Their Fiery Cross Of Union

Written by:
3 March 2023
Their Fiery Cross Of Union - Featured image

Their Fiery Cross of Union’ is a brilliant book and one of the most important works of Australian history to appear in recent years. It is deeply insightful, beautifully written, and succeeds in making forgettable and forgotten politicians interesting. It’s both scholarly and entertaining.

In 1890s Australia, federation was what climate change is today. It sounded worthy, it was vague, and talking about it provided a welcome distraction for politicians from the mundane realities of public administration. How federation would actually make a practical difference to anyone was never explained.

Coleman has done much more than simply write the history of federation. He’s written the origin story of modern Australia – a country governed by lawyers and public servants. The country’s present-day policy failures from education, to health, to energy, can all be traced back to the failures in the structure of federal/state relations, the lack of competition and diversity between the states, and the absence of democratic accountability. The centralisation, and regimentation under which Australians suffer was a deliberate design feature of federation. Coleman’s insight into the beginning of this country’s politics deserves to stand next to Keith Hancock and his (in) famous assessment that Australians ‘look upon the State as a vast public utility, whose duty it is provide the great happiness for the greatest number.’

Bureaucracy was hardwired into the Australian government from the nation’s beginning in 1901. The reaction of most Australians to what their government did to them during Covid reveals Australians are not uncomfortable living under the rule of bureaucrats. Frank Bongiorno, in his excellent new political history of the nation, ‘Dreamers and Schemers’ remarks modern Australia’s origins as ‘a penal colony in which responsibility for the survival of the inhabitants rested with government’ that created a legacy in its people of a:

‘ready acceptance of rules, documentation and surveillance’, a habit of practical obedience and ‘talent for bureaucracy’ that contradicts Australians’ image of themselves as anti-authoritarian and socially informal, traits which they have sometimes attributed to their convict origins.

The years of Covid have prompted the comment that the behaviour of Australians was less like that of convicts and more like that of their masters.

Coleman is not ‘anti-federation’ as such. He’s opposed to how it was achieved and its end result. ‘A genuine federation – as distinct from a faux federation of unification – may have served Australia well. The flaw of the Federation of 1901 is that it botched federation, and may have precluded a better one.’ But it’s also the case that a process run by lawyers and public servants, as federation was, can only have ended up one way – with them holding the power and the baubles of power. As Coleman makes clear, the two key supposed justifications for federation that have been used ever since 1901, that Australia needed a federal government to coordinate defence and implement internal free trade don’t withstand scrutiny. Both objectives could have been achieved through intercolonial agreements – as was already starting to occur. In no sense was federation ‘necessary’.

The opinion of Coleman towards federation is neatly summed up at the beginning of the book.

[Its] origins were more frequently mundane than elevated; its leadership was, at its very pinnacle, mediocre; its democracy was mechanical, and, at its worst moments, fraudulent; it was born as much from alienation from country as from love of it; and more from careerism than from citizenship.

Above all else, Federation did not so much ‘make a nation’ as ‘make a state’.

Organisation in its several manifestations – government, science and law – has been powerful in Australia from its genesis. Australia began as a piece of administration. The apex of the management of colonial Australia was itself a bureaucracy; the Colonial Office… ‘The most enduring feature of any colonial regime,’ it has been said, ‘one of the first to appear and the last to leave, is the administrator, the colonial bureaucrat, high, middle and low’.

Occasionally these days a federal or state politician will talk about the benefits of ‘competitive federalism’ – which is ironic given that one of the purposes of federation was to eliminate competition between the states. Victoria’s support for federalism in the 1890s was based on the idea that after federation New South Wales would be forced to abandon its free trade policies because New South Wales would be outnumbered by states that supported tariff protection measures.

Federation, as construed by the ‘Fathers’, would also be a federation of uniformity, a quality acutely cognate with lawlikeness, and thus the ordering impulse of bureaucracy, and so cherished by it. Federation was seen as a means to that uniformity, in everything from railway gauges to gambling laws. The history of telegraphy provides a clinching illustration of the triangular nexus between uniformity, bureaucratisation, and Australian federation.

Charles Todd, responsible for the overland telegraph to Darwin and Postmaster-General of South Australia from 1870 to 1905, urged at a conference of the colonies in 1893 that there be a single time zone for the whole of Australia. This ‘eccentric proposal’ was adopted without dissent and it was only when Thomas McIlwraith the Queensland Premier intervened the following year that the decision was reversed.

Australia’s ‘Federation Fathers’ paid little attention to abstract claims about personal liberty and the limits to government. Their focus was on centralisation and unification. Nor did they ever consider that ‘states’ rights’ are not about ‘the rights of abstract administrative authorities but are rather about the protection of citizens’ rights from overweening government. And one way of protecting citizens from the government is by dividing and distributing the power of government, which is precisely what the American constitution aimed to do. But the colonial politicians in Australia driving federation were not interested in such theories.

A large number [of delegates to the 1897-98 Convention] displayed almost no knowledge of America or American government. A spectacular illustration came when the attention of Barton and his fellow delegates was drawn to the case of Marbury v Madison – the foundational case of the power of constitutional review by the Supreme Court of the United States. Barton replied, ‘None of us here had read the case mentioned by you of Marbury v Madison or if seen it had been forgotten’.

