Australia: Political and General Conditions
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 19 Oct 1905, p. 9-21
Larke, J.S., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Something about Australia. The exact character of the Australians and the conditions of Australia difficult to convey. The amount of nonsense written about Australia, with illustrative instances. A description of what one would see upon going to Sydney. The sheep industry. Exports and import figures. Government administration changes. Population figures. Mineral resources. Australia a palace with a magnificent front, and rather a squalid backyard. Reasons for Australia's division between the enormously wealth and those that are starving and begging. The effects of physical conditions of the country. Australia's history, the country being founded as a penal colony. The extraordinary discoveries of gold and silver in 1850 which enriched Australia so enormously. The influx of people from all over the world. In 1884, the discovery of Australia by the money-lender in England, and the subsequent consequences. Conditions for the working man. The three political parties of Australia: the Free Trader, the Protectionist, the Labour party. The conditions of Government today. The future of Australia.
Date of Original
19 Oct 1905
Language of Item
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Full Text
Address by Mr. J. S. Larke, Canadian Trade Commissioner at Sydney, Australia, before the Empire Club of Canada, on Thursday, October 19th, 1905.

Mr. President and Gentlemen,--

You desire to hear something about Australia. The exact character of the Australians and the condition of Australia is difficult to convey. Information is needed, because I suppose that no country in the world has had so much nonsense written about it as Australia. I didn't see the book, but a man who was over twenty-one years of age and was supposed to be fairly honest and truthful said to me that he had seen the book in which it was stated that the coal of Australia was white in colour instead of black as in every other country in the world. I have seen things just as incorrect and just as ridiculous told about Australia in the Canadian papers of not very many moons old. It is difficult to get at the actual condition of the country, because the visitor or the man who writes books, commonly remains there but a very short time, and he fastens his mind upon one peculiar feature of Australian life or industry; and so you will have one who writes upon the huge cities over there actually and relatively to the total population; and another who may have gone a little bit into the interior will tell you of the villages, scattered and ramshackle-looking in contrast with the villages of Canada.

Well, neither of these give you the character of the urban life of Australia. Then, someone will fasten upon their liking for sports, and he will tell you about the racecourses and cricket grounds until you would imagine that the Australian ran races and played cricket for six days in the week, and looked a little bit after the sheep on the seventh; and then you will have others who will fasten upon the industrial question and tell you of a condition of affairs where the workingman is uppermost and rules, then you will have others who will tell you of the wonderful resources of Australia. No one of these will give a conception of Australia any more than the doctor would know what is in the heart of a New York insurance magnate by feeling his pulse. (Laughter.) And you can't learn, where you would imagine you would get correct information, from the newspapers themselves. The newspapers of Australia are cleverly managed, their editorials are wonderfully well written, there is less partisanship about them than, I think, any other newspapers of the world, except it may be those of Great Britain, for they are modelled upon the British newspapers; but they have one weak spot, they are intensely parochial and local in anything relating to Australia, and the newspaper that will publish a truthful article upon the present aspect of Australia, and upon what is needed to be done in order to bring about a remedy will do it boldly; but if any British newspaper were to write even a paragraph upon that article, and especially if they were to comment on it editorially, every Australian newspaper would be up in arms against it, and the man who wrote the article would lead the attack. It is a very unfortunate thing, because it completely neutralizes every effort to bring about an amendment in Australian affairs.

As I stated, Australian aspects are very peculiar. For example, if as some of you have done, and others may do, you go to Sydney, you would go through the most beautiful harbour in the world, you would be struck to find on the one hand palace after palace and terrace above terrace, indicating they were the homes of princes, and on the other side picturesque cottages, indicating they were the comfortable homes of men in not so affluent circumstances; and then you look at the piers, solid and permanent, lined with steamers, from which were coming the riches of the gorgeous East as well as the industries of the West; and then you would see the streets with great warehouses built of stone, meant to be lasting; see the public buildings looking as though they belonged to a nation of a thousand years instead of a hundred years; look at their parks, their botanical gardens, of which I remember a Canadian, when he got his first glimpse, saying, "I can live here forever"; see their museums, their art galleries, their schools and colleges, their technical schools, not simply one great central institution, but scattered in all the different suburbs of the cities and in the leading towns in the country; their system of railways, their tramways-for they have no street cars out there and their tramways have pneumatic brakes which I have yet to find in any street car in either Canada or the United States-you look at these things and look at their industries, for instance the wool, and then remember it is not a hundred years ago when they began to enter that industry.

