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Thursday, 24 November 1927

Mr FOSTER (Wakefield) .- It is about time this Parliament got to work. It adjourned on the 30th June, 192fi. resumed on the 2nd March of this year for three weeks, sat one day here at the opening by the Duke of York, and then adjourned till the 28th September. I am aware that the Prime Minister, accompanied by the then Minister for Defence (Sir Neville Howse) was away at the Imperial Conference, and that in their turn two or three Ministers, one after another, have gone to the other side of the world, while those left in Australia roamed all over the Commonwealth; but very little parliamentary work has been done for about eighteen months. Let me contrast that record with the record of the HughesCook administration. For about eighteen months during the greatest period of our war difficulties both leaders of the Government were in London, yet Parliament went on its way and did its work earnestly and well without difficulty. I know that it is essential that the Prime Minister should visit Great Britain frequently to attend to Empire affairs, and it is' quite possible that he may require to take a colleague with him; but it is a poor outlook for the Australian Parliament if it cannot continue the work of the country when the Leader of the Government is away from Australia on important business concerning the Empire. The debate on this budget is thoroughly justified. We have not had a thorough budget debate for the last four years. The usual practice of late has been for the Treasurer to deliver his speech, and for the Leader of the Opposition to follow him. Then the debate has . been put on one side and has not been resumed till just at the close of the session. There has not been a critical examination and dissection of the financial position for quite a long time. After our long recess the debate now proceeding is a very cheering departure from what has been the practice of Parliament since the composite Government came into office. In the old days - the good old daysstatesmen used to discuss the- budget for three weeks on end, and it was debated to some effect. Then we were dealing with a budget of £30,000,000 or £35,000,000; but now we are considering a £76,000,000 budget, and it is time that we put a little thought and criticism into it.

Mr Fenton - We have to stay up all night to do it.

Mr FOSTER - Yes ; and I would stay up half a dozen nights to do it rather than lay myself open to the charge that I am not mindful of how the nation's finances are being conducted. We are drifting into bad habits, and do not realize our individual responsibilities to the people who sent us here.

We must clear the atmosphere a little, and this budget debate has helped to do it. It has been a revelation in many ways. Things have not been all they might have been, and the interests of the country have not always been conserved. Parliamentary authority is deteriorating. We are relegating to outsiders authority which should be exercised by Parliament. During the last three years 70 boards, or committees, or commissions have been created, and we have delegated to them the authority of Par liament. It is a rotten principle - rotten to the core. It is very proper that specialists should be called to the aid of the Government, particularly in times of crisis; but it is one thing to do that, and quite another to create irresponsible boards and commissions outside Parliament to do the work that Parliament has successfully done in the past.' The tendency to create such boards may be a war inheritance. Right through thewar, and particularly through its moreserious period, there were forthcoming; a great number of experts who gave without payment their extremely valuable advice to the Goverment. We should, have found it very; difficult to carry on during the war without, the assistance so freely given by thesepeople, who acted without fee or reward, merely from a sense of responsibility to the country they loved. It is hardly necessary for me to refer to the wool industry. Where would that industry have been during the war without the voluntary assistance of some of the brainiest men in this country?

Mr ABBOTT (GWYDIR, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They did not receive much encouragement from the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes).

