Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Wednesday, 9 March 1904

Mr WEBSTER (Gwydir) - I rise with some diffidence at this early period in the session to address a few remarks to the House on the opening speech. I do not intend to discuss every item in the speech, but to refer to two or three of the more important matters with which it deals. I have been considerably amused by the puzzled expressions which have fallen from the leaders of the different parties in the House with regard to their future position. I have no doubt that the members on the Opposition side find themselves in a very peculiar position, as do also the members on the Government side. I think that we shall have to wait for developments before we are able to realize exactly where we stand. The three matters to which I desire to direct attention are, firstly, the financial position of the States and of the Commonwealth; secondly, the question of immigration ; and thirdly, the question of population in its relation to the report of the Royal Commission in New South Wales which dealt with the question of the birthrate. These are three questions which to my mind underlie not only Federal administration, but also the prosperity, not merely of this State, but of the whole Commonwealth. When I hear honorable members who are experienced in parliamentary debate and well posted in parliamentary statistics decry the credit of Australia as a whole, and so try to place their party on a pedestal as critics of the financial position of the Commonwealth, it makes me reflect for a moment, and take a survey of the position of the Commowealth as compared with that of other countries. I am not one of those who believe that it is wise at any time to cry stinking fish, even provided a bad state of affairs did exist. From every platform during the Federal campaign in New South Wales we heard ad libitum prophecies, both as to the insolvency of that State and as to the impossibilityof obtaining money to carry on the government of the State and of the Commonwealth. But when I come to glance at the statistics, I am at a loss to understand upon what facts those prophecies are based. When I consulted Mr. Coghlan some time ago in connexion with State finance, I was informed by a special return which he provided that New South Wales has borrowed nearly£80,000,000, and that of that sum£60,000,000 has been spent on revenue-producing works, and £20,000,000 on works which are essential to the development of a new country. Taking from the annual interest the amount which is provided from the revenueproducing expenditure, we find that it materially alters the position which is put before us by those persons who are always seeking to defame the credit of thisor that State. It is possible that many honorable members have not worked out the figures which Mr. Coghlan so courteously supplied to myself and others. He says that, instead of the taxation being the amount which is generally put forward by critics of the financial position in New South Wales, we are simply paying per unit of the population only 8s. ad. per head on unproductive loan expenditure. In Victoria, with all its faults, with all its errors of administration, with all its non-paying railways, we find that when the whole thing is boiled down and we put to the credit of that State the revenue which is derived from revenue-producing loan expenditure, its people are paying only 7s.11d. per head according to the figures which were given to me by Mr. Coghlan at the end of 1903. I challenge any man, be he a member of this House or a member of the State Parliament, to produce reliable statistics from any civilized country where the population are under a less burden of taxation than are the people of this Commonwealth. It rather hurts me to hear such statements as I complain of, when I know that I can rely on Mr. Coghlan's facts in statistical matters, and also when I know that Mr. Nash, the financial editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, has practically indorsed the return which he provided. It will be seen, therefore, that I am taking, not only the record of our Government Statistician, but also the statement of a gentleman on an antagonistic press, who has at least honestly expressed his opinion on the true position of affairs. I cannot see any justification for the expressions which escaped from the honorable member for Parramatta yesterday. I know that it has become practically chronic with some persons to act in this way, and allowing for the law of imitation it seems to me forgivable that they should at all times rise and disparage the credit of the Commonwealth or the credit of the State.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member is now speaking out of a full experience, I suppose?

Mr WEBSTER - I do not know whether I have had a full experience or not ; but I hope that when I gain a full experience I shall be able to use my knowledge with more discretion, and do more good for the community I represent, than my honorable friend is evidently inclined to do. I do not desire to enter into a lengthy discussion on the finances of the Commonwealth or of the States.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member had better do so while he is at it.

