Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 29 April 1915

Senator DE LARGIE (Western Australia) . - To any one who reads this motion, and looks into the question at issue, it must be quite evident that Senator Keating is by no means proposing anything that is new. So far as I am able to understand the motion, the machinery ho proposes to create runs practically on all fours with existing legislation. If we substitute the word " five " for the word " six," and the word " Convention " for the word " Senate," we find the same machinery proposed to be created by Senator Keating as is employed in the law-making process at the present time. I should like to know wherein lies any improvement on the present machinery for altering the Constitution? Usually, Senator Keating is well worth listening to here, but I must confess that I never heard him speak to worse advantage than he did when he introduced this constitutional question to the Senate. He left his audience utterly in the dark as to what he was really aiming at. He did not enlighten the Senate as to the kind of questions in respect to which the public are likely to ask for an alteration of the Constitution. He did not try to outline anything which requires to be altered. He baldly proposed the creation of a Convention, and, in my opinion, he left the matter there without enlightening the Senate in the slightest degree. Seeing that the honorable senator has been a member of the Chamber since its inception, and that he is a lawyer who has had a considerable experience of the working of the Constitution, has exercised some responsibility in Governments, and has heard the restrictions in the Constitution debated from time to time, it certainly would have been right and proper if he had gone into the matter much more exhaustively than he did. I hope that in his reply he will attempt to enlighten the Senate as to what the Convention is intended to do if it is called into existence. I trust that we shall be informed as to the nature of the alterations which, in his opinion, are necessary to produce a proper-working machine. Every one in Australia nowadays, I think, admits that the Constitution is quite unfitted for Australian requirements. It is clearly recognised that the great promises which were made on its behalf have not been redeemed, and that, although we have a most democratic franchise, this Parliament is completely leg-ironed, and cannot possibly move in the direction which the people of the Commonwealth undoubtedly desire it to go. Our powers are confined within such narrow limits that if we step in the slightest degree over certain boundaries we find when our legislation is put into operation that it is so much waste paper. The High Court is invoked, and rules out the legislation, and we learn that the Constitution does not give us the power to do that which the people desire to be done. Viewing the matter from that stand-point, I consider that, when an honorable senator brings forward a proposal for altering the Constitution, it is only fair to the Senate that he should outline the powers which he wishes to be given to the Parliament. In other words, it is his duty to indicate clearly the lines on which he would propose to alter the Constitution, and the additional subjects on which he considers the Parliament should be empowered to legislate.

Senator Bakhap - A Convention suck as the honorable senator has outlined might reconstruct the whole edifice.

Senator DE LARGIE - We are entitled to information on all these matters.

Senator Keating - This is proposed to be limited to section 51 of the Constitution, which deals with our legislative powers.

Senator DE LARGIE - The honorable senator proposes to deal with the major proportion of the Constitution, and surely we are entitled to be enlightened as to the particular subjects which in his view there is a pressing necessity for the Parliament to be empowered to deal with. That information we have not received from the honorable senator, and consequently we are placed at a great disadvantage in discussing his motion. I am obliged, therefore, to view this matter from many stand-points. There is only one opinion as to the referenda questions. These questions were before the country on two separate occasions, and, so far as I am aware, Senator Keating said nothing to secure their indorsement in order that the powers of the Constitution could be enlarged. I am now at a loss to know whether he has been converted to the view of the Labour party, or whether he is still in the same old place that he occupied when the proposals were before the Senate on a former occasion. I want to know whether he has seen the folly of his ways and now wishes to turn a belated somersault, in view of the fact that the requirements of the Constitution are such that the people will not tolerate any further delay.

Senator Ready - Is the honorable senator aware that Senator Keating voted for the monopolies referendum in 1911?

Senator DE LARGIE -Yes, I am aware that Senator Keating, though he is not a member of the Labour party, is not of a conservative frame of mind; but I want to impress upon him the fact that up to the present he has not enlightened us in the slightest degree as to the manner in which he proposes to bring about these alterations of the Constitution. It appears to me that nothing can be gained by the adoption of the motion. Up to the present I have heard nothing in favour of this course, and I cannot see why we should be required to have another election.

Senator Ready - It would cost the Commonwealth from £80,000 to £90,000.

