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Wednesday, 16 March 1904

Mr THOMAS (Barrier) - In view of the large number of honorable members who have spoken and the time that has already been occupied by the debate, I shall endeavour to curtail my remarks. I presume that the last general election is a subject of interest to all honorable members, and I am quite with the leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Labour Party in asking that there shall be a full inquiry into the administration of the Electoral Act. I do not support this request in any spirit, of antagonism to the Government, or in any spirit of personal animosity to the Chief Electoral Officer. I do not ask for an execution, but simply for an inquiry. I think that there was a great deal of blundering in connexion with the elections. The Minister for Home Affairs holds the idea that those who succeeded at the elections should be content to allow matters to rest, but I do not exactly share that view. For example, in my electorate the returning officer, who was a thoroughly capable and experienced man, had always been consulted previously, as to where polling booths should be provided, but on the last occasion a' list was forwarded to him from Sydney, and he was instructed to arrange for booths at the places therein named. I saw that no booths had been provided -for at one or two places where a large number of electors resided. I pointed this out to the re-: turning officer, who quite agreed with me, and wired to Sydney pointing out the desirability of having polling booths at the places referred to, and also representing that a booth would not be required at ohe of the localities mentioned in the list, because, since the previous election, all the former residents had left, and only one man, a caretaker, remained. A reply was received that it was impossible to provide the additional polling places suggested, and that the polling booth which the rer turning officer considered unnecessary would have to be arranged for, because it had been gazetted.

Sir John Forrest - Was there a roll for that one person?

Mr THOMAS - I suppose so. There might have been more names upon the roll at one time, but, as a matter of fact, the place was deserted. It was found after: wards that even the caretaker had left, and that there was absolutely no one in the locality to vote. There was not a house of any kind, or even a tent, that could be used as a polling booth, and it was suggesed that a carpenter, should be sent out to erect a booth. The returning officer, however, felt that that would involve unnecessary expense, and it was eventually arranged that the presiding officer and the poll clerk should take out with them a hooded buggy, and that that should be used as a polling booth. These two men were sent forty or fifty miles from the centre of population to a place at which there were no voters, and they had to spend the day in idleness. The only vote recorded was that of either the poll clerk or the presiding officer. Two or three places at which' there had previously been polling booths were omitted from the list furnished by the electoral authorities, and the consequence was that zoo or 300 persons in the back-blocks were unable to record their votes. In one case, that of a station at which from twenty-five to thirty men were employed, no votes could be recorded, because the polling booth previously arranged for was. not provided on this occasion. If it be the settled policy of the Government to erect polling booths where . there are no people, and. to make no provision in places where there are rersidents, I do not think that it will be fair to find fault with the electors for not recording their votes. In. order to save expense,, the- Electoral Department borrowed ballot-boxes from the State Government. Some of these had to be altered, and were sent for a distance of 120 miles to Broken Hill for that purpose. There were a number of carpenters at the- place from which the boxes were sent, and it is reasonable to suppose that one or other of these men might have done all that was required, and thus have saved the expense of conveying the boxes to and fro by mail coach. In another case half-a-dozen additional boxes were required, and instead of having them made locally, the officials in Sydney sent them right through from that city by rail to Broken Hill. Whilst these matters may appear trivial, they tend to show that there was a great deal of blundering, and that it involved unnecessary expense, and- caused great inconvenience. Further, a great deal of carelessness was exhibited in connexion with the rolls, and it is only1 right that' a careful inquiry should be made in order that the blame may be laid upon the right shoulders: Some of the fault may lie with the Act itself. If so, the law should be altered. If the fault rests with the Chief Electoral Officer, that gentleman should be dismissed, or, if the blame attaches to his subordinates, an opportunity should be taken to appoint a better staff., I think that it is due to the Chief Electoral Officer, regarding whom much has been said, that an inquiry should be held. Personally, I have nothing against that gentleman. I have come into contact with him only four or five times, and on each of these occasions I have been able to obtain what I wanted. I am pleased to notice, from the GovernorGeneral's Speech, that no acceptable tender was received for carrying on the mail service by steamers manned only by white labour, because I am opposed to such subidies as have hitherto been given to the Orient and P. and O- Companies. I understand that, under the old agreement, which was in operation for six or seven years, we joined' the Imperial Government in paying the companies mentioned .,£170,000 per annum. To this amount we contributed £75,000; whilst the Imperial Government made up the balance. These subsidies were given with four distinct objects. The policy of the Imperial Government, which, I presume^ we followed so far .as the mail subsidy was concerned, was to subsidize mail steamers first, for the carrying of the mails ; secondly, in order to assist the shipbuilding industry ; thirdly, to provide swift armed cruisers; and fourthly, to maintain the supremacy of British commerce. I take it that we are all in accord with these objects, but I hold that it is unfair to charge the Post Office with the whole of the. expense entailed in achieving them. I understand that formerly the Imperial Post Office Department was not charged with the whole of the subsidy, but that the Admiralty had to contribute a large proportion of it. That, I think, was only fair. The Post Office should be charged only with the proportion, given to the companies for the carriage of the mails. Money contributed with other objects, in- view should be debited, to other departments. Our policy has been to provide not only for the carriage of our mails, but also for refrigerating space for. the transport of perishable produce. I do not object to that, but I do not think that the whole cost should be borne by the Post Office. It it be desired to encourage the shipbuilding industry, a Shipbuilding Bonus Bill should be introduced; if we wish to help the Imperial Government to maintain armed cruisers, our naval vote should be debited with a proportionate share of the subsidy, and if we decide to join in maintaining the supremacy of British commerce, the Customs Department should bear a share of the burden. If we desire to assist the export of produce to England, I think that a share of the subsidy should be borne by the Department of Agriculture. Personally, I am strongly in favour of the system of poundage rates being applied to the carriage of our mails. I think that the adoption of that system would insure a swifter delivery of our letters, and would provide us with a service as regular as that ' which has hitherto obtained. It must be borne in mind that,. whilst we are paying excessive subsidies, we do not obtain- the advantage of as speedy a delivery of our mails as we ought to receive. Neither the P. and O, nor the Orient vessels would experience the least difficulty in landing their letters in Adelaide at. least a week- earlier than they- do.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - We do*, not want a swift service so much as a regular one.

