SYDNEY, Mar. 26 1901
THE NEW COMMONWEALTH.
DEMAND FOR MEN OF MARK.
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.
SYDNEY, Mar. 26 1901; Apr. 29 1901.
The creation of the Commonwealth, whatever may be its effect in its own sphere, has already produced in the States a condition approaching political paralysis. Nothing less than this would have rendered it possible for Sir William Lyne to continue our Premier for three months after he had accepted office in the Federal Ministry. He has only just resigned his seat for his provincial constituency within a few days of submitting himself for a Commonwealth constituency. Parting reluctantly with the State Treasurership, he remains at the head of our Administration in order that his two legal colleagues—Mr. Wise and Mr. Wood—may try their fortunes at the Federal ballot-box before surrendering their local portfolios. Then at last the reconstruction of the New South Wales Cabinet will take place, and not till then shall we recover something resembling responsible government. The last sessions of all the State Parliaments are, in regard to the progress of public business, more or less enfeebled by the shadow of impending union. Since then, in four out of the six States, we have had as Premiers men who no longer owed allegiance to those who had placed them in power and were under obligation to study the interests of the Commonwealth before those of the particular Colonies over which they persisted in presiding. New South Wales, as usual, was the greatest sinner against constitutional principles. Yet neither here nor elsewhere have the electors made any sign of resentment against this extraordinary subordination of public interests to the private convenience of a handful of politicians. The complete apathy which prevails in this connection extends apparently to the newer and higher sphere of public affairs. Even the fact that the polling which is to determine our Federal fortunes for some years to come takes place three days hence appears to arouse less interest than our own general elections have done.
THE FISCAL QUESTION.
The two States in which the fiscal struggle is least pronounced are also those in which the personal losses in their Ministries—due to the establishment of the Commonwealth—are least important. In Queensland nothing will be changed by the transference of Mr. Drake to the Postmaster-Generalship of the Union. The Cabinet has been reconstructed without any change in its policy, and is likely to remain permanently in office while the Opposition consists—as it has done for some years—of Labour extremists alone. Mr. Philp, it is true, has departed in haste for a trip to South Africa, leaving the Attorney-General, Mr. Rutledge, Acting Premier during his absence. It is questioned whether his sudden departure was occasioned by the absolute necessity for rest and change or, as is more probable, because, being a Federalist, he felt bound to support Mr. Barton, while as a Freetrader he could not oppose Mr. Reid. His voyage certainly relieves him of a somewhat embarrassing position. In Tasmania the Premier, Mr. Lewis, holds only an honorary portfolio in the Federal Government, which he will resign to Sir Philip Fysh as soon as the elections are over. Mr. Piesse, who occupies a similar position under him, will not, if successful in his Federal campaign, affect his colleagues by his withdrawal. Of party politics there are none in the island, and as Sir Edward Braddon is also seeking to enter the House of Representatives, the Opposition will be more weakened than the Cabinet by the changes. In Western Australia, too, the fiscal question is subordinate, but the personal element is supreme. Until now the only real issue has been between those who had faith in Sir John Forrest and those who had not. Throughout his whole career he has proved too astute for his opponents until he has become in a sense the political embodiment of his Colony. His departure leaves a great gap, neither his lieutenants nor his antagonists being comparable to him in business capacity or political tact. There, as in Tasmania, we shall probably witness an era of confused Parliamentary intrigue of an uneventful character, intelligible to none save those engaged in it. It may be that if the attention of the legislators be devoted to themselves their constituents will be better able to pursue in peace the even tenor of their prosperous way.
THE SUPPLY OF LEGISLATORS.
