Interview: Union for the Dispossessed
Unions: Joel's Law
National Focus: Spring Carnival
Bad Boss: Fina and Fiends
Industrial: The Price of War
Economics: Who's Got What
History: Containing Discontent
Review: An Honourable Wally
Poetry: The Colours of Discontent
Governing the Corporates
Racism towards Chinese people could be used to save, or boost individual political careers, by containing and deflecting the disappointment and discontent that working people felt towards their politicians in colonial Australia.
To most historians, anti-Chinese racism was a product of the fears and phobias of the working class. Far from being any kind of product of the labour movement, this exercise in anti-Chinese racism was an attempt to save the political career of Angus Cameron at the very point at which he broke with the labour movement.
One of the most appalling and destructive pieces of anti-Chinese propaganda published during the period under review (1875-88), was the report of a Select Committee of the NSW Parliament into common lodging houses. It was endlessly quoted in parliamentary debates and by public meeting orators, despite the police rejecting its substance. While only partly focused on the Chinese community of Sydney, the most sensational parts of the report painted a lurid picture of European women, addicted to opium, forced to sell themselves to Chinese men to get a supply of the drug; all this happening in dark, dirty, overcrowded opium dens, where "the debauchery and immorality must be something frightful". The picture painted was a lie, but it had a long term impact, giving authority to a range of anti-Chinese prejudices.
This inflammatory, racist and dishonest report was the work of Angus Cameron MLA, who chaired the Select Committee, having successfully moved for it in parliament. Cameron was to become one of the most significant anti-Chinese agitators in New South Wales.
Cameron, a carpenter, is celebrated as the first trade unionist elected to any Australian parliament. He was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in December 1874, as the official candidate of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council, which paid him a very generous wage to allow him to attend parliament. But Cameron had almost immediately joined the faction of Premier, Sir John Robertson, and over the coming years he would parlay his political position into a parallel career in business-which included the secretaryship of building societies and a partnership with James Fletcher, a mine owner and proprietor of the Newcastle Morning Herald.
Through 1875, the relationship between Cameron and the Trades and Labour Council had become strained and union dissatisfaction with Cameron came to a head in March 1876, over Cameron's failure to vote against Robertson's Public Education Bill. The campaign for national, secular, compulsory and free education had become one of the touchstone movements for progressive change in colonial NSW in the 1870s and the focus for an immense amount of organizing; and Robertson's bill-a hopeless compromise between secular and religious schooling-was seen by almost all progressives as a betrayal. The TLC had opposed it, as had Cameron himself. George Dibbs MLA, a member of the Education League, had supported Robertson in Government; but voted against Robertson's education bill.
But not Cameron. Whether by government trickery, or through his own cowardice, Cameron agreed to "pair" with another Robertson supporter, Phelps, on the crucial vote and left the parliamentary chamber when the vote was taken on the second reading of the bill, which was narrowly carried. When he returned to the chamber there was uproar at his action. Radical MP David Buchanan declared Cameron's political career "at an end." Outside parliament, Cameron faced a tidal wave of anger. In his electorate there were large, angry meetings of protest, involving leading members of the TLC. Within a fortnight, Cameron had severed his links with the TLC, at a public meeting at which most of the ministry joined him on the platform.
Cameron's betrayal over secular education took place on 15 March 1876. Just the day before, on 14 March 1876, Cameron moved that the NSW Legislative Assembly set up the select committee into common lodging houses. It is my belief that Cameron moved for the Select Committee in the full knowledge that he was about to initiate a rupture with the Trades and Labour Council, and make himself intensely unpopular with the progressive movement in Sydney; that he moved to set up the Select Committee in order to manufacture a scandal about Chinese people in order to re-establish his supposedly radical credentials and distract attention from his vote on the education bill.
Angus Cameron was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly for the seat of West Sydney in December 1874. At the election, he was explicitly the candidate of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council; and was, in fact, the council's secretary. The Trades and Labour Council had only recently been set up, in 1872, and was clearly inexperienced and unstable as it grew. The minutes of the council frequently show unions affiliating, or disaffiliating; and there was a substantial turnover of delegates to the TLC and officials of the TLC. It appears that Cameron himself was first sent to the TLC only on 10 June 1874, was only made Secretary in the half-yearly elections on 2 September. He was instrumental in moving for the TLC to develop a plan for parliamentary representation. However in November 1874, the Parkes government was unexpectedly defeated after only two years in office, and an election declared before the TLC's plans could be perfected.
