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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 24

A Speech On Border Treaties and Australian Federation

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A Speech.

George Robertson Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide

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On Border Treaties and Federation.

[On the occasion of the visit of Sir Hercules Robinson to Albury, a banquet was given in his honour, at which, in response to the toast of his health, His Excellency made the following speech:]

Sir Hercules Robinson, who, on rising, was received with great cheering, said—I thank you, Mr. Mayor, for the kind terms in which you have proposed my health, and you, ladies and gentlemen, for the marked cordiality with which you have responded to the toast. I desire at the same time to express my grateful sense of the loyal and warm-hearted reception which has been accorded to me on the occasion of my first visit to the federal city—a welcome which has not been surpassed in generous enthusiasm by any which I have received in any part of the colony. (Applause.) I can assure you that I have long looked forward to visiting this interesting district, which is so rich in its natural resources, and which is second to none in the enterprizing and thoroughly loyal character of its population; but I have always been prevented hitherto, by one contretemps or another, from carrying out my intentions, until at length I thoroughly made up my mind that this year should not close without my seeing the Border districts. I had accordingly determined, during my annual visit to Melbourne, to take a run up by rail to both Albury and Deniliquin, so as to see something of this part of the country. As soon, however, as I informed Ministers of my intention, they suggested that my tour should assume somewhat more of an official character than I had at first intended, and advised me to travel from Sydney to Albury and from Deniliquin back to Sydney overland, so as to become personally acquainted with the residents of the various localities, and to see and judge for myself of the resources and requirements of the southern districts. (Hear, hear.) I need not page 4 tell you that I was only too happy to accede to their request, and I am glad to say that my overland trip, so far, has been one of real enjoyment. With good roads, first-rate teams, and a skilful whip, we made the journey in great comfort, averaging, while travelling, over ten miles an hour, which reminded one of early coaching days in the old country. My friend and most hospitable neighbour, Sir George Bowen—(applause)—the Governor of the great colony of Victoria, whom I am rejoiced to welcome here to-day, in a recent excellent speech which he made at Beechworth, expressed a hope that the bumping which I was sure to get on the bush roads during my overland trip would quicken my zeal for the completion of railway communication between Sydney and Melbourne. (Hear, hear.) I am glad to say that I had not to undergo any physical suffering of the kind, the more so as I did not need a single bump to strengthen my conviction as to the importance of completing, without one day's unnecessary delay, the Great Southern Railway to Albury, a policy which has always had, and always will have—for whatever it may be worth—my most strenuous personal advocacy. (Cheers.) Mr. Lackey, the Minister for Public "Works, who is here, will, I hope, be able to give you a satisfactory assurance upon this head. Of course, as you are aware, he is only one in the Cabinet, and must, like Regina, "Keep his eye on his father"—(laughter); but in this case, I believe, he will tell you that there is really "no deception," and that, as soon as ever the money for the construction of the railway is voted by Parliament, the works will be proceeded with with the utmost vigour and despatch. (Loud applause.) And now, allow me to say that I have been greatly pleased with what I have seen of the federal city and its neighbourhood. Standing, as I did on Sunday last, by the Hume monument and the Hovell tree, upon the banks of your beautiful river, I felt it difficult to realize that but fifty-two years have passed since those enterprizing explorers first discovered this portion of the country. Looking round, I saw on all hands abundant evidence of industrial progress and social improvement. The public buildings, the banks, the mercantile establishments, all bear evidence of the commercial importance and prosperity of the place; whilst the churches, schools, and other public institutions testify to the earnest desire of the residents here to advance the population in intelligence and morality and in all the qualities which make a nation great and happy. (Cheers.) But looking at the river, the thought page 5 more than once obtruded itself upon me—"Why has Albury been called the federal city? I presume, because, on the lucus a non lucendo principle, it presents a striking illustration of the absence of federation, and of the inconvenience and loss arising from running an arbitrary line of commercial demarcation through a country peopled by the same race, and marked by no physical differences. The corn and wine of this district are thus debarred from access to their natural market by a prohibitory tax imposed by a neighbouring colony, and the social commerce and exchanges