Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Wednesday, 20 April 1904

Mr WILKS (Dalley) - Whatever hazy opinion you, sir, may have formed in the early part of this debate as to the fate of the Government, neither you nor any one else could do otherwise than compliment the Minister for Home Affairs; because he has thrown aside the guise, and has been fighting every inch of the road for the Ministry. He has taken the gloves off, and his position is a very easy one to define. He requires no new faces at the window ; he prefers the old faces at the window. He grumbles at the line of attack, at the weapons which are used. The Prime Minister picked the weapons, and to-night his honorable colleague, in that manly way of his, has tried by every possible means to attract the support of honorable members to the Government. He travelled along, the road of an injured Ministry; he travelled along the road of a Ministry which, he said, has done very much good. He got into conflict with the Labour Party, and, under cover of the situation, he asked us to look to the care of his privileges, and to support the Prime Minister, neglecting to tell the people the principal issue at the present time. The struggle over this Arbitration Bill is not a war of to-day. It is a war dating from the last general election. The Minister for Home Affairs has indicated those whom he regards as the executioners of the Ministry. The real executioners of the Ministry are the electors. The Prime Minister in his Ballarat speech, and in all his speeches throughout Australia, presented this issue to the electors. The Parliament chosen by those electors has not given him a majority. Therefore the people of Australia are the executioners of the Government. But certainly the Minister for Home Affairs has fearlessly fought for the maintenance of the present Government in power. He has taken the gloves off.

He asks us to believe that this is merely a Victorian storm. He says that many of those who will vote against the Government will do so because the issue is purely Victorian. Of course, he alludes to the recent railway strike. We are aware that Sir Edmund Barton, of whose Ministry the present Government is simply a remnant, said, in reply to Mr. Irvine, then Premier of Victoria, that he was unfavorable to including the civil servants. That position was accepted. Now the Prime Minister takes up the cudgels in behalf of a similar policy. From whom do the Ministry look for support in this crisis? They look for support from members like the honor- ' able member for Echuca, who said to-night that the Victorian authorities would not arm any outside power against the Railway Commissioners of the State, and would resist taking from the Commissioners control over their employes. The Minister for Home Affairs poses as the custodian of States rights and of the autonomous powers of the States. But what did he say at the Federal Convention, when he was advocating the power of the Federal Parliament to make laws with regard to conciliation and arbitration? He there put it that he supported the sub-section, because the Federal Parliament would be better able to deal with the subject, and would deal with it far more satisfactorily than the local Parliaments would be likely to do. But to-night the right honorable gentleman appears to take the exactly opposite, view. The connexion of the Government with this question has been historical from the beginning. In the first instance, they lost one of their most powerful Ministers - the Right Honorable C. C. Kingston - who resigned on what some of his friends considered a matter of detail. But, to-night, the Minister for Home Affairs, in powerful language, and with dramatic effect, leads us to believe that he does not believe in the measure at all. One Minister leaves the Cabinet on what was called a question of detail, whilst the other clings to the Government in violence to his own feelings. He fights this battle from the point of view of clinging to office and keeping his party in power. I say that, because, as the Ministerlikes plain speaking on his own part, he mustexpect it in return. If the constitutionality of the amendment were the only matter in dispute there would be very little to trouble the Committee. I like to hear the legal members arguing questions of this sort, but

I would remind them that, whatever their opinions may be, it is the High Court that in the last resort must decide the questions at issue. We have specially appointed a High Court to decide matters of this kind. I should like to offer a few comments upon the attitude of the Prime Minister in regard to this question. He said, on 4th September, 1903, in this House -

My own view was that industrial legislation should bc left wholly in the hands of the States until the Federal Parliament assumed this power, as it has a right to asume certain other powers, under the Constitution, and that after it had assumed responsibility the industrial legislation for the whole Commonwealth should be in the hands of the Federal Legislature.

In that passage the Prime Minister tells us that he thought that the whole matter of conciliation and arbitration should be placed in the hands of the Federal Legislature. He does not refer merely to disputes existing beyond a State, but to disputes generally. So that there may be no mistake about this matter, I will quote another passage. I find that a little further on, in I he same debate, the honorable member for North Sydney interjected -

The honorable and learned gentleman has admitted that he does not know with what authority this Parliament has been endowed.

The Prime Minister replied as follows: -

No- I admit that the provision of the Constitution is ambiguous, and will be subject to review by the High Court; but there is no doubt that it gives authority, whatever interpretation is placed upon it, for all, and more than all, that is provided for in the Bill.

