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Friday, 28 October 1904

The CHAIRMAN - I would point out to the honorable member that it would be impossible to postpone the consideration of a question that has already been stated from the Chair.

Mr MAHON - In that case, I presume it will be impossible to recommit the item. There must be some parliamentary method provided for extricating us from a tangle such as this is.

Sir George Turner - It will' be competent for honorable members to deal with the matter when the resolutions of the Committee of Supply are reported, or in connexion with the Appropriation Bill.

Mr MAHON - I think that it is the business of the Government to find a way out of difficulties of their own creation. We have not sufficient information before us. Ministers sit absolutely dumb, and rely upon a private honorable member to endeavour to persuade us that we shall be justified in voting the sum they propose.

Mr Wilks - In the same way that the Watson Government put up the honorable member for Darling to speak on their behalf.

Mr MAHON - Even if the suggestion of the honorable member for Dalley be correct, we should scarcely expect a Ministry of all the talents to follow the example of a Government consisting of untried men.

Mr Kelly - Was not this item agreed to by the Watson Ministry ?

Mr MAHON - It has found its way into the Estimates as a result of the action of. several Ministries. The present Government are responsible for it as it now appears, and in justice to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth they ought to supply us with the fullest information. They should not expect us to be content with the inexact statements made by the honorable member for Lang, based apparently upon reports contained in some obscure newspaper, or upon the assertions of persons who possibly have selfish interests to serve. We ought to have placed before us facts and figures absolutely beyond challenge. I ask, what do the Government intend?

Sir George Turner - We propose. to go on with an item which has been approved of by three Governments.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Including the Government with which the honorable member was connected.

Mr MAHON - That is a most extraordinary statement.

Sir George Turner - The item will be approved of by a vast majority of honorable members when they vote - if they ever get a chance to vote.

Mr MAHON - That may or may not be. I hope that those honorable members who vote in favour of it will be able to justify their action before the people of Australia. The Treasurer is a clever arithmetician, and I invite him to work out a little sum by dividing the sum of £8,400 by 214 - the latter number representing the British residents in the New Hebrides independent of the missionaries.

Mr Kelly - Four hundred pounds of that amount is intended to provide for ths substitution of white labour for black upon the mail steamers.

Mr MAHON - If the subsidy were abolished altogether there would be no necessity to provide that £400, and I am, therefore, perfectly justified in adopting the total of £8,400 for the purpose of the calculation in which I am asking the Treasurer to engage. The proposed service is intended solely 'for the benefit of the 214 British residents in the New Hebrides, because it cannot be denied that the want's of the French community there are amply catered for by the shipping companies of that nation. A thorough investigation ought to be made, so that we might obtain from official sources a clear statement of the position. We have certainly had a very eloquent and lucid exposition by the honorable member for Lang, but I am not aware that he has been briefed by the Government, or that they are justified in endeavouring to get the Estimates passed upon the strength of information supplied by irresponsible members. They should present official data which would justify us in voting £8,400 for the benefit of 214 individuals who are located beyond the limits of the Commonwealth. Honorable members have repeatedly brought under notice the necessity of providing better mail facilities for the convenience of settlers in the remoter country districts.. I do not suppose that there is one honorable member who could not point to cases in which the expenditure of a few hundred pounds would confer great advantages upon a considerable number of his constituents.

Mr Austin Chapman - Hear, hear.

Mr MAHON - I am very glad to hear that cheer from the honorable member. ' I believe that, notwithstanding his extreme activity in days gone by, which has reduced the wants of his electors to what may be deemed to represent the irreducible minimum, they still have requirements which could be reasonably met. I am only sorry that the honorable member did not assist to keep me in office sufficiently long to enable me to make good some of those omissions.

Mr Austin Chapman - I shall hold the honorable member to his promise when he again takes office.

