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Thursday, 5 July 1906


Mr JOHNSON (Lang) .- We are all much indebted to the honorable member for Grey for the information which he has given concerning the Northern Territory, and for the able manner in which, from his point of view, he lias put the case for its acquisition. Most of us have little knowledge of the character and potentialities of this part of the Commonwealth, and must rely mainly upon reports and other information supplied by persons who are more familiar with the country. We can, nevertheless, discuss this proposal on general business principles. One of our first considerations should be whether it would be profitable for the Commonwealth to take over the Northern Territory. I I should like the Commonwealth to acquire territory wherever in Australia it can do so under favorable circumstances, and develop valuable possessions; but, as the custodians of the people's money, we must pay regard to the financial responsibilties connected with any proposed acquisition, and satisfy ourselves that there are reasonable prospects that the returns from it will justify the necessary expenditure. Unfortunately, the information available to us in regard to the' Northern Territory is yet hardly sufficient to allow us to fairly determine whether it should, or should not, be acquired by the Commonwealth. According to the figures supplied by the honorable member for Grey, its indebtedness in 1901 was £2,852,495, which Kas been increased since by about £597,000 ; so that it is now about £3,450,000. Our first consideration then must be whether, in view of the many failures of attempts to establish various branches of production there, the Commonwealth is justified in undertaking a liability of that amount in order to acquire the Northern Territory, with, I understand, some new liabilities added to the conditions of taking it over.


Sir Langdon Bonython - Does the honorable member realize that the' Commonwealth will acquire, not only the Northern Territory, but the railway whch has been constructed there? The value of that line is some set-off against the debt to which He refers.


Mr JOHNSON - Even with "the railway thrown In, we mav make a bad bargain by taking over the Northern Territory.

It does not necessarily follow, because a certain amount has been expended upon the railway, that it is an asset whose value is equal to that amount.


Sir Langdon Bonython - Is not the Northern Territory part of Australia, and must not the Commonwealth, therefore, be eventually responsible for its liabilities?


Mr JOHNSON - At the present time the Northern Territory is part of South Australia, and, while the Commonwealth is, within certain prescribed limits, responsible for the administration of the affairs of the whole of Australia, it has no control over some matters which are exclusively within the powers of the Governments of the States.


Sir Langdon Bonython - The debts of the States constitute the debt of the Commonwealth.


Mr JOHNSON - The Commonwealth has not yet taken over the debts of the States.


Sir Langdon Bonython - It must do so eventually.


Mr JOHNSON - No doubt this matter will be considered when we come to deal with proposals for taking over the debts Qf South Australia. I have admitted that the Commonwealth is, within certain limits, responsible for the administration of the affairs of the whole of Australia. It is, for instance, responsible for naval and military defence, and the Northern Territory, because of its proximity to the naval stations of Powers which, in the future, may possibly be hostile to us, it may be more liable to invasion than other parts of the Commonwealth. I have no feeling aif hostility towards the motion, but I cannot vote for it until much more information has been afforded to show the advisability of the proposed acquisition. I do not know of any urgent reason why steps to this end should be taken "immediately." At all events, I am not inclined to precipitate action. In my opinion, nothing should be done until we have a fuller knowledge of the circumstances than is how, available to us. At the same time, it is doubtful whether an invasion of the Territory would seriously affect any of the other portions of Australia. Of course, there is a verv long line of seaboard to be protected, and it is as well to bear that fact in mind when considering the question from the standpoint of Australian defence. .There are so many difficulties surrounding the whole question, that it is impossible for those who are unacquainted with the general character of the country and its capabilities of development to decide what is best to be done. We have been informed by the honorable member for Grey that the Territory contains large areas of auriferous country, and that there is every prospect of valuable mineral developments. After all, however, the reports which have been made under this head have very largely been founded upon mere opinion and conjecture, and it would be well for us to wait until further information is available.


