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Thursday, 28 July 1904

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) - I move-

That, in view of their strategical importance to the safety of British and Australian commerce in the Pacific, consequent on the projected opening of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, the Commonwealth Government' should afford every facility for Australian settlement in the New Hebrides Islands, and should represent to the British Government the importance of endeavouring to arrive at a more satisfactory agreement with the French Government respecting their control than that at present existing.

I had some diffidence in bringing forward a motion of this character, because I recognise that the matter with which it deals is perhaps a subject for diplomatic agreement, rather than one which should be discussed publicly in this House. In view of the fact, however, that so much publicity has already been given to it in the French, as well as in the British and Australian newspapers, I think that the time has arrived to approach it publicly and boldly. The developments which have occurred during the last few years, and which are still taking place, will, in my opinion, seriously militate against the best interests of Great Britain and Australia in the near future. When I was a good deal younger, I had a great propensity to roam about, and in the course of my wanderings I joined a surveying expedition to New Guinea, and subsequently visited the South Sea Islands. Being naturally of an observant turn of mind, it struck me then - although I had no idea of Australia ever becoming a great Commonwealth, or of the developments, so far as foreign settlement is concerned, which have since taken place - that the settling of the islands of the Pacific, especially New Guinea and the New Hebrides, must become of the highest importance to Australia and Great Britain. That view was strengthened some little time afterwards, when I made a trip from Australia to £'an Francisco. The project was then mooted, I think for the first time, for the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. When I subsequently returned to Australia, the matter engrossed my attention to such an extent that I endeavoured to direct public attention to the importance of the islands, and their bearing upon the future of Australian trade in the Pacific. That was in the eighties. My object was to bring the matter under the notice of the New South Wales Ministry, and induce them to make representations to the British authorities, with the ultimate idea of securing the annexation of the Ha waiian Islands, New Guinea, and the New Hebrides. Perhaps it would save time if I read an extract from a speech which I then delivered at a meeting held, in the Leichhardt Town Hall, and which was reported in the Leichhardt Guardian. I said -

It is true the Panama Canal scheme is apparently not immediately practicable - there are many and difficultobstacles' to fis successful accomplishment at the present time. But considering what a short cut such a canal would - be for purposes of traffic between European countries and ports on the western seaboard of North and South America, and the immense saving of time and minimising of risk it would mean, compared with the voyage . (and its attendant dangers) round Cape Horn, the construction of this canal sooner or later must Become an accomplished fact. A new highway or commerce will then be established which will be to the Pacific and Atlantic what the Suez Canal is now to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Nay, it will prove of even greater importance, for in addition to the American trade tnere is to be taken into account the large and rapidly growing trade with Australia, in the development of which such a canal must play a part the significance of which may easily be understood by a careful study of the map of the world. Besides shortening the distance to Australia from British and Eastern American parts, such a route would prove invaluable in the event of war with any of the Continental European Powers, avoiding both the Cape of Good Hope and the Mediterranean routes, which would involve such enormous risks to commerce in such an event. It may be thought perhaps that I should leave such weighty considerations to older and more seasoned heads and brains. Perhaps this may be so ; but surely it is the duty of every Australian and British citizen to take an interest in all questions affecting the future welfare and prestige of these two countries both acknowledging the one Sovereign. And it is only when we realize the possibilities - nay, the probabilities - of development in the not far distant future, that the necessity for effective policing of the future Pacific Ocean highway of British commerce becomes forcibly impressed upon our minds with startling emphasis'.

Great Britain has no Gibraltar or Malta iri the Pacific. She will feel the need of them some day ; let us hope it will not be when too late to secure them without bloodshed. A naval base will be imperative both in the North and South Pacific. The Sandwich Islands in the north and the New Hebrides in the south offer facilities for both. It is not too late perhaps to acquire rights for the establishment of a naval base at Honolulu by arrangement with King Kalnkua or the Hawaiian Government.

I may mention that this King, though a kanaka, was a man of great intelligence, extended research, and high educational attainments. I continued -

In regard to the New Hebrides, upon which France is evidently casting a covetous eye on account of its exceptional strategic position and excellent harbor at Havanna Bay, annexation should be effected without delay. A few years hence it may be more difficult if not impossible should French interests become paramount over British interests there - a development which I regard as extremely probable, and' as a very serious matter of concern to Great Britain and Australia both.

There is also the further possibility of an added risk should France, Germany, or some other foreign Power establish' itself in New Guinea, or in one or more of the numerous groups of islands in the Southern Pacific Ocean with a view to colonizing those places.

