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Friday, 3 September 1920

Mr HUGHES (Bendigo) (Prime- Min ister and Attorney-General) . - I move -

That this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill is the third of that series of industrial measures which the Government have recently introduced into this Parliament. It has already . received consideration in another place. Its object is primarily to relieve the congestion in the Arbitration Court which has become of so serious a character as to menace the industrial peace of the community. The Bill will remove from the Arbitration Court some thirty-three cases which are now on the list, and - although I am not speaking from the book - I think that will reduce the number of cases listed, by at least one half. It is prima facie a most desirable thing that those disputes which did menace the welfare of the country, and which could not be heard because of the congestion to which I have ref erred, should have ampler opportunities for being dealt with.

The Bill is intended to supersede the existing Public Service Arbitration Act except as- regards- the claims which are pending. ' It does not affect the claims- that - have been part heard.: The existing law was enacteid at the. instance of' a Government of which I had. the honour to be a member. As a matter of fact, I think that it was introduced by myself. It was introduced as the result of widespread' dissatisfaction in the Public Service against a system which did not afford any appeal from the Public Service Commissioner's decision, and which cut off public servants from those other avenues of redress which were open to the ordinary citizen in his capacity as employee. In practice, however, it has been found that the circumstances of the public servants of the Commonwealth, governed as they are by the laws of the Commonwealthj and regulated as they are most precisely by the regulations under the Public Service Act, render inevitable an eternal conflict between the awards of the Court and the regulations to which I. have referred, which, of course, derive their authority from the statutory law enacted by this Parliament. As honorable members are aware, the Public Service Act, dealing as it does with many thousands of men who are engaged in very many different branches of very many occupations, is a most complex mechanism. When an Act and the regulations thereunder govern the salary, the conditions of labour, the circumstances of promotions, &c, of every individual, it must be very apparent that a stranger coming into a dispute between public servants and the Commonwealth must be at a loss to thread his way through the ramifications of the statutory provisions and the regulations thereunder, and at the same time to understand the bearing which an award in respect of one section of the Public Service has upon another section. The Public Service is a homogeneous structure. The principle upon which it is based is that promotions shall be determined, other things being equal, by length of service. And the relations between grades A and B are such that the distances between them must always 'be observed ; so that to lift up Grade A involves a similar increase for Grade B, and similarly for Grades C and D. It must be obvious, then, that a man who is not habituated to the Service would find himself at a great disadvantage when he came to deal. with it. That is one factor for consideration. The other is that the congestion in the. Arbitration Court - blocked, as it is, by Public Service claims - seriously hinders those industrial disputes which menace the peace of the community from being considered.

The Bill, beyond proposincr the appointment of a person who is referred to as an Arbitrator, but who, for all practical purposes will be a Judge of the Public Service Arbitration Court, leaves public, servants in exactly the same position as art present. They will have this advantage, however, that their cases will be dealt with much more speedily than to-day, and by a man who will be thoroughly informed of the interests and general conditions of the Public Service, for the reason that his business will be confined within the four corners of the Public Service Act. The- principle of arbitration, for the settlement of disputes in the Public Service by an appeal from Ctesar - that is to say, the Public Service. Commissioner-is one. whichI took up many years ago at the instance of the public servants themselves, and they not only approved of that principle, but most heartily supported it. The Arbitrator now proposed to be appointed will differ from a Judge only in name, and if any honorable member cares to move for an alteration in that particular aspect, I will be prepared to listen to him. If any honorable member were to move that the Arbitrator should not be a lawyer - and in this matter I look for support as well as consolation from my friend the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Brennan) - I would be prepared to consider the proposition. The point is that the Arbitrator can be a layman, or he can be a lawyer. With the exception of this appointment of a special Judge, dr Arbitrator, I emphasize that public servants will find themselves in exactly the same position as at present, only that they will be able to have their cases more speedily dealt with.

Awards, as they are made, will be dealt with exactly as in the case of awards of the Arbitration .Court to-day. That to say, they will be required to be laid on tlie table of Parliament for thirty days before coming into effect.

Mr Charlton - What is the procedure when Parliament is not sitting ?

Mr HUGHES - It is necessary to wait until it does sit.

Mr Tudor - The last occasion when a position such as that arose was on the last day of our sitting prior to the recent adjournment in connexion with the visit of the Prince of Wales. There were then some six or eight awards which would have become operative within a day or two. In view of the fact of the adjournment of Parliament when those awards had not remained on the table 'for quite the full number of days, the Prime Minister promised that the parties concerned would be paid their increased wages as from that period; that is to say, they would not lose by the fact of the adjournment.

Mr HUGHES - That is so. The Government will be prepared to insert in this Bill such amendments as may be deemed necessary in order to preclude the possibility of people concerned being shut out by some mere technicality. Still, this Parliament, too, has its rights. The Arbitrator might make an award to the effect that certain public servants should not receive the promotion which they considered their due; or he might institute a reduction of salaries owing to a decrease in. the cost of living. Parliament should see to it that it retains all its rights in view of such possibilities.

There is little further to which I would direct the attention of honorable members. I repeat that all the Bill proposes to do' is to create a. Public 'Service Arbitration Court. Presiding over it would be one who could be either a lawyer or a layman, but who would be concerned in no other interests. Honorable members must admit that this will be a far better method of dealing with Public Service affairs than that which exists to-day, where a Judge of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration is required to give so much of his attention to a Public Service matter arising as he may be able to spare in the course of dealing with industrial problems emanating from any and every industry throughout the land. The tenure of office of the Arbitrator will be, for all practical purposes, the same as that of a Judge. He can be appointed for a term of seven years, and will be eligible for re-appointment. With respect to salary, no specific sum is stated in the Bill. In another place, however, the amount of £2,000 per annum was mentioned. The Government will listen to suggestions concerning salary, but the specific amount cannot be inserted until an appropriation shall have been secured.

I a3k honorable members not to forget that we have now been giving extensive consideration to the subject of arbitration, in varied phases. There is nothing new in this measure such as could invoke those thunderous denunciations, or those pathetic appeals, which, at various stages of yesterday's debate, were heard in this Chamber. This is a Bill which violates no principle and introduces no innovation. It rests upon abundant precedent. And, further, it is quite right that the measure should take the form which it has done; for, after all, we shall be shortly considering a Bill to amend the Public Service Act, when honorable members will be abl.e. if they desire, to re-adjust the whole basis of Public Service salaries, or the system of entrance, or any other matter, indeed, having to do with the Service.

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