The Honourable Dr JC Bannon – Constitution Founders' Lecture – Alternatives to Australian federation: Then and now
It is some 16 years since I last spoke in this Chamber – and well over 30 since I first spoke here as a member of the Assembly. This is a gratifying attendance – even in moments of political crisis, the benches were never as full as they are today.
Today, the matter before the House is federation and while I will talk generally about it, as this lecture is part of the Constitution Founders’ series I will focus particularly on a man who sat in the seat to the right of the Speaker for more than six years in a critical period of South Australia’s history – a period that marked its transition from a self-governing province of Great Britain to a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. This man is Charles Cameron Kingston, Premier and Attorney-General of South Australia and one of the prime founders of the nation.
This is a particularly appropriate place for reflections on federation. We should take ourselves back to March 1897 where in this House 50 delegates, elected to represent five of the six Australian colonies, gathered to begin to write a constitution. It was an exercise that occupied the next 12 months, involving two further meetings in Sydney and Melbourne, and endorsement by the electors of the colonies that saw the Commonwealth proclaimed less than four years later. In 1897 the delegates from New South Wales and Victoria were in Adelaide under protest – the NSW Premier George Reid doubted Adelaide’s capacity to hold such an event and said the location was quite unsuitable and ‘inconvenient’ in all senses of the word. Alfred Deakin of Victoria was of the view that ‘a stay in Melbourne was looked forward to with pleasurable anticipation, but in Adelaide, the City of Churches, it was quite another matter’. Some things don’t change! Incidentally, Deakin was probably not aware that as well as the churches the city square mile alone contained 128 pubs. The Adelaide location had been secured by Kingston through what was called an ‘underground treaty’ among the smaller colonies, which was a useful show of strength by those who were nervous that under federation they and their interests could simply be swallowed up by the ‘big two’.
The Chamber they occupied had been in use for only seven years and was somewhat grander and more appropriate than its humbler predecessor. Embarrassingly, the project, planned to mark 50 years of South Australian self-government, was not only completed late and over budget, but was unfinished as funds were exhausted before the central Hall and Legislative Council Chamber could be added. Old photos show the truncated building with the eastern wall secured by galvanised iron. It remained in that state for 50 years – a moving example of either the financial prudence or the poverty of the state, depending on your point of view.
It was a very South Australian occasion. Kingston, elected as President of this and all subsequent sessions, sat in the Speaker’s Chair. Below him as Chairman of Committees sat his colleague, President of the South Australian Legislative Council Richard Chaffey Baker, who was, like Kingston, South Australian born but educated at Eton and Cambridge. This was an interesting combination, as less than five years earlier Kingston, after an exchange of insults with Baker, had unsuccessfully challenged him to a duel. Baker rejected the challenge and called the police, who found Kingston waving his pistol in Victoria Square and arrested him. He narrowly escaped a gaol sentence and was bound over to keep the peace. He was still under the court order when he became Premier six months later.
At Baker’s side sat the Clerk of the Convention, Edwin Gordon Blackmore. A veteran of the New Zealand wars, Clerk of Parliaments in South Australia, and an expert on parliamentary procedure with close connections to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Blackmore proved to be a superb organiser and overcame all objections of inconvenience. He eventually became the first Clerk of the Senate.
The eminent delegates elected as the Leader of the Convention not one of the premiers, but Edmund Barton of New South Wales, who sat at the Table with the Clerks. It was here on the evening of 13 April 1897 that federation was nearly killed for a generation. The delegates had not been able to agree on the Senate’s power over money Bills that, under the draft proposal, could only be initiated in the House of Representatives. The smaller colonies were insisting on the Senate’s power being unfettered, the larger arguing for it to be totally restricted. The numbers were against a compromise. If outvoted New South Wales on one side, and Western Australia on the other, would simply abandon the Convention.
