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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter XXIV


The functions of Government—Estimate of Colonial Parliaments— Rallying-cries—Many of our legislators unfit for their position— At war with "Society"—Parliament degraded into a court of petty causes— Sir Henry Parkes on the subject—Extract from the Sydney Daily Telegraph—Municipal councils—Difficulty of finding good men—Constituencies to blame—The qualities they appreciate in their representatives—Beggarly dependence on the State—Good men disinclined to enter public life—Necessity for a Cobden Club—An overgrown -Civil Service—Selfishness and apathy in high places—My opinions corroborated by a well-known writer—"Capricorn us" on Australian statesmanship— Deterioration of the Civil Service—The same writer on this subject—Jealousy of outside -criticism—Deep-seated diseases require strong remedies.

In many parts of the world at the present day, and notably in our colonies, representative institutions have been undergoing a severe ordeal. America has lately passed through a crisis that threatened at one time to end in social revolution and anarchy. The scenes during late years in the French Chamber, in the German and Austrian Parliaments, and the Italian House of Representatives, have shown that there is a fierce seething mass of conflicting political opinions existing on most social questions, used as weapons of attack in the furtherance of purely political aims. In the English House of Commons even scenes of disgraceful personal attack and ebullitions of temper have of late years been freely indulged in, and have tarnished the reputation of an Assembly that has been held up to the admiration of the world as one of the most orderly and dignified bodies of legislators in it. In Tasmania, New Zealand, Victoria, Queensland, and, alas! most notably in Sydney, Parliament has almost become a word synonymous with all that is unseemly and contemptible. Unless some improvement be initiated, and our colonial legislators learn the rudiments of self-respect, while realizing even in some faint measure the dignity of their position, they promise to bring the whole system of parliamentary institutions into merited odium.

The real functions of government are not fully known or properly apprehended by one half the members that are returned to parliament. It has degenerated into a body of mere delegates, who seem to think that the supplying petty local wants and requirements, the investigation of purely personal matters between individuals, is to be the end and aim of their parliamentary duties. Broad statesmanlike views bearing on national weal seem to be treated in so narrow and circumscribed a manner, and from so restricted a point of view, as has reduced their treatment to that of the level of municipal questions on local detail. Such questions as railway extension, the land laws, legal reform, education, sanitary reform, the laws relating to bankruptcy, immigration, fiscal reform, electoral reform, banking laws, national defence, federation, have been looked at, not with the comprehensive grasp of statesmanship, but in the narrow spirit of class prejudice. The first question is not, "How will this affect the country at large? "What effect will it have on the welfare of the nation ? How will it affect the interests of posterity? But, "How will this affect my district? "Will it please my particular constituency? And what political capital can I, personally, make out of this?" Let the observant critic look, for example, at the rallying cries during a contested election in New South "Wales. To what do they point? "What gets most prominence? In nearly every case the satisfaction of merely local requirements. Every candidate, with a few hopeful exceptions, declares that their first aim on entering public life will be to get as large a share of the contents of the public purse as they possibly can for their own particular electorate. Political support is, as a rule, given to the men who are most lavish of promises to beg and bully and filch from the public purse. It is not, therefore, the independent man of far-seeing intelligence who is selected. He is too honest to pander by promises of this sort. He maintains that purely local enterprises had better be started and kept going by that grandest motor of all, self-help. He disdains to nurture this beggarly spirit, which is only too painfully evident all over the colony in every electorate. Too many of our free and independent electors, however, seem to think that their parliament is simply an institution for the reception of individual complaints, a redressor of personal wrongs, a channel for the ventilation of personal wants and requirements; and it is daily called on to perform duties which it is the bounden duty of individuals to perform for themselves.

Lest it might be imagined that I am dealing in vague generalities, let me make an extract from the speech of Sir Henry Parkes, the present premier, which forcibly draws attention to this very point. Speaking to a body of his constituents in 1877, the veteran politician said: "We have arrived at a time, in working out our institutions, when every patriotic man must be careful how he steers his course. From one cause and another an amount of confusion has arisen, which obscures the public mind, and instead of the electoral body as a whole fixing their gaze upon great national objects and suffering themselves to be guided by broad, well-defined principles, unhappily for the time constituencies are seeking to gratify their small and petty local wants, instead of assisting the progress of this great country. The time has come, whether for good or evil, when your representatives ought to present a stern front to the attempts to plunder the public treasury. Unfortunately for this country we have had for some years past a surplus revenue, derived from the improvident sale of the public lands. It seems to me thab going east or west, going north or south, or into the far western interior, we find men, and bodies of men, who, instead of studying the principles which ought to be at the foundation of national progress, are seeking how much they can gain from that surplus revenue of the country. Unless this vice, this political vice of the constituents, is eradicated, depend upon it it will produce a state of rottenness in this country which will be fatal to the real welfare of all classes of the community."

