CHAPTER XXIII. DEMOCRACY AT WORK
In November the controversy entered upon a new phase, when the Government consented to send a separate tariff bill to the Council, thus removing the 'tack' to the Appropriation Bill which had given such offence. But the bill now contained a retrospective clause, designed to render of no avail judgments which had been obtained from the Supreme Court by the merchants who had sued the Government. The Council objected to this and several other provisions of the bill, and refused to pass it. The position of deadlock between the two Houses was therefore unrelieved.
As there was no constitutional means of settling such differences, the Government determined to appeal to the country. The Governor, Sir Charles Darling, on the advice of his ministers, granted a dissolution of the Legislative Assembly. The Legislative Council, though an elective body, was not, under the constitution, affected by a dissolution. Its members held their seats during the ten years for which they were elected, no matter what happened to the other branch of the Legislature.
The general election evoked to the shrillest pitch the storm of controversy which had raged in the country during the discussion of these events. The opulent resources of the English language were fully exploited for terms of abuse which partisans hurled at each other. The issue was mainly that of protection, and the action of the Council in rejecting the tariff. The Council itself, though thoroughly unpopular, certainly had constitutional justification for refusing to pass a money bill with extraneous provisions 'tacked' to it. But the set of public opinion against what was generally regarded as a compact body of landowners fighting for their own interests was so determined that the constituencies were little inclined to weigh technical justifications. The McCulloch Government was swept back to power on a wave of popular enthusiasm, and it faced the new Parliament in 1866 with a solid and resolute protectionist majority behind it.
Even now, however, the Council would not yield. Once more it rejected the Tariff Bill, which, it must be confessed, received little consideration on its merits as a measure of protection, because it was complicated with provisions which McCulloch's pugnacious Attorney-General, Higinbotham, insisted on putting into it, and which, the Council held, ought not to form part of a bill imposing customs duties. The simple issue of tariff or no tariff was not laid before the Council. It was clogged with other principles.
McCulloch now resigned office, but the Assembly passed a resolution informing the Governor that it would not support any Government which did not persist with the bills already submitted to the Council. It was therefore plainly useless for the Governor to choose a Ministry from the opposition. No form of government which the wit of man can devise will work well unless those who live under it are prepared to oil its wheels with good-will. The British constitution, upon which the Victorian instrument was modelled, would break down unless in times of crisis a spirit of concession prevailed. But the two Victorian houses in 1865-6 had come to a condition of deadlock through a conflict of obstinate wills, and as the latter year wore on relations were strained almost to breaking point. There was much inflammatory rhetoric; revolution rumbled behind the menacing clouds of political conflict, something had to give way.
McCulloch resumed office, and reintroduced the Tariff Bill. It was passed for the fourth time and sent to the Council. But cool advice had been tendered to the members of that body, and they now proposed a conference between selected members of the two Houses. As the result of talks between fourteen representatives, the Tariff was at length accepted by the Council with the elimination of the retrospective clause and of certain expressions in the preamble declaratory of the rights of the Assembly, to which strong opposition had been made.
The protective policy, which was due mainly to Syme's advocacy, was thus initiated in Victoria amidst furious storms. Incidentally the struggle made the fortune of the AGE, and gave to Syme the pre-eminence in Victorian politics which he continued to exercise as long as that generation survived. He was a more vigorous thinker and a stronger personality than were most of the politicians, and he dictated policies to them from his newspaper office, confident that the electorate would follow his lead. His success was the result of hard fighting and a consummate understanding of how to manipulate political forces. But though the tariff issue was now settled, days of peace were by no means at hand. Rancours bubbled in the parliamentary cauldron, and fresh flames burst forth shortly.