SYDNEY, Mar. 5 1901

THE NEW COMMONWEALTH.

LABOUR QUESTION.

THE SUGAR INDUSTRY.

FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.
SYDNEY, Mar. 5 1901; Apr. 9 1901.

Only three weeks separate us from the Federal elections, and still the political condition of the continent is torpid. Mr. Reid himself is not before the public, though he is very active behind the curtain arranging for the next and crowning act of his campaign. The Free Trade nominations for the Senate and many of the House constituencies are now published. In the meantime there is nothing striking enough to attract general atten­tion. The war of candidates continues under party colours, but so far it remains an affair of outposts. There is no new development to report in New South Wales, or, indeed, any­where except in Queensland, where Mr. Barton has been making what his supporters are depicting as a triumphal tour. He is faithful to his policy as already announced, simply repeating it with explanations or amplifications of special points. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Kingston have visited Tas­mania. The Ministers of Victoria have not yet appeared before their constituents, rely­ing, as it would seem, on their organisa­tion to cover the smaller area of that State. They have established what seems to be an astonishing unanimity south of the Murray. Whether it be the spontaneous product of their circumstances or the efficiency of the political machine of the dominant party is difficult to deter­mine. Mr. Deakin, the Federal Attorney-General, is president and founder of what is termed the National Liberal Organisation, and his colleague, Sir George Turner, the Treasurer, is one of its vice-presidents. It claims to possess a hundred and fifty branches, and to have chosen a candidate for every seat in both Federal Chambers. What is already threatened is that among the twenty-three seats for the House of Representatives not one-third will be challenged by Mr. Reid’s sup­porters. For the six seats in the Senate there are a score of competitors, but only one of them is, or at least takes credit for being, “an avowed Free­trader”. Before the battle begins the Barton Ad­ministration has secured in Victoria a two to one majority, at least, in the popular House, and every seat in the Senate, with perhaps a single exception. No wonder that the remaining States look on with admiration and some apprehension at an achieve­ment gained without funds or fuss under the leadership of a few well-known public men.

SUGAR AND BLACK LABOUR.

The interest displayed in the contest for the Queensland seats is owing to the decisive utterance of the Prime Minister at Maitland. His de­claration that black labour must go naturally spread consternation among the planters. They are gradually coming to understand that all that is now proposed is to prohibit any increase of the present number of Kanakas, but their prospects are not so bright as to enable them soon to forget the warning received. It is plain that sooner or later they must learn to do without Pacific islanders altogether, and the banks have already intimated that they will require to consider the changed out­look in their future financing. There are other problems also in view. Cane nowadays supplies less than a third of the world’s sugar, and can con­tinue to command that fraction of the trade only by more scientific methods. Beet, it is true, counts for nothing in Australia. The State of Victoria recently lost £60,000 in an attempt to establish its culture. What is most to be dreaded is the hasty interference to which politicians are always prone, especially when their constituents are uninformed. There is a prevailing sentiment against alien labour among the working classes which, coupled with a general ignorance of the actual facts of the case in the rest of the community, may be fatal to an unprejudiced hearing of the planters’ pleas. Yet to this hearing the industry is entitled no less by its magnitude to-day than by its promise of future developments throughout a great tract of territory which must otherwise remain either un­occupied or devoted to far less profitable uses. It is not the whole of Northern Queensland that is avail­able. West of the coast range rises a great plateau, the climate of which is not unfavourable to whites. They thrive in the upland air as graziers and miners right up to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The tropical belt lies east between the range and the sea, where rich flats, constant humidity, and great heat favour vegetable growth under conditions similar to those of Mauritius and the West Indies. Here tropical products flourish, but the ordinary British man, and especially the ordinary British woman, languishes. The sugar plantations now working would, if placed side by side, not exceed a hundred thousand acres in extent, though their output reaches one hundred and sixty thousand tons, and the capital sunk exceeds £5,000,000. The crop returns more than £250,000 a year to the growers, £750,000 a year to wage-earners and shareholders, and pro­vides employment for some twenty thousand persons.

THE QUESTION OF PROTECTION.

