Chris Watson, leader of the Labor Party, seeks to strengthen the White Australia policy

[A speech by Chris Watson regarding the White Australia Policy, in the House of Representatives, 25 September 1901. Chris Watson later became the Labor Party’s first Prime Minister, in 1904.]

Mr WATSON (Bland) – Before I move the amendment of which I have given notice, and which I think will not have the effect of restricting debate, I wish to say a few words as to what has been said in the course of the debate. Taking first the remarks of the honorable member for Parkes, it would appear as a fair inference from what he said that the Government in bringing this Bill forward were acting on the direct suggestion of that section of the House to which the honorable member for Parkes is fond of referring, as though it had struck upon a portion of his epidermis in a way that does not agree with him. But the honorable member seems to forget that the policy of a white Australia which this Bill purports to carry through, was put in the forefront of the Government programme, and also in the forefront of the programme of the leader of the Opposition, whom the honorable member follows at the present time. So that, although the labour party, I claim, had throughout the various States, a great deal to do with the popularizing of this emphatic cry for a white Australia, still, so far as the present position is concerned the Government would have been absolutely false to their pledges to the people if they had not brought in a Bill at this early stage in the manner they have done.

Again, the honorable member for Parkes spoke of a phrase which, he said, has been used by a certain section; that is, “the equality of mankind,” or “the equal rights of man.” Now, I do not know that the section of honorable members whom I represent, has, at any rate during my term, used any such phrase. What we have claimed is that all citizens should have equal opportunities. We never say that “all men are equal.” No sensible set of men would ever say so. But we say that every man should be equal with every other man in the eyes of the law, and that equal opportunities should be afforded so far as the law can allow to every citizen. And we reserve the right to say who shall be citizens. We ask that they shall be on a moral and physical level with ourselves and that they shall be such as we can fraternize with and welcome as brother citizens of what we hope will some day be a great nation.

Again the honorable member spoke of the necessity on occasions like this of preserving a statesmanlike attitude. I agree with him in regard to that. I do not pretend to have any of the qualities of statesmanship myself, but, at least, I think am justified in claiming this — that if 100 years ago the people of America had had legislation of this character, with reference particularly to the immigration of slaves to that country, and any man had lifted up his voice against that immigration, he would to-day have been hailed as a statesman by the people of America. The man who could have foreseen all the dangers, and the troubles, and the dire distress, that have followed in the footsteps of the introduction of black labour into America — the man who could have foreseen and even attempted to prevent that evil in those days — would to-day have been honored as one who should have had the whole nation behind him in the work he tried to do.

True statesmanship, to my mind, consists, not in putting forward a number of plausible platitudes and philosophical meanderings in this Chamber, but in looking ahead, and seeing what is likely to be in any way a menace to the people of our country in the future. We, who support this policy, do so in the interests of those who succeed us, and for whom we have a trust in our hands to see that any action we take is such as will, as far as possible, prevent the likelihood of the occurrence of those dangers which we foresee.

With regard to another point quoted by the honorable member for Parkes, as to the interests of the Empire, I do not think it is necessary to say much, because every honorable member who has spoken has been alive to the necessity of considering, as far as possible, the interests of the Empire when we are dealing with questions of such great gravity as this. But I do say that if there is a partnership in existence of which the honorable member spoke, then we should have some voice in governing the affairs of the partnership. Unless that is conceded, there is no true partnership. We have had handed over to us by the British Government, as has been pointed out before, the power to govern ourselves, to control our own affairs within the four corners of the Constitution; and, so far as this particular matter is concerned, it is contained within the Constitution and has been handed over for our control and direction.

I wish now to come to the proposed amendment, but before moving it I have to say a word or two upon the attitude of the Government. In my opinion the Government are not justified in the attitude they have taken up with respect to the amendment of which I have given notice.

The Prime Minister stated the other evening in answer to a question put by the honorable member for Northern Melbourne that he regarded clause 4 as vital to the Bill; that is, that if the amendment of which I have given notice was carried the Bill would be dropped. I say there is no justification in the position for any such statement or attitude on the part of the Government. If this were a party movement — if it were a question of displacing the Government — if there were any large divergence of policy between the Government and the majority of the House — if there were any of these considerations in existence, I could understand their taking up the attitude of dropping the Bill or even of resigning the positions they occupy in the event of my amendment being carried. But, sir, there is no question at stake except the question of method. We pretend to be all of one mind, with the exception of the honorable member for Parkes, and I am not quite sure what his mind is upon the subject.