I saw a sample of the first shear that was sent to England, and the reply came back: " This is a very good article to mix with mortar, but we don't think it will pay you to breed sheep to raise fibre to mix with mortar in England;" but they set themselves to work with such skill that this handful of sheep became in less than one hundred years over one hundred million, bearing on their backs twice the amount of wool that had been borne on the sheep from which they originated, and that wool the finest in the whole world; and then you look at the extent of their industries! In Canada you boast of it being the granary of the Empire and here wheat is king. From the day I landed in Victoria till the present time I have never ceased to hear of that golden West. The Australian rather chuckles when he listens to that and then he will tell you with not too much modesty that last year they shipped more wheat and flour abroad than you did from Canada, and it was only a very minor article of export; it was only one-fifth of all the pastoral products. It is not a marvel if you find the Australian a self-contented man, if he gets, in the language of Canada, rather a big head, if he is quite sure that he has done as much as any other human being and a little more in the same time, and that anything that can be done by any human being he is going to do in the future.

But, then, look at the other side, too. You have out there a Federation, not five years old, of peoples of like origin, of common speech and of common religions--for they have most of them--without those divisions that separated old Canada and made it the fierce battleground it was forty years ago. And yet their divisions are so great that that Federation has not yet become of practical effect. The Governments, if you could call them that, have gone in and out like. I once heard stated, the figures in an Irish dance, and so there have been five Administrations in less than five years. Then you look at their industries. Last year they had a surplus of exports over imports of over $100,000,000. Now you have heard of the drought and it is an extraordinary thing, that drought, lasting eight years, increasing until 1902, when their great industry, sheep, had been reduced in Australia to less than half the number of ten years before; in New South Wales not much more than one-third of the number; and yet there never was a year in that worst of times when they had not a surplus of exports over imports larger than the best year Canada ever had. Last year it was $100,000,000; and yet in the face of that state of things, indicating extraordinary prosperity, the English money-lender looks askance at Australian securities.

They have not so large agricultural resources as we have in Canada, but there is room there for fifty million of people to live in the utmost comfort in New South Wales alone; in the eastern sub-division of 180,000,000 acres alone there could live fifty percent more people than there is today in all Australia. They have not only great agricultural resources, but wonderful mines, and these mines but partially developed. They have some of the most productive land on the earth, covered with timber of the most valuable kinds, and yet it has not attracted men of wealth. So that in the last ten years, although the Government returns show some little increase, I doubt very much if Australia, with the exception of one State, Western Australia, has not lost at least 25,000 people more than came into it in those ten years; and there is this sad fact, with all these resources untouched, the last statement I had from Sydney was that there were 30,000 men out of employment in that one State, and so dire was the distress that these unemployed had invaded the sanctity of Parliament and addressed the members from the gallery and demanded some redress and some' relief. Then you could go on; it is extraordinary the contrasts they have in the conditions of Australia and you can quite understand how it is you have such varied stories about that country.

Australia is a palace which has a magnificent front, but it also has a backyard, and rather a squalid backyard at that, as I have indicated. Twenty-five years ago we heard of nothing but that golden front; today the squalid backyard is more in evidence; but that front is there still and some day it will come in evidence again. The yard can be cleaned up and it will be. It may take time, but it will be, and the golden front will be seen again, and you will have a magnificent commonwealth to be your partner in the great Empire to which we belong.

