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Wednesday, 13 April 1904

Mr ROBINSON (Wannon) - I am one of the minority in this House who are opposed, lock, stock, and barrel, to this Bill; and I have, therefore, risen to state my objections as briefly as possible before the division on the second reading takes place. I take it that industrial legislation is yet in a very experimental stage, and that the experience we have gained in the Australian States is not. sufficient to warrant the Fede ral Parliament legislating in the wholesale way proposed in the measure now before us. The remark made by the honorable and learned member for Angas, that the Bill goes to lengths which were never dreamt of by the founders of the Constitution, will be amply verified by those who take the trouble to peruse the debates of the Convention in 1 elation to this question. I find, on referring to them, that there was a distinct consensus of opinion on the part of the members of the present Federal Ministry, that proposals of the kind now before us were of a highly experimental character, and that such legislation should not be entered upon by the Federation, if at all, until many years had elapsed. For instance, at page 203 of the debates of the Melbourne sittings of the Convention, the present Prime Minister is reported to have said -

I do not regard the proposal - that is, the proposed addition of the clause in the Constitution giving us the power to legislate upon this subject - as a form of idle words, or as conferring a power that is to be allowed to remain unused. At the same time this is a power, like many others, not likely to be exercised by the Federal Parliament for many years to come. The Federal Parliament will be impressed by the importance of the experiments that are proceeding in the States. It will watch them carefully, and will deal with the subject as soon as it feels it is competent to do so.

Mr Tudor - That is why we are dealing with it now.

Mr ROBINSON - Quite so. Instead of carefully watching the experiments of the States the first Federal Government embodied this proposal in the famous Maitland manifesto - before the Federal Parliament had had an opportunity to watch anything, as it had not even been elected. This Parliament is now asked to proceed to experiments in legislation which at the time of the Convention were unthought of by the members of the present Federal Government, and which, I venture to say, would not be undertaken now but for trie peculiar constitution of the Federal Legislature in the first and second Parliaments. I find, also, that other members of this Government took up an even more extreme attitude than that of the present Prime Minister. Mr. O'Connor, who was at one time a member of this Government, and leader of the Senate, stated that he based his opposition to the insertion of the clause in question in the Federal Constitution upon one ground only, namely, that it was a matter not for Federal control, but for State control. The late Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, took up the same position. He said that this was not a question for Federal legislation, and, therefore, he would oppose the Federal Parliament having power to deal with it. That is the position that I take up. I contend that the question before us is one with which members of the State Legislatures are far more in touch than are the members of this Parliament. Their constituencies are smaller than ours, and their daily work as members of Parliament brings them into closer contact with industrial interests. They are, therefore, better able to determine questions relating to industrial legislation than are members of the Federal Parliament, elected to deal with only wide, national questions.

Mr Deakin - What about a dispute that extends beyond the limits of any- one State?

Mr ROBINSON - Under that guise an effort may and will be made to bring every kind of dispute under this Bill.

Mr Skene - That is the worst feature of the Bill.

Mr ROBINSON - Yes. It is a deliberate attempt on the part of the framers of the Bill to bring within its provisions every trade and industry, no matter how small or slight it may be. The only exception is in the case of domestic servants. For the first time in the history of any Australian. Parliament the whole of the farming industry is to be brought at one swoop under legislation of this kind. Not in any State of Australia, nor in New Zealand, has any Parliament attempted to deal with such' a proposal, but if this Bill be carried the farmers of Australia will stand in peril of having their hours of labour laid down for them, and the wages which they are to pay their sons and other employes specified. They will be bound hand and foot to carry out what a certain Court of Arbitration compels them to do. Farming is an industry which cannot be carried on under such a system, and I feel satisfied that the great majority of representatives of farming districts are with me in this contention. In order that the opinion of the House in regard to this phase of the question may be obtained at the proper time 'by means of a fair and square division, I have given notice of an amendment to exempt the farming industry from the provisions of the

Bill. I am not satisfied that the principle of conciliation and arbitration is better than the principle adopted in the Victorian Factories Act.

Mr Tudor - Under which men who join the wages boards may be dismissed by the employers.

