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Thursday, 23 November 1905

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) - At an earlier stage in the debate I intimated my intention to move an amendment, which I think would be more effective than that now before the Chair, but as I resumed my seat without moving it, I was precluded from submitting it to the House at a later stage. I shall therefore tentatively support the amendment now under consideration, and in the event of its being negatived, shall ask another honorable member to move that of which I have given notice. The form of closure proposed 'by the honorable member foi North Sydney is certainly preferable to that submitted by the Government. It would undoubtedly provide safeguards against the arbitrary application of the " gag " at the instance of what might be at any time a tyrannical majority. It is only reasonable that certain important questions should be exempted from the operation of the closure, and provision is made for this in the first part of the amendment. It provides that -

No member shall speak for more than one hour on any question before the House, except in the debate on the Address-in-Reply, or on the Budget, or in a debate on a motion of " No Confidence," ot in moving the second reading of a Bill, or in moving a resolution.

The Ministerial programme for the session is usually embodied in the GovernorGeneral's Speech at the opening of Parliament, and in the interests, not only of the House, but of their constituents, honorable members feel themselves called upon, in discussing the Address-in-Reply, to give expression to their views on most of the questions touched upon. Unless an amendment be adopted that will afford honorable members an opportunity to adequately discuss such matters, a great injustice will be done, not only to honorable members themselves, but to their constituents. When a charge is made against an honorable member that he has adopted a certain attitude in regard to some of the proposals outlined in the Ministerial programme. Hansard affords him the only means of refuting the accusation ; but _ if debate on such a question as the motion for the adoption of the AddressinReply is to be seriously restricted, honorable members will be left entirely at the mercy of any one who desires to place them in a false light before their constituents. The next matter which the honorable member for North Sydney proposes to exempt from the closure rule is the Budget. We all know that the Budget deals with, many questions which demand the most earnest consideration. Proposals for large expenditure may involve increased taxation, and there is nothing which requires closer scrutiny on the part of honorable members than does the Treasurer's annual statement. I would remind honorable members that, although the last Budget was a most voluminous one, this debate upon it was comparatively brief. This affords an illustration of the fact that under ordinary circumstances honorable members have no desire to unduly prolong their speeches. It is only when matters of a highly contentious character are under consideration that honorable members of the party to which I belong, at any' rate, exhibit any desire to speak at unusual length. I think it will be generally admitted that a no-confidence motion should be the subject of the fullest and freest discussion. How can an honorable member compress all his reasons for objecting to the policy of a Government, as well as to its acts of administration, within the comparatively brief period of one hour ? I can readily conceive of cases arising when more than two hours would be necessary to enable a speaker to even enumerate, without discussing in detail, the misdeeds of a Ministry. It would take fully that time to set forth without any argument the misdeeds of the present Government. I admit that it would be very convenient for the Ministry which happened to be in power if the "gag' ' could be applied to a debate upon a no-confidence motion, but 1 maintain that such a proceeding would be very immoral and unjust. Then I can easily understand that, in moving the second reading of a Bill, a Minister may occupy more than an hour in explaining its provisions. Even during the current session I have known Ministers to exceed that time. I think that the Minister of Home Affairs occupied more than an hour in moving the second reading of the Copyright Bill.

Mr Groom - No. I spoke for only three-quarters of an hour.

Mr JOHNSON - I think the Minister must have been oblivious of -the flight of time on that occasion; but still I do not object, for I hold that a Minister should be allowed the fullest latitude in explaining any measure in detail, so that honorable members may be in a position to understand the reasons which have induced the Government to bring it forward. Whilst, under the proposal of the Government, it would be competent for any honorable member, the moment a Minister rose to explain the provisions of a Bill, to move the "gag," the amendment would prevent any such motion from being put from the Chair. Consequently, the proposal of the honorable member for North Sydney should commend itself to all sections of the House. In submitting a resolution, too, I think that very great latitude should be allowed to honorable members. In this connexion I have in. my mind the motion relating to Home Rule which was recently moved by the honorable and learned member for Northern Melbourne. Let us suppose that the moment he had risen to submit that proposal, a member' of the Opposition, who did not approve of its terms had taken advantage of the fact that there were a sufficient number of members present to close the honorable and learned member's mouth, they would have been able to absolutely block him from assigning reasons why it should be carried.

Mr Crouch - That could be done only after the question had been proposed, which means after it had been, put from the Chair.

