Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XLVII: australian legislatures and executives - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER XLVII: australian legislatures and executives - 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 legislatures and executives
IN Australia, as in Britain, Parliament is the centre of political activity, the mainspring of the mechanism of Government. It is complete master of the Executive. No veto checks it. Every Minister must sit in it. There is no other avenue to public life, for there are no offices in the direct election of the people, and in Parliament the popular House is the predominant power, for it makes and unmakes the executive government and has the chief voice in finance.
As already observed, every adult in the Commonwealth and in the States possesses the suffrage. The admission of women was carried both in the States and in the Commonwealth with little controversy. People merely said, “Why not?” No steps were taken to ascertain whether the bulk of the women desired the right of voting. The women who actually demanded it were a comparatively small section, but little or no opposition came from the rest. The ballot does not permit it to become known how the women vote, but it is generally believed that in the richer classes fewer women than men vote, while the Labour Unions bring the working women to the poll in as large numbers as the men. So far as can be ascertained, the introduction of female suffrage has had no perceptible effect on politics, except that of strengthening the Labour party.1 Women of the richer sort seem to take little interest in public affairs, or at any rate to talk less about them than women of the same class do in England. They are said usually to vote with their male relatives, and no one suggested to me that their possession of the vote had induced domestic dissensions. Though plural voting exists nowhere, owners of property may in Victoria and Queensland cast their vote either in their place of residence or in some other place where they are registered in respect of their property.
Electoral districts are, broadly speaking, equal in population, though sometimes the rural areas contain fewer voters, this being thought fair in order to secure due consideration for rural opinion. The Commonwealth Constitution provides for an automatic redistribution of seats in proportion to population. Except in Tasmania, where the introduction of Proportional Representation required the creation of districts, each of which was to return a number of members, constituencies have been generally single membered, but Victoria, Western Australia, and Queensland have tried various forms of “preferential” or “contingent” voting. New South Wales in 1910 substituted preferential voting for the second ballot, and has now nine city electorates, each returning five members, and fifteen rural, each returning three. Proportional Representation, once enacted for the Commonwealth, was repealed by the Labour party when they held a majority.
Voting by post is permitted in Victoria and West Australia. “Absent voting” (i.e. the right for an elector to record his vote at a polling place elsewhere than in his division) has been introduced for Commonwealth elections and in Queensland. Candidates are not required by law or custom to be resident in the districts they sit for, but residents are generally selected as being better known locally. There is a tendency, less strong than in England, but much stronger than in the United States, to re-elect a sitting member.
The counting of votes at elections appears to be everywhere honestly conducted, and one hears no complaints of bribery, common as that offence used to be in the United Kingdom, and is still in parts of the United States and of Canada. A member is, however, expected to use his influence to secure various benefits for his district, such as roads, bridges, and other public works, an evil familiar in many other countries. The expenses of elections, generally limited by law, are in the States mostly light, usually ranging from £50 to £200, while for Labour candidates they are borne by Unions or political labour leagues. As the Commonwealth constituencies are much larger, the cost is in these often heavy.1 Where the legal limit (which is £100 for a House of Commons district and £250 for a Senatorial election) has to be exceeded, the candidate's party or friends supply the money needed.2 Elections are said to be growing more expensive, and members of the richer sort are beginning to be called upon to subscribe to various public or quasi-public local objects, a habit which has latterly become frequent in England.3
We may now pass to the Houses of Legislature, beginning with those of the States as being the older.
The Two Houses in the States
The bicameral system established when responsible government was first granted to each colony, was suggested partly by the example of the mother country, partly to provide a check on the supposed danger of hasty and ill-considered action by the more popular House.
In all the States the popular House, called the Assembly, is the driving force and dominant factor. It controls finance, it makes and unmakes Ministries. To it, therefore, men of ability and ambition flow. Its importance, though reduced by the creation above it of a National Government, is still sufficient to secure among its members, especially in the largest States, men of shrewd practical capacity, accustomed to political fighting, and quickly responsive to any popular sentiment.