Mr MAHON - I an.' opposed to this subsidy for many reasons, which appear to me to be full of force, and which cannot be disregarded in the interests of the people of this country. From ancient times every nation which has attempted unduly to expand itself has either suffered reverses or come to grief. We need only dip into history to obtain an object-lesson which should stand us in good stead in this regard. Taking the policy which has been outlined in support of this subsidy, I say that it is simply folly for a small community like ours to endeavour to grab all the islands of the Pacific - and that is what is at the bottom of this proposal. That is the proposal which the honorable member for Lang has practically avowed. That is the object which, twenty years ago, stimulated the agitation wh'ich took place in this country upon the same subject. In my opinion, it is absurd for a small community, comprising 4,000,000 of people, to attempt to ab sorb islands which are situated at such a great distance from the coast line of Australia. For 125 years America has managed to progress under a republican form of Government without undertaking anything in the shape of annexation outside her own borders.

Mr Skene - She is doing it now.

Mr MAHON - I am quite aware that she is doing it now. Does the honorable member imagine that I have been blind or deaf and dumb.

Mr Reid - It would be a blessing if the honorable member were dumb - if onlY for an hour.

Mr MAHON - It would have been a blessing to Australia if the Prime Minister had been born that way.

Mr Reid - That is very bitter. I know that the honorable member is' a believer in law and order.

Mr MAHON - I have come under stronger administrators of law and order than the right honorable gentleman, and I am quite prepared to meet him. America, until recently, progressed very well without attempting to annex countries outside her own immediate sphere, and her recent adoption of a different policy has embroiled her in troubles, the end of which her ablest statesmen cannot foresee. Her interference in Cuban affairs, and in the assimilation of other islands, and especially her excursion to the Philippines, have not been to the advantage of the American people. Honorable members who lead American magazines and newspapers will agree with me that there is a large and powerful party gi owing up in the United States, which is bitterly opposed to the abandonment of the Monroe doctrine.

Mr Johnson - I do not think that America started out with any idea of annexation.

Mr MAHON - Whatever idea she may have started out with, the fact remains that she has annexed the Philippines, which are costing her an enormous sum of money for administration - money which is not likely to be repaid during the present generation. Her policy has produced a crop of troubles, which, if they do not disrupt the Republic will seriously affect its finances and the prosperity of the community- If it be folly for a country possessing 80,000,000 of inhabitants to indulge in a policy of expansion - of grabbing up all the waste places of the earth - it must be little short of supreme folly for Australia, situated as she is, to follow upon the same lines, seeing that it possesses only about one-twentieth of the population of tHe United States. I admit that a different view might be entertained if Australia were a small island, whose people had not spheres to which they could transfer their energies, close at hand - if there were no kingdoms of fruitful soil convenient to the masses. That, however, ds not the case. Our Northern Territory is practically unpeopled and undeveloped. That territory embraces an enormous area, which is equal to a principality. Separated from' it by an imaginary boundary line, are other enormous tracts of country, which are known as the north-west portion of Western Australia. All that territory is practically undeveloped, and the same remark is applicable in a minor degree to the northern portions of Queensland. Moreover, we have a very large expanse of country in New Guinea. With all these opportunities for the expansion of our population, what folly it is for us to travel so far afield in order to acquire fresh territories? The honorable member for Lang, who seems to be the chief advocate of this item - because the Government have not a word to say in its favour-

Mr Reid - We cannot join in a " stonewall."

Mr MAHON - I am not erecting a "stone wall." The statements which I ann making contain sound, common sense from my stand-point. The honorable member for Lang seems to think that these islands are of great strategic value to the Empire. If that be so, it is rather extraordinary that the great men who have their fingers upon the pulses of the British people, who deeire to protect the Empire from aggression. who make a study of foreign policy, and who understand quite as well as does the honorable member the necessity for keeping the great ocean highways open to British commerce, have not awakened to the importance of retaining these islands.

Mr Johnson - The same authorities, some years ago, said that foreign nations would' not establish themselves in the Pacific.

Mr MAHON - If the honorable member attempts to forecast what will happen within 100 years he will fall into innumerable errors/ It is a very clever individual who can see ten years, ahead. In submitting a motion relating to the New Hebrides on the 28th July last, the honorable member for Lang said -

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.