Mr ROBINSON - I have no particular love for the Victorian Factories Act, or for the wages board provisions, but I think them a lesser evil than the provisions of this Bill. If a dispute is to be settled by force of law, I think it far better that those who settle it shall be men elected, as under the Victorian Factories Act, by the employers and employes concerned, and shall choose their own chairman, than that it shall be dealt with by a Court. That arrangement is far more likely to lead to satisfactory results than is the arrangement provided for in the Bill. Where the interference of a Court is provided for, there is always an undue tendency to bring trivial matters before the tribunal. A few days ago, the people of Sydney were plunged in sorrow, because it was doubtful whether they would be able to obtain hot cross buns on the morning of Good Friday, and an application was actually made to the New South Wales Arbitration Court for a direction as to whether the buns could be delivered. One has only to look at the list of cases to see how the Arbitration Act has been ridden to death there, the valuable time of the Court being taken up by trivial disputes such as I have mentioned ; and the same thing would occur under the Commonwealth Act. Those who have been working under satisfactory conditions, without complaint, formally years, will say - " Let us have a shot at our employers by making a claim for higher wages. If we lose our case, we shall not be worse off than we are now, while, on the other hand, we may gain something." Universal testimony goes to show that that is what has happened in New South Wales, and will happen throughout Australia if the proposed Bill is passed. In dealing with this question, we are, to a large extent, passing legislation which will overlap the legislation of the States, and as State legislation on the subject must be more satisfactory to both masters and to men, the power of the States to legislate upon it should remain unimpaired. If we pass this Bill, the employer of labour, notwithstanding the old proverb that no man can serve two masters, will be compelled to do so, and when he is in doubt as to which he must obey, the only certain way of settling his difficulty will be by appealing to the Law Courts. That is not the position in which employers of labour should be placed. I think that this subject should be left to the Parliaments of the States, and that we should not interfere in regard to it.

Mr Deakin - How would the honorable and learned member provide for the settlement of disputes extending beyond the limits of a State ?

Mr ROBINSON - If there were a dispute in New South Wales, and another dispute in Victoria, the New South Wales dispute could be settled by the New South Wales Arbitration Court, while the Victorian dispute could be dealt with under the provisions of the Factories Acts.

Mr Tudor - Disputes in some trades could not be dealt with by Victorian legislation.

Mr ROBINSON - The farming industry is exempt from the Victorian Act, and I hope that we shall not bring it under this Bill.

Mr Tudor - Disputes in the building trades could not be settled under the Victorian legislation.

Mr ROBINSON - I have now a word to say in regard to the proposal to apply the provisions of the measure to public servants. I feel that that proposal is an unwarranted interference with the rights of the States, and that the High Court, if appealed to, will declare it unconstitutional. Therefore, I see no reason .why the Bill should be amended so as to make its provisions apply to the public servants of the States. However, I regard with less trepidation than do other honorable members a possible crisis in connexion with this particular matter, because anything which delays the passing of the Bill, and gives those of us who are opposed to it more breathing space, is something for which we have cause to be thankful. I atn certain, from what I know of the Prime Minister, that if the Bill is made to apply to public servants its passing will be delayed. If, however, its provisions are made to apply to public servants, I hope that the constitutionality of tthat proceeding will be referred to the High Court at the earliest possible moment. I feel confident that the Court will declare the provision unconstitutional. I shall support the Government in regard to this matter, not because I love them more, but because I like the proposal of the labour party less. As the leader of the Government, and the Government organ in Victoria, have been lecturing the members of the Opposition upon the attitude which, they should assume in connexion with the Bill, I suggest that they might do better if they turned their attention to the attitude of Government supporters, and left the members of the Opposition to do what they conceive to be their duty to the country. On looking up the division list of last session, I have found that if the so-called supporters of the Government had stuck to their leaders, this proposal would havebeen defeated by nine votes, and this Parliament would have been saved from the introduction of the measure at this particular time. It surely would be a grateful task for the Prime Minister, or the Minister for Trade and Customs, to persuade that eminently tractable individual, the right honorable member for Adelaide, to reconsider his position, while the honorable anc) learned member for Northern Melbourne, who is known to be always open to reason, might be asked to do the same. The honorable member for Melbourne Ports is in a dilemma, between the wishes of his constituents and his own desire to support the Government ; but no doubt if the Prime Minister turns his attention to him, good may be done, while steps might be taken to render the position of other members of the party, who previously deserted the Government, somewhat different on this occasion. We, on this side, who will vote for the Government, will do so without any shadow of reluctance. We shall resist the proposal of the labour * party, because we regard it as an infringement of State rights,, and, therefore, unconstitutional, and we shall support the Government because they will be doing what is right. I hope that the Prime Minister, if the amendment be carried, will adhere to the intention which he has already expressed. By doing so, he will be acting honorably towards the country, and the people will think more of him. If it is to be a case of "Toyour tents, O Israel," the sooner we gothe better. But the dissolution of one branch of the Legislature alone will have little effect in securing the permanent settlement of this question. It isonly by a double dissolution that a clear and definite expression of public opinion, upon the question can be secured. If a majority be returned to this House ready to .support the attitude taken by the Government, it will mean, I hope, that the measure will be hung up for some years to come. Anything that will tend to delayits passing will have my hearty support and approval.

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