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Friday, 8 September 1911

Senator ST LEDGER (Queensland) . - I do not think it needs any explanation or apology for devoting particular attention to the opening Speech on this occasion, coming as it does immediately after two of the most momentous of political events which have affected not only the Commonwealth, but the Empire; both of them finding, and properly so, clear and emphatic notice in that address. The recent referendum was the most important political event in the history of Australia. From the semi-apologetic criticism which has come from the other side already, notwithstanding that at times they attempt to pass it over very lightly, it is evident that they feel the effect of that vote. The other event which I shall refer to is the holding of the Imperial Conference. I do not think that any honorable senator, on one side or the other, will presume to say that the devoting of a certain amount of time to the consideration of these events is time wasted. Further, I think that the country requires such consideration. It is admitted by everybody that the Prime Minister - the head of the Commonwealth as well as the Leader of the Labour party - attended the Imperial Conference on our behalf with a full sense of the importance of what it would lead up to. It led up to trie consideration of important subjects to which I shall refer by-and-by. The importance of these subjects justifies us in giving careful and prolonged consideration to the question of how the results of the referen dum and the Imperial Conference are likely to affect the legislation of this Parliament immediately.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Yes, the price of sugar has gone up by £3 a ton.

Senator ST LEDGER - Does any honorable senator, even on the Government benches, contend that the overwhelming verdict given at the referendum is to be placed on one side, and not to be considered? Is any Minister prepared to say that in the face of that emphatic verdict much of the legislation which is mentioned in the opening Speech is not to be affected by it?

Senator Findley - If the people had voted " yes," they would have had cheaper sugar than they have to-day.

Senator ST LEDGER - I do not intend to allow the Government to forget that verdict.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - The price of sugar has advanced £3 per ton in four weeks.

Senator ST LEDGER - It is evident from the nature of the attack delivered from this side, and the manner in which it was met from the other side, that honorable senators opposite do feel the weight of criticism which has been directed against the Government. I regret that the Minister of Defence is not present, because I intend to devote a little attention to some portions of his reply. Some of his statements in answer to Senator Millen's criticism were made in what was more or less, I think, a needlessly provocative spirit, as I shall point out presently. He reminded me of a parallel while he was making those remarks. When Mr. Balfour first became Leader of the Unionist Opposition in the Imperial Parliament he indulged himself very frequently in remarks of a similar tone and character. One of his opponents on the Treasury bench complained to Lord Rosebery, and his lordship, an old campaigner, reminded his friend that he ought not to take much notice of them, because it was only criticism in Pretty Fanny's way. Pretty Fanny was the heroine of a book of fiction, her characteristic being that when she wanted to indulge in a peculiar kind of feminine malice she was unscrupulous about any delicate or indelicate observations which she might -wish to make, and entirely regardless of either mercy or fact when she wanted to make them. One might well ask the Minister of Defence when he has indulged in that kind of criticism not to let a habit grow into a disease. In his speech the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, by resorting to illustrations and extracts from the newspapers with regard to the conduct of the referenda campaign, instances of the irreconcilable explanations given, not only by members of the Federal Labour party, but by members of the Labour party generally in Australia when presenting the constitutional amendments to the public. The instances which the Leader of the Opposition gave were taken from irreproachable sources. His was a pretty strong indictment, and the Minister of Defence at once attempted to reply to it, and practically admitted that both inconsistent statements were made, and inconsistent positions taken up at times by different sections of the Labour party throughout Australia, and even by different sections of the Government. The Minister replied with a sort of excuse. He pointed out that Senator Millen had colleagues who supported a black labour policy. By interjection, I asked who they were, and the Minister of Defence at once replied that remarks about (hat question I had made here from time to time had left a doubtful ring in his ears. That is exactly what I complain of. It may be good enough for a certain kind of politics. But it is, after ali, in Pretty Fanny's way. It is only a weakness for indulging in a certain amount of petulant temper, possibly accompanied by an effort to give some political advantage.

Senator de Largie - And you as white as the driven snow !