Senator DE LARGIE - Yes ; and Australia has had quite enough elections during the last two or three years.

Senator Bakhap - When we get the initiative and referendum we shall have a great many more.

Senator DE LARGIE - I dare say we shall.

Senator Bakhap - Then what are you complaining about?

Senator DE LARGIE - Under a reformed Constitution such as the honorable senator indicates, the Commonwealth elections will be on real live issues, which the people will be able to understand, because they will be clearly outlined on the ballot paper. If we were to be so foolish as to enter upon an election as suggested in Senator Keating's motion, we would have to bear all the expense, without deriving any material benefit from it.

Senator Bakhap - There are many benefits to be discovered in the proposal.

Senator DE LARGIE - Perhaps Senator Bakhap will be able, to point them out, then.

Senator Bakhap - In a modest way, no doubt I will.

Senator DE LARGIE - Up to the present, at all events, those benefits have not been disclosed, but if Senator Bakhap is able to make out a better case for the adoption of the motion than Senator Keating did, I will give his remarks very close attention. I am quite satisfied there is nothing to be gained by the course outlined by Senator Keating, because there is nothing proposed in the motion which the Senate may not do if it chooses, according to section 128 of the Constitution. We have all the machinery available, so where is the necessity for this motion? And if we have an election, who is likely to be elected?

Senator Bakhap - Men outside this Chamber might be considered worthy of election to such a Convention. "Senator DE LARGIE. - It is practically certain that any election will be held on party lines.

Senator Bakhap - - I think it is probable that it would not be conducted on party lines.

Senator DE LARGIE - There is no such probability at all. It is practically certain that party lines would be observed in the election as they are observed on every other occasion. The people of Australia are now divided into two camps. We all remember that our opponents expressed the hope that the day would come when there \rould be a straight-out fight between the Labour party and the party opposed to our side in politics. That day has come, and now we hear nothing about there being three elevens in the field. There are only two elevens in the field at present.

Senator Bakhap - There are not eleven on this side of the chamber.

Senator DE LARGIE - No, there is only the minority half of eleven. There is no doubt that an election for a Convention would be carried out on party lines, and we would have the same result as we had in the last Senate election. Senator Keating does not even enlighten us as to the method to be adopted for the proposed alteration- of the Constitution. He leaves all this to the imagination.

Senator Keating - It would take up too much time to explain the details. An Enabling Bill would settle that.

Senator DE LARGIE - If a motion is important enough to place on the businesspaper of the Senate, it is due to the Senate that the mover should give some idea as to the methods to be adopted.

Senator Keating - The Enabling Bill would settle the details, as was done prior to the establishment of the Convention that brought about Federation.

Senator DE LARGIE - By the time we got this Bill passed, and the Convention was elected to create the machinery, we would find that, instead ai having done something to bring about the pressing alterations of the Constitution which everybody recognises are needed, we had adopted a device for killing time to prevent a popular, virile movement from being accomplished. At present the sentiment behind the movement is irresistible.

Senator Bakhap - It has not sufficed to carry the proposal up to the present, though.

Senator DE LARGIE - We will have another opportunity, I hope, before long, and Senator Bakhap will find that the proposals will be adopted. If I were the framer of those proposals I would include some additions as well.

Senator Bakhap - Yes, and have them all defeated.

Senator DE LARGIE - When we put these proposals before the country again we will have something definite, but, according to the method proposed by Senator Keating, we would never reach finality. Surely Senator Bakhap does not think the proposals will be defeated again. I am not alone in believing that the people of Australia are ready to have this question submitted again to them.

At all events, they do not want any further debates in Parliament on the subject, and they do not want any more time-wasting devices. What they want is that the questions shall be put before them for their decision, so that they may be in a position to say yes or no.

Senator Bakhap - The original Convention did not do their work very slowly.

Senator DE LARGIE - Three Conventions were held, and my impression of the matter was that the work was very slow indeed. At that time there was one predominant party in politics, and one other party, the Labour party, was in its infancy. Since then, however, the latter party has reached maturity, and its members are able to make their voices heard in the affairs of this country. I do not intend to assist Senator Keating to pass this motion. At the last election the Labour party promised the people of Australia that if they were returned to power it would be their duty to re-submit the referenda questions at the earliest opportunity. The war intervened, and the circumstances are now such as to render alterations of the Constitution ever so much more a pressing necessity to-day than they were when the proposals were before the people on former occasions. Every Parliament in Australia has been obliged to pass emergency laws all on the same lines, more or less, as those upon which our referenda questions ran, and that fact, I take it, is the best possible proof of the wisdom of this course.

