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Thursday, 27 March 1941

Senator SPICER (Victoria) .- I can imagine no circumstances more unsuitable than those of the present time for the introduction of a motion of this kind. The section of the community which Senator Keane represents has made an application to the appropriate tribunal of this country for an increase of the basic wage. The application was heard by three judges, and lengthy consideration was given to the evidence placed before them. They came to the conclusion that they were not prepared at present to grant the unions' application. They did not dismiss it out of hand, but they adjourned it until the middle of this year because, as I understand the position, certain factors came under their notice which rendered it desirable that they should consider them in the light of circumstances which might prevail in the middle of the year. They said, in effect, " On the evidence before us, we do not think that this is a suitable occasion on which to increase the basic wage, but, having regard to the uncertainties which naturally surround all business conditions and primary production at present, we are prepared to leave the matter open until the middle of the year, when, perhaps, circumstances may have changed, and you may be able to satisfy us that there is a case for an increase ". Having applied for an increase, surely nothing is more undesirable than that those who appealed to the arbitrator should, in the course of the proceedings, suggest that the Parliament or the Government should override the arbitrator's decision. It cannot be said that the court did not give patient and earnest consideration to the evidence placed before it. After considering all of the evidence, it came to a conclusion which, I suggest, it is difficult for any member of this chamber to combat. It drew attention to the fact that, after all, this community is at war, and is devoting about one-fifth of its man-power and resources to the production of war material and the carrying on of the war effort. We have lost the services of men and women who were previously engaged in the production of goods that we require for the maintenance of our standards of living, and they are now engaged in occupations which make no contribution to the maintenance of those standards. In these circumstances, the court came to a conclusion to which those who represent the Labour movement should pay great attention. The Chief Judge said -

It is self-evident that under prevailing war conditions the real struggle in the future will be to maintain, not to raise, existing standards, and to hold on to the present automatic adjustment of wages to the increased cost of living.

Senator Keane - He said that eighteen months ago.

Senator SPICER - We ' should not forget that the greatest safeguard which the trade union movement has to maintain those standards is the Arbitration Court which it now proceeds to attack. The Chief J udge went on -

Such maintenance depends on our capacity to keep up the production of consumable goods, when 20 per cent, of our production has suddenly been transferred to war production, and when the expansion of savings and investments has been contracted by greatly increased taxation and by the necessary limitation of expenditure on non-war plant and equipment.

Senator Keane - Legal platitudes!

Senator SPICER - No, it is a recognition of the realities of the situation. The political party which is prepared to go on believing in the idea that in time of war we can carry on our activities without the whole of the community making sacrifices is deluding itself and misleading its followers.

This was an application for an alteration of the existing method of fixing the basic wage. Criticism of the court's judgment entirely overlooked the fact that wages have been automatically adjusted in accordance with the increased cost of living figures ever since the war started. The judgment discloses that, since September, 1937, the basic wage for Victoria has been increased by automatic adjustments by 9s. a week, and that during the same period, the automatic adjustments in New South Wales have brought about an increase of the basic wage by 12s. a week. It is nonsensical for members of the Opposition to suggest that this application for an increase must necessarily have been justified because of increases of the cost of living. Such increases have already been taken into account in the automatic adjustment that has been made. This was an application for an increase of the real wage which the worker is now getting, and I, for one, am not surprised to find that the tribunal, which has had the opportunity to consider all of the evidence, has come to the conclusion that at this time, at any rate, it is not right to indulge in increases of the present standards of living. The judgment does disclose one real social evil, and that is the fact that the existing basic wage, on the findings of the court, is only sufficient to satisfy the needs adequately of a man, a wife and a child. That, I suggest, discloses a social evil, which I should have thought the members of the Labour party would be anxious to redress.

Senator Cunningham - We know all about it.

Senator SPICER - The evil will not be redressed by an all-round increase of the basic wage. It is because the Arbitration Court can deal with wages only on the basis of all-round increases that it cannot touch that problem.

Senator Cunningham - Bad economics.

Senator SPICER - It is not bad economics; it is just a problem with which the Arbitration Court is unable to deal. If in order to deal with it the court awarded an all-round increase of the basic wage, the cost of living, as Senator Keane himself has admitted, would increase correspondingly, and, therefore, married men with families would be relatively no .better of? than they are to-day.

Senator Fraser - We have suggested a remedy for that.

Senator SPICER - The remedy is not an all-round increase of the basic wage, but a system of child endowment, such as we propose to establish, which will improve relatively the position of a man who has more than one child. It is no answer to this argument to say that prices will still increase, because, whether they do or do not, the married man., with more than one child, will receive a greater margin than the married man with one child or the single man, and, therefore, will be relatively better off in the scheme of things. In this manner we can make some contribution to the settlement of the real problem created by the court's judgment.

Senator Keane - The court has admitted that it cannot fix the basic wage.

Senator SPICER - It has made no such admission. What the court points out is that it cannot, as a wage-fixation tribunal, deal with this problem. For instance, the court cannot say that so much must be paid to a single man, and so much more to a married man, because, in that case, industry would employ single men in preference to married men. The problem cannot be dealt with on that basis. It can be dealt with, however, on the basis of a child endowment scheme which will be directed towards solving this problem by increasing the total wages-bill, and by ensuring that the increase shall be directed into the pockets of people who most need it. If that be done no justification exists for any attack upon present wage-standards, having regard to the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

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