I would remind the honorable member that all the wisdom of statesmanship does not reside in him. There are at the head of affairs in the British Empire minds quite as alert as is his own,' quite as anxious to preserve British supremacy as he is, and they are not likely to neglect any opportunity to protect the interests of Great Britain. I regard this proposal as merely the thin end of the wedge to embroil the Commonwealth in a scheme for private aggrandizement. When we reflect that there are only 214 British residents, exclusive of missionaries, in these islands, after forty years of occupation, I think it will be recognised that their resources cannot be of a very attractive character. I am sorry that the honorable and learned member for Ballarat is not present, because he has made some statements in reference to these islands, and has given reasons to justify this vote, which I should like to test by some information in my possession. I- do not think that he was quite frank in some of his remarks last evening upon this subject, and I hope that before I have concluded my remarks, he will return to the Chamber, so that I may have an opportunity of referring- more fully to this aspect of the matter. I mentioned last evening that in my opinion it was necessary that the payment of this subsidy should be deferred until the question of land titles in the New Hebrides had been settled.

Mr Johnson - They will not require any subsidy then.

Mr MAHON - Seeing that the French population and interests in most of the islands are quite equal to, if not greater, than are those of the British community, it is evident that until the question of land titles is settled, there can be no large increase in the British population. The question of land titles, as the honorable member for Lang is aware-

The CHAIRMAN - I am afraid that the honorable member is now trenching upon the motion which the honorable member for Lang has upon the business-paper.

Mr MAHON - I have no wish to do that. I merely desire to make an incidental reference to it. I apprehend that I shall not be out of order in referring to the bearing of land titles upon the advisability of the Government paying the proposed subsidy ? I presume that I shall be in order in referring to it, in so far as the occupancy of land in the islands justifies the Commonwealth paying this subsidy. I find that in the New Hebrides and the Banks Islands, which embrace an area of nearly 6,000 square miles -

The French exceed the British on five islands, the British exceed the French on five, and on two the numbers are equal. In the Banks and Torres groups - which consist of a series of small islands connecting the New Hebrides with the Solomons, the British preponderate. . . . The New Hebrides is practically the only group not claimed by an European nation. Under the Anglo-French Convention of 16th November, 1877, and the agreement of the 26th June, . 1888, they were placed under a joint Commission of English and French Naval officers on the Pacific Station. The duties of this Commission are limited to maintaining order and redressing wrongs suffered by the whites at the hands of the natives. The British and French have each a Resident Commissioner stationed at Vila, on Efate, or Sandwich Islands, the principal port.

Much difficulty has been experienced owing to the fact that the Commission had no power to deal with land titles. Many disputes between English and French, and also between Europeans and natives, have arisen, and have remained unsettled for this reason.

Mr Johnson - From what is the honorable member quoting?

Mr MAHON - From a summary of correspondence to which I shall refer later on. The summary continues -

The Admiralty reports make frequent reference to this inconvenience, and the Senior Naval Officer in November, 1903, said that it would tend greatly to the tranquility of the group if a Commission were appointed to settle these disputes. The recent agreement of April last provided for the establishment of such a Commission.

There are many questions arising out of the settlement of the difficulties in regard to these land titles. I have no desire to labour the question, but I think it necessary to point out that until these titles are placed upon a satisfactory basis, we shall have no large increase in settlement in the islands, and certainly no such increase as would justify the Commonwealth in expending over £8,000 per annum in maintaining communication with them. I therefore say that we have to guard ourselves against taking a first step that would lead us on to such untold expenditure and untold trouble, as the United States have experienced in Cuba and the Philippines, and, indeed, in every place with which, since their abandonment of the Monroe doctrine, they have sought to interfere.

Mr Johnson - The circumstances are entirelv different.

Mr.MAHON.- They are so entirely different as to make it all the more unjustifiable for us to go beyond our own boundaries in order practically to invite trouble. When the honorable member for Lang speaks of the necessity of preserving these islands to Great Britain, he ignores the fact that New Caledonia - which is actually in the possession of a foreign power - is some 500 miles nearer the Australian coast than is the New Hebrides group.

Mr Johnson - I do not ignore that fact - I deplore it.

Mr MAHON - I did not even hear the honorable member mention it, not to speak of deploring it. When he urges that the possession of these islands by Great Britain is necessary for the protection of Australia and the preservation of the Empire, he must logically advocate the acquisition of New Caledonia.

