Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter XXI. A White Australia (1917)

THE Philippines with their teeming coloured population and tiny garrison of white men, who do no manual work, suggest at once a comparison with Northern Australia, which approaches nearer to the Equator than Manila, and the question as to whether it is either desirable or possible to keep Australia as a whole a white man's country.

The White Australia policy has suffered not a little from its friends and defenders. It has been advocated in some cases on such purely selfish grounds, with such absurd arrogance and self-conceit, and with such unjustifiable contempt for all coloured races, that decent men are tempted to turn from it in disgust because of its advocates; nor do we see how it can be defended unless those who advocate it are prepared to admit that it is their duty to "take up the white man's burden," and that in return for their privileges they must have duties and responsibilities also.

We believe, however, that in spite of some of its defenders there is much to be said for an enlightened White Australia policy, and it is not altogether or even principally from lower motives that it has been advocated.

The great objection to the admission of Asiatics into Australia is that their standard of living is so enormously lower than that of the white men, their industry so great, their hours of work so long, and their numbers so vast, that they would inevitably in no long time bring down enormously the rate of wages and throw the white man out of work unless he adopted their standard of living and gave up all his leisure. It is true that for certain kinds of work the white man, if he kept sober, would probably command higher wages, but, on the other hand, in unskilled labour he cannot compete with the slow but late and early working Asiatic, while even in highly skilled labour the Chinaman, for instance, will do nearly as much work, will do it nearly if not quite as well, has no nerves, and is never off duty.

Now Australia has, thanks in large measure to the Labour Party, slowly and painfully built up a condition of things in which, while there are few very rich men, the wealth, comfort, and leisure of the average man, including every class of labour, is far in advance of any other country. There is practically no poverty, there need be no poverty were it not for the £20,000,000 that the five million people of Australia annually spend in drink. Now to have made it possible for every person to be free from poverty, even if all are through their own fault not so free, is a great achievement; to have secured that no man or woman shall have to work more than eight hours a day, unless they have the misfortune to be brain workers, is a great achievement; to have secured that no one shall have to starve or go into a workhouse in old age is a great achievement; to have secured by education and freedom of political opportunity that every man shall have an equal chance of self-advancement is no small achievement; and the average Australian sees very clearly that coloured labour means the destruction of all these hardly gained rights and privileges. It means that a few will become rich at the expense of the many. It means that wages will drop enormously without a corresponding fall in prices. It means that his leisure will be gone and that an element of fierce and deadly competition will enter into his life. It means that henceforth he will have to work, like the Asiatic, solely to live, and that art, literature, and recreation must disappear out of his life.

He is perhaps inordinately proud of what he has done, and does not realize how he has been helped by fortune and nature, but for all that he can hardly be blamed for regarding the general life of Australia, with all its too little realized and availed of opportunities, as something higher and more valuable to the world than the fierce competitive struggle to live only of the Asiatic, and for feeling that the world would be the poorer if the white civilization were swallowed up in Australia, or if it became a country of great bosses, cheap coloured labour, and mean whites.

It is easy to see how such fears may at times express themselves brutally and in exaggerated or ridiculous forms.

I believe that White Australia is a justifiable policy if the Australian recognizes that he has a privileged position, not because he is inherently superior to all other men, but because the conditions of the country have been exceptionally favourable for development along the lines he has adopted, and if he admits that lie owes special duties to less fortunate peoples and especially to the less advanced coloured races of the East. If he is not called upon to admit them to his country he is called upon to treat them with courtesy and justice and to give of his best to help in their uplift. If he believes in Christianity himself, he is surely especially bound to hand on the truth he believes to his more ignorant and less capable younger brethren.

Admitting White Australia, then, as a justifiable principle, though confessing that the ordinary Australian at present thinks very much more of his own interests in the matter than he does of his duties and responsibilities, we have to consider the specific case of the tropical Far North, and the narrow strip of fertile tropical coast lands where the white man is undoubtedly handicapped by the climate in a way that he is not handicapped in the table-lands of the interior even far up into the tropics. The areas in question are not so very large if we exclude the great mining districts and the wide extent of cattle country where the need of coloured labour does not come in. They consist of the sugar lands on the east coast from Mackay northwards occurring only at intervals, and being only a few miles wide, between the range and the sea, and of a few fertile areas on the coast and along the rivers of the Northern Territory and North-West Australia. Most of the rest of the land, where it is not too poor, is being used for cattle and for mining. There is little doubt that the areas referred to are in all capable of supporting a larger population and producing larger returns if cultivated with coloured labour, and it is almost certain that much of the land now used for cattle might under similar conditions become vastly more productive.