Although these words were spoken eighteen or more years ago, it will be seen from recent developments that there was substantial foundation for giving expression to the probabilities then outlined. Notwithstanding the representations which were made, notwithstanding that they were regarded so lightly by the then Prime Minister of England, and subsequently by other Ministers, we find that foreign interests have been fostered under our eyes, whilst British interests have been just as consistently neglected. A glance at the map which was published in connexion with the postal contracts will show the extent to which Germany, France, and, in a lesser degree, America, have acquired control over the Pacific. Unfortunately a few years, later, America secured control of the Hawaiian group of islands, and thus the port of Honolulu as a possible naval base was absolutely lost to Great Britain. America showed her foresight in taking control' of these islands, because they are in the direct route of her trade with Japan and China. So far as the North Pacific is concerned, these islands were perhaps of greater importance to America than they were to Great Britain. Still, they would have been of immense value to Great Britain at the present juncture, had she only exercised the foresight necessary to acquire control of them, which she could easily have done at that time. What a splendid thing it would be now if Britain possessed Honolulu as a naval base, especially in view of the number of Russian cruisers which are likely to be active in that vicinity very shortly.

Mr Fisher - Will not the United States watch those cruisers?

Mr JOHNSON - That power will undoubtedly preserve American interests.

Mr Fisher - And international interests, too.

Mr JOHNSON - Yes ; probably at the present time, and I sincerely hope the comity of the British and American nations will be preserved for all time, for their mutual benefit, and that of the Englishspeaking races generally. There is, however, always the possibility of complications arising from unforeseen circumstances, and it is one of the cardinal principles of statesmanship to guard against such contingencies. But it is too late to rectify this lack of enterprise now. The islands have passed from British control for ever. In regard to the New Hebrides, it must be recollected that some of them were discovered by Captain Cook, that they were mainly surveyed at British expense, and that they have been developed by British missionary enterprise. The Presbyterian Mission was a very strong factor in the early development of these islands, which, properly speaking, should have passed under British control. But, although this matter has been brought before the British authorities upon several occasions, unfortunately it has not received serious consideration at their hands. In the eighties, I may remark, an attempt was made by France to annex the New Hebrides. Even at that early period the French recognised the value of these islands, and they have been striving ever since to promote settlement there. .For that I do not blame them. They had a keener perception of future potentialities than we, as a nation, had. Although that attempt at annexation was frustrated, France has never lost sight of that end. It will be remembered, too, that in 1847 a reciprocal arrangement was entered into between Great Britain and France in regard to the Raiakea group of islands, near Tahiti. Under that agreement France was never to take possession of these islands, either absolutely or under the title of a protectorate, or in any form whatever. Yet they were annexed by that power in 1880. A similar thing ma-" happen in regard to the New Hebrides, unless we are particularly careful to watch Australian and British interests, and to promote by every possible means "the settlement of British subjects there i:i preponderating numbers. French annexation was_also advocated by the Sandwich Island French newspaper. Le Journal des Nouvelles Hebrides, as far back as 1901. In an article, which it then published, the following words occur: -

The only solution possible is the annexation pure and simple of the Archipelago of the New Hebrides bv France.

I think that that statement leaves no room for doubt as to French intentions regarding the New Hebrides. Yet Lord Derby, in 1S83, refused to annex New Guinea, on the ground that the apprehension that any foreign power desired to occupy it, or the adjacent islands, was absolutely unfounded. We have only to look at a map of New Guinea to-day to realize that Germany has annexed a large portion of it; that the Dutch control a considerable area, and that the balance only is under the control oi: Great Britain, whereas she might have secured that territory in its entirety, had a more enterprising system of colonization been adopted. I do not know that we can altogether blame the British authorities in this connexion, because at that time the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was such a remote contingency that it might well have been disregarded. But the probable realization of that work in the immediate future puts a totally different aspect upon this question, both from ths British and the Australian stand-point. Sir Edmund Barton, the first Federal Prime Minister, in his. Maitland manifesto, of the 9th January, 1902, stated -

As to the annexation of the New Hebrides by either France or England, I do not think that islikely, for some time to come at any rate, and notwithstanding some articles from French papers which have been republished here, which articles you may take with a grain of salt.

