THE FREE TRADER
I am scandalised, my brothers! Fellow-countrymen I weep! I am growing thin and haggard, I am weak through want of sleep Through breeding on the selfishness, the impudence and greed Of Australians for wanting what so many others need. The country was created, as full everybody knows, For the foreign manufacturer of cheap and shoddy clothes. Australia was fashioned in the ‘early Eocene’ For the Yankee trust-promoter with the pirated machine. Twas intended as a Paradise of warehouses and runs, Giving billets and a refuge to unstable younger sons. Get off your perch and grovel ere the land becomes a wreck And ask the foreign gent to kindly step upon your neck!
C . J Dennis (1906) satirising the attitudes of Free Traders
Murray Smith was a cultured man of fearless and passionate convictions who was intensely involved in many of the social and political issues of his time. This was especially true of his stance on free trade. Through him one can trace many of the ideological debates of his era.
There are family connections to the St Kilda area. His father Alexander Smith owned the Glen Huntly, the ‘fever ship’, that has a memorial in the St Kilda Cemetery. Three deceased passengers from the ship were buried at Point Ormond, thereby creating St Kilda’s earliest cemetery.(The Emigrants).
Robert Murray Smith was elected to the Legislative Assembly as the member for St Kilda after serving two years as mayor of Prahran. His home ‘Repton’ was in Toorak Road, Toorak. He was a leading member of the constitutionalist faction in the Victorian parliament that campaigned strongly against government attempts to reform the Upper House. For a period he was chief secretary. He campaigned for federation and stood unsuccessfully for election to the 1897 Constitutional Convention where he polled 14th out of 29 candidates.
Murray Smith was born in Lancashire, a free trade county and was the son of an ardent free trader. Like Kerferd and Sargood, he fought against the tide of Protections in Victoria by being a ‘free trader by conviction ever since I could think or reason’ and was ‘perhaps the most eloquent defender of Victorian laissez-faire’. His first involvement in politics was his energetic opposition to a protectionist tariff that created a legislative deadlock in Victoria. In the 1890’s he led a political revival of free trade and was prominent in the National Association and the Free Trade Democratic Association.
The political war between protectionists and free traders at the time of federation was not just an argument about economics. For protectionists it was a passionate nationalist argument about supporting Australian identity. This expressed itself in fervent “Made in Australia” campaigns (familiar today), exhibitions of Australian inventions, and political campaigns such as Deakin’s ‘Australia for the Australians’. For free traders it was about democracy and the removing of special privileges for ‘protected’ elites.
We think of tariffs versus free trade as a contemporary issue in the great debate about globalisation. But in the late nineteenth century the different attitudes of the Australian colonies to trade and tariffs were a major obstacle to federation. The Victorian premier James Service had called these state differences the ‘lion in the path.’ Each colony acted as a separate country in economic affairs. As there was no income tax, colonial governments raised imports on goods passing between colonies. Victoria was strongly protectionist and that created conflict with NSW which was pro-free trade because of its large export market. Smaller colonies such as Tasmania resented Victoria’s customs duties. Many saw federation as an opportunity to remove the tariffs and the searches that irritated and delayed travellers at custom houses on state borders as well as creating black-markets (Cowderoy)
As an outstanding agent general in London 1882-6, Murray Smith fought for Australia’s independent interests by lobbying strongly for rights of consultation in the Pacific and to forestall the annexation of New Guinea by Germany and of the New Hebrides by France.
His public interests were broad and he held positions with the Melbourne Club (president), Melbourne University Council, the Public Library, the Museum, the National Gallery and was a member of two royal commissions. He was highly literate and cultivated, could quote Shakespeare and Scott, read Latin and French and wrote and lectured. The novel Robbery Under Arms was dedicated to him. However his extreme conservatism held him back. He strongly fought the minimum wage case. While he was handsome and charmed the ladies, he vehemently opposed female rights.
Murray Smith had three children by Jane Strachan but one later died of diphtheria. He died aged 91 at Toorak surrounded by his friends, books and papers, as well informed as he had been in the days of his public activity. The Argus memorialised:
‘Gifted with both speaking and writing powers (the literary instinct was inborn with him) he played a conspicuous part from the outset.’