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Tuesday, 22 March 1927

Senator NEEDHAM (Western Australia) . - I move -

That the House of Representatives be requested to reduce the proposed vote, "The Attorney-General's Department, £36,190," by £1.

I take this step to draw attention to the action of the Government in having caused an award of the Public Service Arbitrator to be disapproved by the Senate. The matter can properly be brought up on this vote, because it includes a provision for the office of the Public Service Arbitrator. An award of that official has been disapproved by the Senate, and its benefits are denied to those to whom it would otherwise have applied. The only excuse put forward by the Leader of the Senate (Senator Pearce), when moving for the dis allowance of the award, was that it was opposed to the policy of the Government. He did not show that the Public Service Arbitrator had broken any regulation, or contravened any section of the Public Service (Arbitration.) Act. It would be unwise to allow such a dangerous precedent to pass without challenge. It is true that the matter was determined by a vote of the Senate; but I believe that we can now make a practical and effective protest against the action of the Government in constituting Parliament an industrial court. This is the first occasion in the history of the Commonwealth Parliament that that has been done. Time and again members of this and previous Governments, as well as members of all shades of political opinion, have expressed the belief that Parliament should not be constituted an industrial court, because other machinery has been provided for the settlement of the wages and working conditions of the employees of not only the Commonwealth Government but also private employers. I refer to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, under which has been established an arbitration tribunal before which can appear representatives of the employers and the employees ; and the Public Service (Arbitration) Act, under which the Public Service Arbitrator was appointed for the purpose of hearing applications by employees of the Commonwealth Government. The decisions of both tribunals are made upon the evidence that is given before them. After the Public Service Arbitrator had made an award that vitally affected members of the Public Service this branch of the national legislature was turned into a chamber of industrial review, and summarily disapproved or disallowed that award without hearing any evidence from the people who were directly affected..

Senator Ogden - Have we not fought out this matter previously ?

Senator NEEDHAM - That is quite true ; but a good cause is worth continuing to fight for. During the previous discussion, Senator Ogden pointed out that the action of the Government was tantamount to the introduction of political influence in its naked form. Now that for the moment we have the public purse in our hands, and are asked to vote a certain amount to enable the AttorneyGeneral's Department to carry on, I suggest that we should extract the sum of £1 to register a practical protest against such action.

Senator Ogden - A good general knows when to retreat.

Senator NEEDHAM - I am not concerned with the desirability or otherwise of retreating. If Senator Ogden is prepared to accept the verdict that has been given, I am not. This is the time and the place to register a more practical protest than any which has so far been made. It has been frequently stated that organizations of employees in Australia have rebelled against and refused to obey awards of the Arbitration Court. I believe there are on record isolated instances of such a revolt and disregard of awards of the Arbitration Court. But there are also on record cases of revolt by employers, who have adopted the practice of locking out their employees. Both sides, in that respect, are equally blameworthy. The Government, however, should set an example to those who are engaged privately in the carrying on of industry, and should not summarily exercise its authority to render null and void an award of an arbitrator, based on evidence submitted to him, when the parties affected have no chance to be heard. I repeat that the only excuse of the Minister (Senator Pearce) was that it was against Government policy. That policy, as enunciated by the Leader of the Government, and published broadcast throughout Australia, embodied a proposal relating to childhood endowment. Therefore, the Public Service Arbitrator did not offend against the policy of the Government, bub, on the contrary, acted in accordance with it. I emphasize the fact that a dangerous precedent has been established. The vital point upon which I lay stress is that if it is right that the Commonwealth Parliament should be constituted an industrial tribunal, it is also right that the people upon whom it proposes to pass judgment should be enabled to appear before it and state their case, just as they were given the right to appear before the Public Service Arbitrator who made the award.

Senator McLACHLAN(South Aus the matter referred to by Senator Needham was debated in this chamber only a few days ago, I do not propose to do more on this occasion than to remove any misapprehension that may be created by the honorable senator's remarks. In the first place, under legislation passed by this chamber, any award of the Public Service Arbitrator is open to the review of which the honorable senator complains. Statutory provision is made for the disallowance of any awards, and, if an award is out of harmony with the policy of the Government, the step that was taken the other day will be taken again. If the Public Service Arbitrator had proposed to reduce to £400 the limit at which child endowment is paid, would we have heard from the honorable senator one word of protest if we moved to disallow ? Despite our violation, as the honorable senator puts it,of a settled principle, no precedent has been created. We have done no more than the law allows in our endeavour to harmonize the position in the Public Service with the policy previously laid down by us. In any case, the matter was settled in this chamber only a few days ago.

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