It is all very well to say that we may accept those articles with a grain of salt, but we have to look at the repeatedly expressed desires of French statesmen and high officials, as well as the French press, with regard to these islands, which are as plain as was the handwriting on the wall. The New Hebrides group comprises thirtyfive islands, the population of which is, roughly speaking, about 85,000. I take that as the mean, because it has been variously estimated at from 60,000 to 100,000. Of course, these figures represent chiefly the native population. The white settlers are comparatively few, and are largely confined to the more southern islands of the group. At the present time the French preponderate over the British, their numbers being respectively 255 and 214. Two most important islands, from the point of view of harbor accommodation, which is the main consideration, are Mallicollo and Vaté, or Sandwich, as it was named by Captain Cook. Port Sandwich, in Mallicollo, is a very safe and convenient port for vessels of fair tonnage, although it is not so easy of access in all kinds of weather as Havana harbor, which was discovered by Captain Erskine in H.M.S. Havana, in 1849 or 1850, whilst he was making a cruise round these islands. Havana harbor is protected at the entrance by two islands, named Deception Island and Protection Island. The entrance to the channel is perfectly safe for the largest-sized vessels afloat. It is about a mile wide, and is capable of admitting the largest battleships or/ liners ever built. The chief difficulty with which vessels have to contend is the abundant depth of water to be found in that practically land-locked harbor. For instance, a small vessel may go up the harbor a distance of seven or eight miles, and not be able to secure a sufficiently shallow anchorage. There is deep water right to the shore, so that it would be easily possible to build wharves, docks, et cetera. As a naval station, it is absolutely unrivalled, and it is capable of accommodating the whole British fleet at the same time. The chief industry is the gathering of copra, and another industry which is receiving very great attention at the present time is the planting of cocoanut trees. A number of years from the time of planting must elapse, however, before any return is secured from that source of production. In the meantime the attention of the settlers is being devoted to the cultivation of maize, banana, coffee, and other products for which, of course, Australia is the natural market. Unfortunately, the British settlers in the New Hebrides are hampered by a prohibitive Tariff, so -far as the export of their produce to Australia is concerned. This places them at a great disadvantage, as compared with. French settlers. The latter receive special concessions, and every possible encouragement is given them. Austraiian grown maize is subjected by our Commonwealth laws to a Tariff of 3s. 4d. ' a bag, equal to 40 per cent, ad valorem. The policy of the Commonwealth in regard to these islands is in striking contrast to that adopted by New Zealand in dealing with the island possessions which she has acquired. As honorable members are aware, New Zealand' has- extensive possessions in the Pacific. She has the islands of the Kermadic Group, Manahiki Island, Bounty and Chatham Islands, Suwarrow Island, Niue Island', and the Hervey Group, and has passed a law which provides that all goods produced or manufactured in New Zealand shall be admitted free of duty to these islands, and that all goods produced or manufactured in the islands shall-, be admitted free of duty into New Zealand. That seems to be a very sensible policy to adopt, and if anything is calculated to assist the development of the islands, such a policy should certainly do so. Unfortunately the Commonwealth has adopted an opposite policy in dealing with British settlers in the New Hebrides. The British settlers there find themselves so handicapped in competing with the French settlers that, according to a repot t which recently appeared in the press - but for the truth of which I cannot vouch - a great number of them are now seeking to become naturalized French subjects, their object being to secure the advantages of the French laws in relation to trade. It is needless to point out that if this course of action be persisted in it must seriously affect the chances of British supremacy in the islands. A Commission has been appointed, chiefly to deal with disputes in regard to the ownership of land and kindred subjects, in order that comity of feeling between the two nations shall be preserved. Whatever may be the value of the titles held in respect of land purchased from the natives, common-sense suggests that the ultimate decision in regard to the question of title will rest upon the numerical strength of the population, and also upon the value of the interests of that population, whether it be French or British. The question of. the ultimate control of the New Hebrides will probably depend upon the preponderance of interests so far as these two main considerations are concerned". It is for this reason that I urge that it is absolutely necessary that the Commonwealth should give very serious consideration to the importance of encouraging by every legitimate mean's the settlement of Australians and Britishers generally on this group, and more particularly on Mallicollo and Sandwich Islands, which possess two ports that, from a British naval strategic stand-point, are of immense value. With the opening of the Panama Canal a very large proportion of the trade now passing through the Suez Canal and over, the Indian Ocean will be transferred to the Pacific, and Great Britain will then find it of great importance to have some effective means of policing the South Pacific, and of protecting British and Australian commerce in time of war. It is for this reason that I draw special attention to the ports of these two islands. We have, of course, a naval base at Sydney, and Great Britain still has possession of the Fiji Group, but these islands do not offer in the same degree those facilities which are so essential to a naval base. It must be remembered that the largest battle-ship cannot effectively operate in an ambit of more than 2.000 miles without re-coaling, and therefore Sydney is too far distant from the South Pacific to allow of its being used effectively as a naval base unless a coaling station, together with dock-yards, and the usual accompaniments of a naval station, be secured elsewhere, adjacent to the great traffic' routes of the Pacific between Panama and Australia. Although I felt very reluctant to bring this question forward in so public a manner as this, I saw no other way of directing public attention to its importance. I have submitted this motion in the hope that it will receive the prompt consideration that its importance demands, and that the British authorities will make some arrangement with the French Government to secure a more satisfactory means of control than that which at present exists. I should like to call attention to the efforts which France is making to assist her settlers in the New Hebrides, and to emphasize the disabilities under which British and Australian settlers labour. The French have, I am informed, a large secret colonizing fund, which is drawn upon to afford valuable facilities to French settlers in the group. They pay £16,000 per annum to the New Hebrides Company, and a subsidy of £2,000 per annum to Messrs. Ballande and Company - a great colonizing firm, working, in reality, in' connexion with a French organization' usually assumed to exist for spiritual rather than for temporal and sordid commercial purposes - to run a vessel between Noumea and the New Hebrides. They also pay a subsidy of £2,600 per annum to the Messageries Maritimes Company for allowing the steamer Pacifique, which trades regularly between Sydney and Noumea, to go on to the New Hebrides. Then there is the Conseil Generate, or General Council, of Noumea, which gives £500 per annum to a French plantation company or union, by way of a direct subsidy. That subsidy is specially aimed at the attempts which that enterprising and patriotic company, Burns, Philp and Co., are making to establish trade with the New Hebrides in the interests of Great Britain and Australia. I use the word " patriotic " advisedly, because Colonel Burns is, I think, actuated far more by patriotic than by commercial motives in endeavouring to secure British supremacy in these islands. I am informed that the company is losing many thousands annually in carrying on the trade with the New Hebrides, and that the continuation df that trade is not justifiable from a commercial stand-point only.

