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Thursday, 22 July 1920


Mr BOWDEN (Nepean) . - I move -

That in the opinion of this House it is desirable that the Government establish a metric system of weights and measures.

In moving the motion, I ask the House to re-affirm a resolution to the same effect, though not in identical terms, as that of one which it came to on the 19th June, 1903, on the motion of the late Hon. G. B. Edwards. There is no need to go exhaustively into the history of the metric system. The principle of the metric system was first adopted in France in 1790, and in 1801 the National Assembly approved of a concrete scheme, but the system was not wholly in force in France until 1840. Since that time it has been adopted by all the great nations of the world, except Great Britain, the United States of America and Russia. Japan has sanctioned its adoption without making it compulsory, and within the last year or two China has made it compulsory. In Great Britain there is a gradual and steadily increasing agitation for the introduction of the metric system, and public feeling there is growing in its favour. Many years ago private individuals and associations endeavoured to have it brought into compulsory use. A Decimal Association was formed in 1854, and a Bill was introduced into the House of Commons in 1864 to make the use of the metric system compulsory for certain purposes. As the Government opposed that measure, a permissive Bill was substituted for it, and became law. But the Act was drawn with such extraordinary carelessness that an inspector successfully prosecuted a man for having in his possession metric weights, and when the case was referred to the Crown Law officers they advised that under the Act a man might legally use metric weights and measures, but was liable to prosecution if such weights were found in his possession. In 1871 a Bill to make the use of the metric system compulsory was lost in the House of Commons by only five votes, and in 1895 the Weights' and . Measures (Metric System) Act was passed, legalizing the use of the metric system in trade in Great Britain. Since then the matter has been frequently before Parliament. In 1901 a Bill was introduced to make the use of the system compulsory, but it was defeated by a narrow majority. In 1903 the Imperial Conference affirmed the desirability of adopting the metric system throughout the British Empire. In furtherance of that resolution the Colonial Office communicated with all the

Colonies for the purpose of obtaining their ideas upon the question ' of whether this system should- be adopted. In Mauristius and Seychelles it had already been introduced. In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Gambia, Northern Nigeria, Gibraltar, Guiana, Trinidad, the Leeward Islands, and the Windward Islands the desirableness of its introduction was affirmed. I think that the resolution to which I referred just now is that which declared the need for adopting thin system so far as Australia is concerned. Sierra Leone, Southern Nigeria, Ceylon, and the Falkland Islands were prepared to introduce it, provided that it were adopted throughout the Empire. Fiji said that she would follow the- lead of Australia. St. Helena, Cyprus-, Lagos, -the Barbados, the Bahamas, and the Gold Coast were ready for its introduction, but anticipated that some local difficulty and opposition would be encountered.- Canada, the Bermudas, and Newfoundland sent no answer, but we may take .it that these places will be governed by the action of the United States in this matter. In other words, when the reform is adopted bv the United States it will be adopted by them. Although the system was thus indorsed by ii majority of the Colonies and Dominions, the various Governments of Great Britain have exhibited considerable neglect in regard to this matter. When writing in support of the metric system, Mr. Arnold Foster, in referring to the Governments of. Great Britain, said -

No Government now ever seems to do anything because it is right or wise or logical or scientifically correct. Changes are made, not because they are wise, but because they are unavoidable. The pressure of public opinion, and the fact that it is more difficult and tiresome to refuse a reform than to grant it are now, in !M) cases out of 100, the prevailing motives which influence an overworked Administration. . . . Our system of government has advantages, but it is not conspicuous by its readiness to accept scientific opinion or to take a lead in any intellectual or scientific movement.

I hope that that statement does not apply to Australia. I do not think that it does. It is because of that opinion that I am appealing to this. House to indorse the metric system of weights .and measures. When we recollect that every nation in Europe, with the exception of Russia, has made the use of this system compulsory, and that even Japan, in the march of her manufactures, haMagnaCharta But Magna Chart.a contains one clause which says -

There shall be one weight and one measure throughout the realm.

Notwithstanding that pronouncement, Britain has not yet obtained a uniform system of weights and measures.


Mr Jowett - We have such a system in Australia.


Mr BOWDEN - We have not. We have a troy weight, an avoirdupois weight, an apothecaries measure, a liquid measure, and other measures which I was taught in my childhood.


Mr Fleming - We use them because they have been shown to be the best in actual practice.


Mr BOWDEN - No. We use them because they have grown up with us. That is all we can say for them. The metric system has proved to be so much better in practice than our present system that since 1840, when its use was made compulsory in France, every intelligent country in the world, with the exception of the three I have mentioned, has adopted it. In the category of intelligent countries I include Australia, because as long ago as 1903 this Chamber unanimously affirmed the desirableness of adopting that system. Since then successive Governments have remained inactive, and apparently will continue to do so until they are compelled by the force of public opinion to take action.


Mr Tudor - We carried a resolution in favour of adopting this system some years ago.


Mr BOWDEN - Yes, in 1903. It is significant that when this Chamber affirmed the desirableness of introducing the decimal system of coinage in the same year, the proposal was carried only by a very small majority, whereas the proposal in favour of adopting the metric system of weights and measures was carried unanimously. The metric system is better than the existing system because in the latter the units employed are of an arbitrary character. Some honorable members may reply that the metre is also an arbitrary system. Even if that be said, it cannot be denied that in our present system of weights and measures there are several arbitrary units as against only one such unit in the metric system. For instance, we have the dram and the gallon, the yard and the link, under the existing system, while under the metric system we have only the metre, which is the basis of the whole.


