A Report on the Single Tax Campaign in Australia

Henry George

[Reprinted from The Standard, 21 May, 1890]

SYDNEY, N. S. W., April 14. 1890. Leaving the town of Forbes yesterday morning at 6 a.m., and traveling all day by coach (not stage, for the driver did not understand me when I two or three times fell into that Americanism) and all night by rail, I have reached Sydney in time to write a little for the outgoing steamer, which sails to-day. It disappoints me that I have not been able to write more for THE STANDARD, but what with the constant speaking, the long journeying (and it is as impossible to write in one of these railway carriages as in the stagecoaches), and receptions, I have been utterly unable to get time for writing.

When I wrote last month I had just arrived in Sydney from a trip to Newcastle and Maitland. The next day we took the Southwestern railway to Goldburn, one of the most important of the interior towns, where I was officially received by Mayor A. T. Ball, taken to the agricultural fair, banqueted, and where I afterward lectured; thence to Cootamundra; thence to Wagga Wagga, where there has long been a knot of active single tax men, W. C. Hunter, a leading business man and owner of a big lot of unimproved land, who has several times written to THE STANDARD, being president of the league; thence to Albury, on the border of Victoria, where we were most hospitably treated. Thence we went to Melbourne, arriving on Tuesday and staying until Saturday, when we went to Sandhurst, where I occupied the pulpit of the Rev. Mr. Keith Mackay in the Congregational church on Sunday evening, and lectured on Monday evening; thence to Echuca, a Victorian border town further west and further down the Murray than Albury; thence to Ballarat; thence to Gelong; back again to Melbourne; thence by express to Sydney.

Leaving my wife in Sydney, as the journey, at the rate we were to push through it, would be too hard for her, I went from Sydney into the electorate of the president of the single tax league, Mr. Charles Garland, M. L. A. I next visited the electorate which Mr. Frank Cotton contested on single tax principles at the last election, and will contest again at the coming election. I was accompanied by Mr. Garland through his district, and by Mr. Frank Cotton and Mr. F. O. Furner, a Goldburn merchant and most ardent member of the league, for the whole way. I spoke in Blaney, Carcoar, Cowra, Green fell and Forbes. Tomorrow (Thursday) we start for South Australia, and are due to arrive in Adelaide on Saturday and to lecture on Monday. We shall go as far as Broken Hill, the great silver mining district, which, although within the borders of New South Wales, is most conveniently reached from Adelaide, and then expect to return to Sydney early in May. Our further programme I will not finally decide on until after this mail is gone, when I can have a chance to talk to the committee here; but I am afraid I will have to give up going to New Zealand, much as we would like to visit that country and to talk with some of our friends there, particularly with Sir George Grey. But the season is getting late, and the trip, unless we were to abandon the idea of returning by way of Europe, involves 8,000 miles of extra voyaging (besides the coasting, which is the only means of communication for the greater part of the islands) through a sea specially tempestuous at this time of the year.

Beside the New Zealand trip our New South Wales friends want me to spend another month speaking in this colony. I have received urgent requests to go to Queensland, and have received warm invitations from the premier and attorney- general of Tasmania to pay that colony a visit, and I shall very much dislike to leave this country without getting leisure to see some men and things that constant speaking and traveling have as yet given me no opportunity to see. So that to get home in anything like the time I wish a good deal must be cut out of the programme of things which in themselves I would like to do. We shall probably sail for home via Suez not later than the early part of June and get home by September.

In New South Wales the political division is between free traders and protectionists. In the colony of Victoria there is at present no political division at all, the protectionists having it all their own way, and the government being administered by a coalition cabinet, the nominal free traders of which are content to accept the protective policy as a fixed fact. The free trade party in both colonies has been the party of the large land holders, and is of the brand of free trade which journals like the Evening Post of New York represent in the United States, while the democratic sentiment in both colonies, and earliest and strongest in Victoria, was diverted to the protectionist party. In Victoria protectionism in this shape carried all before it. In New South Wales it came up later, but uniting all the forces of discontent came at the last election within one vote of securing a majority in parliament and the control of the government. The protectionist propaganda in New South Wales has been energetic, enthusiastic, unscrupulous; and their papers evince a recklessness of assertion and a power of evolving such facts as suit them that might, if that were possible, put even the most reckless of our protection journals to shame. For instance, when I spoke at Newcastle the crowded meeting broke up with three cheers for Henry George and three cheers for Mayor Christie, who had presided. The local protectionist paper reported that the meeting had adjourned with three cheers for the queen and three cheers for protection.