So recently as July 30th, 1879, I find the following in a leader in the Daily Telegraph, a vigorous new daily newspaper that has just been established by Victorian enterprise in the New South Wales metropolis. Speaking of the resignation of one of our members, because he found himself powerless to stem the tide of jobbery and corruption, the writer says,—

"Mr. Sutton's motives for resigning have been somewhat severely criticized, but most public men will have some sympathy with them. There is no doubt that the position of representative has very much degenerated from the high ideal which enthusiastic politicians have formed of it. A member of a legislative body should be influenced only by a desire to serve the best interests of the community, without respect to persons or localities. His own friends and his own constituency might, no doubt, claim his immediate attention, but only so far as is consistent with the public interests. No doubt each honourable member does his best to act on this principle, but we all know how signal and general is the failure. The representation of the people in the legislature has degenerated into a scramble for the loaves and fishes. The petty spirit of localism has dragged down the noble office of representative to a sort* of huckstering commission agency, and the patriotic desire to benefit the country at large has been replaced by the sordid policy of securing favours for one's own constituency and friends. Of course, there are many honourable exceptions, but it must be admitted that the tendency of public life is in this direction. A member's constituency and his constituents may be honourably served, and well served, too; but constituents are exacting, and often unreasonable. The expenditure of public money in their district, and the finding of situations for a goodly number of its residents, are too often regarded as far better recommendations than ability, a knowledge of public affairs, and high principles. Thus it-is that the most successful candidates for seats in legislative assemblies now are chiefly local men, bold and energetic, not overburdened with modesty or scruples, and possessing a certain amount of rough-and-ready talking capacity, too often degenerating into mere fluent reiteration of the boldest commonplaces."

It is much the same in the municipal councils. Private interests utterly swamp public spirit, and patriotism simply means plunder. Every alderman tries first to get roads made "agin his own door," with such persevering and barefaced persistency, that the phrase has passed into a proverb. Of course there are exceptions. There are many honourable, intelligent, patriotic and public-spirited men, who take a prominent part in colonial politics. Would there were more of them.

I freely grant that in a limited community, suitable persons are hard to find. Men of culture, possessed of sufficient leisure, are not always forthcoming to contest a colonial election. Indeed it is often a thankless task to accept the role of representative, and have to try to please the fickle crowd. As time progresses, too, and bickerings and personalities get year by year more prevalent, it requires no ordinary sense of public duty, to tempt a refined man forth from his retirement, to face the slanders, the imputation of unworthy motives, and the vulgar abuse, which are the weapons most dear to a certain set of political jobbers, whom the apathy of the electors, and their own audacity, have invested with the honourable, but often dishonoured letters M.L.A.

Much of the blame of our low political morality lies at the door of the constituencies themselves. Manhood suffrage is no doubt theoretically a fine thing. But manhood suffrage without education, intelligence, or uprightness, is an unmitigated curse to any country. Sir Henry Parkes recognized this, when he introduced his measure on education, and established the present public school system, the association of which with his name is his best claim to a lasting reputation as a statesman. Education has yet, however, much to do, before the mass of the electors in New South Wales arrive at the ideal standard of excellence, or even a bare approximation to it. Not that I mean to say the colonial people are worse educated than the proletariate at home. Ear from it, but many of the electors are men who have never been out of the country or travelled far inside it. Many in the interior have never even seen the ocean. Many have no views on political science at all. They have not studied the workings of politics in other lands. They cannot see an inch beyond the pressing local want of the moment. They are like children, enamoured of the big drum in the orchestra, and have an infantile belief in loud protestations. They are as gullible as an ostrich, and the man who can talk loudest, make the boldest protestations, and promise most, is the man for their money. If he can outs wear a bullock-driver, and out-drink a distiller's drayman, he is almost certain of a seat in parliament.