Mr WEBSTER - I shall please myself as to how far I shall go. I am not under the domination of any party as regards the expression of my opinions, and I feel sure that the honorable member will grant to a new member, with whom he should sympathize, the same privilege that he would expect to receive. I trust that honorable members will reflect before they rise to give expression to views which will not assist to remove the difficulties which beset the- States in this time of financial crisis or panic, for that is really what it is. My leader truly described the reason why the loan market is out of joint to-day. He stated that owing to the large amount of money borrowed by municipal institutions in Great Britain during the last two or three years, and the enormous sums that have found their way into South Africa to liquidate the expenses incurred during the war, we could not expect any other result, and that we should have to bear our share of the temporary inconvenience involved. In view of these conditions, I fail to see why honorable members who professto have at heart the best interests of the country should make statements which have already done much, and are calculated to do still more, to injure the credit of Australia. The statistics which I have quoted prove beyond any doubt that, among the more advanced countries in the civilized world, ours is subject to the least burden of taxation per unit of population, and that consequently there is no justification for the cry which has been so persistently raised with regard to the insolvency of our States. During this debate we have heard the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition speaking practically in accord with regard to the means to be adopted for the development of the resources of the Commonwealth. The sixth, seventh, and eighth paragraphs of the GovernorGeneral's speech deal with the question of extending practical assistance and encouragement to those of our population who are settled upon the land, with a view to enabling them to increase the productiveness of the soil, and thereby contribute to the prosperity of the Commonwealth. I realize that the intention of both honorable gentlemen - and they are in absolute accord upon this question - is a most laudable one; but the question is whether' their ideas are practicable, or whether they propose the best way of. attaining the object in view. In the midst of all the efforts made to settle people upon the land in the various States, it has been recognised that before any proposals could take practical effect, the land must be made available for settlers. When the leader of the Opposition was speaking, I was reminded of his utterances in the. State Parliament of New South Wales some years ago, when he introduced the land and income tax, and thereby did something to relieve the community, by adjusting the incidence of taxation. It would have been a great achievement on the part of the right honorable gentleman had he been able to adopt the same policy as that followed by the Right Honorable Mr. Seddon in New Zealand, when he first grappled with the question of land taxation. If the right honorable and learned member had done that, there would have been very little cause for the complaint that intending settlers are unable to secure suitable land. It may not be generally known that in New South Wales - as the honorable member for Bland has stated - there are hundreds ot settlers' sons who have been on the land all their lives, who are how anxiously looking forward to' the day when they will be fortunate enough under the Tattersalls Sweeps' system of drawing lots for land to win the marble which will give them the right to settle upon a suitable block of land in- this grand country. I might also say that the land now available for settlement is not the most suitable- for. agricultural purposes, because it is practically the remnant that has been left after all the best land has been taken up. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the policy of the Labour Party should be carried out as soon as possible, and that land monopoly should be done away with. I do not wish to raise the cry of " class against class, but I hope that the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition, and the leader of the Labour Party, who are in agreement as to the- necessity for doing something to relieve the situation, will combine to adopt the one solution of the difficulty. The three parties in this House are practically agreed upon many points, but it is still a little puzzling to forecast developments. We have heard the leader of the Opposition appealing to the Prime Minister to come into closer union with himself or with some one else. The right honorable gentleman has-the claim to priority, so far as age is concerned, and he evidently desires that the alliance which has been so much spoken of may be brought about speedily. I do not see any reason why the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition should not form an alliance, because there is practically no point of difference between them at the present stage. The most important point upon which the Government and the Opposition, and the Government and the Labour Party are at variance, arises out of the proposal which has been made that the provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill shall be extended to the servants of the States. The leader of the Opposition has, however, in effect, told the Prime Minister that if he will stand by his public utterances, he may count upon the support of that right honorable gentleman, to prevent the incorporation of such a provision in the law. When we come to consider the more serious question of the stagnation of population in the Commonwealth, we cannot help viewing, with the keenest of regret, the report of the Birthrate Commission, which recently reported to the Government of New South Wales. Some people seemed to think that the Commission would not serve any useful purpose, but I believe that it will result in great good, even if it only opens the eyes of the people to the existing condition of affairs. I recognise that the States Governments have not been altogether blameless in allowing this condition of affairs to arise. We are all aware of the methods which are adopted by persons who desire to diminish the natural increase of our population, and we know that those practices have been freely advertised through the medium of the daily press, without any barrier being interposed by the States Governments.

Mr Deakin - That question is under the control of the States and not of the Commonwealth.

Mr WEBSTER - I quite understand that. I merely wish to point out that if the States Governments had realized their duty in this connexion they would have prohibited the publication of advertisements which are responsible for the deplorable condition of affairs which exists to-day. I do not regard the stoppage in the natural increase of our population as the chief evil. There is a more regrettable phase of the question than that - I refer to the suffering which is visited upon the female portion of the community as the result of the adoption of the nefarious practices which have been advertised without let or hindrance on the part of the States Governments. I do not see how we can prevent, not only the restriction of our population, but the undermining of the health of the mothers of this nation, unless the Prime Minister appeals for the prohibition of this class of advertisements. In a young country like Australia it is deplorable that the birth-rate should be practically stationary, and that everywhere we should see signs that .the future mothers of the nation have a disinclination to perform the functions which. they should discharge as citizens of the Commonwealth. I now come to a matter which has been debated at considerable length - that of preferential trade. I do not wish to say a great deal upon it, because I consider that it is now beyond the range of discussion. All parties are practically agreed as to the future of preferential trade. The leader of the Opposition has already intimated that he is prepared to agree to a fiscal truce during the currency of this Parliament. On the other hand, the Prime Minister declares that he is willing to wait until Great Britain gives us some idea of the nature of the proposals which she is prepared to submit for the adoption of the Commonwealth. Seeing that the leaders of two of the parties in this House take up that attitude, it naturally follows that nothing will be done in connexion with preferential trade during the life of the present Parliament.