Into this struggle, which would ultimately have made New South Wales as protectionist as Victoria, came the single tax. Here, as in the United States, many of the men who first took up our ideas, in part at least, were protectionists, and there came the same internal struggle as to whether anything should be done or said that would prevent anyone from acting with us and being at the same time a protectionist. This was decided in New South Wales when at a conference the name of the association was changed from that of Land Nationalization Association to that of Single Tax League. Fewer in number, but freed from dividing and demoralizing complications, our friends threw themselves into the struggle as straight out free traders, and their efforts undoubtedly turned the scale at the last election. The effect of my coming here has been to accentuate their attitude in this respect.

On the one side the revenue tariff free traders, while they recognize our usefulness in the present, are afraid of us, and on the other hand the whole protectionist rage is being directed against the single tax, and they are denouncing not merely the free trade side of our teachings, but the whole, and attacking the single tax as bitterly as the most devoted adherent of vested wrongs could do, thus more quickly and more clearly drawing the line, not between protection and a revenue tariff, but between protection and the single tax, and adding their weight to the forces that are pushing our principles into general discussion. The effect is already to be seen. I hear of numbers of men, who have heretofore called themselves free traders, who are going over to the side of protection as the best available resistance to the single tax, and on the other hand I meet and hear of men, who have heretofore been protectionists, who are joining our ranks. The movement thus commenced has only to go on somewhat further to make the single tax men the free trade party and to drive the revenue tariff free traders who will not go with it into the protectionist ranks.

Although our people here are desirous that the next election shall be postponed as long as possible, in order to give the influences that are now working our way as long a time in which to operate as possible, the general expectation seems to be that an election will be called very soon after the meeting of parliament, and be held within the next two or three months. But so clear does it seem now that an election would result in a sweeping protectionist defeat that they may deem it the part of wisdom to so moderate their parliamentary opposition to the present government as to induce it to go on with the majority it has at present. In this case two steps in the direction of the single tax are expected by our people from the present government. One, the abolition of some of the present tariff duties, and the imposition of some small tax on land values, and the other, still more, important, the adoption of a local government bill, which shall provide for the organization of local governments where none now exist, and which shall give to these local governments, wherever they elect to do so, the power of exempting all improvements from taxation, and of wholly levying their rates on land values irrespective of improvements. A bill of this kind has already been drafted by the government, but is defective in a clause which is open to the interpretation of requiring improvements to be rated. But there seems to be little doubt, that this will be amended either on introduction or in committee. The effect of this measure in intensifying the discussion of the single tax and in pushing home the thin end of the wedge would be most enormous.

All the cities and towns of New South Wales are stunted by land speculation and land monopoly, and exhibit most glaring instances of the folly and injustice of taxing men for improving, and letting the holders of idle land go free. In this respect they are worse than we are in the United States, for there is a provision in the existing law which requires that where land is rented its actual rent shall be taken as the basis of valuation, and the owner of the most valuable vacant land in or about a city or town has only to let it for a few shillings as a cow or goat pasture to escape with a merely nominal tax. The passage of the measure will not only bring the principle of the single tax into immediate practical discussion and action in every existing municipality, but it will force the question directly upon the farmers, who, being for the first time brought into the sphere of direct taxation, will be called on to decide whether their improvements shall be taxed, or whether the tax shall be levied on the value of land alone. What their decision will be where they preponderate is certain in advance.

