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Friday, 28 October 1904

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) - Before the adjournment last evening some opposition was offered to the proposed increased mail subsidy to the Pacific Islands, upon the ground that insufficient information had been furnished to the House in regard to the trade and other matters connected with the New Hebrides. With a view to supplying some further information, I should like to address myself to this question. I have reason to believe that the company to which it is proposed to grant this increased subsidy is not interested in the subsidy itself so much is in the removal of existing barriers to the natural development of trade with these islands. . As a matter of fact, I am informed that the company is willing tb "transfer the whole of its landed interests there to' the Commonwealth if the latter is agreeable to take them over.

Mr Reid - The company has offered to do that.

Mr Mahon - Free of cost ?

Mr Reid - Yes.

Mr JOHNSON - I mention that fact to show that the company's desire to gain an increased trade appears to be really prompted, not so much by commercial considerations, as by the patriotism of Colonel Burns.

Mr Mahon - Patriotism ?

Mr JOHNSON - Yes. Colonel Burns realizes - as everybody must who has studied the geographical position of these islands, in relation to the great trade routes of the Empire between Europe and Australia - that their possession by Great Britain is a matter of paramount importance to the future of Australia, and also of Britain, not merely for commercial reasons, but for much weightier considerations.

Mr McDonald - Does not that argument also apply to New Caledonia?

Mr JOHNSON - Honorable members do not appear to realize the difference which exists between New Caledonia and the New Hebrides in regard to their position from a naval stand-point. It is true that New Caledonia possesses a fine harbor at Noumea, which may toe used as a naval base. But the fact should not be overlooked that the New Hebrides are distinguished . from every other group of South Pacific Islands in that, whilst most of the latter are surrounded by dangerous coral reefs, the New Hebrides are almost entirely free from anysuch obstruction.

Mr McDonald - The Commonwealth has not even a map showing these islands.

Mr JOHNSON - I can supply the wants of the honorable member. I have drawn a chart setting out various details, connected with the islands, which has been submitted to most honorable members.

Mr Tudor - Where is it?

Mr JOHNSON - At present, I understand, it is in the Opposition room. In that chart I have shown the approaches to and the soundings and general conformation of the principal port, Havannah Harbor. I repeat that whereas most, if not all the other groups of islands are surrounded by dangerous coral reefs, the approach to the New Hebrides is quite free, from any such obstruction, and the harbors there are perfectly safe in all sorts of weather.

Mr Page - Why should we pav for that ?

Mr JOHNSON - This matter is one of importance to the future of Australia, in view of the prospective opening of the Panama Canal. Whatever nation is in possession of these islands will hold the key to the whole of the Southern Pacific trade routes. They are therefore of great strategical importance, not only to Australia, but also to the whole of British interests. The Imperial Government committed a very grave error when it allowed New Caledonia to pass out of its hands, because it cannot be denied that that island was originally surveyed and charted by the British. The British first established a. trading station there, and British missionaries first attempted their Christianization. They had spent many thousands of pounds there, and yet another nation was permitted to step in and take advantage of that expenditure. Sooner or later we shall have to realize the important bearing which the New Hebrides Islands will have upon the home and external trade relations of Australia. That fact may perhaps be emphasized in a way which will be very unpleasant from our point of view, unless we take reasonable precautions whilst there is yet time. Had those precautions been taken twenty years ago, the present difficulty would not have arisen. In regard to the question of land tenure, of which the honorable member for Coolgardie spoke last evening, I would point out that the basis of the settlement of all claims between the British and French nations must ultimately be effective occupation. There can be no effective British occupation of these islands, so long as we place obstacles in the way of British settlement - obstacles in the form of Tariff restrictions which have absolutely precluded any possibility of the trade of these islands coming to Australia, and which have played into the hands of the French, who are said to spend about £40,000 annually in subsidizing shipping and other interests for the purpose of assisting French settlers to colonize them.

Mr Mahon - What is the honorable member's authority for the statement that the French spend .£40,000 a year in subsidies?

Mr JOHNSON - The fact has been stated on good authority elsewhere, and so far as I know has not been disputed. I dealt with that aspect of the question in a speech which I delivered ' in this House upon the 28th July last. The information in question is derived from statistics. If the honorable member chooses to consult the French newspapers he can easily verify my assertion. The statement has been published in the newspapers, and no attempt has been made to deny its accuracy.

M.t. Mahon. - Many statements are published in newspapers, the accuracy of which is not denied, but nevertheless they are untrue.

Mr JOHNSON - As a matter of fact, I have in my possession a letter from M. Ballaude, oof Bordeaux, in which that gentleman,- whilst taking exception to the statement that his firm receives £2,000 of that subsidy, does not deny the general accuracy of the statements furnished as to subsidies and special trade facilities granted to French settlers.

Mr Page - What firm is that?

Mr JOHNSON - The French colonizing company.

Mr McDonald - How many French settlers are there in the New Hebrides?

Mr JOHNSON - There are 255.

Mr Page - Is that the total French population ?