Mr JOHNSON - In that case the Government proposal would have limited the right of others to reply to the honorable and learned member, which would have been just as reprehensible a procedure as that of preventing the mover from proceeding upon the lines that he had mapped out for himself. It must be also recollected that many subjects are brought before this House which are of a highly contentious character, and that, in order to secure the fullest information upon them, honorable members frequently spend many hours in the library consulting various authorities. It seems to me that it would be a fatal mistake to prevent them from giving to the House the benefit of their researches. The first part of the amendment ought certainly to appeal to honorable members upon both sides of the Chamber. In the course of his remarks, the other day, the honorable member for Gwydir adopted a very " YesNo ". attitude. After speaking strongly against the" Government proposal, he concluded his speech by announcing his intention to support them. His arguments simply meant that, so long as the closure was applied only to members of the Opposition, he was prepared to support it. That is a most remarkable attitude for the honorable member to take up, but it is one which accurately reflects the position of many of his associates in the Labour corner. His argument, 'reduced to the last analysis, was : " I do not believe in the right of any one else to ' gag ' me, but I believe I ought to have the right to ' gag ' everybody else." The honorable member also stated that my speeches during the present session occupied thirty-six yards in Hansard. That may or may not be the fact. .Certainly it is not a reason why I should be brought under any system of closure. But, .in extenuation of my offence - if I am guilty of any - 1 must say that I was repeatedly requested to speak by honorable members who sit in the Labour corner. That fact was evidenced by their repeated calls for " Johnson." It seems to me most unkind that, after courteously acceding to their request, I should be charged with unduly trespassing upon the time of the House. But, upon looking up Hansard for last session, I find that one speech of the honorable member for Gwydir occupied no less than 342 inches. I have not had time to measure the space taken up by the whole of his utterances last session, but, so far as my researches have gone, they occupy no less than fifty-nine yards of Hansard. On the most important questions before the House, the utmost limit of any speech I have made has not much exceeded half the length of many of those of the honorable member for Gwydir on very ordinary' questions. Had his distinguished namesake, Mr. Daniel Webster, or the no less distinguished Lindley Murray, been compelled to listen to those speeches, they would have induced homicidal tendencies in the breasts of those two gentlemen. The amendment has been framed with the object of securing the limitation of debate, and at the same time preserving the right of individual members, whether belonging to the minority or to the majority, to give fair and reasonable expression to their views. That right might be absolutely denied under the closure provided for in the motion, but the amendment removes that objection. So far as my own speeches are concerned, I would point out that there is an essential difference between them and some of those uttered by the honorable member for Gwydir, inasmuch as I have never risen with the deliberate intention of wasting time, and when I have spoken at unusual length, have dealt with matters of national importance. I should not, however, object to be limited to one hour, if that limitation applied to all, though I feel that no rule for the limitation of debate should be discussed at a time of excitement. A matter of this kind should' be dealt with only when cool thought and calm deliberation are possible. The amendment provides that, on any question before the House, except in the debate on the AddressinReply, the Budget, or a motion of " No-confidence," speeches shall not exceed an hour, and that in Committee no member, unless in charge of a Bill or resolution, shall speak for more than an hour in all, or four times in all, on any question. That seems to me to be a fair and reasonable limitation, because, as a general rule, we deal in Committee, not with large questions of principle, but mainly with constructive questions of detail. I have heard it urged as an objection to this rule that a practical " stonewall " might still be set up, under it, by even' member of a party determining to occupy the full period1 allotted to him. But, it must be remembered, that even under extraordinary circumstances that would never happen. In the momentous debate which has just been concluded, the bulk of the speaking, as has been pointed out by Ministerial supporters, was done by eight members of the Opposition, although the proceedings occupied almost a whole week. Notwithstanding the fact that the feelings of the Opposition were then almost at white heat, a number of its members hardly exercised their right to speak, while others did not speak at all. Therefore, it seems to me that the objection does not hold good. The third part of the amendment allows an honorable member to speak for a longer period, or more frequently, than is provided for by the two preceding rules, with the leave of a majority of the House, or of the Committee, as the case may be. ' That 'seems to me a wise provision, because there may be subjects under discussion on which certain honorable members may possess special, and perhaps even expert knowledge, which they could not fully convey to honorable members within the space of an hour. The question is to be put without amendment or debate, whether the member be further heard, and, if carried in the affirmative, he is to be permitted to continue his remarks. In this connexion, I should like to point out that the amended code of standing orders recommended by the Standing Orders Committee, provides that the following motions shall not be open for debate, but shall be moved without argument or opinion offered, and forthwith put from the Chair without amendment : - The motion for the first reading of a Bill, the motion "That the debate be now adjourned," the motion "That the Chairman report progress." the motion "That the Chairman leave the chair," and a motion reinstating lapsed business on the notice-paper. The Prime Minister wishes to add another motion, but I shall not refer to that proposal, as it will shortly come before the House. The adoption of the suggestion of the Standing Orders Committee would still further check the tendency to undue discussion. I understand that a proposal similar to that contained in the amendment was seriously considered by the late Government, but that they were prevented from placing it before the House because of their retirement from office. In New Zealand, similar rules are in force, and work very satisfactorily, verv few all-night sittings naring taken place there. I fear that, unless we modify the original proposal of the Government, the effect of it will be similar to the effect of less drastic closure rules in other Legislatures. Wherever the closure is in force, a Ministry wishing to rush Bills through, keeps the House sitting beyond reasonable hours, until, finally, irritation is caused amongst honorable members bv want of rest: Consequently the adoption of the closure proposal would encourage, instead of prevent all-night sittings, because Ministers would find it more easy to induce honorable members to apply the "gag" when they are reduced' to a state' of nervous irritation than under normal conditions. I regret that the motion and the amendment were not referred to the Standing Orders Committee. The matter would then have been properly considered, and the Committee might probably have been able1 to suggest a form of standing order which would have been generally acceptable, and would have met all the requirements of the case. I presume, that owing to the resignation of several members of the Committee, as a protest against the high-handed proceeding of the Government in going behind the back of the Committee in connexion with this standing order, it would not be practicable to refer the question to them at this stage. I shall certainly support the amendment of the honorable member for North Sydney.

