The Immigration Restriction Bill [3 September 1901]

[Editor: This article from the The Sydney Morning Herald reiterates the concerns of its correspondent, Andrew Barton (“Banjo”) Paterson, on the immigration of Asians into Australia. Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 1901.]

The Immigration Restriction Bill.

It is freely admitted that the question of a “white Australia,” in the literal sense of that expression, is beset with practical difficulties. The Immigration Restriction Bill now before the federal Parliament would be a much simpler measure to deal with if that were not so. We have not yet acquired a “colour problem” in Australia as it exists in American politics, but for those who care to look about them it is already clear that the preparatory conditions are present. Nor is it, as some think, merely a question of labour on Queensland sugar plantations. If the prognostications of the pessimists are realised, a few years will prove that this is little more than a side issue of the main and real problem. Our travelling correspondent to the Far East, Mr. A. B. Paterson, threw a little of the light of personal observation on this subject in his contribution which we published on Saturday last. It dealt with his experiences along the North Queensland coast, and particularly at Thursday Island, and it is not possible to read these portions of his letter without realising how very close those regions of the continent, and through them the whole of Australia, are to India and the Philippines and the Far East, with their teeming millions. Many of these are fellow subjects of our own, a fact which tended considerably to complicate our treatment of the alien question so long as the Australian States remained separated. The open ports of one colony would nullify completely the most careful restrictions of another, and it requires no demonstration to make it clear that if at Thursday Island and Port Darwin an open door was kept for all the races of the Orient, it would be merely a question of time and inclination when the whole continent would begin to feel the effects of coloured immigration. To confine the consideration of this problem of colour to the sugar industry only would therefore be to miss the real and national significance of the question with which the Immigration Restriction Bill was framed to deal.

“Whatever danger there may be from the kanakas,” writes our travelling correspondent, “is as nothing compared with the danger of the Oriental invasion.” To many this may seem needlessly alarmist, but it is backed up by statements which are either easily verifiable or easily contradicted. Those who have traversed this coast-line can, of course, check the statements of our correspondent from their own personal experience. The further north you go along the Queensland coast, he says, the more Oriental the towns become. North of Rockhampton he found the coast towns already “hot-beds of Oriental fecundity.” They have their regular Eastern quarter, where Chinese, Japanese, Malays, Cingalese, Hindoos, South Sea Islanders, and he might have added, Manila men, herd together and live in their own way. At Thursday Island and Port Darwin, he says, the Eastern quarter becomes the Eastern three-quarters of the town. “These Asiatics,” he predicts, “will assuredly be all over Northern Australia within the next few years;” and a decided and not unneeded note of warning is sounded in the reminder, speaking more particularly of Thursday Island, that “it is the existence of this and similar depots of Asiatics along our coasts to which the attention of all thinking people is invited.” We cannot say that our correspondent has exaggerated the situation, or the importance of the problem it suggests. It would simplify the problem before us considerably if we could. But the fact has to be faced as it is, and especially so now that the Commonwealth is called upon to deal with this racial question. What would be thought of the founders of the federation a few generations hence if they shirked now the obvious and morally inescapable responsibility to deal with this question before it gets out of hand? It is not sufficient to say that it concerns really only tropical Australia, and that those parts of the federation lying well within the temperate zone are to all practical intents and purposes free from the difficulties which beset the subject as we go northward. Of course it would be well if we could content ourselves with that belief. But it is hardly tenable when we remember that the Commonwealth Parliament is called upon to legislate for the whole of Australia; and that if the door is left open for an influx of Orientalism at any one point, especially if that be the nearest port to the Far East, there is no means left to prevent the spread of the Asiatic races over the whole of Australia.

The measure introduced by the Prime Minister in the Federal Parliament to deal with this subject meets the question of whom to admit by the provision that every intending immigrant must write out and sign in the presence of an officer a dictated passage of fifty words in the English language. In that form the clause would prohibit the importation of a large class of undesirable aliens. Among these we may include the coolie class among the Chinese and Japanese; though it must not be forgotten that in both countries, and particularly in Japan, there are now many thousands capable of meeting this dictation test satisfactorily. The Babu of India, of course, would smile at such a test. But the Cingalese and Hindoos of the labouring castes, the Malay, Manila man, and kanaka, with the coolies from Singapore and the Straits Settlement, might by such means be efectually held in check. We get a reminder of the necessity for this in a paper by the Hon. J. Langdon Parsons recently read before the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. The Northern Territory’s north coast, it is there mentioned, fronts South Asia and the Netherlands-India Archipelago. Port Darwin is within a few days’ steaming of Singapore, which will be the terminus of the Southern Trans-Asian Railway. This line, the paper goes on to say, is certain to be constructed, and will be the mail route of the future. Port Darwin, offering as the writer claims one of the largest, safest, deep-water harbours in the world, must become the chief shipping port on the north coast of Australia. It will be connected by rail with the rest of the Commonwealth. All this seems probable enough, and if it is realised, how are we to restrict the stream of Asiatic immigration through this ever open door if the importance of the whole subject is not recognised and legislated for in time? Admitting the demand of this Northern Territory for cheap labour for its development, and, as the paper referred to claims, the special qualifications of “our fellow-subjects of the Indian Empire, especially the Tamils,” it will be seen that these special conditions suggest peculiar difficulties. It is therefore not sufficient, in dealing with this question, to have regard to the sugar industry in Queensland only; we have the colour question as a whole, and the preservation of the purity of the race-type in Australia to consider, and it is desirable that any efforts we may make at federal legislation on the subject should be shaped with this national and racial end in view.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), Tuesday 3 September 1901, page 4

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