Mr Conroy - Is the honorable member not in favour of it?

Mr WEBSTER - I take up the same position now that I did during my election campaign. I say that when the mother country is prepared to submit her preferential trade proposals to the Commonwealth, and when she can show that our producers will be benefited by adopting them, I shall be ready, not to accept, but to consider them.

Mr Conroy - Why not "reject" them straight out?

Mr WEBSTER - I do not say that. I believe that the man who rejected such proposals before he understood the nature of them would be acting suicidally. The question is yet " in the air." There is no definite proposal before the House at the present time, and, to some extent, I 'deplore the action of the Prime Minister in cabling to England the announcement that Australia was practically prepared to adopt a system of preferential trade.

Mr Conroy - The honorable member does not think it was true?

Mr WEBSTER - What is the use of my "thinking" upon the matter, seeing that I cannot prove whether or not my thoughts are right? I prefer to work upon facts.' Had the Prime Minister upon that occasion taken up the attitude which he did in the speech which he delivered upon the Address in Reply - had he stated his willingness to defer action until Great Britain submitted proposals for our consideration - I think he would have stood upon fairly solid ground. When, however,- he took it upon himself to cable to England that Australia was proud to learn that the question of preferential trade was being advocated by Mr. Chamberlain, he went a step further than he should have done. The position which he now assumes is absolutely logical. He is prepared to wait until some definite proposals are laid before him.

Mr Deakin - I am obliged to wait; I do not wish to do so.


Mr WEBSTER - Mr. Seddonis in New Zealand. At the present time we are not dealing with Canada or New Zealand, but with the affairs of the Commonwealth, and therefore we are not called upon to consider what Sir Wilfrid Laurier has done in Canada, or what Mr. Seddon has accomplished in New Zealand. It is singular that throughout the whole of this debate we' have been repeatedly assured by members of the Opposition that the Prime Minister was pledged to advocate preferential trade and fiscal peace. Some have urged that the two matters are antagonistic; I think so too. If the question of preferential trade is raised, fiscal peace is impossible. At the same time, I hold that the Prime Minister overstepped the bounds of propriety in defining his position upon, this question before the voice of the people of Australia had been constitutionally expressed upon it through the medium of the ballot-box. In addressing the electors at Singleton, the leader of the Opposition said something to the following effect: - "If I am returned to power I intend to pull down a piece of the present fiscal wall in order to allow of the admission of the goods of the dear old mother country." But the right honorable member is well aware that there is no man in this House who can pull down a brick of that wall unless another brick is substituted for it.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - We removed a good many bricks from it.

Mr WEBSTER - Yes; honorable members upon the Opposition side of the Chamber removed so many bricks that no more can now be spared. Under the operation or the Braddon section of the Constitution we are compelled to raise a certain amount of revenue each year.

Mr Conroy - That section merely regu-lates the distribution of revenue.

Mr WEBSTER -I sympathize with the honorable and learned member for Werriwa sincerely, since his leader has practically forsaken the flag which he has so long held up to the breezes of heaven. In the circumstances he really becomes worthy of my sympathy, and I extend it to him. In view of the provisions of the " Braddon Blot," it is a mere mockery for any honorable member ' to speak of pulling down a piece of the fiscal wall in order to allow " the goods of the dear old mother country to come in."

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Exclusive duties do not raise revenue.

Mr WEBSTER - That is so. It may be that In 'drafting the Tariff the Treasurer provided for certain duties .which were purely experimental.


Mr WEBSTER - That might naturally, follow. Any one who attempts to build up a Tariff of this kind must be prepared to find, with the lapse of time, that his judgment has not been confirmed exactly as he calculated. But that, after all, is only a matter of readjustment. All that can be done is to readjust any of the duties that do not perform the- functions which, in view of the provisions of the "Braddon Blot," they were intended to carry out.

Mr Poynton - It would be possible to take a brick or two. off the fiscal wall.

