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Friday, 15 May 1970

Mr CREAN (Melbourne Ports) - I hope that my friend, the honouralbe member for Farrer (Mr Fairbairn), does not regard me as a hyena. As the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) indicated, what is involved here at the moment is not the constitutionality or otherwise of the Commonwealth within and outside the 3-mile limit. It seems to me - the honourable member for Farrer, a former Cabinet Minister, underlined the fact - that 2 very important principles are involved here. I submit that they are important to members on both sides of the House. The first is the collective responsibility of a Cabinet. I have no doubt that it could be said that there is nothing very collective about the Government at the moment, and I submit that there is a great deal of irresponsibility in some directions. Collective responsibility is enshrined as part of the workability of a Cabinet system. 1 will say a little more about that subject in a moment.

The second point that is involved, and which ought to be important to all honourable members, is the working relationship between the component parts of our federal system. Each of these matters is of considerable significance to this Parliament in a constitutional sense. I want to reinfoorce to some extent the idea of collective responsibility by quoting from a book entitled 'Cabinet Government' by Sir Ivor Jennings, which used to be the standard work on Cabinet government. In the edition published in 1961 the author goes back as far as the time of Lord Salisbury and says:

It is only on the principle that absolute responsibility is undertaken by every member of the Cabinet who, after a decision is arrived at, remains a member of it, that the joint responsibility of Minister to Parliament can be upheld, and one of the most essential principles of parliamentary responsibility established.

At all times the honourable member for Farrer was, in this consideration, a member of the Cabinet. He committed the Cabinet in the terms of his ministerial responsibility. I have read some of the correspondece but I have not had a great deal of time to digest it. The Prime Minister said in his statement today:

On 30th July the Minister for National Development wrote to me.

He said that he wished to write to the States and indicate that he was unable to hold a meeting before the one scheduled for February 1970. He also wished to write to them to tell them that the Commonwealth would not legislate unilaterally until there had been an opportunity to discuss fully and frankly the views he had expressed to them at the March meeting.

Apparently nothing took place between 30th July and 18th August, a span of almost 3 weeks. The Prime Minister's statement continues:

I replied on 18th August raising no objection to his writing to the States on the general matter of the meeting. However, I said 'I would want to avoid if at all possible a situation where the Commonwealth became committed to long drawn out discussion or consultation with the States on this matter. For this reason -

I ask honourable members again to weigh the words because, as the honourable member for Farrer implied, it seems that one can almost put one's own meaning on words if it suits one's case -

I would prefer that you eliminate from your proposed letter the suggestion that the Commonwealth will not legislate unilaterally until after the completion of full and frank discussions with the States on this matter.' 1 suggest that it was not mandatory but that the Prime Minister said he would prefer the Minister to eliminate certain suggestions from his proposed letter, ft seems clear enough to me that the former Minister made commitments as a responsible member of the Cabinet negotiating with the States, and he may not have been able to do simply what the Prime Minister said he would like to be done. The Prime Minister goes on further to say:

I think the Minister fully understood that I did not want to give any assurance to the States that we would defer legislation.

As 1 see it. the honourable member for Farrer suggested that he did not think the Prime Minister meant any such thing. It seems to me to be clear enough that the honourable member was still acting as a fully competent member of the Cabinet and, as such, the Cabinet collectively was responsible for actions that he took in his position as a Minister.

A statement written as long ago as Mr Joseph Chamberlain's time on the subject of collective responsibility reads:

Absolute frankness in our private relations and full discussion of all matters of common interest . . the decisions freely arrived at should be loyally supported and considered as the decisions of the whole of the Government.