Mr THOMAS -But we- want a Speedy service combined with, regularity.

The fact that the mail steamers do .not deliver their letters as quickly as they might can very easily be demonstrated. .Honorable members will .recollect, that, except upon one or two occasions, the Cuzco, which has practically become obsolete, was always .able to land her mails within the contract time. It is, .therefore, apparent that vessels of the class of the Orontes and Mongolia could deliver their mails much more quickly ; but of course it does not pay them to do so. They are subsidized, I believe, to the extent of about .£3,000 per round trip. To accomplish the voyage sooner they would necessarily require to consume a greater quantity of coal. Consequently, there is no inducement to the companies to deliver our mails earlier. If the Commonwealth arranges to pay poundage rates for the carriage of its letters, a great saving will be effected. I understand that a charge .of Jd. for each letter weighing half-an-ounce would be equivalent to £75 per ton. But I would point out that these vessels are willing to carry ordinary freight for £3 . per ton, and surely our mails are a cargo which is worth considering. If Australian letters were forwarded to England by the first boat leaving our shores, with the proviso that any person could indicate .upon them the particular boat by which he desired them to be sent, we should, at least, be insured a .fast service. I should .not allow our mails to be carried, by either .the French or German companies at first. If the other companies formed a shipping ring, and refused to deliver mails within a certain time, I should then be quite willing to throw the carriage of our letters open to the competition of the French and German boats. I am a destructive socialist, because I believe in the destruction of poverty and hunger. If we could not obtain competition, I should be prepared to vote for a proposal to run our own boats, though I presume that as long as Lord Selborne is a director of the P. and O. Co., as well as a Cabinet Minister, some difficulty would be experienced in doing this. I am satisfied that if we could capitalize the!, amount which the Imperial and Commonwealth Governments disburse by way of subsidy, we should' be able to secure vessels equally well fitted with the best of those engaged in the present service. I am aware that there are some people who urge that the traveller to-day can secure better accommodation and treatment upon the French and German mail steamers than he can upon the. P. and O. .or Orient boats. Although I am a free-trader, I frankly confess :that when I travel - which I do very occasionally - I like to ,do so upon a vessel flying the British -flag. Some honorable members, however, who advocate preferential trade, are .accustomed to travel upon the German and .French mail stamers. I assume, therefore, with some justification, that the accommodation upon these boats is superior lo that which is to be found upon the P. and O. and Orient vessels. When the officers of the latter are asked what is the explanation of this, they usually exclaim, " Oh, but look at the tremendous' subsidies which they ;receive." But I would point out that the same argument is applicable to other lines. Let us take the White Star Company as an example. I Believe that that company has afforded an opportunity to thousands of persons to visit the old country who otherwise could not have done so. It has also enabled a large number of people to come to . Australia who never would have faced the discomforts of a sea trip as steerage passengers in the P. and O. or Orient boats. That being so, I do not see why the White Star Company and other lines should not participate in .this subsidy. .Personally, I object to the payment of any subsidy.