Senator ST LEDGER - I am not' going to say that. The Minister of Defence must have been hard driven by the criticism delivered by the Leader of the Opposition when he had to excuse himself bv pointing out that possibly the latter had colleagues who on a certain policy did not share his views, and then to go further, and to practically insinuate that I was in a similar position. In the face of the scathing attack which was delivered bv mv leader, after it had been denied that the Labour party throughout Australia had split up hopelessly on that question, and to which the Minister of Defence could give no further answer than a mere excuse - in the face of that clear and direct attack, one is inclined to ask what a wretched desert their position must be when they have such things to fall back on for rest or refuge. As a matter of fact, the very apology of the Minister of Defence when he made that retort simply helped to emphasize the severity and the value of the attack delivered by my leader, because practically nothing else could be said than to insinuate that some of the honorable senators on this side do not quite agree with Senator Millen on a certain policy. After all, the very charge which he brought, that the Labour party was divided hopelessly in the presentment of the proposals to the people was substantiated to the letter. The Minister's apology or his. .defence - call it what you like - only emphasized the fact that the arguments of Senator Millen are absolutely unanswerable. Another rather extraordinary development took place while the Minister was attempting to make a reply to another position taken up by Senator Millen. There is no answer to my leader, and the Minister made it clear that there is no answer to the charge that even the Federal Labour party, when presenting to the public the proposals with the reasons for their acceptance, took up positions which were hostile and irreconcilable with one another. Some explanation may be attempted to be given. The other side have been saying right through the debate that bv means of the organizations supporting our position the people of Australia were bribed and corrupted. There is another form of answer which all the ingenuity of honorable senators opposite cannot get over. The Minister of Defence pointed out that the members of the New South Wales Labour Ministry were opposed, if not to every proposal submitted at the referenda, then to the form in which even those of which they approved were being submitted.

Senator Givens - No one here denies that.

Senator ST LEDGER - I am, for the moment, directing attention to the way in which the Minister of Defence dealt with the question, in answer to the very grave charge made against the Labour party. I can, of course, give only the substance of his remarks. He said, in effect, that the proposals were intended to secure an alteration of the Federal Constitution ; and so represented a matter, the determination of which rested entirely with the Federal Labour party, or a Federal Labour Conference, and that that being so, every State Labour party or organization was bound to accept their verdict, since the matter was removed from their jurisdiction.

The inference was that whatever might be said by members of State Labour Ministries or organizations could not be regarded as the expression of members of the Labour party. That was an important admission to get from the Minister of Defence ; and it was well that Senator Millen put the position so strongly as to secure such a declaration from him. That declaration is a very important answer to the attack, and should afford great enlightenment to the public. What does it mean? It means that the Federal Labour party, either as a parliamentary party or as members of the Federal Labour Conference, may take into their consideration any subject of legislation, and if they decide that it is a Federal matter, then no State Labour party or organization has the slightest right or jurisdiction to comment upon their decision.

Senator de Largie - They have the right to comment, but not to interpret.

Senator ST LEDGER - I am glad to hear that, because it was not made clear by Senator Pearce.

Senator de Largie - It was always known.

Senator ST LEDGER - I do not think it was ever known that the Federal Labour party might take any measure which a State Labour party might have under its exclusive control-

Senator de Largie - That is a. very different thing. The Minister of Defence did not say that.

Senator ST LEDGER - I do not say that he did ; but it is an inevitable inference, from the declaration made by the Minister of Defence, that every State Labour organization must subordinate its view to any decision arrived at by the Federal Labour party of Conference once they have decided that the question dealt with is a Federal question.

Senator de Largie - The Minister of Defence said nothing of the kind.

Senator ST LEDGER - I know that he did not ; but I repeat that that is an evitable inference from what he did say. What would be the result of the adoption of a doctrine of that kind in matters affecting organizations on either side ? It is only' right that the electors of Australia should be informed as to what are the objects and powers of political parties. The result of the clear declaration of the Minister of Defence is that, wherever it is decided that a matter affects the platform of a Federal political party, no State organization has any right to protest against or resist the decision of a Federal organization. Rightly or wrongly, it is charged against the other side that the Caucus system is being so developed that the politics of Australia are not being made subject to adoption or rejection according to the opinion of Parliament, but are being relegated to the sole control of a Caucus organization entirely outside Parliament. If that be so, it is most important to remember that once a Federal Labour Caucus takes a measure into consideration, and decides that it is a Federal measure, the decision upon it becomes supreme, and no State Labour member who is loyal to the party, and fully grasps the meaning of the Labour platform, has any right to take exception to it.

Senator McGregor - The honorable senator is saying a great deal on a matter about which he knows very little.

