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Thursday, 27 March 1941

The PRESIDENT - Is the motion supported ?

Four honorable senators having risen in support of the motion,

Senator KEANE - I need hardly say that this subject calls for the most careful consideration of honorable senators generally. It is an issue of fundamental importance to the workers of Australia. After all, apart from spiritual things, the question of most concern in the average household is what amount which the breadwinner will bring home at the end of each week. The trade unions have accepted what is known as the basic wage. The original basis on which that wage was fixed was obviously wrong. We have an admission of that fact in the judgment of the court now under discussion. Two years ago the trade unions applied for an increase of the basic wage. They devoted from eight to nine months to the preparation of a skilful case to place before the court. The employers also submitted a skilful case to the court. After a lengthy hearing in December last the court announced that it would make an award. Necessarily, the unions of Australia regard the basicwage as most vital. In this instance they fully expected to derive some gain from the court's award. Despite the fact that the workers as a whole failed to obtain from the court that consideration which they were entitled to, they have given to this Government the fullest possible co-operation in its war effort. The Opposition in this Parliament has agreed to legislation which, up to the outbreak of the war, was anathema to the Labour movement. We have given to the Government full support of its "whole-hog" national security legislation, under which it can do practically anything. We gave that support knowing full well that probably some of those powers would be abused ; but took that risk in the interests of the country as a whole. The trade unions themselves want a full war effort. They have even agreed, at the request of the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Holt), to the dilution of labour. Any trade unionist will tell you that five years ago such a change would have been impossible. As the result of action taken by the same Minister a section of the workers have now been given a special allowance of 6s. a week, the total number in receipt of that allowance being approximately 60,000 men who are mostly employed in the war industries. As the court, has not seen fit to grant an increase of the basic wage, the trade unionists now urge that that allowance of 6s. be given to the workers as a whole with the usual pro rata rate for female workers. I have already said that the income of the breadwinner is the most vital material consideration in any home. ITo other factor makes for more contentment in the community than an adequate wage. It may be 3aid that this judgment was given by a tribunal whose decisions are ordinarily accepted by the trade unions. That is so; but I take this opportunity to correct one or two wrong impressions in that respect. Under our arbitration system we have succeeded, at least, in fixing a minimum wage. The court is looked upon as the guardian of the rights of those workers who come under its awards. Employerdom has always urged that, decisions of the court which benefit the workers in any way place an unbearable burden upon industry. The court has never done anything outside the fixing of margins on certain base rates; and not many of those margins have been altered. It has not, for instance, widened existing figures in order to give concessions in respect of sick, or accident, pay. Whenever the basic wage is increased, the cost of living soars; whilst wages go up by the stairway, the cost of living goes up in the lift. Any increase of the basic wage is immediately passed on. I have had no greater experience in any other phase of industry than in the Arbitration Court. I have always favoured conciliation and arbitration. I have never supported direct action in either my own union or any other organization,' except when the executive of the combined unions has decided that direct action offers the only way but of a difficulty. Unless the Government legislates to regulate the cost of living in accordance with wage decisions of arbitration courts or tribunals, we shall always have the dog chasing the tail in this matter. The workers are very dissatisfied with the court's decision, which has caused consternation among them. That consternation has been aggravated by the admission made in court judgment that the court has never fixed the basic wage on its own standards, and that the only investigation of cost of living was that undertaken by the Piddington Commission. Chief Judge Beeby said that it was beyond the power and capacity of the court to determine what share of the national income should be given to the wage-earners. On previous occasions, I have contended that the court is not competent to appraise the basic-wage value of any man, and without disrespect to any member of the court, I repeat that contention. Because of their training and environment, the members of the court are not fitted to appraise the basic-wage value of any man. A portion of the judgment of the court reads -

Union advocates submitted that the present wage level does not give wage-earners a proper share of national income and does not bear proper relation to the increased productivity of labour during recent years. In other .words, the court is asked to declare that all past fixations have been arrived at on wrong principles and should be abandoned, and that by way of wage fixation it should arrive at a conclusion as to what share of production should go to wage-earners, ot, to use a homely term, how the "cake" produced by all should bo divided up. Again and again, the court has pointed out that it is not the legislature, but a tribunal exercising limited functions conferred by the legislature. Deliberate re-arrangement of the division of national income amongst the different factors of production is beyond both it's power and capacity.

T'h at statement supports my previous submissions in this chamber that the court is not competent to do what it is being asked to do. Briefly, the court declares that it cannot fix the basic wage of this country. The judgment adds -

Alternatively, the Commonwealth Parliament must assume responsibility for the Commonwealth basic wage.

