Keep off the grass [11 October 1901]

[Editor: An editorial critical of the Barton government’s acceptance of the British government’s directive to not create an explicitly racial immigration law. Published in The Independent, 11 October 1901.]

Keep off the grass.

“When in doubt, play trumps” says Hoyle, of whist. “When in doubt, shout with the largest crowd,” advises Mr Pickwick. “When in doubt, then compromise,” is evidently the Bartonian maxim in regard to politics. And in regard to the Alien Immigration question, there is no doubt he has followed his advice to the letter. But, as there are in whist objections to a slavish obedience to a rule, so it is evident, is there more than ordinary danger in a strict adherence to the policy of compromise. We were in accord with the Federal Ministry in their endeavour to put some restriction on the influx of aliens by some means that would be least objectionable to Great Britain; and, at that time, we accepted the compromise of the education test as the best way out of a very difficult dilemma. The Labour Party, and many of the Federal Oppositionists advocated strongly the direct and absolute restriction of all coloured races, and called the proposed Ministerial policy a “subterfuge.” There is no doubt that a subterfuge it is, but we doubt whether Mr Reid, were he in Mr Barton’s shoes, would bluntly legislate in a direction that would lead to inevitable collision with the Home authorities; and, therefore, while we believed that Mr Barton was acting on his own initiative in the matter, we supported the bill and the compromise — the necessary compromise, it seemed to us, — that it effected.

But a new and entirely different complexion has been put upon the matter by facts which have lately come to light. It is not too much to say that the practical acknowledgment of the Colonial office to dictate legislation to the Commonwealth, which the Federal Government has given, has come as a distinct and disagreeable shock to all Australians. When in June last a Queensland Bill, framed on somewhat similar lines, was disallowed by the Home authorities, acting on the advice of Mr Chamberlain, it became evident that a very serious blow had been struck at the roots of that State’s self-governing power. How greater is the danger, then, when we find the same policy pursued by the British Government towards not a State, merely, but towards a nation. And, be it remembered, towards a nation which claims and has been granted, under its constitution, the right of complete autonomy and self control. Our support of Mr Barton’s actions must necessarily change, in view of the altered circumstances, to a direct reprehension of the placid and pusillanimous policy which had led him to accept, without a struggle, the dictums of Downing street. For, in Mr Chamberlain’s despatch, which is likely to become historical underneath the velvet glove of courteous phrases, lies the iron hand of threat. The material portion of that famous — or infamous — despatch, runs thusly:— “Disqualification by educational test such as are embodied in the immigration laws of the various colonies is not a measure to which the Government of Japan, or any other Government, can take exception on behalf of its subjects, and if the particular tests in these laws are not regarded as sufficiently stringent, there is no reason why more stringent and effective ones of a similar character should not be adopted. . . . I trust that your Government will join with his Majesty’s Government in deprecating legislation of the character of the provision in the bills to which his Majesty’s Government have felt bound to take exception.”

This, as we have said, is a distinct and open threat. And threats are dangerous things to deal in, as England should know by very bitter and humiliating experience. It was a threat — and on a subject, of much less importance than the purity of a nation — that caused the American War of independence. We need not press this point; we do not threaten in return, but, at least, we do demand that some prompt and energetic steps be taken to repudiate the effrontery of Mr Chamberlain. Mr Barton should have met this attempt to grasp our legislative reins with the plain intimation that the new Commonwealth had been granted full self-governing powers and intended to utilise them to the best advantage of Australia. He did not do this; he accepted the rule of a mere official who is expected to obey the orders of his Boss. In other words, he cringed. The word is not a nice one, but we do not hesitate to use it. This is the noble and patriotic answer that the Federal Prime Minister returned. It is worth quoting, as an example of what the leader of a nation most distinctly ought, not to have written. “Minute to his Excellency, intimating that I am quite in accord with the principal and the policy laid down in the two despatches of which copies are transmitted, and that this Government does not contemplate the proposal of any legislation likely to conflict with the views which the Secretary of State has expressed.

By this unique display of meekness Mr Barton pledged to a white Australia has handed over the destinies of the nation to be moulded by a man, who does not want to draw any “purely arbitrary” distinctions between the black man and the white. The least we can say of the incident is that it is most unfortunate that it should have occurred at the inception of the Government of the Commonwealth. If the obsequious of the Federal Government be not withdrawn, and a plain intimation sent to the Home Government that Australia will legislate for her own safety in her own way, the incident may easily become the worst of precedents. It is not too late to draw back yet. At any rate, if Mr Barton will not take his courage in both hands and do the thing which principal and pride should both have forced him to ere this, it is not too late to find a man who will. We had rather be in the hands of the Philistians so that they were men — than in those of weak kneed trucklers.

The question is narrowed down now with a vengeance. It amounts to this. Are we to be allowed to help to build up the fair domain of Empire, and to choose our own materials and methods for the work? Or, on the other hand, are we to be treated as mere visitors thereto, to whom, so long as we keep strictly to them the paths planned out by others, who know little of our needs or rights, or hopes, are open, but to be warped off the grass with peremptory voice should we venture to strike out a new road for ourselves. We venture to think that we Australians are neither wishful nor likely, nor even able, to play the latter role.

The Independent (Deniliquin, NSW), 11 October 1901, p. 2

Also published in:
The Temora Star (Temora, NSW), 12 October 1901, p. 2

Editor’s notes:
Chamberlain = Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), who was the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for the Colonies (1895-1903)

ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)

Home = in an historical Australian context, Great Britain; may also refer to England specifically

Hoyle = Edmond Hoyle (1672-1769), famous for his books on the rules of games, especially card games

Pickwick = Samuel Pickwick, a character in a novel by English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870), The Pickwick Papers (first published, in a serial format, 1836-1837; then as a book in 1837)

Reid = Sir George Reid, leader of the Free Traders in New South Wales, NSW parliamentarian 1880-1901, federal parliamentarian 1901-1909, and the fourth Prime Minister of Australia (1904-1905)

truckler = a person who truckles, i.e. someone who acts in a servile, submissive, or subservient manner

whist = a card game, popular in the 1700s to 1800s

[Editor: Changed “of the of the Colonial office” to “of the Colonial office”; “similiar lines” to “similar lines”; “wet this attempt” to “met this attempt”; “destines of the nation” to “destinies of the nation”; “trucklers,” to “trucklers.” (full stop, not coma). Added a closing quotation mark after “take exception.”.]

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