Late in the evening, with the vote about to be called, Barton realising the numbers were against him and that disaster loomed, told delegates he was suffering from a ‘bronchial cold’ and asked for an adjournment to allow the vote to be taken the next day. This was granted, and through the night some extraordinarily intensive lobbying took place. Two Tasmanians, one New South Welshman and two South Australians broke ranks from their delegations to support the compromise that was carried by just two votes. Kingston’s vote, with that of his colleague Glynn, was critical to the result. The Convention proceeded.
The memory of that night here in Adelaide brings me to some reflections on federation. Broadly, there seem to be two contemporary attitudes to the federation of Australia: one is that the joining together of the five mainland Australian colonies and Tasmania into a nation has an inescapable logic to it and is based on the seemingly inexorable centralising trends over the past 100 years – and the way ahead is to deal with the unfinished business of unification. An alternative view is that the creation of the Commonwealth was brought about, in Deakin’s words, ‘by a series of miracles’, that the compromises and processes that made it happen should be respected, and our task today is to make what has turned out to be a resilient and successful system work better.
These attitudes result in a very different approach not only to the problems of governance, economic management and service delivery, but to how we view Australia’s place in the world at large. I would like to examine them by starting with the environment in which the founders of the Constitution did their work. The founding document was endorsed by a substantial majority of the people of Australia in a referendum process unique in the world. For the first time ever, a nation’s founding constitution was the subject of a democratic vote. The universal franchise, which in two colonies included women, was the broadest of any polity of the time. And even more remarkably, it was not decided in the context of revolution, civil war or a crisis of governance. It is not surprising that a constitution made in such circumstances has proved hard to change and has, by and large, provided stable and productive government through the disasters of the twentieth century and so far in the global economy of the twenty-first.
In retrospect, it is easy to see the logic of the six colonies joining together as they did. The fact that it happened less than 10 years after the first constitution was drafted by the Convention of 1891, despite what proved to be a false start and a massive economic depression in the first half of the decade, gives weight to the idea that it was just something that was bound to happen. But the views of Deakin and his colleagues about the difficulties are not to be lightly dismissed. One could say there were no alternatives – but in fact, there were and they were real.
The first alternative was maintenance of the status quo. The British self-governing colonies of Australasia (the term that embraces New Zealand – it was widely used at the time and was adopted for the two constitutional conventions of the 1890s), could readily deal with the issues that needed joint action by a form of treaty and ad hoc diplomatic activity. For the first 40 years of self-government, that is just what they did. There were some formal agreements, for example regarding posts and telegraphs, but for colonies that looked to Britain before looking to each other, and saw themselves as independent entities within the British Empire, there was no urgent or compelling reason to change.
By the 1890s, the concept of self-governing colonies within the British Empire was very well established and their autonomy was guaranteed in practice through their ability to raise finance in the London markets and to legislate in advance of Imperial or other jurisdictions in some areas. The letters patent issued to governors, for example in South Australia, stipulated that in most matters the assent of the Governor in Executive Council was sufficient to give effect to legislation. Some matters had to be reserved for the assent of the Queen and her Executive in Britain. These included Bills relating to divorce, issuing of currency, provisions that were at odds with Britain’s treaties with foreign powers, British military forces and those that prejudiced Royal prerogative.
However, radical measures such as New Zealand and South Australia’s granting of the vote to women (and in South Australia’s case, full political rights including the right to stand for office) well ahead of any other jurisdiction, although reserved for Royal Assent, were ultimately granted. There are a number of other examples. We were not so much struggling to be free as struggling to streamline – big and small, old and new, the Australasian colonies had virtually unlimited domestic sovereignty. As it happened, a united or federated Australia would carry – from 1901 until the first half of the twentieth century, and in legal terms until 1986 – many of the same constraints on international trade, treaties and foreign policy within the Empire as the separate colonies had done.