The would-be aspirant for colonial parliamentary honours, must be ready to suffer a good many indignities in a canvass, if he would be successful. When on the hustings, his "billet," to use a colonial expression, is worse than a dog's. Once fairly seated, he is bullied and pestered and worried, to obtain billets for a hungry crowd of office-seekers, who with "their sisters and their cousins and their aunts," all look to him to find them subsistence from the public purse, that they may shirk honest work, and live at the expense of the state. This willingness to depend on the State is sften in ev'ery grade, and in werty shade of social life. Is a lerry boat wanted? A church, a culvert, a foot bridge, a town clock, a reading-room or a gas-lamp? "Petition the member!" Apply to government! They have plenty of money. If we don't get it, some more unscrupulous and persistent constituency will get it. Such is the style of reasoning, and members in too many instances pander to it.

I believe it to be a simple fact, that our capable men are year by year becoming more and more disinclined to enter public life. They meet with little courtesy from those who should support them. ' Inside the house, the fair rules of debate are continually transgressed. Yile imputations and scurrilous abuse are hurled about recklessly and indiscriminately. The patriotic, high-minded man who might do good service to the state, and shed a lustre on the legislation of his country, shakes his head at mention of the word parliament, and declares the game not to be worth the candle. The hard-headed man of business. follows suit, and says, it is not good enough.

The great hope of the country lies in a more widely extended system of liberal education, and the multiplication of public schools. The throwing off of apathy by the better-minded and more enlightened citizens. Better organization of the intelligent classes, and a bolder, more manly, and more vigorous protest, against corruption by the press.

Among minor remediary measures, I believe the foundation of a liberal club, such as the Cobden club, might do much. Let good men who have the true interests of the country at heart, band themselves together, not for public dinners and windy speeches, but for hearty co-operation, practical discussion, and the prosecution of truly statesmanlike measures. Such a club, having a wide-spread organization, with branches in all the leading towns, by means of lectures, discussions, pamphlets, meetings and the use of the press, might rouse public feeling to united action in the furtherance of true reform, and the abolition of the abuses that now exist.

Our civil service has already attained gigantic dimensions. Nearly every tenth man you meet is in some degree or other a recipient of money from the public funds. If not checked, this threatens to menace the very foundations of stable government, and reduce the country to the condition of a vast lucky-bag, into which every hand shall be dipped to fish up as much plunder as his grasp can hold.

Lest some of my home readers may consider these strictures too sweeping, I would here extract a few paragraphs bearing on the subject, written under the signature "Capricornus," in the Sydney Morning Herald. The writer is a man of sound common-sense ; a shrewd observer, and an experienced politician, thoroughly conversant, from the observation of years, with every detail of colonial parliamentary life, and to the sentiments so capitally and clearly expressed, above his well-known signature, the hearty assent of the most patriotic and thinking men in the community is freely given.

After a masterly exposition of the tactics adopted by the hungry billet-seeker or bribe-devourer on the one hand, and the plausible government tout on the other, our censor proceeds thus :—

"This is Australian statesmanship. In ordinary weather, principles and policies are not much considered. These are only appealed to when a strong breeze from a sectarian, popular, or national quarter sets in. Then it is surprising how quickly both Government and Opposition adopt appropriate catchwords, and how promptly they fall into their ranks to the call of the party bugle, whether the alarm sounded is on education, land-reform, or the beat of the drum ecclesiastic.

"Consistency on such occasions is of course not expected. What an honourable member said last year about denominational education, or free selection, is of very little consequence at a crisis when ' the country is in danger,' that is, when the party 'in,' runs a risk of going out, and patronage and pickings threaten to fall into the hands of the Opposition. But when the breeze blows over, tilings go back into their old groove, and the whole energy of the executive is directed to the one thing needful, the crowning achievement and tour de force always aimed at, being to buy a member and pay him with nothing. The man who can score a few such hits in a session is good for a seat in any Australian cabinet. Government and Opposition will alike bid for him, and when he wearies of the toils of the forum, the best padded chair in the civil service will be ready for him."

"The Civil servants," continues Capricornus, "even the highest, are in a false position. The Government action makes them mere machines; while in the Opposition some of the patriots, the tribunes of the people, make it very plain, that if they had their own way, they would order the treasury clerks to blacken their boots. Moreover, the civil servants hold their offices by so slender a tenure, and so much intrigue is daily at work to jockey them out of their seats, that their only safety is in seeing, knowing, saying, and doing as little as possible. Old officials have been enticed into signing their resignations, by having pensions dangled before them, and they have found themselves turned adrift with a mere pittance between them and starvation. The vacancies, of course, were wanted for f trade,' and they became valuable legal tender for the purchase of votes.

