The true ideal of federation

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‘At this late hour of sitting I cannot expect to make very much progress with this motion’, explained Sir John Quick to the House of Representatives, ‘but inasmuch as I have had to consent to its postponement on several occasions, I now desire to take the opportunity to advance it as much as possible…’. 1 It was June 1901, and the Commonwealth parliament was not yet two months old. Newly knighted for his contribution to Federation, and the author, with Robert Garran, of the authoritative Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, Quick had achieved success through determined self-improvement. 2 Education had been his means of advancement, carrying him from the mines of Bendigo to a notable career in law. Now, at the height of his career, he similarly sought to bring knowledge to bear upon the development of the youthful Australian nation. With the business of government barely begun, Quick’s motion, introduced so impatiently, argued for the establishment of a ‘National Department of Agriculture and Productive Industries’ based largely ‘upon scientific knowledge’. 3

The idea of creating a national department or bureau to foster agricultural improvement was emblematic of the creeds of ‘new liberalism’ or ‘progressivism’, which began to emerge in the late nineteenth century. 4 Traditional laissez faire policies seemed increasingly impotent in the face of growing threats to social cohesion and unparalleled opportunities for accelerated development. New liberals sought to wield the power of the state to claim progress as their own, to enrich the character of their citizens, and to ensure the prosperity of their nation. As Isaac Isaacs argued in support of Quick’s motion: ‘All this paraphernalia… is only the gold lace of the Constitution, unless we can make of it an engine for the promotion of the material, moral, and social welfare of the people’. 5

The influence of new liberalism was strong within protectionist ranks, and Quick counted amongst his parliamentary supporters Alfred Deakin, Isaacs, and the member for Darling Downs, William Henry Groom. 6 Groom, in particular, had good reason to believe in the possibilities of improvement. In 1849 he arrived in Australia a convict, found guilty of theft at the age of just thirteen. A little more than fifty years later, he was a successful businessman and politician, elected to the nation’s first parliament after lengthy service to the Queensland colonial legislature. 7 From petty thief to founding father, he had remade himself. It was an experience that shaped his political philosophy and fed his hopes for reform. Improvement could be won by the determined labour of an individual, but it was up to the state, Groom believed, to smooth any obstacles, to ease the burden.

Groom was dedicated to his rural constituency, and believed the nation’s future could be best assured by trusting in the virtues of the small landholder. Confident, too, in the bounties of science, Groom’s campaign for a federal seat drew particular attention to the need for a Commonwealth department of agriculture to arm his imagined yeoman brigades with the latest scientific knowledge. 8 Science promised to improve the land and the lives of those who worked it. But while preparing to speak in support of Quick’s motion Groom became ill. Within a few weeks he was dead. Both his cause and his seat in parliament passed to his son, Littleton Ernest Groom. 9

Littleton Groom embodied much of the spirit of new liberalism, or ‘progressive liberalism’, as he termed it. ‘I want to see the individual and individuality developed to the full’, Groom argued, ‘and wherever I can see that the State… can be used for the purpose of doing good to the people as a whole, then I believe in the State exercising its powers accordingly’. 10 In the by-election following his father’s death, Groom declared himself an ‘accredited Bartonian’, proud to be associated with ‘leaders of liberal thought’ like Kingston and Deakin. He campaigned strongly in the cause of White Australia and economic protection, arguing that policies such as these would enable the government to ‘elevate’ its people, ‘so that they can be the enlightened citizens of a great nation’. 11 These were not merely defensive measures. Groom wanted to preserve what was best in the race and character of his people, but also to create an environment in which such traits could flourish into a vigorous and responsible nationhood.