Senator Bakhap - Your referenda proposals seek to bring about uniformity in Australia, and experience has disclosed that that is unwise. For instance, is bread the same price all over Australia ?

Senator DE LARGIE - I would have prices fixed in accordance with the requirements of the people of Australia, and I think it is a fair thing to say that the price of wheat at any harvest is pretty well the same in every State.

Senator Bakhap - But your proposal will arbitrarily bring about uniformity. Do you want that?

Senator DE LARGIE - In ordinary circumstances, Ave have uniformity now in the price of wheat. The honorable senator will realize that if he will only think a little. It is only when such conditions as have been brought about by the war arise that fluctuations in prices occur as we have recently seen. The confusion has been aggravated by the fact that the Boards called into existence by the different State Governments have fixed varying prices,' with the result that there is satisfaction in none of the States.

Senator Bakhap - That is a remarkable argument for giving the Commonwealth power to increase the dissatisfaction.

Senator DE LARGIE - I do not profess to furnish Senator Bakhap with the power to understand my arguments. I can only put them to him, and let them take their chance when they get into his grey matter. We have been told that the adoption of a proposal of this kind would shelve what was a burning question at the late elections. Does Senator Keating believe that it is likely to do anything of the kind ? ' I think I have provided the honorable senator with material sufficient to enable him to make a much more exhaustive address to the Senate in his reply to this debate than that which he made in submitting his motion. All that I can see in the motion is an attempt to slight the Parliament which was so recently elected by the people of Australia. The honorable senator may pretend to give a more generous franchise for the election of the proposed Convention than that which exists for the election of this Parliament. I do not see how he can do so. This Parliament is elected on probably the broadest franchise adopted in any country in the world. Every adult in Australia, whether rich or poor, has equal voting power in the election of members of this Parliament. Does the honorable senator, on the contrary, propose to restrict the popular will of Australia? I think it is fair to assume that there is something of that kind behind the motion, inasmuch as Senator Keating has made no mention of the method of voting for members of the Convention which is to be adopted. I am not going to assist the honorable senator to restrict the franchise in any shape or form. It seems to me that he proposes to use practically the existing machinery for the election of the Convention, and that if that be so, his motion has not even the merit of novelty. If honorable senators will look at section 128 of the Constitution, they will find that it provides that -

The proposed law for the alteration thereof must be passed by an actual majority of each

House of the Parliament, and not less than two nor more than six months after its passage through both Houses the proposed law shall be submitted in each State to the electors qualified to' vote for the election of members of the House of Representatives.

We know how this section was outraged in very recent Australian history, and it is as well that we should call the fact to mind at the present juncture. The section continues -

But if either House passes any such proposed law by an absolute majority, and the other House rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with any amendment to which the firstmentioned House will not agree, and if after an interval of three months the first-mentioned House in the same or the next session again passes the proposed law by an absolute majority with or without any amendment which has been made or agreed to by the other House, and such other House rejects or fails to pass it or passes it with any amendment to which the first-mentioned House will not agree, the Governor-General may submit .the proposed law as last proposed by the first-mentioned House, and either with or without any amendments subsequently agreed to by both Houses, to the electors in each State qualified to vote for the elections of the House of Representatives.

When Senator Keating was introducing his motion, I think he was in duty bound to enlighten us as to what he proposed should follow, assuming that it is subjected to the same treatment as were the last Referenda Bills passed by the Senate. The Senate on that occasion was placed in the position of having to eat humble pie, and to play second fiddle to another place. I hold that this section was included in the Constitution to safeguard the interests of the Senate, and not merely to prevent the Senate bringing about a dead-lock with another place, and- frustrating the popular will as represented in another place. The section clearly provides that if either the House of Representatives or the Senate passes proposed alterations of the Constitution, those proposals shall go to the electors automatically, and that the electors, and the electors only, shall have the power to reject or accept them. But what was the course followed less than twelve months ago, when the Senate exercised its undoubted right to pass the Referenda Bills a second time? The Senate was ignored and its rights trampled upon, but Senator Keating did not on that occasion, any more than did any of his colleagues on the other side, say a word in defence of the rights of this Chamber. We have still the same GovernorGeneral in Australia as we had then. I held then, as I hold now, that there is no room for any difference of opinion in the interpretation of this section of the Constitution, and it was the duty of the Governor-General to send the' proposals for the amendment of the Constitution to the electors of Australia. No other course was open to him.

