SYDNEY, Feb. 19 1901
THE NEW COMMONWEALTH.
THE AUSTRALIAN PRESS.
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.
SYDNEY, Feb. 19 1901; Mar. 26 1901.
The date of the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York having been determined, it has become possible to fix the Federal election day for the end of March. We have something less than six weeks within which to decide our policy for the next few years, yet it must be confessed that so far the great public is manifesting but a languid interest in its promulgation. We are nightly assured by sundry speakers that the political world is shaken to its very foundations, and that undreamed-of perils surround us, but “the Man in the Street” keeps his equilibrium during his passage to and from his business with a happy unconsciousness that anything particular is taking or is likely to take place. But for the fact that the newspapers have begun to bristle with headlines and to crowd their columns with epitomes of candidates’ speeches the bulk of the community would be able to ignore altogether the contest that is in progress. The weather may have had something to do with the flabbiness of party spirit, though we have had crowded meetings for Mr. Barton and Mr. Reid even while we sweltered day and night. Though an excitable people in our inflammatory season, and beginning a new era in politics, we are apparently as phlegmatic as our progenitors of the Georgian Era are reputed to have been until “Wilkes and Liberty” aroused them.
OLD CRIES AND OLD INVECTIVES.
The masses are not yet alive to the transformation and extension of boundaries which have recently taken place. Old cries, old programmes, and old invectives are felt to have become somewhat out of date. We have not yet got the new. The many will remain unmoved until their sentiments or imaginations have been touched or their party spirit brought into play. At present we lie in the doldrums. The electoral organisations on both sides seem defective, and though it is too early to assume that they will continue to slumber, it appears certain that they will remain provincial. They are still strictly limited within the several States, and co-operate in a very slight degree across their borders. Mr. Barton replied to his critics effectively in the Town Hall ten days ago, but immediately afterwards vanished beyond our horizon to speak at Adelaide and Melbourne. Reports of his speeches are telegraphed, but fail to interest us. He has formed a National Liberal Association here, which is, after all, nothing more than the old Protectionist Association strengthened by his personal following. The Free Trade Association, much more numerous and influential, has been somewhat paralysed by internal differences. Mr. Wise, having been cast out, is being fought in the constituency he contested. The remainder of the leaders gathered together under Mr. Reid’s standard accept his supremacy with misgivings. Sir William McMillan is in the field for Wentworth, Mr. Bruce Smith for Parkes, and Mr. Ashton for the Riverina, but the first two are considered unduly Conservative by their chief, and he has despatched Mr. Bruce Smith to fight what is almost a forlorn hope. Other seniors have declined to follow his example, under a painful suspicion that Mr. Reid’s anxiety is much less for their return than for his own comfort, which he is suspected of seeking by ensuring the election of the most docile among his followers at the expense of the abler and more independent. Until party discipline asserts itself the powerful and hitherto victorious Free Trade Party will be hamstrung. As in State elections, we depend on our journals to bring us into line. That public feeling does not degenerate into utter indifference is due at present wholly and solely to the Press.
Australia’s two conditions of population are contrasts, yet both combine to increase the authority of her newspapers. The concentration of nearly half of her people in the sea-board cities, which are our State capitals, assures the large circulations which enable them to reach a high pitch of mechanical skill, and to maintain what must be reckoned in these remote latitudes a high average standard of literary merit. In the bush, on the other hand, the sparseness of the population and the distances which separate the settlers make the newspapers all-important messengers of civilisation. There it is impossible for the powerful platform speaker to find meetings of sufficient size to evoke his best efforts, while in the towns the small proportion which hears as compared with the numbers of people who read his speeches make him almost absolutely dependent on the reports he receives. Fairly impartial at most seasons, our journals at election times make little pretence to be judicial, though the various rival interests are discussed with vigour. Our papers are few in number, and relatively affect very large circles of readers. Of course, they follow public opinion whenever it declares itself, but within certain limits they guide it much as they please. The Sydney situation is so far reversed in Victoria that the Age represents the Protectionist Radicalism of the majority, as does the Advertiser in South Australia; the Argus in Melbourne and the Register in Adelaide make an excellent fight against them for the Free Trade minority. In Brisbane, Perth, and Hobart the chief journals are less positive in their policy, but little less influential. Everywhere in Australia the Press is in the ascendant. Speaking broadly, all the leading papers are above suspicion of corruption, and all enjoy a public esteem and confidence well warranted by the integrity of their past.
“THE PRIEST OF THE FUTURE.”
It must be admitted that in this State the free carriage of newspapers through the Post Office is a real and valuable subsidy to those published in Sydney, but at all events the advantage is shared by all of them. This valuable concession undoubtedly assists to enhance their influence. With us democracy gives to every man, and in some States to every woman, one vote, and one vote only. It thus establishes the authority of the papers, which are usually the chief sources of information and instruction. Carlyle’s description of the journalist as “the Priest of the Future” would need to be amended here by making him the political leader as well. Our Commonwealth, reposing on the broadest suffrage, rests on the Press, which controls its exercise; it consists of States whose chief voice and influence are those of their principal journals; and it is therefore in almost as absolute a fashion a Federation of newspapers as of Colonies. Between the electors, from whom all authority comes, and those whom they elect to execute their behests is interposed a power which moulds both in a considerable measure according to its own ends and ideals.
PREMIERS AND CABINETS.
The Australian is quite conscious of his pupilage. He mitigates it by frequent declarations of independence which generally stop short with the utterance. There are politicians returned chiefly because they have been too fiercely handled by the papers. Even when, as in some instances, they richly deserve the censures, they arouse a certain sympathy. This is due to the general feeling that the Press needs to be occasionally warned that, after all, the public are its judges. Before a great wave of public sentiment such as was manifested in the Federal movement the most popular papers had to bow, but in the ordinary run of affairs, and particularly in the personal fortunes of politicians, they play the chief part. Yet Parliament has standards of its own, and delights when it dares to shatter a Press idol sent in to reform its procedure on some impracticable plan of literary manufacture. But in most cases, though sulkily, our representatives obey the behests of the Press. The net result is that, while the creature of public opinion, the Australian Press is largely its creator, and that in the political world it is often the maker of Premiers and destroyer of Cabinets. So it comes about that the Federal election is being fought rather by and in the journals than on the platform. Ministry and Opposition are face to face and exchange metaphorical blows, while Mr. Barton and Mr. Reid attract a good deal of attention by their intermittent duel, but the fate of the battle is chiefly determined by the intervention of our papers.
THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS.
The journals, like the Homeric deities, descend into the confused contest delivering deadly blows among the combatants, while they themselves enjoy comfortable immunity from serious injury. The result of the coming Commonwealth elections will depend on whether our Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, and the Evening News can secure a larger majority for Free Trade in this State than the Age, the Advertiser, and the Bulletin can whip up for Protection in Victoria, South Australia, and the country districts of New South Wales. The new dispensation, like any other, will hereafter be judged by its fruits. The Press will be mainly responsible for the start we are making in our new national life and probably for the path we pursue in the future.