Mr Crouch - The honorable member knows that the Commonwealth at ] resent gives that company a subsidy.

Mr JOHNSON - Yes; but it is not nearly so large as that given by the French Government to the French service. I am not urging that a further subsidy should be granted, although that is a matter which the Government will need to take into consideration. I do not strongly favour the giving of subsidies or grants except in special circumstances; but this might be regarded as a national undertaking, and a subsidy to assist it might be defensible on that ground, t

An Honorable Member. - Have not the company certain land interests which they desire to develop bv trade?

Mr JOHNSON - I think that they are prepared to hand over all their rights in that respect unconditionally to the Commonwealth. What I advocate is that the tariff restrictions,, which are now imposed upon their trade, shall be removed, so as to give them greater facilities than they at present possess, and to place them more on a footing of equality with their French competitors, who are pampered up and encouraged in many directions, which, perhaps, are not always legitimate.

Mr Crouch - Does the honorable member include Fiji in his motion?

Mr JOHNSON - I am speaking more particularly of the position of the New Hebrides. Fiji is under British control, but the New Hebrides are under a dual control, and an arrangement has been made by which that dual control is to continue for a certain number of years. It seems to me that' if Great Britain were to surrender to 'France territory in some other quarter in return for the undivided control of the New Hebrides, the arrangement might be found agreeable to the interests of both nations. There are British possessions, which, although of no great value to us, might be far more beneficial to France than is her share in the control of the New Hebrides. Possession of the New Hebrides would be of far greater importance to Great Britain than to France, because of their contiguity to Australia. The French possessions in the Pacific, other than New Caledonia, are not of any great extent ; whilst in view of the fact that the Pacific will shortly become a very busy highway for vessels trading between Australia, Europe, and America, the New Hebrides assume a value to Great Britain quite apart from their productive worth. They are of value to Great Britain more from a naval than from any other point of view, and for this reason I urge that, if possible, they should be acquired at an early date by Great Britain. Although there is a duty on French produce in the New Hebrides, a rebate is allowed, which may be set down, . roughly speaking, at 50 per cent. The fact that this rebate is allowed has been frequently published, and has not been denied by the French authorities. On maize there is a duty of three francs per 100 kilos, the rebate being one franc. But although a duty is collected upon French produce going into Noumea, practically the whole of it is refunded to the settlers in the New Hebrides, because, not only is there rebate amounting in some instances to about 50 per cent., but the revenue actually collected is returned to the New Hebrides authorities, anr! is spent in Vila, the most important settlement in the islands, on road construction and other local improvements which directly benefit the people there. The French Government are spending large sums in the erection of permanent buildings of a substantial character.