The remaining three contiguous Colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia—are, on the other hand, confronted by a crisis. They have broken absolutely with their past and are beginning a new career under fresh guidance. The withdrawal of the fiscal issue from the States dissolves most party alliances. The withdrawal of their political leaders compels them to turn to comparatively untried men. New parties will no doubt arise after a time, and leaders will be found somewhere on whom the task of organising and guiding them will devolve. But whatever happens, the old distinctions, watchwords, and organisations are gone for ever. There must be a complete break in the Parliamentary structure that has been reared. Its next storey will be carried out in an entirely different style. What our public life will be without Mr. Barton, Mr. O’Connor, and Sir William Lyne on the one side or Mr. Reid, Sir William McMillan, and Mr. Ashton, on the other, it is hard to conceive. A Protectionist (Mr. See) will head the new Government, but he can no longer sustain himself by an appeal to fiscal principles. He must seek fresh fields, and when he finds them it will be with a changed following and altered opponents. In Victoria Mr. Peacock has formed a Ministry whose most notable characteristic is the weakness of its members when contrasted with the none too able Cabinets of the recent past. A similar experience is likely to be ours and that of South Australia when Mr. Holder resigns the reins of office to become a candidate for the Speaker’s chair in the Federal House of Representatives. Not only the three Premiers, but the three leaders of Opposition in these States are all candidates for the new Parliaments. The ablest lieutenants, the men in succession, have followed too. Of course, Mr. See, Mr. Peacock, and Mr. Jenkins have won their spurs, but they will have few colleagues of experience or standing to assist them. The Opposition is in just as sorry a plight. Taking those who have left State politics as a body, they have not come up to the standard of popular expectation. Those who remain in provincial politics fall even more distinctly below it. The fact is, that under our Federal system, while we have increased the demand for public men of mark, we have not increased the supply. It would be unfair to attempt a strict comparison between Great Britain and our sparsely peopled continent of vast distances and unknown possibilities. Still, it is remarkable that, adding the hundred and eight seats requiring to be filled in the Commonwealth Parliament to those in our twelve existing Chambers of Legislation in the six States, our four million people require to find six hundred representatives. The forty millions of the Mother Country elect but few more. Though the House of Commons is directly chosen by the British Isles alone it dominates an Empire of which even the Australian Continent is only a part, yet we have to provide seven Ministries to your one.
NEW POLITICAL CONDITIONS.
Where the dividing line will be drawn in State politics in the future is already a matter of speculation. The differing internal conditions of the several Colonies will of themselves lead to considerable divergencies. Next, the financial policy pursued by the Commonwealth, now that it is master of the whole of the customs revenues of the country, may prove an external source of local divisions. Beyond these the only aggressive movement common to the populous States is that conducted by the Labour Party. Though its aims are to some extent concealed by a vague platform of proposals more or less drastic, its chief motive power in current politics is expressed in the work and wages cry pandered to by the lavish expenditure of public money on public works of very varying utility to the community at large. In New South Wales we are rich enough to spend freely, and have done so already with less than wise regard for the future. But we have not spent, and cannot spend, fast enough for the wage earning classes. To gratify them without unduly alarming the taxpayers has led to the borrowing policy which all the Colonies have followed too hastily. A large proportion of our investments yield some interest on the capital expended, and a few pay extremely well, but it is manifestly impossible with our present population to continue to construct profit-earning railways or waterworks indefinitely. Beyond a point which we have either reached or must soon attain the outlay must become less and less remunerative. That means a heavier and heavier annual burden of interest. This in its turn must lead to the revolt of those who pay the great bulk of the taxes. The propertied, professional and employing classes are recognising this, and the sober-minded farmers are beginning to follow their lead. They will constitute the new Conservative Party in the States, which, if judiciously led, should win and retain the reins of power. The Labour Party and its allies may reckon on the working class vote in the towns, tempted by high wages for Government work or by restrictions on hours of labour and increased rates of pay to be enforced by legislation on private employers, but they are likely to be left in the minority in most States unless the miners and agriculturalists can be induced to make common cause with them. This is unlikely to occur, or, at all events, to be continued, and if our periodic attacks of the borrowing epidemic be resisted the development of our immense resources should proceed uninterruptedly and in peaceful fashion without the bitterness of social or political strife. If those unite who are not content to live merely from hand to mouth and from day to day they will be serving the public interest and their own. There will be greater opportunities than ever for clear-headed, competent men under our new conditions of State politics.