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Wednesday, 3 September 1902

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN (Wentworth) - Honorable members will readily understand that it is with great diffidence that I address them upon a question of constitutional importance which is probably greater than any other question with which we could be called upon to deal. The members of the Opposition, for whom I am now speaking, have not brought about the present crisis, because if the fair proposals of the Senate had been agreed to it would not have arisen at all. But, as the question has been raised, there must be, I fear, some discussion in regard to the relative positions of the two Chambers. No doubt all honorable members of this House are anxious to maintain its rights and dignity. The question with which we are now dealing will be a very difficult question for many years to come. Section 53 of the Constitution, to which reference has been made, was the result of a compromise. An attempt was made to refine into language a position which no one could really understand, and, like all compromises, it has created a crop of difficulties which might have been avoided by manfully facing the situation. To my mind there is no doubt that the Constitution gives this Chamber powers in relation to financial measures superior to those possessed by the Senate. It provides, in the first place, that the Senate may not amend proposed laws imposing taxation. That is a very clear statement ; but a little further on it is provided that the Senate may make suggestions - an altogether weaker position. Then come the words -

Except,as provided in this section, the Senate shall have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws.

If in regard to every other matter the Senate is to have equal power with the House of Representatives, the inference is that it does not possess equal power in regardto Money Bills. The Senate is, in the first place, the States House, representing in its corporate unity the public opinion of the States qua States. But, besides being the States House, it is a second Chamber under a bicameral system of government, and it is more as a second Chamber that it has taken up the position which we are now engaged in discussing. But if it is clearly embedded in the Constitution that in financial matters this House shall exercise largerpowers than those possessed by the Senate, we need . not be afraid to listen to their representations,no matter how often made, when by doing so we can prevent conflict between the two Chambers. Let us get away from legal quibbles if we can, and deal with the matter on business lines, and from the point of view of common sense. In regard to most of the financial measures which the Senate might criticise there would probably be only one or two specific points of difference. Butin the consideration of aTariff like that which has been passed by this House, there are hundreds of points of possible disagreement, affecting not merely matters of detail, but the whole policy of the Government. Therefore, in this matter we cannot take up the "stand and deliver" attitude which some honorable members would advocate. If we refuse to receive the Senate's Message, we shall precipitate the crisis which we desire to avoid. The Senate would tell us that they represent the same people that we represent, being elected upon the same franchise, and that if we will not agree to some business-like arrangement for dealing with this matter, we must take the responsibility of forcing the difference to the bitter end.

Mr Isaacs - Suppose the Constitution justifies us?

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - I do not think that it does. In the first place, no Constitution would deny to two Chambers like ours the right to make sensible arrangements for discussing and arriving at a conclusion in regard to the various matters which have to come before them. There are at present in existence no standing orders which meet the case, but Mr. Speaker in his ruling practically admitted that we could create standing orders which would provide for the course of procedure which it is now. proposed that we should adopt. Is not the attitude that some honorable members would like to see assumed in regard to this matter an attitude suggestive rather of captious weakness than of completely-felt power? The position of this House under the Constitution is so strong that we need not cavil at any arrangement which will prevent a dead-lock between the two Chambers.

Mr Ronald - The Constitution makes provision for dead-locks.

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - Exactly; but reference to the debates of the Convention will show that such a thing as an absolute dead-lock was looked upon as impossible. Many of the members of the Convention argued that there should be no mechanical arrangement for the prevention of dead-locks. They said, " Will not the members of the Commonwealth Parliament be people like ourselves ? Will they not be persons possessing common sense, patriotism, and practical business ability, such as has characterized the members of the Parliaments of all British communities?" And although, in deference to the wishes of the majority, a mechanical arrangement for dealing with dead-locks was agreed to, it was felt that to carry any difference between the Chambers to the bitter end would be alien to the characteristics of our people. I rather deprecate the introduction of the Tariff into this discussion. It must be remembered that this is the first Parliament of the Commonwealth, and that there has been a great difference of opinionas to whether the actions of the Government in regard to the Tariff have been consistent with their hustings pledges. The Senate, as a second Chamber, is the guardian of the people against any renegade action on the part of the Government.

