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CHAPTER XLVI: australian history and frame of government - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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australian history and frame of government
There is no such thing as a Typical Democracy, for in every country physical conditions and inherited institutions so affect the political development of a nation as to give its government a distinctive character. But if any country and its government were to be selected as showing the course which a self-governing people pursues free from all external influences and little trammelled by intellectual influences descending from the past, Australia would be that country. It is the newest of all the democracies. It is that which has travelled farthest and fastest along the road which leads to the unlimited rule of the multitude. In it, better than anywhere else, may be studied the tendencies that rule displays as it works itself out in practice.
A few preliminary words about the land and the people may make it easier to comprehend the political phenomena we have to consider.
The Australian continent, with 2,974,581 square miles (rather smaller than Europe), is a vast plain, enclosed on the east by a long range of mountains, nowhere reaching 7500 feet in height, with a few groups of hills in the southwest corner and others scattered here and there in the interior. This plain is so arid that parts of it seem likely to remain for ever a wilderness. It is waterless, except in the south-east, where a few rivers descending from the inland side of the eastern range pursue languid courses towards the southern sea, with currents that are in summer too shallow for navigation. The only well-settled districts are those which lie in the hilly region along the east and south-east coasts. These districts were colonized from a few towns planted on the edge of the sea, the settlers spreading slowly inland and spreading also along the shore, until at last there came to be a practically continuous population along a line of some six hundred miles. This population is, however, still sparse in many regions, and the thickly peopled part of one state, West Australia, lies far away from all the others, its chief town communicating with the nearest city in them (Adelaide in South Australia) by a railway journey of forty-six hours, or a sea voyage of nearly three days, while another, Tasmania, occupies a separate island. Thus during its earlier years, when the character of each colony was being formed, each lived an isolated life, busied with its own local concerns, knowing little about the others, and knowing still less, until telegraphs were laid along the ocean bed, of the great world of Europe and America. Not only each colony, but the Australian people as a whole, grew up in isolation, having no civilized neighbour states except New Zealand, cut off by twelve hundred miles of stormy sea.
Fortunate has it been for a land lying so far apart that Nature has furnished her with nearly everything needed to make a community self-sufficing.
Want of moisture is the weak point of the country, for more than one-third of its whole area has less than ten inches of rain in the year, and another third less than twenty. It is a common saying that in Australia a purchaser buys not the land but the water. Nevertheless, there is not only along the east and parts of the south coasts a vast area of cultivable soil, with sufficient rain, but in the drier parts of the interior immense tracts fit for sheep, which have thus become the greatest source of the country's wealth. The recent discovery of subterranean reservoirs of water which can be made available by artesian wells offers a prospect of extending the region fit for settlement. The climate is temperate, except in the tropical north, and so healthy that the average death-rate is only ten per thousand. Its variety enables all sorts of products to be raised, sugar, cotton, and the fruits of the tropics in the hotter regions, wheat and other cereals in the more temperate. Coal, found in all the States but two, abounds in several wide areas, and there are rich mines of silver, lead, and copper, besides those gold workings which drew a sudden rush of immigrants to Victoria in 1849. These resources, taken together, suffice to promise prosperity and comfort to its inhabitants. They now number about five millions.
Those who have colonized this favoured land were well fitted to develop it. Nearly all came from the British Isles — 98 per cent is the figure usually given — and the proportion of the English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh stocks is almost the same as that which these four elements bear to one another in the British Isles, the Scots and the Irish being slightly in excess of the other two, as both these are races of emigrative tendencies. Similarly the proportion of Anglicans, Nonconformists, and Roman Catholics differs little from that in the United Kingdom. Nearly all belonged to the middle and upper sections of the working class, for the cost of a long voyage debarred the very poor, so that class was represented almost solely by the convicts, who in days now long past were transported to New South Wales, Tasmania, and Western Australia.1 The criminal strain thus introduced is deemed to have been now washed out, for there is, it would seem, a tendency for the average type to reestablish itself in the third generation, not to add that in the old days offences now thought comparatively slight were punished by transportation. In this sunny climate the British stock has wonderfully thriven. The rural Australian is tall, lithe, and active. Now that the great majority of the population is native born, one can begin to speak of an Australian bodily and mental type, for though there are differences between the several colonies, the population is practically homogeneous, more homogeneous than that of France or Great Britain or the United States. Each settlement grew up separately, but under similar influences, and with a flow of population hither and thither, unchecked (save as regards West Australia) by natural barriers.
