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Thursday, 23 August 1906

Mr WATSON (Bland) -- I am sorry, that I misunderstood the honorable member with regard to the interjection he made. He complains very bitterly about misrepresentation and unfairness, but according to his own statement what he said by way of interjection was intended to attach a certain meaning to the statement of the honorable member for Herbert that he knew full well that the honorable member never intended to convey. The intersection was of a most unfair character. The only inference that could 'be drawn from it was that the honorable member for Herbert contended that any Australian was good enough to administer the affairs of Papua.

Mr Lonsdale - Nothing of the kind.

Mr WATSON - No one could conceive of the honorable member for Herbert putting forward such a silly contention, and it was most unfair of the honorable member for New England to suggest that he had taken up 7 n v such attitude.

Mr Kelly - The honorable member for New England merely asked a question.

Mr WATSON - I did not mark the note of interrogation. To my mind, the action of the Government with respect to Papua is hardly such as to give satisfaction to their friends. For a considerable period it has been evident to any one who has cared to take the slightest interest in the history of the Possession that it has been steadily drifting, mostly to leeward. When Sir William McGregor was the Administrator of the Possession, the most vigorous and sensible policy of development was pursued, and at the same time proper regard was paid to the interests of the natives. Although then, as now, money was scarce, there was something to show for what was expended. Ever since Sir William McGregor left the Possession the policy of drift has been in full swing, and that is why persons who have attempted to become settlers there have found themselves blocked at every turn. Upon the one hand, traders have found it almost impossible to obtain land. Many applications for land to be used for the purposes of trading stations have been held over for- a couple of years, and no satisfaction can be obtained from the authorities. The members of the mining community have had to get along as test thev could without roads, and even without tracks fit for pack-horses. They have been compelled to rely upon tracks along which it was possible to transfer their goods only on the heads of native carriers:

Mr Mcwilliams - Who have been killed off bv the score.

Mr WATSON - I believe so. From the stand-point of settlement this condition of affairs has involved enormous expense upon, those who have been endeavouring to make their living in the Possession. Something like is. per lb. has been charged for the carriage of rations from the coast to the gold-fields

Sir John Forrest - The country is very difficult to travel through.

Mr WATSON - Perhaps so, but no attempt has been made by the Administration to improve the conditions.

Sir John Forrest - How much money have they had at their disposal?

Mr WATSON - They have had enough money to enable them to spend , £7,000 per annum upon the steamer Merrie England,, and yet they could hot afford to spend£700 per annum upon the improvement of the roads to the gold-fields. Seven hundred pounds would have gone a considerable distance if it had been expended upon the construction of tracks fit for packhorses.

Mr Cameron - The officials have had as much, money as was placed at the disposal of Sir William McGregor.

Mr WATSON - Yes; they have had more, because the revenue has increased. The miners have never asked for roads, but merely for tracks fit for packhorses, and yet until recently no effort has been made to comply with their request. Sir William McGregor insisted upon the natives planting cocoanut trees for their own good. That regulation which he brought into operation has, under the administration of Sir George Le Hunte and Captain Barton, fallen into disuse. Very recently the officials in Papua were astonished to discover a plantation which had been laid out by prison labour under Sir William McGregor, and which had been lost sight of since his departure from the Possession. There is nothing wrong in permitting prison labour to be employed in that way. It seems an admirable way of employing native prisoners. In bringing under Government influence members of savage and semi-savage tribes, it is necessary to hold some under some kind of duress until they realize what white institutions really are . These men have to be fed and emploved in some fashion, and Sir William McGregor entertained the very wise idea of utilizing their labour to put in Government plantations of cocoanuts. With his depart- ure that method of employing them was allowed to cease. Altogether the administration of New Guinea has been such that we cannot look back upon it with any degree of satisfaction, except so far as we have not been in full measure responsible for it. I hold that the responsibility for this policy of "drift " rests primarily with the late Administrator, Sir George Le Hunte, and, secondly, with the Acting Administrator. Captain Barton, who has now been in the Possession for nearly threeyears.

Mr McWilliams - Where does the Government responsibility come in?

Mr WATSON - I think that the Government have some responsibility, too. The blame for the general drift which has occurred lies primarily with the late Administrator, and, secondly, with Captain Barton. I am prepared to admit, with any friend of Captain Barton's, that, so far as I have had an opportunity to judge him, he is a man for whom nobody can feel anything but the greatest personal respect. All that I have heard regarding his treatment of the natives, his safeguarding of their interests, and his securing for them freedom from molestation at the hands of the miners and other white settlers, is of the most favourable description. Concerning this gentleman, in a subordinate position, as Commissioner of Police, and subsequently, as Acting Administrator, there is not a word of criticism, but everything in the nature of commendation to be said so far as his treatment of the natives is concerned. But that in itself is not sufficient. No doubt the trait to which I refer is a very admirable one in his character, and one that the Common wealth Government should see is possessed by any future Administrator of the Possession, because we have a. right to jealously guard the interests of the natives who are placed under our care. But we have a right to do more than that. We. have a right to see that the funds of the Commonwealth are wisely expended, and that the burden upon the taxpayer is lightened by such legitimate settlement as New Guinea will permit. Further, we should insist that the natives in a reasonable measure shall help to make good to the Commonwealth the cost of administering the Territory, and of preserving law and order there.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Are we going to settle these things always by the appointment of a Royal Commission ?

