For a man who, like Colonel Ireton, had sojourned for a month in the silent bush, surrounded by a silent enemy, Port Darwin presented a scene of dazzling activity. The township was very full. Several well-known Federal officials were there in connexion with the railway construction to the south. This great work had been taken in hand from both ends, and the line from South Australia advanced rapidly. Though nearly everything had to be imported, the combined efforts from the north and south added about a mile every two days. But even if this rate of progress could be maintained throughout, years would elapse before the completion of the transcontinental link, without the possession of which the Commonwealth could not strike at the invaders. Many people doubted whether the enormous task could be finished at all. Some wagered that the work would soon stop through want of funds. Wild rumours were circulating of the extreme measures to which the Federal Government was driven in a hopeless attempt to avoid bankruptcy, and wilder prophecies foreshadowing the worst complications.
Colonel Ireton loathed listening to the idle talk. Nevertheless he could not but perceive that the interests of his garrison did not seem to receive much attention at headquarters. In vain did he demand stricter orders. The Federal authorities confined themselves to an assurance of their continued unlimited confidence in his ability; beyond this they merely repeated that details would have to be left to his discretion; that he should decide each case on its merit, always bearing in mind, however, that the invaders should never be given the slightest advantage on which a title to any possession in the Northern Territory could be based; and that he should never cease to assert the supremacy of the Commonwealth. The Colonel was bewildered by this strange indifference. He looked, so to speak, through the wrong end of the telescope, placed, as he was, 2,000 miles away from Australia’s nerve-centres, at the terminus of the overland telegraph. It was as well for him. For if he could have seen things in their true proportions, he would have despaired.
Alas, Australia has entered the phase of passive suffering. Its determination to keep the whole Continent white remains as yet unbroken. That is still the tacit presupposition of all national development, but the enthusiasm with which the establishment of the Federal garrison was greeted only six weeks ago has died out. What influence can a handful of white soldiers, buried in the boundless North, have upon the vital issue? They cannot reconquer the Territory, they cannot hunt the enemy out. Fools those who expected great things from them! Both official and popular interest in their doings are at a low ebb. In one quarter of the world, it is true, there is no sign of weariness with regard to the garrison. Every now and then the Japanese Press speaks of it with increasing bitterness. Just at present, while Colonel Ireton is in Port Darwin, a heated discussion is carried on about his exaggerated claims — so called — of ownership. The Tokio journalists take their cue from the British Press, which, of course, is denouncing wildly the financial measures of the Commonwealth, and make invidious comparisons that the same censured tendencies are being indulged in even against the poor refugees.
So the respectable British Press has continued hostile against Australia. The official relations, however, between London and Melbourne have become less strained, for the Imperial Government, benefiting by the lessons of the immediate past, is refraining tactfully from any further interference with Commonwealth legislation. Since the middle of November several English warships are again stationed in the capital ports. Perhaps this improvement has had something to do with the indefinite attitude of the Federal authorities towards the Colonel. They may be aware that new troubles with London are likely if they associate themselves publicly with a policy of oppression against the Japanese settlers, though they may secretly encourage it. Less directness will leave them free to plead that any particular action of their officer was not ordered by them, and to uphold or disavow him without loss of dignity. Perhaps they, too, have been taught the value of a better understanding with the Mother Country. Poor Colonel Ireton!
If there is any rapprochement to Great Britain, it does not find legislative expression. Parliament still rushes on undaunted — like a steam-roller, crushing through all accepted principles of fiscal policy and crushing vested interests right and left. Needs must when the devil drives. Ruthless action, not regretful sympathy, is the only means of avoiding bankruptcy. Forced loans, embargo on gold exports, absentee taxes, another shilling on the income-tax, which steadily yields less, double land-taxes — all the old nightmares of troubled Moderate consciences have become realities. And, in spite of everything, money is pouring in. If only the transcontinental railway and the armaments, which might have been financed leisurely in the good years gone by, did not swallow up every penny. Call it pounds, shillings, pence! It is nevertheless the very life-blood of the community, drained away in a ruddy, irrecoverable torrent. For all imports have to be paid for in gold. Though the mines produce at high pressure and every ounce finds its way into the official coffers against due certificate, they can hardly keep up with the demand. For internal uses, there is Commonwealth paper, of a value fixed by statute.
Even so, everything might yet be well, but for another pitiless If! If only the nation would go on creating wealth in accustomed fashion! Unfortunately, Parliament alone seems to be working. How unsettled the people have grown, how restless! The avenues of employment have narrowed. Trade is at a standstill. Military training has thrown the labour supply out of gear. Whatever business is done is transacted on a cash basis — in paper. Who knows how much the paper will be worth at the final reckoning? Who can concentrate his mind on ordinary toil while the terrible uncertainty lasts? Like a black thunder-cloud suspense hangs over Australia.