The cultural differences among the states that persist today were evident to a much greater extent then. Tasmania and New South Wales both sought to erase the ‘convict taint’ of transportation. Tasmania went so far as to change its name from Van Dieman’s Land on attaining self-government. Victoria and Queensland, as offshoots of New South Wales, shared this heritage. Western Australia, originally founded as a free colony, reverted to convicts and received them until as late as 1868.
South Australia and New Zealand both believed their free origins gave them some kind of superior morality and equality. By the 1890s, both jurisdictions prided themselves on their progressive legislation – some of which, such as votes for women, and conciliation and arbitration to resolve industrial disputes – had been pioneered in consultation with each other. They were also more aligned in their attitude to their indigenous populations: the Maori having seats reserved for them in Parliament, and ‘natives’ in South Australia and its Northern Territory eligible to vote and their rights spelt out in letters patent.
Victoria and New South Wales, the two big colonies, had a fierce rivalry that by the 1890s had cemented into the dominant and irreconcilable doctrines of free trade and protection. This ‘lion in the path’ to federation was seen by many as fatal to Australian nationhood.
Queensland had its own reasons to stay separate. As the stresses caused by the southern location of its capital and its three distinct economies based in part around climate emerged, they were compounded by the perceived need for indentured Islander or Chinese labour in the sugar fields. The unpopularity of what was seen in the south as a form of slavery was a major barrier to union. Queensland had already asserted its independence in matters beyond domestic policy by claiming New Guinea as part of its jurisdiction – and in the process creating an imperial crisis and pre-emptive action from Britain.
Western Australia always saw itself as too distant and different for more than a partial relationship with the easterners. The Crown Colony only achieved self-government in 1890 and was hardly ready to take the further big step of surrendering its newly acquired powers. Added to this, the discovery of gold in the mid-1890s insulated it from the Great Depression and vastly increased its population, economy and ability to ‘go it alone’. Ironically, it was the new settlers – the miners who rushed from the east, in particular – who pressured the government through their threats of secession to hold the referendum in 1900 that saw Western Australia enter the Commonwealth at the last moment. Little wonder that the west was a reluctant participant and, when things got really tough in the depression of the 1930s, undertook the only really serious attempt at secession and carried a referendum to that effect. Given all this, continued separate development seemed to many to be inevitable.
Even if it was conceded that the colonies had common interests in matters such as trade, defence and immigration, there were a number of alternatives to federation that could serve the purpose. It is worth remembering that all of them were seen as viable and some of them were implemented.
One alternative was a customs union or free trade area on a bilateral or multilateral basis. An example of this can be seen in Kingston’s attempt, when federation seemed to be stalled, to conclude a free trade agreement with New Zealand. (The social and legislative contacts between the two were noted earlier in this paper.) In 1895, Kingston took advantage of the presence of the New Zealand Treasurer, JG Ward – who was in Hobart for intercolonial meetings – to raise the possibility of a bilateral trading relationship of complementary products between their colonies. Kingston had a number of sympathetic contacts with the New Zealand liberal government. Its leader, Prime Minister RJ Seddon, had taken office in the same year as Kingston became Premier, and they shared a number of causes, such as an obstructive upper house, a belief in state intervention in the economy and immigration controls. Seddon’s activist Minister William Pember Reeves had been influenced by Kingston in the drafting of his conciliation and arbitration legislation. Kingston was very keen to see New Zealand join the union. Kingston and Ward negotiated a limited free trade agreement between their colonies, subject to its reference back to their respective parliaments.
The difficulty for Kingston was that at the same time, all the premiers, except Forrest of Western Australia, had agreed on a scheme to achieve federation through an elected convention and referendum process. Kingston had been at the forefront of the new agreement and drafted the legislation to be put to colonial parliaments. It was not surprising then that when his deal with New Zealand became public, the other colonies were outraged. Commenting at a national level, the Review of Reviews declared that Kingston ‘after using his great ability in one room to perfect the Federal Bill, hastened into the next room to conclude a separate treaty with New Zealand’. One clause provided that the duration of the agreement was to be for a period of seven years, that is, well past the anticipated time it would take to accomplish federation under the proposed elected convention model that Kingston had been advocating to his colleagues.
