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Friday, 18 June 1926

Senator DUNCAN (New South Wales) . - .Since I first began to take an interest in Federal politics, a good many years ago, I have realized, in common with the great majority of the people of Australia, . the inadequacy of the present Federal Constitution to meet the growing requirements of this young nation of ours. That Constitution was never intended to be regarded as a sacred document whish must never be altered. In its very nature it was a compromise. In the Federal conventions, men with all kinds of conflicting ideas met, and because of that it was found almost impossible to agree upon a form of constitution suitable to every one. It was quite openly admitted that,- as ultimately framed, it was more in the nature of a compromise^ for the purpose of allaying distrust and suspicion on the part of certain individuals, than a standing working arrangement between the various States for the government of the Commonwealth. It is not surprising, therefore, that in some respects it has proved to be unworkable. Indeed, it is worse than that. From time to time, governments of the. Commonwealth have endeavoured to secure the amendment of the Constitution, but, although it has been amended in relatively small matters, the people of Australia have turned down all tho important amendments which have been put forward by the Labour party on several occasions. The present Government, fresh from the electors', having given a promise to the people of Australia to act in certain directions, finds itself up against the need for amending the Constitution if it is to do the work it pledged itself to undertake. Honorable senators on both sides of the chamber have suggested that this matter should be left to a Federal convention - I think it was Senator Needham, the Acting Leader of the Labour party here, who said, "Why not leave it to a Federal convention, at which .the whole of the Constitution could be revised ? " I believe that a majority of the people, as well as the majority of honorable members of this Parliament, know that there are certain amendments of the Constitution which ought to be effected without calling together a new convention. A convention comprising representatives of the various States would naturally find itself very much in the same position as the original convention.

Senator Mclachlan - I thought that it was to be a parliamentary convention.

Senator DUNCAN - I understood from honorable senators who have spoken that they wanted a convention on the lines of that which framed the Constitution.

Senator McLachlan - I thought that the reference was to a constitutional session of this Parliament.

Senator DUNCAN - That would be another matter, but so many suggestions have been put forward for the amendment of the Constitution that one session would not suffice to cover the whole of the ground to be covered. The amendments now proposed by the Government are not new. They have not been sprung on the people of Australia. They have, in essence, already been considered by this Parliament on several occasions. Although their language is not exactly identical with that of previous proposed' amendments, they have been before the electors on several occasions, so that the people, us well as members of Parliament, have had ample opportunity to study their probable effect, and to make up their minds upon them. I can claim to be quite consistent. I have always favoured an extension of the powers of the Commonwealth, and have never hesitated to support previous proposals for amendments of the Constitution. My attitude to-day is identical with the stand I took up when similar proposals were before the people. The present amendments, although not quite the same, give the Commonwealth Parliament very extended powers that will enable it to legislate more effectively for the good government of Australia, and the control of its industries, trade and commerce. That being so, I am amazed at the attitude of certain honorable senators, more particularly those opposite. I congratulate Senator Hoare. He at least is quite honest. He knows what he wants, and has the courage to say so. He is supporting these proposals, and when they go to the country he will advise his friends, his supporters, and the electors of South Australia generally to vote "Yes" on them.

Senator Thompson - He may be " crucified " all the same.

Senator DUNCAN - I do not believe it : but at least he will be able to say that he did what in his opinion was the right thing to do. I am only sorry that others, more particularly on the same side of the chamber as that honorable senator, do not possess the same courage. Let us take, for instance, the pitiful exhibition given by Senator Findley. I say it without wanting to reflect on the honorable senator. He was one of the leaders of the Labour party in the past attempts to have the Constitution amended in the direction now proposed.He made a long speech last night, and we gave him an extension for half an hour in order that he might fully explain where he stood in the matter, but when he concluded his remarks, if he himself knew where he stood, there was not another honorable senator who did. No one knew what he meant or wanted, or whether he would vote for or against the proposed amendments. It was the finest exhibition of balancing I have ever seen, and in my time I have been to a few circuses. He told us that the bill was not quite what he wanted, but that it was a jolly good thing. Several times he was just on the verge of saying that he was in favour of it, and then he seemed to recollect himself and started off on some other subject. When he was finally asked straight out whether he was in favour of these proposals he said, "I am a Labour man." That was the nearest approach to a declaration of the honorable senator's attitude we could get, and in making it the honorable senator was, in effect, informing us that, no matter what he thought, he would do what the Labour organizations said he ought to do. When one realizes the stand taken up by the various Labour organizations, it is easy to understand Senator Findley's perturbation, and why he finds himself unable to declare himself on the matter. The Labour organizations are divided on the issue. One Labour council says one thing; another says quite the opposite. Some trade unions are in favour of the Government's proposals; other are not. Labour executives in one State say " Vote Yes'" ; in another State they say, " Vote No ' ". Poor Senator Findley, finding himself between the devil and the deep sea, cannot make up his mind what to do.