Mr Watson - Not so much as we are.

Mr McCay - Does the honorable member for Wentworth find that provision in the Constitution?

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - It is not in the Constitution, but it must be remembered that a Chamber elected upon a popular suffrage cannot be dealt with in the same way as an ordinary Legislative Council. I think that the Government have, upon the whole, taken the right course, though there is an element of weakness in what they propose - an evidence of desire to avoid the main issue. I do not fear that issue, and I think it would have been better if the Government had taken a commonsense view of the situation, and had said - " We are dealing now with financial legislation of a special kind, legislation which it took this Chamber seven or eight months to consider, and upon which the Senate has spent a very long time, and, therefore, we propose to recognise the right of the Senate to make requests, and will again consider every item which they have re-submitted to us. The Government to a certain extent compromised the House by agreeing to consider the requests made by the other Chamber.

Mr Deakin - We are compelled to do so by section 53 of the Constitution. " Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN. - No doubt, but the Government did not take up the position urged upon them by some honorable members of absolutely refusing to consider the requests of the Senate.

Mr Crouch - Who argued that that course should be taken?

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - One section of honorable members urged, not that the requests should not be considered formally, but that the Government should not agree to any alterations whatever beyond mere necessary details. These honorable members thought that the constitutional stand should be made then, and the press has time after time denied the right of the Senate to deal with the Tariff in detail. We, however, have recognised their right to da so. Considering that we are within such a short view of a. final result, it would be suicidal on our part, on a mere technical quibble, to refuse to deal with the requests of the Senate in a business-like manner. I have made these remarks with a certain amount of diffidence, and I have purposely avoided any refined arguments with regard to the constitutional question. That may be a matter for decision in the future, if the Houseis called upon to assert its position.

Mr Crouch - The honorable member says that we have no position to assert - that the Government have compromised us.

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - I do not quite follow the honorable and learned member. I do not decline at this moment to face the whole issue of any future trouble between the two Houses. I think that the spirit which has dominated this House and the Senate up to the present has been everything that the bust wishers of the Commonwealth could desire. We have had one or two slight hitches, which have disappeared under mutual courtesy and consideration, and during our sittings, extending over fourteen or fifteen months, the relations between the two Houses have been of the most cordial and amicable character. Do not let us disturb this happy condition of affairs ; do not let us raise an unnecessary bogey. We are dealing with a question of a practical character, affecting the whole of the industrial interests of Australia. Honorable members on this side of the House have not brought about the present crisis. It has arisen because honorable members opposite - very properly, no doubt, from their point of view - refused to consent to what we considered to be very reasonable requests on the part of the Senate. Let us again take this message into consideration, and, further, let us exhaust every possible effort that we can--

Mr Watson - During the next few years

Mr McCay - To what other efforts does the honorable member refer 1 Supposing that we agree to consider the requests, and the Senate still differs from us, are we to be called upon to accede to the requests when they are again preferred ?

Sir william Mcmillan - i am not going to imagine such a contingency. Let us exhaust every reasonable effort - if honorable members prefer it, I would limit the period to within the next few days - to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. If we were dealing with this matter in a mere party spirit, we might desire to bring about a political crisis, but we have no wish of that kind. We do not approve of the Tariff- - it is not our Tariff, --and we shall probably not take any part in the discussion that may follow if the motion is carried. The matter lies now between honorable members opposite and the Senate. If the Government has any further compromise to make, we shall assist them in the event of the vote being challenged, and we desire to dp everything we possibly can to avoid the continuance of the present period of unrest throughout Australia. We can say no more. That is a fair and reasonable attitude to assume, and I trust that honorable members generally will take that view of the position.

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