HL Deb 16 June 1899 vol 72 cc1320-7

My Lords, I desire to ask the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies to explain fully the nature of the indenturing arrangements in Western Australia, and to state why the Secretary of State abolished the Aborigines Protection Board in that colony without previously informing Parliament of his intention, as he had promised should be done; and to ask what this board is doing now that it has been made a branch of the Perth Government, and under what conditions J.P.'s are appointed for the outlying parts of the colony. As I have already informed my noble friend, I have nothing to add to the notice except to give him the extract in which Mr. Chamberlain promised to lay the information before Parliament. It appears in a Parliamentary Paper C. 8350, page 138, No. 44, and is as follows: MR. CHAMBERLAIN to GOVERNOR SIR GERARD SMITH. "August 21, 1896. I have now, therefore, to request you to inform Sir John Forrest that, after further consideration of the representations which he has made, I am prepared…. to lay the correspondence before Parliament with a view to ascertaining the general feeling of the House of Commons on the subject.


My Lords, the "Indenturing" system is regulated by Part IV. of the Aborigines Protection Act, 1886, from which it appears that a resident magistrate could at that time on the instructions of the board, but now of the Minister, apprentice a native or half-caste child until he reached the age of 21. It is hardly possible within the limits of a reasonable explanation to give all the details of the arrangement with its accompanying regulations, but if the noble Lord desires, I will gladly furnish him with a copy of the Act. I may say that this system of indenturing is not one of entirely recent growth, but has arisen from experience under the system of Crown and Colony Government as well as during the present régime. In reply to the second portion of his question, the noble Lord will see, on reference to Blue Book C. 8,350, published in February, 1897, that what Mr. Chamberlain said (August 21st, 1896, page 138) was that he was prepared, if Sir John Forrest would state what arrangements he proposed to make for fixing definitely the responsibility for, &c., to lay the correspondence before Parliament with a view to ascertaining, the general feeling of Parliament on the subject. This Sir john Forrest and the legislature did in the resolutions of the legislature of Western Australia of October 26th, 1896 (see Sir G. Smith's despatch of December 4th, 1896, page 141 of the Blue Book), and the correspondence was duly laid before Parliament in February, 1897. As Parliament took no notice of the correspondence, Mr. Chamberlain had no longer any reason for refusing to accept the proposals of the Western Australian Government, and they were so informed on July 10th, 1897, nearly six months after Parliament had been placed in possession of the correspondence. As to the third portion of this question, the noble Lord will see, on reference to the Papers C. 8,350, that the arrangement was that the board was to be abolished and its functions discharged by a Government sub-department under the control of a responsible Minister, and that it has, therefore, now ceased to exist. The work is now entirely under a Department of the Government. The answer to the concluding paragraph of the question is that justices of the peace in Western Australia, as elsewhere, are appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of his responsible advisers, and hold office during pleasure. The Agent-Generals of Western Australia has pointed out. to me what must occur to the noble Lord—namely, how extremely difficult it is in sparsely populated community, such as in Western Australia, always to find] first-rate men for the office of magistrate. He assures me that the Government do exercise the greatest possible care in making their appointments.


