The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
Pensions! the very word itself seems as it were to hang in the throat, and to present some difficulty of articulation. To the resident of an old country where the institutions are time-honoured, even what may be often objectionable to us as individuals becomes merged in the feeling of political expediency or a sober patriotism. We look back on the past, its achievements and its glory, and the momentary grudge towards the pensioned statesman or warrior subsides before a more generous impulse of national honour. And beside this, when we look at the vast resources of the mother country, and the noble spirits that from time to time have helped to place her in so exalted a position among nations, there exists scarcely any comparison with a colony not yet a century old, but whose reckless expenditure and generous-before-just sense of action would lead a stranger to infer that its history must be as eventful as its wealth must be inexhaustible. How surprised would he be to hear that we scarcely manage to make both ends meet! While ready enough and vain enough to ape in a small way the lavish grants of the mother country, to perpetuate, as it were, her accidental abuses, we show ourselves ridiculously incompetent to carry out the one, and may we not say morally criminal in introducing the other. page 170 Our Pension list in fact is beginning to assume respectable proportions; and if our legislators do vote away the money that does not belong to them, we must perforce suppose the people outside are amply gratified in the length of the list being in ratio inverse to the length of the purse.
We are led to make these few remarks from noticing a case recently before the Legislature. We shall invade the sanctity of no private position. We shall simply deal with the principle of Pensions as it comes before us, and with the singularly alleged claims that are now and then put forward to support them.
When Mr. Parkes a few weeks since introduced the case of the late Honorable John Hubert Plunkett, praying for a pension of £200 to his surviving widow, the tenor of his address fully evinced the difficulty of his task. His speech throughout is rather the argumentum ad misericordiam than that of an advocate strong in his position, and arguing confidently on the justice of his claim. Being himself behind the scenes, knowing the ins and outs of parliamentary action, well aware of the pulse of the chamber, and the now heard though somewhat tardy mutterings of an economising section, he knew there was need of the utmost caution. And he laboured on where we have no design to follow him further than by saying his entire address was a fallacy, and his oratory mere special pleading. No doubt the Chamber does possess the right to vote away the public money, but only for a just and sufficient cause. And in the case brought forward we emphatically deny its existence. We care for no precedents; we shall not wander among a maze of argument where no thread of reason is perceptible. The extremity of the case is quoted, and deemed amply sufficient to cover claims however illegitimate. Sentiment was to rule the Chamber, and such an every day matter as pounds, shillings and pence to be utterly ignored. The ad captandum burst of religious tolerance which closes the oratory of the honourable member, is not the least singular part of the whole proceeding. Mr. Parkes may, ostrich-like, bury his head in the sand and fancy no one sees his body. Sed nescit vox missa reverti; and the worthy senator's Catholic compliments have scarcely yet sunk in the Lethe of the past.
It is unnecessary to examine the peculiar opinions of each speaker on this question. Even Mr. Buchanan, with all the uncompromising expression of his views, enters on no remedy, suggests no expedient for staying this political cancer that is eating into the very vitals of the country. Each member avoids touching on any remedial measure as though he were fingering hot iron, and as for hinting at the annihilation of Pensions, the idea might be thought excessively shocking. And yet it is the only one that commends itself in our eyes. We hold Mr. Plunkett's case a fair one to deal with. The honourable gentleman had filled certain very important offices in the colony. During the labours of office he had been for a lengthened period page 171 in the enjoyment of £1500 per annum, and on his retirement received a pension of £1200. But in the face of this liberal acknowledgment of his political services,—services which however considerable appear to us to have been fully met by this handsome pecuniary grant,—Parliament is, on his decease, called upon to extend its further aid to those whom his improvidence had left in depressed circumstances. Now it is here that without any circumlocution we take our stand, and would endeavour to show the inadvisability of the Pension system, and to suggest a, to us, apparently ready remedy for a fast increasing abuse. As we have before remarked, we shall invade no privacy in our pages, or by the tenor of our reflections be instrumental in causing individual pain. We would only briefly remark that this recorded case is by no means the first in which, on the decease of the bread winner, an appeal has been made to the public pocket. Now we say, unreservedly, this must be put an end to. Because, beside the principle itself being bad, the colony is by no means in such a prosperous state as to be enabled to meet such unreasonable claims. It is all very well for a member to get up periodically in the House and pray for certain Pensions to be put upon the Estimates. It has a bad effect out of doors. I do not say such would be the case under a more happy pecuniary condition of the colony, because then, people here, as in the old country, would be perhaps apt to overlook any little extra pull upon their purse in the satisfactory sense of individual advancement. But failing to show that this is the case—indeed, bound as we are rather to admit that the colony of New South Wales has seldom been found in a more depressed state—it seems not only suicidal to persist in a course of policy that is supporting family after family out of the public funds, but also unfair to remunerate twice over those for whom a once public bounty should have been all-sufficient.
We have never yet, we confess it, been able to see why (as a remedy to this growing evil) the State should not confer on those whom it delights to honour a lump sum on their retirement. We have no disposition to ignore State services; far from it. The intelligent and brainworked professional man while employed in the service of his country, contributing to her success, and expending may be his best years in her labour, is not to be cast aside in the gloom of fast coming years like a broken bow or a squeezed orange. Let him enjoy his merited reward, his otium, and every blessing that can result from a well-grounded consciousness of unswerving rectitude and honour. Let his country be liberal to him while alive, and by no means forgetful of him when passed away, providing the circumstances of the case justify any after exercise of its liberality. And this is the point in question, in so far as Government recognises no after claim on the part of those who have been fairly dealt with during life. Exceptional cases must be supposed to hinge on page 172 some peculiar feature that may call for a further manifestation of aid from the State. Whether such cases as those recently before the public eye come under this category is a matter that need scarcely engage us when we know how individual opinion is often biassed by the smallest incident, and by the crudest idea of what is wise and proportionate.
But reverting briefly to what has already been said, we cannot see why, if the State determine to hold out aid to the family of a deceased benefactor, any impediment should present itself against the presentation of a sum in complete discharge of the implied debt. Feelings and considerations that are wont to influence private families or even private societies, are not likely to influence a government. What difference can it make if a certain amount be paid by way of principal, and the claim got rid of for once and for ever? If it should be a mere matter of debtor and creditor, where steady services have been ever acknowledged by a government as steady pay—why then, the State servant's decease will close all connection between employer and employed, and so all mutual interest is equally at an end. But finally, should a case arise where ample government acknowledgment has been made for acknowledged State service, with no understanding or even expectation of any further government notice on the death of recipient, then let it be clearly understood as a fixed principle of law that no case however specious, no interest however suborned, shall be able to upset a resolve to deal as honestly towards the living, the great body of the public, as the State has dealt towards the individual while enjoying the benefits of office. Unless some stand of this kind is made, things are too likely to go on in a haphazard sort of way, the policy and action of the Government being founded on no reliable basis, and, therefore, calculated to breed nothing but complaint and uncertainty.