In Victoria my reception was not as warm as in New South Wales, for there protection has been worshipped as ardently and has reigned in public opinion and expression as unquestioned as ever in Pennsylvania. In New South Wales, for instance, I have yet been to only one town, where I was not received by the mayor, and in that case the mayor was absent. In Victoria, I had the honor of being received by a mayor in one case, that of Mayor Carol in of Sandhurst, who met me, drove me round, and after my lecture there, entertained us with a large party in the town hall. Not merely has the protectionist sentiment there bitterly opposed us, but, with the exception of Echuca, on the border, the only organization we have is in Melbourne, and this is in the land nationalization stage, being largely composed of protectionists, and the single tax men among them having hitherto been indisposed to take any position in opposition to protection, as hopeless at present. Nevertheless, we were received by a cheering crowd when the train halted at the Melbourne station, and when Dr. Maloney, president of the Land nationalization society, drove us up to the hotel in his carriage, we found there a large assemblage, among them a number of men whom I have long known as friends of our cause. Mr. Robert Jones of the Oarleton grammar school made an address of welcome, which was afterward presented in beautifully illuminated form.

I lectured in Melbourne for three nights in the large town hall to splendid audiences, which far exceeded my anticipations, and which increased, being even larger on the last night than on the first. If I can trust my own impressions, or accept what our friends said, these lectures produced a deep and strong impression. Our best friends were at the first very much concerned about my attitude toward protection, but they were delighted afterward, and told me that they never believed it possible that any man could stand up before a Melbourne audience and attack protection as I did, and not merely be heard to the very end, but carry the feeling and enthusiasm of the audience as I did.

When I got to Melbourne I found that, without any consultation with me or authorization from the committee in Sydney who have had charge of my lecturing here, a general challenge had been issued to any protectionist to debate with me, and that several having indicated their readiness, the secretary of the Land Nationalization Society had written to the Trades Council, a body like the Central Labor Union of New York, asking them to name some one to meet me in debate, and that they had thereupon named Mr. Trenwith, a member of the Victorian parliament. Not merely was it no object for me to meet any one in debate unless he should be clearly recognized by the protectionists and protectionist papers as a fitting representative of their doctrines -- which was not the case with Mr. Trenwith, [v.-horn] they commenced to discount in advance -- but in the programme that had been made for me no time for such a debate had been alotted. I stated privately and semi-publicly at the Celtic Club, where I was entertained after my [tirat] lecture, that this challenge had been without my authorization and consent, and was led to suppose that the matter would drop there. But on the night of my last lecture I was told that this debate was generally expected, and so at the conclusion of the meeting briefly stated what I had stated privately -- that I had given no authorization for such a challenge, that there was no time for such a debate, and that I was not disposed to make the implied assumption that the labor associations were the official champions of protection. Mr, Trenwith thereupon asked to speak, and complained bitterly that he and the Trades Council had been led to suppose that I would debate with him, saying that he had been reading up for the purpose. So finding that some of our friends were very much afraid of the use the protectionists would make of the matter by claiming that I was afraid to meet a protectionist, I consented to give to the debate the only night which was within my power, the following Monday evening, on which our Melbourne friends were to have given me a banquet.

The debate accordingly came off in the Exhibition hall before a crowded audience, which, though for the most part protectionist, gave me their heartiest applause, and so laughed at Mr. Trenwith's alleged facts and preposterous assertions that I did not have to trouble myself to reply to them, but could occupy my time in pressing home the general principles, which, when once fairly considered, will destroy the protectionist superstition in the mind of any one who thinks at all.

My conclusion from my trip in Victoria is that protectionism is there a shell, and that, if our friends will come out boldly and attack it, a free trade party can soon be formed which will bring life into the stagnation of Victorian politics.

In Echupa, on the border, we met some thorough-going single taxmen, who have formed a single tax league, and have reprinted some of our STANDARD tracts.

The Rev. D. Badger of the Baptist church met me here, and the mayor presided at the lecture, Mr. Badger winding up with a ringing, thorough-going single tax speech. But of our friends there and in other places I must take some other opportunity to speak, as I must close this now.