Mr FOSTER - Do not talk nonsense about the right honorable member for North Sydney. The Prime Minister said only the other day that it was a stroke of absolute genius on the part of the right honorable member to organizethe industries of the country as he did during the war. I believe in giving, credit where credit ' is due. I am an independent member of this House, and am not under an obligation to any man; but I repeat what was said by the Prime Minister the other day, that there never was a greater stroke of genius than that which led the right honorable member for North Sydney to call to his aid the brainiest men in Australia during the war crisis. It was done, not only in connexion with the wool businees, but also for the wheat pool. Here, again, expert men came to the nation's rescue. Their services were of the greatest assistance to the Empire, and went a great way towards saving Great Britain from starvation. We are grateful to them, and we want no sneering reflections cast on them for the things which they did at that time. Every man who loves his country, and thanks God that it was served as it was during that period, should recognize with gratitude what these men did. Now, however, I am coming to the present, and I wish to say that what was proper, and even indispensable to our very existence, during the war, is not required to-day. Governments have got into the habit of taking a hand in business they do not understand, and they generally make a mess of it. We have had several examples of it lately, and some of these examples have been pitiful. We have seen largesse distributed, not for national, but for political purposes. The people are demanding that that sort of thing shall come to an end. The Government to-day, reading the position and recognizing the force of public opinion, is shedding that arrant stupidity that has cost us so much, and has caused so much discredit. Members of the Government have admitted that when a government enters into business it generally makes a mess of it. We knew that 30 years ago.

The tendency of governments to enter business is not peculiar to Australia; it is a flea that is biting governments in all parts of the world. In hardly a single instance, however, have such business enterprises proved .successful. The Government and Parliament of this country have been degenerating. The Government has been reducing the authority of Parliament, and lowering it in public esteem. Some of the boards created by the Government are necessary. I do not say anything against the Development and Migration Commission, but I do say that the Government has taken too wide a sweep in its conception of the commission's functions. My objective is to. serve this country, and I do not intend to make any personal reflections against any member of the Government. I have never asked for any political favours in the whole of my political life, and I do not intend to do so now. As long as I have power to serve this country which has been so good to me, I do not intend to allow myself to be bound by any considerations of party to act contrary to my convictions. The sooner we get back to bedrock principles the better. I saw in the public press the other day the following quotation from some remarks made by the Lord Chief Justice of England, when speaking at a function arranged by the Law Society -

Tlie name of self-government would be an irritating mockery if it became a vast army of anonymous officials hidden from view, placed above the law, and administering a topsy turvey system, whereby the servants of the public would be its masters . . .

That is a proposition upon which I do not intend to hold my tongue so long as I have a tongue to use.

That advice should be followed by the members of this Parliament and the national Parliaments of other countries.

Is it not time that this Government devoted its energies to its own business, instead of interfering with work which should be undertaken by the" State Parliaments? I am often told by constituents and others interested in the work of the national legislature, that as so many commissions and boards have been appointed there must be very little work for honorable members to perform. In the interests of democracy it is time parliamentary government was restored. There are certain matters which may be discussed at party meetings; but great national and constitutional questions should be settled on the floor of this House, where the people's representatives should act in the interests of the nation. Ever since the outbreak of wai-, the Federal Government has been interfering with State instrumentalities, but I am glad to see that there is not the same tendency to act in this direction as there was during the period I have mentioned, when, to some extent, it may have been necessary. The bitter struggle in this chamber over the withdrawal of the per capita payments to the States, which I opposed to the very best of my ability, was disgraceful to witness. I do not even now believe that the Prime Minister was the author of that scheme.

Mr ABBOTT (GWYDIR, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But he said that he was.

Mr FOSTER - The right honorable gentleman is so generous, and his heart is so big, that he often shoulders the responsibility of others. The withdrawal of the per capita payments can, however, be further debated when a bill ratifying the agreements entered into between the Commonwealth and the States is brought before Parliament. What have we done during the current session, and what work have we before us? We have only to consider the work outlined during the election campaign to realize that, as a Parliament, we have accomplished very little. There has been too much meddling with the business of others. Whilst I appreciate the fact that a satisfactory financial arrangement has been entered into with the States, I still contend that the Federal Parliament interferes too much with State activities. This is largely clue to the fact that not a solitary member of this Ministry has had experience as a State Minister. How can the members of this Cabinet legislate in the interests of Australia when they do not understand the difficulties, financial and otherwise, with which the State Governments are faced? I say, unhesitatingly, that the responsibilities of the States are infinitely greater than are those of the National Parliament. For the information of the committee, I quote the following statement concerning President Coolidge from the World's Work of Srd July, 1926:-