of communities, separated only by a stream, are hampered by all the obstructions and restrictions which a customs barrier and different fiscal systems impose. Various partial and temporary expedients have, from time to time, been suggested and attempted to correct this anomaly. It was suggested at one time that the border should be shifted back to the Murrumbidgee. But I apprehend that the inhabitants of Riverina have by this time satisfied themselves that, although New South "Wales may occasionally be a little slow and sleepy, they would, perhaps, not gain much, on the whole, by exchanging King Log for King Stork. At another time a suggestion was mooted of forming Riverina into a separate colony. But it is obvious that this would not remove the chief grievance of a part of the products of the district being excluded from their natural market in Victoria, whilst existing annoyances and inconveniences would be enhanced by the establishment of a customs barrier on two sides instead of on one. Border treaties, too, have been attempted with the object of permitting unrestricted commercial intercourse across the Murray, New South Wales and Victoria mutually receiving in a lump sum the amount which it was estimated they would have collected on their dutiable imports. The principle upon which such a compromise was based was scarcely equitable; for whilst Victoria recovered, in one form or another, from the importers the duties paid over in a lump sum to New South "Wales, New South Wales had to defray out of her general revenue the amount paid over to Victoria on the corn, and wine, and other produce of Riverina imported into Victoria, and liable to duty under the Victoria tariff. However, the arrangement effected, at all events for a time, and perhaps in as convenient a form as was practicable, the object desired, of admitting the products of Riverina to their natural market, and of putting a stop to the harassing annoyance of individual collections on the border. page 6 But the treaty necessarily broke down when the tariff of New South Wales was revised in October, 1873, and the items reduced to specific duties on only about forty-five articles. The ostensible cause of the abrogation of the treaty was the introduction into Victoria, across the border, of tobacco manufactured in New South Wales, such a contingency not having been foreseen or estimated for when the adjustment was agreed upon between the two Governments. But under any circumstances the treaty must have broken down with the increased dissimilarity between the two tariffs, for with several hundred articles free on the one side which on the other were liable to duties, in some cases as high as 20 per cent., the free and unrestrained passage of commodities across the border was no longer maintainable. If such goods had been allowed to pass into Riverina through Victoria in bond they would have found their way back across the river into Victoria, to the evasion of the revenue of that colony. If, on the other hand, Victoria had refused the free passage of such goods through her territory in bond the trade would have been diverted from Melbourne to Sydney, and the commodities might still have found their way into Victoria without payment of duty, notwithstanding the additional cost of carriage. The abrogation of the treaty and the re-establishment of a rigid customs cordon on the frontier was, therefore, inevitable; and although there is every now and then a rumour of renewing the treaty, I am not myself sanguine that any equitable arrangement can be made which will be mutually acceptable whilst the tariffs of the two colonies are so widely dissimilar. Intercolonial commercial reciprocity was next advocated as a panacea for evils similar to those felt here, and Imperial legislation was invoked to enable each of the Australasian colonies to admit the products or manufactures of other Australasian colonies free, or on more favourable terms than similar products from other countries. But nothing has yet come, and I venture to think nothing will come, of this legislation, for the reason which I gave at the time, that it is scarcely possible to frame and carry out such reciprocal tariff agreements in any manner which will operate with fairness to both parties to the contract. Again, a customs union has been suggested, under which internal commercial exchanges would be free, articles imported from without alone being taxed, and the collections distributed amongst the several colonies composing the union in proportion to population. But such a customs union as I page 7 pointed out some years ago—and the argument has never been refuted—would only be practicable on the broad free-trade basis of levying duties—not on trade, but on consumption; that is, customs duties levied upon as few articles as possible of general consumption, with a corresponding excise. And when neighbouring colonies are agreed so far as to be willing to concede so much, their association need not then, I think, be limited to the mere collection and distribution of customs duties, but may easily be made to embrace the welding together of these really homogeneous provinces into one complete Australian dominion. (Hear, hear.) Thus, as I have shown, all the expedients which have from time to time been suggested or attempted, to mitigate the inconveniences to which you are exposed on the border, have failed, as I maintain