Senator ST LEDGER - I think that on this side we are very clear about the matter. If we are not, the Minister of Defence must be blamed, because he has made one of the most startling statements that a Minister could make as to the ultimate objective of the Caucus organization of his own party.

Senator McGregor - The honorable senator may have a hazy comprehension.

Senator ST LEDGER - That may be so. I am not here to bandy compliments with the Vice-President of the Executive Council, or to say that, possibly, my intelligence is sometimes equivalent to his own. I notice, however, that when any criticism is being driven home from this side, there is no one who can equal the Vice-President of the Executive Council in the attempt to avoid the difficulty by becoming comparatively personal in a humorous way. Let us consider what the declaration to which I have referred would mean in practical politics. If the Federal Labour party say it is desirable to amend the Constitution to take over the police powers of the States,- the moment they come to that determination, according to the contention of Senator Pearce and his colleagues, State Labour members and organizations have no right to criticise the wisdom or propriety of that invasion of State rights. I am sorry the Minister of Defence is not present ; but the Vice-President of the Executive Council may answer for him. It will not greatly trouble me if the honorable senator does not do so, because the declaration of the Minister of Defence has gone into Hansard, and will remain there as an official statement of the methods of the party. If I have to deal with the referenda proposals from a public platform again, I. shall certainly point out, not only that the Caucus organization is very strong and hidebound, but that there is a growing tendency to impose upon every State Labour party and organization the despotism of Federal Labour organizations, with a view to making the Federal Labour Caucus the one and supreme organization in control of the State Socialistic policy of Australia. We were told repeatedly, more by interjection than in set speeches, that we did not understand the referenda proposals. That was about the "most charitable criticism offered. We were further told that when we did understand them we deliberately misrepresented them to the people. But I remind honorable senators opposite that that blow did not hit us so much as their own party, because the State Labour members of New South Wales were opposed to the referenda proposals root and branch, and for the same reasons for which every member of the Opposition opposed them throughout the campaign.

Senator Chataway - Although they received a memorandum from the Federal Government explaining them.

Senator ST LEDGER - That is so. Were the members of the New South Wales Labour Ministry thoroughly ignorant? If they were not, neither were we. Did they misrepresent the referenda proposals inside and outside the State Parliament? If they did, we did no more. That is the dilemma into which honorable senators opposite have fallen, or have driven themselves. Let me give an illustration in point: Mr. Beeby, the Minister of Education in the State Labour Government of New South Wales, commenting at Blaney on 1st April on the referenda proposals, said -

He denounced the referenda proposals as an attempt to graft a unified system of government on the Federal Constitution.

So did we. We said, from every platform, that they were leading to unification. That was the main ground on which we attacked the proposals. We are told now that we misrepresented them, or did not understand them. Are honorable senators opposite prepared to say that Mr. Beeby, the Minister of Education in New South Wales, did not understand them? If he did not understand those simple proposals, he was prima facie unfit to hold the portfolio of Minister of Public Instruction for the great State of New South Wales. It is but reasonable to presume that a gentleman occupying that position possessed sufficient intelligence to understand the Constitution of his own State and the Federal Constitution, and to be able to interpret their provisions correctly. But my friends opposite say, "No; he did not. He" misunderstood and misrepresented them." I have introduced Mr. Beeby's name into this matter because he mentioned the word " Unification."

Senator Mcdougall - The honorable senator himself was a Unificationist at one time.

Senator ST LEDGER - When ? Senator McDougall. - Prior to Federation.

Senator ST LEDGER - I have not the remotest recollection of ever having been a Unificationist, so far as Federal politics are concerned. If Senator McDougall can remind me of any utterance of mine which will justify his taunt, I shall be obliged to him.

Senator McDougall - I will show the honorable senator his own speech.

Senator ST LEDGER - Very well. Mr. Beeby went on to say -

He was emphatically of opinion that the referenda proposals went more than half way towards Unification, and it was useless for the supporters of the referenda to contend otherwise.

That gentleman knows as much about the formulation of the Labour party's policy, so far as it affects his own State, as does any of my honorable friends opposite, unless they adopt the pragmatical attitude that, having been elected to this Parliament, they are the repository of all wisdom. But they go further, and, when defeated at the polls . by an overwhelming majority, they take refuge in the insinuation that we won that brilliant victory by corrupting the public. That is the insinuation which has been made again and again. It has been urged that it was the weight of our money which brought about the defeat of the Government proposals. In other words, we have been told that the wealth of our supporters was used to corrupt the public. To me it is absolute folly for the other side to attempt to disparage the popular verdict, especially in view of the very curious attitude adopted in regard to the referenda proposals by some of its own members in the different States. Mr. Beeby continues -

The transfer of power to deal with the interState as well as the intra-State commerce would undoubtedly give the Federal Government power to legislate on nearly all matters vested within the State Parliaments.