Sir Langdon Bonython - Does the honorable member think it fair that the hands of South Australia should be tied, and that the Commonwealth should still refuse to take over the Territory?


Mr JOHNSON - I do not suggest that the hands of the South Australian Government should be tied.


Sir Langdon Bonython - But they are tied. There would be no difficulty in securing the extension of the transcontinental railway upon the land-grant system, provided that the South Australian Government could agree to the introduction of coloured labour. The Government cannot, however, do anything of that kind, and I ask whether, under the circumstances, it is fair for the Commonwealth Government to refuse to take over the Territory ?


Mr JOHNSON - The same difficulty would occur in any other State that desired to extend its railway system under similar conditions. Therefore, I do not regard that as a very serious argument in favour of the Commonwealth immediately taking over the Territory. The honorable member for Grey told us that in the Territory were to be found large areas of good grazing country suitable for cattle, horse, and sheep breedings and that there were in the Territory 247,000 cattle, 16,760 horses, and 64,000 sheep. These figures are not very large when we consider that they relate to a territory which is two and' a-half times as large as France, four and a-half times as large as Great Britain, six times as large as Victoria, and twenty times as large as Tasmania.


Mr Poynton - It must be remembered that there is no outlet for stock in the Territory.


Mr JOHNSON - Of course. I know that allowance must be made for that as also for the lack of any considerable European settlement.


Sir Langdon Bonython - Do not the honorable member's remarks suggest that the Commonwealth should take steps to develop the Northern Territory - steps which the South Australian Government cannot take?


Mr JOHNSON - Certainly, if they take over the Territory. i' think that possibly the development of the Territory might be promoted by introducing immigrants of the right stamp. I understand, however, that a certain section of honorable members are strongly opposed to. the immigration of even Europeans whocould find profitable employment in rural occupations. We may, therefore, find ourselves confronted with an obstacle in that direction.


Mr Storrer - Who entertains the ob- ,jection referred to?


Mr JOHNSON - Several members of the Labour. Party have expressed themselves to that effect at various times. However, I think that the general feeling prevalent among honorable members is that we should preserve Australia as far as possible for the white races. The report which was recently made by Sir George Le Hunte, the Governor of South Australia,, and ordered by the Senate to be printed,, on 13th September, last year, seems to indicate that the development of the Northern Territory cannot be carried out bv means of white labour. Sir George Le Hunte says -

The evidence of nearly all who have studied the subject on the spot is unanimous that tropical products cannot be grown to pay in any large quantity in the Northern Territory without the introduction of cheap labour suitable for the climAte and suitable for the industry for which they would be required ; in other words, that coloured imported labour is a necessity.


Sir Langdon Bonython - If South Australia were inclined to adopt that policy, she would be powerless to carry her wishesinto effect.


Mr Deakin - The Commonwealth would" also be powerless, unless its laws were altered.


Sir Langdon Bonython - That is noreason, why the responsibility of the Northern Territory should not pass to the Commonwealth.


Mr JOHNSON - Still, we must consider that difficulty when we are dealing with this question. If it be true that theTerritory cannot be developed except by the introduction of coloured labour, and our laws preclude us from taking steps in that direction, we might find a very expensive white elephant thrown on our hands. Of course, His Excellency the Governor of South Australia may be wrong.


Sir Langdon Bonython - There are many good opinions on the other side.


Mr JOHNSON - I have not had an opportunity of reading them. The report from which I have quoted is a comparatively recent one, and I have not seen any others of a more recent d'ate, nor do I know of the existence of any. I notice that the cold, clammy digits of the land monopolist have already been spread over the map of the Northern Territory, with a view to getting ahead of settlement and production, and of reaping the results of the labours of others. In paragraph 66 of Sir George Le Hunte's report he says -

