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Thursday, 24 November 1927

Mr SCULLIN (Yarra) (5:52 AM) .The question now before us is not the merits or otherwise of the proposal to sell the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers. That matter was dealt with recently. The issue now before us is whether the Government proposes to act legally or illegally. Is it going to flout an act of this Parliament that the Prime Minister himself introduced in 1923? Has an act on the statute-book of this country no meaning? Has the boast made by the Prime Minister when he handed over the control of the _ ships to a board no meaning? Those are the issues to be decided. The Line was established by an act of Parliament, and only by parliamentary enactment can it be disestablished. The Prime Minister stated that the board would sign the transfer when the ships were sold. That will be necessary because the board is the only body in legal possession of the ships. The ships can not be sold unless they are sold by the board. If the board has any backbone it would tell the Government plainly that before the ships can be sold, legislation authorizing the sale must be passed by Parliament. The Government on many occasions has been guilty of flouting the will of Parliament; now it proposes to flout an act of Parliament. While it is true that a majority of the members of this Parliament have expressed the opinion that the Line should be disposed of, Parliament has not expressed its opinion in a constitutional way by the passing of legislation.

Surely the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General will not contend that merely hy passing a pious resolution, Parliament can amend an act of Parliament? They surely do not contend that the Government is not bound by an act of Parliament merely because a resolution expressing the opinion of the majority of members has been carried. It is true that if this motion is defeated the effect will be the same as in the case of the defeat of the vote of want of confidence. Such a decision, while reaffirming the opinion of Parliament that the Line should be sold, would not annul or amend an act of Parliament. Under an act of Parliament the Line was established and placed in the hands of the board. The board may dispose of the vessels belonging to the Line with the consent of the Treasurer, but the act does not empower the Treasurer to instruct the board to sell the vessels. Only Parliament can do that; and even then not by the passing of a resolution. It can only be done by an amendment of the act that established the Line. I submit that as an act of Parliament established this public utility, it can only be disestablished by another act of Parliament. If a majority of the members of the board favoured the disposal of the ships and obtained the consent of the Treasurer to their disposal, the board could sell them, but I question whether it could do more than that.

Mr Latham - The board also controls the Cockatoo Island Dockyard, but it could not dispose of it.

Mr SCULLIN - The mere act of selling the ships would not dissolve the Line. The power to sell the ships was placed in the act to enable the board to dispose of tonnage when such action was considered necessary; but no power is given to the board to dispose of the business of shipping. Only Parliament can confer that power on the board. For the Government to attempt by a legal quibble to flout an act of Parliament would be consistent with some of its other actions. During a period of thirteen months Parliament has sat for only five or six weeks, yet the Government applies the "gag," the "closure;" 'and the "guillotine," when the expenditure of nearly £70,000,000 of public money is under consideration. Apart from the merits or otherwise of the disposal of the Line, the Government is acting unconstitutionally in flying in the face of legislation passed by this Parliament. So far from making a mistake in bringing this amendment forward, the Leader of Opposition has forced the Government to face an issue which it desired to evade. Why is the Government afraid to introduce a bill to amend the act by which the Line was constituted? The reason is that it knows that among its own supporters there are some who, although not in favour of selling the Line, are not prepared to support a vote of want of confidence. The Government forced at least one honorable member to vote against his convictions through leading him to believe that he would have another opportunity to register his opinion regarding the disposal of the Line. A promise to that effect was definitely given in another place by the Leader of the Government there; but that promise has been broken. Why has the Government not acted in a straightforward manner and introduced an amending bill? The Prime Minister said that the board was established free from political control. What is the value of that statement if the - board must follow the dictates of the Government notwithstanding that it is in legal possession of the vessels? Apparently the members of the Government look to the Opposition to furnish them with the means of selling the ships. We ought to take this opportunity to oppose the selling of the Line, and to affirm the broader and bigger principle that Parliament should have control over ' its own legislation.

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