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Friday, 8 December 1911

Senator READY (Tasmania) . - I have listened to a great many remarks in regard to the principle which is embodied in this Bill. I have heard the Government urged repeatedly to do justice to the public servants. I have heard the principle of arbitration held up to ridicule until I am forced to say a few words, as far as Tasmania is concerned, to justify my attitude on the Bill. Senator Sayers has repeatedly asked us this question, " Why do you not do justice to the Public Service?" He did not take the trouble to remind the Senate lhat the Government have done more for the Public Service during the eighteen months they have been in office than was done by previous Governments during a period of eight or nine years. In the first annual report of the Postmaster-General's Department, there are several paragraphs which contain a good deal of information -

Since the close of the preceding year the salaries of a large number of the permanent employes have been, or will be, appreciably increased by amendments which have been approved in the rates of pay, involving a total annual cost of £107,000, divided in the proportions of £20,000 amongst Clerical Division officers, and £87,000. amongst those of the General Division.

In addition to this amount increases accruing otherwise than through the amendments mentioned will be granted throughout the year, and these will augment the salaries of the officers sharing therein to the extent of at least £70,000, giving a total of £177,000 for increases in annual salaries.

Senator Walker - Which Government gave them the minimum wage?

Senator READY - I am not dealing with that aspect of the question.

Senator Walker - That is about the best thing they have ever got.

Senator READY - I wish to show what the Government have done for public servants in Tasmania, where the conditions prevailing amongst postal employes under the State regime were a disgrace to the Legislature. Prior to Federation, one of the practices adopted by Ministers in times of retrenchment was to send round circulars to small contract postmistresses who were receiving sometimes the munificent salary of £25 a year. Quite recently, I met one of these persons, who told me that while Sir Edward Braddon was Premier, she received a notification that, owing to the bad times, her salary of £25 would be cut down by £10. That shows the conditions which prevailed under the State control of the Department. On a later page of this very valuable document, I find the following statement regarding Tasmania -

The officers in Tasmania have benefited to a larger extent than those in any other State. The average salary paid by the State was £107 per annum. It is now £137, an increase of £30 per officer, or 27 per cent. Among the classes of officers who have shared in the increased emoluments due to their transfer to the Commonwealth are -

Telegraphists, whose salaries have been raised from an average of £118 to £180*, an increase of £62, or 53 per cent.

Letter Carriers, who are receiving an average increase of 25 per cent, on State salaries.

Postmasters and Postmistresses have benefited to a large extent, and also sorters, postal assistants, linemen, and others, whose increases, while impossible to state definitely, owing to differences of designation, have been on a similar scale to those abovementioned.

* Estimate under new classification.

That is what the present Government have done for officers in my State. Yet the argument is hurled at 'our heads that we should do justice to the employes in the Postal Department. Regarding the principle of this Bill, Senator Vardon made the very sweeping statement that arbitration has never succeeded, and never will succeed.

Senator Vardon - And I will repeat the statement any time you like.

Senator READY - I maintain that the statement cannot be substantiated by facts. If we take our own Arbitration Court, we find that, although it has delivered awards covering hundreds of thousands of men, not one award has been broken. The Court has undoubtedly done that which it was directly created to do, and that is to bring about conditions of industrial peace, where it had jurisdiction over disputes. By one case alone, it has, I maintain, justified its existence. In the case of the Australian Workers Union, comprising 49,000 odd members, the Court, by its award, undoubtedly brought about conditions of industrial peace in the pastoral industry. Our opponents on the other side continually tell us th.-it they oppose strikes, yet. the only remedy which they have urged by interjection is that there should be voluntary conciliation.

Senator Walker - Quite right, too.

Senator READY - That has never succeeded in practice.

Senator Walker - Sensible men get on very well.

Senator READY - Compulsory arbitration has succeeded in practice.

Senator Walker - Not in many places. New Zealand is going to give it up.

Senator READY - In the case of our own Arbitration Court, we have not only a striking, but an absolutely convincing illustration that compulsory arbitration has succeeded in practice- The Court has never failed yet so far as arbitration is concerned. If honorable senators on the other side would recognise that the only hope of the worker, who economically is not in the same position as the employer, to demand his rights, is by means of collective bargaining, I think that they would fully recognise the principle of compulsory arbitration. What did Mr. Justice Higgins say on this point when he was dealing with the economical position of the workingman?

Senator Walker - - I do not recognise him as a good authority.