Why is it that Australia, naturally so rich, has these extraordinary conditions; enormous wealth and yet starvation; beggary and affluence side by side, magnificent cities and lands untilled? Well, it is a long story, but let me give you two or three things. First, it is due to physical conditions of the country. Australia is a continent, not the largest, but still a continent, and it is rimmed in with mountains that nowhere are far distant from the coast, and which sometimes send their spurs right out to the sea. As a natural consequence of that you have a small coastal belt of generally well-watered land, generally by tropical rains, and then you have the interior country, drier and drier till you come to a low area of ground below the sea level, and perfectly arid so far as anything in science or art now knows-designed to be uninhabitable for all time to come.

Then you have in these great plains grasses, wonderful grasses when you have rains, but rains are uncertain. When you have good times the pastures grow rich very quickly. A man will go in there and in a few years he may have an area of country larger than that tilled by any English nobleman and more flocks and herds than any prince of the Orient, and yet the seasons may change and in five years he may be reduced to the poverty from which he just emerged. Then you have beneath that soil, or in the land itself, marvellous mines gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, coal. But these mines of precious metals are even more uncertain than the seasons in Australia. A man may go out and he may work and delve for eight hours, for ten hours and twelve hours-he is independent out there-and live upon the meanest food and continue to do that all his life, and then end in the poor-house; and that is the explanation why it is there is such a large number--relatively, such an immense number--of people maintained in the poorhouses of Australia. But on the other hand, he may go out today without a penny and he may, with the turn of his pick, unearth the treasure of a Croesus, and so you have these wonderful transitions of fortune.

No skill can tell when a man will be successful; no labour will make him successful. In the State of New South Wales there is a great belt of country where you will see holes, some shallow and some very deep, and in these shafts you will see that they have burrowed under the ground searching for gold, mile after mile of country, and the majority of these men have got nothing, and if they have made a little find they have probably compensated themselves for the privations suffered by going on a debauch and thus swallowed up all the results of their good luck. The effect of conditions like these is to breed a race of men bold, enterprising, and speculative, believing in good luck more than they do in God, I am afraid; ready to take any chance, or as you have been commonly told, ready to bet on anything from a race-horse to a laughing jackass; ready to take chances, trust to luck, optimistic and believing something is going to turn up by and by, and enduring the privations of the present in that hope. As an illustration, during the drought the Government had a message from a little town saying: " Our water supply is nearly exhausted, send an officer up to try and relieve us from our distress." The officer went down and when he got there it is said there wasn't a single man in the whole place. They had all gone off to a neighbouring town to attend a horse race. That is the physical condition.

Then there is another condition; that is the history. Unfortunately Australia was founded as a penal colony. The people who went out there were just of two classes; there were first the convicts. Some of them were sent out for things that would not now be considered a crime, but the most of them were, after all, the scum of the United Kingdom; and then on the other side you had the officers who had them in charge--officers of regiments who were their guards. Now these officers became the employers and the convicts became the first labourers, and with the exception of some blacks, who could be induced or forced to do certain things, they comprised for a long time to come the whole of the labouring classes of Australia. The first emigrants carried out with them the class prejudices of England, but worse than that the employer was looked upon as an honest man, at least technically so, and the other was the thief. And when you have these chasms between the two great classes of the country you get what must remain for fifty years, even after free labourers had come, the stigma of a convict labourer attached to the man honestly endeavouring to earn a livelihood. In 1850 there came those extraordinary discoveries of gold and silver which enriched Australia so enormously. They have taken out of the hills and valleys of that country three thousand million dollars worth of these precious metals.

That induced an influx not only from Great Britain, but the world over, of men enterprising, self-dependent and somewhat reckless. The labourer who was available left the industries and went to the mines, and consequently the pastoralists, who are the great employers of labour, felt sorely the loss of their workmen, and as labour went up in price they longed for the old times when they had cheap labour absolutely under their control; and they never have ceased that desire yet. Though it would not be acknowledged, it is still in the mind of the men who control these great stations. They say, what we want is cheap labour and we want the Chinese and the Japs, and those inferior races, to come in so that we can make money as we used to do in the olden times.