What, in plain language, does that mean? The only interpretation is this: The Prime Minister tells us that the Constitution provides for " all and more than all " that is provided for in the Conciliation and Arbitration Rill. The phrase " more than all " simply means " in regard to matters affecting State civil servants." If disputes between master and man are already included under the Bill, there is only one other kind of dispute that can be meant, and that is a dispute between the employes of a State and their employer. That is to say, twelve months ago the Prime Minister thought that the Parliament of the Commonwealth had absolute control in regard to industrial affairs relating to disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State. We are not interfering in local struggles. We .are only attempting to interfere in disputes extending beyond a State. But the Prime Minister tells us now that he thought that the intention was to apply the provisions of the Commonwealth Act to such disputes as the maritime disputes or the shearers' dispute. If he will look to his own reported remark, he will find that, in answer to the honorable and learned member for Angas, who moved an amendment, the intention of which was to limit ihe measure to maritime and shearers' strikes, the Prime Minister made a most powerful speech against the limitation, and said that the Bill was to comprehend all disputes of an industrial character. The Prime Minister said yesterday -

The strong ground on which the argument I propose to maintain is based is that nowhere in the Constitution can honorable members discover an indication that it was the intention of its framers, or the intention of those who adopted it on the exposition of its framers, to include State servants of any class.

The honorable gentleman asked what was the intention of the framers of our Constitution j but, from his own utterances, we are aware that his opinions have grown since 1891. He also declared that those who supported the proposed amendment were advocates of unification, whilst those who opposed it were pure merino Federalists. I can quite understand any honorable member who is antagonistic to the principle of compulsory conciliation and arbitration being opposed to the inclusion within the four corners of this measure of the public servants of the Commonwealth and of the States. But I cannot understand any one who is prepared to allow the relations between masters and employes to be regulated by a tribunal constituted for that purpose, adopting that attitude. Personally I believe in making the Bill applicable to all workers, or to none. If the legislation proposed is bad for our public servants, it is undoubtedly bad for private employes. The honorable and learned member for Bendigo declared that the great argument against the proposal of the honorable member for Wide Bay was that the Commonwealth had no power to enforce any award given by the Arbitration Court against a Stats. But I would remind him that the same remark is equally applicable to the High-Court. We have no power to enforce a judgment of that tribunal' as against any State. Nevertheless, we know that any judgment which was given by the High Court would be respected. Similarly, no State would repudiate the awards made by a Federal Arbitration Court, th'e establishment of which is contemplated under this Bill. Again, the Prime Minister appealed to us to support the amendment on the ground that at the time of the referendum the people of Australia did not vote in favour qf this power being handed over to the Federal authorities. But I would ask, " Did the electors as a whole consider the effect of what are commonly known as the thirty-nine articles ' ? " Most unquestionably they did not. They accepted the Constitution upon trust, and out cif respect for the public men who recommended it. It is somewhat significant that to-day those men do not defend the instrument of government with the same vigour as they did then. Prior to the referendum being taken, our Constitution was represented to be absolutely perfect. To-day, it is admitted that in many portions its interpretation is doubtful, and that it was necessary to create a High Court to construe its provisions. What man, I would ask, in voting either for or against that Constitution, was influenced in his action by such a provision as the following ?-

The service and execution throughout the Commonwealth of the civil and criminal process and the judgments of the Courts of the States.