they were bound to do; for such inconveniences are merely the natural consequences of dividing a country which is physically one into separate autonomous sections by means of mere arbitrary geographical lines of demarcation. The case is one which cannot be satisfactorily met by any empirical palliative. It admits of but one effectual and permanent cure, namely, the blotting out altogether of the artificial unnatural boundary line—in a word, federation. (Applause.) It is, I think, well that you should realise this here, and instead of wasting your time in looking for palliatives, which must prove ineffectual, seek rather for the total eradication of the evil by the adoption of the simple and natural remedy—a remedy, the attainment of which is, I believe, merely a question of time. (Hear, hear.) It is interesting and encouraging in this connexion to note the fact that all countries similarly circumstanced to this have, at one period or another of their existence, passed through the succeeding phases of disintegration and redintegration. A vast new territory, occupied by a sparse and scattered population, and with its communications unopened, has at first a circulation which is feeble towards the extremities. The tendency is to congestion at the centre, which generally results in, as it were, fatty degeneration of the heart, whilst the extremities are starved. The development of the whole under such conditions is for a time accelerated and advanced by reducing the circles of pulsation and bringing each part as near as possible to centres of motive power and progress. At a certain stage of development, however, these separate systems, in their turn, act feebly and antagonistically, and it is then found that union is strength, not only against external influences, but also as regards internal page 8 development, the interests of the several sections being more advanced by bringing the wealth, and credit, and intelligence of the whole to bear in every part, than by encouraging each in the contracted policy of taking care of itself, possibly at the expense of its neighbour. (Hear, hear.) Look, for example, at the early histories of England, of Germany, of Italy, of Switzerland, of the United States, of Canada, and even to the recent history of New Zealand. All have passed through phases of disintegration, and subsequent redintegration. The impelling motive varies. In some cases it is protection against aggression from without, in others against dissensions from within, sometimes merely increased facilities for internal development; but the tendency of the movement, whatever the impulse which directs it, is ever in the same direction; and the result is uniform—namely, the closer political cohesion, in some form or another, of people of the same race and language within the physical boundaries of the country which they inhabit. Whether Australia has yet reached the stage at which her safety can be better secured and her progress better advanced by the substitution of the federal for the provincial system, is a question which must be decided by the wisdom and patriotism of her local legislatures. But it is impossible for an impartial looker-on not to perceive that questions are now constantly cropping up, the proper settlement of which would be greatly facilitated by united action, and that resources are being frequently wasted which might largely promote the advancement of the country, under a wider community of interest and a more diffused readiness to co-operate for the general good. (Hear, hear.) Take, for example, the question of defence. Any danger to Australia must come from without. An attack on any part would affect the whole, and, like a chain, the strength of the whole is no greater than that of its weakest link. The true policy, under such conditions, is as obvious here now as it was in England in the time of the Heptarchy—namely, the substitution for petty isolated schemes of defence of a union which will facilitate the concentration, upon the shortest possible notice, of the whole fighting force of the country upon any threatened point. Look, again, at the recent growth of questions affecting external, as well as internal interests—such as the various mail services, ocean telegraphs, the exploration and settlement of conterminous territory, general immigration, and the introduction of Chinese. These, and similar subjects page 9 of a general character, will assuredly, before long, need to be considered and treated from a continental rather than from provincial points of view. So, too, as regards the important matter of internal transit. It must be obvious that, looking to the probable future of this great country, the railways should be designed with a view of hereafter forming links in the chain of railway communication which will some day extend throughout the length and breadth of Australia. But the question has never been even considered in this light, and much that is now being done will, I fear, have to be undone in the future. Different gauges have been adopted by the neighbouring colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland, and the policy of their railway extensions so far has been almost solely one of isolation, being directed mainly to the object of securing, by one device or another, for their rival capitals as much of the traffic of the country as possible. The fares are manipulated in the same