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Wednesday, 14 August 1901

Mr BARTON (Hunter) (Minister for External Affairs) . - Before the amendment is proposed, may I ask the honorable member to take into consideration a reason why it should not be moved just yet ? I agree with a great deal that he has said, and no one is less inclined than I am for the employment of coloured labour in connexion with any of our mail contracts. 1 indicated that the other night. We should not be embarrassed in applying the honorable member's proposal to the conveyance of our inland and coastal mails. There is no difficulty in that ; but the case is different with regard to our oversea mails. The contracts made with the P. and O. and Orient Steamship Companies for the conveyance of mails - and they are the principal companies involved - were made with them by the Imperial Government. The subsidy paid on this account in 1899 amounted to £170,000, of which the United Kingdom contributed £98,000, and the six States of Australia £72,000. That contract expires in 1905, and there cannot easily be a revision of it until that date.

Mr Watson - The proposal of the honorable member for West Sydney applies only to future contracts.

Mr BARTON - Yes, but as these contracts were entered into by the Imperial Government, and we were allowed to participate in the benefit of them - that was the procedure - I cannot see any way of altering them unless we take the whole business into our own hands.

Our position depends very much upon the predominant partner and upon what arrangements he is able to make. If we do not make our future arrangements through the British Government, and if we go to the length of entering upon this matter ourselves, we shall have to count the cost of acting independently and without the participation of our present co-partner. It seems to me that there is a probability of our being driven to that if we abandon the present course of allowing them to be the chief contractors, we being participants upon terms agreed upon -between us. Our difficulty then would be that we should have to undertake over sea contracts of this character and accept the whole burden of any such arrangement ourselves. This would either place an intolerable financial burden on the Commonwealth, or else prevent us from making any contracts at all. Then the question of policy would arise - as to whether we should have arrived at such a stage that we could afford to do without a contract altogether.

Mr Watson - I do not think we are far off from that.

Mr BARTON - It may be that we are not far off, but under the arrangements I am suggesting we sholl at least have time to turn round. As to action at the present moment, it seems to me that an opportunity presents itself of dealing with this matter in a different way, and the reason I ask that the amendment should not be put from the Chair is that I desire to have the clause postponed. The amendment would raise an issue which requires to be dealt with I admit, but I propose to put certain provisions in this clause in block and white, which, while making it clear that there shall be no intrusion of black labour into our land service, or into our coastal contracts, will insure that any future contracts for an over sea service shall be laid before Parliament, and shall not come into force until they have received the express approval of both Houses. That that will give Parliament an opportunity of expressing its opinion in all cases, and at the same time the provision will not interfere by anticipation with the contract to which we are already bound. It will give us a free hand in regard to those contracts in which we are the sole participants on the one side, while in regard to those in which we are not the sole participants, we shall have an opportunity of estimating what will be the burden, or whether -we should join with the United Kingdom or launch out for ourselves.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Would any company contract on such terms ?

Mr BARTON - I do not see that there would be any difficulty on that ground. The contract between the New South Wales Government and the company which runs the Vancouver mail service is carried out under conditions which require the employment of white labour, and seeing that during the whole time we have had the Orient Company's service until just recently the work in the stoke-holes has been done by white labour - as I saw myself when on the Red Sea - and when we know, as has been pointed out by the mover of this motion, that coloured labour is not used in the stoke-holes of our men-of-war, I do not think there should be any difficulty in our- securing a contract in the future under conditions requiring the employment of white labour only. I think this is a question that Parliament ought to have the power to decide for itself at the expiration of the present contract, or at such other time as tlie question may arise whether a new contract should be entered into in conjunction with Great Britain or by the Commonwealth purely in its own behalf. Assuming that the Parliament four or five years hence will be animated by the same spirit as this Parliament, I think an opportunity should be afforded for expressing approval or disapproval of any proposals that may be brought forward at that time. I do not want to do anything at the present stage that might force us into the position of either accepting a contract involving the employment of black labour, or undertaking a burden that would be entirely inconsistent with our financial position, and perhaps in the end leave us without any contract at all. No honorable member, I om sure, is anxious to see that result. We do not want to be put to the necessity of choosing such an alternative. It is preferable that we should have an opportunity of dealing with circumstances as they arise. It will be a sufficient protection if we provide that the contract, whatever it may be, shall be laid before each House, and that it shall . not be accepted without confirmation by the vote of both Houses. I think there is the germ of 'a solution of this matter in that proposal, and, if the clause is postponed, I will, in the meantime, endeavour to frame a clause which I hope will meet with the views of the House.

Mr Higgins - Does the Minister mean that all contracts, irrespective of whether we are the sole parties on the one side or not, shall be submitted to Parliament ?

Mr BARTON - I mean to frame a provision which shall apply to every contract in which we are concerned, whether as sole contractors or joint contractors with Great Britain, and I propose that it shall be necessary to lay the contracts before Parliament for its assent before they can be carried into effect.

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