The Coming Colony/Chapter 11

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

XI.


Area of the Colony—Alienated Territory a mere bagatelle—A Charming Climate—The Coastal Rain Belt—Female Immigration—A Sample Importation—Working Men's Freeholds—The Parliamentary Franchise—Educational and Religious Advantages.


Taking Western Australia from a territorial point of view, it may be pointed out that the greatest length of the colony north and south is 1,280 miles, and the greatest width from east to west 800, the whole being bounded on the west, north-west, and south by a coast-line of 3,000 miles. As virtually the whole of the close settlement is comprised within a radius of 250 miles from Fremantle, the Port of Perth, on the south-west coast, and as even within this area the greater part of the land is still unalienated by the State, it may be judged how wide a field still remains open for agricultural and pastoral settlement, albeit there is a large amount of the latter further away to the north-west, where the sheep runs are held in vast areas on the usual leasehold tenures. Out of a total acreage of 678,400,222 acres, only about 5,154,673 acres have been alienated, whilst there remains at the disposition of the Government the gigantic total of 673,245,549 acres. The amount of cultivated land in the colony is 117,833 acres, and of uncultivated 678,282,389. Of the land still available a very large quantity is, of course, worthless, and a still larger quantity of inferior quality. Then, again, the adaptability of the balance of good land for profitable cultivation must be considered in connection with its nearness to markets and accessibility to railways and other means of transport. Making all these allowances, however, there remains an immense, if scattered, area suitable for the reception of agricultural immigrants either from Europe or from the other colonies. Amongst the advantages of Western Australia is its climate, which for the greater part of the year is one of blue skies and bright sunshine, enrapturing, indeed, to the unaccus­tomed Londoner, who might well put up with the three months of somewhat excessive summer heat for the sake of the splendid spring and autumn weather. Even the summer temperature presents the important alleviations of dryness during the day­ time and coolness at nights. Then, again, the rainfall is plentiful on the west and south-west coasts, and regular and sufficient for at least one hundred miles inland from, say, Gantheaume Bay on the former, to the mouth of the Fitzgerald River on the latter. The summer dryness of the atmosphere is an agreeable feature even in the north-west, and renders the tropical portions of the colony sufficiently bearable, droughts of the severity of those experienced in the eastern colonies being unknown. Whilst there is plenty of room for pastoralists with capital in the north-west, the small agriculturist may get good land in a temperate latitude on lower terms than would be the case in any other colony possessing a similar quality of soil. The latter has specially good prospects from the fact that the production of cereals has not yet outrun the local demand, nor does it seem likely to do so for a long time to come, if the promise of the large increase in the consuming population is borne out by the success of the Yilgarn goldfields and other mineral developments in various parts of the colony.

At present, as I have said before, very little is done by the Government in the way of subsidising immigration. The Immigration Board, to whom under the Act of 1883 the expenditure of the funds available is entrusted, have confined their operations of late to granting free passages to labourers from Europe nominated by their friends in the colony, and to paying half the passage money for labourers nominated by colonial employers desiring imported hands. In each case the nominators are required to enter in an undertaking to indemnify the Government against any expenses incurred between the debarkation and arrival at destination of the immigrant. It is also made a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of £50, with or without twelve months' imprisonment, for any free or assisted immigrant to quit the colony within three months after his arrival, unless in cases where the amount advanced is previously repaid to the Immigration Board. Some few ship­ loads of female immigrants have also been from time to time imported under the auspices of the Board. Some of these importations have not proved very satisfactory, consisting, as they did, partially of penitents, whose pledges of reformation failed to withstand the temptations of the voyage, followed by the freedom from restraint experienced on their landing in Western Australia. No blame can be attributed to the Board for failures of this kind, as a depot for the new arrivals is established at Fremantle, and every care exercised for the protection of those not obstinately determined to go astray.

A batch of forty-two girls arrived on April 11, 1891, by the ship Gulf of Martaban; but as I heard some sneering remarks made with reference to their qualifications, I made special inquiries of the Governor, Mr. Shenton, the indefatigable and experienced chairman of the Immigration Board, Mr. Dale, the inspector of Charitable Institutions, and Sir James Lee Steere, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, all of whom concurred in the opinion that the girls (who were sent out under the auspices of the Honourable Mrs. Joyce and the Girls' Friendly Society) were highly respectable and likely to do well for themselves and prove a benefit to the colony. The party arrived on a Saturday, and, with the exception of two Catholics, all went to the Protestant Church together on Sunday. On the Monday the whole of them were engaged as domestic servants at wages ranging from £2 to £3 10s. per month, according to the supposed extent of their previous experience. Of the forty-two girls, three left their places almost immediately, but were quickly re-engaged. As far as I could gather, any complaints made by mistresses arose from the inexperience of the girls in making wood fires (coal being unknown), in cooking with colonial ovens, pumping water, &c. Of course, in a batch of forty-two girls all-round equability of temper was not to be expected, and the want of this in the case of one of them led to a police-court charge, which created a considerable sensation in Perth. The girl in question, Carrie Hall, having disobeyed some command of her mistress, quar­relled with her, and left her place without giving the month's notice stipulated for on her engagement. The mistress, taking advantage of an obsolete statute, applicable enough in the old convict days, summoned the refractory maid to the local court, where, in the absence of the stipendiary magistrate, two honorary justices of much the same bent of mind as certain of their brethren in England, sentenced her to pay a fine of £4, or undergo a month's imprisonment. When those present had recovered from their astonishment at the severity of the penalty imposed, they subscribed the required amount just in time to anticipate the action of the Immigration Board, who as soon as they heard of the result sent one of their functionaries to liquidate the fine on the girl's behalf. I mention this matter as it excited a good deal of attention in Western Australia, and has been distorted into a wholesale indictment against the Gulf of Martaban contingent. For the information of servant girls thinking of emigrating I may add that 10s. per week is about the normal wage in Western Australia, although £36 per year, and even more, is paid to cooks and very superior domestics in the towns. As much as £4 per month is given in hotels, but this class of service is not desirable for respectable girls, who would find it very difficult to get employment in private service afterwards. Whilst I am on the subject of wages I may add that unskilled labourers' wages in Perth are from 5s. to 7s. per day, more commonly the latter, since railway extension under Mr. Keane's liberal auspices has rendered labour scarce and dear to an extent which would cause some of the "old-timers" of Western Australia to turn in their graves with incredulity and disgust.