Kingston provoked protest from his Victorian counterpart George Turner, and was somewhat discomfited by Turner’s legitimate complaints. He reacted as he usually did in such circumstances by counter-attacking and changing the subject to a number of longstanding grievances, including Victoria’s refusal to deal with a dispute over the location of the South Australian–Victorian border. Turner had mildly asked for the negotiations to be put on hold ‘in the interests of Federation’. Kingston responded with a number of ironic insults, noting that the sentiments in one letter were such that ‘I have been at some pains to endeavour to forget them’, and acknowledging another ‘which from its tone I trust you will permit me to assume was written under the stress of some disturbing influence’. While asserting that Turner’s arguments ‘savor[ed] of the purest provincialism’, ‘[t]he great object of Federation is Intercolonial Free Trade’, he thundered, ‘and, until federation, the colonies must make their own arrangements’.
Both parties had to get the agreement endorsed by their governments and, more problematically, by their parliaments. Partly to overcome the rising complaints, Kingston and his New Zealand counterpart confidentially agreed that the treaty would cease on the achievement of federation. They also agreed to broaden its scope to provide for a process of ‘mutual consultation’, where agreements could be made with New South Wales and any other Australian colony. The problem was that it was amended in the New Zealand Parliament, eliminating fresh fruits from the schedule and placing a tariff on South Australian wine, with no countervailing benefits from New Zealand. Kingston could not proceed on this basis, and the much-heralded trade deal fell through.
Another alternative, which briefly flourished in 1894 to the alarm of the small colonies, was a proposal for the union of New South Wales and Victoria. This was a response to the economic problems faced by the two colonies. The NSW Premier George Dibbs initiated the proposal with his Victorian counterpart, James Patterson, referring to it as a way to ensure that the ‘obstructive spirit of provincialism can be curbed’. He opposed the Commonwealth Bill as:
It would mean that a major portion of the southern and western trade of NSW would have been thrown into the hands of Adelaide and Melbourne while NSW coal could and probably would have been excluded from the Victorian and SA railway systems.
He drew attention to the ‘preposterous number of legislators’ that would exist after federation – one for every 4000 persons generally, and one for every 1000 in Western Australia. It was a detailed proposal and attracted a positive response from Victoria, but both Dibbs and Patterson were out of office a few months later and the proposal lapsed.
Probably the most feasible alternative at the time was a body established by British legislation and given powers to legislate, although requiring the consent of any member who wished to apply the legislation. This was the Federal Council of Australasia, which from 1885 was seen by many as the appropriate structure for the colonies. The problem was that although it included four Australian colonies and the Crown Colony of Fiji, both New South Wales and New Zealand refused to join, and South Australia was a member for only two years. It met regularly until 1899 and was strongly supported by Queensland and Western Australia, in particular. But in the end the absence of the largest colony was fatal to its long-term effectiveness.
And so we are left with federation. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Kingston was in the vanguard of attempts to establish a united Australia. He was in many respects typical of those who sought to reconcile a sturdy and self-confident nationalism while preserving the special characteristics of the colonies, and ensuring that they entered a federation with some degree of equality and were not simply taken over. For Kingston there was no incompatibility with his strong commitment to his colony (on the day his government fell in 1899 he left the Parliament and spent the rest of the day watching South Australia play Victoria in the Sheffield Shield at Adelaide Oval) and his Australian patriotism (again in a sporting context, he was among those convention delegates in Melbourne in 1898 who took time off to watch a pre-federation Australian cricket team playing against England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground). And in turn his Australian patriotism and rejection of British control or judicial superiority sat easily with his identification with the British Empire (he was one of the first premiers to commit troops in support of Britain to the war in South Africa). With his colleagues, Kingston ensured that South Australia, the fourth most populated colony, had a profound impact on the shape of the Constitution.