My Lords, this matter is more important than perhaps might be gathered from the short answer which has been given by the noble Earl the Under Secretary of State, and I hope your Lordships will pardon me, as I was Secretary of State for the Colonies when this question was first raised, if I make a few observations upon it. I do not propose, in the observations I desire to address to the House, to criticise or to raise any objection to the course which has been taken by the right hon. Gentleman the present Secretary of State in the abolition of the Aborigines Protection Board. I think the conclusion to which he has come was, under the circumstances, probably inevitable, but the circumstances of the case are worth considering. When responsible government was first given to Western Australia there was a strong feeling, as I have always understood, in the other House of Parliament with regard to the question of treatment of natives in the colony, and it was made a condition of the granting of responsible government to Western Australia in 1890 that a board should be appointed, the members of which should be nominated by the Governor, not upon the advice of his new responsible Ministers, but upon his own personal authority, and that it should have at its disposal the sum of £5,000 a year to be voted by the Western Australian Parliament, which sum it should dispose of entirely at its own pleasure, without any reference to the local Government. The people of Western Australia accepted the condition. They passed the Constitution Act with that provision in it, and it was well known and well understood that this was the only means by which the grant of responsible government to the colony would have been accepted at the time by the Imperial Parliament. I think the Act was passed in the year 1890. Two years afterwards, in 1892, just after I became Secretary of State for the Colonies, remonstrances, couched in very strong language, were received at the Colonial Office against the continuance of this board. It did not require much time to see that a board of this kind, composed in this way and spending at its own will and pleasure money voted by the Colonial Parliament without any reference to the Colonial Ministers, was not a board which could be long maintained in the face of the system of responsible government then established in Western Australia. But I am hound to say that, recollecting that the Act of Parliament had only been passed two years, it did seem to me rather a premature proceeding on the part of the colony to demand the abolition of an institution the establishment of which had been part of the understanding upon which responsible government had been granted; and while I always admitted that the arrangement was necessarily a temporary one, I did not feel myself able to advise at that time that this board should be abolished. I made various proposals, with which I need not trouble your Lordships, to mitigate the objections which were felt in some minor points, but Sir John Forrest and his Government were not willing to accept these suggestions, their objection being to the general principle, and not to matters of detail. They made complaints against the board which they did not, as I thought, establish, but the essence of their objection was that the existence of a board of this kind was inconsistent with the grant of constitutional government to the colony, and when you find that the board, having £5,000 a year at its disposal, spent sometimes not much more than half that sum, and was therefore accumulating in its hands a sum of money, besides the annual grants raised by the colony, it is not surprising, I admit, that a responsible Government and a Colonial Parliament should find an arrangement of that kind very irksome and inconsistent with the acknowledged principles of constitutional government. Therefore, my Lords, I had no hesitation in admitting that the board must be of a temporary kind, and all that has passed since, I imagine, is this, that the present Secretary of State has found that the state of things which I thought difficult to maintain has become still less easy to maintain; and that after having, as the noble Earl has said, placed certain Papers before Parliament in 1897, he thought himself free, as those Papers had apparently attracted no Parliamentary attention, to consent to the abolition of the board, and I am not inclined to criticise that decision, which must have been arrived at sooner or later. I think the question was raised, as I have said, rather prematurely by the Colonial Government, but that the system could be maintained in the face of the grant of self-government to the colony for any length of time is, I think, a proposal which cannot be upheld. We have in this case a proof of the delicacy and the difficulty of dealing with these questions of the treatment of natives in colonies possessing responsible self-government by the Government at home. In the case of Crown colonies and colonies administered by chartered companies like the British South Africa Company the difficulty does not arise. In those cases the Government at home has full power, and therefore it is right that it should have complete responsibility. It can order what it pleases and what it thinks right, and, having ordered it, it has the power of enforcing it. But in the case of colonies with responsible government the Colonial Office has no power at all as regards administration. It cannot order anything to be done. It may express an opinion, but that opinion has no practical force whatever except such as may be allotted to it by the Colonial Government out of respect—and I am afraid this does not often occur—to the opinion of the Colonial Secretary. With regard to legislation, no doubt the Secretary of State has the power of advising Her Majesty to withhold her assent from Acts of the Colonial Parliaments to which he thinks there are objections; but the tendency of the times, growing, I think, from year to year—and necessarily, in my judgment, growing from year to year—is that the Colonial Secretary should not advise the exercise of that power on the part of the Crown except in cases in which an Imperial interest is concerned, or, at all events, in cases where the matter is more than a purely local one. Therefore, practically, my Lords, even in that case the power of the Secretary of State is not great, and the result is this, that the Home Government and the Secretary of State for the Colonies are supposed to be responsible for proceedings over which they have very little control. The responsibility is not real, but to a great extent theoretical, and, although I am not about to advocate the adoption of any general principle or any immediate steps in the matter, I cannot, as the question has been raised, help expressing my belief that the ultimate solution of this question will be found in placing the management of natives in the territories of responsible Governments in the hands of the local governments themselves. They should have the full responsibility—the full responsibility before their own Parliament, and before the public at home—for anything they may do, and the present supposed responsibility of Downing Street should no longer be maintained even in public opinion. It should be admitted that these are questions which must be dealt with by the local responsible Government, and must be dealt with by that Government upon their own responsibility and at their own cost.