Mr Fisher - Is not that done in the States? Does not' New South Wales spend part of her revenue upon the construction of roads?

Mr JOHNSON - Yes ; but we- do not return our revenue to the districts from which it is collected. In my opinion, the two cases are not analogous. I am showing the improvement of the French method upon o.ur method. We do not give the British settlers in these islands any rebate, nor do we refund for their advantage the duties collected from them. I hope that honorable members will realize the seriousness of the situation, and see how discouraging the present system is to attempts to colonize the islands by Australians. I am dealing with the question in a national spirit, and with the desire to see the British Empire have the same powerful influence in the Southern seas that it has in other parts of the world.

Mr Page - We have no power to refund any revenue which we may collect from these settlers.

Mr JOHNSON - Parliament has power to do what it likes with its surplus revenue.

We have the power to levy taxation, and the power to remit it.

Mr Page - But the Government has no right to remit taxation.

Mr JOHNSON - It could acquire that right by the consent of Parliament. There is a proposal, referred to in the Noumea paper of the 12th inst., to increase the present subsidies by 75,000 francs, which isi equivalent to . £3,000. The- French are increasing the facilities given to their settlers, in order to drive British trade away from these islands, so that theymay ultimately have absolute control of them. I hope that honorable members in dealing with the subject will not be swayed by party considerations, but will think of what is best in the interests of the Empire.

Mr Page - Is the honorable member of the opinion that if Great Britain will not give a subsidy Australia should do so for her?

Mr JOHNSON - Australia should give facilities to her own settlers in these islands, and should encourage the colonization of the islands by people of the British race, not necessarily because of the advantage which, that will give the Commonwealth!, but because "of the advantage which the possession of the islands by Great Britain will be to us.

Mr Page - We already subsidize a line of steamers to the New Hebrides.

Mr JOHNSON - Yes; but the subsidy we pay is not worth talking of, in comparison with that paid to the French steamers. If we allowed the produce of British settlers, grown in the islands, to enter the Commonwealth free, we should be doing something for our people there. In my opinion,we should hold out every inducement to Australians to colonize these islands, so that eventually the chief part of the population will become British, and Great Britain will secure supreme control over them. We should give the people there every facility..

Mr Page - What does the honorable member mean by that?

Mr JOHNSON - I leave it to the Government, and to Parliament to decide what should be done. I have already suggested that one advantage which Ave might give them isto allow their produce to enter our ports without having . to pay duty.

Mr Austin Chapman - But the honorable member is in faA'our of allowing all goods to enter the Commonwealthwithout payment of duty.

Mr JOHNSON - Certainly. There is nothing petty or mean about my free-trade principles.

Mr Austin Chapman - If that were done, the settlers in the New Hebrides would have no preference.

Mr JOHNSON - For my own part, I could not get too much free-trade. But I knoAV that in the present position of par- . ties it is impossible to get what I Avant. I shall always advocate the freest exchange of products betAveen the various parts of tha Avorld. The point I am making noAV, however, is that our settlers in the New Hebrides are handicapped by the action of this Parliament in putting import duties upon their produce.

Mr Austin Chapman - Does the honorable member admit that those who send goods to us are made to suffer by reason of the existence of import duties ?

Mr JOHNSON - I hold that the consumer has to pay the duties which are placed upon imports ; ' but in the case to which I am referring the Tariff is prohibitive, so that the products of these settlers are being kept out of Australia altogether. Ifwe wish to encourage settlement in those islands, we should consider the matter Avithout regard to fiscal questions. The paramount end in view should be the establishment of British supremacy in the group. We should do ali Ave can to encourage settlement there, so that the islands may become more and more a British Possession. The produce of the islands is all AvhitegrOAvn produce. The natives do not cultivate the soil to any great extent.

Mr Crouch - But they Avork under the direction of Avhite men.

Mr JOHNSON - Unquestionably ; but that does not affect the matter under discussion. That is a labour question, Avhich does not enter into our consideration at the present time. A great deal has been said and Avritten on this subject, and I have, for many years past, felt strongly upon the importance of doing something in the direction I have suggested. The fears Avhich I expressed many years ago in regard to Avhat might happen in the Pacific have been shoAvn by subsequent events to have been grounded on very sound reasoning. In conclusion, I express the fer- vent hope that the matter will receive the earnest consideration of the Government, and that they will make a strong recommendation to the British Government as to the importance of the question as it affects Australian and British interests in the South Pacific.

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