THE CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS IN VICTORIA. T HE Conference between the two
Houses in Victoria has naturally come to nothing. A Second Chamber will often sacrifice particular measures, or waive its pretensions on a particular occasion, in order to stave off a serious attack upon its rights. But it has no motive for making concessions when the attack in question has been actually made. The worst has then come. Accordingly, in the conference between the Assembly and the Council, each side presented proposals which really saved their own views. The managers on behalf of the Council made two suggestions,—one, that whenever the two Houses are at variance as to the propriety of tacking a particular item to the Appropriation Bill, should the matter be referred to the arbitration of two, or, if necessary, three, Governors of neighbouring Colonies ; the other, that on the occurrence of the same disagreement, the Council and the Assembly should be dissolved, and new elec- tions held for both Houses. The managers for the Assem- bly proposed that the rival Reform Bills already intro- duced should be submitted to a poll of all qualified electors, and that the result of such poll should be considered final, and be carried into effect by both Houses. The first of the Coun- cil's alternative proposals is perhaps the strangest application of an inapplicable principle of arbitration that has yet been suggested. A reference of a dispute about the Appropria- tion Bill to the Judges (whether in the Colonies or at home), to the Secretary of State, or to the Speaker of the English House of Commons, would, at least, have been intelligible. The Judges would presumably have known the law on the subject, the Speaker would have known the practice, the Secretary of State would have been interested in keeping the Assembly and the Council in friendly relations with one another. But the Governors of neighbouring colonies would have neither special know- ledge nor special interest to guide them, while they might, easily be influenced by knowing what would be the effect of their decision on the politics of their own colony. Their award would be worthless on its merits, and devoid of even that qualified weight which belOngs to ignorance when it is unbiassed. If they gave judgment in favour of the Assem- bly, the Council would probably submit, because they could have nothing to gain by further resistance. But if they gave judgment in favour of the Council, the Assembly would pro- bably find or make an excuse for disregarding their award, and the confusion from which it is desired to provide an escape would reappear in larger proportions. The fault of the second proposal put forward by the Council is that it does not meet the real difficulty. It is not alleged that the Council does not re- present the views of its constituents. If that had been all, even the most impatient of popular Chambers would have been ready to await the issue of the next election. The complaint which the Assembly brings against the Council is that the views of its constituents are not in accord with the views of that larger constituency which the Assembly represents. The danger of a deadlock arises not from the Council being acci- dentally out of harmony with the electors, but from the electors who return the Council being permanently out of harmony with the electors who return the Assembly. A general election to both Houses would in no way diminish this antagonism ; it would only show afresh that it existed. The truth is, that if a Constitution under which the two branches of the Legislature possess in theory equal powers, is to work well, there must always be an inexpressed provision which ensures that in the last resort one House shall yield to the other. Such a provision exists in the English Constitution in the power of the Crown to create new Peers. Where the Second Chamber is elective, some other means will have to be employed ; but a proposal to take the votes of the rival con- stituencies over again is not a means at all. It does not determine which House is to give way, the one point that has to be determined. It simply makes it clear that each House-expresses the feelings of the elementin ihe community which it represents. When one of these elements is the popular element, and the other is a class element, nothing is gained by-making this fact more apparent. The proposal of the Assembly really begged the question in dispute. The Reform Bill introduced by Mr. Berry aims at the submission of disputes between the two Houses to a plebiscite, and the compromise offered in Conference on behalf of the Assembly was that the propriety of this mode of settlement should itself be submitted to a plebiscite. The obvious, objection to this proposal is, that if a plebiscite be good-for the more 'important matter, it cannot be bad for the leas important. If the electors of Victoria are qualified to pass judgment individually on a difficult point of Constitutional philosophy, they must be qualified to pass judgment on the very much -simpler matters which arise out of the appropriation of public money.
The failure of the Conference makes it certain that the whole controversy will be submitted to the Secretary of State, in the first instance, and to the Imperial Parliament, in the end. The functions of these two authorities will in form be extremely comprehensive. The Colonial Office will have to draft a new Constitution for Victoria, and Parliament will have to decide whether this new Constitution shall be substi- tuted for the one at present in force. As a matter of fact, these comprehensive functions will be restricted within very much narrower limits. The large measure of legislative independence conceded to the Australian Colonies does not include the right of changing the form of their Constitution, but, with one qualifica- tion, it must be allowed to include it whenever the question arises. Where would be the sense of leaving the people of Victoria to govern themselves, and refusing them the liberty of altering the machinery which they are to employ in .governing them- selves A workman who is left to do his work in his own way had better be left to choose his own tools. The one thing that the Colonial Office and the Imperial Parliament would ordinarily be bound to ascertain is the real wishes of the people who will have to live under the altered Constitution. It is the duty of the Secretary of State to make quite sure what the mind of the people of Victoria is, and if Parliament is not satisfied that the Secretary of State has good grounds for being sure of it, it will be the duty of Parliament to refuse its consent to the Bill until further inquiry has been made. But this delay would be interposed solely in the interests of the people of Victoria. It is not an easy matter to arrive at perfect certainty as to the genuine drift of national feel- ing in a moment of great political excitement, and the Home authorities are bound to convince themselves not only that the Colonies demand that the Constitution shall be changed, but that the change they desire is the particular one which is asked in their name. As soon as this has been made clear, their wishes, whether they be for the abolition of a Second Chamber, or for the reference of questions on which the two Houses cannot agree to the two Houses sitting together, or for their decision by a two- thirds vote of the Lower House taken after a Dissolution, or, in short, for any method of protecting the Colony against the recur- rence of dead-locks in the Legislature, which is consistent with the maintenance of Parliamentary government,—will be granted. This is the single exception which ought to be made to the other- wise perfect freedom conceded to the Colony of deciding under what institutions it wishes to live. But this single qualification is one which ought not to be waived. Supposing that an English colony were to yearn after absolute government, to abolish repre- sentative institutions, and to submit itself to an elected despot, we should say, that if it liked to be false to all the traditions of the English race, it should be allowed to have its will ; but that this liberty was incompatible with the maintenance of its connection with England. If it chose to cast in its lot with the absolute Governments of the world, it must cease to have either part or lot with the free Government from which it sprung. So, too, we say of the wish for a plebiscite. Im- perialism itself would not be more inconsistent with represen- tative institutions ; if, indeed, government by plebiscite be not the first step towards some form of Imperialism. A eommunity which deliberatery, and after full explanation, desired to be ruled by direct popular vote, would no longer have anything in common with the Mother of Parliaments, and the maintenance of a connection which had lost its meaning would degrade us without benefiting them.