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Friday, 23 October 1931

Mr LATHAM (Kooyong) .- Honorable members will agree regarding the importance of the subject-matter of this motion. By a decision of the Seamen's Union in Sydney, interstate shipping is being held up in that port, and already, to some extent, in other ports; there is grave risk of a general stoppage of shipping services throughout the Commonwealth. We read that 26 ships are already idle' in Sydney, and it appears almost inevitable that a large number of vessels in other ports will be affected. The Prime Minister (Mr. Scullin) examined the merits of the dispute on Wednesday last. He pointed out that 400,000 of our citizens are unemployed, and that the action taken by the Seamen's Union is apparently taken at the instance, not of responsible officers of that body, but of entirely irresponsible men. The precipitation of this conflict will inevitably extend unemployment, not only in the shipping industry, but also in many other walks of life. The right honorable gentleman described the dispute as a wanton disregard of the national welfare, and urged the seamen to man the ships without delay. That was on Wednesday. Yesterday the members of the Seamen's Union in Sydney met, and passed a motion which amounts to deliberate defiance of the Commonwealth Government, and a challenge to its authority.

Mr Hughes - Who was in the chair? That is important.

Mr LATHAM - I do not know. I am prepared to accept the Prime Minister's view of the dispute, and, on behalf of the Opposition, I accede to the declaration he made yesterday that the Government will enforce the law unhesitatingly, as it should do in the interests of the community generally. It is often said that those who call attention to the interests of the community on occasions such as this are making provocative statements. We are expected to display in relation to one party to industrial disputes, a tenderness of language which I have never observed to be displayed towards the other party. I am not going to expose myself to any such accusation on this occasion. I shall not say anything more about the merits of the dispute than I have already said. In his statement the Prime Minister clearly recognized the responsibility of the Government, and I wish to say that I appreciate the difficulty of its position. I have had, as a member of a government, experience of a considerable number of disputes of this character, and I take this opportunity of declaring - it is for this purpose, chiefly, that I have submitted the motion - that the Opposition will stand behind the Government in any action it may take within the law, or any reasonable action under new laws, to restore the shipping services, which are all-important at the present time to the community as a whole.

Mr Paterson - Both sections of the Opposition will do that.

Mr LATHAM - The country cannot afford to have its trade and commerce tied up at the present time at the bidding of a few irresponsible men, or at the bidding of anybody. It is essential to obtain, as quickly as possible, and immediately, if possible, the restoration of these services. That is necessary, in the interests of the Australian shipping industry as well as in the interests of the community generally. The shipping industry has been gravely handicapped for many years, owing to the unreasonable and arbitrary action, from time to time of some Australian seamen.

As to what should be done, I do not propose to descend to details; I do not desire to say anything which may embarrass the Government on this occasion. I wish to give an assurance of support from this side of the House to any fair, reasonable, and proper action that the Government may take to bring about the restoration of the services. The matter cannot be allowed to drag on, and wait indefinitely. There is a clear principle involved, and, if a particular body of men refuses to carry on the essential services of the community, it will be the duty of the Government to do everything it can to protect other men who are prepared to carry on under fair terms and conditions. I shall say nothing so far as prosecutions are concerned. As a former Attorney-General, I know quite well that it is very often difficult to obtain evidence demonstrating the truth of statements published in the press. All I shall say is that, where there is evidence of a definite breach; the law ought to be enforced, and the whole of the law on the statute-book ought to be regarded for this purpose. I hope that the Government will treat this matter as one of the most instant urgency, and of most profound importance. The interests of the community are most gravely affected by what is taking place. If prompt action is taken, it may result in an immediate settlement; but, if the dispute is allowed to drift, and to extend still further, it is difficult to sec where the end will be, more particularly having regard to some of the influences associated with the origin of the trouble.

One element that ought to be considered is the declaration of a certain number of citizens organized in Sydney, that they will take the matter into their own hands. As a member of Parliament, I do not believe in action of that character by any body of citizens, so long as there is a ministry which is governing and recognizing the responsibilities of government. Of course, if the Ministry should be a government which abdicated its responsibility, and was not prepared to protect the citizens in their daily work, and to do everything in its power to maintain the essential services of the community, new problems would arise; but, until that happens, the matter should be left in the hands' of the constitutional authority of the country. I conclude by saying that the Opposition will support the Government in any proper action it may take to bring about the restoration of this all-important service.

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