The success of the pastoral industry in the Northern Territory is undoubtedly assured, and will be capable of indefinite extension. As I have shown we only saw the beginning of the good country, in the driest year they have had for many years, and the cattle we saw were -well bred, in splendid condition, and fast increasing. I regret very much that the time, would not permit of another trip to the Roper River, on the east, and from there overland to the Katherine, especially as this part of the country is being brought into notice by the Roper River Concession Syndicate (Melbourne) who are offering lands for settlement by Scotch families on the Roper, and intend to assist them by making a railway line for transport to the places of shipment on the river. This would have taken us across the tableland, which is part of the best stock country. Should I ever be given another opportunity I should like to do this. We did not get far enough south to see the sheep country, which, I hear, is excellent. There should l)e a great future for the cattle and horsebreeding industry if proper facilities are given for reaching the internal and foreign markets. What is wanted, also, are not only large runs in the hands of capitalists, but smaller ones occupied by resident families.

If the "Commonwealth take over the Territory, I hope that measures will be adopted to safeguard the interests of the smaller settlers, and to prevent the land from falling into the hands of mere speculators1, who will operate to the disadvantage of the real .pioneers, who are the active agents in the development of the country. Even this remote portion of Australia has not escaped the attention of speculative land-grabbers ; although I am glad to say that up to the present the enterprises of such persons do not appear to have been verv successful. The honorable member for Grey referred to certain tropical productions grown in India, which, he said, could be cultivated with very great advan tage in the Territory. He mentioned cotton, jute, hemp, fibre, kapok, and! rubber. I am not in a position to say anything authoritatively as to the capabilities of the country, but I am informed that experiments in the growing of rubber have not been particularly successful. Where the rubber has been grown under artificial conditions, it seems to have thriven all right, but under natural conditions, and subject to ordinary climatic influences, its cultivation has proved a rank failure. Therefore, it would appear that we cannot reckon upon rubber as one of the articles that could be produced with good commercial results! in the Territory.


Mr Poynton - A Mr. McPhie, who was interviewed in Adelaide only last week, intends to start an industry in the Northern Territory, and considers that he will be able to work it with white labour.


Mr JOHNSON - It is- to be hoped that he will succeed. In paragraph 67 of Sir George Le Hunte's report upon the agricultural industry of the Territory I find the following, : -

This is a much more difficult problem to solve. The pastoral question has solved itself into a mere matter of good stock, numbers, and markets ; the labour question has not to be considered. But it is very difficult in the agricultural problem. In this, two factors are of primary importance - the suitability of the soil for the cultivation of products of commercial value, and the production of these at a cost which will enable them to be placed on the markets of the world on a level footing with those of other countries.

These are two very important considerations. The report continues -

With regard to the first, it is constantly said that the Northern Territory " can produce anything." I do not know a more dangerous advertisement, unless the greatest care is exercised in finding out which particular product is suited to each particular place.

There seems to be good sound reason underlying that contention. At any rate, the present Governor of South Australia has visited and toured the Territory, and has thus been in a position to make local inquiries. Consequently, any opinions which he may offer upon such points as those to which I have referred, are entitled to consideration and respect at the hands of honorable members.


Sir Langdon Bonython - Sir George Le Hunte has had great tropical experience. He lived for many years in the tropics, and. therefore, speaks as an expert.


Mr JOHNSON - Exactly : and that affords additional reason for giving due weight to his opinions. That gentleman goes on to say -

The establishment of a sugar factory at De Lissaville, on Douglas Peninsula, to the northwest of Port Darwin, some years ago, was a disastrous failure, as, after its erection, it was found that the land there was unsuited to sugar cultivation. Again, things that thrived wonderfully well in nurseries may often turn out a failure when cultivated on a larger scale.

That is said to have been the case in regard to the production of indiarubber, to which I have already referred. Sir George Le Hunte continues -

Nothing but the most careful examination by experts in each particular industry, and a favorable report of the result, will justify any one in inducing others to take up land for tropical cultivation. There is, no doubt, a great deal of land that can be cultivated in cotton, rice, sugar, rubber, &c. ; but each must be carefully examined, and the fitness of each for its proper product determined by practical experiment. Otherwise disappointment, failure, and an undeserved bad name for the country will be the result. It cannot alford any more failures in this direction.