Kingston’s draft of the Constitution, made in anticipation of the 1891 Convention, is a revealing guide to his thinking about the shape of federation. It was probably finalised with a knowledge of Tasmanian Andrew Inglis Clark’s draft, which in turn drew heavily on US precedents. However a number of Kingston’s features should be noted. 
Kingston’s views changed on some issues over time, but many of the fundamentals remained unchanged and came to be incorporated in the Australian Constitution. By entitling his Bill ‘An Act for the Union of the Australian Colonies’ and suggesting the name ‘United Australia’, he undoubtedly wanted to emphasise the supremacy of national rather than colonial parliaments and legislation within the designated powers. A specific provision, which is included in the current Constitution as section 109, ensures that where state and Commonwealth laws are inconsistent, the latter prevails and the former is invalid. He also used the term ‘union’ for the ‘Supreme Court of United Australia’. The court was to be, in his words, ‘the sole court for hearing and determining of all appeals from any courts’ in Australia, thus eliminating recourse to the Privy Council in Britain. This became one of the great battlegrounds when the Constitution was finally considered in Westminster in 1900 – and Kingston, joined by a number of his colleagues including political opponents such as Sir John Downer and Josiah Symon, fought hard to maintain the position. A limited compromise that allowed some appeals to the Privy Council, but most significantly not important constitutional questions, was inserted by the British Parliament in 1900. It took another 86 years before Kingston’s original proposition was finally enacted.
However despite these references to ‘union’, Kingston’s draft and subsequent position were definitely both federal and democratic in nature. He reverted to ‘federal’ within the body of the document to describe the executive, the parliament and the constitution itself. He always favoured the broadest democratic approach; his eloquent defence of the Constitution in 1896, which aimed to convince his wavering and sceptical Labor Party allies to commit to the federal cause, was entitled ‘The democratic element in Australian federation’.
His name ‘United Australia’, and others such as Clark’s ‘Federal Dominion of Australasia’ and Downer’s ‘Federal Australia’, were subsequently replaced by the term ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. Kingston’s South Australian colleague and conservative rival, Downer, argued that the word ‘commonwealth’ was connected with Oliver Cromwell and republican times, and was ‘certainly disconnected’ with loyalty to the Crown and therefore inappropriate. It was precisely this association with the Cromwellian commonwealth and republicanism that attracted Kingston’s support. He also rejected the term ‘House of Representatives’ for the popularly elected house of parliament, proposed by Clark based on the US model, preferring the term ‘National Assembly’, probably because of its resonance with the French Revolution. Despite his draft envisaging a governor-general appointed by the Queen, Kingston was one of only three delegates who supported New Zealand’s Sir George Grey in moving that the governor-general be democratically elected by the people. He did, again unsuccessfully, propose in his draft that under federation, state governors should be popularly elected for a five-year term.
Some of his measures recalled the old Chartist demands for accountable parliaments, which had been supported by his father George Strickland Kingston. For instance, there would be an election every two years, with half of the National Assembly and one-third of the Senate seats in contest on each occasion. Again, there would be an over-riding referendum provision, which allowed any Bill passed by the federal parliament to be put to the people for endorsement or rejection, if within three months either one-third of either house of federal parliament, or two state parliaments, or on petition of 20,000 electors requested such a referendum. While this did not get up, the referendum remains the only means of changing the Constitution itself to this day. His one departure from broad democracy was in respect of the Senate – his original proposal was for senators to be chosen by a joint sitting or vote of both houses of the state parliament. He very soon became a strong advocate for the direct election of senators, which was subsequently adopted.