The influences that have moulded this type are due partly to climate, partly to the conditions of life and industry in the new country. The Australian is fundamentally an Englishman, differing less from the average Englishman in aspect, speech, and ideas than does the man of British stock either in Canada or in the United States. But the sunnier climate enables him to live more in the open air than does the Briton. He has preserved something of the adventurous spirit and easy-going ways of the bush settler. Poverty has not weighed him down, for in Australia a healthy man need never remain poor, so high are wages and so ample the opportunities for rising in the world. He is hopeful, confident, extremely proud of his country, which he thinks “the latest birth of Time.” It is natural to compare him, as he compares himself, with the American. He has the same energy and resourcefulness, but takes life less hardly, does not exhaust himself by a continual strain, loves his amusements, thinks more of the present than of the future.
Of the five great races of Western and Central Europe the British has so far shown the greatest capacity for developing “sub-types” under new conditions. Until he is absorbed into the surrounding population, the German, the Frenchman, the Italian, the Russian remains in other lands substantially the same as he was at home. But the Englishman in the United States, in Upper Canada, and in Australasia, though retaining what may be called the bony framework of his English character, has in each country undergone a sea-change when he has crossed the ocean into new climes whose conditions have evoked latent qualities in his nature.
The economic conditions of Australia have determined the occupations and distribution of the people, and these have in turn exerted an influence upon its political life which we shall presently have to note.
When settlement extended to the interior, the most obvious source of wealth was to be found in sheep-raising, and immense tracts of land were taken up for this purpose. Sheep have not generally been profitable except on large runs, partly because in the dry areas a wide run is needed for even a moderate flock, partly also because the loss of stock in the occasional droughts is so heavy that only large owners possessing some capital can escape ruin, though latterly smaller runs have begun to be combined with the tillage of wheat fields. The great size of sheep runs checked the growth of small agricultural holdings and kept population low in these rural areas, because a pastoral estate needs few hands, except at shearing time, of which more anon. Moreover, as the land suitable for tillage was usually wooded, some capital was needed to get rid of the forest before cultivation could begin. This retarded the growth of such comparatively small farms as prevail in the north-western prairies of the United States and Canada.
For the same reason the country towns, centres of distribution for their neighbourhoods, also remained small. The vast quantities of wool and such other produce as was raised for export by the slow extension of timber-cutting and of agricultural production gave plenty of employment to those who handled it at the ports, which were few, for nearly all the export trade of New South Wales centred at Sydney, almost the only good harbour on the coast of that State (then a colony); while similarly most of the trade of Victoria centred at Melbourne. Thus these two cities grew to dimensions altogether disproportionate to the whole population of their respective colonies. The growth of Melbourne was further accelerated, first by the discovery of gold not far from it, which drew a vast swarm of adventurers, and subsequently, after the gold fever had died down, by the adoption of a policy of protection for local manufactures by the Victorian legislature in order to secure employment at high wages for the workers of that colony. The only other considerable industry in Australia, at the time when gold production diminished, was coal-mining. It has collected a large population in a few districts, but has not led to the growth of manufactures on a great scale over the country, and the towns of the second order are still small. There is, except in Tasmania with its considerable rainfall, practically no water power. Thus Australia shows a contrast between two very large and two somewhat smaller cities (Adelaide and Brisbane), which together include more than one-third (about 40 per cent) of the whole population of the continent, and vast thinly-grassed and sparsely-peopled rural areas, shading off into an arid wilderness. Population grows slowly, for immigration has received lukewarm encouragement, and the rate of natural increase is extremely low. Those small land-owning farmers, who are so valuable an element in Canada and the northern” United States, are in Australia a slender though no doubt an increasing body. The middle class is the weaker through the want of this particular element; yet there are no great extremes of wealth and poverty. Poverty indeed there is none, for the wage-earning classes live so much