The CHAIRMAN - I think that the honorable member is now distinctly debating the motion on the notice-paper, to which I have referred.

Mr MAHON - I must apologize for having overlooked the precise terms of that motion. After all, I did not intend to make anything more than an incidental reference to the futility of the- honorable member, or any one else, attempting to claim that the New Hebrides group should be secured to Great Britain unless they, go further and say that we must obtain possession of the larger and more important island of New Caledonia, which lies much nearer our coast. The honorable mem&er made the most extraordinary statement that the company which is to receive the subsidy is actually losing £16,000 per annum in carrying on this trade. If that be correct - and I have no doubt that the honorable member believes that it is - the company is deserving of an enduring memorial by a grateful Commonwealth for services rendered.

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - It is the first case on record, I should think, of a service being carried on by a company purely for patriotic reasons.

Mr MAHON - Quite so. Such a sacrifice in the interests of the community has never before been recorded. I certainly understood the honorable member to. say that the company was losing this large sum annually from patriotic motives, with a desire to maintain trade, so that, with the expansion which must come later on, it would be an easy matter for Australia to become possessed of the islands.

Mr Johnson - I said that I believed that patriotism was the mainspring of the company's action.

Mr MAHON - I have never had a chance before of appreciating such selfsacrifice on the part of a limited or unlimited liability company. The honorable member also made the statement, and I think that the Prime Minister indorsed it, that the company was prepared to transfer the whole of its landed interests in the islands free of charge to the Commonwealth. That also is a generous proposition. If the company is losing £16,000 a year in carrying on this trade, the further proposition to hand over this land to us free of charge is a consistent act of benevolence on its part. I should like to know, however, what liability would attach "to the gift.

Mr Johnson - I know of none.

Mr MAHON - That is the difficulty. We have no precise information of this company's intentions. That is what we ought to have before granting this subsidy. If an independent inquiry were held on the spot - by, say, a small Parliamentary Commission - I think that the House would cheerfully and with confidence vote any sum required to maintain the existing connexion between Australia and the islands, provided of course that the investigations of the Commission showed that it was in the interests of Australia.

Mr Johnson - I am just as anxious as is the honorable member that the fullest information should be secured.

Mr MAHON - I am sure that the honorable member is, and I therefore claim his vote against the Government proposal, unless the required details are furnished. I take it that a refusal on the part of the Committee to grant this subsidy would be a direct intimation to the Government that we should expect them in future to present a better case before asking us to vote so large a sum. If I appear to refer rather frequently to the remarks of the honorable member for Lang, it is due to the fact that he is about the only honorable member who has championed this item. The Government have not a word to say about it. Even the Treasurer, who usually investigates financial matters very closely, and sees that the community obtains good value for its outlay, does not seem to have mastered all the details of this proposal.

Mr Reid - The approval of the Ministry of which the honorable member was a member is enough for him.

Mr MAHON - In matters of this kind the right honorable gentleman does not usually take any one's word for granted. I believe that his thorough-going and searching examinations into the finances of the Commonwealth have always been personally conducted. I admit that owing to the position of parties in this House, the Government are rather powerless - that they have no effective capacity to adopt strong measures - but in asking us to vote this money they should at least place the fullest particulars before honorable members, and clearly establish their case. I believe thaI there is a large volume of correspondence, as well as a mass of State papers, in ihe possession of the Government, which, if brought forward, would throw much light upon this subject, and enable the Committee to form a more enlightened opinion on the subject than we are able to do from the meagre details submitted to us by the honorable member for Lang. The honorable member to-day repeated the statement made by him on a previous occasion that the trade between these islands and Australia is very considerable. I find, from a return laid on the table of the House on the motion of the honorable member for Bourke, that the value of the cargo carried by the shipping company in question from the islands to Australia last year was £31,456, but from that amount we have to deduct £24,312 in respect of copra, and maize, £4,112. Under ordinary circumstances, maize is not grown in the New Hebrides for export, though I admit that in 1900, when there were no Federal duties, about £4,000 worth of maize was exported from those islands' to Australia. It has paid the people of the New Hebrides to grow maize of recent years for export to the Commonwealth, because of the drought which has prevailed1 here, but the value of the maize export must be deducted from the value of the total export to arrive at the normal trade of the islands.