Having been elected, Cameron was immediately replaced as delegate for the Carpenters & Joiners Society and resigned as secretary of the TLC. Within a few months there was a complaint about Cameron's role in Parliament. The Trades and Labour Council minutes for 8 April 1875 record that:
Mr Fernly said he was instructed by his society (the Boilermakers) to ask if the Council knew the reason that actuated the P. Representative (Mr Cameron) for asking certain questions in the Assembly anent the defective locomotives supplied by Mort, Vale & Lacy etc - & said the Answers elicited could have a baneful effect with the general public with respect to Colonial Industries altho it was well known to them (the Boilermakers) that the defective Engines complained of were of English manufacture:-
Cameron's question had clearly been framed for the purposes of party advantage, enabling Robertson to throw mud at the previous Parkes administration, rather than to advance the cause of any group of workers. The issue shows how rapidly Cameron had been turned into a Robertson loyalist. Cameron's distance from the labour movement can also be seen by his championing of the NSW Police, and his complaint that NSW "did not treat our police here so liberally as they did in neighbouring colonies".
The first great crisis in Cameron's relationship with the TLC came just a year after he was elected, from December 1875 to February 1876. The issue was Robertson's Agreements Validating Bill, which gave legal force to labour contracts entered into outside NSW, contracts in which an employer agreed to employ someone, and pay their passage to NSW, in return for which the employee agreed to remain with the employer for a set period of time, up to five years. Within a few years, this Act would give legal force to the contracts entered into between the Australasian Steam Navigation Company, and the Chinese sailors it recruited in 1878 in an attempt to reduce its wages bill and break the power of the Seamen's Union. It was an extraordinary bill for a labour representative to support, and was bitterly opposed by the union movement.
When Cameron spoke in Parliament in favour of the bill, the TLC called him to account. In what was clearly a bitter and angry meeting, Cameron argued that this bill could put an end to massive government funding for large-scale assisted immigration, as it would put the onus on the employer to find the labour they wanted, and would guarantee immigrants work when they arrived. This was disingenuous and the delegates were not mollified. Mr Dixon, "thought it the strongest engine in the employers' hands & would be greatly abused". Mr Leeson "generally condemned Mr Cameron for the position he had assumed as well as for his actions" and that "if such Act became Law it would be a death blow to the eight hour movement".
Cameron's rupture with the official labour movement came just a few weeks later over the previously mentioned Education Bill.
Within two days there was a meeting to discuss Cameron's behaviour over the Education Bill, and a decision taken to call a public meeting, which was held on Thursday 23 March, 1876, with many of the Trades and Labour Council apparently present. It was large and stormy. Cameron did not attend. The official motion condemned Cameron for breaking faith with his supporters. An amendment sympathetic to Cameron was moved by Frank Dixon, who had been both Secretary and President of the TLC, and seconded by Jacob Garrard, a delegate from the Engine Fitters' union and later himself to be elected to parliament. There was no vote as the meeting broke up in disarray. From this distance it is impossible to be accurate, but it appears that Cameron had the support of a minority of union leaders; and they were prominent in his re-election campaign in October 1877.
In the Trades and Labour Council itself, a letter arrived from Cameron's own union, the Carpenters and Joiners, calling on the TLC to take some action over Cameron's political career. The letter was shelved.
Meanwhile, Cameron took the initiative, calling a large public meeting on 1 April to explain himself. With the Premier, all of the ministry except Stuart, and ten other MPs on the platform supporting him, Cameron used the meeting to attack the very people who had campaigned to get him elected into parliament, and who had raised a considerable sum of money to keep him in comfort while parliament sat.