Mr Kelly - Does the honorable member suggest that the Cape route is sufficiently expeditious for the carriage of mails ?

Mr THOMAS - I believe in giving equal opportunities to every company

Mr Kelly - But if we adopted the course suggested by the honorable member, a mail despatched from the Commonwealth this week would probably not arrive in England until after letters which are forwarded two weeks hence.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - We could not guarantee that the boats would go direct.

Mr THOMAS - If the vessels did not go direct, the people would soon discover the fact. Some fifteen or sixteen years ago the practice in Victoria, when persons did not indicate on the envelopes the boats by which they desired their letters to travel, was to delay them until the despatch of a regular subsidized vessel.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That was upon the Californian line.

Mr THOMAS - No. New South Wales, I think, subsidized the Orient Company, and the Victorian Government the P. and O. Company, or vice versa. There are two classes of letters which are forwarded to England - those of business men, who naturally desire to obtain a speedy delivery of them, and those of the ordinary individual, to whom speed is not a matter of very great consequence. For the past twenty years I have been regularly corresponding with relatives in England, and, except, on very rare occasions, the question of the early delivery of my correspondence was not a serious matter. No subsidy is paid for the carriage of mails between England and America, but poundage is paid, and an enormous saving is thus effected, while the American mails are delivered in London just as regularly as the Londoner has his letters delivered in New York.

Mr Kelly - All the business is done by cable.

Mr THOMAS - I am aware that more business is now transacted by cable than ever previously. If we can save an expenditure of£1 5,000 or£20,000 a year in connexion with our mail contracts, by all means let us do so.

Mr Kelly - The honorable member forgets that cable messages must be confirmed.

Mr THOMAS - I am perfectly aware of that. The up-to-date business man depends more upon the cable than he does upon letters.

Mr Kelly - Confirmation of cable advices is necessary.

Mr THOMAS - But if a business man cables an order to England, the firm to whom it is addressed does not await confirmatory advices before executing it. If he orders a motor car or a motor cycle, for example, it is delivered to him very often before his letter reaches England. I am pleased to notice the reference made in the Governor-General's Speech to the question of a Commonwealth system of oldage pensions, and although I am aware that in the. opinion of some honorable members that reference is merely so much padding, I trust that the Government are not making a hollow mockery of the matter. It is at all events the duty of the party to which . I belong to see that it does not do so. If this Parliament extends over a period of three years, as I hope it will, it will be the duty of the Labour Party to see that a Commonwealth system of oldage pensions is secured. It is asserted that such a system cannot be established as long as the "Braddon Blot" remains; but I should like to learn from the Prime Minister whether there is anything so sacred about a land-values tax that it is impossible to raise the necessary funds by means of such taxation. Why should a landvalues tax be held to be sacred? Is it something like the Ark of the Covenant - once we touch it are we to die?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - In some States it has already been touched.

Mr THOMAS - The present Government have not been backward in taxing the food supplies of the people. They have succeeded in imposing duties on condensed milk, rice, porridge, tinned meats, and fish, and many other articles of everyday consumption. I am told that there is a duty on even ginger ale. What, therefore, can there be about a land-values tax that should deter the Government from taking action in the direction I have suggested? While the "Braddon Blot" exists it must be impossible to provide for a Commonwealth system of old-age pensions merely from the Customs revenue; but there is no reason why we should not raise the necessary amount by means of a land tax. All that is required is courage on the part of the Prime Minister. If the honorable and learned gentleman proposed to provide for old-age pensions by means of land taxation he would, of course; arouse the hostility of every daily newspaper in Australia. He certainly would not bask in the smiles of the rich. The wealthy people of the Commonwealth, whether free-traders or protectionists, would oppose sucha proposal.