At present Australia is open to the reproach of keeping the land practically empty, for mining has been very slack for many years past, and cattle-runs employ an incredibly small number of men relatively to the vast area nominally occupied. The total white population of the Northern Territory is even now less than one to every one hundred square miles. How can this be remedied?

Three plans have been suggested.

(1) The drawing of a colour line and giving over of the North to coloured labour. It does not seem worth while to discuss this plan, because it is certain that the Labour Party would not consent to it. The expressed fear that the coloured element would drift south is probably groundless, but it would be a definite abandonment of the White Australia policy, and as such it would be rejected by probably four-fifths of the Australian voters whether Labour or not.

(2) Indented coloured labour returnable after three years. There is much to be said for this policy in spite of the suspicion with which it is regarded by the White Australian purists. If properly carried out there would seem to be little danger in it for the White Australia policy, and it would give employment to a large number of white men. It is a mistake to suppose that indented labour in a tropical country necessarily competes with white labour. On the contrary, by taking over the hardest part of the work in a tropical sun it provides employment for nearly an equal number of white men in the capacity of overseers, sugar-mill employees, grooms and ploughmen, and a host of other employments. In sugar growing, for instance, there are only two operations that a white man finds really exhausting, cutting and trashing, but these are vital to the industry. White men do indeed do the former, but at such a price that it is doubtful if the industry can continue, and the latter is left undone to the great risk and injury of the cane. No white man will tackle it. In cases where Asiatics or even aborigines are occasionally allowed to work on wharves, etc., because no other labour can be got, the unions insist that they shall be paid union wages--that is, from 12s. 6d. to £l or more a day. The difficulty of applying this principle to tropical industries would be that the product would be too costly for any but home consumption.

(3) The third alternative is practically to pay people to live in the tropical North by a costly system of subsidies and a whole army of officials. I have discussed this system in my chapter on the Northern Territory, and shown that it has so far not been an unqualified success. It is the system most consonant to the White Australia ideal, but it is so costly that it is doubtful whether even the wealth of Australia can for long support it, especially in view of the enormous war debt. Yet the empty North is a constant and ever-increasing peril to Australia. The world is increasing in population and ever looking for outlets for its surplus. Is it reasonable to suppose that Australia will be long allowed to keep hundreds of thousands of square miles of cultivable land empty and without inhabitant? To say nothing of European nations, both China and Japan urgently need an outlet, and now that the war has shown how easily an unscrupulous party can organize and exploit a peaceful nation for war, it is useless to shut our eyes to the fact that the vacant lands of Australia will attract covetous eyes, and that if some other nation should at a time of crisis demand them on the ground that Australia was making no use of them, it would be very hard for Australia to give any satisfactory reply. It is not clear how the danger can be met so long as the Australian birth-rate continues to fall. Australia needs population above everything, and children are the very thing that Australians refuse to give to it.

Some years ago I had an interesting correspondence with the editor of one of the most influential newspapers in Australia. He was an ardent advocate of a White Australia and argued that the empty North did not matter, because in a hundred years or so the southern part of Australia would be full and then population would naturally press North and fill up the empty lands there. As a matter of fact, however, we are only filling the South of Australia very slowly, and even if it were probable that the overflow would flow North in a hundred years, there is small probability of Australia being allowed to keep the North empty for that period.

The low birth-rate and the ever-increasing concentration of population into a few large towns are the greatest perils which Australia has to face. The two evils are closely connected together. In the country children add little to the cost of living and very soon more than earn their own living; in the town high rents, high cost of living, and clothing, and the desire to emulate neighbours, all tend to make the maintenance and education of children a heavy burden.

But more and more people refuse to live anywhere but in the big towns, life seems to them intolerable without constant excitement and daily picture shows. Yet the crying need of Australia is a country population settled on the land. There are hundreds of thousands of acres out of cultivation to-day because the children of the farmers are not content to live out of the town, and millions of acres more never cultivated because men will not go on the land.

