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Monday, 21 March 1927

Senator REID (Queensland) .- Tn the past, Commonwealth Prime Ministers and Treasurers have attempted to deal with the subject of payments to the States, but at the final pinch have all shirked the responsibility. The present Government is to be congratulated on bringing forward definite proposals for the termination of the present unsatisfactory system of distributing money to the States. Among the opponents to the Government's proposals are several honorable members, who as Commonwealth Ministers have in the past met the State Treasurers with a view to arriving at some better scheme for adjusting the financial relations of the Commonwealth and States. Apparently they have now changed their views. Conferences have come to no satisfactory businesslike agreement. On one occasion the matter was practically settled, all of the State Treasurers leaving with the idea that a new arrangement was to be submitted to the different Parliaments for ratification, but Sir Arthur

Cocks, Treasurer of the then Government in New South Wales, went back on the understanding and the whole "thing fell through. Matters have drifted even since. When Mr. Watt was Commonwealth Treasurer the party expected that he would go through with a proposal for the reduction of the per capita payments, but he also funked the task. It is unfortunate that Dr. Page has aroused antagonism in certain directions. Many members of this Parliament in hitting at him have really been hitting at the Government, and it is quite feasible that, altogether apart from the merits of the bill now before us, personal feeling is responsible for a great deal of the opposition to it. However, it has. been shown clearly in another place and in the Senate that Dr. Page, who has had the courage to tackle this difficult question, is ably backed up by the Cabinet, and the majority of members in both branches of the legislature.

The only obstacle in the way of the settlement of this question is the attitude assumed by the State Treasurers. No one could have issued a more friendly invitation to them to discuss the matter at a round table conference than did the Prime Minister and the Commonwealth Treasurer last year ; but like a lot of sulky boys all that the Treasurers did was to sit back and say, "We have a moral right to these payments." That is all that the Commonwealth Ministers could get out of them. We are not likely to get a settlement of this problem in that way. I am voting for this bill because it will bring about some finality. It seems to me to be the only way to bring the State Treasurers and the Commonwealth Ministers together to discuss the whole arrangement in a businesslike way. There are no difficulties in the way that cannot be overcome by a display of a little common sense. Mr. Bruce's public life has been such, that we can take his word when he says that he will meet the Treasurers with an open mind and try to come to a businesslike arrangement with them. I have no doubt that this bill will bring the State Treasurers to their senses, and that they will come along with proposals which, of course, will benefit their own States. From this debate one would imagine that the people of the States were different from those- who elect the Commonwealth Parliament. The only difference is that at present. State Treasurers get money for no effort on their part. They are so spoon-fed by the Commonwealth grant that they have grown lazy. Year after year the Commonwealth is obliged to collect money for them to spend as they choose. I have not met any one who has not condemned that system.

Senator Ogden - What is the remedy ?

Senator REID - The State Treasurers should come forward with a businesslike proposition on behalf of the people of Australia. In conference they would meet the Prime Minister and his Treasurer also representing the people of Australia. It only needs a mutual agreement to enable each division of the Government to carry on its functions in its own sphere. It is merely a matter of a commonsense business arrangement, and I do not see the least difficulty in bringing it about. It must be remembered that whatever scheme is drawn up it must be ratified by this Parliament. If Parliament considers it one-sided, or if the Commonwealth Ministers have forced on the States something which is unjust to its own electors, Parliament can put the matter right. We are told that the Government does not represent public opinion.

Senator Findley - It does not represent public opinion on this question.

Senator REID - What does the honorable senator mean by public opinion?

Senator Findley - The public should first be consulted on the matter to enable it to form an opinion.

Senator REID - In his policy speech the Prime Minister announced that the Government intended to deal with the financial situation, and as the people returned his supporters with an overwhelming majority, I claim that no other Government has ever been in a better position to represent public opinion in Australia.

Senator Findley - But not on this question.

Senator REID - Senator Findley has no evidence to show that the Government does not represent public opinion on this question. I am well aware that almost all the newspapers are opposed to the bill, and that seven chambers of commerce and chambers of manufactures are also opposed to it, but they are only a small minority of the people. They may have big interests at stake, or they may be afraid of tlie State Governments overtaxing them, but they do not represent the views of the great mass of the people. I defy any ono- to tell me how the people feel about this issue. The people yon meet on trams, trains, or elsewhere, ask, " What is this per capita business ; what does it mean?"

Senator Findley - That shows clearly enough that the people did not have the matter before them at the last election.

Senator REID - The people have had this issue before them ever since the Braddon section was put in the Constitution, but it is one of those difficult questions that they cannot understand. As a matter of fact, it is not a question that we' can intelligently put to the people; they do not care twopence about it. Parliament must take the responsibility of settling it, and the present Government, because of its overwhelming majority at the last election, is justified in assuming that responsibility.

Senator Ogden - But it ought to be fair.

Senator REID - I believe in the fairness of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, and that they will meet the State Treasurers and come to a fair and businesslike agreement with them.

Senator Ogden - It is not businesslike to abolish the payments first and then ask the States to come to an arrangement.

Senator REID - The State Premiers were invited to conference after conference, and they were distinctly informed that the per capita system was to be brought to an end; but instead of coming to the last conference with a definite statement as to how the States would fare, and with a definite appeal to the Commonwealth Government, like sulky boys they sat back in their chairs and said "We have a moral right to the payments." It was a childish attitude for them to take up.

Senator Ogden - But that is no excuse for the Commonwealth injuring the States.

Senator REID - This bill is not to injure_ the States. It is to bring them to their senses. When the State Treasurers meet the Commonwealth Ministers, the whole thing can be settled on a businesslike basis. Representatives of the same electors will be dealing with the problem.

I claim that the Government has public opinion behind it. There is no one in favour of the present system. No doubt Queensland will suffer, because its people are the highest taxed of all the States; but they will welcome a settlement of this question by the adoption of a businesslike arrangement. It seems to be the proper course to pass this bill and invite the Treasurers to come to that arrangement, and, as I can see no obstacle in the way of such an arrangement, I have no hesitation in casting my vote for the second reading of this bill.

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