Mr WEBSTER - Others would have to be substituted. The leader of the Oppo.r sition stated in- his speech to which I have already referred, that if returned to power he would pull down a piece of the fiscal wall bf the Commonwealth to allow the dear old mother country to send in her goods. A little later on, in the course of the same speech, he said that if he were not returned to power he would see that the Prime Minister of Australia carried out his policy to the letter, and imposed some substantial preference duties in favour of the dear old mother country.

Mr Kelly - The honorable member is not correct in his statement. The leader of the Opposition spoke of reducing the duties.

Mr WEBSTER - I am quoting in effect of the statements made by the leader of the Opposition. In the course of this remarkable speech, the leader of the Opposition went further, and said in effect - " If I am not returned to power, I shall be a stronger man politically than I should be if I were returned to power, inasmuch as I shall escape the responsibility of performing a very difficult task." What did he mean by that statement? He simply meant that if he were returned to power he would find it difficult to carry out his proposal to pull down a piece of the fiscal wall for the benefit of the dear old mother country.

Mr Poynton - How does the honorable member know what the leader of the Opposition meant to infer?

Mr WEBSTER - I am quoting from the speech delivered by-. the leader of the Opposition, and I assert that in the course of that speech he clearly indicated that if the Opposition to-morrow took possession of the Government benches they would be in exactly the same position as that occupied to-day by the Ministry. After all, it is very largely a question of office with those who speak in this way with regard, to preferential trade. In view of what I have heard from honorable members of the Opposition, I am satisfied of that. The honorable member for Lang yesterday addressed himself at length to this subject. He dealt with the matter in a very trenchant way, and quoted from speeches delivered by Mr. Chamberlain some years ago as an illustration of what Mr. Chamberlain was then and what he is to-day. But if I were to apply to other men the same standard of criticism, what would be the result ? What would be said if I asked the honorable member for Lang to explain his present position in view of the fact that on one occasion three or four years ago he signed the Labour Party's platform, in which the fiscal issue was sunk as a matter of no practical importance when compared with socialistic legislation. I should refresh the honorable member's memory if I were to ask him what was responsible for his change of views in regard to the importance of the fiscal question - why he considers it of preeminent importance to-day, when a few years ago he was prepared to sign the cast-iron pledge of the Labour Party, and to sink this issue. An honorable member should take care before throwing stones . to see that his own windows are strong enough to resist any stone-throwing in return. It is not a question of what was Mr.

Chamberlain's attitude nearly fifty years ago, but rather what the necessities of today demand of him as a protector of the interests of the Empire in which he occupies so notable a position. I do not anticipate that the question of preferential trade will be brought forward during the life of the present Parliament, or indeed that, for practical purposes, we shall hear any more of fiscalism in this House. If that be so, we shall be able to pass some good useful legislation for the benefit of the Commonwealth. We do not want to see the eternal fiscal controversy, which formerly characterized the proceedings of the States Parliaments, perpetuated in this House. Another matter to which I desire to refer is the importation o,f Chinese. I wish to direct the attention of the Prime Minister to the fact that the Chinese are pouring over the borders in large numbers, and taking possession of many back-block towns remote from active centres of population. I do not know how it is possible for this to occur, but I know that it is taking place. These Chinese are undermining not only the workmen of these districts, but actually the shopkeepers and tradesmen. This is more particularly the case in certain towns in New South Wales. It is deplorable to find that men who had a kindly feeling towards Chinese when they employed them as servants are to-day beginning to realize what California realized all too keenly years ago - that the man who is your servant to-day may be your master to-morrow. We find that in certain parts of New South Wales the Chinese are practically usurping the position of shopkeepers. They evade every law - as they alone can - and are increasing in a way that should be arrested. I should like to see the Immigration Restriction Act enforced in its entirety so that this leakage of undesirable aliens into the various States may be effectually stopped.

Mr Deakin - It is part of a general movement from the north towards the south and west. The Chinese to whom the honorable member refers have not just entered the country. They are Chinese who speak the English language, and have been here for some time.

Mr WEBSTER - I am informed that this invasion of the Commonwealth by Chinese takes place in this way : The steamers coming here bring a number of Chinese in their crews, and discharge these men at the first port they come to, taking them on as passengers to the next port. Upon arrival there the men can simply walk ashore without being subjected to the' payment of a poll tax or having to pass the education test.

Mr Deakin - The steamship companies are obliged to take away as many men in their crews as they bring here, so that the number of Chinese in the Commonwealth is not being added to, even if the practice to which the honorable member refers is taking place.