Mr Deakin - I voted for a land-values tax every time that a proposal of the kind was submitted to the Victorian Parliament, and on two occasions I myself submitted such a proposition.

Mr THOMAS - I am glad to have that statement from the Prime Minister ; it gives us reason to hope that he will have the courage to introduce a system of oldage pensions to be financed by means of a land-values tax. No tax could be more equitable. The land values of Australia have really been built up by the energy and the industry of the soldiers of industry, and an infinitesimal amount of those values would be sufficient to provide for the wants of those who are now unable to work. If the Prime Minister endeavours to grapple with the subject, he will be exposed to much abuse .; but should he be successful he will have the satisfaction of knowing that he has placed upon the statute-book the most humane of all legislation - that he has succeeded in bringing some ray of sunlight and comfort into the homes of tens of thousands of people in Australia, who, without such 'legislation, are likely to spend their last few years in a ' condition little better than that of a lingering death. There is one portion of the Governor-General's Speech to which I am somewhat strongly opposed. I refer to the paragraph relating to the question of preferential trade. I do not propose this evening to discuss that question, or to say whether preferential trade with the mother country would be good, bad, or indifferent. It seems to me, however, that during the last few years - and especially from the date when the Right Honorable Joseph Chamberlain took office as Secretary of State for the Colonies - a new policy has been instituted so far as England and her Colonies are concerned. The Colonial Office has been prepared to use the Colonies for party and political purposes in the old land. In' order that honorable members may more clearly understand what I mean, I shall place an illustration before the House. When England went to war with the Transvaal, it was at once urged that Australian contingents should be sent to South Africa. There was no question of whether the war was justifiable. I remember hearing Sir Edmund Barton - then Mr. Barton - declare in the State Parliament of New South Wales that whether the war was right or wrong it was our duty to send troops to South Africa. The right honorable member for Adelaide, who, according to the Bulletin, is the ideal democrat of Australia, took up a similar position in South Australia, and any one who viewed the matter in a different light was regarded as a proBoer' and a disloyalist. In the first debate which took place in the House of Commons after the outbreak of hostilities, Mr. Balfour, in answer to Sir Henry CampbellBannerman, said -

We have with us the material proof that our self-governing Colonies beyond the seas are with us heart and soul in this matter; Is it to be believed that if we were engaged upon some piratical transaction against the liberty of another people, those Colonies, the very breath of whose nostrils is self-government and liberty, would have thrown themselves into our cause, would offer us their resources, and aid us with' their troops? No, sir, we are the butt of much ill-informed and malicious criticism on the part of foreign nations', but we have with us the conscience of the Empire.

I do not suggest that the majority of the people of Australia did not believe in that war, or that they were not heart and soul with England in the position which she took up. The fact was, however, that the cry raised in Australia was that whether the war was right or wrong it was our duty to help Great Britain; yet we find Mr. Balfour declaring in the House of Commons that the sending of these troops from Australia showed that the hearts of the people of the Commonwealth were with the policy of England. That is an illustration of what is occurring to-day in relation to the preferential trade proposals. Mr. Chamberlain asserts that he has been led to enter upon his great campaign in England because the Colonies desire preferential trade, and while I do not say that what has been done here has been seriously misrepresented at home, the action taken has been used there for party purposes. A newspaper paragraph sets forth that -

The Times attaches more importance to Mr. Deakin's statement of Ministerial policy. The very fact, it remarks, that two parties - the Opposition and the Labour members - are able in combination to out-vote the Ministerialists adds significance to Mr. Deakin's declaration in favour "of preferential trade. The Prime Minister must know that he is assured of support beyond the limits of his own party ; otherwise he would have abstained from making so uncompromising a declaration.

If we were asked, apart from all other considerations, whether we favoured preferential trade, I am sure that the majority of the people would reply in the negative.