Senator Bakhap - His advisers became responsible for his actions.

Senator DE LARGIE - Section 128 of the Constitution does not give his advisers any power or say in the matter.

Senator Bakhap - Yes; the section is permissive.

Senator DE LARGIE - It is not permissive.

Senator Bakhap - If the GovernorGeneral takes up a negative attitude, his responsible advisers assume responsibility on his behalf.

Senator DE LARGIE - On a question of a proposed alteration of the Constitution, the Governor-General is alone responsible. There cannot be two opinions upon the interpretation of this section of the Constitution. The bringing about of a double dissolution is a different thing altogether from the refusal to obey the behests of this Chamber, expressed in a constitutional manner, as they were during the last Federal Parliament. If the House of Representatives rejects Senator Keating's motion after it has passed here, what will the honorable senator do? Is he prepared to again put the Senate in a humiliating position? Does he propose to amend section 128 of the Constitution? The honorable senator has not enlightened us on any of these matters, and I am therefore obliged to ask for information. After what I have said, it is unnecessary for me to inform honorable senators that I intend to vote against the motion. I can see no possible good that can be derived from it. I can see that if we agreed to the motion, it is probable that the Senate would receive another snub. What is more important, I can see that a very clever bit of side-stepping might be attempted under the motion to frustrate the popular will as expressed at the late Federal elections. I am not prepared *jO assist Senator Keating in that direction. The referenda proposals have already been too long delayed. If I could have had my way, the questions involved would have been submitted to the electors before now.

I should like to have seen them submitted to the electors during the recent adjournment. That course, however, was nob adopted, and it is our duty now to see that no further time is wasted before these proposals are pronounced upon by the electors Our proper course is to hasten on the referenda questions. As soon as they are submitted to the electors we shall have business done one way or the other.

Senator Bakhap - If they are again defeated will they be re-submitted to the electors a month or two afterwards?

Senator DE LARGIE - It is not necessary for any member of the Labour party to answer a question of that kind. The honorable senator is sufficiently familiar with the methods of political warfare followed hitherto by the Labour party to be aware that we are a party that never knows when it is beaten. We never say die. If we believe in a principle, that is sufficient reason for us to fight for it, and hang on to it until success crowns our efforts.

Senator Watson - Nildesperandum

Senator DE LARGIE - It is not a question of despair at all. Our motto is " No surrender," and there is a great difference between the two positions. There is no despair in our fight, but there is the opposite of despair in everything we have taken in hand so far. We began in a very modest way indeed. I remember the time, not so many years ago, when the thin, small voice of the Labour party used to be heard from the Opposition corner. The two forms in that corner were sufficient to hold the lot of us.

Senator O'Keefe - It was not such a small voice.

Senator DE LARGIE - We numbered only eight in those days, and when noses were counted that was a very small number to stand up against the other twentyeight. Our party has grown simply because we were honest in the various questions that we propounded. We put before the country a policy that we felt sure would be acceptable. While the referenda questions have been twice rejected, that does not mean that they are going to be rejected in the future. If I were a betting man, which I am not, I should be prepared to bet that at the next time of asking they will be passed by a great majority. I am sure of that, and feel confident that even Senator Bakhap and his party will see the discretion of not being quite so hostile to the proposals as they were previously. Whatever their fate may be, I am not going to do anything whatever which would be likely to prevent their being put to the people at the earliest possible opportunity. If I were foolish enough to agree to this timekilling proposition of Senator Keating I should be justly and properly open to the charge of having done something to defeat the will of the electors. There is, therefore, no other course open to me but to vote against the motion, believing that 'it is of no use to the people at the present time.

Debate (on the motion by Senator Ready), adjourned.

Suggest corrections