Protection exemplified the type of ‘positive legislation’ necessary to secure Australia’s strength and independence. While proponents of the laissez-faire, or ‘let-slide’, policy meekly demurred, ‘Leave our resources alone; they will be developed some day, somehow’, protectionists, Groom fiercely proclaimed, were determined to ‘develop our own country and make use of our materials and commodities’. 12 ‘Australia’s latent talent and capacity must be encouraged’, he insisted, not merely by imposing tariffs, but by constructing a ‘complete system’ of institutions and legislation. 13 ‘Direct agencies’ had to be established throughout society to ‘assist the people in various paths of life’, to develop their skills and knowledge, to enable them to seize opportunities for advancement. ‘Essential’ amongst such agencies, Groom maintained, was ‘a national Department of Agriculture’. 14

‘Agriculture is, year by year, becoming more of a scientific pursuit’, Groom observed in 1907, ‘every invention and scientific discovery is being applied more and more to the purposes of production’. 15 Science pointed the way to new crops, new methods, new weapons to arm a sustained assault on the continent’s ‘empty’ wastes. But the existing trickle of knowledge from laboratory to farm was hardly enough to fuel a conquering army. Government action was necessary to free up the flow: to identify problems, to coordinate research, to keep landholders abreast of the latest theories and techniques. Groom looked with admiration to the United States. There the government ‘considered it was their duty’ to go to the isolated farm worker with information and support. As a result, the US Department of Agriculture had worked ‘immense wonders’, lifting agriculture ‘out of its ordinary humdrum existence’. 16 Australia had to do the same. 17

Groom imagined a cooperative system that expressed ‘the true ideal of federation’. 18 The new commonwealth agency would work with existing state departments for the benefit of primary producers, for the progress of the nation. It was a matter of ‘common sense’ that promised considerable gains in ‘economy and efficiency’. 19 State departments would continue with their educational activities and field trials, while the federal body would coordinate statistical, meteorological and scientific information, and engage ‘men of the highest scientific attainment’ to lead the nation’s research effort. 20 Agriculture was beset with ‘continental problems’, Groom argued, beleaguered by pests and diseases that had ‘no respect for the border lines marked on our maps’. 21 It was, therefore, the Commonwealth’s responsibility to take up the scientific challenge and frame an effective national response. The states, however, were not quite so sure.

Groom finally had the chance to act upon his vision in 1905, appointed Minister of Home Affairs in Deakin’s liberal protectionist government. But for all his passion, the constitutional position remained unclear, and precipitous action might simply have entrenched hostilities between the Commonwealth and the states. Groom, therefore, adopted a more patient approach, describing the proposed department as a ‘concern of gradual growth’. 22 Instead of launching a frontal attack, the Deakin government began to annex adjacent territories, exercising the Commonwealth’s undisputed powers in areas such as meteorology, statistics, quarantine, exports and bounties. 23

This was not merely practical politics. Groom rarely spoke of an agricultural department in isolation. Just as protection itself was imagined as an integrated system, so the application of science to agriculture demanded a series of interlocking institutions and legislative controls, performing various regulatory, research and educational functions. How could a department of agriculture foster land settlement without a detailed knowledge of climate, without a statistical analysis of land use, or without the power to protect producers from foreign pests and diseases? Groom established the Bureau of Census and Statistics and the Bureau of Meteorology, exerting Commonwealth control over areas he knew to be within the purview of the much-admired US Department of Agriculture. These were ‘steps’ towards the achievement of his broader vision, components in a grand scheme of nation building that reflected progressive enthusiasm for rational planning, coordination and efficiency. 24 His ultimate aim was not to create another government department, but to find the most effective means by which the power of science could be harnessed to the cause of national progress.

In 1908, Groom prepared a detailed memorandum outlining the scope and powers of the proposed Australian Bureau of Agriculture, but before a bill could be presented, the government fell. 25 The liberal protectionists were forced into an uneasy ‘fusion’ with the free-traders, as the heyday of progressive legislation came to its anti-climactic end. Groom’s bill was finally introduced in 1909, and again in 1913. 26 Both times it met with considerable opposition, from the government side as well as from Labor, mainly due to concerns about interference with, and duplication of, the work of existing state agricultural agencies.