Mr Johnson - When the cocoanuts have come to maturity, that crop will take the place of the maize.

Mr MAHON - That may or may not be so, but the honorable member surely does not wish me to take into consideration a crop which has not yet matured. I presume that they were growing cocoanuts when they were growing maize.

Mr Johnson - It takes from eight to ten years for cocoanut palms to mature. It is not fair to deduct the copra export.

Mr MAHON - I think it is quite fair to deduct both the copra and the maize export. I do not deny that the islands produce so much copra per annum, but if there were a failure of the copra crop, there would practically be no trade at all. I am pointing out that the islands do not appear to be suitable for much more than the production of copra and of maize, when a drought in Australia causes the price of the latter to rise.

Mr Johnson - Their resources have not yet been properly tested.

Mr.MAHON. - The honorable member can scarcely say so correctly. My own experience of new countries is in direct conflict with his opinion. If wealth exists people will go after it. Take Western Australia as an example. The pioneers pushed out into the unknown interior, hundreds of miles from permanent water, in their desire to ascertain its resources. Wherever a country is capable of development, you will find people possessed of pluck, endurance, and money ready to engage in developing it. Deducting the copra and maize, the value of the exports from the New Hebrides last year was only £3,132, though £2.500 worth of produce was carried by other vessels. The islands are evidently very poor, having very few resources ; and, in my opinion, it is not worth our while to pay a heavy subsidy for the development of such an infinitesimal trade.

Mr Johnson - The subsidy which we are asked to grant is for the encouragement of trade with several groups of islands besides the New Hebrides.

Mr MAHON - My contention is that the trade of all these islands does not warrant the large expenditure which is proposed. There is some reason to believe that the agitation for British occupation in that part of the Pacific has been fanned by ex parte statements and information from biased sources.

Mr Johnson - I have spent some time in the islands.

Mr MAHON - I was not aware of that fact, but was not referring to the honorable member. I had in mind certain representations through the Colonies to the Imperial authorities, which are obviously biased. For instance, in February, 1901, a deputation claimed that the Anglo-French agreement of 1888 had been violated, as regards the disposition 'of native lands, with the assistance of His Majesty's representative on the Joint Commission. That was a very serious charge to make.

Mr Johnson - What authority is the honorable member quoting ?

Mr MAHON - The papers to which I have already referred. They contain a narrative of the proceedings of deputations which from time to time waited on the States Governments. It is also urged that tribunals should be empowered to re-open claims, even where supported by alleged deeds, or contracts, if the transaction is attacked on the ground of fraud, ignorance, or mistake. I believe that in every country titles could be attacked on those grounds.

Mr Johnson - The French claim really more territory than is embraced in the islands.

Mr MAHON - That may be so; but if what is asked for were conceded every title might be attacked. A claimant need only urge that a title was bad on the ground of fraud, ignorance, or mistake. This would permit of all titles in the New Hebrides being challenged.

Mr Johnson - I intend to go fully into that matter when dealing with the main question on my motion.

Mr MAHON - Then I shall not refer to it at greater length now. But there is little doubt that much misapprehension prevails concerning affairs in these islands, because we have had only one-sided information about them. Even the Imperial Government has been better informed' than Australasian statesmen. It is a matter of notoriety that not many years ago the Imperial Government suggested to the authorities here that some missionaries - who are, I take it, at the bottom of all these statements - might be reprimanded, or, at least, advised to act in a more cautious and liberal spirit towards the other settlers.

Mr Johnson - The honorable member is mistaken if he thinks that the missionaries have anything to do with this particular matter.

Mr MAHON - I may be mistaken about that, but I am not mistaken about the suggestion made by the Imperial Government, that the missionaries might be advised to display more patience and forbearance. As the Government are in possession of a great deal of information which honorable members have not had an opportunity to peruse, I think that the item should be postponed until all the papers can be laid before us. Urgency cannot be 'pleaded. Our interests will not suffer by a little delay. If we cannot secure inquiry by an independent Commission, the House should certainly, in the interests of the taxpayers, refuse to vote this money, pending the production of the fullest official details.

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