Cameron attended one more meeting of the Trades and Labour Council, summoned there by the people who were still paying him £5 per week. Cameron told them that he was quite happy to maintain the existing financial and political relationship, but "it would have to be upon this distinct understanding, that upon all and every question in Parliament Labour or otherwise, the Council should not control him, but he should speak and vote as his conscience dictated." The Council responded by terminating his salary.
The vision of labour representation did not die with Cameron's apostasy, but it would be over a decade before the Trades and Labour Council again involved itself in nominating candidates for parliament. In the immediate future, labour movement electoral campaigns would be organized through bodies such as the Working Men's Defence Association, which stood a number of leading trade unionists in 1877, including in West Sydney against Angus Cameron. None were elected, though their best votes were substantial.
For his part, Angus Cameron now faced a battle to hang on to his new life of importance as a member of parliament. To do this, he turned to anti-Chinese agitation.
The Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board had set up a large-scale investigation into overcrowding and its effect on sanitary conditions in the city and suburbs of Sydney. The overwhelming story from the evidence gathered was of extensive poverty; a profound neglect of water supply and sewage provision; of sewage in Alexandria, Redfern and Waterloo seeping through sandy soil into wells from which people were drinking because there was no other water supply; of large numbers of people living in tiny houses in laneways forced to share a small number of open toilets whose contents spilled into their common yards and sometimes the city's gutters; and of people living in dirty, unhealthy buildings in disrepair because landlords refused to spend money fixing them.
But a small part of the Sewage and Water Board's investigation turned up crowded Chinese-run workshops, and these attracted the outrage of the committee, and this was vented in a special progress report on common lodging-houses, which was adopted on 4 February 1876. They also found a small number of European women living with Chinese men. This clearly worried them, and they were outraged to find that some of these European women had become addicted to opium. Indeed, in their mind, opium addiction had become the means by which Chinese men had been able to establish personal and sexual control over these women.
The Select Committee into Common Lodging-houses, which Cameron successfully moved for on 14 March 1876, was a deeply cynical exercise. It took evidence only from a small number of council officials and police. It covered no ground that had not already been covered in evidence to the on-going Sewage Board inquiry. Cameron's select committee met just five times; It is interesting that the final meeting, to finalise the report, was two and a half months after the final meeting for the taking of evidence, but just in time for Cameron's report to reach parliament, and hence the newspapers, before the massive and far more credible report of the Sewage and Water Board.
For the Select Committee's consideration, Cameron, as chairman, produced a short report, which included two points attacking Chinese people:
Your Committee cannot close this Report without particularly directing the attention of your Honorable House to the revolting and almost incredible statements contained in the evidence with regard to many of the Chinese Lodging Houses in this City.
Your Committee are of opinion that unless strong action is brought to bear to remedy the immoralities alluded to, that restrictive legislation with reference to any increase of Chinese population to this country will become an absolute necessity in the interest of all other sections of the people of this country.
The second of these was deleted at the Committee meeting, but it signalled that Cameron intended using the Select Committee for an attack on Chinese immigration. The report was then hurried through so that it could discussed by the Legislative Assembly; just two weeks ahead of the monumental Sewage and Water Board report. The result was, of course, that Cameron's report stole the thunder from the Sewage Board report; indeed, from the media it could seem as if the Sewage and Water Board had simply produced evidence to back up Cameron's concerns. The slanting of Cameron's report towards accusations of Chinese immorality, and the slanting of subsequent discussion that way, also meant that the massive, core problems found by the Sewage and Water Board report were largely buried. Whatever else Cameron achieved, he helped let Sydney's landlords and City Council off the hook.
It has to be emphasized that the allegations of Cameron, Chapman and others were either wildly exaggerated, ancient history, or downright dishonest. When Chapman said, "I have seen women with them there under the influence of opium, and it has such and effect upon them that they are quite helpless"; the truth was that he had only ever claimed to have seen one woman in this condition, and only once, during his inspections for the Sewage and Water Board. Chapman's evidence to Cameron's select committee was given on the last day it took evidence, after four fruitless attempts at meetings. It was clearly going to be the last time the committee met for evidence.
