Chris Watson, leader of the Labor Party, speaks in support of White Australia

[A speech by Chris Watson regarding the White Australia Policy, in the House of Representatives, 6 September 1901. Chris Watson later became the Labor Party’s first Prime Minister, in 1904.]

Mr WATSON (Bland) – I think that from this section of the House one may, without presumption, congratulate the acting leader of the Opposition upon the speech he has made to-day. It seems to me that he not only stated the position taken up by the majority, and undoubtedly the large majority of the people of Australia, with clearness but with moderation and firmness, and in a way which I think will commend itself to the opinion of the greater number of the people. While it may be said that the feeling in this Chamber, even in this Parliament, is so decided upon this matter that debate is unnecessary, yet it must be recognised that the step we are taking, although it is one upon which the people are unanimous, is in itself so important and so likely to lead at least to diplomatic negotiations with the older land, that it is due to the statesmen of the old country, at least, that our reasons should be stated clearly, and that none of them should be overlooked in regard to the decision which we hope this Parliament will arrive at. In view of that, I feel it is not necessary to apologize for supplementing, to some extent, the reasons put forward by the acting leader of the Opposition.

As far as I am concerned, the objection I have to the mixing of these coloured people with the white people of Australia — although I admit it is to a large extent tinged with considerations of an industrial nature — lies in the main in the possibility and probability of racial contamination. I think we should gauge this matter, not alone by the abstract possibilities of the case, but by those considerations which appeal to our ordinary human weaknesses and prejudices. The question is whether we would desire that our sisters or our brothers should be married into any of these races to which we object. If these people are not such as we can meet upon an equality, and not such as we can feel that it is no disgrace to intermarry with, and not such as we can expect to give us an infusion of blood that will tend to the raising of our standard of life, and to the improvement of the race, we should be foolish in the extreme if we did not exhaust every means of preventing them from coming to this land, which we have made our own. The racial aspect of the question, in my opinion, is the larger and more important one; but the industrial aspect also has to be considered. There is a good deal in the contention put forward by the honorable member for Melbourne Ports in regard to the conversion of a number of people on the question of coloured immigration, because of the ramifications of the coloured races having extended of late to a much greater degree than was the case only a short time ago.

We know that a few years ago business men — speaking by and large — looked upon the Chinese or other coloured undesirables as men who could be very well tolerated, because they took the place of labourers, of men who might be unreliable, or not quite so cheap, but when it was found that these Orientals possessed all the cunning and acumen necessary to fit them for conducting business affairs, and that their cheapness of living was carried into business matters as well as into ordinary labouring work, a marked alteration of opinion took place among business men, so far as the competition of the “heathen Chinee” was concerned. At the present time in Sydney, we have whole streets which are practically given up to the businesses conducted by Chinese, Syrians, and other coloured aliens, and one cannot go to-day into more than five towns of any importance in the country districts of New South Wales without finding two, three, or perhaps half-a-dozen coloured storekeepers apparently doing a thriving business. In each and every avenue of life we find the competition of the coloured races insidiously creeping in, and if we are to maintain the standard of living we think necessary, in order that our people may be brought up with a degree of comfort, and with scholastic advantages which will conduce to the improvement and general advancement of the nation, some pause must be made in regard to the extension of the competition of the coloured aliens generally.

Another aspect of the question is that in the northern parts of Australia, both on the east and on the west coast, we find that coloured people have gained more than a footing — they have practically secured control. In the northern parts of Western Australia the pearl fisheries are being run with coloured divers, and large numbers of these men — Malays and other coloured aliens — are still being imported under contract to work as divers upon the pearl-shelling grounds. I do not say that these men are allowed to overrun the State; but they have established settlements on the coast from which they work the fisheries.

Sir John Forrest – We cannot stop them from working the fisheries three miles off the coast.

Mr WATSON – We can stop them within the three-mile limit.

Sir John Forrest – There is no shell there.