Spring is far advanced. It has been a glorious season. Soaking rains in many parts have clothed the countryside a rich green. Nature, like mankind, seems to be mocking the doomed Continent. The wheatfields are bending in golden heaviness, harvesting should begin. Wool, the staple product of Australia, should already be choking the ports. Instead, much of it is still on the sheep’s backs, shearing is proceeding painfully slow. Everywhere there is an outcry for labour. Political excitement has kept in the cities this year large numbers of men who in ordinary times would have gone up country about mid-winter. Certainly there is no plethora of employment in the towns either, but the general disorganization of business creates many casual jobs. At any rate, in the centres of population one is an active member of the body politic, one knows what is happening and takes part in it — thrills so dear to half-educated democrats. Away in the backblocks, on the contrary, one becomes a mere machine, grinding through hard tasks — not a pleasant change while so much is going on. The young men, moreover, are absorbed in the army, and though the authorities are doing everything to release them for agricultural work, many prefer the easy military life and hold out for increased monetary inducements. On reflection even ardent patriots do not like paper money. It is not a safe investment to toil for. Hard cash or no hands!
Meanwhile the landholders are reduced to despair. Most of them have only touched a few silver or copper coins of late. The harvest will rot on the fields if it is not secured quickly. Already rural associations are forming, at first for the purpose of mutual assistance in harvesting. The large owners are distinguishing themselves in this movement, uniting their permanent hands in gangs and setting them shearing, the drawing of lots deciding the rotation in which the various stations are to be taken. Such firmly knit bodyguards, having been once created, are found useful in more ways than merely shearing or reaping. And quickly the recruiting of forced labour becomes their most important function. To such a pass have things come in Australia, the Land of the Free!
Liberty or no liberty, the wool must be marketed, the crops must be brought in. If not voluntarily, the necessary work must be done by compulsion. Law and order have been set at naught so often that one more transgression does not count. There is no authority out back to which the victimized bush workers and small selectors can appeal for protection. Those who become reconciled with their lot and show willingness, are treated fairly well, and even persuade friends to join. So the ranks of the dependents swell. In like proportion the mettle of the organizers rises. The insignificant local unions are drawing towards each other and are rapidly being forged together to powerful district leagues. Soon the moving spirits will begin to dream of an all-embracing Rural Association, stretching from Central Queensland through Middle and West New South Wales to North-West Victoria and into the interior of South Australia. And the big proprietors, whose retainers form the backbone of the organization and who naturally control it, may then hope to influence the inevitable land legislation of the Federal Parliament in favour of present holders.
Already the enormous increase of numbers is begetting a consciousness of strength and an impatience of opposition, which has also grown apace. For a large percentage of the western toilers belongs to the Australian Workers’ Union, one of the most uncompromising labour bodies in the Commonwealth, and defies the incipient Association. No wonder the latter resents such behaviour, if only by reason of the dangerous example set to the more pliable men. The latent antipathy between the landless and the land monopolists is changing to revengeful fury. Occasional explosions of violence on both sides become more frequent. Soon the illimitable bush, so well adapted to keep its secrets, will be turned into a battleground of the worst human passions. Press gangs will infest it. Boycott and kidnappings will be daily occurrences. In retribution, fires of unaccountable origin will rage and consume many a proud homestead. And not many questions will be asked of any suspected incendiary — his end will be swift and sure whether he be guilty or innocent.
In the cities the misery is just as intense. Is it not spring, the season when that other dreaded Oriental invasion, the Plague, rears its head? It has been fought bravely in the past, it has been kept in check, but never quite exterminated. Now is its chance. No funds for sanitary improvements. A general enfeeblement of health. Universal listlessness. Famine rampant. Not plague alone, typhoid, low fever, consumption and a host of other diseases find a fertile soil. The death rate is multiplying.
Groan, ye mothers! Wrestle in prayer, fathers! Pray, not for the lives of your dear ones, but that they may have a chance to die in the defence of their country, striking a blow for deliverance — not like drowning rats in a sinking ship! Alas, the Heavens are deaf. Lost opportunities never come back. Stagnation everywhere! Only a solitary something is felt moving by all, creeping nearer and nearer like a death-reptile with fascinating, paralysing eyes: Public and Private Bankruptcy!
The contemporary historian, to be of any use, must poleaxe his sympathies and bury them at sea, by night, with a heavy weight for ballast, so that they may never trouble him again. Else he becomes unreliable. It is his duty to accumulate hard facts. Hard facts point their own moral. And yet, may not even memories of his dead sympathies visit him in the darkest hour, to lighten his cruel task?
Australia, thou didst not deserve this fate! Numberless were thy mistakes, but generosity was responsible for the most of them. Many hearts full of sorrow, many eyes dimmed with tears, were cheered by thy triumphant march in the van of humanitarian effort. It seemed that under thy congenial blue skies a new Greece was arising, a more perfect Athens, scorning slavery and conferring the sacred rights of citizenship upon its entire manhood and womanhood; and which, even as in Athens of old those deserving citizens had been ostracized who monopolized political favour, would dare to ostracize Old-World monopoly and injustice. And is this to be the result?
Perhaps it is all not true. It may only be a nightmare. Thou wilt awake, Australia! Thou wilt arouse thyself, thou wilt gird thy loins. Thou wilt confound the false coiners of cheap insular phrases who would persuade thee to rely on what thou canst not control! Every one of thy sons shall be a warrior, every one of thy daughters a warrior’s helpmate! Not for conquest. But in defence of thy inalienable right of shaping thy own destiny. Then, only then, thou mayest safely continue thy triumphant march. Then thou wilt enter into thy proud Twentieth Century Nationhood, which will be a joy, not an oppression! Thou wilt — What? . . . At present thou art staggering through the midnight of thy fate, tired, dead tired!
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
[Editor: Corrected “reapproachment” to “rapprochement” (the reestablishing of cordial relations between two countries).]