Mr. SYDNEYSMITH (Macquarie).- I would point out that the amendment now before us is on the lines suggested by certain members of the late Government. The late Prime Minister pointed out that some fair limitation should be imposed upon the speeches of honorable members, and his colleagues generally concurred in that view. I do not approve of the proposal of the Government, because it seems to me to be undesirable to confer upon a small section of honorable! members the power to close down a debate, and stifle discussion. I have seen the closure greatly abused in the New South Wales Assembly, and I should very _ much regret to see a similar rule applied to our proceedings. The amendment proposed by the honorable member for North Sydney appears to me to meet all the requirements of the case, whilst it possesses the special advantage of being free from the possibility of abuse. It fixes a time limit for speeches, which may be extended, with the consent of the* House. That is not anl unusual provision, because in connexion with the discussions in this House to which a time limit applies, honorable members frequently pay honorable members the courtesy of_ agreeing to their request for an extension of time. As a rule! it would be possible for honorable members to compress their remarks within the limits prescribed in the amendment. It has been stated that the closure proposal was introduced by the Government on account of the extent to which honorable members of the Opposition had occupied the time of the House. I think, however, that excepting one or two cases, the speeches delivered have not been inordinately long. I have looked through the records of this session, and I find no warrant for advancing the reason indicated. In a previous session I delivered a speech extending for over four hours, but I had a special object in view, namely, to protect the rights of honorable members. But for my action, the debate upon a very important matter would have been closed, and a number of honorable members who desired to speak, but who were not at the time in a position to do so, would have been deprived of an opportunity to express their views. The debate subsequently extended over two or three weeks.

Sir John Forrest - Then the honorable member was responsible for that three weeks' debate ?

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Yes, and I am proud of it The very fact that the debate was extended to such a length showed that I did not act without good cause. It must be generally admitted that in all Parliaments the privileges of honorable members are sometimes abused, but the Government do not propose to deal with that particular evil. They propose to take power to summarily close down a debate, irrespective of the number of honorable members who may desire to address themselves to the question. Under their proposal, an honorable member, by speaking at undue length, might bring about the 'application of the closure, and cause many others to be penalized. Any honorable member who abuses his privilege should be dealt with without visiting his sins upon innocent persons. It would in my opinion be far preferable! to impose a time limit upon speeches, and thus safeguard the rights of honorable members, as is proposed by the honorable member for North Sydney. It has been stated that the late Government intended to introduce the closure, but that is not correct. It was mentioned .'that the late Prime Minister had made such an intimation through the press, but although I have carefully searched through' the newspaper reports, I have not been able to find any foundation for that statement. The right honorable member for East Sydney certainly did point out that it was necessary to impose some limitation upon the speeches of honorable members who were disposed to impede the public business, and the majority of his colleagues concurred in that view. That opinion was formed as the result of the obstructive tactics that were resorted to during the previous session. Under the Government proposal, an honorable member might, merely because he was unpopular, have the closure applied to him after he had spoken two or three words. This afternoon I mentioned a case in which an honorable member in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly had the closure applied to him eight or ten times in the one evening.,

Mr Brown - That was not due to his unpopularity.

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The closure was applied, because the honorable member referred to had made himself obnoxious to a certain member upon the Government benches. On one occasion he was *' gagged '" before he had uttered two words upon a motion for the second reading of a Bill. That appeared to me to be a gross interference with the rights of an honorable member. I was present in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly when three honorable members had the closure applied to them before they had uttered more than twenty words. My principal reason for supporting the amendment is that it would prevent such an unfair application of the closure. Whether an honorable member be popular of unpopular, he has a right to be heard. It often happens that the most unpopular members of a House are those who make the most valuable contributions to the debates, and there should be no attempt to unduly curtail their utterances. It is because I am aware that the closure has been abused in other Parliaments that I urge honorable members to accept the amendment, which, I may say in passing, accords very largely with the view of the late Government when they intimated their intention to introduce new Standing Orders. I have no wish to prolong the debate, but trust that we shall come very speedily to a division, in order that the various other amendments that have been foreshadowed may be dealt with.

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