Mr WEBSTER - It is true that these steamers take away the same number as they bring, but the men who originally come here under signed articles for the first port land as passengers at the next port, and consequently escape the imposition of a penalty and the application, of the education test.

An Honorable Member. - Possibly the inspection is insufficient.

Mr WEBSTER - That may be so. The inspectors have too much to do to attend to all the duties which are part of their functions. I trust, however, that so far as the' Commonwealth is concerned, all legal restrictions will be imposed to stop the invasion of our States by Chinese. Another matter to which I wish to refer is the action of the Government in transferring the duties of electoral officers to the Postal Department. I find that non-official postmasters were appointed registrars, and charged with very heavy duties during the recent elections, without receiving any additional remuneration for the work they performed. In any case, the payment given to those who undertake the onerous duties devolving upon non-official postmasters is inadequate. The Commonwealth administration is certainly a penurious one so far as those men are concerned. But to impose' upon men who are receiving, perhaps, or £10 a year for acting as postmasters, the duties of electoral registrars without extra payment is nothing less than disgraceful.

Sir John Forrest - Is the honorable member referring to the postmasters in the Department ?

Mr WEBSTER - No ; to the postmasters who are not in the Commonwealth Public Service. The official postmasters have been paid for their services in connexion with the administration of the Electoral Act; I am speaking of the treatment accorded to nonofficial postmasters - to men who are in charge of post offices, but who are not technically public servants. They are entitled to special consideration for the duties they performed in connexion with the recent elections.

Sir John Forrest - Have they not received the same treatment as other postmasters ?


Mr Willis - They are all badly paid.

Mr WEBSTER - They are inadequately paid for the duties they perform as postmasters, and the fact that they have received no additional remuneration for the work done in connexion with the recent election does not reflect credit upon the Commonwealth.

Sir John Forrest - We are ready to listen to reasonable complaints ; but they have not yet submitted any.

Mr WEBSTER - Perhaps they are waiting because they are not quite sure how long the Government will remain in office, and wish to know before they do anything with whom it will be necessary to lodge their petitions. I do not intend now to deal with the regulations issued by the Defence authorities, or with matters of that kind, though as an old volunteer I know something of the administration of the Defence Department. The other night, however, when proceeding from this House' about 9 or 10 o'clock, I marvelled to see, close to one of the gates of the Fitzroy gardens, a recruit being put through his drill by two officers. It may be that the Minister, in view of the scare about a war which is being raised by the newspapers, and feeling the need to' prepare for emergencies, is trying to develop as quickly as possible the material with which he hopes to defend the Commonwealth ; but I hope that this numerical superiority of officers is not characteristic of the Defence Force generally. If it is, the military estimates will be subjected to very heavy criticism when they are put before us. From what has been said by other speakers, I think that we have grave reasons for suspecting the methods of the Defence Department, and that we shall have to severely criticise the administration of the Department because of the officialdom which seems to rule supreme there. In conclusion, I hope that we shall at an early date arrive at a decision in regard to the Arbitration Bill. After all, politics is a matter of compromise, and I hope that the Prime Minister will see the wisdom of not drawing a strict line as to the classes affected by the Bill. I believe that it will be to the best interests of those employed by the States to come under the provisions of the Bill.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Why does not the Labour Party compromise ?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Why should they?1 They possess the driving power.

Mr WEBSTER - The leader of the Opposition has compromised very materially since the meeting of this Parliament. No doubt the honorable member for Parramatta knows the value of the driving power which the Labour Party possesses. At any rate, he was at one time in a position to do so. I do not- say that we intend to compromise; but in the interests of those who are excluded from the operation of the Arbitration Bill, I appeal to the Prime Minister not to draw too strict a line. I cannot see that there is a justification for the exclusion of public servants from the operation of Iba provisions of the Bill.

Mr Deakin - The matter has not been argued out here vet.

Mr WEBSTER - Not this session; but I have read the arguments used last session, and have drawn my conclusions from what was sai'd then. When the Arbitration Bill is out of the way, I think there will be nothing to prevent an amalgamation of parties which will enable the business of Parliament for the session to be carried through with credit to ourselves and to the advantage of the country we have the honour to represent.

Mr. HIGGINS(Northern Melbourne).Having listened to the speeches of the new members of the House, I feel that we are to be congratulated upon the addition to our debating power, and in the case of the last honorable member, upon the acquisition of a speaker possessed of a new vein of originality and good humour. I wish to say a few words in regard to the GovernorGeneral's Speech. For a speech delivered at the opening of a new Parliament, it cannot be described as very exciting, or as containing any very novel proposals.

Mr Poynton - The proposal for old-age pensions is novel.

Suggest corrections