Mr JOHNSON - Yes. This large sum, it must be self-evident, is being spent for the purpose of encouraging French colonization, not because the French Government wish to assist the few settlers upon these islands, but because they realize their immense strategic importance.

Mr Page - How many British settler? are there?

Mr JOHNSON - There are only 21 4 Britishers. I wish to be perfectly fair, t have absolutely no personal interest in this matter. I simply regard it from an Empire stand-point, and I .have long recognised the important strategic value of these islands.

Mr Page - Why does not the Empire look after them

Mr JOHNSON - I may tell honorable members that eighteen or twenty years ago. I addressed some public meetings in Svdney upon this question, and drew attention to its importance. I also attended deputations which waited upon the late Sir Henry Parkes, the late Sir George Dibbs, and the late Sir Patrick Jennings, who in turn were Premiers of New South Wales, for the purpose of making representations to them upon this subject. They realized the importance of the subject, and communicated with the Home Secretary, urging the annexation of these islands, upon the grounds which 1 have endeavoured to lay before honorable members. Unfortunately, the Home Secretary at that time did not appreciate their importance. He ridiculed the idea that the Panama Canal would ever become an accomplished fact, although that great undertaking is nowikely tq be completed within a few years. Ho also ridiculed the suggestion " that "am European nation would ever attempt to establish itself in any of the Pacific Islands, and referred to it as an idle and unfounded fear on the part of Australia. I canna recall, for the moment, the exact words that he used, but the suggestion that 11\

European power might establish itself in proximity to the Australian Continent on islands inhabited by naked savages - he regarded as utterly absurd and chimerical, at least for the next century. And Australian representations and warnings were then almost contemptuously disregarded. Within four years of this declaration that the islands would remain absolutely in the possession of savages for another hundred years, most of the great European nations had, to a very large extent, established themselves in the South Pacific. The French had occupied NewCaledonia, while the United States of America had taken possession of the Hawaiian group of islands, which afford the only possible base in the Northern Pacific for Russia, Japan, and other countries on that side of the seaboard. The Americans have also colonized further south, while the Germans have colonized the greater part of New Guinea and the adjacent islands. This colonization has been going on under our very eyes, and we have been absolutely inactive. We have done nothing to counteract what is really a menace to Australia. This shows us the necessity of not reiving too much on the foresight of British statesmen.

Mr McDonald - It has taken twenty years to secure a population of 214 British settlers in the New Hebrides.

Mr JOHNSON - The same remark applies to the French, but we must remember that the British remained in sole possession of the trade of the New Hebrides group for forty years before the French colonists put in an appearance. It is true that the population of the islands is, for the most part, a native one, but it is only of recent years, and largely through the instrumentality of a shipping firm, actuated, I honestly think, not so much by commercial as by patriotic motives, that British settlement has been encouraged there.

Mr Page - They are very patriotic !

Mr JOHNSON - Honorable members must admit that there exist some men who are not guided solely by commercial considerations. When such a question of grave national import as this is involved, a man is often ready to sacrifice commercial considerations to an inborn patriotism, and we have to allow for that sentiment in dealing with this matter. I, personally, cannot be accused of having even one farthing's worth of interest in the islands. The active interest which I take in the question is due solely to patriotic motives.

Mr Spence - How would this subsidy bring about British possession or the islands ?

Mr JOHNSON - I do not think that the subsidy is the best means for securing that result, although it will give settlers an increased service, and more frequent communication ; but the Tariff is the real stumbling, block in the road of settlement. Some honorable members seem to think that the subsidy is designed solely to enrich a certain firm.

Mr Spence - Nothing else.

Mr JOHNSON - I am led to understand, and I believe, that the company in question has lost something like £16,000 a year in maintaining this trade.

Mr Page - That is too thin ! Does the honorable member know of any company which carries on business solely for patriotic reasons ?

Mr JOHNSON - I know that the actuary of the company is strongly opposed to its engaging in the trade of these islands. He thinks that it would be very much better without it.

Mr Page - Does the honorable member assert that the company has lost , £16,000 a year as the result of engaging in thte trade ?

Mr JOHNSON - I think that is said to approximate to the loss. ,

Mr Page - The total trade of the islands last year amounted to only £18,000.

Mr JOHNSON - I do not say that the company has lost £16,000 a year solely in connexion with the trade of the New Hebrides group. That loss is said to have been incurred by it in connexion with the whole of its trade in the South Pacific; and I believe that the larger proportion of it has been incurred in the New Hebrides service. I look at this matter apart altogether from fiscal considerations. The French not only subsidize shipping companies for the carriage of mails, with a view to promote their trade with the islands, but grant French settlers a rebate amounting in round figures to something like 50 per cent, upon French island-grown produce. The balance is actually devoted to the construction of roads, bridges, and means of communication, and to furnishing other necessary adjuncts of civilization.

Mr Page - And yet they cannot colonize the islands.

Mr JOHNSON - That is largely due to the fact that the French are not naturally a colonizing nation. French settlers are not only given grants of land to encourage them to settle, but receive financial assistance averaging about £200 per man.

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