But speaking generally, we are all of one mind with respect of the object we are striving to attain. If we differ in method, if the Government feel that the difficulties are such as constrain them to bring in no more drastic proposition than that which is now before the Chamber in this Bill, surely it is not necessarily a declaration of want of confidence in the Government if the committee should carry the amendment against their proposal. And I say this, sir, that the only effective way of dealing with the question at issue is by means of such an amendment as I have given notice of. If that is the only effective way of attaining the object, and the interests of the whole of the people of Australia are at stake, then I say that the Government has no right to attempt to coerce the members of this committee who desire to act in the interests of the people of Australia. If the question arises of having to choose between this Government and the interests of the people of Australia, I am prepared to make up my mind at very short notice indeed. I contend that the Government will be justified in submitting to the will of the House on this question.

There is no doubt that by an immense majority the House is against the Government, and if Ministers allow their supporters to vote free from the whip, we shall soon see what the feeling of this Commonwealth Parliament is. If, on the other hand, the decision of the House is to be forced in a certain direction, because members are compelled by party exigencies to swallow the speeches they made a few days ago, what will be the position — an utterly false impression will go out to the people of the world as to the mind of Australia upon this point. I contend that on matters of this sort, where it is only a question of method — I admit that there are very important differences and distinctions — and where we are all aiming at the one object party lines ought to be relaxed sufficiently to allow us to come to a clear determination as to what is best in the interests of the whole people.

Coming to the amendments suggested, I cannot see that any of them does away with the necessity for the proposal of which I have given notice. Speaking first of the suggestion to substitute the word “European” for the word “English,” I quite agree as to the desirability of removing any possible ground for complaint on the part of the peoples of Europe. We should not place any bar in the way of these European peoples coming here, seeing that they have proved very desirable colonists in the past, but I feel that there are other difficulties that perhaps involve an even greater insult to the Japanese people — who, of course, are susceptible so far as their dignity is concerned — than the proposal of which I have given notice. Moreover, there is this objection to be urged against the proposal of the honorable member for Melbourne, namely, that we have already tried it in several of the States and found it absolutely ineffective.

Sir John Forrest – Where?

Mr WATSON – In Western Australia.

Sir John Forrest – No.

Mr WATSON – I say yes.

Sir John Forrest – The honorable member knows better than I do.

Mr WATSON – I say this, that the Government Statistician’s report is different altogether from the return laid on the table of this House, and the right honorable member can reconcile them as he chooses.

Sir John Forrest – I have full information, and I speak with knowledge.

Mr WATSON – Then the right honorable member had better tell them to throttle the Government Statistician of Western Australia. I find that in the first three months of this year there was an increase of 135 in the number of aliens in Western Australia — that is, of course, according to the statistician — and, so far as New South Wales is concerned, the Act has been inefficient. I quite agree with the attitude taken up by the leader of the Opposition in explaining the decision of New South Wales with regard to the Immigration Restriction Act in that colony. I was one of those who consented to accept the Natal Act as the basis of a tentative proposal only, on the clear understanding that if it did not work effectively we would endeavour to make it effective, and we have now reached a stage at which it is necessary to have something which will answer our purpose effectively.

Sir John Forrest – Has not the New South Wales Act worked well.

Mr WATSON – No; for in spite of all statistics the number of coloured aliens other than Chinese in that State is increasing. They are to be found in every country town, and in George-street, Sydney, a few weeks ago I saw a number of newly-arrived Hindoos who were just off the ship.

Sir John Forrest – Had they passed the test?