I realize that, owing to constitutional limitations, it is impossible for the Government at the moment to give legislative effect to that view. However, if the Government, under the national security legislation, can give a special allowance of 6s.- a. week to 60,000 workers, because of war exigencies, there is nothing to prevent it from exercising the same power in order to extend that increase to the great majority of workers. It may be contended that wages are adjusted on the basis of the cost of living. Let us examine that proposition, first of all, in regard to house rents. This Government is definitely to blame for the fact that house rents have risen considerably since 1939. In Melbourne, that increase has been as much as from 2s. 6d. to 5s. a week. Up to December, 1939, rents were pegged by regulation; but since that date, owing to a stupid decision arrived at by an. interstate conference, the regulation lapsed, and, consequently, rapacious landlords have had an " open go ". Therefore, to-day, the costofliving figure has no relation in fact to actual rentals. In addition, the prices of dozens of articles which are absolutely essential in the home are soaring. Our present system of prices control will not achieve what the Labour party desires in this respect. The Government decided, owing to the emergency of war, to dispense with the calling of tenders for the construction of certain works. Some contracts were let at a fixed price, and others were let at cost plus 5 per cent. Under the " cost-plus " system, the builders are able to obtain all the material they want -and to put up with industrial trouble, loss of time, &c, and still make their 5 per cent, profit. That is a matter of urgency, but the case which I am placing before the Senate is even more urgent. It is said by the Government that the outlay on the war may be £196,000,000, and we all realize that that is an inescapable burden, but surely some of that money could be made available in the direction which we are suggesting. Despite the action taken to prevent the workers and trade union leaders in this country from taking a stand in this m a Her, it is obvious that there is among them a grave suspicion of the Arbitration Court's decision, owing to the fact that almost on the day that it was to be made known, a Government pronouncement was made by the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Holt) of the proposed child endowment scheme. Tt may have been an accident or a remarkable coincidence, but the man in the street will not swallow that. I do not suggest that there was collusion between the Government and the court, but I do say that, having regard to the phraseology of its decision, the court must have known that something of the kind was Toeing attempted. In his judgment, Chief Judge Beeby said that the 'basic wage for a mau, his wife and one child was adequate. The child endowment scheme will be in respect of all children after the first, so obviously it was realized by the court that the whole basis was wrong. On page 7 of his judgment, the Chief Judge said -

During thu proceedings I was impressed with new evidence and argument submitted as to the inadequacy of the earnings of the lower-grade wage-earners with families. On our accepted standards of living, looking nt it from the needs point of view only, I regard the present basic wage as adequate for a family unit of three, but I think it offers only a meagre existence for a family unit of four. When the unit gets beyond four, hardship is often experienced. During a portion of his term as a low-wage employee, a married' Tuan frequently has a family of more than two dependent children.

A more logical system would be to grade the basic wage according to family responsibilities. But jio claim for such gradation has ever been made by employees or employers. The court can only deal with claims made, and has no power to initiate on its own motion a scheme of wage payments according to responsibilities. T believe that, notwithstanding its increase in aggregate wages, a re-appointment of national income sufficient to increase the wages of men and women with more than one dependent child would be of advantage to the Commonwealth. The relief afforded to those who need it would more than set-off the inflationary tendency of provision for a comprehensive scheme of child endowment.

Since the conclusion of the hearing the Commonwealth Government has announced its intention to initiate such a scheme. If and when this is done, future fixation of the basic wage will bo greatly simplified, but the announcement of the Government's intentions does not of itself justify any departure from past methods.

Obviously, Judge Beeby was not to be stopped by the fact that a child endowment scheme had been foreshadowed. Assuming that the Government agrees to what I am suggesting, and decides to give an increase under the National Security Act, I would point out that the child endowment scheme will cost £13,000,000, whereas an increased basic wage would cost about £1,000,000 a month. If it is right to give 60,000 war workers an additional 6s. a week, it is also right to make the rise general. Men who work on the manufacture of munitions do not toil any harder than do men working on, say, the railways, where jobs have become more arduous owing to the interference with shipping services. The breakdown of transport by sea has placed an added burden on railway workers and others engaged on land transport services. These men, who are working long hours and doing a great job, have just as much right to a rise as have the munition workers. The Government has a duty to these men.It should do the proper thing and so obtain the wholehearted support of all sections of the community. Why not make a generous gesture even at this late hour? We do not suggest that action be taken through the Arbitration Court - no government should tell an arbitration court tribunal what to do - but the increase could be granted under the National Security Act. Whatever rise is given to the workers will be passed on by the employers. I direct the attention of honorable senators to the following letter:-

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