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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 50

Indemnification for Losses in Time of War

Indemnification for Losses in Time of War.

On the following notice of motion being called:—

Mr. Lee Steere to draw attention to the communications which have passed between the various Australasian colonies with reference to the indemnification for losses in time of war, and to move—"That this Council is of opinion that it is desirable that the Governments of the Australasian Colonies should come to a formal agreement to submit to their respective Legislatures some measure for giving ratification to the proposed common action for the indemnification of persons who in case of war make a sacrifice of their property for the purpose of pre aid to an enemy's force."

Mr. Lee Steere said: Mr. President, with leave of the Council, I wish to amend the notice of motion standing in my name, as it has been suggested to me that it will be better not to indicate any particular mode by which the Australian Governments should act in reference to the proposal made for indemnification, to be contributed by the several colonies to persons in case of the destruction of their property for the purpose of preventing aid to an enemy's force. Therefore, the resolution with which I shall conclude will be merely a general resolution, stating that it is desirable that common action be taken by the Governments of Australia to effect this purpose, leaving it to them to take such measures as they deem proper.

The President: You had better read the terms of the motion now.

Mr. Lee Steere: It is as follows:—

"That in the opinion of this Council it is desirable that common action should be taken by the Governments of the Australian colonies for the purpose of providing for the indemnification of persons whose property in case of war may be sacrificed for the purpose of preventing aid to an enemy's force." In support of this motion I would draw attention to the various official communications that have passed in reference to this subject. I do not wish to quote in full the letter written by Admiral Tryon to the Premier of New South Wales, which first brought this subject prominently forward. Most hon. members have seen that letter, but I think it would be well that I should read a communication addressed by the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales to the various Governments. That communication is as follows:—

"I have received a letter from the Admiral, commander-in-chief of this station, in which he points out that one of the most effectual means of defence would be an united determination on the part of all the Australian colonies to resist all concessions to an enemy, and refuse under any circumstances all supplies of coal. As demands might, and probably would be made in places comparatively unprotected, he suggests that there should be an united indemnification of such places from loss by injuries inflicted upon them in consequence of their refusal to obey requisitions; that owners and agents of coal-laden vessels should agree to order their destruction rather than permit their falling into the hands of an enemy. All losses to be made good by the united Governments. His letter, my reply, and a minute which I have based upon it, expressing our entire agreement in his suggestion, and our preparedness to bear our proportionate share of any such expenditure, are too long to forward you by telegram. I shall send them by mail. Meanwhile I should like to know how you view the proposal. The very fact of our agreement to stand by each other against any concessions would, it is conceived, be a heavy discouragement to an enemy operating so far from his base under such hopeless circumstances."

This particular letter from which I am now quoting was sent to the Premier of New Zealand, and I believe that a similar communication was addressed to the Premiers of all the other Australian colonies. The Premier of New Zealand replied:—

"We are favourably disposed to your proposal, but we think the condition of resistance should not be included.

"We may be save that whenever resistance is feasible or expedient, it will be displayed in all the colonies, and in every part, to the full extent courage and patriotism would justify.

"We think it would be better the colonies should agree to joint liability for all damages caused by the enemy, on the basis of a population contribution.

"Will you consider this modification, and state also how you would propose the assent of the several Parliaments should be given?

"Ministers have not had as yet any reply to this communication, but they are willing, on the lines mentioned by them in their telegram, to recommend Parliament to enter into an arrangement with the other colonies of Australasia.

"In conclusion, Ministers would add that they feel obliged to the admiral for forwarding his very able memorandum on the subject of defences for their perusal and consideration, and they hope that without delay the further information they require may be communicated to them, so that they may be able to submit some definite proposals to Parliament."

A similar communication, I say, was addressed to the Governments of every one of the Australian colonies, and they all replied that they were in agreement page 116 with the answer returned by the Premier of New Zealand. I find that the Colonial Secretary of Queensland in his reply says:—

"I entirely concur in the proposal that in the event of any such loss being sustained by any town or individual in consequence of refusing such aid, the loss should be borne by the colonies collectively in proportion to population."

The reply from all the colonies indicated a concurrence of opinion that this would be a very good object to effect by means of joint action on the part of the colonies. I may say that the colony I have the honour to represent is very much in favour of this proposal, and I think it went further than any other colony, because the matter was brought before he Legislative Council, who agreed to a resolution staring their willingness to join with the other colonies in this matter. It seems to me that we should not allow this matter to remain as it is, it would be unwise for the colonies to allow themselves to remain quiescent until there is an outbreak of war. During the last war scare there were several store ships laden with coal in King George's Sound, and the Government of Western Australia made arrangements that in the event of an enemy entering that port that the owners of these vessels should sink them, so that the coal might not be available to the enemy, but I do not know whether in the event of any further complications arising that the Government of Western Australia would undertake that responsibility unless they find that the other colonies would unite in reimbursing them of that expense. The loss of that coal to Western Australia would be insignificant in comparison with the loss which would take place to the ships of the other colonies in consequence of cruisers receiving coals there. I think it is only fair that all the colonies should unite in making recompense to the persons whose property was destroyed in consequence of these recommendations. It has been said, and I believe it is thought by some persons, that it would be almost impossible to get any combination of the colonies to effect the object desired, until there is a complete federation of the colonies, but it strikes me that if there were a federation of the colonies assembled here now they would not be able to do more than I propose by this resolution. What would a complete federated Council do? They might pass a motion stating that in their opinion all the colonies should combine together to give such recompense, but they could not force those colonies to contribute for that purpose. That would require to be done by each Legislature passing an Appropriation Act providing the necessary funds for this purpose. Therefore, I do not think that if all the colonies were federated here together they could do more than we do now by passing this motion.