The president of tlie United States went to Williamsburg, Virginia, where he made a plea for the power of state governments and the limitation of federal activity to its proper sphere. The most salient part of his speech was: - No method of procedure has ever been devised by which liberty could be divorced from self-government. No plan of centralization has ever been adopted which did not result in bureaucracy, tyranny, inflexibility, reaction, and decline. Of all forms of government those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible, they become autocratic, and being autocratic, they resist all development.' Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one clement in our institution* that sets up 'the pretence of having authority over every body and being responsible to nobody. While we ought to glory in the union and remember that it is the source from which the states derive their chief title to fame, we must also recognize that the national administration is not and cannot be adjusted to the needs of local government. It is too far away to be informed of local needs, too inaccessible to be responsive to local conditions. The states should not be induced by coercion or by favour to surrender the management of their own affairs. The Federal. Government ought to resist the ten- doney to be loaded up with duties which the states should perform. It does not follow that because something ought - to be done the national government ought to do it.

Mr Killen - Does not the honorable member approve of the financial arrangement entered into with the States?

Mr FOSTER - I have already said that I do; but the position is still open to review. Certain members of the present Government would like to take control of every thing under the sun, and handle it in such a way that they would soon make a mess of it. Some time ago the South Australian Government appointed^ Chief Commissioner of Railways, who was selected by Sir Eric Geddes, who was in supreme control of war transport, and consequently was able to recommend the most suitable man available for such an important position. I was informed on good authority that he was one of the three best men in the United States, and came to Australia only for health reasons. One of his first acts was to divide the railway system of SouthAustralia into six . districts, which were placed under the control of district superintendents, traffic assistants, and engineers possessing special qualifications. He told them that they must do their job, or else he would quickly put others in their places who would. Prior to that arrangement, complaints reached the central office from every part of the State ; but, within a month of the change, general satisfaction prevailed. He said that his office was open to the whole of the Service, from the lowest to the highest official; but none found it necessary to complain to him. I mention those facts to show that this is the time, not for centralization, but for distribution of responsibility. When Mr. Webb gave each division a staff, he took considerably more than the equivalent of six staffs 'away from the central office.

I now come to the subject of the tariff, and the ever-increasing taxation imposed through the Customs Department. A year ago last June, at the closing hours of the session, a definite statement was made to Parliament by the Tariff Board to the effect that the high duties levied from time to time were not yielding- satisfactory results, because no sooner were they passed than the employees approached the Arbitration Court and secured increased wages. In the report of the Economic Conference at Geneva, published in the British Board of Trade Journal, of the 9th June, 1927, it is stated that the economic depression in agriculture is world-wide, and is due to the great disparity between the prices of agricultural products and manufactured products. The Tariff Board's latest returns tell us only of the abuse of protection.

Mr R GREEN (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does the honorable member believe every word uttered by that board?

Mr FOSTER - I believe so much of it as is true. I have a higher regard for the members of that body than for those honorable members who entered the chamber as freetraders, and went back on their principles. There must be a searching of consciences, and a readjustment of ideas, if honorable members who were returned as farmers' representatives, and practically as freetraders, are to retain the confidence of the people. Although I dislike being personal, I am forced to hit hard when challenged by the very members that I have in mind. What I am concerned about is not what the Tariff Board has said, but what the Treasurer has said. Politically he is most ingenious. He remarked that the Tariff Board had come to stay, and that he knew that the farmers did not like it. I wish that the honorable member for Riverina (Mr. Killen) would not look so distressed.

Mr Killen - A majority of the Country party has always favoured protection.

Mr FOSTER - When will those members know what they really are politically? The Treasurer, in the fullness of his heart, told the farmers, who had been trusting him implicitly, that, as protection was the policy of the country, they should get inside the circle.

Sitting suspended from 12 (midnight) to 12.80 a.m. (Friday).

Friday, 25 November 1927

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