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Wednesday, 3 September 1902

Mr WILKS (Dalley) - Since three o'clock this afternoon the House has had as much constitutional argument to the square inch as it will require for many years to come. The honorable and learned member for Corio opened his remarks by declaring that the acceptance of the Government proposal would imperil the rights of this House, and of the people. But to my mind the point at issue is whether or not we ought to receive the Senate's message. The debate originated in the question which was put to Mr. Speaker by the honorable member' for Melbourne Ports, who desired to know whether this House had the power to receive the message in question. Mr. Speaker's answer was that owing to an ambiguity in section 53 of the Constitution, and the absence of joint standing orders, he was prevented from giving a ruling upon the point.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Has the honorable member formed any opinion as to why all these constitutional objections have been raised by high Tariffists 1

Mr WILKS - The only opinion which I can form is founded upon the admission of the honorable and learned member for Corio. He marvelled because all the constitutionalists who apprehend an invasion of our rights and privileges, are Victorian representatives. I think that most of their objections are more fiscal than constitutional. I am of opinion that if the requests of the Senate had been in the direction of increased duties we should have heard little about the constitutional aspect of the question. I would further point out that all the legal members of the House who have spoken differ in their interpretation of the Constitution in regard to the power of the Senate to again request amendments.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But they are all dying for a fight.

Mr WILKS - Yes. The Attorney.General when addressing the Housedid notadmit that when the proper time arrived, he was prepared to surrender any tittle of the power of this House. No surrender is suggested. The Tariff issue he said had been fought out. After twelve months of labour we had almost reached finality in regard to it, and he did not intend, by confusing the fiscal question with the constitutional, to provoke a struggle with the other House, when the question at issue could not be properly placed before the people of the Commonwealth. He said that the dislocation of trade which would result from a conflict now between the two Houses would be disastrous to the whole of Australia. If this debate has shown, anything, it has evidenced that we have provided in the Constitution a power which may prove injurious to the people, and which may demand in the near future an amendment of that instrument of government. I am satisfied that when the people have to vote upon the question, whether they shall rule or whether small coteries shall be dominant, the average elector of the smaller States will vote in the same direction as will the democrat of New South Wales and Victoria. I repeat that no surrender of principle is involved in the proposal of the Government. The legal luminaries of the House assure us that if we establish a precedent in this connexion the people will never be able to free themselves from its shackles. I do not believe that statement. This motion is not irrevocable, and we may take a different action in the future. In the course of the Tariff discussions, I naturally expressed my own fiscal views as strongly as possible in opposition to the views of the honorable members on the other side. I realize, however, that we now have a Tariff comprising over 300 different items and having its ramifications in all classes of trade. . The Senate, in the exercise of their powers under a written Constitution, has suggested amendments, and one Message was received from that Chamber. A return Message was sent, and modifications made in the duties, and now a second Message is before us. The wonder is that the suggested amendments were so few, when we consider the hundreds of items which had to be discussed. In my opinion, ¬ęthe word "request" is simply a euphemistic term used in the early days of the struggle, in order to obtain adherence which otherwise would not have been obtained to the federal movement. In this connexion we are reminded of a burglar who may calmly, and in the most polite way, " request " a person to disgorge his cash, but, if the burglar is properly armed, the " request " has all the force of a demand. We know that the word " request" carries with it the force of "amendment." At present the Senate has, through this House, the whole of Australia "in the toils," and that has been shown in the Minister's appeal to honorable members to receive this Message. We have to consider the conditions of trade, and also the fact that a similar position cannot occur again. This is the first time in our history that a uniform Tariff has been drafted, and in order to prevent chaos the Senate's Message ought to be considered. After this time, however, it rests with ourselves whether we accept other requests made by the Senate, and if it were an Appropriation Bill I could understand members of this House fighting strongly against the exercise of the power claimed by the Senate.

Mr Kennedy - What is the distinction in the Constitution 1

Mr WILKS - If a conflict were provoked under present conditions, and reference were made to .the people, the question could not be clearly decided. The suggestions of the Senate have been mostly in the direction of free-trade, and if an appeal were made to the electors of New South Wales they would have to decide on the action of their representatives in the Senate, backed up by the opinion of the majority of their members in the House of Representatives, in furthering a policy in which they believe. The constitutional issue and the fiscal issue would thus be confused. With an Appropriation Bill, however, there would be one question clearly before the people, irrespective of fiscal considerations. Some honorable members have urged that we should go to the country, but those who, it may be without just cause or reason, are strongest in their constituencies, are not always anxious for an appeal to the people. The experience in State politics is that the man who is everlastingly crying out for an appeal to the electors, very often after the appeal is made has no further opportunity of speaking in the Legislature. You, Mr. Speaker, have had experience as private member and Prime Minister in a State Parliament, and now, in your honorable position as the first Speaker of the Federal Parliament, you have refused to rule on the issue before us, and have thrown the responsibility on the House. My opinion is that, as the first Message was received, so should this Message be received. Sweeping away legal subtleties, I say that if there is anything wrong in the reception of the second* Message there was something wrong in the reception of the first Message a fortnight or three weeks ago. It is within our power, in the future, to say whether or not the Senate is correct in sending on suggested amendments. I do not know whether the Acting Prime Minister is aware . that the Senate is prepared for a policy of compromise, and that, if certain modifications are made, the members in another place are prepared to remove obstacles' which now exist. If the Acting Prime Minister has that information,

I can understand his present action ; but if he has any fear that the Senate is not prepared to compromise, but is anxious to fight, then by all means we ought to refuse the Message and, in order to save time, bring on the conflct now. But if in regard to a Tariff - for the whole of Australia, at this stage, only twenty differences remain, more or less unimportant, then the first Parliament has done well. It is not to the interest of the public of Australia to cause a conflict on the present occasion, and throw the public finances and the industrial and commercial world into confusion. The honorable and learned member for Corio said he believed in the representation of population and not of States, and to a great extent I agree in that opinion but the Constitution has been carried, and I do not believe in mock battles. I feel pleased, as a free-trader, that the suggestions of the Senate are in the direction of lowering the Tariff, and if I were to refuse to accept a Message, and say that the Senate had no right to send it, I should be false to my reading of the Constitution.

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