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Friday, 6 August 1920

Mr FOWLER (Perth) .- I wish at the outset to apologize to the members of the Opposition. Against my judgment and inclination, I did not, either with voice or vote, oppose the motion which ordered that the secondreading debate shall close this afternoon. I represent a somewhat remote part of the Common wealth, and have not yet received from my constituents any information of their opinions concerning the measure. Under such circumstances I should have vigorously protested with other honorable members against the limitation of the debate, and I can assure the House that there will be no other occasion, while I am here, when my vote will be given to curtail the privileges of members in the discussion of an important measure of this kind, so long as no intention has been shown to stonewall it or to delay our proceedings. It is all very well for men like the honorable member for Flinders (Mr. Bruce) to suggest, as he did last night, that opportunity for consideration has been given to all. While Victorian members may have had such opportunity they fail to realize that Victoria is not Australia, and that the outlying parts of the Commonwealth are entitled to more consideration in respect of a measure of this kind than the Prime Minister and many of those behind him have shown to them. Seeing that the country has waited impatiently for some years for something to be done in this matter it was somewhat amusing to hear the right honorable gentleman declare this an urgent measure. It is characteristic of him, when he has made up his mind to a certain course, to enter with a flourish of trumpets and give the public the idea that at last something is to be done, and that he is the man who will do it. After he had made his speech, he thought, apparently, that there was no more to be said on the subject, though a few hours were conceded to honorable members in somewhat ungracious recognition of the fact that Parliament exists for the discussion at reasonable length of important matters of this kind. I warn honorable members on this side that they cannot long afford to act as voiceless automata at the bidding of the Prime Minister, because .sooner or later they will be called to account by their constituents, who expect them to do their duty by stating their opinions.

There is need for the most earnest and able attention to the industrial problem by this and the State Parliaments. We see unrest all round us. The community has suffered through most disastrous strikes - strikes that have affected tens of thousands of persons, causing untold suffering and hardship, and at the end have left us no nearer the settlement "of the industrial problems involved than we were when they commenced. Labour representatives here and elsewhere realize as clearly as any of us the need for putting an end to such strikes. They know that every strike that inflicts suffering on a community reduces their political popularity, and they are even more aware than those on this side that there is in the Labour movement to-day an element which deliberately foments and encourages strikes, and will, if not sternly repressed, undoubtedly bring about its utter disorganization, and lead to something like civil war.

Mr Gabb - Those to whom you are referring are outside our political movement.

Mr FOWLER - A good many of them are inside the Labour movement, and are working insidiously against its political activities. Labour members realize as much as we do that it is in their interests, and for the welfare of the Labour movement, and of the whole community, that industrial strife should be settled in a lawful and peaceful fashion rather than allowed to run to seed, and create untold mischief. We are apt to forget that tens of thousands of workers never strike, and that a majority of the workers are opposed to strikes, though often dragged into them. If there were proper machinery by which their wrongs could receive reasonable and prompt attention, the voice of the workers would be heard objecting strongly to strikes. Unfortunately, during the last few years circumstances have played into the hands of the extreme and disorderly element in the Labour unions, giving it an opportunity of which it has availed itself to the utmost. It has been for strikes on every possible and impossible occasion, with sufficient apparent justification to drag behind it large numbers of workers who, in their hearts, abhor strikes, and would be only too glad for some other method of securing redress. We owe it to the workers to give them relief, if possible, from the awful arbitrament of civil war, for which a strike is only another name.

I think, with some other honorable members, that the amendment of the Arbitration Act should have preceded the present proposal. I still believe that the Arbitration Court is capable of doing good work in the cause of industrial peace. No doubt, it has many defects, some of which have been pointed out here, and it is a pity that its shortcomings were not discussed before the Bill was introduced. Had there been such discussion, it would have done much to make the present proposal unnecessary. I believe that the Arbitration Court provides a better method of settling industrial disputes than that now under consideration. The troubles which now arise are due to the expense and delay attending appeals to the Court. I am sorry, in view of the able legal representation in this House, to have to say that the elimination, to as great an extent as possible, of legal system and procedure would-, in my opinion, reduce the cost of and the time occupied in the hearing of disputes by the Court. If its proceedings could be simplified and expedited, one of the gravest objections to the Court would be removed. Unfortunately, Federal action in regard to industrial disputes can begin only at a comparatively late stage of their development.

I complain that the State Governments and Parliaments have not dealt with these matters as they should have done. They should have a uniform system amongst themselves to prevent so many of these disputes growing, until, by their size and gravity, they become subjects for Federal investigation. It is most unfortunate, also, that, rightly or wrongly, at the inception of our Federal Court of Arbitration, the workers got an impression that the Judge was inclined to favour them. This undoubtedly had a very regrettable influ- ence throughout Australia, and ha3 brought about most unfortunate results. For one thing, many of the disputes might have been settled long before they reached the dimensions of a Federal case; but they were allowed to grow, and, in fact, many of the smaller disputes were deliberately developed, until they reached a stage when they could be dealt with by the Federal Court. This meant, of course, that the Court became simply overwhelmed by a multiplicity of cases, with which it could not deal, and many waited for months and months without any prospect of being heard. The final result was that direct action was employed; the Court was flouted by the workers, who, having lost faith in it, proceeded to extremes, which, as I say, have inflicted untold misery and hardship on the community. It is a duty we owe to the community to endeavour now, whether in this measure or any others before us, to bring about the cessation of these disputes. The general community lias a right to expect this from us, because, as a matter of fact, it is entirely ignored in industrial disputes. There are. the interests of the employer on the one hand, and the interests of the employee on the other; but the unfortunate general public, like Issachar, the strong ass, stoops between the two burdens. Frequently a dispute is settled in a way which, while satisfactory to the two parties immediately concerned, is unfair to the public; but this Bill takes no note of that phase of the position. While arranging for consideration for the interests of the employer and the employee, no regard is shown for the interests of the general public.

