Nineteenth century railways: Federation and the constitutional conventions

Fletcher, Valerie (2002). Nineteenth century railways: Federation and the constitutional conventions PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Fletcher, Valerie
Thesis Title Nineteenth century railways: Federation and the constitutional conventions
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2002
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Supervisor Dr M. Diamond
Dr S Ferber
Total pages 347
Language eng
Subjects 430101 History - Australian
690103 Rail transport
360101 Australian Government and Politics
Formatted abstract
The thesis 'Nineteenth Century Railways: Federation and the Constitutional Conventions' is an endeavour to understand why the delegates to the 1897-98 Constitutional Convention left the responsibility for railways with the States. It also seeks to shed light on the difficulties the decision gave the Commonwealth in its attempt to provide an Australian interstate rail system in the twentieth century.

The failure of Earl Grey's 1847 scheme, to provide a central government to deal with intercolonial affairs, prevented any authority overseeing commerce, tariffs and the construction of railways (linked issues) where these would benefit an overall Australian situation. The breaks of gauge in the colonial rail systems was an effect of this colony-centred attitude that militated against the establishment of an efficient twentieth century Australian interstate system.

Distance from each other and from the empire's metropolitan centre exacerbated the problems facing the colonial governments in Australia. The imperial policy of prohibiting differential tariff rates increased the problems of intercolonial commerce. The failure of intercolonial conferences to form a customs union or to solve commercial or other problems contributed to colonial rivalry and evoked feelings of frustration in the individual colonies.

With one exception, Queensland, the eastern rail systems were built to converge on their capital/port. The policy of each government was to prevent any trade from leaking to a neighbouring colony, but to attract as much trade as possible to its rail system. The systems became commercial rivals and precious capital was expended in constructing lines to areas already served from other colonies. Rail rates were slashed to attract custom so the systems ceased to be viable and debts mounted. The railways were being operated to serve the commercial interests in the capital rather than the rural producers. Despite this the railways had developed the countryside and the colonies were prosperous until the 1890's depression.

The British imperial policy was to extend responsible government to the eastern colonies but to lessen financial support to these colonies. Troops were withdrawn. By the 1880s European expansion into nearby areas caused concern to Australians. The colonies did attempt to form a union in order that the Australian voice be heard more effectively in London. The Federal Council had limited legislative power, no judiciary and no means of raising money. It concentrated its activities on external matters. New South Wales and South Australia did not participate. The other colonies were more willing to defer to New South Wales during the 1890s' attempts to federate the colonies in order to prevent a repetition of this.

Military preparedness became of increasing concern and at the London Colonial Conference in 1887 a military officer, Major-General Sir J. Bevan Edwards, was appointed to investigate the matter. He handed down his report in 1889. This emphasized the necessity to have a union of the colonial defence forces and gave weight to the need for an intercolonial railway on a standard gauge. It warned of the danger of leaving isolated parts of Australia, such as Perth and Darwin, without rail connection to the eastern systems.

The report spurred the Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, to appeal to his fellow premiers to meet in Melbourne to discuss federation. The outcome of this meeting was the 1891 Constitutional Convention. Railways were discussed especially in connection with the debts of the colonies, freedom of trade and the rail rates 'war' between the colonies. Sir Samuel Griffith, Premier of Queensland and Chairman of the Constitutional Committee at the convention, declined to assuage the concerns of some delegates over the breaks of gauge between the systems. He said that it was a matter for the colonies to decide.

Nevertheless, the wording of a section of the Bill allowed federal control of railways 'with respect to transport for the purposes of the Commonwealth'. Being worded in a general sense, it could probably have allowed Commonwealth action on standardising the gauges of an interstate railway.

The influences brought to bear on the delegates are examined in the thesis. One of these was that of the United States Constitution. It was discussed widely in the press and at the conventions. A very general clause in that constitution was extended by legal interpretation, 'reasonable construction' or 'doctrine of implied power' to allow federal control of their private interstate railways. A. Inglis Clark, a Tasmanian delegate with a wide-ranging knowledge of American constitutional and legal matters, claimed that under the terms of the 1891 Bill 'the Federal Government could claim power to build lines of railway that would serve as main arteries of communication between the several States'.

It is contended in the thesis that G. H. Reid - in 1891 a somewhat contentious member of Parkes's political party, in 1897-98 Premier of New South Wales - exerted a strong influence in having railways remain with the States. He initiated a move that blocked Parkes's early attempt to have the 1891 Bill pass in the New South Wales legislature. The other colonial legislatures waited on the outcome from the senior colony. The 1890s' financial crisis delayed the process indefinitely.

There followed an interregnum during which some Parliamentarians and various bodies of the people discussed federation and railways. G. Dibbs (later Sir George and three times Premier of New South Wales) proposed the unification of New South Wales and Victoria with part of his plan that their rail systems becoming a single unit. At the unofficial Bathurst People's Federal Convention a proposed new constitution bill included federated railways. There were still those who preferred state control of railways.

When he became Premier of New South Wales, G. H, Reid instigated a movement for a new constitutional convention based on the Corowa Plan. He went to the Adelaide session of the 1897-98 Constitutional Convention in a very powerful position, and it was there that the decision to leave railways in State hands was made. He had been opposed to federating the railways since he blocked the 1891 Bill. There was disagreement on federating the rail systems in all the colonies but the difference of opinion was strongest in New South Wales. It appeared that the colony's delegates agreed to a compromise whereby the future federation of the rail systems or their extension by the Commonwealth needed the consent of a state.

It was this section of the Constitution that limited the Commonwealth during most of the twentieth century when it attempted to link the capitals and the isolated parts of Australia by a standard gauge interstate railway. It was the inflexibility of the wording that denied the Commonwealth the opportunity to extend its power over railways by legal interpretation, 'reasonable construction' or the 'doctrine of implied power' that had been achieved in the United States of America. The desire of the State governments to retain power over commerce continued.
Keyword Railroads -- Australia -- History
Constitutional conventions -- Australia
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