I hope your Lordships will allow me to say one or two words in reply to the observations of the noble Marquess. I confined my answer to the rather technical points raised in the question of the noble Lord.


I did not mean to make any complaint.


The noble Marquess has taken the opportunity of introducing the subject in rather a wider aspect. He has given your Lordships a history of the case as it was up to the moment when the present Government came into office, and with not only that statement of the case—as to which the noble Marquess, of course, must be the best informed man existing—but also with the impressions that the sequence of events had left in his mind, I have certainly no issue to join with him. We found steady pressure coming from Western Australia to expunge from the Western Australian Constitution Act this particular provision in respect of the Aborigines Board, and I do not think we differed in any degree from the noble Marquess in thinking that the pressure for a change, relating as it did to a provision in the Act which it was agreed could not be permanent, was rather premature. The pressure, nevertheless, continued to increase rather than to diminish in strength. It seemed to the Legislature of Western Australia to be in the nature of a derogation of their full rights of responsible government. Of course, it is not a case in which the Government would wish to enter upon a perfectly useless contest with the Colonial Government, but Mr. Chamberlain felt that it was quite impossible for him, or for the Government by itself, to consent to such a speedy change in a provision that had been specially inserted, after careful deliberation, in an Act of the Imperial Government. He accordingly said that if Sir John Forrest and his Ministry would make their definite proposals for carrying on the work of the board, he would lay those proposals before Parliament, and that if Parliament, which was responsible for the Imperial Act, raised no objection, then the Colonial Office would consent to the change. Sir John Forrest did make his proposals, the Papers were laid before Parliament, Parliament took no notice of them, and accordingly Mr. Chamberlain admitted that there was no further reasonable cause for holding out against the contention of the Government of Western Australia. That, my Lords, is the history of the case carried on from the point at which the noble Marquess left it. It would be presumptuous on my part to deal with those very large questions raised by the noble Marquess in connection with the responsibility of the Secretary of State for the Colonies for the treatment of aborigines in colonies enjoying the full benefit of responsible government. According to my slight experience, what the noble Marquess has said accurately depicts the difficulties of the Colonial Office, but I feel compelled to say that there seems a very imperfect understanding among some sections of the public, and also among sections of the public Press, in this connection. It is not necessary to cite actual cases, but where acts, which I do not criticise, and upon which I express no opinion, in relation to aborigines have been carried out by the Government of a self-governing country there have been frantic appeals from philanthropic people in this country to the Colonial Office to interfere with the Government of the colony to which responsible government has been fully granted. But that is not a possible situation or a possible solution. When we give self-government to one of our colonies it is given for good or for evil, for a whole and not for a part; and only when general Imperial considerations come in, affecting the Empire as a whole, is there an opportunity for the Colonial Office to point out to the Government in question how far its Acts or proposed legislation are at variance with the interests of the Empire at large. So far as the internal government of the colony is concerned, whether the supposed Acts refer to white or to black men, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Colonial Office has no power at all; and I will go further and say that if the Colonial Office attempted to take any share of responsibility on its shoulders in these cases it would produce more evil than good. It would cause immense friction, it would probably fail in producing the effect intended, and any influence that might otherwise be brought to bear, by purely private and unofficial representation, would be rendered useless. Therefore I cannot too strongly say how heartily I agree with the general principle which has been laid down by the noble Marquess.