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Thursday, 22 April 1915


Senator O'KEEFE (Tasmania) . - The first portion of the statement to which I desire to address myself is that which refers to the oroposal to construct a strategic railway. I require information in connexion with that proposal before I am in a position to say whether I am in favour of it or not. I desire to know whether the Governmentintend that the projected line shall be one constructed for strategic purposes only. And if so, what are to be its terminal points? If that is not their intention, is it contemplatedthat it shall be a line for strategic purposes primarily, but one which will also develop country which at present lacks railway facilities? If the Government have in their minds the construction of a line for other than defence purposes, their proposal opens up a very serious question indeed,namely, whether we have now reached that stage in the history of the Commonwealth when we should embark upon a generalpolicy of railway construction. Until the infor mation which I have indicated is forthcoming, I cannot say whether I am opposed to the project or otherwise. I want to ascertain the resources of the country which the line would traverse. I also require to be informed whether that portion of it which would be in South Australia would also form a portion of the proposed north-south transcontinental line. We know that we are already committed by agreement with the South Australian Government to build a line from Oodnadatta to Pine Creek. There are so many matters upon which we must have definite information before we can commit ourselves to the proposal that it was almost unnecessary to incorporate it in the Ministerial statement.


Senator de Largie - Does not the honorable senator think that the railway system of Australia requires linking up ?


Senator O'KEEFE - I do. Senator de Largie must not conclude that I am hostile to the proposed undertakingbecause I ask for full information concerning it.


Senator de Largie - Only a survey can provide us with that information.


Senator O'KEEFE - We must not forget that we are committed to the construction of a transcontinental line from north to south, and that another transcontinental line from east to west is already in progress. Hence my desire to discover whether the proposed strategic railway would take the place of any portion of the projected north-south line from Oodnadatta to Pine Creek. I should also like to know something about the line from Port Moresby to Sapphire Creek, in Papua, for the construction of which the necessary funds have already been appropriated. I believe that there is considerable justification for proceeding with that railway, and that it should be undertaken before we authorize any expenditure ofmoney even upon a survey of the proposed strategic line. I understand that no work is proceeding on the line in Papua to which I have referred, and that, as a result, apromising mining field remains undeveloped.


Senator Russell - Mining operations there have practically been suspended owing to the war.


Senator O'KEEFE - We do not expect that the war will last many years, and if the money for the line has been allocated, I think that the work of construction might well be proceeded with.


Senator de Largie - Let us begin nearer home.


Senator O'KEEFE - I have it on reliable authority that the mining prospects of Sapphire Creek arevery encouraging. Probably on account of the expenditure we are not proceeding with the north and south line, and as far as I know there is no proposal to commence the work, though we are committed to it. If, however, we are going to complete it, it will beunder far more expensive and disadvantageous conditions than if we had started it from the southern end. I know we put a Bill through to construct a small section of it, but that was considered to be only a stop-gap, and I was given to understand that as soon as we found that our finances would stand it, the work would be undertaken from the southern end as well as from the northern end.


Senator Bakhap - Does not the honorable senator know that it would cost £150,000 to bridge a stream ?


Senator O'KEEFE - I know that it could be constructed at a much cheaper rate, and to far greater advantage, if we could only start from the southern end instead of having to carry all our material and men round Australia to begin from the other end. Before' we undertake the construction of a railway for strategic purposes, we should decide what we are going to do with the north-south line; whether we are going to make the proposed strategic line a portion of it, and carry it in that direction, or whether we intend to abandon that idea and break our agreement with South Australia. This brings me to the question that if the Commonwealth is not going to enter upon a policy of general railway construction, why should one particular portion of the Commonwealth, or one or more States, be chosen as the terminal points of this railway as against any other State? The whole question seems to be surrounded by difficulties. I admit that Australia will stand a great deal more railway construction, but this ought to be a matter for the State Governments rather than the Commonwealth Government, unless, of course, it is demonstrated that a railway is required for strategic purposes absolutely. Therefore, I want some information on these points before I commit myself one way or the other. There is only one other matter upon which I wish to address the Senate, namely, the question whether or not the electors should be asked to grant those additional powers by way of referenda to the National Parliament. It has been stated that the referenda will be taken again in the near future to see if, at the third time of asking, the people will endow the National Parliament with those increased powers. Of course those who are opposed to the idea laugh at the suggestion that the electors will say " Yes " on the next occasion. But if the time is not ripe now for the Commonwealth Parliament to be invested with these powers, it never will be. I must confess that twelve months ago - aye, even six months ago - I held the view that it would be too soon to again put those questions to the people of Australia; but, in view of what has happened in the last few months, my opinion has changed, and I think now there is a necessity for conferring upon the National Parliament those greater powers, or at least of having defined clearly and in plain language what the Constitution really means. If there is one section of the Commonwealth Constitution which more than another seems plain and commonsense English, which any school boy ought to be able to understand, it is section 92, which reads as follows: -

