The colour question [15 June 1901]

[Editor: An article regarding problems with getting aspects of the White Australia Policy past the approval process of the British Colonial Office, which at that time still had the power to disallow Australian legislation. Published in The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 15 June 1901.]

The colour question.

The colour question will not be settled with the passing of Mr. Barton’s Kanaka Bill whatever it may contain. Just what it will contain does not appear to be known even to Mr. Barton himself, for a statement was drawn from him a day or two ago per medium of Mr. Chamberlain’s despatch to the effect that Dr. Maxwell, the Queensland sugar expert, was about to visit New South Wales in furtherance of his report, and until that report was made the provisions of Mr. Barton’s bill would not be made known to members. The inference is therefore that the Kanaka Bill, though read a first time in the federal Parliament, is not yet finally drafted. The position is certainly unique. In this respect the position of the bill resembles that of the federal Premier. With the receipt of Mr. Chamberlain’s despatch, however, we begin to see a little deeper into the colour question, and get a glimpse of the difficulties ahead in regard to it. This despatch explains why the Royal assent was withheld from the Sugar Works Guarantee Act Amendment Bill passed last session. The bill contained a provision excluding coloured labour from the sugar mills subsidised by the state. The provision was inserted at the instance of Mr. Givens, and the Government, although they said they were in agreement with the object — at least they made it plain that they would give effect to the proposal by regulation if it were not inserted in the bill — opposed it, but eventually accepted it rather than wreck the measure. In explaining the action to the Imperial authorities. Mr. Chamberlain now says the provision is objectionable both on the grounds of principle and policy. To use the words of the cable: “The disqualification of aliens for work in the sugar mills was based solely on the place of origin, and excluded British Indian subjects; and a disqualification, based solely on the difference of race or color, would be offensive to the Japanese, who not withstanding that they were a civilised people, had been placed in the category of Asiatics.” From this it will be seen that the fight before the federal Government means something more than the mere dealing with Polynesians.

Mr. Barton explained that there is nothing in Mr. Chamberlain’s speech which will impose any serious difficulty in carrying out his proposed Kanaka legislation which would be found to be perfectly practicable without infringing the principles laid down by Mr. Chamberlain, and without raising any question which might involve international objections. We know of course that in dealing with the Kanaka question no international complications can arise, but after all the Kanaka is only one detail in Mr. Barton’s great scheme which bears the impress “White Australia.” Does Mr. Barton mean the Kanakas must be prohibited out of the sugar industry, and that the Hindoo, the Jap, and the various other aliens should be entitled to take their place? If so, what becomes of the White Australia cry? As a matter of fact, the danger asserted is not so much the possible influx of Polynesians, who are regulated and controlled in a more or less effective manner, but those particular aliens, consideration for whom has prompted the Imperial authorities to withhold approval of the bill last session. The particular international complications, if they ever arise at all, must eventuate presently, though not necessarily as we have said in respect of the Kanaka Bill, and though Mr. Barton may delay it, the inevitable must be close at hand. For has not Australia in sending Mr. Barton and his Ministers into power declared for a White Australia?

Mr. Chamberlain speaks as though Queensland is unaware of the strides in the matter of civilisation the Jap has made. He objects to their being placed in the category of ordinary Asiatics. It is the very fact of this civilisation which presents the real danger to Queensland. The progress the Jap has made during recent years, indeed since his war with China, may reflect somewhat on our preparedness, but nevertheless his presence in numbers is a standing menace. In addition to this there is in his case the further danger of colour. From that point of view he is just as objectionable as the Kanaka — in fact more so because we cannot restrict him. We can, of course, quite appreciate Mr. Chamberlain’s objection from an Imperial point of view on the grounds of principle and policy, but from the colonial standpoint the principle is not an absolute one, but a relative one, which varies under different conditions. Both with regard to India and Japan the mother country is compelled in the interests of national security and treaty rights to adopt a policy which, applied to the colonies, may be as objectionable to them as their restrictions of alien immigration are to the mother country. Great Britain has nothing to fear from such immigration of aliens, while she has much to gain by fostering peaceful commercial intercourse with the countries they represent. The Australian Commonwealth, however, has everything to fear from being made the general dumping ground of the lowest classes of aliens from surrounding countries. Their civilisation matters nothing ; the more advanced it is the more risk we run in tolerating them, and the desire is to preserve our territory from becoming the home of anything but a pure white race. The broad distinction between the interests of the colonies and the mother country must be recognised if the alien problem is to receive a satisfactory solution. As we have said, Mr. Barton may make a beginning with restricting and then abolishing the Kanaka, but his task will not end there.

The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld.) Saturday 15 June 1901, page 4

Editor’s notes:
Barton = Edmund Barton (1849-1920), who was Prime Minister of Australia 1901-1903

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

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