Dr. Macgregor seconded.

Mr. Griffith: I quite agree to the resolution in the form in which it is now moved. It is extremely desirable that some action should be taken, but at the same time I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that there would be considerable difficulty in coming to an agreement upon the matter. The difficulty would arise in this way. What would be the circumstances which would justify the sacrifice of private property to avoid assistance being given to an enemy? That must be determined, to my mind, by some person entrusted with discretionary powers. If you were to attempt to frame an Act dealing with this subject, some provision would have to he made for the appointment of some person for whose action the colony would have to be responsible, and in the absence of a law of general application I see very great practical difficulty in defining the person for whose actions we should be responsible. A law of the Federal Council, representing all the colonies, may, perhaps, deal with the question, not by declaring that the Treasuries of the different colonies shall be pecuniarily responsible, for that is beyond the province of the Federal Council, unless it is specially referred to by the different colonies; but by declaring that in cases of emergency certain persons to be designated by the law of the Federal Council, should have authority to take the necessary action. In fact, the more we consider the question of defences, from whatever standpoint, whether as regards the maintenance of defensive works or the discipline of the forces, or action to be taken in the event of war, the more the necessity appears for united action on the part of the colonies—action which would have the force of law. Affirming this resolution, however, is a good thing, though I fear it cannot be until the federation has assumed larger proportions, that we can give it any immediate or practical result.

Dr. Macgregor: I alluded to this subject during the general discussion upon defences, as I did not know then that it was the intention of the hon. member for Western Australia to bring the subject forward in this shape. However, I am very glad he has done so. There is a verbal alteration or two I would suggest in the resolution. I gathered from the remarks he made on the subject that he intended that the executive authority of each colony should be responsible for the destruction of property that it was desirable to destroy, as contemplated under the terms of the resolution. The resolution as framed would lead one to imply that the owner was to destroy his property. The way should be very clear for the executive authority, in whatever colony it might be, to see that the destruction was promptly and certainly carried out in the majority of cases, as the owner would be probably sufficiently patriotic to destroy such things as coal, provisions and other articles as might be required by an enemy. It is just possible, however, that coal and other articles that should be destroyed may be the property of foreigners and aliens resident in the colony, page 117 and in the colony of Fiji it is by no means unlikely that such may be the case. For this, and other reasons that have been already stated, the resolution ought to state clearly that the property is to be destroyed not by the owner, but by the executive authority. That I think would be effected by a slight verbal alteration in the resolution.

The President: There is nothing in the resolution which indicates by whom, or by whose authority the property is to be destroyed.

Dr. Macgregor: I propose to add words to make it read, "to persons whose property may be sacrificed."

Mr. Lee Steere: I have no objection to making that amendment.

Dr. Macgregor: The resolution under consideration would in all likelihood in time of war, have special application to such places as the colony of Fiji as has been pointed out in the letter just read by the hon. member, Mr. Lee Steere. The probability is that places which are defenceless would be the places gone to by a hostile power when looking for coal or provisions, and as I stated already to the Council, the colony of Fiji is in a condition that it is quite defenceless. I have already drawn attention to the fact in speaking of the question of defence, that there is sometimes a large quantity of coal to be had there. It is not a coal-producing country, but coal is imported there from Australia for carrying on the industries of the place, and considerable quantities are often stored there in such a way as to be easily accessible by an enemy. From some of the naval stations in the Northern Pacific it would be easy enough for steam vessels to reach Fiji steaming all the way at half-speed, and from some of the southernmost stations to reach Fiji at high speed, but in either case, by the time they reached the colony they would have little coal left, and they might be able to pick up two or three thousand tons there, unless precaution was taken against this, and such a quantity would be sufficient to enable them to reach the other colonies, and put them in the position of inflicting on these very much damage. I consider this question of such very great importance that I sincerely hope that something in practical shape may be done with regard to it at an early date.

The motion was then put and agreed to.

Mr. Lee Steere, in order to give effect to the resolution moved,—"That the resolution be communicated by the President to the Governor of Tasmania, with a request that His Excellency will be pleased to transmit it to the Governors of the other colonies."

Dr. Macgregor seconded, and the motion was agreed to.