And so the matter remained, until Billy Hughes made his swaggering entry into the University of Melbourne’s valedictory luncheon. His flamboyant commitment to the idea of a National Laboratory reinvigorated hopes for the systematic application of science to Australia’s primary industries. An Advisory Council was quickly formed and, after several years of prevarication and compromise, legislation was introduced for the establishment of a Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. Appropriately, it fell to Littleton Groom, now a Minister in Hughes’ Nationalist government, to introduce the bill into the House of Representatives in 1919. ‘The object of this Bill’, he explained, ‘is to establish in Australia an institution which will assist to bring scientific knowledge, information and experience to bear upon the practical development of production and manufacture’. 27 Was there an air of weary familiarity as Groom urged his colleagues to favour a measure ‘too long delayed’? 28 In any case, he could not resist reviewing the ill-fated history of the national department of agriculture. He recalled Quick’s motion, his father’s advocacy, and his own attempts to give legislative form to their hopes and dreams. ‘The subject is not altogether a new one’, Groom wryly noted. 29


  1. CPD, vol. 2, 28 June 1901, p. 1827.
  2. Michele Maslunka, ‘Quick, Sir John (1852-1932)’, in Geoffrey Serle (ed.), Australian dictionary of biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988, pp. 316-7; John Quick, and Robert Randolph Garran, The annotated constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, reprint of 1901 ed., Legal Books, Sydney, 1995.
  3. CPD, vol. 2, 28 June 1901, p. 1828.
  4. Michael Roe, Nine Australian progressives: vitalism in bourgeois social thought, 1890-1960, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1984, pp. 1-20; Tim Rowse, Australian liberalism and national character, Malmsbury, Victoria, Kibble Books, 1978, pp. 38-9
  5. CPD, vol. 2, 12 July 1901, p. 2507
  6. CPD, vol. 2, 28 June 1901, p. 1827.
  7. DB Waterson, ‘Groom, William Henry (1833-1901)’, in Douglas Pike (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1972, pp. 304-5; David Carment, ‘The making of an Australian liberal : The political education of Littleton Groom, 1867-1905’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 62, no. 4, March 1977, pp. 233-4.
  8. Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia : The life and work of Sir Littleton Ernest Groom, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 16.
  9. For biographical details of Littleton Groom, see: David Carment, ‘Groom, Sir Littleton Ernest’, in Bede  Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, pp. 130-1; Carment, ‘The making of an Australian liberal’; David Carment, ‘Australian liberal: a political biography of Sir Littleton Groom, 1867-1936’, PhD, Australian National University, 1975; Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia.
  10. Toowoomba Chronicle, 21 Nov 1906.
  11. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901. See also David Carment, ‘The making of an Australian liberal’, pp. 239-40.
  12. Toowoomba Chronicle, 21 November 1906, p. 8.
  13. Toowoomba Chronicle, 15 November 1906.
  14. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901.
  15. CPD, vol. 36, 23 July 1907, p. 778.
  16. Toowoomba Chronicle, 29 August 1901.
  17. Groom’s efforts to establish a Bureau of Agriculture are described in Currie and Graham, The origins of CSIRO, pp. 1-7.
  18. Toowoomba Chronicle, 10 December 1903.
  19. Littleton Groom, Nation building in Australia: the work of the second Deakin administration, 1905-1908, Protectionist Association of Victoria, Melbourne, 1908, p. 9.
  20. Littleton Groom, Australian Bureau of Agriculture: memorandum on the establishment of, Parl. paper no. 194, Canberra, 1908.
  21. Toowoomba Chronicle, 10 December 1903.
  22. Toowomba Chronicle, 15 November1906.
  23. These various developments are described in Littleton Groom, Nation building in Australia. See also: J A La Nauze, Alfred Deakin – a biography, vol. 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965, p. 408.
  24. Toowoomba Chronicle, 15 November 1906.
  25. Littleton Groom, Australian Bureau of Agriculture.
  26. CPD, vol. 50, 3 August 1909, pp. 1919-29; vol. 70, 5 September 1913, pp. 931-5.
  27. CPD, vol. 89, 7 August 1919, p. 11371.
  28. ibid., p. 11380.
  29. ibid., p. 11372-3.

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