On the imposition of uniform duties of Customs, trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States, whether by means of internal carriage or ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free.

And yet we have a unanimous judgment of the High Court given the other day, the effect of which absolutely tears up this portion of the Constitution referring to Free Trade between the States. The judgment, I believe, was unanimous for the first time, and was given by the Chief Justice and five other Judges, the only absentee being Mr. Justice Higgins.


Senator Bakhap - It is supposed to come into conflict with the right of eminent domain.


Senator O'KEEFE - If there was any shadow of reason before for the increased powers being given to the National Parliament, so that we should not be led into any pitfalls, that reason exists in tenfold force to-day, and there is all the greater reason that this question should be taken to the people, so that we may know where we stand.


Senator Bakhap - Is not the honorable senator stressing the argument when he says that the referendum proposal should be submitted to the people because the High Court has judged the trade and commerce clause to be weaker than we imagined.


Senator Ready - There i? no half-way house, according to Sir William Irvine.


Senator O'KEEFE - We know what Sir William Irvine said, and we also know what attitude he takes in another place on the subject. He admits that these increased powers may be necessary, but he will not agree to the Parliament having, them while the Labour party is in power. I repeat that we want to know where we stand on this subject. I am not arguing for a moment that the judgment of the High Court Judges is wrong, but I must confess that section 92 of the Constitution appears to have a meaning entirely different to that which I thought was conveyed by its language.


Senator Bakhap - Does not the honorable senator think that the High Court decision ought to be reviewed?


Senator O'KEEFE - Yes, but I want it reviewed by the people of Australia, and I want the people to make the Constitution clearer, because the decision of the High Court absolutely cuts out of the Constitution the provision relating to Free Trade between the States. If this decision holds good, the other States could do just what New South Wales has done. For example, Queensland provides the Commonwealth with practically all the sugar it requires, and we could easily conceive of a situation arising which would induce the Government of Queensland to commandeer the whole of the sugar, and sell it to the best advantage to the people of that State.


Senator Bakhap - A very good illustration.


Senator O'KEEFE - We can also take another State. Tasmania, for instance, is a very large producer of apples, and the Government of that State might one day be induced to commandeer the whole of that particular commodity, and sell it to the detriment of the people of the other States. That action, of course, would be an interference with free intercourse in trade, which this Constitution supposedly gives to the States.


Senator Bakhap - Even Governments may become prejudicial monopolists, then?


Senator O'KEEFE - Certainly. A Government acting in that way might easily become a prejudicial monopolist, and it should be the function of the Commonwealth Government to safeguard the interests of the States against action of this kind. I am not saying that the Government of New South Wales were wrong. No doubt they were doing the right thing for the electors of that State, but I am pointing out that other Governments of the Commonwealth may do the same thing, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth will be an ineffective instrument for the protection of the other States. In pursuance of our powers under the Constitution, we passed the Inter-State Commission Act, and part 5 of section 24 of that Act states -

The Commission shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any complaint, dispute, or question, and to adjudicate upon any matters arising as to (a) any preference, advantage, prejudice, disadvantage, or discrimination given or made by any State, or by any State authority, or by any common carrier, in contravention of this Act or of the provisions of the Constitution relating to trade and commerce, or any law made thereunder. . . .

