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Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy by Peter Cochrane

AS I READ Peter Cochrane’s fine book on the beginnings of Australian democracy, William Charles Wentworth seemed less and less like Edmund Burke or Thomas Jefferson and more like John McEwen. The high-toned conservatism of the earlier nineteenth century, with its principle of educated, well-to-do gentlemen serving the community for the welfare of all, increasingly seemed either quaint or hypocritically greedy as it crumbled away and the beginnings of today’s society, warts and all, sprang up from the wreckage, like new growth after a fire.

The conservative vision was of a pastoral version of plantation society, with high-minded, gentlemanly graziers controlling the government as well as vast acreages worked by bonded, unpaid convict labour or lowly paid and docile Chinese and Indian coolies. The “tyranny of democracy” which had twice dragged down France and spawned a coarsened, part-slave society in America would be held at bay as long as possible, certainly until the masses were much better educated. Those best fitted to be custodians of the great wool industry, the colony’s lifeblood, should be able to consolidate their position.

This might have seemed a good idea in the 1820s, when Wentworth began his public life as the brash young leader of the movement in what was then a penal colony to check the governor’s powers with a partly-elected Legislative Council, a free press and trial by jury; and secure a better position for the native-born like himself and convicts who had served their time.

The trouble was that—as so many, Left as well as Right, have found throughout history—society changed too rapidly. By the 1840s, convict transportation to eastern mainland Australia had ended, free immigrants were flooding in and the call for democracy was ringing round the world. The discovery of gold in 1851 famously strengthened these trends, and soon steamships and trains were gnawing away at the tyranny of distance.

One-time relative liberals like Wentworth joined with idealistic conservatives like James Macarthur—son of the 1808 rebel leader and wool visionary John—to try to check the “slide to democracy” and the threat to the landed magnates’ position. But the forces of change were too great. The bid for a protected political position for the wool industry, because of its economic importance, began to seem like the less dignified beginnings of the National Party, which in some respects it was.

This story is well enough known in outline. The strength of Peter Cochrane’s book is mastery of the detail of the many intricate forces at work, of the large cast of historically important personalities and in weaving them into a brisk, dramatic narrative.

It is not an easy period to write about. Cochrane successfully concentrates on the politics of the period of about fifteen years that made Australia one of the world’s first democracies. Other writers have often neglected this as part of a much wider story, not least Manning Clark, whose narrative resembled a thickly peopled operatic stage. As was his wont, Clark looked for heroes and found only feet of clay.

Cochrane writes it as a story about practical politics. Feet of clay abound, without heroes, let alone charisma, but with many effective politicians who would be worth their place in the side today. Between them, messily, they founded a system which has lasted with few changes for more than a century and a half. Messrs Iemma and O’Farrell slog it out today in the same chamber, and under much the same rules as those devised when Wentworth unavailingly fought the democrats.

Cochrane’s book is mostly about New South Wales, which had the biggest, oldest, richest and most unyielding ancien régime, but Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania came in a broadly similar way at about the same time to much the same system of substantial democracy and independence from Britain.

Wentworth’s leading opponent on the popular side was Henry Parkes, later Premier and a “father” of Federation, in that he coaxed a reluctant New South Wales into successful federation talks. In the 1840s he was a young English immigrant toy-maker turned journalist, with a genius for political organisation, h-dropping oratory and aggressive prose.

On Parkes’s immediate right, as the patrician middle ground of merchants and lawyers toppled over to his side against the squatters, were other future premiers Charles Cowper, Stuart Donaldson and James Martin. On his left was the passionate Presbyterian cleric John Dunmore Lang, holding back on his republican inclinations so as not to horrify the centre. Another there was the brilliant, dapper young Dan Deniehy, native-born son of convicts and author of the famous “bunyip aristocracy” jibe.