Very different are the Legislative Councils. They are comparatively quiet, steady-going bodies, whose members, mostly belonging to the professional or business classes, and enjoying a longer tenure of their seats, are of a more conservative temper. Their sessions are fewer and shorter, their debates quieter and scantily reported in the press. Sitting for life or for six years at least, and usually re-elected at the expiry of their time, they acquire a valuable experience, and are less at the beck and call of a Ministry or of their own party than men are in the Assembly; indeed many of them claim to stand outside party, which has naturally less power in a body whose votes do not affect a Ministry's tenure of office. Though the scope of their action, as it does not include finance, is narrower than that of the Assembly, they sometimes amend or reject its Bills, and occasionally persist in their view, feeling it to be their function to arrest the more drastic or (as they would say) hasty and experimental measures of the popular body, on whose powers they constitute the only check. Thus many disputes have arisen between the two Houses, and many efforts made to get rid of the Councils, the Labour party having declared its purpose to extinguish them or to elect them by universal suffrage. As regards the nominee Councils it seems to be now settled that when deadlocks arise the Ministry in power may add a number of new nominees sufficient to carry its measures. Queensland deals with deadlocks by a popular vote or “Referendum.” 1 For the case of the elective Councils, in which the consent of the Council itself would be required for a change, no complete solution has yet been reached. These bodies, being representative, usually offer a firmer resistance to Assembly Bills than do the nominated Councils, but both sets of Councils have in the long run accepted measures distasteful to themselves when convinced that these had behind them the permanent mind and will of the people and not the temporary wishes or electioneering artifices of a Ministry.
Except when the aforesaid disputes arise, these Councils play a subordinate and little-noticed part in State politics. They do not resemble the Second Chambers (Senates) of the States in the American Union nor are they comparable to the French Senate, for they contain few men of political prominence, and do not greatly affect public opinion. But their record, taken as a whole, supports the case for the existence of a revising Chamber, for though they have sometimes delayed good measures, they have often improved legislation by giving time for the people to look where they were going, and by thus compelling the advocates of hasty change to reconsider and remodel their proposals.
The Federal Senate
When the foremost statesmen of Australia drafted the Federal Constitution, they clung to the time-honoured precedent of a two-chambered Legislature. Not seeking to create a check on the democratic spirit, they rejected the notion of election by limited constituencies, and found reasons for the existence of a Senate not only in the benefits which the revision of measures by a Second Chamber may confer, but also in the need for some body to represent the equality of the States and guard the rights of the smaller States from the numerical preponderance of the larger in the House of Commons. The body contemplated was to be something stronger and better than the Councils in the States, a comparatively small body, in which cool and experienced men, who wished to escape frequent elections and the rough and tumble struggles of the House of Commons, might sit for six years at least, addressing themselves thoughtfully to the great problems of legislation. Thus it received legal powers equal to those of the House, save that it does not turn out Ministries and cannot amend (though it may reject) finance Bills. When in 1898 the question arose how the Senate should be chosen, the framers of the Constitution were informed that American opinion, having then come to disapprove that plan of electing United States senators by the State Legislatures which had formerly won the admiration of foreign observers, was turning towards the idea of an election by a popular vote all over each State.1 Moved by this consideration, and probably thinking such a direct election more consonant to democratic principles, the Convention resolved to vest the choice of senators in the people of each State as one undivided constituency, while following the American precedent of giving to each State the same number of senators, though New South Wales-had (in 1901) a population of 1,360,000 and Tasmania of 172,000 only.
All the expectations and aims wherewith the Senate was created have been falsified by the event. It has not protected State interests, for those interests have come very little into question, except when controversies have arisen between New South Wales and Victoria. Neither has it become the home of sages, for the best political talent of the nation flows to the House of Commons, where office is to be won in strenuous conflict. The Senate has done little to improve measures, though this is largely due to a cause unforeseen by its founders, which will be presently explained. Not having any special functions, such as that control of appointments and of foreign policy which gives authority to the American Senate, its Australian copy has proved a mere replica, and an inferior replica, of the House. Able and ambitious men prefer the latter, because office and power are in its gift, and its work is more important and exciting, for most of the Ministers, and the strongest among them, are needed there, while the Senate is usually put off with two of the less vigorous. Thus from the first it counted for little. When the same party holds a majority in both Houses, no conflict between the Houses arises, and the Senate does little more than pass hurriedly, at the end of the session, the measures sent up from the House. But whenever the Senate majority is opposed to the House majority, trouble may be looked for.