Mr West - The Government are supposed to look after the general public.

Mr FOWLER - That is so, just as the Parliament is supposed to look after the general public. I am afraid, however, that, in thinking about votes, we are more apt to have regard for those who are keenly interested in the industrial matters rather than for the somewhat remote public, which suffers so frequently in silence. Members are returned time and again, not for what they have done for the general community, but for what they have done for one party or another. That is a very regrettable state of affairs which I hope will come to an end before very long, and towards the abolition of which I hope to be able to do something.

The measure seems to me like a huge, cumbrous piece of machinery with a ridiculously small boiler; it is going to be expensive, and consists of a great many different parts, but the driving power will be small and insignificant. That is the trouble with a great deal of our legislation in this regard. We have stopped short of one responsibility that this and other Parliaments will have to take on their shoulders sooner or later. That is, after having given the workers and employers effective Courts .for the settlement on a fair basis of all industrial disputes, the community must be protected against those reckless individuals who are prepared to flout the law in the furtherance of their aims and objects, and inflict general suffering. People, here and elsewhere, are beginning to realize that something in the nature of criminal action is required against those who break the industrial peace. In some coun-tries, notably in the United States, laws are, I believe, in preparation to make striking a criminal offence,- more especially in connexion with those industries and activities that are vitally necessary to the life of the community.

Mr Gabb - That is not making for peace. ' . j ;

Mr FOWLER - It must be always understood that, before any step of the kind is taken, there shall be an effective and fair Court for the settlement of all industrial disputes; then must come the power of the law to make it criminal for any one to break the peace in such a way as to inflict suffering and hardship on the community. That reform will come sooner or later, and it is just as well that this Parliament and Australia generally should be prepared to look the fact in the face.

Mr Burchell - Would the honorable member have representatives of the general public on 1the councils and tribunals?

Mr FOWLER - That is what I mean, and what I shall endeavour to introduce into the measure. I again point out that if we are to secure absolute industrial peace we must first of all provide a fair and efficient Court for the settlement of industrial disputes, and then step in and secure the ,public against the actions of a criminal few, who, by reason of the power wielded either in unions of employers or unions of employees, create what practically amounts to locks-out on the one side and strikes on the other. I could give instance after instance of suffering that has come under my notice as the result of strikes in Australia, and these would give point to my contention; but with the limited time at my disposal, I do not propose to do so at the present time.

I now desire to refer to some of the provisions of the Bill. There is a great deal anticipated from the creation of the various tribunals. What the councils will do I do not know ; they will be able to talk a great deal, but as to their activity in other respects I have some doubt whether they will be worth the money expended on them. Only a few days ago I heard an employee, and a member of a union, describe the tribunal in the shipping industry as an organization for giving the employees whatever they desire.

Mr Riley - That is a good organization !

Mr FOWLER - It is a good organization from the point of view of the employee; but what about the general public ? The Wages Boards of Victoria carried out the same plan for a long while; and Mr. Murphy, who was in control of them some time ago, has produced a very informative report in the form of a book on the subject of industrial efficiency in this State in particular, and in Australia in general. Mr. Murphy in that report asks, "Who is being enriched by our labour laws?", and proceeds as an expert to answer it in this way: -

The answer to this question can hardly be other than - the manufacturers, shopkeepers, and employers of labour generally. An analysis of the Wages Board determinations shows that wages have gone up most rapidly in those trades in which the employer can pass on the cost to the consumer by raising retail selling prices......

The employer and worker in some of the trades mentioned have apparently refrained from seriously opposing one another in the process of putting up wages for their mutual benefit. They have shown their little regard for the rights and interests of the public, and the other workers, knowing that the increased wages* will be more than covered by an increase in the price of the article produced.

If we are going to create tribunals which will act as the Shipping Tribunal does, and always give the employees all they ask, there must be a limit reached before long; indeed, that Limit has almost been reached in regard to shipbuilding, and I believe the Prime Minister regards the situation as one requiring considerable revision. There is no doubt that if the tribunals under this Bill are chosen in the same way, and are given the same opportunities as is the Shipping Tribunal) they will probably take the line of least resistance, and do as this tribunal is alleged to have done; but I again remind this Government and the House that there is, necessarily, a limit to concessions. I do not think that the bulk of the working men are, in the long run, going to be deluded by the idea that they can increase wages indefinitely. Increased wages can only go on in conjunction with increased production, and the sooner the whole truth is placed before the working people of Australia the better it will be for them and the community at large.

I do not desire to occupy more time. I have given a few of my ideas in regard to industrial matters, and while I do not anticipate very much from this Bill, I believe it can be moulded into a measure that will to some extent remove some of the grievances that the working people of Australia think they see in front of them in their relations with their employers. If the Bill does even that much it will disarm some of the suspicion on the part of Idle employees, and to that extent will be an advantage. Like other honorable members, I shall do my best in Committee to improve the Bill.

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