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Thursday, 30 April 1942

Mr HUGHES (North Sydney) (Leader of the United Australia party) . - The position taken up by Opposition members has been clearly stated by my right honorable colleague, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Fadden). "We are in favour of the regulations. The Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin) will agree that it is of vital importance at all times, and particularly at present, that the law shall be administered fairly and without respect to persons. The complaint of the Opposition is that that has not been done in this case. The Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. "Ward) has admitted that in his speech. He has stated publicly, and has repeated in this House, that in his opinion Statutory Rule No. 77 ought not to be applied to labour disputes in such a way as to threaten or coerce the coal-miners. The honorable gentleman claims that the better way is to reason with the miners, and I think that we all agree with him on that point. As a broad principle, I should say that reasoning is always a better means to apply than coercion. Rut the honorable gentleman said to-day, in very definite terms, in relation to one mine manager who had been ordered to reinstate a miner and had refused to do so, that the unanimous decision of the Government was that he should be proceeded against under Statutory Rule No. 77. If it is a good rule to apply to a mine manager, or a mine owner, then it is a good rule to apply to every body. It is perfectly true that the mining industry is one which, from the very nature of it, imposes on the men who work in the mines conditions to which most of us are strangers. I agree with the Minister for Labour and National Service that .many people who talk about coal-mining, what the miners should do, and so on, have no conception of the conditions under which those men work. But we have to consider the position as it is, and with its eyes open the Government has declared, in a most positive and definite way, that Statutory Rule No. 77 should be applied without respect to persons and without differentiating between one industry and another. The Minister for Labour and National Service has just alleged that, in many instances, the mine-owners are acting as agents provocateur. That may be so. I hold no brief for the mineowners. They are men like ourselves, far from perfect. But my long experience with coal-miners has convinced me that they, too, are full of imperfections. In stubbornness and in refusing to listen to reason, there is not a pennyworth of difference between the coal-owners and the coal-miners. Even the Minister for Labour and National Service is beginning to realize that the coal-miners are difficult to reason with. They have grievances, I know, but never in the history of coal-mining have there been such convenient, complete and immediate means available for the redress of grievances as there are to-day. There was a time, not so long ago, when miners with grievances incomparably greater than those of to-day had either to endure their conditions or to strike. That is not the case to-day. Yet strikes and stoppages go on.

The Government has made it clear that the safety of the nation demands continuity of operations in the coal-mining industry. Without coal, industry cannot function. Trade unionists, in all other industries, are dependent upon the miners for coal. The Minister for Labour and National Service has just informed us that we have stumbled, to our intense surprise, upon an unprecedented condition of affairs in the coal industry : he says that there is, to-day, a greater measure of industrial peace than has ever been known before. That statement came as a positive shock to me, as I believe it will come to the great majority of the people of tills country. I was under the impression that there was a perfect epidemic of industrial disturbances on t he coal-fields. .1 read with great interest the statement of the Prime Minister that many of the disputes were not industrial iu character. I quite agree with him, and some of the reasons given for refusal to work are a little difficult to understand. We have been told once again by the Minister the fascinating story of the pit pony that was too fast. The objection to the pony, so we understood, was that he went so fast as to make the miners work faster, which of course waa an unforgivable sin. But this the Minister says was quite wrong; the truth was that he kicked like a mule and wasa positive danger to human life. In proof of which the Minister told us that the pony had kicked a mine manager, or it, may have been a mine owner, to death ! Surely that should have been counted to the pony as an outstanding merit. Instead of promoting industrial strife, it should 'have led to the use of other fast ponies, thus ensuring industrial peace. Then, there was the curious case of the fan that went too fast or too slow - and which caused a strike. And we must not forget, either, the case of the 800 coal.miners at Wallerawang who refused to work as a protest against press criticisms of the industrial unrest in the coal industry. If criticism were adequate reason for stopping work, many of us could not remain in this chamber for more than two minutes'! The miner is a man like ourselves. He cannot expect to escape calumny, the shafts of the cynic, the quips and gibes of those who hold him up to ridicule and scorn.

Statutory Rule No. 77 confers great powers. We believe that these are neces- sary for the safety of the country, but they must be exercised fairly. As it is, the wind is being tempered to the shorn lamb - in this case the coal-miner, who is above the law, who knows that he is in a position to dictate to the Government, and to the country. We must have coal: the miners are the only people who can get the coal. The Minister told us that one reason that moved him to act as lie has done was that he thought it the best way to get coal. This means, in effect, that instead of the Government governing the coal-miners, the coalniners are governing the country. They are above the law; the law is not to apply to them. I do not agree with that. 1 have championed the Miners Federation probably as effectively as any one in this country. But the Minister for Labour and National Service says that Statutory Rule. No. 77 should not be applied to members of the federation or to industrialists generally. I believe it should. To adopt the course suggested by the Minister - to apply the law to one section, and to place another above the law - is to do something repugnant to justice, and to aim a blow at the heart of the free institution of democracy - the principle that the Government must govern. Statutory Rule No. 77, if applied at all, must apply to every man whether he be owner or employee. I believe that the Prime Minister will agree with that view. The episode of the pit pony, although amusing, is also useful as an insight into the nature of the disputes which occur between the mine-owners and the mineworkers. But we must remember that the production of coal is essential to our safety. We need continuity of production. The Prime Minister referred to the number of working days which have been lost, yet the Minister for Labour and National Service told us that there had never been greater peace in the industry than at present. The honorable member for Hunter (Mr. James), who has an intimate knowledge of the coal-mining industry, has on several occasions told me that the tribunals which I established towards the end of the last war, or directly after it, led to peace in the coalmining industry for five years.

Mr James - That is true. The tribunals were effective because there was no appeal from their decisions.

Mr HUGHES - The tribunals were In the nature of an innovation and their appointment was opposed by many people, but they proved effective.

Mr James - That was one of the best pieces of legislation ever put on the statute-book.

Mr HUGHES - It serves to illustrate my view that the Government should govern. If the Government does not intend to apply this rule to both employers and employees, it should withdraw it. I ask the Prime Minister to consider carefully the eminently reasonable proposal submitted by the Leader of the Opposition, for he himself has said that he will confirm in writing at the earliest possible date any specific oral instruction given under these regulations. We want an assurance that the regulations will be applied to coalowners and coal-miners, and also to people throughout the Commonwealth, whether they be rich or poor, members of" powerful industrial organizations, or' private individuals without other support than the justice of their cause.

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