Edmund Barton, Australian Prime Minister, champion of a White Australia

Edmund BartonSir Edmund Barton (1849-1920) was Australia’s first Prime Minister. He was a committed campaigner for the federation of the Australian colonies, so that they would be united together as one nation, and was a staunch advocate of a White Australia policy.

Barton was a prize-winning scholar, with a love of classical Greek and Latin. He worked as a lawyer before entering politics, including a brief stint as a crown prosecutor. Barton was appointed Attorney-General of New South Wales in 1889, and, following the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, became the first Prime Minister of Australia. After leaving office he was appointed as a judge to the High Court of Australia.1

Barton was determined to introduce a White Australia policy, to ensure the survival of the Australian people. However he faced some obstacles with the British government, due to India being a major component of the British Empire, and because of British foreign diplomatic dealings with countries like Japan; the British did not want to complicate or endanger those ties due to an Australian law which barred non-Whites from entering the country. Under the terms of the Australian constitution, the UK government was able to render invalid any Australian law (a standard colonial clause, which had been used against the governments of various British colonies, including several in Australia). Therefore, led by Barton, the Australian government decided to use a “dictation test” to regulate immigration, using the test to prevent non-White people from coming into Australia; this method had previously successfully been used by the British colony of Natal as a way of getting around the sensibilities of the British government.

Although the “dictation test” clause in the Immigration Restriction Act aroused some opposition from those who wanted a straight-forward colour bar, the majority of parliamentarians understood and appreciated the realities of the situation and therefore voted for the Act with the dictation test included.

Barton worked hard to enable the introduction of the White Australia policy, even though he had to deal with some limitations which Australia’s colonial status had forced upon him; he was at one time described as “the champion of a White Australia”.2

Edmund Barton, speaking at a meeting in West Maitland (NSW), on 17 January 1901, told his listeners that his government would be taking steps to ensure a White Australia:

“Having come near to the end, I have reserved one of the most important parts of my speech till the conclusion of my utterances — that under the heading of a white Australia. (Loud and continued applause). Legislation against any influx of Asiatic labour will be regarded as a matter of course. (Applause.) As to Polynesian or Kanaka labour, we have an equally strong objection to that. But we shall not be guilty of any oppression of those kanakas now in Australia, although we shall take steps to prevent the importation of any more — (applause) — and shall strongly oppose such importation in any circumstances. We shall endeavour to ensure the gradual abolition of the importation by firm and just legislation, without unnecessary delay.”3

Barton confirmed his intentions at a meeting in Sydney, on 7 February 1901; he explained that the Kanakas used in the sugar canefields would not be replaced overnight, but would gradually be replaced by White workers:

“We have already announced to you through my mouth at Maitland that we are in favour of a white Australia. (Cheers.) The invention of that phrase has been claimed from a source which is very fertile in invention. (Laughter.) I care not who invented it. The man who deserves the credit is not the man who invents the phrase, but the man who does the deed. In making this a white Australia we shall have to deal with a serious and complicated matter. It will be the duty of this Government to endeavour not to destroy any industry, and we shall not take up any stand that will destroy the sugar industry.”4

Speaking at a meeting in the town hall at Adelaide, on 12 February 1901, Edmund Barton explained his plan to gradually remove Kanaka labourers from the Queensland canefields:

“The policy of the Government with reference to certain alien races has been challenged by a brilliant statesman on the ground that he invented the term “A white Australia.” We don’t care who invented the term — it was not a difficult one to invent, anyhow. The question is not whether we are to invent the phrase, but whether we are to do the deed. (Cheers.) The policy of this Government will be to bring about a white Australia. They will establish such Acts with reference to the influx of Asiatic races, as distinguished from the South Sea Islanders for the moment, as will effectually minimise and speedily put a stop to their introduction. (Cheers.) It seems to be forgotten by some people that I was the person who either moved or seconded — I forget which for the moment — the principal resolution carried at the first great meeting held in Sydney against the influx of Chinese. I have never wavered from that policy since, whether Chinese or any other Asiatic labour was concerned. Then I pass to the Kanakas. I have told you that the policy of the Government is to avoid the destruction of industries. We propose not to destroy the sugar industry — in fact, we are not going to equalize the import and excise duties on it — but we do propose to advance by gradual steps, not taking too long a time, though, to such a point as will put an end to the importation of Kanaka labour. There may be some who would say, demolish and abolish it at once. The answer to that is that those who believe that it is not a good thing for the whole country to suddenly destroy an industry will not take that step, but will be satisfied to see Australia made white under a just, temperate policy, and over a short period of years. That is the policy we will advocate . . . every industry in Australia is a national possession of Australia. If we deal with black labour in the way I have outlined, it is not because we want to deal harshly with the sugar industry, but it is because there is an interest of Australia, not only of labour, but one largely racial, which demands that there are certain things that must not take too long a time to eradicate. . . . It is Australia we have at heart5