Mr WATSON - That seems to be the latest idea.

Mr McWilliams - Did not the Minister of Defence visit New Guinea to investigate all these matters for himself?

Mr WATSON - No; he merelv went as far as Thursday Island. Speaking as an outsider, who has endeavoured to give some attention to the Possession, I am in the highest degree disappointed with the administration which has characterized it for some time. Turning to other matters, I would point out that the gravest dissatisfaction exists amongst the white settlers there.- We also know that dissatisfaction exists amongst a considerable proportion of the officers. Whether in that regard the Administrator is right or wrong, I do pot pretend to be able to judge. That is a matter for the Government to decide. Ordinary members of Parliament who have not access to all the papers connected with these cases cannot be expected to express a definite opinion upon them. But, in regard to one case which has come before Parliament and the country - I refer to that in which Chief Surveyor Richmond was disrated because of a complaint which he lodged against the Administrator - I wish to say - after looking through the papers which were laid upon the table to-day - that the decision of the gentlemen in Melbourne who investigated it, necessarily at a disadvantage, owing to the fact that they could not examine witnesses orally, is an inexplicable one. They had the sworn testimony of four officers of the Executive Council, and against that they accepted the word of the Acting Administrator. I do not say that the Acting Administrator is likely to lie upon a subject of this sort, but I do say that it is more likely that one man would be mistaken than that four men would be in error, when they definitely swear to an actual happening. As far as the Richmond case is concerned, I think there is room for further inquiry. I am quite prepared to admit that there is room for a more detailed inquiry - for the examination of witnesses orally - in order that some estimate may be formed of their reliability. I knew Mr. Richmond as a Government official in New South Wales before he went to New Guinea, and all that I knew of him there was of the most favorable description. That, however, does not necessarily insure that he is right in this particular instance. There is another case which, to mv mind, indicates that the Administrator has not a proper recognition of his dutv either to the people of Australia or of New Guinea. In what is known as the O'Brien case, a prisoner escaped from custody. He was in prison upon a charge of assault, and he escaped bv attacking the native constable who was on guard. I do not wish to say anything in extenuation of his action in that connexion. He mav be one of the worst of scoundrels, and in any case the officers were justified in using every reasonable and lawful effort to recapture him. But the magistrate bv whom he had been tried - M:r. Griffin - posted a notice at the centre of the Yodda gold-field calling uponthe miners to assist in his recapture - a very proper thing - and further authorizing any miner whom O'Brien declined to accompany, in order that he might be handed over to the authorities, to shoot him at sight.

Mr Crouch - The honorable member must recollect the circumstances of the country.

Mr WATSON - The circumstances of the country form no excuse for going beyond the law of the Possession. The surest way to encourage law-breaking is for the responsible authorities to ignore their own laws. I do not say for a moment that Captain Barton was responsible for this magistrate having posted the notice ;n question, but I do say that after the papers had come before him, and when he was asked to make a report upon the sub:ject, he gave no indication whatever of an\, reproof having been administered to that officer, or any intimation that he regarded his act as anything more than an ordinary incident. Even after the Chief Justice of the High Court had been asked to report whether, in his opinion, the notice was 1n accordance with the law of the Possession, Captain Barton, in his position as Administrator, did not rebuke the magistrate and ask him to keep within the limits of the law.

Mr Crouch - What did the Chief Justice of the High Court say?

Mr WATSON - When asked- as the result of action by the Prime Minister - to express his opinion upon the order which had been issued, he said that it was absolutely unlawful and without justification.

Mr Crouch - In a wild man's country it is necessary to take strong action.