more comfortably than do the like classes in France, Germany, or England, as to be up to what is there called a middle-class standard. Neither are there huge fortunes on the European or North American scale. A few of the ranch-owners or “squatters,” called “pastoralists,” and still fewer of the leading business men, have amassed considerable wealth, but rarely does any one leave property exceeding £1,000,000. The fortunes of the rich are not sufficient either to sharpen the contrast between social extremes or to make possible those vast accumulations of capital which are in the United States denounced as a political danger. Neither does wealth flaunt itself: no stately mansions in the country: no sumptuous palaces in the cities, and as the wealth is all new, it has not had time enough to turn itself into rank. Nowhere can one find a stronger sentiment of equality, that antagonism between the wage-earning and the employing class which the traveller feels in the atmosphere as soon as he lands in Australia, being economic rather than social, for the rich do not presume on their position and have never oppressed — they never had the chance of oppressing — their poorer neighbours.
The Australians brought from England, along with its other traditions, a respect for law, so order was firmly enforced from the first days of each colony. There was not, as in North America and South Africa, serious frontier warfare against natives, accustoming men to the use of firearms. The occasional brigandage of early days, known as bush-ranging, has long been extinct, nor did lynch law ever come into use. Political party organizations were not so fully developed in the old country, when the settlers left it, as they are now, but the settlers, though they belonged to a class which in the Britain of those days furnished few candidates for Parliament, possessed the average Englishman's interest in public affairs, with the habit of holding public meetings and forming associations for every sort of purpose. They were bold in speech, independent in thought and action, showing no such tendency to look to and make use of the government as has become conspicuous in their descendants of this generation, scantily equipped with knowledge, but full of the spirit of adventure and the love of freedom. All expected that self-government would in due course be granted to each colony when its population became sufficiently large; and when self-government came they relished it and worked it as to the manner born.
Responsible self-government, i.e. a Legislature with a Cabinet on the British model, was bestowed upon New South Wales (the oldest colony), Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania in 1855–56. The Constitutions, prepared in each colony by its Council, were, with a few changes, enacted by the British Parliament. Queensland received a self-governing constitution in 1859–60 (when it was separated from New South Wales), Western Australia in 1890. In South Australia universal male suffrage existed from the first for the popular House of Parliament; in the others it was introduced before long and with little opposition. Much later, the suffrage was extended to women. The questions that occupied the Governments of these colonies were chiefly economic, some relating to the allotment and enjoyment and taxation of land, others to fiscal policy, including tariffs. However after 1883 the general scramble among the great European Powers for unoccupied territories all over the world began, when it extended to the Western Pacific, to bring external affairs to the minds of Australians, who felt that their interest in the islands, especially New Guinea and the New Hebrides, which lie north and north-east of them, could be more effectively pressed if the whole people spoke through one authority. This helped to revive the project, often previously discussed, of creating a federation of all the Australian colonies, a scheme naturally indicated by commercial and fiscal considerations, but retarded by the jealous care with which each community sought to guard its local independence. After long debates in two Conventions (1891 and 1897–99), a draft Federal constitution was at last adopted by a vote of the people in every colony, and submitted to the British Parliament, which passed it into law (with one slight change) in A.D. 1900. Thus was created a new National Government for the whole continent under the title of the Commonwealth of Australia, while the old colonies were turned into States, each retaining its local government, and exercising such of the former powers as it had not surrendered to the Federal authority.
The constitutional system of Australia and its practical working are interesting both in respect of their slight differences from England and of their wider differences from the United States, but for the purposes of this treatise attention must be concentrated on what is most distinctive in the politics of the country, that is to say, upon those points in which it has given to the world something new, methods, schemes, or practices containing a promise or a warning for the future.