When it came to Commonwealth powers, a number of his particular causes were embodied. High on the list was the ‘restriction and prohibition of the immigration of aliens, Asiatics and of any undesirable class of persons’. Kingston, with many radical liberal colleagues and universal support from the labour movement both in Australia and New Zealand, was a supporter of what became the restricted immigration or ‘White Australia’ policies. The motivations or nuances of his position are beyond the scope of this paper, however, they were certainly far too complex to be dismissed as outright racism, although that is how they might appear today. In fact, removing the nineteenth-century racial elements from the policy, it is not so different from that espoused by both the current and previous federal governments of Australia, exercising tight control over the right to decide who should enter the country and under what terms and conditions they may do so.
On other powers, Kingston linked the trade and commerce power to his own special obsession – powers to legislate in respect of trades unions, organisations of employers and employees, and tribunals for the settlement of industrial disputes. This was eventually adopted, although constitutionally confined to interstate disputes. Its scope as enacted was the immediate cause of Kingston’s resignation from the Barton Ministry.
One issue resonates strongly today. It was then, and still is, an issue of fundamental concern to South Australians. The Murray River was still a major transport artery, connecting the outback with its ports. It was also experiencing increased development of irrigation. In 1886, the Downer government had lured the Chaffey Brothers to Renmark after they had experienced frustration with the Victorian government over Mildura. In the 1890s, the Kingston government had embarked on the establishment of experimental communal village settlements based on the Murray. Kingston’s draft included a comprehensive Commonwealth power ‘to fix the right of any colonies with reference to the user of the water of any river or stream’. It survived the 1891 Convention as a power over ‘River Navigation with respect to the common purposes of two or more states or parts of the Commonwealth’. The determination of New South Wales to preserve its rights to headwaters was consistent and unmovable. Downer well expressed his delegation’s frustration in Adelaide in 1897:
You confirm the title of NSW not only to the bed of the river but to every drop of water in the river. If NSW decides that the whole water should be used in the interests of itself then Victoria and SA will just have to grin and bear it. It reminds me very much of the old story of a dispute over a beast. When two men declared it belonged to both of them one man said ‘I wish to kill my half’.
The South Australians had only partial success with the insertion of a clause giving the Commonwealth power over ‘the control and regulation of the River Murray and the use of the waters thereof from where it first forms the boundary between Victoria and New South Wales to the sea’. The South Australian Parliament tried again by suggesting an amendment that broadened the clause to include the tributaries of the Murray, specifically referring to the Darling, Murrumbidgee and Lachlan rivers. The issue dominated the Melbourne session of the Convention, as the clause was withdrawn and the three states affected (Queensland was not present at the Convention) negotiated behind the scenes to reach a compromise. It proved impossible and the majority of the Convention was set to exclude the Commonwealth entirely. It could not pass laws to ‘abridge the rights of a State or the residents therein to the use of the waters for conservation and irrigation’. Downer was able to get this modified slightly by having the word ‘reasonable’ inserted before ‘use of the waters’. In this form, it is section 100 today and perhaps the time has come to legally test the meaning of what is indeed ‘the reasonable use of the waters’ before there is none left to use.
The Constitution has not been able to satisfactorily deal with intergovernmental issues. The mechanism of the Premiers Conference and Loan Council proved inadequate to deal with the challenges. The Council of Australian Governments process has certainly been a major step forward. Failure to deliver invariably results in calls for greater federal control from Canberra, more uniformity, and reduction in the functions and powers of the states. One of the current alternatives is the creation of new states or their substitution for regional government. There is nothing new in this. From the Princeland Movement of the 1860s to create a state from the southeast of South Australia and the western districts of Victoria, to the State of Auralia proposed by the goldfield separatists in Kalgoorlie at the time of federation, to the three divisions of Queensland, to the New England movement in northern New South Wales, there have always been regional proposals.