Mr Deakin - No.

Mr.- THOMAS.- I desire now to read an -'extract from a newspaper published in an English constituency, in which I take an interest: In passing I may 'say that, although some twenty years have elapsed since I left England,- 1 take almost as much interest in the politics of the old country as I did on the day that I landed in Australia. ' The constituency to which I refer is 'at present represented in the House of Commons by a Liberal Unionist, but an effort is being' made to return a Radical in his stead, and the newspaper in question set forth that -

The cry of the free importers that our colonies do not desire preference has of late been growing fainter. Lord Roseberry and others have tried repeatedly, yet without much conviction, to make us believe that the scheme for Imperial reciprocity is as unpopular, in the Colonies as among Little Englanders at home. As a last resource, the free import party hoped that the Commonwealth of Australia would make no formal expression of its views on the subject. Now, even this hope is destroyed. Mr. Deakin, in cordially inviting Mr. Chamberlain to visit the Australian Colonies, acted not merely on his own behalf, nor on that of his Ministry, but on behalf of the whole Commonwealth.

Whatever may be our views with reference to preferential trade, I am sure the

Commonwealth is not in favour of Mr. Chamberlain visiting Australia as the guest of the Government. The leader of the Opposition has emphatically denounced the proposal that he should come here as the guest of the Government for party and political purposes. The leader of- the Labour Party - and perhaps I should refer to him in this connexion as the honorable member for Bland, because on the fiscal issue the Labour Party knows no leader - has also spoken against it. There are many reasons why Mr. Chamberlain should not be invited to come here under the auspices of the Government, and take part in a party conflict. The Protectionist Association have a perfect right, of course, to request him to come out under their auspices; but no Government have a right to invite a man to come here who has taken such a keen party stand in England as the right honorable gentleman has done. There are many reasons why it would not be advisable for Mr. Chamberlain to visit Australia as the guest of any Government. He has taken a very keen interest and active part in politics, and many of the people of Australia have no great regard for . him. I, for one, look upon him as a man who has gone back upon every reform that .he has advocated, and has betrayed every party with which he has been associated. There alf many persons in Australia who do not look ; upon him as being the statesman that some believe him to be. Those who to-day regard him as a statesman, would not have done so twenty years ago ; those who opposed him then are now his strongest supporters. The point that I wish to make, however, is that, while I do not say whether preferential trade is good, bad, or indifferent, I object to its being made a party question. On ' practically every platform in England, it is asserted that, although preferential trade may not be good for England; the Colonies. desire it, and the people at home are asked whether, after the Colonies have done so much for them, they should refuse to listen to the request. In the course of one of his speeches, Mr. Chamberlain himself said -

In Australia, the Prime Minister of Australia, and, I may add, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, have both made this policy of reciprocal preference a leading article in their programme.

Speaking in England, Mr. Chamberlain declared that, as the outcome of the conference the Prime Ministers of the various ' Colonies had unanimously agreed to make , preferential trade1 a leading plank in their platform. I do not .know what was the position taken up by Sir Edmund Barton, upon his return from England. He did not say much in reference to this question, but, perhaps, before leaving the world of politics, he handed over the matter to the present Prime Minister. Mr. Chamberlain, on the occasion in question, went on to say that -

My friend, Mr. Reid, the leader of the Opposition in Australia, although he is himself a convinced free-trader, has, if the reports of his speeches have been correct, declared that, if he could not have absolute free-trade, he would be prepared to give the mother country a preference of 50 per cent.

I suppose that every free-trader in Australia would be prepared to give the mother country a preference of 100 per cent. Mr. Chamberlain, in one of his speeches in England, said -

For my part .1 say that when I remember how the Colonies responded to our appeal, when I remember how, when we were in stress and difficulty, they sent us men in thousands and tens of thousands, that they paid us money, small indeed in comparison with our vast expenditure, but not inconsiderable when you bear in mind the relative proportion of our population - when I remember -how when every-one's hand seemed raised against us we relied and rested on the moral support that we had from these great growing states across the sea, I for one am not prepared to treat their proposals with contempt', and I believe that we may . negotiate with them without fear of a quarrel ; arid that they will show to us the same spirit of generosity and patriotism, which I hope that we shall be ready to -show to them.