At a meeting in Sydney, on 26 March 1901, Barton said:

a few words about white Australia. (Applause.) There were two branches of the subject. The first was the worst, and related to Asiatics, Chinamen, Syrians, Hindoos, and coolies. There was not a man in the Ministry who dissented from the policy of restricting that kind of immigration at the earliest possible moment — (cheers) — and to the greatest possible extent. (Cheers.) The second branch of the question was the kanaka and South Sea Islander labour. . . . There must be a stop put to the kanaka labour in a reasonable time. In 1890 there were 9400 kanakas in Queensland. In 1899 there were 8600, showing that they had decreased 8 or 9 per cent. Nevertheless the output of sugar had doubled, so that whilst the black labour work had come down by 8 or 9 per cent., the product had increased by 100 per cent. That went to show the kanaka was becoming less necessary every year. They could not, however, stop at that consideration, because there were 20,000 white people dependent on the sugar industry. They would lose their employment if the kanaka was expelled on the instant. The Ministry did not propose to allow kanaka labour to go on indefinitely. They did not believe in the wanton destruction of any industry, but they said they would get rid of the kanaka in not too long a time, and with as little injury to the white people as possible. The Ministry would not allow importation of kanaka labour to increase, or their numbers to become greater than they were at the time of the passage of an Act dealing with them, but they would provide a short term of years during which the importation would decrease by a percentage, until at the end of that term of years there would be no more importations. (Applause).”6

The White Australia policy was brought into effect by the creation of a dictation test for immigrants, intended to be used to stop coloured immigrants coming into Australia; the law was arranged this way, rather than imposing an outright colour bar, so as to avoid offending the coloured subjects of the British Empire. This was done following consultations with Joseph Chamberlain (Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies). The Australian government kept in mind that the British government, via the Governor General or the British monarch, could disallow any Australian law not felt to be in the interests of the British Empire; indeed, earlier such laws passed by several colonies had been disallowed. The Natal colony, later to become part of the nation of South Africa, had come up with the idea of a dictation test to enable their colour bar, and this tactic was adopted by Australia. Speaking in the House of Representatives, on 26 September 1901, Edmund Barton explained the situation, and gave his view on racial issues:

“Mr. Chamberlain said the Home Government sympathized with our determination to prevent the influx of these hundreds of millions of Asiatics, alien in religion and alien in customs, whose influx would most seriously interfere with the legitimate rights of the existing labour population. He understood that an immigration of that kind must be prevented, and stated that his Government would not offer any opposition to proposals intended with that object. He asked us to bear in mind the traditions of the Empire, and pointed out that to exclude, by reason of their colour or race, all Her Majesty’s Indian subjects, or even all Asiatics, would be an act so offensive to those peoples that it would be most painful to Her Majesty to have to sanction it. He said that they, who had seen these Hindoos, could not be willing to put upon them a slight absolutely unnecessary, and calculated to provoke ill-feeling, discontent, and irritation.