Mr WATSON - The regulations which were passed bv Sir William McGregor have not been altered by his successors. There are other circumstances connected with the O'Brien case upon which I do not wish to express an opinion this afternoon. There are matters upon which' it is difficult for honorable members to form an opinion. Against O'Brien's word there was pitted the word of a number of natives. If T were a magistrate. I should require to something of the circumstances and of the men before I would necessarily prefer the statement of a number of natives to that of a white man. Upon the other hand, it is quite possible that the magistrate knew sufficient of O'Brien's general character to justify him in accepting the word of the natives upon the occasion. in question. But, irrespective of the consideration of whether O'Brien had a right to remain in custody, I say that the Administrator did not rise to a proper appreciation of his responsibilities when he allowed the notice to which I have referred to be issued by the magistrate without reproving him for his conduct. That notice was brought under his attention when he was asked to furnish a report upon the subject. As a matter of fact, he even forwarded the notice with the other papers bearing upon the case, but without uttering a word of comment in respect of this grave proceeding. In the case of Chief Surveyor Richmond, there is another circumstance which, to my mind, is a direct reflection upon the Administrator. When Richmond made his charges/ the Administrator suspended him. In doing so he acted strictly within his rights. But the proper tribunal to decide whether or not Richmond's charges were correct was the Commonwealth Government. Instead, however, of leaving the determination of the matter to the Government, the Acting Administrator decided to bring it before the local Executive Council, of which Richmond was a member. When it was found that a number of the members of that body wert likely to side with Richmond, the extreme course was resorted to of swearing in a new member in order to secure a majority against him.

Mr Cameron - Did the swearing in of a new member make more than the proper number of members upon the local Executive Council ?

Mr WATSON - I am not quite certain ; but that is not material to the point at issue. The point is that the Administrator was so anxious to secure a majority in the Council against this officer - the Chief of the Survey Department - that he swore in a. new member. That gave him a majority.

Mr Crouch - Does he admit that the new member was sworn in for that purpose ?

Mr WATSON - The new member was sworn in immediately before the question was dealt with by the Council, and it seems to me that practically there is no answer to my contention. To my mind, that act was an evidence of incapacity on the part of the Administrator. Any sensible man would have referred the whole question to the Commonwealth Government 01: to His Excellency the GovernorGeneral.

Mr Cameron - It shows a want of fairness.

Mr WATSON - Viewed from any stand-point, the incident does not appear to reflect credit on a man occupying such a position. I do not wish it to be inferred that I am insinuating that Captain Barton deliberately went out of his way to injure Mr. Richmond, but I do say that he has throughout shown a lack of capacity. He has shown, to begin with, that he is not able to manage men or to control affairs in the way they should be controlled bv one holding so important a position. That is the only charge - if it be a charge - that I. desire to make on the present occasion. Coming to the question of the responsibility of the Government, it seems to me that they must have made up their minds some time ago that Captain Barton was not the best man for the position of Administrator. If thev did not arrive at that conclusion, why did they consider it necessary to go to so much trouble in endeavouring to secure the services of Sir William McGregor ? I admit that Sir William McGregor did splendid work in Papua.

Mr Wilkinson - He is a "has been."

Mr WATSON - It is true that he is becoming an elderly man.

Sir John Forrest - He is only about fifty-nine years of age.

Mr WATSON - I can well understand the Treasurer, who is only fifty-nine, regarding that as a comparatively early age.

Mr Deakin - He considers that a man , of fifty-nine is at his best.

Mr WATSON - Quite so; but the right honorable gentleman would hesitate to undertake in the tropics work that he would have been prepared to carry out there twenty or thirty years ago. rI am sure that he would scarcely care to again undertake at his time of life many of the great services which, as an explorer, he rendered to Australia in his younger days. At all events, the attempt on the part of the Government to secure the services of Sir William McGregor was a clear indication that they had arrived at the conclusion, after an experience extending over several years, that Captain Barton, although he might be an honorable and an estimable man, was not fit to discharge the important duties intrusted to the Administrator of Papua.

Sir John Forrest - Does the honorable member think that, if we induced Lord Roberts to take command of our Forces, our action would be regarded as a reflection on all the military officers of the Commonwealth ?

Mr WATSON - I do not say that it would be a reflection on them, but it would be tantamount to an admission that the Government felt that they could not obtain locally as good a man to act as General Officer Commanding.

Mr Carpenter - But in this case, one man was to supplant another.

Mr WATSON - That is so. Captain Barton had practically been acting as Administrator for three years, and it was decided - very properly, I think - to endeavour to enlist the services of another man to take his place. I fail to see how the Government can reconcile the stand they are now taking with their earlier action. They professed to believe that Captain Barton "was not the proper man to discharge these duties-

Sir John Forrest - He has had some experience.

Mr WATSON - Having failed to secure the services of the gentleman whom they thought most desirable to act as Administrator, they proceeded to appoint a Commission to take the whole responsibility off their shoulders and to shelve the matter for a considerable time.

Mr Wilkinson - And what sort of a Commission is it?

