and both sexes.
“INTOXICATION OF PATRIOTISM.”
In Melbourne the demonstration was far less spectacular, because the crowds were of such volume as to be uncontrollable. In the morning the troops were allowed to reach the barracks, where they were banqueted by the Government, and in the evening were royally entertained, with two or three thousand cadets and guests, by the Mayor. But the procession, which was to have been the event of the afternoon, resulted in a rout and defeat such as the returning veterans had never suffered at the hands of their foes. They were not only surrounded, and had their ranks broken, and in some cases their arms taken from them, but they were individually embraced, chaired, cheered, and patted until all semblance of order was lost, and they were only too anxious to make their escape individually when and where they could from their too enthusiastic admirers. The masses meant well, and the telegraphed reports are filled with illustrations of an intoxication of patriotism akin to that of the never-to-be-forgotten “Mafeking Day” in London. If this passionate loyalty is a source of pride and confidence in the Mother Country the lessons of the war which provoked it are perhaps no less valuable to us than to you. Our new Defence Department, uniting all the forces of the six Colonies under one control, will have at its inception a store of experience to guide it, gained on the South African veldt, which ought to be of the utmost service when organising any expeditionary forces we may offer—as we certainly should offer them—in the event of any foreign complications in these seas. Our Naval Brigades have already won high commendation in China for their physique and equipment, and the alacrity with which they are facing the rough work of campaigning. Some day they may be able to give as good an account of themselves on the sea. We certainly have material of the best for an effective marine in our colonial shipping. In these matters the Colonies are already at one. The difficulties which surround the initiation of the Commonwealth are of local origin, and demand local solutions. These they will undoubtedly find by degrees, though they appear most numerous and formidable now to those who know them best. If our Imperial patriotism is not stronger than that which fires the attachment Australians feel to their native or adopted land, it assuredly has been more manifest and eruptive since the war. Most certainly the tasks of peace in this continent are likely to tax our local patriotism to the full before they are all accomplished, and especially during the next two years.