. . . That Act was passed without special reference to British subjects, it was passed for the exclusion of Hindoos. It was as well known to Mr. Chamberlain as it was at the time to the Premier of Natal, Sir Harry Escombe, that the Bill was to be passed with that object. I will show presently that it was understood in that sense by my right honorable and learned friend, the leader of the Opposition in this House. The Natal Coloured Races Restriction Bill of 1896 was passed before the conference took place in London, but it did not receive the Royal assent. And why? Because it specifically professed to exclude people by reason of their race and colour. Whatever had been assented to in the past with regard to Chinese, it was felt by Her Majesty’s Government that international complications were likely to ensue, if they would not necessarily ensue, by excluding people on a mere colour line. That is why the Bill finally passed by the Natal Legislature was spoken of as a proper one by the representative of the Queen’s Government. The Coloured Races Restriction Bill, laying down a proposal very similar to that now wished to be laid down by the honorable member for Bland, did not receive the Royal assent, and a preference for a class of legislation which would not create complications either within or without the Empire was sufficiently indicated by Mr. Chamberlain.

. . . There is an ultimate power in the British Government of exercising its trusteeship for the rest of the Empire by vetoing any kind of legislation which makes against either the interest of other parts of the Empire, or prejudices its external relations. . . . We cannot do anything that would tend to a disturbance of the relations of the Empire without the matter being first submitted for the Royal assent

. . . I have never wobbled or wavered upon this matter from the beginning to the end, and wherever I have had to express an opinion on the influx of undesirable immigrants, I have always expressed myself as strongly against it. I am ready to do as much, if not more than anybody else, to prevent such an influx. I do not agree with the honorable and learned member for Parkes, who said that the tendencies of this kind of immigration were not dangerous. I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior. The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman. There is a deep-set difference, and we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an equality. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others. I do not want to lay down with too much preciseness any of these differences, because there is not one amongst these races whom I wish to hurt or wound.

. . . The Bill which we propose will provide equal effectiveness so far as experience can guide us. There is no threat of injury to us if we take the course proposed, but certain delay and possible refusal, if that refusal is to be grounded upon the doctrine of the trusteeship of the head or seat of the Empire for the rest of the Empire, which doctrine was laid down in the course of our visit to England last year, and to that extent rightly and properly laid down.

. . . Of course, we have no wish to leave the Empire; but if we imperil our relation with the Empire, or create friction which may ultimately lead to severance, let it be remembered that it is under the protection of the British fleet that we make our proposals — under the protection of the first line of defence, which all can assume as an everyday right of their own, forgetful that it is nearly all paid for by the taxpayers of Great Britain and Ireland.”7

Barton, speaking at a meeting in West Maitland (NSW), further explained the usage of a dictation test for immigration purposes, and how the usage of Kanaka labour was gradually being ended:

With regard to a “White Australia” — (cheers) — the Emigration and Restriction Acts have effectually, and will effectually, stem the tide of coloured emigration, and will do so without incurring the cost of complicating the internal or the foreign relations of the Empire to which we belong. (Cheers.) I have been asked by many why I did not support the amendment upon the bill shutting undesirable emigrants out solely on the ground of their colour. My answer has been this, that all undesirable emigrants of whatever character and whatever colour can be effectually excluded by such a test as has been placed in the Act, and they can be effectually excluded without, in any sense, endangering the stability of the Empire, or our relations with that Empire of which, if you are not, I am proud to belong. (Cheers.) That is the object of the Immigration Restriction Act. It is true that I resisted an amendment designed to base the exclusion of certain unsuitable emigrants on the ground of their colour or origin. The Act is strong enough to exclude all undesirable immigrants whatever their colour or origin; but more than that, we knew that there was danger of such an Act being delayed before it received Royal assent, on account of the form in which we were asked to put it, unless we followed certain precedents which had proved effective, not only in Natal, but in various Australian States. It remained for the federation to take final steps to make this legislation effective here over a whole continent.

The other branch of this legislation was the Pacific Islanders Bill, otherwise known as the Kanaka Bill. The traffic had gone on for over 40 years; and year after year, almost for 40 years, the leading men of Queensland had been expressing their shame of it. Acts had been passed limiting the traffic as to time. An act to limit it to five years, from 1885 to 1890, had been passed in Queensland. When it ran out, and when the traffic was about to be stopped, the distinguished statesman who was the author of it brought in two years after, in 1892, another act to give it extension, and to justify the omission of any limit of time for the continuance of traffic by saying that if the time limit was to be put on that would acquire the dimensions of vested interests, and we did not want it to become a vested interest. Well, that limit of ten years would have expired in this year. Now, sir, we took the whole circumstances into consideration. We saw that there was a feeling in Australia which well might heartily be shared, that the time was come to set a limit to any immigration which would conflict to our own feeling; that we should preserve our country for the whites — (applause). We saw, too, that a great deal had been said about the necessity for this black labour which had no foundation. In fact, any difficulties in the act we had tried to meet by giving tariff encouragement, which would do away with the necessity for the employment of black labour — (applause). We therefore, passed in the first place a bill limiting the introduction of this labour in a diminishing quantity to a period of two years and a quarter from January, and preventing the continuance of any contract to employ this class of labour after 1st December, 1906.