After the golden dream was over and things began to get back to their former condition and the wages were lowering, the workingmen endeavoured to prevent it; but in 1884 the money-lender in England discovered Australia. At one of the large Exhibitions the Victorians made a showing of gold and silver, and he was told that the banks paid as high as fifty percent dividends in a year; until the imaginations of the Englishmen were excited and they poured their gold in a stream upon Australia, as broad as the St. Lawrence and as deep as the Saguenay. The Australian was not a man to refuse contributions, and he spent it, some of it wisely and some very foolishly. He built railways; he used some of it for the purpose of developing the country; he built palaces, some of which he proposed to let and some of which he proposed to dwell in himself, and he did so until the bubble burst. Then we had a collapse in Australia in 1893, when the foundations of the earth seemed to have sunk beneath the country. Today you have a country that has never seen upon it a hostile foot, yet has a greater debt than countries that have had to wade through blood for centuries. They have to meet their obligations; and let me say there is not a man in Australia, no matter how burdened he may be or how heavy interest he has had to pay in the past, that would propose to repudiate his obligations-they are all British in their instincts.

The workingman had his share of the good times; he knew it came from borrowed money, but revelled in it while it lasted; and when the good times were over and money ceased to come in such large quantities he began to cast about him for some means to prevent the reduction of wages. He went on strike, as they do in this country, and just before the final collapse we had those extraordinary strikes known as the shearer strikes in the interior and the marine strike along the coast; until the business men, the wholesale men, were sworn in as constables and marched day and night with baton and revolver in order to keep life and property secure. The strike was broken. They were wrong; it wasn't possible to continue high wages; and once it was broken up the workingmen began to set themselves to see if there was not some other means of accomplishing their purposes. They were British. They had marvellous respect for the Parliament and faith in the law. They thought Parliament could pass a law that would alleviate all human misery, and they said, we have not been able to do it by force, but we can accomplish it by legislation, and they resolved then to go into politics. You have out of that what is now known as the Labour party.

So you have in Australia three parties. There is the Free Trader, and the Protectionist, and then you have the Labour party. At the present time there are, I think, twenty-five Free Traders, twenty-five Labour members and twenty-four Protectionists in Parliament. No Government can possibly exist with the conditions as they are today, and what is to be the outcome I don't know. I do not want to say that capital has been driven out of the country, but I do say that capital has been prevented from coming in; and without money there cannot be any work. I remember one man coming to me and he said he would like to get into some enterprise; but, he added: " I have looked over Australia and I won't invest my money here, and I am going to Canada. I have $50,000 with me and I am going to invest it there." So the money has been going out and not coming in and as a result you have that misery and that beggary that I have spoken of. That is the curse of Sydney and it is characteristic of most of the Australian cities. Now the Labour party is really in power and they are not twenty-five percent of the population, and why is it? It arises through the indifference of the men who ought to lead-the educated men and the business men. It is a bad thing in any country when there can be a class government.

In the early days the settler was coming in and he legislated for himself, and legislated in such a way that he secured for himself the name of squatter; then came the business men and they legislated in the interests of their own pockets; and now comes the workingman, who stands between the two parties, and so turns things his own way, and so he is legislating in the interests of his class and' not in the interests of the people as a whole. He claims that the Government should control all the industries. He says the State has now the control of many things. It has control of the Post-office, and no one would want to go back to the times when letters were delivered by private contract; it owns the Railways and there is no one in Australia who would go back to private railways; and he says if they can do this why not manage the steamships, and why not build and manage the shipyards and so on. Now that reasoning appeals to the man who does not think very much. The reasoning, however, is just as foolish as the man who says, you can lift fifty pounds and you can lift twice fifty pounds and you can lift four times fifty pounds and if you can lift four times fifty pounds why can't you lift ten times or twenty times fifty pounds. But you can't and the fallacy of the reasoning of the men who hope to control all the industries by the State will never be eradicated until they have had that experience.