It seems to me that here there were not the apparent inter-relationships within the Cabinet that there ought to have been. I suppose that reflects upon the efficiency of the Cabinet system as it has been carried out by the present Government. One cannot evade the constitutional situation that when a Minister is still a Minister and is acting within his department negotiating with people, he ought to have the full backing of his Cabinet. They are collectively responsible for what he has done. That seems to be the stand that has been taken by the honourable member for Farrer. He could have said, if he liked: 'If the Prime Minister thinks I was too stupid to understand the meaning of certain words, that is fair enough'. Nevertheless, the action took place. What has been hurt here, it seems, is the sense of proper relations between the Commonwealth and the States as part of a working federal system. Surely this sort of thing cannot be lightly breached. A federal system is always a difficult mechanism to work. It is becoming increasingly difficult in Australia to make it work by reason of the preponderant financial superiority of the Commonwealth. One of the most prolific writers on the subject of federalism is Professor Geoffrey Sawer of the Australian National University. He concedes that the only way we can maintain the system as a working institution is by means of what he calls co-operative federalism.

To me co-operative federalism implies that there must be sympathy and understanding between the Commonwealth and the States, the other constituent parts of the federation. Surely this has been severely breached in this instance. I think the Government ought wisely to take the escape door which the ex-Minister has just, thrown open. Why not defer this whole matter and let it go back to the States. Let us see who has understood and who has misunderstood and then try to repair the breaches that have taken place between this Government, as the central government, and the various States about whether words mean certain things and whether certain promises were given or whether certain undertakings were implied.

Mr Hulme - What is the law?

Mr CREAN - I should say that the law is commonsense in this particular instance. lt is a law that the Government is reluctant to invoke. 1 submit that another incident which happened in this chamber a few weeks aso could have been avoided if there had been a little flexibility and commonsense at the centre. I do not presume to go into the fine nuances of the meanings of words, as the Prime Minister did regarding the exMinister. I think every honourable member is impressed by the stand which has been taken by the ex-Minister. We might not have regarded him as the most brilliant member of the Cabinet, but personally I have always had a high regard for him. Nobody doubts the integrity of his action on this occasion. I hope that some honourable members on the other side of the House are going to support him in the stand he has taken. Someone on the other side of the chamber has mentioned centralism. It is all right being centralist when you have the sort of legislation which is brought down here. I think there is a little confusion among honourable members opposite as to what is centralism and what is co-operative federalism. All I am submitting is that the co-operation that is necessary for the smooth working of our federation has been severely weakened by the action that has been taken in this matter.

It seems to me, as my colleague the honourable member for Dawson suggested this morning, that we have heard a clever statement and word splitting, the sort of stuff a schoolboy would put up as a rebuttal in the second issue of the school magazine if he did not like an article in the first issue. Surely honourable members expect a better example than this from the Prime Minister in the national Parliament? 1 want to read again the words which the honourable member for Dawson suggested should be added to this rather foolish and futile statement. Nevertheless it is because of its foolishness and futility that we have hung upon the statement the amendment which, if carried, will bring down the Government. It does not seem to me that the amendment is being considered in quite that serious light by the group of Ministers on the front bench, particularly those who wanted to talk while the debate was going on. They have not taken the situation very seriously at all. These are the words that the Australian Labor Party has proposed should be added to the motion: and that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet--

It is a collective assault - lack the confidence of the House because they failed to honour a commitment made to the States by the previous Minister for National Development--

Now the humble honourable member for Farrer - acting for and on behalf of the Commonwealth Government, that there would be further consultation with the . Statesbefore theC ommonwealth Government introduced any legislation on the territorial sea and continental shelf.

I ask that those honourable members on the Government side who claim they believe in a working federal system and who claim that they give observance to proper constitutional proprieties should consider very carefully what is involved in those words moved by the honourable member for Dawson this morning. Two sacred constitutional issues are at stake. The first concerns the collective responsibility of a Cabinet, so that when a Minister still clothed with his full ministerial powers does certain things and after consultation - whether it be effective or ineffective - with the rest of the Cabinet he commits the whole of the Cabinet. The honourable member for Farrer believes he did this. The second thing which is significant is that because we have a federal system this ham-handed sort of play that has been allowed to continue has breached the relationships that ought to prevail between the centre and the component parts of a federation. There has to be a great deal more co-operation and discussion with the States in the future on this and other matters.

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