Here, a year ago, I said it would be our aim that the number of persons engaged in this employment — that is, kanakas — should on no account be allowed to increase, and that steps would be taken to diminish the importation and put an end to the traffic in a reasonable period of years. Those who were here on that occasion can bear me out in what I said. I claim the fulfilment of that promise. We shall have relieved Australia after a short period of years from a traffic which was a blight, not only on Queensland, but on Australia itself. (Cheers.) We have accomplished those promises with ameliorative provisions in the tariff. They place a duty of £6 a ton on imported sugar, and even a higher one on the beet sugar, which is subsidised by foreign nations to an extent which threatens the existence of the cane sugar industries in English speaking communities. Also we have instituted an excise duty of £3 a ton, £2 of which will go for those growing white grown sugar. We have not left the Queensland sugar grower empty handed. We have said black labor must go, but on a diminishing ratio.”8

Barton, at a meeting of the Australian Natives’ Association in Melbourne, acknowledged that the White Australia policy was widely supported by all shades of political parties and in all states:

“In an assemblage which eschewed party politics — (laughter) — he could not enter into some of those subjects which Mr. Jones had touched upon. Yet he would thank Mr. Jones for his reference to what the Ministry had done, with the help of Australia, to establish the purity of the British race in Australia, or at any rate the purity of the white race in Australia. In this matter, again, there had been a practical unanimity in both Houses of Parliament, which simply reflected a similar unanimity in every state. On the question of immigration restriction there had been some difference of opinion, but it was only as to methods — as to what was the best method compatible with the security of the empire within and outside. That question had been settled, at any rate for the present.”9

At a meeting in the town hall at Maitland (NSW), Barton outlined the elements of the White Australia policy:

“there was the Post and Telegraph Act, a measure of 159 clauses . . . It was the subject of serious discussion in respect to section 16, which was the first instalment of the white Australia policy of the Government. That section provides that only white labor shall be employed in connection with contracts or arrangements for the carriage of mails entered into by the Commonwealth. That will apply to our oversea mails, because we do not intend to spend our money on companies that employ Africans and others.

. . . Then came the measures which were necessary for the purpose of carrying out the White Australia policy of the Government. There is not a syllable that I have uttered in connection with making Australia white that I wish to retract, and there is not one that I am not proud of. This Act is a very short measure, but it is of very high importance. You know that it gives effect to the wishes of the Australian people that the Pacific Island laborers should no longer be recruited for and employed in the sugar or other plantations in the Commonwealth. This is not merely a labor question; it is a racial question; it is a White Australian policy, and it was initiated from high motives. I am one of those who think that the destiny of this country will be worthily worked out in proportion, as it remains a white Australia. (Cheers.) I have no ends to serve in a matter of this sort. I wish to see the land which gave me birth, and in which I have lived, left unpolluted by an admixture of race, which I cannot find has done any good in any other country. There is an important thing about that, too, the fact that when cheap colored labor enters into competition with our own race it is apt to crowd out the labor of our kith and kin. I wish to go further and say that the crowning feature in all this legislation is that we intend to keep this a white, and if possible, a British, country, and this is the kind of legislation which will do it. (Cheers.) The opponents of the measure say that it will not be possible to grow sugar in the northern districts of this State and Queensland without having recourse to colored labor. In order to facilitate the substitution of white labor for the colored, the Government offered a substantial rebate for all sugar grown by white labor . . . I claim that the Bill has worked inestimably good results, and in proportion the islanders are got rid of and fall out of employment and return to their own shores, there is an inducement to the landowners to employ white labor, and it is shown that they not only can employ white labor, but that they will employ it. (Cheers.)