The delegates’ unfavourable perceptions of the United States constitution would not encourage them to learn more… The Civil War provided an awful admonition against its federal structure. One delegate brightly suggested the Civil War would have been avoided by a system of unitary government.

Presumably delegates didn’t pause to consider what would have been the case had a unitary government of the United States been pro-slavery. Even George Reid had little time for America. He thought that country’s democracy had degenerated into a vast organisation of ‘political bossdom’ and ‘party spoils’ and that ‘behind the millions of votes… there is a system of wires, held perhaps in the worst hands, which make a mockery of the free choice of the American people’. The belief of the assembled delegates was that federation would make Australian democracy neat and tidy and ensure it was in the hand of people who knew best.

But Reid got a few things right. During the arguments about where the capital of a federated nation should be located, he said it should not be in the ‘far bush of Australia’.

I do not want to see a political nest established in the centre of this continent. I do not want to see a bodyguard of lobbyists and syndicates established in the very heart of the political power of this great country, far away from the scrutiny of public opinion. Wherever this capital is to be, let it be within the reach of public scrutiny and control.

Anyone who has ever been to Canberra knows how accurate Reid’s prediction turned out to be.

Federation had very little public support – it was a project of the elites, the political class, and sections of the press. Federation in particular was a cause of the church, the army, the law, and bureaucrats.

In the last decades of the 19th century, the professions were establishing that peculiarly prominent position they hold in Australian society: swelling numbers; waxing in prestige; gathering in legislatures; organising their self-government; recruiting the sons of squatters, capitalists and merchants; and developing an ideology of self-justification.

Professionals were the class who had the most to gain from federation and they were its most enthusiastic supporters. As the Labor Party and trade union movement correctly identified, the relevance of federation to workers was minimal.

When it came to the church ‘[u]p and down the denominational scale – Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic – clergymen in the 1890s proclaimed the glad tidings of the coming national union.’ The clergy regarded itself as having a responsibility to lead Australians towards what was ‘good’.

Soldiers and sailors were strong advocates for federation. ‘Although professional military forces in Australia were then new, the ‘permanent forces’ (those paid and full-time) amount to 1,800 men, not a trivial number, and were overwhelmingly officers or specialists… How those aspirational officers would benefit from a large-scale military force is evident.’

Coleman more than justifies his claim that ‘the profession which would be most rewarded by Federation was the law, the ultimate profession of 19th century Australia; a community within a community, or, even better, a parallel community, which could easily bat away any attempt of any other profession (say, medicine) to resist its presumption.’ Drafting a constitution and the laws to go with will inevitably be the work of lawyers. Six of the ten delegates from both New South Wales and Victoria to the Australasian Federal Convention were lawyers. And the creation of the High Court promised more preferment for lawyers – four of those twelve served on the court.

It is not surprising that the historian of the NSW Bar should write that, ‘At no stage in the Bar’s history was the influence of so many of its members exerted on behalf of the Commonwealth’.

To put the same thought another way, the nerve centre of the Federation movement coincided with a certain complex of barristers and judges: Barton, O’Connor, Reid, Wise, Griffith, Andrew Inglis Clark, Deakin, Isaac Isaacs, Kingston, John Downer, John Quick, Josiah Symon, Robert Garran, H.B. Higgins, Richard Baker, P.M. Glynn, Bruce Smith, W.H. James, N.E. Lewis, Thomas Bavin, J.G. Drake and W.P. Crick. At the centre of the Australia political fish tank of the 1890s was a highly intelligent, jet-propelled, carnivorous, multi-armed tentacular organism.

Probably never before in a serious work of scholarship has such a grouping of Australia’s Founding Fathers been described as a ‘jet-propelled, carnivorous, multi-armed tentacular organism’ – but it’s accurate.

Lawyers were thrilled by the idea of federation. They would get to make the rules, interpret the rules, and enforce them. Federation provided almost unlimited opportunities for lawyers to benefit from taxpayers’ largesse.

Calling federation a ‘lawyer’s picnic’ doesn’t come close to describing it – it was more like a three Michelin stars, open all hours, unlimited buffet. The prime minister’s salary in 1901 was £2,500 a year (the equivalent today of approximately $390,000). At the time the average wage of a manufacturing worker was approximately £74 a year (today’s $11,500). When the High Court was created in 1903, the Chief Justice’s salary was £3,500 (today’s $546,000) and that of the other two judges £3,000. Samuel Griffith wanted to be the country’s first chief justice, not its first prime minister. Edmund Barton happily abandoned politics after less than three years in the Commonwealth parliament to join the High Court. Coleman endorses what’s been said of politicians, they have ‘pleasant faces and a certain animal magnetism [who] float helium-like into the firmament of success, from plum post to plum post, without ever demonstrating extraordinary talent, original intelligence or even a noteworthy grasp of the matters at hand.’

Then there were the bureaucrats:

Only one professional group could reasonably hope for even more from Federation than the law: civil servants.