Mr WATSON – From their appearance, and the fact that they had to be shepherded in Hyde-park by a keeper to prevent them going astray, I should judge that they had not. At any rate, if they had passed the test, so much the worse for the honorable member’s Bill. I think the Government have very little reason to congratulate themselves on the assistance they have received from the honorable and learned member for Parkes, because, as far as one can glean his attitude as to the introduction of coloured aliens, he seems ready to welcome thousands of educated coloured aliens, and he will support the Government proposal because it will permit of these men being admitted to the Commonwealth. That may be a very logical position from the honorable and learned member’s point of view; but it is no recommendation to the people of Australia, who want effective restriction of coloured aliens. With regard to the amendment proposed by the honorable and learned member for Indi, I object to it for two reasons. Firstly, it involves exactly the same issues as the amendment of which I have given notice.

Whatever objection might be urged against my proposal by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, as to diplomatic trouble being likely to arise through the protests of Japan, would apply with a little more force to the amendment of the honorable and learned member for Indi. No subterfuge would get over the knowledge that the first use to be made of the power proposed to be given under his amendment would be to pass a resolution involving the prohibition of a number of nationalities, and therefore its purpose would be easily understood by the Japanese people who, after the speeches made here, would see that they were aimed at. In addition to that there is danger of delay in taking effective measures for the exclusion of aliens. Moreover, the spasmodic treatment of a matter of this kind by a series of resolutions would result in greater annoyance and insult to the people of a particular nation than if a clearly defined law were laid down early in our existence, as a part of our permanent policy. I admit that, if the committee reject the proposal which I now desire to move, I shall be prepared to favour that put forward by the honorable and learned member for Indi; but, as compared with my suggestion, I think it has a number of disadvantages in the direction I have indicated. I have just one remark to add upon the question of urgency.

Stress has been laid upon the necessity for passing this Bill without anything in it that would be likely to cause delay, so far as the Colonial-office is concerned. In that connexion the honorable member for Darling Downs — who, I have the pleasure, if I may do so, of congratulating upon his opening speech — implied that, if the planters were denied at once the opportunity of getting additional kanakas, they would look elsewhere; that, in the absence of some such provision as that contained in this Bill they would be able to get coloured labour from another place. So far as places outside Polynesia are concerned, it is not so easy as it may appear at first sight to obtain a large body of these people. Especially is that the case with regard to India. In view of the attitude hitherto taken up by the Government of India with respect to shipments of coolies even to British possessions, I feel assured that, in the event of delay taking place between the passing, of the Bill here and its acceptance by the Home authorities, representations by this Government to the Government of India would be quite sufficient to prevent any contract being legalized in that country for the employment of coolies.

Mr V. L. Solomon (South Australia) – The Indian Government are not anxious to let coolies leave under contract.

Mr WATSON – They are not anxious to permit coolies to go abroad under contract. The Government of India have not only discouraged the engagement of coolies for Fiji and British New Guinea plantations, but they have surrounded their engagement with restrictions of which the planters in those places complain very bitterly. Therefore I think that representations from this Government will get over any trouble so far as Indian coolies are concerned, while with regard to other nations, an act of State will be quite sufficient to exclude undesirable people from Australia pending the passage of this Bill.

Mr Barton – While I have been endeavouring — ever since this question assumed the dimensions it has attained because of a recent influx — to exercise an Act of State with regard to persons who are not British subjects, many scores of people have come in. They all came in without restrictions because they were British subjects, and I could not exercise that Act of State.

Mr WATSON – I have just made the suggestion to the Prime Minister that he should make representations through the British Government to the Indian Office.

Mr Glynn – In England they do not exercise it against aliens except under an Act of Parliament.

Mr WATSON – It has never become a matter of urgency in England.

Mr Glynn – They passed an Act justifying it, but they have not exercised it.

Mr WATSON – An act of State has been exercised in South Australia. I would urge upon the Prime Minister that he should not too readily accept the assertion that all these coloured people are British subjects.

Mr Barton – I submit them all to very strict examination.

Mr WATSON – Their nationality is a matter more easily asserted than proved. I move —

That the following new paragraph be added, after the word “namely,” line 5: — (a) “Any person who is an aboriginal native of Asia, Africa, or of the islands thereof.”

That will leave the question of Pacific immigration to be dealt with as the Government propose in the Bill relating to kanakas. I did not intend to put the amendment in this shape originally, but I think it is necessary to make some reference to the islands of Asia and Africa, in order to prevent the Act being evaded.

Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Bill, 25 September 1901

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