CHAPTER XXVI. THE MOVEMENT TOWARDS FEDERATION
Lord Grey's proposal - The federal spirit - The Federal Council - Its limitations - Henry Parkes - Federal Convention of 1891 - Defection of New South Wales - Corowa Conference - Convention of 1897-8.
When the proposal to confer self-government upon the Australian colonies was being considered in 1849 the Committee of Trade and Plantations, to which Earl Grey referred the subject, recommended that, in addition to the Legislatures established in the various colonies, the Governor-General should have power to convene a body to be called the General Assembly of Australia. It was to consist of a single House, named the House of Delegates, whose members were to be elected, not by the people but by the Parliaments; and it was to have certain powers entrusted to it affecting the common interests of all Australia. It was to take charge of customs and excise, postal business, roads and railways, lighthouses, weights and measures; it was to set up a general Supreme Court to act as a court of appeal from colonial courts; and it was to have power to make laws on any other subject which might be referred to it by the Parliaments of all the colonies. Not a word was said about defence; that was to remain an Imperial concern.
Earl Grey adopted this idea, and endeavoured to carry it out in the measure of self-government which he submitted to the Imperial Parliament in 1850. But the time was not opportune for a movement towards federation. Neither in Australia nor in England were the clauses popular. Grey made no strong fight for them, and they were struck out by the House of Lords.
There was much that was narrow, unsympathetic, and marked by the caste-prejudice of the aristocratic Whig in the colonial policy of Earl Grey, though he wrote two substantial volumes to prove to posterity what a very enlightened policy it was. Yet in this particular he - or the committee whose ideas he adopted - showed a true perception of the inevitable tendencies of Australian politics. Here were five separate communities - six when Queensland was separated from New South Wales - all of British origin, all populated principally by British people, all speaking the same language, all living under similar systems of government. Were they to grow up as foreign nations, jealous of each other, pursuing separate and often antagonistic policies? Or were they to recognize that their place in the sun, their strength in resistance, their trade, wealth, and general well-being would be enormously increased if they pooled their powers in certain respects and presented a united front to the world? Why should not the latter alternative be chosen? The people of the Australian colonies were not different from each other, as Frenchmen were different from Germans, or Russians from Spaniards, or Italians from Swedes. The fact that one Australian colonist had a sheep run in New South Wales, that another grew wheat in South Australia, and that another was a miner in Victoria, made no radical difference in their disposition. The historical factors which make distinct nationalities were not at work here. A river boundary or a degree of longitude did not convert people of common origin into separate nations. It might have worked out so in the course of two or three centuries, but not in less than one. And even tendencies in that direction were a misfortune. There were enough causes of national discord in the old world; there was no need to introduce them in the new.
But time was required for the federal idea to germinate and grow. It could not be made to sprout by an Act of Parliament. The Australian people had to learn for themselves how much they lost by disunion. They had to become conscious of the weakening effect of particularist aims. They had to be taught by events that though it was quite a good and an honourable thing to be a Tasmanian or a Queenslander, it was a very much finer, prouder thing, and one that signifies very much more, to be an Australian. Several events impressed the lesson upon their minds. The slippery Bismarckian trick in New Guinea was one of them.
Questions of common interest frequently arose, and for a few years it was sought to deal with them by means of inter-colonial conferences. It occurred to Henry Parkes that there ought to be some permanent machinery for the purpose; and in 1883, when a cluster of subjects of urgent importance had to be considered, his suggestion, made two years previously, for the creation of a Federal Council was put into concrete shape by Samuel Griffith, the Queensland Premier. A bill to authorise the establishment of such a Council was passed by the Imperial Parliament in 1885. It gave power to the six Australian colonies, as well as New Zealand and Fiji, to pass Acts enabling the colonies to send two representatives each. Fiji sent her representatives to the first meeting of the Federal Council, held in 1886, but afterwards dropped out. New Zealand never participated.
Much graver was the defection of New South Wales. As Parkes first promulgated the idea of establishing such a Council, his action in afterwards declining to recommend New South Wales to have anything to do with it was viewed by others as a breach of faith. Parkes was a statesman of large views, but he was also, as every successful leader under a parliamentary system must be, a wily politician with a quick eye to party advantage and the popularity of a project. The Federal Council scheme had not won popularity in New South Wales. Parkes explained that he afterwards came to the conclusion that 'the body proposed to be created would not succeed,' and that it would 'impede the way for a sure and solid federation.'