Four points stand out as specially noteworthy.
Australia is the land in which the labouring masses first gained control of the legal government and displayed their quality as rulers.
It is the country in which first a closely knit party organization, compelling all members of the Legislature who belong to it to act as a compact body, became absolute master of a representative Assembly.
It has extended further than any other country (except New Zealand) has done the action of the State in undertaking industrial enterprises and in determining by law the wages and hours of labour.
It is the country in which material interests have most completely occupied the attention of the people and dominated their politics, so that it affords exceptional opportunities for estimating the influence which the predominance of such interests exerts on the intellectual and moral side of national life. These four points, however, though the special objects of our study, cannot be understood without some account of the machinery of government and the way in which it works. I begin with the Commonwealth.
The Government of The Commonwealth
The Federal Government has received narrower powers than those enjoyed by the Dominion Government in Canada and by the Government of the Union of South Africa, but in some respects wider than those of the National Government in the United States. Powers not expressly allotted to it are, as in the United States, deemed to be reserved to the States, whereas in Canada the Provinces retain only such powers as have been expressly delegated to them, the residue not specifically enumerated being vested in the Dominion.
Trade — interstate and external — tariffs, currency, banking, patents, weights and measures, marriage and divorce, are in Australia Federal matters, as are also old-age pensions and arbitration in labour disputes which extend beyond the limits of one State, while the States retain legislation on property and most civil rights, industries, land administration, mining, railways, education. Reasons to be hereafter explained have led to proposals which would considerably extend the range of Federal authority, and many decisions have been rendered by the High Court of Australia, which is the ultimate Court of Appeal in the Commonwealth, upon the questions that have arisen as to the interpretation of the general terms employed in the Constitution.
The Commonwealth Parliament consists of two Houses. The Senate has thirty-six members, six from each State, all the States, great and small alike, being (as in the United States) equally represented. The senators are elected for six years by universal suffrage, not in districts, but by a general popular vote over the whole State. One-half retire every three years, so the Senate is a continuous body except when specially dissolved in consequence of a deadlock between the two Houses. The House of Representatives has seventy-five members, chosen in one-membered constituencies by universal suffrage. Its term is three years, subject to the power of earlier dissolution which the Governor-General can exert on the advice of his Ministers. Members of both Houses now receive a salary of £1000 a year.1 The British Crown legally retains a power of veto, but this is in practice not exercised unless where some grave imperial interest might be deemed to be involved.
Executive power resides nominally in the Governor-General, as representing the British Crown, but virtually in the Cabinet of high officials who form his Ministry, and who must be members of the Legislature and must (in practice) have the support of a majority in the House of Commons. Subordinate officials are, as in Britain, appointed nominally by the Crown but practically by the Ministry, and form, as in Britain, a permanent Civil Service.
In order to make the Commonwealth Government independent of any State influences, its seat has been placed at a spot (called Canberra, formerly Yass Canberra) almost equally distant from Sydney and from Melbourne, lying in a thinly-peopled region far off the main lines of railway communication, and at present equally difficult of access from both cities. A space of about 900 square miles has been ceded by New South “Wales for this purpose to the Commonwealth, and buildings are being erected there to provide accommodation for the Parliament and the administrative offices. Meantime the seat of government is at Melbourne.
The Federal Constitution can be amended by Parliament, i.e. by an absolute majority in both Houses, or by an absolute majority in one House, given twice, with an interval of three months intervening, and plus submission to the other House; but amendments must be thereafter approved by a majority of the States and also by a majority of the whole people voting simultaneously over the whole Commonwealth. In this case only does the Australian people exercise as of right that power of direct legislative action which is so frequent both in many of the United States and in Switzerland, where it is called by the names of Referendum and Initiative. It was, however, held to be within the power of Parliament, in such exceptional circumstances as were those of the Great War, to refer a matter to the vote of the people for their advice, a course taken in 1915 and 1917, when their opinion on the subject of compulsory military service was desired. This procedure for amendment is prompt and easy compared to that prescribed for the amendment of the United States Constitution, a natural result of the familiarity with swift parliamentary action which the framers of the Australian Constitution possessed.1 When a question is submitted to the people to be voted on by them, every voter receives a document setting forth the arguments for and against the proposals, as well as the full text of the proposals themselves.