"Wariness, prudence, and the suppression of all action suggesting the existence of zeal or intelligence, are the best qualities for the government employ; consequently the most valuable capabilities of experienced officials, are neither cultivated nor encouraged. The honourable member, whose practical knowledge of colonial life has consisted in sanding sugar, or watering rum on the diggings, is ex-officio the superior, and consequently knows more about matters of public policy, than an officer who may have taken part in pioneering since the days of Sir Richard Bourke, or may be familiar with public documents from the foundation of the colony. Thus our legislators ignore and neglect the experience that might supply valuable data for further legislation, and the wise Civil servant sees nothing and does less."

One feature of colonial criticism, journalistic or otherwise, is this—that while a man in the colonies,writing in a colonial paper, lecturing on a colonial platform, or addressing a colonial audience, may get many really thinking and well-meaning men to side with him—no sooner does he go beyond the colony and publish his strictures, and perhaps adverse comments to the outside world, than nearly all classes unite to hound him down, and stigmatize him as a wholesale slanderer, and one who has broken all the ten commandments in a lump. The colonial papers teem with criticisms of the nature given in the foregoing extracts—those at least of the better class, who make some pretensions to independence and honesty; but if an English or an American writer dare to publish an article one half so outspoken, there is a universal shriek of outraged honour and indignation.

It is in fact, the old story of husband and wife quarreling. They will bepummel each other unmercifully, but woe betide the unhappy wight who interferes in the domestic strife. Any observant student of the daily records of colonial journalism cannot fail to remark this, Many of the leading country journals are fearless and outspoken in their criticism. Their contempt of jobbery, and sense of outraged decency, as some more scandalous piece of iniquity than usual crops up, finds trenchant expression and vigorous enough denunciation; but they claim the monopoly to themselves. They are jealous of any outside intrusion on the domain of domestic strife. The Times, Pall Mall Gazette, the San Francisco News Letter, the author, public man on his travels, lecturer, or any foreign medium whatever, who raises the voice of adverse criticism, gets little of either courtesy or justice. The newspapers for once get unanimous, and wonder at the impudence and presumption of any outsider, not a colonial born and bred, daring to criticize their glorious country. Captain Cook and a few of the early governors are trotted out. The enormous extent and marvellous resources of the country are descanted on, and the soothing salve is applied to wounded self-esteem by the reflection, that after all, "if our members of parliament are a little rough, they are at least sincere. If jobbery is rampant, America and England have done much worse in bygone days, and are ready to do so again, and that in the good time coming, when all our land shall have been sold, and there's no more of the public estate to fight over, things will shake into their correct places. Good men and true will come forward to take their share in public life."

And yet an old colonist, a lover of his adopted country, and shrewd, truthful man like Gapricornus, can write thus. "There are," he says, "always a few old residents, the veterans of colonization, who see what is going on, and make their comments. They begin to say that our system of administration is calling to its flag all the vagabondism of the country, men who have neither families nor homes, without incentive to public or private duty, adventurers by circumstance, schemers by nature, here one year, away the next, no one knows where, with what they have gathered. Now a swagsman may be loafing for rations, and threatening the fences with a firestick; shortly he may be a bell-mouthed candidate for parliamentary honours; next year to be trafficking with her Majesty's Ministers for patronage and office, to fawn and grovel before his constituents, and to vilify and bully the unprotected, under the shield of parliamentary privilege."

Surely this is strong language. Yet these statements are no figment of a lively fancy, they are the sober words of truth, and could be borne out by an appeal to names, and dates, and places, within the knowledge of every man in New South Wales, who knows the rudiments of the parliamentary history of his country, during the last decade.

No wonder then, that the most capable men in the country shrink from entering an arena where the readiest and most serviceable weapons are abuse and calumny. No wonder that the best men in the house itself, and the ablest journalists mourn over the flood of frothy Billingsgate that they try in vain to stem. No wonder that parliamentary institutions are dragged in the dust of popular contempt, and the political arena is left more and more to needy unprincipled adventurers and incapable vulgarians.

[Perhaps no more trenchant criticism on the calibre and practices of an ignoble minority in our Parliament can be given than a bare, unvarnished report of one of its own debates. I refer the reader to the Appendix, where I have given the debate in full. See Appendix, Note D]


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