Kingston’s original draft provided for new provinces to be created with the consent of the states affected. Section 124 in particular allows for the formation of a new state either by the separation of territory from an existing state or the joining together of two parts of a state, but again only with the consent of the parliaments involved (this does not require a referendum), while section 111 allows a state to surrender part of its territory to the Commonwealth (this was used in the transfer of jurisdiction over the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth from South Australia in 1911). None of the proposals has happened despite the mechanisms available.
In summary, there were alternatives but the federal system adopted was the best of them; the pity was that New Zealand did not become an original state as provided and hoped by some. Are there practical alternatives today? Constitutionally, they are possible but unlikely. So let us stop speculating and make the existing system work better.
I would like to conclude by referring again to Charles Cameron Kingston, not then, but now – and to two events that could be seen as indignities inflicted on the great statesman 100 years after his death. The first concerns his statue, which has stood in Victoria Square since 1916. It was erected with funds raised by public subscription, which included a significant amount from readers of TheBulletin, which had always supported him editorially and promoted him for Prime Minister. On its base are panels showing him presiding over the Federal Convention, addressing the federal parliament as a Minister in the first Cabinet, and a portrait of his eminent father and a prime founder of South Australia, George Strickland Kingston.
Above, Kingston stands in oratorical mode with raised right hand – an imposing statue, but then Kingston was an imposing figure. What is notable about it is that he is attired in the full court uniform of a Privy Councillor, with knee britches and a ceremonial sword at his side. He would not have been at all happy about this. When in Britain for the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1897, he was offered and refused a knighthood – as happened again on the achievement of federation. This was consistent with his nationalism and attitude to imperial honours. It helped retain his popularity with the masses, but earned the opprobrium of his long-suffering wife. His colleague Thomas Playford wrote that he was glad Kingston had not accepted the knighthood: ‘if he had his democratic friends would turn against him’, but that ‘Mrs K did not like it as she gets no title and made herself as disagreeable as she knew how. Poor Kingston had a fearful time of it’. He did, however, accept membership of the Privy Council, but rarely wore the uniform – although he reluctantly appeared in it for the inauguration of the Commonwealth in 1901. He was known for his lack of stuffiness in dress, preferring informal and modern styles consistent with his image as a friend of the workingman. So it was an unkind critic (probably his enemy Chief Justice Sir Samuel Way who had taken a leading role in organising the statue), who has made him wear the costume in perpetuity – he’s only fortunate that he carries a sword and not a pistol in reference to the famous duel.
But a further indignity has been delivered by the recent relocation of the statue from its original position, looking out over his admiring and solidly working-class electorate of West Adelaide towards his home on West Terrace, to the east, where he is forced to contemplate the heartland of his political opponents. Some consultation would have been in order before this move took place.
The other event is even more startling. He is the only member of the founders, and indeed the only former premier and federal minister to be exhumed for the extraction of DNA to test a number of paternity claims that have been current for more than 100 years. In this case, the procedure itself is not unusual in the contemporary world, and all the appropriate approvals were obtained. It was not for gain or in any attempt to denigrate him – and the private man could not really complain about the need for families to know the truth. But there is still the question of whether someone of such eminence and bound to be of public interest should be exempt from such a process. The results are still not in, but will be very interesting.
A previous lecturer in this series, referring to the exhumation of Kingston, commented that he could not believe that it would be treated similarly in the United States, if for instance, George Washington was to be disinterred. Of course there is the example there of forensic DNA investigation into descendants of the almost equally eminent and venerated founder Thomas Jefferson, which has yielded results that have shed new light on the complexities of the man without diminishing his overall reputation. So let it be with Kingston. As a historian, the opportunity to confirm some of the rumours and allegations about Kingston and the cause of his decline and death while still in his fifties is somewhat irresistible. But in no way should this devalue or undermine his extraordinary achievements in the making and shaping of this great Commonwealth of Australia, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to pay tribute to him.
1 For such an exercise I would commend John Williams’ invaluable and monumental The Australian Constitution: A Documentary Heritage (Melbourne University Press, 2005) as a most accessible source.