SYDNEY, Feb. 26 1901



SYDNEY, Feb. 26 1901; Apr. 2 1901.

The Commonwealth is beginning by disappoint­ing its best friends. All our idealists were Federalists, and they are now suffering their first disillusions. Much is still possible within the next month, for we are accustomed to rapid elec­tioneering rallies, but at the moment the outlook is depressing. Our first shock has come with the publication of the lists of candidates for the Federal Parliament. These are either our old hacks or colts of no better quality. Our local politicians have commanded little respect in New South Wales. Sir Henry Parkes stood out above the majority of his associates as Gulliver did among the Liliputians. His disciples, though none of them of the same build or bulk, have loomed large by contrast with the remainder, and they continue to do so among the crowd of candidates for the Federal Legislature.


One of the most frequent anticipations indulged by the advocates of union was that we should find a much better class of men than the States had ever attracted coming forward to contest seats in the Commonwealth Houses. This hope is now dissipating. We require six Senators, and about a score of aspirants have presented themselves. Half of these, though unknown to fame, are obviously in no sense superior to the men who have been representing us during our days of disunion. They lack experience, of course, but also much else neces­sary to qualify them for the posts they are seeking. The other half, who are known, are most of them notoriously undesirable. There are not three prominent and reputable men among them. The same dearth of competency is said to exist in the sister States, except in South Australia, where the strongest men are aiming at the Senate. As a whole, however, this body, from which so much was expected, is apparently likely to prove as feeble in its units as any of our old Upper Chambers. It was intended to be the bulwark of the Constitution and of State rights, but it will be difficult indeed to build anything worthy of the name out of bul­rushes.


Our aspirants for the House of Representatives mainly consist of members of our State Parliament, present or past. They are distinctly superior to those who are offering themselves for the Senate; but they are the same “old hands” from whom we have been looking for an escape when a Federal policy is submitted to us. The only change is that now they are required to occupy both fields. No other candidates of distinction are offering themselves. The result is that we are simply dividing our old stagers into two parts, one of which will continue with diminished numbers to control the State, while the other will represent us in the Federal Houses. Appar­ently we are not to secure any reinforcement of our political forces in either sphere. We are to attempt the greater tasks before us under the guidance of a section of those who have certainly not proved more than capable of managing in the narrower area in which they have graduated.


Already some of the most effective among them-Mr. Want, K.C., Mr. Carruthers, Mr. See, and Mr. Suttor-are preferring to remain in the local Parliament. Dr. Cullen, M.L.C., plainly putting what many find, has frankly declined to stand, because were he elected his absence in Melbourne during the sessions must cost him his professional connection at the Bar. Most business men decline to face the electors for a similar reason. We have practically no leisured class. Few of our wealthy men have any ambition to serve their fellow citizens. The strong prefer to make more money and the weak to enjoy spending what they have. The £400 a year to be paid to members is attractive only to those who live by their hands until they are chosen by their comrades to be Labour representatives. Their election costs them nothing, and they live luxuriously on the allotted income. To all others the cost of winning and retaining a seat must absorb more than they receive, without reckoning their loss of time, energy, and earning power while dis­charging public duties at a great distance from their homes. The House of Representatives in its turn, though probably more able than any single State Assembly, will not be noticeably superior, and relatively may prove less qualified for fulfilling its far more onerous functions.


The other feature of the election so far is the apathy displayed by the general public, partly, perhaps, because of the want of men strong enough to arouse them to a sense of their civic obligations. Mr. Barton and Mr. Reid continue to hold successful meetings and to be cheered by their following whenever they appear. Those who attend these demonstrations are the men who love politi­cal debate and excitement for their own sakes, or who are genuinely interested in some pending issue. The mass of the people remain inert and indifferent. When Mr. Reid and Mr. Wise criticise one another in vigorous language there is a tem­porary revival of interest and a crowd gathers as it might at a street brawl. Beneath the surface the currents of feeling are so far indistinguishable. Judging by Sydney itself the success of the Free Trade Party is assured. It is doubtful if even Mr. Barton’s personal popularity will enable his sup­porters to secure a single seat in or around the Metropolis. In the country districts also the reports are most encouraging, and New South Wales seems certain to send in a large majority in favour of Mr. Reid. Victoria, it is assumed, will at least provide a Ministerial following large enough to balance ours, so that the fate of the Government may be determined in the other States. Western Australia and Tasmania are likely to adopt our view, and we are not unhopeful of either Queensland or South Australia, though the men they will approve will not be strong partisans of either fiscal doctrine. At all events these are the anticipations of the best informed Free Traders since Sir W. McMillan, Mr. Bruce Smith, and Mr. Ashton have openly avowed their allegiance. It means a narrow majority for one side.