When the select committee report was debated in parliament, Sir Henry Parkes-a man who had led and would in the future lead anti-Chinese campaigns-immediately stood up and said he did not believe the evidence because he did not trust some of the key witnesses, and intimated that these were Seymour and Dr. Dansey, the Council's medical officer. Premier Sir John Robertson, then presented reports from the Inspector-General of Police, Edmund Fosbery, which discredited the evidence. Seymour had been instructed to show the police all houses where morality offences were supposed to have happened. The police found nothing exceptional. On the issue of Chinese men using opium to seduce European women, the Inspector General of Police reported:
Opium smoking is indulged in to a considerable extent [ie by Chinese men]; European women, however, do not take to the practice until they have lived some time with Chinamen, usually not until after they have become their wives.
Fosbery then launched his own, bureaucratic, attack on the credibility of Cameron's select committee exercise.
And he informed Robertson, and parliament, that some girls found in a Chinese house were not fifteen years old, as supposed by acting sub-Inspector Johnson, but considerably older.
But if Cameron had proposed his select committee under the pretence of concern over common lodging-houses, that pretence was largely abandoned by Cameron once the report reached Parliament. Nine days after it was formally adopted by Parliament, Cameron launched an adjournment debate to demand that the Government bring immoral Chinese to justice, to prosecute them for "the outrages committed by Chinese on women and young girls in Sydney". He attacked Parkes for his response to the evidence, pointing out that Chapman, the former mayor, and Robertson, the Inspector of Waterworks, had given similar evidence to Seymour. And he launched a broad-ranging attack on Chinese people.
Cameron was beating a drum which had a familiar past and a long future.
Consistent with events in parliament, it was the Sydney Morning Herald, supposedly the friend of the Chinese, which descended into the greatest alarmism and racist hysteria regarding the Chinese people of Sydney. On 10 August it published a diatribe from the New York Herald on the Chinese of California. On the 11th, it used its editorial to give sanction to the lies and hysteria of the Select Committee, which, it said, had shown that:
in Sydney, as elsewhere, the abominations of the Chinese are growing apace. Few people need to be told that where Chinese are allowed both to herd together in large numbers, and to have as large a license as they choose, the grossest immoralities and the blackest filth are the usual consequences.
The details in the report were too horrible to be published, but should nevertheless "arouse the indignation of the public." The Chinese who came to Australia were of the lowest class, and tended to "herd together after the manner of swine rather than of men".
It would be interesting to find out the reason for the enthusiastic support Cameron's report received from the conservative establishment of New South Wales. Perhaps they were grateful for the fact that Cameron's report had taken the heat off the Sydney City Council, which might have been expected to raise rates on landowners to pay for better water and sewage provision; and those in the Legislative Council who were city landlords, or whose friends were, might also have been grateful for the way Cameron's attack on Chinese people had deflected the appalling situation found by the Sewage and Water Board investigation. Indeed, Cameron's focus on common lodging-houses generally, even apart from the Chinese question, shifted attention from the criminal neglect of landlords and the council as revealed in the evidence to the more substantial inquiry. At this stage we can only guess that there might have been a causal, rather than accidental, connection.
What is indisputable is that the attack on the credibility of Cameron's Select Committee report did not stick; that for years afterwards his select committee report was referred to by those who hated Chinese immigration.
What is beyond speculation is that it was immensely damaging to the position of Chinese people all over Australia.
The story of Angus Cameron, a talented worker, elected to parliament, who abandons his class, is far from uncommon. It warns us that the actions of such parliamentarians are not necessarily driven by the desires of the working class or the demands of the organized labour movement. And the story of Angus Cameron suggests that the anti-Chinese racism of such public figures might in fact be a way of distracting working class people from class issues, because class issues are often the most uncomfortable for those former workers now in parliament. Anti-Chinese racism was acceptable to most of the ruling class and middle class; it aroused irrational fears that led workers away from class consciousness, it promoted identification with Britain, and it enabled capitalist politicians to pose as champions of the poor. And Angus Cameron helped show how it could be done.
Phil Griffiths is at the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Australian National University. A full version of this paper is available from the author. It was prepared for the recent Eighth National Labour History Conference; "Transforming Labour: Work Workers, Struggle and Change" held at the College of Art Griffith University, Brisbane from 3-5 October 2003
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