If political debate is not to be dragged down to the level of a mere farce, will some honorable members opposite give us an explanation of how it is that, under such circumstances, we are charged with having misrepresented and endeavoured to bribe the electors?

Senator McGregor - The honorable senator is growing quite pathetic.

Senator ST LEDGER - I rejoice over the matter. To men like myself, who took an active part in that campaign, it is a consolation to be able to return to this Chamber with such ammunition to fire at our opponents. I wish now to mention just one other incident which bears directly upon the attitude adopted by the Minister of Defence in his reply to the attack of the Leader of the Opposition. It appears that on Thursday, 6th April, of the present year, a meeting of the Political Labour League was held at Broadmeadows, near Newcastle, in New South Wales. At that gathering a gentleman named Mr. D. Maher proposed a resolution which criticised the action of the representatives of the district of Newcastle in the State Parliament in regard to the referenda proposals. The resolution was couched in very strong terms, and Mr. Maher made his speech in the presence of Mr. Edden, who was Minister of Mines in the New South Wales Labour Government. After he had poured out all his eloquence, Mr. Edden said -

He was sorry the circumstances had arisen which rendered such a motion possible. This was the second time such a thing had happened.

I particularly regret the absence of the Minister of Defence from the Chamber, because I wished to draw his attention especially to this matter. ' Mr. Edden went on to say -

I hope that in future Mr. Fisher, when he has anything likely to affect the State Labour parties of the Commonwealth, will deem it his duty to consult with the leaders of those parties. With regard to financial proposals some years ago the leaders were never consulted.

But the Minister of Defence has affirmed that the moment the Labour party declare any matter to be a Federal one, no State organization has anything to do with it. In effect, he says, " When we speak, no clog must bark."

Senator Givens - Why is the honorable senator barking?

Senator ST LEDGER - Because it isa matter of importance to the country. If the honorable senator does not like either the tone or the manner of my address, hehas a very obvious remedy to hand.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - Are the organizations of his own party so united that the honorable senator can afford to throw stones ?

Senator ST LEDGER - When my honorable friend chooses to have a tilt at our organizations, he is welcome to a perfect field day.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - Is the honorable senator speaking on behalf of theWomen's National League?

Senator ST LEDGER - I am glad of that interjection, because a portion of thecriticism which the Leader of the Opposition directed at the Government was intended to show that the referenda proposals, if carried, would have affected even the municipal administration of thevarious States. The Minister of Defence, in reply, held up to the gaze of honorable senators a leaflet, which, he said, contained awful absurdities and misrepresentations, and which had been distributed during the referenda campaign for the purpose of inducing electors to vote against the Government proposals. One of the misrepresentations was that, if the people voted infavour of those proposals, they would be giving to the Commonwealth Parliament power to control municipal organizations. -While the Minister was speaking, some one interjected that Mr. E. M. Mitchell had expressed the same opinion, and Senator E. J. Russell at once replied that Mr. Mitchell had subsequently altered his opinion.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - He withdrew it. I will be pleased to produce Mr. Mitchell's own letter on Wednesday next, in which he admits his error.

Senator ST LEDGER - I would direct the honorable senator's attention to the fact that in the Argus- of the nth April, a paragraph appears to the effect that Mr. E. M. Mitchell, after the controversy with Mr. George Prendergast, stated, he had seen no reason to alter his opinion that if the referenda proposals were carried, almost the whole of the powers of municipal institutions in the different States could be taken over by the Commonwealth P Parliament.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - Has the honorable senator seen Mr. Mitchell's letter?

Senator ST LEDGER - I am stating the position as accurately as possible from memory.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - But Mr. Mitchell subsequently climbed down from the position which he had taken up.

Senator ST LEDGER - I do not think so. The exact words which appear in the Argus are as follow : -

I see no reason to modify the opinions that I have expressed that the amendments would, if carried, give the Parliament practically complete control over the municipal corporations.