The Commonwealth administers two Territories not included in any State, besides the Federal district of Canberra. One is the large region (532, 620 square miles), lying along the north coast of the Continent, between Queensland and West Australia, and extending a long way inland. It was transferred by South Australia to the Federal Government in 1911. The other is the South-Eastern or British part of the great Asiatic island called Papua or New Guinea (90,540 square miles), which was annexed by Great Britain in 1888, and by an Act of 1906 entrusted, along with some groups of islands lying near it, to the administrative care of the Federal Government. To this part there has recently (1920) been added another part, about 70,000 square miles, formerly owned by Germany, but now allotted to Australia as mandatory of the League of Nations.
The State Governments
The Constitutions of the six States, all of course older than that of the Commonwealth, are reproductions of the British frame of government, having been originally created by statutes of the British Parliament, though subsequently modified by acts of the State Legislatures. In each there are two Houses. The smaller, which is called the Legislative Council, consists, in New South Wales and Queensland, of persons who have been nominated by the Crown, i.e. by the Ministry of the day, for life. In Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania its members are elected for six years by voters possessing a certain small property qualification. The voters so qualified are between 30 and 40 per cent of those who elect the Assembly by universal suffrage. These Councils are continuous bodies, a part of the members retiring every second or third year. Members are usually re-elected. The larger House, called the Assembly, is in every State elected by universal suffrage for three years. Members receive salaries which vary from £150 (in Tasmania) up to £500 (New South Wales), and have also free passes over the Government railways. Each State has a Governor appointed by the Crown (usually for five years), and a Cabinet selected from members of the Legislature by the person whom the Governor summons to form an administration, such person being usually the leader of the party which at the moment constitutes the majority of the Assembly. The Governor, acting on the advice of his Ministers, can dissolve the Legislature, and can also, acting on behalf of the Crown, refuse consent to a Bill or refer it to England for the consideration of the Crown, but this right is now so very rarely exercised that it constitutes no check on self-government. Judges are appointed for life by the Governor on the recommendation of his Ministers, being removable only (as in Britain) upon a resolution passed by both Houses. The State Constitutions (as already observed) can, like that of the United Kingdom, be changed by the ordinary process of legislation.
The Judiciary in the Commonwealth and the States
Both in the Commonwealth and in the States, the judicial arrangements follow those of England. All the superior judges are appointed for life by the Governor, acting on the advice of his Ministers, and are removable only upon an address passed by the Legislature. They receive salaries sufficient to attract the best men from the bar. In the Commonwealth there has so far been created only one court, viz. the High Court, which is the final Court of Appeal for all Australia in all matters, whether arising under Federal or under State law. Its decisions are enforced by State machinery, while, conversely, the Commonwealth Parliament may invest State courts with Federal jurisdiction. There is also in the Commonwealth a Court of Conciliation and Arbitration (whereof more anon), and also a semi-judicial, semi-administrative body called the Interstate Commission with members irremovable during their seven years' term, among whose functions is that of investigating commercial matters and watching the operation of the tariff.
General Character of the Australian Governments
In its practical working from year to year, the Commonwealth is, and each State also continues to be as a State what it was as a colony, a Crowned Republic, i.e. a community monarchical in its form, but republican in its spirit and operation, and indeed more democratic than many republics are. Each community is attached, not only legally, but by what are now the stronger ties of sentiment and reciprocal interest, both to the mother country and to the other British self-governing Dominions. The growth of a strong Australian national patriotism has not diminished the feeling of the Unity of the British peoples all over the world.