In such an unstable situation the versatility of Mr. Reid places him in such a position that, even if the numbers be at the outset somewhat against him, an early accession to power is confidently predicted for him. When he is once in office his fertility of resource ought to secure for him a tenure of considerable duration. The one factor of which the operation is uncertain, and the greatest of all, is the extent of the public interest displayed. Probably before polling day a sense of responsibility will have been aroused which will enable these forecasts to be realised. Owing, however, to the immense area covered by the constituencies and our little real knowledge of the sentiments of the other Colonies this is even more uncertain than political prophecies usually are. If the poll be light anywhere or everywhere, the most unlooked-for results may follow—one or the other of the parties may sweep the whole or parts of the field. Better organised, better supplied with funds, and better led, the Free Traders are naturally in better heart than the Ministry and more confident of victory.


The most disturbing element in local politics of late years has been the Labour vote, though at times it has been less prominent than the rivalries of Orange and Green. The wage-earners constitute a majority in most constituencies. In the city the merchant is hopelessly outnumbered by his clerks and draymen; in the suburb in which he resides he is outvoted by his coachman, groom, and gardener; while in the interior the owner or manager of a station counts for no more than any one of his boundary riders, “rouseabouts”, or bullock drivers. The squatting districts of the far north are all carried by the Labour vote, and it is only where an agricultural population settles that these extravagances are rejected. If the working classes were not divided among themselves they would be all-powerful in the towns, for their platform is selfish and their discipline is admirable. They constitute a caste in politics, and refuse to support representatives who have not been selected from among their own numbers. The consequence is that their members are rarely men of sufficient ability to acquire a Parliamentary status. They help to demoralise politics by bartering their tally of votes for concessions to their class and by their indifference to all other issues. As yet they have never been able to hold the reins of power for any effective period. The Queensland Labour Party did so for a day or two not long since, but nowhere else have they succeeded in accomplishing anything beyond the capture of a seat or two in the Cabinets of Victoria and South Australia. As social legislation has not been transferred to the Commonwealth they have been unable to enounce their customary programme shaped solely in their own interests, but they have nevertheless named their candidates, and they trust to the solidarity of sentiment among their voters to place them in the House. They count on a dozen seats in the popular Chamber and almost as many more in the Senate. Should they succeed in this, and come to hold the balance of power, a most unhappy condition of affairs might be the result.


The Conyngham divorce case is set down for hearing about the middle of March, and its implications may decide Ultra-Protestants in New South Wales to go to the poll against Roman Catholic candidates without regard to their political views. In this case the Ministry is likely to suffer more than the Free Traders because of Mr. Reid’s recent politic alliance with the Orange organisation. Allowing for possible diversions of votes by the Labour or sectarian influences, the fiscal issue will still remain that on which the main verdict will be given, though it is possible that it may be con­fused to some extent by the intrusion of these extraneous factors. In New South Wales they cannot prevent and may assist Mr. Reid’s triumph, for he is on friendly terms with both of them. Elsewhere it is supposed that, at all events, they will not be antagonistic. There are constant rumours that the farmers in Victoria and South Australia and the miners in Western Australia are at last in revolt against Protection, but it is impossible to test their authenticity from here, if it be possible in those States.


It seems clear, therefore, that nothing but an unaccountable apathy can defeat the Free Trade policy and its powerful propaganda. In any case we are certain to have a Federal Parliament below the standard we had set up for it, a House of Representatives consisting almost wholly of practised State politicians, many of them still strictly provincial in their views, who will probably overawe a Senate of weaker and less experienced men as local in their views and less influen­tial in their personalities. Together they will surpass any of our State Legislatures, but not so much as their work surpasses that which they have hitherto transacted fairly well. Really national representatives, national leaders, and a national policy have yet to emerge. Mr. Barton or Mr. Reid may prove equal to the situation, but their fitness has still to be demonstrated. The best that we can hope for is that we may make some kind of start onwards when our first Parliament, elected on the 29th and 30th of March, shall be opened in Melbourne on May 9 by the Heir to the Throne in the name of the Sovereign and under the eyes of the Empire.

« Previous | Next »

Prime Minister