This comparative failure of the Senate, admitted on all hands, is partly due to an unforeseen result of the method of election by a popular State vote. Each elector having three votes for the three seats to be filled, a well-organized party issues a list of its three Senatorial candidates, and the issues submitted being the same, all the party electors vote that list without regard to the personal merits of the candidates, which, though they might count for much in a one-membered constituency, count for little in the area of a whole State. What chance in a vast constituency has a candidate of making himself personally known? He can succeed only through his party. The tendency is irresistible to cast a straight party vote for the three whom the party managers put forward, so it is the best organized party with the most docile supporters that wins. Thus in the election of 1910 the Labour party, being far better organized than its opponents, carried every seat in six States, being half of the whole Senate. In 1913, when another election of half the Senate arrived, the same party carried three seats in three States, while three seats in two States and one seat in another went to the less compact Liberal party. At a special dissolution of both Houses in 1914 the Labour party, while obtaining a majority of eight only in the Assembly, secured thirty-one out of thirty-six seats. The electoral majorities were narrow, but the majority in the Senate became overwhelming. Such a result turned men's thoughts towards some scheme of proportional representation which would enable the minority to secure more members, and might give a better chance to men of eminent personal qualities; and a scheme of that nature is now on its trial.1
The Commonwealth House conducts its business on the same general lines as those followed in Great Britain and Canada, Ministers sitting in it, leading the majority, and carrying their Bills through the regular stages. Questions are addressed to the heads of departments, and the Speaker is, as in Britain (but not in the United States), expected to be an impartial chairman, though he, as also the President of the Senate, is now always chosen afresh at the beginning of each Parliament from the dominant party.2 The closure of debate, an inevitable safeguard against persistent obstruction, called in Australia “stone walling,” is habitual, and a time limit is imposed on speeches. Bills levying taxation or appropriating money to the public service must originate in the House, but the Senate, which can reject, cannot amend them, for this would in practice amount to giving a power to initiate, though it may (and does) return them, suggesting amendments for the consideration of the House. The House is the vital centre of political life, but its vitality was impaired when the Labour Caucus (whereof more anon) was established, for the centre of gravity shifted to that caucus in which the Labour senators sit along with their comrades of the House. When Labour holds the majority the caucus controls everything; and debate, except so far as it relates to details not settled by the caucus, or makes an appeal to the public outside, is thrown away, since it does not influence the decision, the majority having already determined in secret how it will vote.
This being the machinery of parliamentary government, the men who work it belong to what is practically the same class in the Commonwealth and in the State Legislatures, although the average of ability is somewhat higher in the Commonwealth Legislature, because it opens a wider field to ambition. Successful State politicians sometimes transfer their activities to the Commonwealth.
Europeans must be cautioned not to apply to any of the new countries the standards of education and intellectual power by which they judge the statesmen of their own old countries. In Australia there is no class with leisure and means sufficient to enable it to devote itself to public life. Some few men there are rich enough to live in ease upon the fortunes they have made in business or as sheep farmers, but scarcely any of such persons choose a life of Australian ease, for if they wish for idle enjoyment, they probably go to England, if they stay at home, they continue to occupy themselves with their sheep runs or their business. Not many aspire to a political career, which lacks the attractions that have hitherto surrounded it in European countries. It is (happily) not lucrative, and it carries no more social importance than the membership of a city or county council carries in England. Still less can the man who has his fortune to make turn aside to politics. The pastoralist lives on his station and must look after his flocks; the manufacturer or banker or shipping agent cannot sacrifice his mornings to work in a State Legislature, and cannot, unless his home is in Melbourne, think of entering the Commonwealth Parliament, where constant attendance is required.1 This applies largely to lawyers also, and in fact no modern legislatures are so scantily provided with lawyers as those of Australia; they are fewer than in Britain or Canada, far fewer than in the United States or France. In 1919 only one was sitting as a representative from Victoria. When the seat of Government has been transferred to Canberra, now a remote country nook among the hills, far from everywhere, even the possibility of a Melbourne barrister will be cut out. The level of attainments is not high among politicians, most of whom have had only an elementary, very few a university education. There is, moreover, a localism of spirit which thinks first of how a measure will affect a place or a trade, and there is a natural distrust of all reasonings that seem abstract. Of quick intelligence and shrewd mother-wit there is indeed no lack, but rare are the well-stored and highly-trained minds capable of taking a broad view of political and economic questions.
One may regret that a larger number of men, trained to affairs by business or professional life, do not give to their country the benefit of their intellectual resources. But it is to be remembered that such men live chiefly in the large cities, and would be almost unknown in country constituencies, distances being greater than in England, and many electoral districts in the “back blocks” so large that to canvass them requires a great deal of time and expense. Putting all things together, only a quite exceptional public spirit will induce a man in good business to seek election to a seat in a State Parliament, for he must neglect his work, he has a good deal of rudeness and possibly even abuse to face, and he is expected, far more than formerly, to fetch and carry for his constituents and toil for the party. Local fame and £600 a year were not, nor, probably, will £1000 a year be sufficient to outweigh these drawbacks, not to add that such a man, unless possessed of an attractive personality which can meet the ordinary elector on his own ground, is exposed to prejudice or suspicion on the ground of his belonging to the richer class. This kind of suspicion or aversion, scarcely known in Britain or in Canada, is dwelt on in Australia as an obstacle in the path of the educated man seeking to enter politics.