These Australian frames of government, Federal and State, the legal outlines of which will be presently supplemented by a description of their working, are highly democratic. In the Commonwealth we find:
Universal suffrage at elections for both Houses of Legislature.
One-membered districts equal, broadly speaking in population.
No plural voting.
Payment of members.
No veto by the Executive.
Complete dependence of the Executive upon the larger House of the Legislature.
Scarcely any restrictions on legislative power (other than those which safeguard State rights).
Prompt and easy means of altering the Constitution.
These democratic features exist in the States also, save that in them Second Chambers, not based on universal suffrage, impose a certain check on the popular House. On the other hand the State Legislatures, having full power to alter their Constitutions by ordinary legislation, are not required to invoke a popular vote for that purpose.
One can hardly imagine a representative system of government in and through which the masses can more swiftly and completely exert their sovereignty. Of them may be said what Macaulay said, not quite correctly, of the United States Government. It is “all sail and no ballast.” The voters may indulge their uncontrolled will for any and every purpose that may for the moment commend itself to them.
The Federal Constitution is more democratic than are the State Constitutions in respect of the fact that its Senate is not a conservative force, being elected by the same suffrage as is the Assembly, and by a method which gives greater power to an organized popular majority. It will be seen presently that this has contributed to make the Labour party desire an extension of the powers of the Commonwealth to the detriment of the States.
Comparing the Commonwealth Constitution with that of the United States, the former is the more “radical,” for it contains neither a veto power, like that of the American President, nor those numerous restrictions on legislative power which fetter Congress, while its method of altering the Constitution itself is more promptly applicable. On the other hand, most of the American State Constitutions depart further from English precedents than do those of the Australian States, for the former vest the elections both of judges and of administrative officials in the people, and many of them contain provisions for direct popular legislation by Initiative and Referendum. Yet as the American States give a veto to the State Governor, and limit in many directions the power of the Legislatures, the Australian schemes of government seem, on the whole, more democratic than the American, though some of the reasons for this view cannot be given till we have examined the practical working of Australian institutions. Whoever has read the chapters on Canada will not need to be told how much less democratic is the form of its government than is that of Australia.
Some one may ask, What of Britain herself? Has not her Constitution become in recent years almost as democratic as is the Australian? The electoral suffrage is practically universal, and the working-class commands a majority in almost every constituency? And is not the House of Commons supreme, though one delay is still interposed before its will can be carried into law, supreme even over those fundamental laws which are vaguely called the Constitution? Did not Parliament, early in the recent war, suspend, with scarce any debate, nearly every constitutional guarantee, and place the executive in uncontrolled power?
All this is true. The United Kingdom, which is now, so far as respects its frame of government, more of a democracy than the United States, is almost as much a democracy as the Australian Commonwealth. In practice, however, this is not yet the case. The difference lies in the different social and economic phenomena of the countries, and in a few traditions of public life, which, though now fast disappearing, have still more influence in old nations like England and France than tradition can have in any new community. Some of these phenomena I may here indicate, in order to explain the conditions under which Australian institutions have to work, reserving for a later stage remarks on those features of Australian character which determine the public opinion of the nation.
The transportation of convicts ceased in New South Wales in 1840, in Tasmania in 1853, in Western Australia in 1868.
Originally £400, it was in 1907 raised to £600, and the action of the Parliament which voted to itself the addition was severely commented on. In 1920 it was suddenly further raised to £1000. The same thing had happened in the United States and in France.
The Constitution of the Canadian Dominion can be changed only by the Imperial Parliament which enacted it in 1867; but this arrangement, which seems to leave less power to the Dominion Parliament than the Australian Parliament possesses, does in reality give the former more power, for the Imperial Parliament is accustomed to comply as a matter of course with requests for amendments proceeding from the Canadian Parliament, when satisfied that they represent the general will of the people, whereas in Australia a bare majority only of the States and also of the people is required.
Two exceptions were, however, mentioned to me, and there are doubtless others.