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Thursday, 4 April 1946

Mr HOLT (FAWKNER, VICTORIA) - My general attitude ought to be clear to the honorable gentleman. The Attorney-General himself has confirmed the value of our arbitration system. T have no doubt that had we had in office during the latter part of the war a government prepared to support with its full authority the decisions of the Arbitration Court, we should have had a very much better record than that which was actually the case. So we ask ourselves why this Government now sets about weakening the authority of the tribunals that have been able to deal with our industrial problems in the past, and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge of the problems of industry. Why does the Attorney-General seek to give a part of that responsibility, and perhaps the most important part of it, to this Parliament?

Mr Blain - He was forced to.

Mr HOLT - As my honorable friend says, he was forced to. I believe that is the case. We know that the pressure of the Communist elements supporting. Labour have been directly responsible for the Government's adoption of these proposals.

Mr Bryson - Now tell us about "the three bears ".

Mr HOLT - I am telling you about the three thimbles, and this is the third. Just look where the "comrades" have stood on this matter. Take first of all the. arbitration system itself. We know that a very strong campaign, underground in some respects but quite overt in others, has been conducted by the Communists against our arbitration system. They are out to destroy the arbitration system of the Commonwealth. They set forth as an alternative, under an attractive name, their system of collective bargaining. It has been much better described as collective bludgeoning. The idea of it is that the employers and employees in a particular section of industry get together and decide amongst themselves, in a sort of round table atmosphere, which always seems to make the strongest appeal to the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Holloway), the wages and conditions in that industry.

Mr Pollard - It is like the way in which the motion, picture industry fixes charges.

Mr HOLT - That remark shows how little the honorable gentleman knows about the motion picture industry. If we had the same competition available to the community generally as we have in the motion picture industry, we should be served much better than we are. The real point is that those who argue in favour of collective bargaining overlook perhaps the most important matter of all in arbitration matters, that is the interest of the public as a whole. Where does the interest of the public lie if a group of employers and employees can get together and raise the wages of the employees on the one hand and the cost of the goods produced by them on the other? That must be unloaded in additional charges on the public. The important consideration always to have in mind in arbitration matters is that three elements are involved, the employer and employees, who have their problems, and the public, whose interest is a vital matter. The Communist system of collective bargaining ignores public interest. Public interest does not lie only in higher prices for goods. It goes deeper than the interest of the consumer. It goes to the interest of the citizen in ensuring that our industries as a whole shall .survive in competition with those of other countries and shall be maintained on a sound economic basis. So whatever temptation the Government may have to listen to the sirens' song of the Communists on the question of collective bargaining, it would never do anything, if it had proper regard for the welfare of the country, that would weaken the arbitration system. This proposed alteration of the Constitution would undoubtedly have that effect. I recognize the need to eliminate much of the technicality which impeded the work of the arbitration court in pre-war years. I shall be dealing with that aspect soon. But the system itself would be undoubtedly weakened if this Parliament attempted to take power to fix hours and wages in industry. The remarks of the Attorney-General on that point were clearly pointed to the people who have been pressing this Government to pass legislation for this purpose. I do not believe that the Attorney-General expects the people of Australia to give him the power, because I do not think he would have committed himself to a fixation of standard hours and a basic wage by this Parliament had he done so. The problem of hours in industry is most complex and involved. We cannot, generalize upon it.. A certain standard of hours may be reasonable in one industry but not in another. That is clearly the sort of question which an expert and trained body should examine on the necessary evidence and best advice available to it. Parliament would be helpless and hopeless in attempting to deal with that problem. The determination of the basic wage also is quite clearly beyond the capacity of Parliament. I remind honorable members that, for very good reasons which have been accepted by the courts, there is no standard basic wage throughout the Commonwealth at present. The. basic wage differs in the capital cities. The latest figures supplied to me only to-day by the Commonwealth Statistician are as follows - Sydney £4 19s., Melbourne £4 18s., Brisbane £4 13s., Adelaide £4 14s., Perth £4 14s., and Hobart £4 15s.' When we hear the Attorney-General speaking of Parliament fixing the basic wage does he mean that we are to go into such nice computations as to whether the wage should be 4s. or 5s. more in Hobart, than in Sydney, or whether it should be a few shillings more in Perth than in another capital?. Are we to have members of various parties in this chamber arguing for a few shillings extra for workers in this, or that, capital? \ Extension of time granted.~\ I merely mention that to show how utterly impracticable it would be for this Parliament to attempt by legislation to fix the basic wage.

Finally, I revert to the argument in favour of an elective convention. I have already mentioned the history of referendum campaigns in this country, from which it would appear that the people of Australia will require a long process of. education, ..'. ... will need to be satisfied that any proposals submitted to them represent general agreement on the part of intelligent and experienced public leaders before they will consent to any substantial, alteration of the Constitution. I remind honorable members that the last careful and detailed examination of the Constitution was made by a royal commission in 1929. That was seventeen years ago, prior to the depression and our experience during the recent world wai'. I do not suggest that a royal commission of inquiry is a satisfactory alternative to an elective convention. Just as the people, after the last elective convention, -were prepared to adopt the proposals worked out so carefully at that convention, I believe that, having regard to the long interval that has since elapsed, they would support the recommendations of an elective convention on this occasion. On the other hand, if governments are going to " dish up ", almost year after year, proposals for alterations of the Constitution, the public will tend automatically to defeat them. Under those conditions we are developing a "No" complex in respect of referendum issues. The methods adopted by the Attorney-General in respect of the 1944 proposals and on this occasion, when he submits proposals to be voted on in conjunction with a general election, encourage the " No " complex rather than break down public resistance to constitutional change. Honorable members on this side of the chamber are not hostile to constitutional changes. Our party platform recommends, first, an elective convention; and, secondly, that the emergency dealt with in the first bill should be met by a reference of power by the States. I merely say in conclusion that the methods adopted by the Government, rather than strengthening, are undermining and white-anting prospects of constitutional reform.

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