CHAPTER XXIV. DEMOCRACY AT WORK
South Australia had much less difficulty with her squatters and her land than had the other colonies. The trouble in New South Wales and Victoria was that squatters had been allowed to occupy leased runs and to spend money in making improvements upon them, without any really clear reservation of the right of the Crown to dispose of the lands to farmers in smaller areas; and the squatters, therefore, resented the intrusion of late comers who wished to pick out the best pieces for settlement. But South Australia laid down in wide terms a clear and simple rule which reserved to the Government the right at any time to resume leased lands 'for any purpose of public defence, safety, improvement, convenience, or utility.' The handling of land questions in South Australia was marked by forethought and practical wisdom; and in one conspicuous particular she devised legislation which has been copied with beneficial results not only throughout Australia but also in many colonies of foreign nations.
That reform was the Land Transfer Act, commonly known as the Torrens Act. Robert Torrens was the collector of customs at Port Adelaide. He was not a lawyer, and he knew little about the intricacies of the legal methods of land transfer which had been copied in Australia from Great Britain. If a man bought a piece of land, he became possessed of a sheet of parchment whereon was engrossed at great length the tale of the previous ownerships of the property. These parchment title-deeds were costly, and the phraseology of them, which only a legal specialist could profess to understand, had been the subject of innumerable judicial decisions. Torrens knew, from his experience as a customs officer, that shipping was bought and sold without all this engrossing of prolix jargon. There was an official register in which the change of ownership of a vessel was entered, and a simple certificate from the registrar was a sufficient token that the person named in it was the legal owner. Torrens asked himself why such a cheap and easy method should not be adapted to the transfer of land.
When South Australia acquired responsible government Torrens entered Parliament as member for Adelaide, and commenced to advocate his improved system. But he was opposed and ridiculed. Lawyers declared that land had been transferred by means of title-deeds from time immemorial, and that no other method would give an owner security of tenure. The Chief Justice said that mere registration would not suffice. When Torrens brought a bill embodying his suggestions before Parliament he was laughed at. How could a layman presume to argue that another method was easy and safe, when experienced lawyers assured him that it would never do? But Torrens insisted that it would do, and the South Australian Parliament, despite the opposition of the legal members, believed him. The Real Property Act was passed in 1858, and Torrens himself, resigning his seat in Parliament, was appointed to draw up the regulations under it, and superintend their working.
The result was completely successful. A landowner who registered his property under the Torrens Act received the duplicate of a certificate which the office retained; and this was perfect evidence of his possession. If he wished to sell, the purchaser obtained the certificate from him, and, on the sale being registered, the change of ownership was complete; if he wished to mortgage, the certificate was taken to the Registrar's Office, and the mortgage was marked upon it. There was no delay, the process was cheap, and anybody could, by paying a small fee, find out at the Registrar's Office who owned any piece of land at any time.
The other Australian colonies very rapidly adopted the Torrens system, and it was likewise applied in the French colonies. Indeed, Leroy Beaulieu, in his great treatise on COLONIZATION AMONG MODERN PEOPLES, states that such a system of land transfer is essential to the success of a colony. He claims (vol. ii, p. 25) that the idea had a Frenchman for its 'inventor' thirty or forty years before it was worked out by Torrens in South Australia. It may be so; but Torrens certainly derived his idea from his experience among shipping, as explained above, not from any book or outside suggestion.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century labour questions began to assume an importance which they had not previously had, though there was as yet no sign of the growth of a distinct Labour Party in Australian politics. The trade unions, in the beginning, were simply industrial organizations, modelled on the lines of English societies of the same kind; and, as far as concerns their purely industrial functions, they have retained their original character. The earliest record of a combination of workmen to raise wages occurred in 1837, when a meeting of ship owners in Sydney was held to consider the demand made by seamen and labourers usually employed in the outfit of vessels that their wage should be raised from 3s. to 4s. per day. The demand was resisted because it 'did not arise from scarcity of seamen or labourers, nor from inadequacy of wages hitherto paid,' but from 'combination on the part of the men, which they believe they can carry into effect at this important and busy season of the year.'