As I have previously urged, statements of this character coming from such a source should certainly carry very great weight with honorable members. I have also heard it rumoured that amongst men, and amongst cattle, there is a very peculiar and distressing .disease prevalent throughout that country - a disease which nobody seems to be able to account for. I do not know whether this fact has come to the knowledge of other honorable members, but I presume that it has. The matter is one into the details of which I cannot enter on the floor of this Chamber, but certainly, if the disease exists to the extent that has been represented, it may constitute a very serious bar to anything like successful white settlement in the Territory. At any rate, it is a matter upon which we should have some reliable information before finally dealing with this question.


Mr Liddell - What is the disease?


Mr JOHNSON - I cannot tell the honorable member the name of it, but I can privately explain its character. In paragraph 73 of his report Sir George Le Hunte, after dealing with racial considerations, and the objections which are entertained by Australians to the admission of coloured aliens into the Commonwealth, says -

I am not advocating here the alteration or modification of any existing law ; that is not my province : but I have endeavoured to show how, should the time ever come when an alteration or modification may be considered, there need be no real fears of the results which, at the present time, are so commonly expressed.

The foregoing remarks have reference to the importation of coloured labour for the development of the Territory. Sir George Le Hunte adds -

I share, however, the opinion that tropical agriculture in the Northern Territory cannot be developed with white labour. It is for the people of Australia to decide whether it shall ever be given a fair chance. Under whatever restrictions it may be found advisable to adopt as to a limit of the geographical field of employment, the definite nature of the employment and the exclusion from others, the duration of the residence and the absolute condition of return at the expiration of the contract, with all these, I believe that, by the employment of coloured labour under indenture upon the lines of the organized systems in other tropical British possessions, Australia would find an immense source of agricultural wealth in its tropical north which, without it, will never be developed.

If that be really so, we shall be taking a very serious responsibility upon our shoulders if we accept the control of the Northern Territory. Of course, it may be that Sir George Le Hunte is wrong in his conclusions, and that it is possible to develop that country by means of white labour. But if that cannot be done, by accepting control of the Territory we are likely to saddle the Commonwealth with the expense of administering a vast area from which it is, in the light of what little knowledge is at present at our command, very doubtful whether we shall obtain anything like a satisfactory financial return.


Sir Langdon Bonython - But should not the Commonwealth accept the responsibility of administering- the Northern Territory, seeing that it determines the conditions to be observed in that territory ?


Mr JOHNSON - Not necessarily. The same argument would apply with equal force to any other portion of the continent which was subject to the same conditions. I do not see that the Commonwealth is under any obligation to accept the control of the Northern Territory merely because certain conditions as to alien labour have been made to apply to it in common with the whole of Australia.


Sir Langdon Bonython - What other portion of Australia is being offered to the Commonwealth for similar reasons?


Mr JOHNSON - The advisability or otherwise of the Commonwealth assuming control of the Northern Territory depends-, first, upon the financial consideration - which is the main consideration ; secondly, upon the question of defence, and, thirdly, upon the question of whether it is possible to populate the Territory with our own people with a view to develop its resources upon the best possible lines, thus insuring a return to the Commonwealth upon the investment itself, whilst assisting in the development of Australia as a whole. These are the views which I hold upon the matter. So far as the question of taking over the Territory -per se is concerned, I have an open mind. I am dealing with this proposal not in any hostile spirit, but rather in a spirit of inquiry. I should like to be placed in possession of more definite and accurate data than is at present available to honorable members, and I have no doubt that, before the Government take practical steps to acquire the Territory, every possible source of information will be tapped, with a view to obtaining the fullest and most reliable information upon all points upon which it is necessary that they should have knowledge.







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