But you can't demonstrate the fallacy of it to them. I don't interfere in politics, but they sometimes ask me to speak and they listen to me even when I say unpleasant things. I said we had tried that in Canada, we tried the scheme in the early times, but it failed, and so we agreed to work and act for the common good. You know yourselves that when you put the farmer to work on the roads, as soon as the path-master's back was turned he sat down and played cards; and yet every stroke of work that he did was done to improve the roads in front of his own farm and to increase the value of the farm. In Australia they want the State to employ labour. A workman is employed, not because he is efficient in labour, but because he is efficient as an agitator. He naturally wants to do as little as he can; and the next man says, why should I work harder than he does, and then it all begins to slow down and gets from bad to worse. If the paymaster warns him he only laughs at him, and if he is dismissed he only comes back with a note from, perhaps, the Minister of Public Works to take him back again.

For an illustration, there is a building on one of the points in Sydney Harbour, a building on which a fair day's work can be done; yet I am told that the average work of the bricklayer is 300 bricks a day, and an engineer whose men were working on another building told me that he never had a man who did not do his thousand bricks a day; and yet the State was paying the man as much for laying the three hundred as he paid for a thousand. Another thing, the Government dug a canal by piecework and the farmers built a similar ditch and their ditch cost only sixteen pounds a mile while the Government ditch cost ninety-six pounds a mile! Now these men think that is the ideal way, but they have forgotten that you can't divide before you gather. If a thousand men produce ten thousand dollars, they may not distribute it evenly, but they have an average of ten dollars apiece; but if they only produce five thousand dollars there will be only five dollars apiece to go round. The result is that business is leaving Australia and the men who would work, as well as the professional unemployed, are out of employment. Now the root of the whole matter is that the Australian workman wants to get bread without sweat; and you can't do it. You cannot substitute an Act of Parliament for hard work.

What is going to be the future of Australia. It has wonderful resources and they have not touched the fringe of what is possible. And why don't they do it? They say labour is so high they can't afford the price to work the land right. I know of one man who was cultivating four hundred acres and getting an average of four bushels an acre, while the Government farm, more properly worked, was yielding thirty bushels an acre. The Australian doesn't know what is the matter. One man will say it is the drought. He is mistaken. Australia's normal condition is drought just as the normal condition of the Canadian winter is frost. There is just as much growth in Australia as there is in Canada if you take a period covering ten years. The first remedy is this; the man who ought to be the leader must return to his position. The public life of Australia is just as clean as it ever was, but the men who are capable of conducting the affairs of the Government are not in Parliament, and if they cannot be persuaded into it they should be compelled. It is just as wrong to expect the advantages of citizenship without paying for it as it is to get property without giving proper compensation for it. Next, they must teach the workingman. We must meet him as man to man and recognize that in these men are men that are our brothers; and that if you reason with them and take the education out of the demagogue's hands, you will have an intelligent class of men who will do the best they can for themselves and for the public. Then there must be true patriotism and equality. If these things were done you would soon have Australia as prosperous as Canada.

I have sometimes said I would make Australia as prosperous as Canada in five years if you will insure my life from being shot while I am doing it; for the first thing I would do is to starve a good many men, and I would actually see them die, if need be, in order to get things into the right way; so that Australia would be a credit to the great Empire to which we belong. My ideal of the British Empire is a great united commonwealth, so strong that no power on earth can make us afraid, and so just that no nation on earth shall be so weak as to be afraid of us.

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Australia: Political and General Conditions

Something about Australia. The exact character of the Australians and the conditions of Australia difficult to convey. The amount of nonsense written about Australia, with illustrative instances. A description of what one would see upon going to Sydney. The sheep industry. Exports and import figures. Government administration changes. Population figures. Mineral resources. Australia a palace with a magnificent front, and rather a squalid backyard. Reasons for Australia's division between the enormously wealth and those that are starving and begging. The effects of physical conditions of the country. Australia's history, the country being founded as a penal colony. The extraordinary discoveries of gold and silver in 1850 which enriched Australia so enormously. The influx of people from all over the world. In 1884, the discovery of Australia by the money-lender in England, and the subsequent consequences. Conditions for the working man. The three political parties of Australia: the Free Trader, the Protectionist, the Labour party. The conditions of Government today. The future of Australia.