I use that sub-section as an argument against those who urge that the electors of Australia voted for the Constitution as it now stands. When before the electors I clearly placed before them my views in regard to the extension of this Bill to the public servants of the States. It is idle to say that the Government are to be turned out of office by a vote on a question which was not put before the people at the recent general elections. We are fresh from the elections, and we know that the Prime Minister in his Ballarat speech indicated in the plainest terms the position which he proposed to take up in regard to this proposition. The honorable and learned gentleman must therefore recognise that the question was considered by the people and that those who support the amendment will vote in accordance with the views expressed by them when last before the electors. I informed my constituents that so far ns this question was concerned I did not share the opinion of my right honorable leader, and I clearly ascertained their will in reference to it. Those who are opposed to the principle of compulsory arbitration must naturally be opposed to the extension of this Bill to the public servants of the States ; but I am utterly at a loss to understand why any distinction should be made between railway employes and other States officials. If it is right to extend the operation of the Bill to the railway employes of the States it: is right that the public servants generally should be brought under it, and if it is wrong to extend the measure to the public servants generally it is wrong to extend it to the railway employes of the States. It may be said that the railwayemployes by means of their organizations have expressed a desire to be brought within the operation of the Bill, while the remaining members of the Public Service have not done so. That, however, does not prove the justice of the contention put forward by some honorable members that the Bill should not be extended to all branches of the Public Service. It shows merely a desire to recognise organization. If the Bill were extended to only the railway employes of the States, officials in the great public services associated with trade would be excluded. By far the largest section of the public servants of Australia is employed in the Postal and Telegraph Department, and if the amendment were negatived, they would not be brought under the Bill. It is singular that we should object to give a Federal Arbitration Court power over our own servants. Opponents of the amendment assert that it would, if carried, strike a blow at the root of the Federal principle, but I have yet to learn that such would be its effect. If the great body of the people are prepared for the introduction of a system of compulsory arbitration, so far as persons in private employment are concerned, they must also be in favour of the extension of the principle to public servants. Masters and men outside the service must recognise that what is good for themselves must be good for the Public Service. Why should members of the Public Service be treated differently in this respect from persons in private employment? The servants of the States are citizens of the Commonwealth, and have a right to be considered. There are some interesting distinctions drawn between a citizen of the Commonwealth and a citizen of the States. If I take a walk down one of our public thoroughfares I perhaps meet the Treasurer, who says that as a citizen of the State he owns a brick in the General Post Office, but is afraid that Sir George Turner, as a citizen of the Commonwealth, may endeavour to take that brick away from him. Too much importance is attached to the distinction between States and Commonwealth rights. If the people of Australia have confidence in the Federal Parliament, and consider that it can legislate for the country far more effectually and economically than can the States Parliaments, it will not be long before we shall hear a demand for increased powers, so far as the Commonwealth is concerned. There is, after all, nothing so terrible in the much-dreaded march towards unification. If the Federal Parliament proves that it is better able to manage the affairs ofT the States than are the individual States Parliaments, there is not likely to be any desire on the part of the people to cling to a fetish. On the contrary, they will boldly undertake the work of reform. It is said that, if the attitude taken up by the Government is not supported by the majority of honorable members, a vital blow will be struck at the Constitutions of the States. But what we have to consider is the will of the people themselves. I can well understand the desire of the Minister for Home Affairs that there should be only two parties in this House; but I do not altogether appreciate the attitude taken up by him. It appears to me that the question of whether or not the Bill shall extend to public servants, is not the only one at issue. The real point is whether there should be more than two parties in this House. If the public servants of Australia find themselves in a satisfactory position, they will not have recourse to a provision of this kind ; but if they have reason to complain they will be glad to avail themselves of it. I rather welcome the present position, because it will help to clear the political atmosphere. There are members on both sides of the House with conservative leanings, while there are others outside the Labour Party who have radical tendencies. I should like to see the Radicals and Liberals come together, so that we may have only two parties in this House. Such a combination would be desirable in the interests of the public life of Australia. Why should I vote for any principle in which I do not believe merely to save a Government which might hereafter bring about a combination that would not meet with the approval of my constituents? The people require to see some stability associated with the public life of Australia. They are not greatly concerned about the constitutionality of this proposal, for they know they possess the machinery to protect their rights, and that behind that machinery is the commonsense of Australia. Those who desire to see an alteration brought about, so far as the number of parties in this House is concerned, should endeavour to secure it in a proper way. Do not let the majority be absorbed by a powerful minority. If the Labour Party feel that they are within their rights in making a change In the political machinery of the past, they are quite justified in seeking to give effect to their views. I feel satisfied that, so far as this amendment is 'concerned, there is far more at issue than the question whether the Bill should extend to public servants. The action of the Government must be deemed to be deliberate, because it has been continued for some months. They have been aware of the way in which the political compass has been setting, because they have themselves been directing it in that way for their own purposes. The Prime Minister is apparently' resigning his position in a dignified manner. The honorable and learned gentleman held the high position of AttorneyGeneral in the Barton Ministry, which the right honorable member for Adelaide left upon this very issue. That right honorable gentleman has been consistent in the line of conduct he has followed, and all the more honour to him for it. The question under discussion has been voted upon at a general election, and cannot be said to be one which has been sprung upon the Government. The representatives of the people in this House know the decision of the electors upon the question. Personally, I believe in the inclusion of the Public Service within the scope of this Bill, and I shall, therefore, support the amendment. I point out that any Ministry which takes the place of the present Administration will have to deal with this question sooner or latter, and must engage in a contest upon it. If those who support the inclusion of the Public Service are defeated, that section of the community will be left out of the operation of the Bill ; and it is that consideration which will regulate my vote in the coming division. I have listened attentively to all the speeches which have been made, and I have heard no argument to induce me to refuse to support the amendment. It is the contention of those supporting the Government that the States should be allowed to deal with matters of local concern ; but once we take the step of providing Courts of Conciliation and Arbitration for the benefits of employers and employes, I can see no good reason for depriving the public servants of the benefit of such legislation. In the year 1891 the present Prime Minister was prepared to confer the advantages of such legislation upon the maritime worker, and in 1904 lie is prepared to extend the operation of such a measure to all but civil servants. In thirteen years the honorable and learned gentleman has marched thus far, and it is not a very great step further to include civil servants. I see no infringement of the powers of the States Governments in what is proposed, because I believe the Federal Parliament is invested with the power to carry this legislation. I can understand Victorian representatives opposing the amendment, because it affects what has been a Victorian sore, and they are taking the view which some Victorian electors have taken of the railway strike which occurred in this State. It is not my business to dwell upon that, but I refer to it as a matter which strongly influences Victorian representatives. I believe that the promise made by Sir Edmund Barton has been accepted by the present Prime Minister. Sir Edmund Barton promised Mr. Irvine that his Government would not include the public servants in this legislation, and I believe that, if that promise had not been made, the present Ministry would have freely granted the request for their inclusion. They have had the choice of weapons, and if they have chosen a weapon which will bring about their defeat, that is their business, and not mine. I shall have no regret in casting my vote, though it may assist to defeat the present Ministry, but I hope that it will bring about the formation of a Government who will be prepared to include public servants in the operation of a Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, because I believe such a course would be beneficial and to the interests of the country.

Suggest corrections