Now Mr. Mitchell is confessedly one of the highest constitutional authorities in Australia. Does not the honorable senator know that Labour leaders rush in where angels fear to tread?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - Will the honorable senator quote the portion of Mr. Mitchell's communication in which he admitted that the layman was right?

Senator ST LEDGER - Senator E. J. Russell can quote anything he pleases when he speaks. Even though Mr. Mitchell may have qualified his statement, he was nevertheless substantially of the opinion that the proposals submitted at the referenda constituted a large encroachment on State and municipal powers. That fact cannot be set aside by any misrepresentation of the position. Our attitude was further fortified by the opinion expressed by Mr. Holman, one of the ablest members of the Labour party in Australia.

Senator Walker - He was a heretic.

Senator ST LEDGER - In this case the conflict between the heresy hunters and the poor victim resulted in a decisive victory for Mr. Holman. He got the best of it, and I believe is willing to " take on " his opponents at any other time.

Senator Givens - Mr. Holman will oe much flattered by the honorable member's praise.

Senator ST LEDGER - It does not matter a snap of the fingers to me what he thinks about my opinion of him. Certainly it is useless for the honorable senator to try to turn strong argument into personalities. At the beginning of my remarks I referred to one or two matters of importance which we're mentioned in the press with reference to the Imperial Conference, and the Prime Minister's attitude towards it. T think it will bo admitted by every member of the Senate that, in view of the circumstances attending the Imperial Conference, and the grave questions which were discussed at it, we cannot devote too much attention to its proceedings. At that Conference one of ' the most important departures in the administration of Imperial policy was for the first time formulated. The Conference was in that sense epoch-making in the history of the Dominions, and of the Empire. The future of every single Dominion and of the Empire as a whole will depend on the means by which the various proposals there considered are carried out. The Prime Minister of Australia was there with two Ministers. Not only did he attend the meetings of the Conference itself, . and take an important part in the negotiations, but, to use the expression that he himself employed, he was admitted into the inner council of the Empire. With a full sense of his responsibilities as Prime Minister, and a full sense of the importance of the occasion, Mr. Fisher afterwards made a statement to the Morning Post, an important London journal. Before ,1 quote - his exact words, I wish to say that, in my opinion, the relations of \he Dominions to the Empire should be considered by us in such a spirit that there should certainly be no attempt to disparage the importance oJ the position which the Prime Minister took up on that occasion.

Senator Findley - The honorable senator's leader did not say that.

Senator ST LEDGER - Is that any reason why I should not say it ? My leader is not the head of a despotic caucus.

Senator de Largie - I wish he were ; he would then be able to exercise more control over the honorable senator.

Senator ST LEDGER - I have no doubt that the honorable senator speaks from the bottom of his heart. I wish now to quote the exact words ' used by Mr. Fisher to the Morning Post. He said -

The admission of the oversea Dominions to the Council of Nations 'has revolutionized our relations with the Mother Country. AH the barriers of reserve have been broken down, and mutual confidence has been established for all time.

I may here interpolate that that is absolutely correct.

A community of interests of the highest immediate importance and vast possibilities has been created. I shall go back equipped with knowledge that qualifies the Federation that I represent for co-operation with the Mother Country of a more effective kind than was ever possible before.

We may thank the Prime Minister for having said so much in such clear words.

The revelation is complete. I am almost tempted to wonder why we were admitted into the very innermost confidences of the Imperial Government. Hitherto the Conferences have been consultative and advisory gatherings.

I think that is an absolutely correct statement of the previous position.

And the British Government has remained the sole controlling authority. To-day the Dominions are part of the Empire in all things.

Again, I think that the Prime Minister was quite correct.

No developments, however sudden, should now be beyond our understanding. The British Government at the Conference has done nothing to surrender its authority in England's purely internal affairs, nor has it shown a desire to participate in the purely internal affairs of the oversea Dominions.

I say at once, for my own part, that I think it reflects the highest credit on the Prime Minister that he should so clearly have grasped the situation that arose out of the Conference, and should have expressed himself in such unmistakable language. I say that the more freely, because I intend to take exception to something else that the Prime Minister said. It will be admitted that there is no prejudice against Mr. Fisher personally in the criticism that I have to advance. When the Prime Minister arrived in Australia he was entertained by his colleagues at luncheon, when he used these words -

I say at once that if the Empire is at war tha Commonwealth is de facto at war.

I agree with that statement. I think it is sound international law as well. I am certain that it is sound common sense. Debate interrupted under sessional order.

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