Senator READY - Certainly the honorable senator does not. In delivering his judgment on the claim of the Federated Engine-Drivers Association of Australasia, Mr. Justice Higgins said, dealing with economic theories -

It has been of no advantage whatever to the claimant that some of its claims have been preposterously high. An excessive claim does not affect my judgment, unless in a direction unfavorable to the claimant. I tried to find the " fair thing," not to take a mean between the highest demand and the lowest offer. It affords one some food for reflection, however, to find that although in theory there is a power to decrease wages in every case which has come before my predecessor or myself, the Court has had to interfereby way of increase. The reason seems to be that the employer usually needs no Court to enable him to reduce wages - he has simply to ref.use to give employment at wages which he seems to think to be too high. It ought to be frankly admitted that, as a rule, the economic position of the individual employe1 is too weak for him to hold his own in the unequal contest. He is unable to insist on the " fair thing." The power of the employer to withhold bread is a much more effective weapon than the power of the employe1 to refuse labour. Freedom of contract, under such circumstances, is surely misnamed ; it should rather be called despotism in contract; and this Court is empowered to fix a minimumwage as a check on the despotic power.

We can never get honorable senators opposite to admit that, economically, the employe is in a weaker position than the employer. When we come to deal with the case of our public servants, we find that, although they are better off, in many respects, yet, economically, they are in a weaker position than their employers, that is, the people of Australia. In this Bill we enable them to take any grievances to a tribunal armed with full power to deal with them. We have had a striking instance of the need for this legislation. As I listened to Senator W. Russell's speech on the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, I was particularly impressed with the feeling that the need of arbitration to settle that great dispute in South Australia was very great indeed. One would have thought that even Senator Vardon would have been anxious to pass this measure.

Senator Vardon - What is the dispute to which you refer?

Senator READY - The prolonged disagreement between the Public Service Commissioner and a large section of the employes in the Postal Department in South Australia.

Senator Vardon - It has never been settled yet.

Senator READY - No. But one would have .thought that the honorable senator would have welcomed such a tribunal as we propose to create.

Senator Vardon - The Arbitration Court cannot deal with that case.

Senator READY - In what way? I fail to see that.

Senator Vardon - It will have no jurisdiction. The case has been before the High Court already.

Senator READY - I am informed, on the best of authority - and I prefer to take that authority before the honorable senator's statement - that the dispute can be settled by the Arbitration Court.

Senator O'Keefe - Surely they can get before the Federal Court.

Senator McGregor - One honorable senator is thinking of one thing, and the other of another.

Senator READY - Surely Senator Vardon should know that I v/as dealing with the prolonged dispute in South Australia ?

Senator Vardon - What are the particulars of the dispute?

Senator READY - I do not wish to be drawn off the track.

Senator Vardon - Are you referring to the dispute about the accruing rights of transferred officers?

Senator READY - Yes; a number of points have been in dispute. I do not think that the honorable senator will seriously say that we should devote ourselves to unravelling the meshes of that net.

Senator Vardon - Parliament could do justice.

Senator READY - I think that the only way to do justice to these officers is to place them in a position to ventilate their claims fully - a thing which they could not do before Parliament.

Senator Walker - Why not have a Public Service Commissioner?

Senator READY - We have; and friction has arisen.

Senator de Largie - Are you referring to the dispute about accruing rights?

Senator READY - That and other grievances.

Senator de Largie - That involves a constitutional question.

Senator READY - Yes; but I understand that it is not the only grievance. I am not prepared to say that one particular point is not unconstitutional. At any rate, the postal employes in South Australia have endeavoured for a long time to voice their grievances, and, though they have adequately represented them, their complaints have never been brought before Parliament.

Senator Vardon - As regards the matter of accruing rights, these officers are in no different position from other transferred officers in the service of the Commonwealth.

Senator READY - Some of these officers have told me that they will be very glad indeed to have the opportunity of going before the Arbitration Court. I know that, in Tasmania, officers in the General and the Clerical Divisions, particularly in the former, will welcome the passing of this Bill. It has occasioned no dissatisfaction in that State. Some highly intelligent officers, with whom I have conversed, have stated that they are quite prepared to submit a case, if they should have one, not only to a Court presided over by Mr. Justice Higgins, but to any properly constituted Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. I believe that in Tasmania the Bill is welcomed. I have not received one protest, either orally or by letter. The employes of the Postal Department are quite content with the Bill, and I hope that it will be passed, and, further, that it will afford them an opportunity to ventilate legitimately every reasonable grievance.

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