Tensions in South Australia

Hallie Hogg was an Australian lady who in 1923 was spending a holiday in Malta. She regretted the unfair treatment given to the Maltese by some of her country's newspapers. She also said that some editors in her country were not doing their duty very well. The lady claimed that in 1916 a friend of hers had employed Maltese gangers on the construction of a railway line and said that hr friend was very satisfied with the work done by the Maltese. The only drawback her friend had mentioned was that an interpreter had to be employed because the Maltese knew no English Sydney was not the only city in Australia where the presence of Maltese workers aroused anger and jealousy. Vincent Callus had been in Adelaide for some time when in March 1926 he wrote back home to state that as far as he knew no Maltese were out of work there. But "The News" of January 19, 1926, had complained about the. preference shown by some employers towards Maltese workers in Adelaide. A certain correspondent, Mr. A. Turner, wrote: "There are several men working at the Mitcham station. Maltese seem to get the preference over the Australians. The policy seems to be Maltese first, returned soldiers last".

If there had ever been any preference shown towards the immigrants from Malta living in Adelaide, that preference soon came to an end. In July 1927 serious industrial trouble occurred and demonstrations were organised by disgruntled workers which soon degenerated into riots. In Victoria Square demonstrators threw stones at the police and one police inspector was knocked down. Nineteen demonstrators were arrested, but others grouped again in the main street, close to the police station. Troopers rode up and down the footpath in order to break up the crowd which quickly reformed, shouting defiance and abuse at the police.

About one hundred policemen charged the crowd. One angry demonstrator attempted to slash a trooper with a knife but he wounded the horse instead. The strikers proceeded to the Trades Hall but the police soon rushed in and forcibly removed the protesters from the steps of the Hall amidst the booing and jeering of the crowd.

Local Labour Party supporters were agitating against the newly elected premier, Mr. Butler. Butler was a Liberal who had replaced Mr. Hill who was supported by Labour.

Some Maltese had joined the demonstration against Mr. Butler. They objected to Mr. Butler's withdrawal of the grant of 10s 6d per week which they had been getting to help them pay their boarding expenses. Mr. Hill had allowed the grant but he had not permitted the Maltese to register at the Labour Exchange. Butler stopped the grant but allowed the Maltese to register for work.

!Labour Party officials at Adelaide had strenuously objected to the registration of unemployed Maltese as this put the foreign Maltese on an equal footing with the Australians. It seems that while the Maltese welcomed the decision to allow them to register for work they wanted to retain the original grant given to them. The leader of the Adelaide unemployed Maltese sought an interview with Mr. Butler and during their conversation the leader made it clear that it was the intention of the Maltese to go on agitating till they got what they wanted. On his part, Mr. Butler told the Maltese spokesman that he would make representations to the Federal Government to have all the Maltese in South Australia deported if they persisted in their negative attitude.

The leader of the Adelaide unemployed Maltese was a certain Ignatius Sciberras, a coppersmith by trade, who had arrived in Australia in 1926. When Mr. Butler suggested that the Maltese should seek employment out in the country since the city of Adelaide held little prospects for employment, the irate Sciberras retorted that he would instruct his men to sit for meals in the best restaurants and refuse to pay their bills. They would invite arrest and Mr. Butler would have to provide food and accommodation in Adelaide's jail for the Maltese.

On December 1. 1927. 1Lynatius Sciberras sent a telegram to the newly-elected Prime Minister of Malta, Sir Gerald Strickland, informing him that the Government of South Australia was denying the Maltese the right to live. Sciberras claimed that about two hundred Maltese were on the edge of starvation. The leader of the Adelaide unemployed Maltese asked Lord Strickland to notify the press in Malta how serious unemployment was in South Australia and he also asked the Government of Malta to intervene on behalf of the Maltese.

Lord Strickland lost no time in contacting Premier Butler about the complaints which had been raised by Ignatius Sciberras. Mr. Butler assured Lord Strickland that the trouble was of a passing nature and that the situation was getting better. According to Mr. Butler the situation in South Australia was not any worse than in other parts of the country. The Maltese were being 'treated in the same way as Australian workers were being treated. Mr. Butler did suggest to Lord Strickland that for the time being it was advisable to send only those emigrants who had assured jobs.

Ignatius Sciberras was not the only Maltese who had been accused of Socialist tendencies. In September 1926, the port authorities at Adelaide had refused landing permission to another Maltese left-winger who had arrived from England. Joseph Mifsud arrived in Adelaide on board the "Moreton Bay" accompanied by his wife and child. Fremantle had already refused Mr. Mifsud permission to land because some passengers had noted that he had been spreading Bolshevik sedition. They complained to the captain and purser, especially after Mifsud had refused to stand up while "God Save the King" was being played.

Joseph Mifsud had travelled to Australia from England where he had settled. While in that country he married a girl from Devonshire. Some sections of the Australian press jumped on the Mifsud case to put all the Maltese into an unfavourable light. However, the Emigration Department in Malta denied that Joseph Mifsud had anything to do with them because he, his wife and child, were travelling as English passengers.

In July 1927, industrial unrest erupted in Queensland. A strike had been declared on the South Johnstone mill and what was supposed to be peaceful picketing soon degenerated into violence. Reports from the area indicated that violence was rampant and that one group of strikers was fighting another because of mutual bad feelings.

The Sun of July 15, carried a sensational story under the headline: "Three Maltese beaten up by Strikers". Pictures showed four burly men chasing a small Maltese across a paddock. The unfortunate man looked bruised and battered. The writer urged the Queensland authorities to intervene because the situation at South Johnstone was deteriorating. The article mentioned "the callous attack by big bodies of strikers on Maltese who were dragged from the train and cruelly beaten up". The article also mentioned r attack made on three Maltese while they were on the way to South Johnstone.

That section of Maltese public opinion which had always opposed emigration to Australia did not fail to capitalise on such disgraceful incidents involving Maltese immigrants in New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland. The newspaper "Malta" was the organ of those who never reconciled themselves to the Imperial connection and saw the scheme which envisaged large scale emigration to Australia as another attempt to strengthen a distant outpost of the British Empire at the expense of the Maltese. On August 30, 1927, the "Malta" commented on the bad news which was arriving from various parts of Australia concerning Maltese working in that country. The newspaper wrote that the Australians harboured an instinctive dislike for the Maltese. The Australians would only admit the Maltese if they agreed to settle in areas unfit for Europeans because they were unhealthy, distant or very dangerous.

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.

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