Volume 60: William Campbell letters, 1846-1894: No. 453
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Reprinted from the Colonies and India, Jan. 14, 1887
Land and Labour in Australia.
To the Editor of the Colonies and India.
I have read Mr. David Buchanan's letters in the Times, and also his address at the public meeting held last night in St. James' Hall; and having had practical experience of Australia for forty-nine years, I should be able to form a good opinion on the statements made by Mr. Norton, the labour representative from New South Wales, and Mr. Buchanan's replies. Mr. Norton may be correct in stating that 40,000 men were unemployed in Australia; and Mr. Buchanan has shown that that was chiefly owing to the effect of the long drought, which ruined their employers; and he is correct in stating that "Australia is a great and magnificent field for the emigrant or the labouring man." During the long drought the live stock died on many stations, and the working hands were thrown out of employment; and as Mr. Buchanan says, the pastoral industry is the backbone of the country. The drought has passed away, but there is another cause of the want of employment, namely, the recent Land Act, which works injuriously both to the employer and the employed. Under the old law the (squatter) lessees of the Crown Lands held their runs under lease with a pre-emptive right to purchase portions on which 20s. worth of improvements were made, at a fair valuation, not less than 20s., an acre. And under that law large numbers of men were employed in digging wells, tanks, fencing, and building. But under the new law the squatter has only the lease of half his run, and has no right to purchase improved lands, or get compensation for improvements. Consequently, he has no inducement to effect improvements, and fewer men are employed. The half of the run that has been resumed by the State may be taken up by any other than the squatter, in areas up to 10,500 acres, and until so taken up remains for an uncertain time in possession of the squatter, who is not likely to improve land which he may lose next day. The result will be that much of the resumed land will become "no man's land," and of no value, as it will be soon eaten up by myriads of rabbits. Under the new Land Act the sale of land is limited to a small area, which is another cause of the want of employment, because a leaseholder under the new Act is much less likely to improve than a freeholder. There is a prejudice against large freeholds, which may be proper in rich, well-watered lands, but in a purely pastoral district like the great dry plains of Western Riverina small holdings will not be profitable. That prejudice is partly owing to an erroneous belief that lands were sold under their value; but the lands were sold at public auction in areas of about 320 acres at a minimum price of 20d. - and for many years past of 25s. - an acre, and so were sold at a fair price, to the profit of the State; in fact, it was the revenue derived from the sale of these lands that filled the Sydney Treasury with a surplus and gave the highest value to New South Wales Debentures; at the same time it increased employment. But under the new law land sales are insignificant, the Treasury is worse than empty, and workmen are idle. The remaining Crown lands are generally inferior, and may not be saleable at 25s. an acre; but why not reduce the minimum upset price, and sell at a marketable value? After the saleable lands are disposed of, should the necessities of the State require it, a property tax could be equitably imposed, but not while the State holds immense assets in saleable land. And the proposition of the Sydney Parliament to impose an income tax is most impolitic, and it is inquisitorial and offers a premium for commission of crime. It has been condemned by all true statesmen, and was originally imposed to meet urgent war expenditure.
I submit that the new Land Act is the main cause of the scarcity of employment, and also of the financial difficulties of the New South Wales Government, and an early amendment of the Act is much required. The drought, which caused much distress, has passed away, but a bad law remains, and has a more lasting effect.
Australian Colonists are much indebted to Mr. Buchanan for correcting false impressions on the question of labour in New South Wales.
Food is cheaper and wages are higher in the Colonies than in the Mother Country, and if a working man does not save a considerable portion of his earnings it is his own fault. Of course, an idle, lazy drunkard will not succeed anywhere.
When we consider the vast pastoral, agricultural, and mining resources of Australia, with its splendid climate, how can its capacity to maintain a population equal at least to that of the Mother Country be doubted?
Immigration made a British Colony - now the United States of America - a first-rate Power. Why should it not make Australia and Canada such a Power? In the meanwhile, our Colonists are our best customers, and, under fair treatment, will remain a source of strength to the Empire.
I am, &c.,
Holland Park, Jan. 8.