Mr WATSON - I have no desire to criticise the personnel of the Commission, but it is not such a body as I should have chosen for the work to be dealt with. That, however, is not the chief point that I have in mind. The point is that the Government should have been prepared to decide this matter upon the information at their command. I do not say that the Richmond difficulty could have been so decided, but the question of appointing an Administrator must have been practically decided by them when they agreed to endeavour to secure the services of Sir William McGregor. What will be the result of the appointment of this Commission? It will mean, another three, four, or six months of inaction, so far as Papua is concerned. During the' last four or five years, there has been a policy of drift in regard to the Territory, and I think that we shall not have a chance of recouping any reasonable proportion of the ,£20,000 per annum which we have voted until the drift has been arrested.

Mr Cameron - We should make Papua self-supporting.

Mr WATSON - Even if we cannot do that, the sooner we arrest the drift the better, and the first step in that direction will be the appointment of a man vigorous in mind and body to the office of Administrator. I do not care who is appointed. I have heard a number of names suggested, but the question of who is to be selected for this office is not material to the point at issue. It is for the Government to say who among those offering is the best fitted to carry on the work. There is a growing necessity for the appointment of a man who is mentally and physically vigorous. Complaint after complaint has been ventilated in Parliament, or in the press, as to the difficulties placed in the way of traders, miners, and the white settlers generally in Papua. Complaint is made that men cannot secure land - that they cannot obtain a decision in respect to applications for holdings. Quite a number of cases of that kind have been published, and practically no defence has been made.

Mr Brown - The white settlers also say that thev cannot secure fair treatment.

Mr WATSON - The miners say that they cannot ; but I do not pretend to 1 able to express an opinion on. that point. I do say, however, that the condition of the settlement, the state of the tracks, and so forth, as well as the complaints of which we have heard and read, all prove conclusively that there is every need for a change. That being so. I regret verv much that the Government have seen fit. by the appointment of a Commission, to shelve this matter for some considerable time. It would take the Commission some time to reach New Guinea, some time to make its inquiries, and some time to return.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - What are thev going to inquire into?

Mr WATSON - I do not know. I presume, however, that a number of complaints will be brought before them, and that thev will have to deal with them. Whether any matters have been specifically referred to them I cannot say.

Mr Deakin - The papers have been laid on the table.

Mr WATSON - Has the Commission been laid on the table?

Mr Wilkinson - It has been kept backtill the last moment.

Mr Deakin - The papers to which I refer were laid on the table about ten days ago, and they fully explain what is to be done.

Mr WATSON - Even granting that the Commission is composed of clear-sighted consciencious men, it will still have a most difficult, not to say delicate, task to perform. The Commission are asked to say whether Captain Barton is so incapable, so inept, that he should be superseded ; they must set down in black and white their opinions on that point. I take it that that is what they are practically asked to do - to brand him as a man unfit to undertake such work in the Imperial service.

Mr Carpenter - They are not likely to do that.

Mr WATSON - It is a verv awkward position in which to place sensitive men.

Sir John Forrest - At any rate, I suppose thev will give some reasons.

Mr WATSON - The disposition of the right honorable gentleman! in these circumstances^

Sir John Forrest - What would the honorable member have done?

Mr WATSON - I should have taken the responsibility of either affirming the appointment of Captain Barton as Administrator, or of appointing some one else. If the right honorable gentleman has not sufficient courage to take either of these courses I cannot help it.

Sir John Forrest - The honorable member might have done a grave injustice.

Mr WATSON - I might have done, hut as a member of the Cabinet I should have had the advantage of information that is not now before me. The right honorable .gentleman has had at his command all the official papers that are in the Department. It has been open to him to consider the question in detail, and, having done so, to arrive at a decision.

Mr Mcwilliams - But this matter does not come within the Department of the Treasurer.

Mr WATSON - I am aware of that. The right honorable gentleman asked me what I should have done had I been a Minister, and I am pointing out that all the departmental papers are at his command. The Question involved is not a highly technical one. It is simply one relating to administrative capacity. Surely one could form an opinion on that question without prying into every detail of the life of Captain. Barton' or of his subordinates. The sole question is whether, in view of the resources at his disposal, Captain Barton has done the best for Papua. I contend, with all deference to the opinion of others, that that is a question which could be settled by Ministers in Cabinet on information already at their command.

Sir John Forrest - I have never heard am,thing against Captain Barton.

Mr WATSON - I have not heard anything against him personally, but the right honorable gentleman's hearing must be defective if he has not caught the sound of serious complaints in regard to the general administration of Parma.

Sir John Forrest - I have heard that some people wish to get rid of Captain Barton in order to put some one else in his elace.

Mr WATSON - If that is the only point involved, why have not the Government confirmed Captain Barton's appointment? Why have thev bothered about the appointment of a Commission? I should honour the Government for confirming the appointment of Captain Barton if thev were convinced that he was a good man, capable of doing excellent work, and deserving of the position of Administrator.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 7.30 p.m.

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