If we are prepared to do for Great Britain what Mr. Chamberlain evidently expects, let us frankly say so. Let the Government place their proposals upon the table of this House, and let the question be discussed absolutely on its merits. Let Mr. Chamberlain and the people of England who are fighting with him know exactly what it is that we are prepared to do. I believe that the Prime Minister and many of his supporters are prepared to negotiate with Great Britain if Great Britain will negotiate with us. Well, there is not a single member in this House, I believe - certainly I am not one - who is indisposed to negotiate if Great Britain wishes it. If the British Government will submit a proposal to us, or if our own Government will submit a proposal, I shall be prepared to listen to it. But that is a very different position from allowing prominent men in England to say that they are advocating their policy for the sake of the Colonies. It was cabled out to Australia a little while ago that Mr.

Chamberlain had said that, if the Colonies did not want preferential trade he would be prepared to abandon the fight, but that it was on behalf of the Colonies - those who had done so much for Great Britain - that he was prepared to make a sacrifice. There is a political party in the mother country which is being handicapped by the action of the Commonwealth Government. Personally, I do not think that the Conservative or Protectionist Party has a hope at the next general election in England. But, at the same time, it is an unfair thing 'to call upon thousands and tens of thousands of the people of England to vote out of sentiment for the Colonies, when, if that appeal had not been made to them, they would go into another camp. I feel very strongly upon that point. I feel that if an amendment were brought forward against our own Government at this juncture it would not be a fair and square fight, from the point of view of a number of honorable members, because it would concern issues which are quite apart from that of preferential trade. Some would vote against the Government because they were anxious to remove certain sections from our legislation. Others would vote against them for other reasons. The fact that they invited the Right Honorable Joseph Chamberlain out here would not in itself be a sufficient reason for endeavouring to displace them. So that I say that it is only fair to Australia, to Mr. Chamberlain, and to the people of England that we should have laid upon the table of the House the exact proposals of the Government as soon as they are prepared to submit them. Let them be discussed absolutely on their merits, and the people of England of all political parties know exactly where we are.

Mr. RONALD(Southern Melbourne).A debate upon the Address in Reply is what has been well described as de omnibus rebus, etquibusdam aliis. For. the uninitiated that may be translated - " Concerning everything and a few other things." There are a number of burning questions included in the programme of the Government which is put before us, and I think it is the duty of every honorable member to speak in regard to it, in order that the House, and especially those who have provided the political pabulum which we are to discuss, may know what our feeling is in regard to the proposed measures. Such a debate is a kind of cameraobscura, which gathers and concentrates the opinions of the members of the House upon leading, burning, vexed questions. I congratulate the Ministry, in the first place, on having put before us a very interesting programme. No one can complain that it is " flat, stale, and unprofitable," and that there is nothing in it to interest anybody. We have seen manifestoes and Governor's Speeches which were marked by that characteristic. But this is decidedly an interesting programme, and whether we agree with it in detail or not there can be no doubt that there is. something in it for' everybody.I shall pass over, the references to international matters, which usually mean nothing, and come down to the first part of the programme, concerning which every honorable member who has spoken has prefaced his remarks by explaining his attitude. In connexion with that subject there has been a very decided, unwarranted, malicious, and. malignant attack made- upon a certain party in this House, which is called the third party. We have been challenged to explain our presence here. We have been challenged to define our position, our theory; and the political school to which we: belong. One honorable member was concerned as to what socialism meant, and many people have been cudgelling their brains to find out what is meant by that word. Many of them are as far' off as ever from throwing any light upon the subject. Some people during the recent elections went round declaring that the members of the Labour Party were anarchists. On other occasions we were denounced as communists. Then, again, we were described as socialists ; and I, for one, thought that it would have been a kindness on the part of somebody to present each of these gentlemen with a dictionary that could be carried round in the waistcoat pocket. It would have been a godsend to them, and would have saved .a great deal of misconception. For the benefit of those who are puzzled I will define what I mean by socialism. Socialism, as we mean it - that is, State socialism - is that organization which seeks the greatest happiness of the greatest number by constitutional and political means.

Mr McDonald - The honorable member for Koovong gave us that definition.

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