A wave of legislation in the 1890s has professionalised them by making the civil service ‘independent’ (that is largely self-governing) and ‘expert’…[T]he prospects of an enhanced civil service were expressly advanced as an argument for Federation. One delegate to the [1897-98] Convention, J.T. Walker, commiserated that ‘the colonial civil service has very little attraction to rising young men’, as they were required to spend their time on ‘estimates’ hearings, and in answering the queries of MPs. But, he wrote, ‘the establishment of the Federation should in time, make its civil service attractive to a considerable portion of the very elite of its youth.’

The strength of the liaison between the civil service and Federation is well marked by the fact that of the six premiers who presided over Australia in the key period, 1895-1899, three were career bureaucrats before entering politics…

It wasn’t a politician who made the first recorded suggestion of a ‘central authority’ over the colonies. It was the colonial secretary of New South Wales, Edward Deas Thomson in 1846, who recommended to the Governor Charles FitzRoy that he urge the Colonial Office in London to create ‘a superior functionary’ in Australia to review legislation from the legislatures of Sydney, Hobart, and Adelaide.

The claim that federation was merely the vehicle for the personal advancement of politicians and lawyers that would eventually undermine democracy is not only a judgment made with more than a century of hindsight. It was the widespread refrain of the critics of federation in the 1890s, but because history is written by the winners, and the history of federation was written by Alfred Deakin, no-one today has heard of the ‘anti-federationists’. The name of, for example, John Haynes would be known now only to a few aficionados of the period, although he was the founder of The Bulletin with JF Archibald, and one of the leading parliamentarians in New South Wales as an MP from 1887 to 1904. Haynes

… deemed Federation ‘an artificial cause’ which did not reach the people. Federation was also anti-democratic in provenance. ‘Federation is a politician’s cause – it never came from the people’. Some Convention delegates were ‘gentry who hate the people as a power’.

Many delegates were lawyers; ‘he was amazed at the number of lawyers now anxious to give their service to the country’. ‘Every step which has been taken in this matter shows a desire on the part of the Attorney-General [Barton] to improve the position, the emoluments and the claims of the legal fraternity’.

And Federation, as proposed, would be anti-democratic in effect… [N]o legislation could occur without the approval of the Senate, a chamber where a Tasmanian voter had, in effect, eight times the votes of a voter of NSW. And any constitutional amendment could be blocked by just three states, which could amount to just 19 per cent of the population; the arithmetical possibility was that just 9.5 per cent of the electorate could defeat an amendment which 90.5 per cent favoured.

Thomas Byrnes likewise is now all but forgotten. At the age of

37 he became premier of Queensland in April 1898 and died in office five months later. Born in Brisbane, he was one of eleven children to an Irish Catholic family of struggling farmers. His father died when Byrnes was six and from Bowen, where the family had moved, he won a government scholarship to Brisbane Grammar School, and then another scholarship for study at any university in the British Empire. He chose the University of Melbourne and graduated in law and arts. Returning to Queensland he built a successful practice as a barrister and became a protégé of Samuel Griffith.

To Byrnes, Federation was a distraction from the pre-eminent political task: the development of Queensland. ‘Our greatest mission’, he told the Federal Council, ‘is not to go and have some fantastic form of central government…Our greatest work is, as far as we can, to develop the resources of the country’.

Federation was a vainglorious manoeuvre of ‘self-seeking politicians’ with ‘imperial notions’; which did not recognise the reality of Australia as a small power but succumbed to ‘thoughts in our mind that we are a very much larger country in the universe than we really are’.

Tainted in inspiration, Federation was impious in process. Its method of proceeding was anti-parliamentary, ‘absolutely poisonous’, ‘revolutionary’. ‘A new constitution is attempted to be foisted onto the colonies entirely behind the backs of…the parliaments’, who are to be ‘studiously ignored’. To Byrnes’s mind, the meritorious method of advancing towards any federation would be one of ‘many years’, ‘slow gradation’ and ‘silent process’, ‘not based merely on sentiment’, but on ‘common interests’.

Coleman understands politics and politicians completely, and his insights into the motivations of people like Parkes, Barton, Deakin, and Reid infuses ‘Their Fiery Cross’. And Coleman has lovely turn of phrase. His biographical portraits of the key figures of federation provides a wonderful sense of personality. For example:

James Thomas Walker – A free trade Bartonite, rose without trace. And left without any.

Bernhard Wise – Attorney-General to Henry Parkes. ‘A rising young man who somehow has never risen…’

William Willis – NSW MP, newspaper proprietor, rogue, ‘remarkable personality’… And, ‘by contrast with the ordinary ‘roads and bridges’ member, Willis was also a forger of signatures, a forger of wills, a perverter of justice, as well as being strangely unlucky in the number of fires that consumed his insured properties.

Coleman’s conclusion is convincing. It is not that closer political integration of Australia should never have happened. ‘Rather, that it might have happened later with better effect.’

This book review is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia 2023 and is written by John Roskam. To find out more, head to

Support the IPA

If you liked what you read, consider supporting the IPA. We are entirely funded by individual supporters like you. You can become an IPA member and/or make a tax-deductible donation.