Sir Robert Best - Exactly.


Mr BOWDEN - I repeat that the metric system has only the one unit as against three or four independent units which are not correlated in any way under the existing system. The. litre, which is the unit of volume, is the cube of the tenth part of a metre; and the gramme, which is the unit of weight, is one-thousandth part of the weight of a litre of distilled water. So that all come back to the one standard of the metre. There have been many who have declared that they could find a better standard, but they have failed to do so. I advocate the. adoption of this system, not. because the metre is the only standard which can bc adopted, but because it is the one decimal system of weights and measures which is so universally used that it would be wise for us to fall into line with other countries rather than try to establish a separate standard length of our' own. The inferiority of the existing system of weights and measures is too plain to permit of argument. The multiples run through the whole range of numerals. We have, for example, 3 feet to the yard. Even the multiples are not all integral, some are fractions. For example, there are 5-J yards in 1 rod, pole, or perch. So that, instead of having one decimal system rising by tens, we have an arbitrary system, under which 12 pence make a shilling and 20 shillings make a pound, while 3 feet make a yard, and 12 inches make a foot. In all these arbitrary subdivisions in the existing system of weights and measures we find further argument in favour of the simplicity of the metric system. It is so simple that there is no difficulty in acquiring a knowledge of it. ' It has been variously estimated that by the adoption of the metric system of weights and measures anything from one to three years will be saved in the education of our children. The Director of Education in Western Australia expressed the opinion that the saving would amountto two years of a child's educational life. Some time ago New South Wales appointed a Commission to inquire into educational systems, and that Commission, of which Mr. Knibbs was a member, recommended that for the present the metric should be taught alongside the existing system in order that the children might become familiar . with it. Arithmetic to-day is sheer drudgery and devoid of all intelligence. The fact that the introduction of the metric system would re- . suit in a great saving of labour in con;nexion with education is a. strong argument in its favour. I have already era- 1phasized the extreme simplicity of the system and the ease with which it is un- 'derstood. Gradually it is commending itself to the whole world. I said that America, Russia, and the British Empire are the only countries in the world that have not adopted the metric system, but I omitted to say that both Great Britain and the United States have le- ' galized the system, although they have not made its adoption compulsory. We in Australia have waited too long for a lead from the Mother Country, and the time has come for us to do the right thing in the interests of our children, our trade and commerce, and the general advancement of the Commonwealth. One of the great objections urged against the system is the expense and the disorganization of existing relations which it is feared might follow its adoption. It is interesting to read a statement made 'by Professor Ross, of the Perth. University -

The chief opposition had come from engineers, the 'Lancashire textile traders, and shopkeepers. Since 1907, however, engineers had in many cases voluntarily adopted the metric system, and the great engineering societies now approved of the scheme. The question of the Lancashire cotton goods production had been carefully examined, and it was now recognised that there would be no need to alter the 750,000 looms, as the quarter variation allowed each" way in spinning numbers allowed adjustment to metric "counts. Moreover, the action of the East Indian buyers of silk and cotton yarns in insisting on metric numbers would now simplify manufacturers' work if the metric system were adopted. Professor Boss gave interesting particulars- of inquiries he had made into the cost of alteration of weighing machines in the city of Glasgow shops. A few years ago, out of nearly 25,000 weighing machines in use, from 85 to 86 per cent, were beam balances, counter scales, or deadweight machines, and these would be unaffected.. Some 10 per cent, were platform or weighbridge instruments, and these would require alteration of the steelyard or dial. Spring balances and steelyards only amounted to 3 to 4 per cent., and while they would be rendered useless, the cost of replacing them was not great. From figures supplied by Messrs. W. and T. Avery Ltd. it had been calculated that a change to the metric system would entail an expenditure amounting to about 8 per cent, of the annual shop rental in the case of butchers, 4 to 6 per cent, in the case of grocers and fruit and vegetable dealers, 2 to 3 .per cent, in the case of hardware merchants, and under 1 per cent, in most other cases. These figures had been calculated on statistics compiled in Glasgow; but the percentage would probably be lower in Australia, in view of the higher rentals and despite the somewhat larger number of spring balances.

These facts tend to prove that the objections are not insurmountable, and that the time has come for us to take action. The metric system, in spite of the opposition to it, has, by its qualifications for meeting the needs of the day, forced itself upon the greater part of the world. Over 450,000,000 people are to-day using the system, and, in addition, between 200,000,000 and 300,000,000 have sanctioned its use, though they have not made it compulsory. If we are to gain and hold that place in the trade of the world which we so earnestly desire, we must adopt a system of weights and measures which is scientific, and which will be a help rather than a handicap to us in the' attainment of our objective. As long ago as 1860 Richard Cobden,', having been sent to France to arrange the details of a Treaty with that country, experienced such difficulty through the lack of an identical system of weights, measures and moneys that in his last speech in the House of Commons he said -

I was engaged, I believe, for six months in the constant study and conversion of English weights, measures, and prices into French weights, measures, and :prices ; and so much did I feel the disadvantage of our system, as compared with that of France, that to say I feel mystified and annoyed would not express my feelings at the time. I felt humiliated. The one is simple, symmetrical, logical, and consistent; the other is dislocated, complicated, uncouth, and incoherent.

Such a statement from such a source should recommend the metric system to the favorable consideration of the House.







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