Both before and since Federation politics have been unstable in the States and the Commonwealth, with frequent shiftings of the majority, and, by consequence, frequent ministerial changes. Victoria once enjoyed eight ministries in seven years, South Australia had forty-one in forty years, and the Commonwealth had, between its birth in 1900 and 1910, seen seven administrations. The consolidation in 1909 of three parties into two, with a stricter party cohesion, made for a time these shiftings of power less frequent. But elections recur every three years, and in the legislatures of the States, comparatively small communities, personal feelings count for much. Want of tact in a Minister, some offence taken by, or selfish motive acting on, a little group of members, has sometimes led to the turning over of a few votes and the consequent fall of a Ministry. Party discipline was lax until the rise of the Labour party drove its opponents to greater stringency.
There was plenty of vigorous debating in the State Assemblies of last century, which saw the conflicts of strong and striking personalities, such as Robert Lowe, Sir Henry Parkes, Sir Graham Berry, William Bede Dalley, C. C. Kingston, G. H. Reid, Alfred Deakin, and others, not to speak of some who happily survive, though now no longer in Australian political life. One is often told that the present generation of parliamentarians does not equal the men of 1860 to 1890, that the debates are on a lower level, that there is less courtesy and dignity, that the term “politician” begins to be used in a disparaging sense. Such laudatio temporis acti is so common everywhere that one would discount these regrets for a better past were they not so widely expressed by thoughtful observers. There are to-day, as there have always been, a few men of eminent ability in public life. It would seem that there has been a decline in manners.1 Australian politicians fight “with the gloves off.” Offensive remarks are exchanged, as usually happens in small bodies where each knows the weaknesses of his fellow-members, imputations freely made, speeches constantly interrupted by interjected remarks. But scenes of violence, such as occasionally disgrace the Parliaments of Europe and America, seem to be almost unknown, and personal feuds are rare; personal attacks seeming to be no more resented than is roughness in a football match.
Neither the growth of the States nor the creation of the Commonwealth has caused a seat in Parliament to carry any more social prestige now than formerly, and it has added immensely to the work expected from a member. His constituents weary and worry him more than ever with requests, since the increase of State-controlled industries has so enlarged the number of State employees that the grievances which the member has to bring before the notice of a Minister or of Parliament grow in like proportion. The richer Australians dilate on the harm done by the payment of members, saying it has brought in many uneducated persons who come for the sake of the salary, and whose loyalty to their party is enforced by the fact that their income depends on their loyalty. But no one could tell me how it was possible to avoid the payment of members if it was desired to have the wage-earning class duly represented, nor were the old days adorned by quite so much dignity and disinterestedness as it is now pleasant to imagine.
It was, however, believed at the time that in the two Referenda on the question of compulsory military service the women voters of all classes largely contributed to the defeat of that proposal. Western Australia, in which it was carried, has the smallest proportion of women.
I was told that it may reach £2000, but as at the same election a Referendum on a proposed amendment to the Constitution may be voted on, it is not easy to distinguish how much of the total expenditure is attributable to each issue.
A statute directs enquiries to be made regarding such help.
An Act of 1909 imposes penalties on those who disturb an election meeting with intent to frustrate its purposes, and another (of 1911) subjects to a penalty offensive comments on a candidate at an election, if published without the writer's name.
In Queensland, when a popular vote (Referendum) was taken in 1917 on a proposal to abolish the Second Chamber, the proposal was rejected by 165,000 votes against 104,000.
This sentiment went on growing in America till in 1913 it carried an amendment (the seventeenth) to the Federal Constitution, by which the election of senators was vested in the people.
In 1919 the application of a plan providing for preferential majority voting resulted in the election of 17 members of the largest of the four parties with 860,060 votes, one member of another party (Labour and Socialist), with 820,000 votes, and no member of the two smallest (the Farmers and the Independent) parties, which together aggregated 173,000 votes. This outcome has given scant pleasure to the advocates of Proportional Representation.
In 1912 the Speaker was not wearing any robe of office, this having been disused, but in the Parliament of 1913 it was restored.
Successful business men are more often than not managers of a large company, and in so far not free to give their time to politics.
But Sir G. H. Reid remarks in his autobiography on the rudeness common in the legislature of New South Wales in his day.