We thought we were doing the right thing when we passed that Act, but the Commonwealth High Court, by the decision of four out of six Judges - Mr. Justice Barton and Mr. Justice Duffy dissenting, I believe - decided that we had no such power, though the section in the Constitution, as we understand it, gives us the power to pass the Inter-State Commission Act, embracing the functions that we gave to that body. It would appear, therefore, that we are in a hopeless tangle regarding constitutional matters between the States in their relation to the Commonwealth. There is another question in regard to the issue of eminent domain raised by Mr. Hall, in New South Wales, upon which Mr. Hall has made a very pertinent statement. I have not got any official report of what he said, but the newspaper account states that, in commenting upon the decision given, Mr. Hall said -

If the State could not pass a Wheat Acquisition Act, the Commonwealth could not, and we would have the spectacle of a people who, prior to the passing of the Commonwealth Constitution Act, were entirely self-governed, finding themselves without the power, through any of their Parliaments, to make laws which might be absolutely essential to meet national emergencies. It would be a curious result of Federation if it had robbed the Australian people of the power to make laws for their welfare and good government in the way suggested by the Commonwealth. Parliament may act unwisely, and, no doubt, sometimes it docs. But it is better for the people of Australia that the Parliaments, which are answerable to their constituencies, should retain their powers than that we should discover these powers had passed away, both from the State and the Commonwealth, on the acceptance of Federation.

This is very valid argument. We want to know, not only where we stand in this constitutional tangle, but whether this right of eminent domain shall be vested in one Parliament or shall run concurrently in both State and Federal Parliaments. If only one Government is to have this power of expropriation, then, in the interests of the Free Trade section of our Commonwealth Constitution, it should be the Commonwealth Government.


Senator Bakhap - Perhaps it has got it.


Senator O'KEEFE - I do not think so, but that is what we want to know. J. do not profess any legal knowledge, but these are the- difficulties that confront a lay mind in considering these questions, and I will put it to my friends who are opposed to again consulting the people in regard to an alteration of the Constitution


Senator Shannon - Who are they?


Senator O'KEEFE - Have I discovered another convert? The Liberal party has used all the power and eloquence at its command against granting additional powers when we asked for them.


Senator Shannon - Against any power ?


Senator O'KEEFE - Against the powers that we asked for.


Senator Shannon - That is different.


Senator O'KEEFE - May I ask the honorable senator if his Government ever brought forward any proposal to increase any power? If our friends opposite were prepared to confer additional powers upon the Commonwealth Parliament, why did they not bring forward a measure to grant those increased powers when they had the chance?


Senator Bakhap - If the Commonwealth has the power to commandeer clothing), for instance, has it not the power to commandeer wheat? The mili tary authorities, I am told, say " Yes." In that case we may be able to upset the jurisdiction of the High Court.


Senator O'KEEFE - Unusual powers have been taken by this Government in connexion with matters of defence. We know that the commandeering of clothing was entirely an emergency matter.


Senator Bakhap - If you possess that power you possess the power to commandeer wheat.


Senator O'KEEFE - I quite agree that it would not be a bad thing if the Commonwealth Government were possessed of this power, because I believe that the people should be supreme. I believe in the right of eminent domain, but the question for the moment is - which authority should exercise that power in the best interests of Australia ?


Senator Shannon - Can commandeering be in the best interests of Australia ?


Senator O'KEEFE - The honorable senator is not putting his question seriously. My argument is that if any Government is to have the power, it should be the Commonwealth ; because the Commonwealth would be able to act fairly between State and State in a crisis or on any occasion when a question of importance arose, such as the acquisition of wheat in New South Wales. If it is desirable for the power to run concurrently, the State Parliaments may have the power at the same time, but I think, in the first instance, the Commonwealth should be the authority to exercise it. Regarding the general question as to the necessity of a referendum, I will ask our friends who believe that it is wrong to fix the price of anything, and who believe that the great increases which have taken place in the price of foods are only due to the natural causes of drought and the war, why it is that the price of wheat the other day was something over 8s. per bushel in this Stats, where the Labour party is not in power, in view of the fact that two and a half times as much wheat has been raised in Australia this year as was raised in that very bad drought year of 1903. In the harvest ending in the year 1903, only 12,000,000 bushels of wheat were raised, and the highest price was 6s. 2d. per bushel.