The successive governors—dutiful Gipps; diplomatic but slippery Fitzroy; bluntly conservative, pessimistic Denison; politically seasoned Young—had an unenviable job, running and reporting on a country that now wanted to run itself. Standing out among many involved in London were Herman Merivale, sagacious permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office and Appleby-like adviser to successive ministers, and Robert Lowe. Lowe was a physically odd, unlovable, snobbish, cynical but brilliant, ambitious and well-connected English lawyer and poet who emigrated to Sydney to make his fortune, returned to London and the House of Commons and brought his desire for lasting achievement to the cause of workable Australian self-government.

There is not much glamour, no heroes there, not even Parkes of the outrageous self-regard. Australian history is like that, just reasonably capable blokes getting on with the job. (The leaders were mostly blokes, but women played an important part, at the great meetings, in petitioning and in jawboning voting husbands.)

Wentworth had foundation myth qualities: good bushman, huge contributor to the national future, with energy, brains, vision and rough-edged charm. But he was an acquisitive land baron who backed the wrong horse in the big race.

IN CONTRAST TO CLARK’S god-like, judgmental stance, Cochrane lets the story tell itself, quoting liberally from the muscular prose of the day and the pounding oratory, reported at length in the press. Briefly, the New South Wales story was that in 1843 London replaced the small 1820s Legislative Council, which the governor appointed, with a thirty-six-member Council, two-thirds of whom were elected. The third the governor appointed (or “nominated”) were equally distributed between government officials and other citizens. A moderate property qualification restricted the right to vote, but a much higher economic or qualifications bar confined membership to the elite.

The seats were distributed by geography more than population, so that a vote in the country was worth much more than one in Sydney, which had a third of the population after Victoria separated in 1851. The appeal of this system to well-to-do graziers is obvious. It is also clear why cynics saw corrupting votes for sheep and cattle.

There were two classes of graziers: those on secure, old-established land grants and freehold, mostly within about 350 kilometres of Sydney, and the squatters proper on vast leases further out, rented for almost nominal sums. Cochrane says about 2000 squatters held 3000 leases, aggregating more than 70 million acres when representative government came in 1857. Absentees held much of the squatting land. Wentworth was one of the biggest, living at his Vaucluse mansion, rough-diamond bushman act notwithstanding. He controlled vast tracts on the Murrumbidgee and Namoi and up into what became Queensland.

The future of the squatting leases and the convict question were at the heart of the divisions of the 1840s and major reasons why self-government was a more tangled process here than in Canada. Aristocrats though they mostly were, the British ministers were not willing to sign away such immense tracts of the empire to monopolists like Wentworth, to become a “sheepwalk forever”.

Transportation of convicts to the mainland had ended about 1840, mainly because of developments in Britain rather than Australia, including the anti-slavery movement, a swing to more use of home penitentiaries, and a desire for more free emigration to suitable colonies. By then, more than 80,000 convicts had been sent to New South Wales since 1788. Transportation continued, however, to Van Diemen’s Land, where 35,000 convicts arrived in the 1840s alone (about half the total since 1803). Soon the thousands freed (and a number who escaped) were swarming to the mainland and melding into the settler population. In the mid-1840s, a Britain hit with a rising population also wanted to revive transportation to the mainland, with a scheme for well behaved “exiles” on probation from penitentiaries to become semi-free colonial workers.

The graziers were quite happy with all of this, especially if London paid more than its share of any extra policing and courts required, but it touched off a huge anti-transportation movement in the cities and towns. In Melbourne it coincided with the popular “separation” (from Sydney rule) movement.

The anti-transportation movement was partly inspired by fear of what large numbers of new ex-convicts would get up to, but it also crystallised what the free town-dwellers, especially new immigrants, wanted—a more conventional, “respectable” society, of farms, prosperous industry and good houses, much as most people want anywhere at any time.

Within a few years of the last transported felons landing in Sydney, the whole convict question was becoming unmentionably politically incorrect, except to historians, as it was to remain for more than a century. Soon gold ended it in the east forever, though 10,000 convicts were sent to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868. There was no point in sending convicts to a gold rush. The exile scheme was scrapped soon after it started and the last convicts to Tasmania arrived early in 1853.