The inordinate love of pleasure seems to be at the root of both evils. Men no longer love work for the work's sake, no longer see any dignity or worth in it, no longer desire to do it well or thoroughly. The one idea is in too many cases to get it over as soon as possible, well or ill (" good enough "is an almost universal phrase), and to get the pay which is the only thing that really matters, and which matters because it represents so much pleasure which is the real end and aim of life. Until Australia really faces the question of the love of pleasure, and the matters of the birth-rate and crowding into towns which spring from it, there will be little hopeful in her future.

Once a big town is started in a State it becomes au ever-growing octopus stretching out its lines of railway like tentacles and strangling every attempt to make any other outlet for the industries of the State than through itself, and taking good toll of all as they pass. More and more people are attracted by Government work and Government doles, the country districts, which are the real life of the State, are more and more depleted, and the citizens of the metropolis, instead of being ashamed of themselves, pride themselves on the daily growth of the town and form associations to accelerate it, putting little-needed pressure on the Government to crush out all opposition to its boasted supremacy. It is a thousand pities that the Labour Party, which has done so much in many ways for Australia, does not realize more clearly the true causes of a country's greatness.

There is too much tendency to consider that all is well so long as work is plentiful and wages high, while no real efforts are made to grapple with the fatal and inevitable tendencies of bureaucracy to muddle, mismanagement, and the putting of the interest of the department before the interest of the public. In no country in the world is public money spent so recklessly, foolishly, and blindly as in Australia, and the Labour Party have been probably the greatest offenders, not through graft and self-interest, but rather through a foolish sentimentality which argued that so long as money was being spent some working man was being benefited; and an inability, owing to lack of training and education, to take wide views or to attack the real sources of evils and of mismanagement rather than their individual manifestations. Meanwhile the menace of the East remains, if for the moment the world is occupied with greater issues, and the vote on the Referendum on Service Abroad showed that a majority of the voters of Australia were still wrapped in a dream and are living in a fool's paradise. "What a blessing it is," I heard a supposed intelligent woman say lately, "that Australia is so far from anywhere, and can never possibly suffer from the horrors of war. We shall never need an army in Australia 1 "These are the people to whom the fate of Australia is entrusted by the adult franchise, and the outlook is not hopeful unless in some way the people can be made to realize more deeply that privileges involve responsibilities.

The people of Australia have in the past been too ready to take for granted all the advantages that they have been given by climate, situation, natural resources, isolation from competition, combined with the protection of the Mother Country, and too slow to recognize that after all they are a part of both the Empire and the human race, and that they cannot permanently isolate themselves from the joys or the sorrows of either.

The war was a startling challenge to this attitude, and all the world knows how gallantly a large minority of the sons of Australia and their relatives responded to the call. Still it was shown by the Referendum vote to be a minority only, and the fact causes deep anxiety to all who care for the future of Australia. Selfishness and a failure to achieve a wider outlook than their own immediate interests still characterize too large a proportion of the people.

The Labour Party in Australia has now a great oppo-tunity. It has done very much for Australia in the past, and it may do much for Australia in the future. The best of its leaders have shown patriotism and foresight and have remembered the need for a wider outlook alike on life and on politics, but a larger proportion of the party are still dominated by class selfishness, and openly put the supposed good of a class before the interests of Australia as a whole.

So far as I can see the future of Australia depends largely on whether the better or the worse elements in the Labour Party obtain the final mastery. The day has passed in Australia when it was a question of the struggle between capital and labour, for labour is everywhere triumphant. The question is now what kind of Labour Government is to dominate Australia. Is it to be a Labour Party which takes a wide and sane view of its duty and its responsibilities, or a Labour Party dominated by class hatred, and preferring its own immediate aims to the safety and welfare of the country? It would be well for the Labour Party in its own interests to make the point clear, for it must be remembered that the success of the Labour Party in the past has been largely due to the support of those who, while not sympathizing with its class interests, have believed that it was the best available agent for ameliorating social conditions and removing economic injustice.

Meanwhile with regard to the empty North and the White Australia ideal it must be remembered that the Labour Party is the only party that has made any practical attempt to deal with the problem. I fear that the success of the attempt has not been striking, but for all that the party deserves the fullest credit for attempting to grapple with the difficulty. With its successful solution the future of Australia is indissolubly bound up.

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