During the past twenty years the sugar industry has passed through several phases, and the operation has ruined almost all engaged in it. It is but recently and by degrees that appropriate processes have been evolved. The first system—that of great plantations owned by capitalists or companies and worked by Kanakas under overseers—failed miserably. The later usine system is that of cane cultivation by white farmers, who deliver it to large mills, where it is crushed and treated by costly machinery. The function of the Kanaka is to do the field work, planting, weeding, and cutting the cane. He is forbidden by law to be engaged in any other occupation, and the only question now is whether he should not be prohibited from this work also. The heat in the fields is intense, and when the cane is high it becomes stifling as well to those shut in between its rows. There are Europeans who can, and do, face it. What is there that they will not undertake? It is asserted that they deteriorate physically in consequence, but so they must in certain manufacturing industries anywhere. In the last resort the one issue plainly is whether their labour is not too costly to enable cane-growing to pay. Mr. Barton and the Protectionists are, of course, prepared with their universal remedy—a Protectionist duty. But it would merely give them the Australian market, already nearly supplied, and would prevent the development of an export trade. Ministerialists rejoin that improved pro­cesses and the introduction of field machinery will presently enable the cost to be cheapened sufficiently to restore the power to compete abroad. Of course, this is prophecy, and though it is true that the progress of the past decade has been in this direction, there is no warrant for such a sanguine forecast. Why, then, should the risk be run?

WHITE AUSTRALIA.

The Kanakas are essential to the expansion of the industry, and probably to its maintenance also for years to come. They enable twice their own number of white men to make an excellent living out of the crops they grow. They are not an in­creasing army, whose future strength is to be feared. They are fewer now than they were ten years ago, though the output from the mills has doubled in the interval. They bring few women with them, and rarely desire to settle in Australia. A body of hired labourers such as they are, indentured for three years, brought from their homes and re­turned to them in ships which carry Government agents, remaining under medical and police super­vision for the whole term of their residence in the country, and carefully protected as to their earn­ings, affords no real analogy to the influx a century ago of Negro slaves of both sexes into America, of whose permanent settlement and multiplication has come the black agony of the Southern States. Yet it is to the alarm which this false parallel has occasioned that the agitation against the admission of these hired labourers to our country must be mainly attributed. The cry for a “White Austra­lia” is taken up on every hand, and the Ministerial policy on this point is already practically accepted as the foundation for a national policy.

THE MILLOWNERS.

The antagonism to the Kanaka is not personal. It is admitted that he is far less capable, and there­fore far less dangerous, than the Japanese or Chinese, who lately threatened to arrive in force. He is more manageable and more kindly than the Japa­nese, and has a better reputation than Hindoo coolies have earned in Fiji or Natal. In popular opinion he is the best of “a bad lot”. His occa­sional outbreaks of drunkenness, riotousness, or crime are not sufficiently numerous or serious to detract noticeably from his good qualities. The latest records are for 1899. They show that a thousand left and fifteen hundred entered the State, of whom less than fifty were women. Ten vessels, making about two trips each, conveyed them to and from the New Hebrides, Solomon and Banks Islands. On December 31, 1899, there were less than nine thousand South Sea Islanders in Queensland, whose partial civilisation is attested by the fact that they had £27,000 lying to the credit of some of them in the savings bank. They have done well for them­selves, and doubtless desire to continue earning. The State Government has also interests of its own to conserve, which are not to be lightly ignored. For the purpose of enabling white farmers to grow cane, and prevent them from becoming mere serfs of the great mill owners, £360,000 has been advanced from the Treasury in the construction of mills worked on the co-operative principle. Thirteen of these have been constructed during the past seven years, with tramways from three to twenty miles in length, which have had the effect of multiplying small holdings and in a sense popu­larising the industry. Is the sum named to be sacrificed?

DISQUIETING OUTLOOK.

In proposing that the industry shall seek to maintain itself without the cheap field labour of a race inferior to our own but physically better fitted for this particular employment, the Barton Government is casting on the planters a burden which is un­known anywhere else in the world. Wherever cane is grown it is and always has been by black labour. Even then it has been enabled to support itself against the subsidised beet sugars of Europe only by means of indirect bounties or subventions. What prospect can there be for Queensland planters even if protected by heavy import duties? Nothing beyond the one hundred and sixty thou­sand tons consumed in Australia. Or, indeed, what prospect can there be for them even in this market of Mr. Reid, who has publicly endorsed the Anti-Kanaka Ministerial policy, should refuse to continue for Australia the Protectionist duty of £3 a ton which he has so far retained in New South Wales? It must be confessed that the out­look is disquieting. The representation of the sugar planters in the Federal Parliament will be very small for New South Wales, and not much more for Queensland. Probably not half a dozen representatives and two or three Senators will speak on their behalf with local knowledge and practical experience to guide them. One of the tests of the capacity and courage of the new Parliament will be afforded by its treatment of this great industry. If mere politics prevail it will be at best limited to the supply of our local wants. On the other hand, if handled with discretion and patience there is no reason why the industry should not lead the way towards a development of other tropical pro­ducts along the northern seaboard. These should enhance the wealth and multiply the employment of the citizens of this part of the Commonwealth, and what makes for prosperity of this kind any­where within its borders must proportionately increase the prosperity of the whole community.

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