But his attitude is only typical of that of others. Senator Needham's explanation was not as skilful as that of Senator Findley, but it was just the same sort of thing. Senator Needham did not endeavour to walk the tight rope. He got on to the middle of it, and stayed there lest he might fall off. He was not quite sure where he stood. He knew that in the past he had supported extensions of the powers of the Commonwealth along these lines. He knew that if a Labour Government came into office in the Commonwealth it would be impossible for it to begin to carry out its platform unless it had these very powers which the Government now proposes to submit to the electors. Yet, because certain Labour organizations cannot make up their minds, and, in doing so, make up the honorable senator's mind for him, he is not quite sure where he stands. In another place, Labour members, after a good deal of misgiving, have supported all these proposals but one. A great hubbub has been caused by their action; but, nevertheless, they have favoured the Government with their support, because they realize that it is absolutely essential for a Commonwealth Labour Government to have these powers. They know what Labour wants. In the years the movement has been in existence, they have realized how absolutely essential it is for a Labour Government to have these powers, and they have had the courage to say so. I hope they will maintain their courage to the extent of telling the electors that the Commonwealth Parliament must have these powers if it is to have a national character. It has frequently been remarked that politics bring us strange bed-fellows. One is almost forced to smile when one contemplates the possibility of seeing Senators Findley and Barwell taking the platform together in opposition to the granting of the powers sought under the bill. Seeing these two honorable senators cheek by jowl makes us realize that this is not a party matter, but one that should be looked upon only from the stand-point of the ultimate benefit to be derived by the people. I wonder what is the attitude of Senator Barnes towards the bill. I know the view of his organization.

Senator Barnes - It has not yet expressed its opinion.

Senator DUNCAN - I have read resolutions carried by certain branches of that body.

Senator Barnes - The only authority that can speak between conferences is the executive council, and that has not yet spoken.

Senator DUNCAN - But certain branches of the organization have not hesitated to condemn the Government's proposals, although it was always foremost in the fight for these powers. They may have a far-reaching effect in favour of, or against, trade unions - although I can hardly imagine they would operate against the unions - and yet the president of the Australian Workers Union has been silent in this debate. I thought that he would be one of the first to speak on the subject. Is his silence to be attributed to the fact that his organization has not yet expressed its deliberate opinion? Senator Barwell, whoSe statements have been most effectively replied to by Senator Drake-Brockman, is evidently living in a past age, and he should inform himself more particularly regarding present-day industrial conditions and their meaning. He said that he was opposed to arbitration because it had not abolished sweating, did not prevent strikes, and did not promote good industrial relationships between employers and employees. While it cannot be said that any one thing abolished sweating, the inauguration of the arbitration system did a great deal towards that end. When arbitration was introduced in New South Wales, bad industrial conditions obtained. I remember the case of the Shop Assistants' Union versus Mark Foy's. The evidence revealed that the conditions of shop assistants were about as bad as one could imagine. Girls were employed in retail establishments in Sydney at 4s. a week.

Senator Barnes - Even 2s. 6d.

Senator DUNCAN - Yes. Many of the younger girls received as low a wage as that. Sweating was rife in many industries; and, the fact that the arbitration system was established, brought those conditions under the public gaze. Any honorable senator, who contends that arbitration did not abolish sweating, does not tell the whole story. Arbitration, coupled with the realization by the public that it was necessary to improve the general conditions of the workers, did abolish sweating as older countries know it. It may be safely said that arbitration has done more than anything else to improve industrial conditions. Senator DrakeBrockman showed conclusively that Senator Barwell's statement that the Arbitration Court had not helped to put an end to strikes was entirely wrong. Senator Barwell also said that the court had not promoted good relationship between employers and employees, and he pinned his faith to round-table conferences. In my opinion, there is infinitely less danger of a bad feeling between the two opposing sections, when a case is fought before an arbitration court, than when it is heard before a wages board, or, more particularly, at a round-table conference. If the representatives of the men stated their case fully at such a conference, and expressed strong views, they would of necessity outrage, more or less, the feelings of the employers. Consequently, the delegates would leave the conference with strong feelings against each other, and this would be reflected throughout the industry. Whatever decision were given, it would not be as satisfactory as a decision by an arbitration court, which is given by the presiding officer after hearing the evidence prepared by both sides. No matter what the decision of an arbitration court may be, there is very little feeling afterwards on the side of either party. Bound-table conferences serve a useful purpose in bringing the parties together. I admit that both methods have their virtues.

Senator McLachlan - Is not a roundtable conference possible under the powers now sought?

Senator DUNCAN - Yes. There may be cases where it would be wise to have such a conference, and no obstacles will be placed in the way if the powers sought under the bill are granted.

Senator McHugh - I am afraid that the referendum is to be taken too hurriedly.

Senator DUNCAN - I think not. The people have had plenty of time to consider the merits of the proposals. The Labour party has sought increased powers over trade and commerce for years. Its political platforms show that.

Senator McHugh - The power sought under this bill in regard to trade and commerce is not what the Labour party proposed.

Senator DUNCAN - Not in exactly the same words ; but extensive powers over commerce and industry are to be taken. If these proposals do not give to this Parliament all the power which, in the opinion of the Labour party it should have, surely it is infinitely better to accept even restricted powers, always hoping that at some later date it will be possible to secure an extension of these powers than to be in the position in which some honorable senators opposite find themselves to-day. I feel satisfied that this view has the endorsement of Senator Barnes. It certainly is the attitude of Senator Hoare. They are wise, because, as has been pointed out, it is not easy to induce the people to agree to amendments of the Constitution. I am in favour- of these proposals, and I hope that they will be agreed to as unanimously in this Chamber as they were in another place. Members of the Labour party there supported them, and I hope that members of the party in this Chamber will do likewise, and that the questions will be submitted to the people free from any party bias. It is very desirable that the Commonwealth should .be clothed with additional powers to enable it to govern this great country satisfactorily.

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