Tax Strike in Tasmania

A dispatch from Launceston, Tasmania in the Hobart Mercury, dated concerned a tax strike there that I otherwise had not heard about:

Our Launceston Letter.

[From our own Correspondent.]

The ringleaders in the “passive resistance” movement are not satisfied with their first defeat, but are making strenuous efforts to again revive opposition. The first batch of summonses against defaulters came on for hearing at the Police Court , those proceeded against being chosen from the most notorious agitators in their resistance to the law, variously selected from the town and country districts. Prominent amongst them were the excitable [A.F.?] Rooke of Deloraine, the disingenuous Theodore, and one of the proprietors of the Northern organ of sedition. In all the cases verdicts for the amounts, with costs, were recorded. Mr. [W.S.] Button admitted the legality of the tax, but took the high moral tone, and enacted Dickens’s hero, Pecksniff, to the life, protesting against being called on to pay an unjust tax. Seeing, however, that Mr. Button has been vainly protesting for the past twelve months, and endeavouring, in the organ he represents [the Launceston Examiner], to sow the seeds of anarchy and disaffection amongst others, his protests were, of course wasted, and the usual verdict was given, In two or three cases, the amounts were paid, with costs, and the remainder were heard ex parte, verdicts for the amounts, with costs, being in every instance returned. It is, however, a gratifying and significant fact that on this occasion the self-interested agitators are almost alone in their resistance. Bitter experience as to the tactics of their false friends has taught the smaller ratepayers wisdom, and they refuse to be again made the dupes of designing demagogues. No difficulty is likely to be experienced in the collection of the small sum still remaining unpaid of the present year’s moiety of the rate.

James Fenton’s A history of Tasmania (1884) gives some of the background of the dispute. As with many such things, it begins with a big government public works boondoggle — in this case, The Western Railway. The railway turned out to be a money-loser, and soon after it went into operation the government had to take it over from its bankrupt owners.

Landholders in the railway district felt that the government take-over had changed the relationship between taxpayers and the railway, and that they were “morally exonerated from the principle of local taxation which they had endorsed when the district was polled in . Since that period an entirely new principle had been adopted in the case of the Main Line Railway, and when they hesitated to pay their special rate, they acted on the conviction that it was the Government, and not they, who had broken faith.”

Mr. R.C. Gunn was appointed to collect the railway rate for the first half-year: he succeeded in collecting about £7,000 out of £7,500, and then resigned his office, but not before the excitement and agitation warned him that further effort would fail. The unpleasant task of collecting the second instalment of the rate revealed a steady determination on the part of nearly all the owners and occupiers to resist payment. Sixty-five northern magistrates appealed to the Governor, requesting him to suspend legal proceedings until the matter came before the next meeting of Parliament. This His Excellency declined to do, whereupon twenty-six of the magistrates resigned.

In a footnote, Fenton names them: “Messrs. T.B. Bartley, W. Archer, J.D. Toosey, R. M‘K. Ayre, H.B. Nickolls, E.A. Wigan, J. Gibson, W.R. Stewart, W. H.D. Archer, A. Mackinnon, R. DeLittle, R.C.D. Home, A.M. Milligan, T.C. Archer, R.H. Munce, A.F. Rooke, J. Cox, J.L. Smith, G. Ritchie, H.R. Dumaresq, A. Webster; and Messrs. W. Tyson, J. Drysdale, H. Laird, and J. Griffin, municipal justices.”

Such an expressive demonstration on the part of gentlemen holding the commission of the peace incited the people to stronger resistance; for it appeared to them that a law which could not be conscientiously administered by the retiring justices was unworthy of obedience. In every division of the railway district there was a determination to resist payment of the rate. Distress warrants were issued against 1,200 defaulters. The Police Magistrate of Launceston (Mr. Thomas Mason) and the whole police establishment had to work day and night in the performance of their unpleasant duties. Large quantities of goods were seized, and lodged in the Commissariat Store, Launceston. Householders padlocked their gateways, and mastiffs were chained at the approaches. So alarming did the excitement become that the rural police were withdrawn from the country districts to protect the town. Lawless mobs paraded the streets, tore down fences, and, arming themselves with rails and batons, smashed windows and doors. The aldermen of the town, corporation employes, and some of the burgesses, were sworn in as special constables. Still the rioters succeeded in perpetrating acts of violence. The fence round the Commissariat Store was torn down, the property of law abiding citizens destroyed, and their families were terrified by yells and threatenings. Such was the result of a movement in the north, called “Passive Resistance.”

But apparently, it worked. The politicians adopted a policy of appeasement toward the resisters:

In the year following the landholders of the railway district were unconditionally relieved from local liability, while, at the same time, they enjoyed an easy, cheap, and expeditious mode of travelling, and improved means for transporting their produce to market. This adjustment of the difficulty was of course pleasing to those who were beneficially affected; but it incensed the inhabitants of the outlying districts, who had now to bear the burden of increased taxation for railways to which they had no access, their roadways being still in a state of nature.