Mr WATSON – We can stop them also from landing and making the shore a base of operations, and the probability is that if they had no base from which to work, our white people could compete successfully against these coloured aliens. It is because these men can use the Australian shore as a base that they are able to work the pearl-shelling even beyond the three-mile limit.

Mr McCay – We can prevent them from landing.

Mr WATSON – It would, at all events, prevent them from having a base in sufficient proximity to enable them to carry on the industry. Then, on the Queensland coast, we find that Thursday Island is to-day a coloured settlement containing the most heterogeneous mixture of races it is possible to conceive. We find, too, that the Japanese, Javanese, and various other coloured peoples, have been coming to the mainland of North Queensland in such numbers as would, I think, be most alarming to the minds of the people if they thoroughly understood how far this immigration is proceeding.

The honorable member for Kennedy reminds me that since the affirmation by the Queensland Government of the treaty which was arrived at between the British and Japanese Governments, the number of Japanese in Queensland has increased within eighteen months or two years by over 3,000. These figures represent the immigration from one nation only, and do not include the Javanese, Malays, Manillamen, and the hundred and one different kinds of coloured men who go to make up the peculiar collection of races to be found in Northern Queensland.

Again, in the interior districts of the various States we find Afghans and Hindoos employed, some as camel drivers, and some as hawkers, and in each instance becoming a menace to the people in the sparsely populated districts. I do not suppose that there is one man who has not read of or experienced the trouble that these coloured hawkers give, especially where women and children are left — and necessarily left — unprotected, in the sparsely settled districts, it is common knowledge that these men are not only insolent, but actually threatening in their attitude towards women and children unless trade is done with them. This menace has been brought under the notice of the police, and in some instances action has been successfully taken against these hawkers. All these things go to show the danger that confronts us, and the necessity for some definite action being taken.

It is said by some of those who object to legislation of this sort that, while we may be justified in keeping out Chinamen, Japanese, Manillamen, Malays, or Assyrians, we have no justification for attempting to keep out of Australia the coloured British subjects of His Majesty the King. I would direct the attention of people who think in that way to the fact that the British Government today admit the power of this Commonwealth and of the people of Australia to differentiate between Indian British subjects and white British subjects, because they themselves differentiate between them. The British Government do not think of putting the Hindoo or any other native of India upon the same plane as the people of the United Kingdom. The ground I take is that the natives of India are British subjects and subjects only, whilst the people of the United Kingdom are citizens as well, and British subjects in Australia are citizens also. That constitutes a wide distinction. I do not believe that the British Government will object to our restricting or preventing the influx of Indian subjects into this Commonwealth, but if they do object it will be for them to treat their subjects in India as on the same plane as other British subjects, and give them local self-government. They will not do that, and I do not think they would be justified under the circumstances in doing it; but the mere fact that they have not so far extended it, and that the people of India are subject races, governed by the British people, owing to their superior intelligence and powers of organization, justifies us in expecting from the British Government treatment different from that accorded to the subjects of British India.

Coming to the Bill itself we find that it is framed on the model of the Natal Act, and I am bound to say that while I appreciate the difficulties that appear to confront the Government, I cannot agree with the methods by which they propose to deal with this question. The Natal Act was, I admit, the outcome of a series of negotiations with the British Government, but as indicated the day before yesterday, in connexion with another matter, there is, I think, a considerable distinction between the position occupied, in regard to negotiations with the British Government, by a single State, or single dependency, and that occupied by a federation of States such as the Commonwealth of Australia. Consequently we can quite understand that where the British Government might not agree to go the whole distance with regard to restrictive legislation of this character passed by a single State, they might take a different view and be much more liberal in their treatment of proposals coming from a body like this, representing such an important section of the British Empire. I do not think that the Natal legislation has been efficient. It is a pity that the Government have not been able to obtain the return I moved for some weeks ago, because it would have shown what the experience has been in connexion with coloured immigration during the five years preceding and the period succeeding the passing of the New South Wales Act.

Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Bill, Second Reading, 6 September 1901