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Thursday, 13 April 1961

Mr WARD (East Sydney) .- We have just heard an extraordinary speech from the Attorney-General (Sir Garfield Barwick). He commenced by saying that this was a foolish suggestion being put forward by the Opposition. But the Opposition has not asked that its viewpoint be submitted to the people. What he overlooked is that the Constitutional Review Committee was appointed by his own Government. He is such an egotist that he thinks he can brush aside the unanimous decisions of this committee, on which the Government had equal representation with the Opposition.

Let us look at the membership of the committee and see where some of these men are to-day, because the AttorneyGeneral sets himself up as the pre-eminent legal authority of this country. Senator Wright, who is a legal luminary in his own State, is, I understand, shortly to be given some preferment in regard to a judicial appointment. Senator McKenna was a member of the committee. The honorable member for Werriwa (Mr. Whitlam) is now the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. In the initial stages of the committee, Mr. Justice Spicer co-operated and helped it and acted as chairman. Mr. Joske was a member and he has now been elevated by the Government to the bench. He is another eminent legal authority. Yet this AttorneyGeneral, who has always been known as being against the extension of Federal powers, puts his knowledge and his ability as a lawyer in opposition to the knowledge and ability of these men, and he tries to ridicule the decisions that they have made. However, he gave the game away and showed what he is afraid of and what some of his colleagues are afraid of. He said that the Opposition wanted these powers. It is not the Opposition which will exercise these powers. If the Attorney-General knew anything about the constitutional problems, he would know that the powers are given to this Parliament and whatever Government is in office at the time has the opportunity to exercise them.

The Attorney-General said that there is no need for referenda, that we can achieve our objective by agreement with the States. He spoke about the progress that had been made in obtaining a uniform company law. I had some experience as a federal Minister of trying to obtain agreement with the States on rail standarization some years ago and I can say that there is no better chance of getting agreement in a substantial way with the State governments than there is of getting agreement with the Balkan States of Europe. In my opinion, there is no possibility of getting a satisfactory uniform company law or any other type of uniform legislation by agreement with the States.

I hope that the Attorney-General, with his great legal knowledge, will realize that there is no possibility of permanency with such an arrangement. The agreement would be with sovereign State governments, and succeeding State governments could vary the uniform company legislation that is now proposed to be introduced. The only way to put uniform legislation on a permanent and satisfactory basis is for the Commonwealth itself to pass the necessary legislation. Time after time, we hear Ministers of this Government in this chamber excuse their failure to carry out proposals demanded by the people by saying that they lack the constitutional power. Recently, the Treasurer (Mr. Harold Holt), in making his economic proposals to the Parliament, spoke about the indirect methods that had to be employed, though they were not entirely satisfactory, to try to deal with what he called the fringe financial institutions.

When the Constitutional Review Committee says that it wants to give the Parliament - not any particular government but the Commonwealth Parliament - an extension of its power, the Attorney-General objects. Let me put this to him as a democrat - or as a proclaimed democrat, because I do not think he believes in democracy any more than many of his colleagues do. They regard the Constitution as an instrument that at present provides a number of obstructions to the implementation of Labour policy. If a majority of electors at the ballot-box declare that they want Labour policy to be implemented, why should this Government attempt in an undemocratic way to shackle a Labour government and prevent it from implementing the policy approved by the people at the ballotbox? That is what it hopes to do.

The Attorney-General is at present trying to shuffle out of doing something about restrictive trade practices and monopolies. He talks about the difficulties of the constitutional position and he is now conferring with the States. I will give a guarantee here and now that there will be no effective legislation to deal with restrictive trade practices and monopolies arising out of negotiations with the State governments, because Government parties are determined that the elected representatives of the people will never be in a position, if they can help it, to do anything to control these monopolies. Before the AttorneyGeneral came into the Parliament, he was their highest-paid legal representative, appearing in courts to defend the private banks, to defend the great monopolies and to protect their right to exploit the community and to continue with their restrictive trade practices. This is the gentleman who to-day tries to ridicule the efforts of his colleagues. He knows that the honorable member for Canning (Mr. Hamilton) has decided not to contest his seat at the next election and that Senator Sir Neil O'sullivan is also retiring. I understand that their action is largely based on their disgust and dissatisfaction at the Government doing nothing to adopt the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Committee.

The committee put a great deal of effort into its work. But it appears to me that the Government was never serious about making any substantial change in the constitutional position, because the present position suits them. The result is that to-day Australia does not really have democratic government. When any of the major issues have to be decided, the Government says it lacks the constitutional power, and the final decision as to what shall be done to solve our great national problems is not made by the elected representatives of the people but by the justices of the High Court of Australia. In my opinion, the High Court should be a judicial body only; it should not be a legislative body. It is not an elected body and it is not directly answerable to the Parliament. Therefore, anybody who to-day speaks against extending the powers of the Commonwealth Parliament is acting undemocratically. I hope that the majority of the Australian people will realize that this is so.

Let me return to a consideration of the powers that are being sought in the recommendations of the committee. The AttorneyGeneral says that these powers are unnecessary, that we can do this in other ways, that we can confer with the States. Restrictive trade practices, monopolies, uniform company law, interest rates, hire purchase - the Attorney-General does not want the Parliament to have the power to deal with these matters, so he intends to obstruct and delay. He has had the committee's report for eighteen months. If the Government had intended to do anything and if it had wanted a full discussion on the recommendations, it would have acted long ago. The committee sat for 89 days. It went to every State. The Attorney-General said that the States were not consulted, but every Premier and every leader of a State opposition party was invited to come before the committee and state his views. Public organizations of various types sent their representatives. Individuals came before the committee and gave their evidence. Is all this great effort merely to result in a report that is to be left in a pigeon-hole without any action being taken by the Government?

The Attorney-General spoke about the expense of holding a referendum on the recommendations. But what about the expense of this worthless committee, as it will turn out to be if nothing is done about its recommendations? If the expense is calculated, it will be found that the cost involved in the loss of time of members of the committee, the loss of time of those who appeared before it and the work of collecting the evidence would be much greater than the infinitesimal cost of holding a referendum on these proposals. In any event, are we to accept the decision of the Attorney-General- on the recommenda-tions? This was a committee set up by the Government and on it the Government had. equal representation with the Opposition. All that the Australian Labour Party asks for, as a democratic party, is that these matters be submitted to the people for their decision and that, whatever their decision may be, we will accept it.

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