interest. Victoria establishes special rates to the Riverina districts, in competition with South Australia, for the traffic of the Murray. New South Wales follows suit in self-defence, and to secure what she conceives to be her fair share of the traffic of her own territory. Where this "beggar my neighbour" policy is to cease it is difficult to say. Mind, I do not seek to impute blame to any Government. The result is simply the natural outcome of the system of disintegration and of isolation under which each colony is almost necessarily led to seek its own aggrandisement at the expense of its neighbours. But such aims are not for the common good of the country. Railways should be designed by the routes best suited for uniting the great centres of population and for developing the resources of the country. The fares should be fixed with the view of encouraging industry to the utmost extent, consistently with the fair claims of the general taxpayers. With railways over the whole of Australia projected and managed on these broad general principles, it would be a matter of as complete indifference to the country at large whether the produce of Riverina found its way to Sydney, Melbourne, or Adelaide, as it now is to New South Wales—whether the wool from Grenfell travels by the Great Southern or the Great Western Railway, or, as it is to England, whether the products of Birmingham make use of London or Liverpool as the port of shipment. Of course such a question affects the personal page 10 interests of the traders of London and Liverpool, and of Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide; but it is the interest of the country at large that traffic should flow through its natural and most economical channels, and any attempt to divert its course by artificial regulations and restrictions is simply a waste of wealth and power, and consequently a common loss to mankind. (Applause.) These and similar considerations can scarcely fail to attain greater prominence as the several provinces advance in development, until at length a general concurrence of feeling will be brought about as to the necessity for joint action in matters of federal concern. Meanwhile, the statesman should always be looking forward. Like a man riding well to hounds, he should keep his eyes ever ahead, with a view of avoiding, or, if need be, surmounting the difficulties which lie before him. All legislation and administration should be viewed, therefore, not only in reference to their applicability to the present, but also with regard to their adaptability to the probable circumstances of the future. The population of New South Wales is at present but little more than 600,000, whilst that of the whole continent of Australia is about two millions. The population of the United States of America at the date of their independence, 100 years ago, was but little above two millions, and now it is over forty millions. What the future increase in the population of Australia will be no one can tell, but it will assuredly be very great. The increase in the population of New South Wales has for some time been steady at about 4 per cent, per annum. But when one looks to the increasing pressure of population upon the means of subsistence in the old countries of Europe, there is every reason to expect that emigration from thence in the future will be conducted on a far greater scale than in the past. Supposing, however, that only the recent New South Wales increase of 4 per cent, annually be maintained, the population of this continent at that rate, at the end of the present century—25 years hence—will be over five millions; 25 years later, it will be 12½-millions; whilst in the year 1950 it will be 31¼ millions, which was the population of the United Kingdom by the last census taken in 1871. (Applause). The Registrar-General of England points out, in his last report, that, at the rate of increase of the 10 years from 1861 to 1871, the population of the United Kingdom would double itself in 84 years; that is, it would be about 63 millions in 1955. It may well be doubted whether so small an area could support so dense a population. But page 11 here there is room enough and to spare, for all who may wish to come. (Hear, hear.) I think, therefore, that my estimate of increase for Australia, which is based upon the recent established rate of increase in New South Wales, of 4 per cent, annually, will be found to be below the mark. Assuming, however, that the recent rate of increase in the United Kingdom is not diminished, and that that for Australia is not augmented, the population of Australia will, in 1955, be over 38 millions, which was the population of the United States of America at the last census in 1870, and the population of this continent will then bear to that of the United Kingdom the proportion of 38 to 63, instead of only 2 to 33, as at present. Surely such a prospect of future greatness must suggest the necessity of now laying broad and deep the foundations for the development of this vast country, and for its corresponding advancement in civilization. It is indeed, a prospect which may well enkindle a flame of Australian, as distinguished from provincial patriotism; whilst it assuredly offers a noble field for the exercise of the highest capacity for statesmanship. (Loud and continued applause.)

Walter, May, & Co., Printers, 9 Mackillop Street, Melbourne.