The democratic and self-government genie was already part-way out of the colonial bottle when the antitransportation movement eased it right out. The free immigrants of the 1830s and 1840s had often imbibed the democratic message of pamphleteers, mass meetings and “agitators” in industrial Britain and elsewhere. That spirit culminated in the huge “People’s Charter” demanding democratic change from Westminster, and in the 1848 pro-democracy revolutions on the continent and to a minor extent in Ireland. Another big factor was that Canada and the Cape Colony were already getting partial self-government in keeping with local conditions. Nothing worked politically like the feeling that Australians were not getting their full entitlements as British subjects.

In response to the pressure, the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850-51 provided for, if the colonial governments wanted, two-house parliaments in each of New South Wales, a newly-separated Victoria, and South Australia. The degree of self-government involved was left open. Conservatives were willing to cede the lower house, which was to have the vote for adult males who paid ten pounds or more a year in rent or owned equivalent property, as in Britain. In Australia, however, with the prosperity and inflation of the gold rush era it was almost a vote for each household. The existing Legislative Councils were to become the upper houses and conservatives turned there as their insurance against the “onrush of democracy” (and attack on their lands).

One of the great debates was whether governors were to continue to nominate the Councillors, preferably for life, or whether they were to be elected on high property or educational qualifications. New South Wales chose the nominee system and at one stage toyed with giving the Councillors titles, prompting vast ridicule and jibes like “bunyip aristocracy” and “Lord of Wollongong”. Cochrane allows that this might have been Wentworth’s ploy to make a more moderately constituted nominative Council seem like a reasonable compromise.

Victoria chose the exclusive franchise system. The equally conservative architect of its constitution, Attorney-General Francis Stawell, shrewdly foresaw the lower house one day getting the strength to swamp the Council, as eventually happened in New South Wales and Queensland.

Creation of new members led in time to the nominated Council in Queensland voting itself out of existence. In New South Wales it became a part-time job for party mates until Neville Wran replaced the system with proportional representation.

Another Wentworth dodge for the new New South Wales system was to require a two-thirds majority of both houses to change voting arrangements and other constitutional provisions. This went to London in the (draft) constitution drawn up in Sydney during 1851–53, but the wilier British trumped it by leaving the clause there but allowing for a simple majority to change it. They were not going to let the squatters grab that many million acres.

The main changes London made to both the New South Wales and Victorian constitutions, before parliament passed them in 1854 while its attention was on the Crimean War, was to continue the right to veto legislation, whereas the drafts had wanted guarantees for specified powers, much like those of the present states.

In retrospect, this seemed a wise restraint on governments on training wheels and was rarely to be problem. Most of the powers the colonial drafts had been prepared to cede to Westminster, in return for unchallengeable local powers, went to the Commonwealth when it was established fifty years later, though at the time of these discussions some sort of national government had been envisaged as following closely behind.

Manhood suffrage (a vote for all adult males) for the Assembly, the lower house, came with the Electoral Act 1858—ahead of most of the world. It will be 150 years this November since it became effective. Popular pressure drove the historic legislation through the nervous first two-house parliament, after monumental tactical battles. Victoria got manhood suffrage a few months later, when there were so few disqualifications left for voting that they became an impractical nuisance and were dropped. Further refinements of democracy continued along with decades of excitement over upper houses and “unlocking the land”.

What about the Aborigines? Whatever the defects in practice, they were British subjects with the same rights as everybody else. Most lived in the squatting country along the inland rivers and north coast, where the leases were in principle shared between Aboriginal people and graziers. As far as can be established, they were generally peacefully integrating into pastoral society.

One of the early acts of the 1840s Council was to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into why the indigenous population was declining, the biggest question concerning Aborigines then. It found mainly decimation through disease.

Robert Murray is author of 150 Years of Spring Street: Victorian Government: 1850s to 21st Century, Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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