Senator Bakhap - Because we had the free circulation of grain, which the New South Wales Government have now interfered with.


Senator O'KEEFE - Nonsense ! Six shillings and twopence was the highest price wheat went to in any State - I think it was in New South Wales - and the price only existed for a month. I think the average highest price then was about 6s. per bushel. In this year, 30,000,000 bushels have been raised, two and a half times as much as was produced in that other bad year. I am sure we have not got two and a half times the number of consumers we had then, and yet wheat went 25 per cent. higher. The point I want to make is this : That it is not due to drought and war that wheat has gone up to the present price. There is another factor, and that is the presence of the get-rich-quick gentlemen in Australia.


Senator Bakhap - I think the honorable senator's figures are wrong - 29,000,000 bushels of wheat in Australia this season !


Senator O'KEEFE - Those are Mr. Knibbs' figures.


Senator Bakhap -Three million in Victoria, 5,000,000 in New South Wales. Where does the rest come from ?


Senator Gardiner - The honorable senator is wrong. It was estimated that nearly 17.000,000 bushels would be raised in New South Wales. It is estimated now that it may not reach 14,000,000 bushels.


Senator O'KEEFE - Mr. Knibbs' estimate, made three weeks ago, showed a production of 29,500,000 bushels. A month before, his estimate was 30,000,000 bushels.


Senator Bakhap - I beg Mr. Knibbs' pardon, but only 3,000,000 bushels have been raised in Victoria.


Senator O'KEEFE - I cannot understand the difference between the price now and in 1903, and would like an explanation of it from some of our honorable friends who are always stating that we should do nothing to attempt to fix the price of anything.


Senator Shannon - Will the honorable senator give us the price of European wheat ?


Senator O'KEEFE - Will my honorable friends give me some explanation of the fact that wheat is 25 per cent. higher in price during this drought than it was in that other drought.


Senator Bakhap - The population has increased 25 per cent.


Senator O'KEEFE - Yes, but we have produced 250 per cent. more wheat.


Senator Shannon - I can give you the explanation in one word - " scarcity."


Senator O'KEEFE - I will give you the explanation in one word," speculation " - the speculation of the wheat ring that still exists.


Senator Shannon - The old parrot cry.


Senator O'KEEFE - No; it is the presence of that old honorable understanding which exists in my honorable friend's State, and he knows it exists, and which is probably existing in some mysterious form or other in other parts of Australia. This argument may not be very interesting, but it is a very vital one to hundreds of thousands of the people of Australia who are anxious to know what really is causing the tremendous price of wheat today. I say there are other causes than that which is generally alleged, and for that reason I think the sooner we get to the people, and ask them to give this Commonwealth Parliament the power to control monopolies, trusts, rings, and combines, in so far as they can be controlled by any legislation, the better it will be for the people of Australia. I trust that before many months elapse they will be again given the opportunity which they have been given on two previous occasions, and I think that, though they refused to accept the proposal to grant increased powers then, they will accept it now, after the experience of the last few months. I hope sincerely that within the next twelve months we shall get a vote from the people of Australia that will give this Parliament greater powers than it has, and that will also define what the powers of this Parliament actually are, so that we shall not be continually led into pitfalls and traps, and into the passing of Acts of Parliament which, when they come to be reviewed by the highest tribunal in Australia, are declared to be ultra vires. When that Court gets hold of our legislation it frequently tells us that we do not know what we are about, and that we cannot understand the real meaning of the Constitution. Apparently we cannot; but it seems to me that our National Constitution will quickly become a Judge-made Constitution, and not a people's-made Constitution if we go on as we are. I do not say that the Judges' interpretation of any section which they have been called upon to consider has been wrong, but my point is that the question of what the Constitution should mean is a matter for the people to decide. The sooner we know where we are, the better. I do not want to be living here under an absolutely Judge-made Constitution. If it is possible for us to have the Constitution more simple and more definite, and expressed in plainer English, it is our duty to the Parliament and to the people of Australia to do so. Therefore, I hope that we shall have the referenda questions submitted to the people at the earliest possible moment.







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