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Friday, 28 October 1904

Mr WEBSTER (Gwydir) - I am opposed to this proposal. I see no justification for the expenditure of a large sum of money, ostensibly for the development of a trade with certain islands which the facts and figures before us show to be unworthy of consideration. 'Although the English have been trading with the New Hebrides for upwards of twenty years, there are now only 245 British residents there, thirty-four of whom are missionaries. I suppose it is through the missionaries that the reports have filtered which have led the British Government to become indifferent about the islands. At any rate, we know that men who possess such a dominating influence as the missionaries have in these regions are not a reliable source of information for statesmen and others who have to deal with great national problems.

Mr Johnson - The petition which I read was not signed by the missionaries.

Mr WEBSTER - We know that in political matters what appears to be the hand of Esau is often the hand of Jacob, and the actor hides his identity to facilitate the achievement of his ends. I have nothing to say on the question whether Brisbane or Svdney is the legitimate port for the trade of the islands, though in my opinion there is only one port in Australia which will ultimately become the trading centre of the Pacific. I object, however, to the proposal to spend £12,000 to obtain a trade which is worth only £20,000.

Mr Mcwilliams - And which we shut out by our Customs duties.

Mr WEBSTER - That is another matter. I am surprised that the Treasurer has not seen that we are really paying something for nothing.

Mr McDonald - Under the administration of the States, this subsidy amounted to only £2,000.

Mr WEBSTER - There appears to be a desire on the part of the Government, I will not say to grease the fat sow, but to grant a subsidy to a wealthy shipping company to enable it to profitably run vessels to these islands.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Three Governments have approved of this subsidy.

Mr WEBSTER - I should like to know why the item appears among the Estimates of the Department of External Affairs, instead of in the Estimates of the PostmasterGeneral's Department, where it properly belongs ?

Sir George Turner - Because it was thought wise to put the whole of the expenditure in regard to these islands in one part of the Estimates. The mail subsidv is only a small part of it. The £3,600 is a liability incurred by New South Wales, and transferred to the Commonwealth. Honorable gentlemen opposite would have been the first to growl if we had put one part of the expenditure in one part of the Estimates, and another elsewhere. The Government gain nothing by their present action.

Mr WEBSTER - Notice should not be taken of the complaints of honorable members when they are unreasonable; but the question I raise is as to the constitutionality of placing this sum on the PostmasterGeneral's Estimates. New South Wales paid the money under a Constitution different from that of the Commonwealth.

Mr McDonald - The whole of this, less £3,600, is new expenditure.

Mr Reid - It appears in the Estimates of the Department of External Affairs because it is not wholly for a mail service.

Mr WEBSTER - In my opinion, it is an evasion of the Constitution, and we have no power to grant the money. We are at the present time paying £8,000 per annum for the up-keep of the Merrie England, and now it is proposed to spend £12,000 per annum in addition on a private line of steamers, to secure a trade worth only £20,000 a year, which is decreasing.

Mr Kelly - £20,000 is the annual value of the trade with one group of islands, but the subsidy is to provide for a mail service to several groups.

Mr WEBSTER - I accept that correction, but it makes very little difference to my argument. Why not put the Merrie England to some useful purpose?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Merrie England, if she were fit to do the work at all, could not make one-tenth of the number of trips contracted for.

Mr WEBSTER - But possibly an additional £12,000 would assist us in establishing a line of steamers to these islands.

Mr Reid - The Merrie England is now fully occupied in connexion with the internal administration of New Guinea, which could not be carried out without a vessel of that kind.

Mr WEBSTER - I have been given to understand thaf she merely serves as a floating home for the Administrator, though I admit that from time to time he is called upon to pay visits to different parts of the island to look after its affairs. I think that the Treasurer will admit that he has no constitutional right to pay this money, and that any proposed grant for a mail subsidy should be in the Postmaster- General's Estimates. Furthermore, there are scores of other ways in which it might be spent with more advantage to the Commonwealth in the development of our own resources. I object to the proposal because it is unconstitutional, because it appears as an item in the vote for the Department of External Affairs, because the expenditure is not warranted by the trade carried on between the Commonwealth and the Islands, and because I do not think that the granting of a subsidy to a private company affords the best means of developing commercial relations.

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