As is the case in most of the Australian capitals, two-thirds of the working men of Perth have built houses on their own freeholds. Those who did so a few years ago have had their properties vastly enhanced in value by the general rise in price of town lands in Perth. Even now working men can purchase allotments of nearly a quarter of an acre little more than a mile from the city for £50, on which they can erect a decent brick cottage for, say, £150, and thus, by a payment of 9s. 11d. per week to the Perth Building Society, become in eight years possessors of excellent freehold residences.

At present Western Australia is almost untouched by the influence of trade unionism; but this halcyon state of affairs for the employers is not likely to last long now that emigration from the other colonies is imbuing the minds of the local working men with more advanced ideas of the rights and destinies of their class. The eight hours system is adopted in a good many trades where there is no great difficulty in regard to its applicability. But even this great palladium of the workers in Australia is advocated with considerable modesty in Western Australia. I was dining with Sir John Forrest on June 1, the anniversary of the inauguration of the colony, when a deputation, representing a crowd of several thousands outside, arrived at the house to interview him on the subject. Instead, however, of enforcing on the Premier their views as to the legalisation of the eight hours system, they merely asked him for his own opinion, and apparently went away quite satisfied when he assured them that statutory interference was quite out of the question, and that, as in the other colonies, the adoption of the eight hours rule must be left to the influence of time and the friendly co-operation of employers and employed in the several trades. At present there is no public opinion in the colony to speak of in reference to any matter of political concern. Very naturally, considering its long stagnation, the people regard the material development of its immense area and equally immense resources as the main and immediate duty of the Government. This the Forrest Ministry recognise, and as long as they go forward in their present prudent fashion, and there is no hitch over finding the sinews of war, there will be nothing in the way of serious parliamentary opposition to their proposals. There is one thing that the working man who emi­grates to Western Australia will not enjoy in the same full measure as would be the case were he to go to one of the other colonies, and that is the electoral franchise. Before he c1n vote for a Member of the Legislative Assembly he must either be a £100 freeholder or a leaseholder, householder, or lodger paying an annual rental of £10. Universal suffrage must, however, shortly be adopted as in the other colonies; and then we shall no longer witness the absurdity of Members being returned to the popular House by a score or so of electors, 249 being the highest number polled for a single candidate at the General Election last year. Though at present a nominated body, the Upper House is to become elective in five years' time. Voting papers being allowed on the top of a property qualification, Western Australia is at present the farthest removed of any colony from the one man one vote system which Sir George Grey, the great New Zealand publicist, so much desiderates. Though the election is by ballot, there is no payment of members, the Government side (Liberals though they call themselves) being as hostile as the Opposition (so called) to the reimbursement of members and the establishment of universal suffrage.

The education system, which is on the model of that established under Mr. Forster's English Act, appears to give satis­faction at present, and as the Board opens a school wherever twelve scholars between four and sixteen years of age can be got together, there is little fear of the children of settlers, except in the most out-of-the-way locations, being deprived of proper instruction. There is power to compel the attendance of children between six and fourteen residing within three miles of Government or assisted schools, and school fees are charged as follows—viz., one shilling per week per child when the parent has an income in excess of £100 per annum; sixpence in case of the children of persons receiving salaries of not more than £100 per annum, and threepence when the parent is a person employed by others at a daily or weekly wage not exceeding £75 per annum. A reduction of one-third is made when more than two of one family attend, and scholars can be admitted free on the recommendation of the District Boards. With the influx of new blood no doubt a free system all round will be substituted for the present complicated tariff, even that laggard in this matter, South Australia, having last year made her education absolutely gratuitous, despite the fact that her ex-Premier disbelieves in elementary education at all, and has carried his principle into practice in the case of his own children. All the main religious bodies are represented in Western Australia, the Church of England being the most numerous, the Catholics the most active, and the Salvation Army having little or no hold. A State grant of between £3,000 and £4,000 is divided annually between the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Wesleyan, and Presbyterian bodies; but this is almost certain to be discontinued in the course of a year or two, the feeling against the State endowment of religion being a growing one even in Conservative Western Australia. The monetary part of the matter has all along amounted to only a paltry pittance, but the lands granted to different religious bodies for Church sites and all imaginable purposes total up a very considerable area in the aggregate, and may be a source of future difficulty, every recognised communion getting as many glebes as it wants of 100 acres.