. . . The Immigration Restriction Act was the last measure to complete the white Australian policy, to stop colored people from over-running the Commonwealth. It was found necessary to take advantage of the provisions in the Natal Act. At the conference in 1897, which Mr. Reid attended, it was agreed by the Premiers to introduce legislation in conformity with that Act, and Mr. Reid did so on his return. When, however, I proposed to introduce similar legislation I found Mr. Reid and Sir Wm. McMillan arrayed against me.

A voice — “Good men.”

Sir Edmund Barton — Well, yes, if a traitor is a good man. When I proposed to introduce that legislation it was known that any measure would meet with international objection, and probably lead to such a measure either not being passed at all, or passed with hesitation, pain, and reluctance. Reluctance that would lead to international complications, or else it would have this effect, that the Government, knowing that such consequences would ensue upon an amendment being put in the Bill, would throw it over altogether, and if that was not sufficient to emphasise the position, the Government was ready to resign their office. To pass the measure on the lines of the Natal Act which is practically the measure which we have passed, and which is perfectly effective for its purpose, did not suit Mr. Reid, because he was on the Opposition, and it did not suit Sir Wm. McMillan, because he did not want the measure at all. The leader of the Labor Party had already given notice of an amendment to alter this Bill, so that it should read that persons of all color should not be permitted to land. To use a common expression, that would have “put the fat in the fire,” because if that had been carried it would not have received the Royal assent. (Cheers.) No one was so quick to see that as Sir William McMillan, and what did he do? He supported the Labor Party in order to try and get the amendment, and the Labor Party at first looked upon him as a magnanimous and generous friend. But afterwards, when the Bill got into the Senate, they saw the trap that was laid for them. Sir William McMillan has never done harping about some assumed compact between this Government, and the Labor Party. I can tell you this, that there never was such a compact, and the Government follows the policy it mapped out for itself. We had to meet Mr. Reid and Sir William McMillan, who wanted to damn the Bill, and also Mr. Watson, and the rest of the Labor Party who wanted to pass a measure of restriction that would never have gained the Royal assent. We conquered and the other side went down. Now, so much for all the talk about the present Government being subservient to the Labor Party, the party to gain the support of which. Mr. Reid has nearly been killing himself. I wonder at Sir Wm. McMillan throwing these jibes at me, especially when it is remembered that he was allied to Mr. Reid. When you consider how well Sir Wm. McMillan must recollect that Mr. Reid was for five years kept in office by the Labor Party, it is hard to understand the extreme sincerity the former gentleman shows toward the latter. (Laughter.)

. . . I would like to give you some figures about the Alien Immigration Restriction Act from January 1 to October 31. The whole of the colored people who have been admitted to the Commonwealth on passing the test numbered 28. Those admitted without the test were 205, together with 1,034 under certain State arrangements. Those arrangements were permits given to the Chinese by the various States to visit China and return. The Commonwealth was bound to honor those pledges the State entered into before Federation. Queensland had an agreement with the Japanese Government at the time the Federation came into force to take a number of Japanese to keep up the number of those who were already in Queensland, and that was to go on.

Now I am in a position to tell you that the immigration of colored people to Australia is practically at an end. (Cheers.) There are very few entering the Commonwealth now, and there are few likely to en-ter it hereafter. (Cheers.) The Act is being administered in an honest and straight-forward way, having proper regard for the purpose for which it was enacted, and this is shown in part by the fact that while 28 were admitted after passing the test, 471 were rejected. Now I have finished my retrospect of the session.”10

1. Martha Rutledge, “Barton, Sir Edmund (Toby) (1849–1920)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

2. The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express (Albury, NSW), 2 January 1903, p. 34

3. The Maitland Daily Mercury, (Maitland, NSW), 18 January 1901, p. 2

4. The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 8 February 1901, pp. 5-6

5. The Register (Adelaide, SA), 13 February 1901, p. 6

6. The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 27 March 1901, p. 8

7. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, 26 September 1901; [2nd entry]

8. The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express (Albury, NSW), 17 January 1902, p. 34

9. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 28 January 1902, p. 5

10. The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), 25 November 1902, p. 6

[For further reading, see the Wikipedia entry: “Edmund Barton”]