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Wednesday, 20 April 1904

Mr WILKINSON (Moreton) - I do not intend to address myself to the constitutional aspect of this question, because we have had a fairly good exposition of it from the trained legal minds of the Committee, and it would be presumptuous for a layman like myself to offer an opinion upon it. I have, however, carefully listened to the arguments -pro and con., and I must confess that if I were inclined to move from the position which I took up when the Bill was before last Parliament, it would be in the direction of supporting the amendment now before the Committee. When the matter was last discussed I opposed the proposal to include all State and Commonwealth public servants in the Bill, whilst I supported the inclusion of the States railway servants, and I intend to adhere to that position now. It is not that I think we have no justification for including all State and Commonwealth public servants, but that I feel that at the present juncture some little allowance should be made on the score of expediency. The Prime Minister, in dealing with the railway services of the States, stated that he could not imagine a set of circumstances which would occasion the extension of a strike of railway employes beyond the limits of one State. My opinion is that the late Victorian railway strike, which has been cited on many occasions during the present debate, was within an ace of extending beyond the borders of the State. Very little would have been required to bring both the South Australian and the New South Wales enginedrivers and firemen into the dispute. The engine-drivers, firemen, and cleaners have unions in their particular States, and they are also members of a federated union, and had the Government of Victoria brought influence to bear upon the Government of South Australia, and had the South Australian railway men been asked to continue the running of the trains from Adelaide to Melbourne beyond the South Australian border, I am convinced that they would have refused duty, and the strike would have extended to South Australia. It has been argued that, although it may be constitutional to apply the provisions of this measure to States servants, it would at the present time be inexpedient to interfere in their administration of their own affairs. But, as I understand it, the amendment does not provide for interference by the Commonwealth in the administration of States Departments. It is only when a dispute has extended beyond the borders of a State that it will operate at all, and once that happens it ceases to be a State matter, and becomes a national affair, in regard to which a Commonwealth tribunal is justified in interfering. We have, as the honorable member for Echuca has intimated, to consider the taxpayers when dealing with a measure of this kind, but those of us who are acquainted with the effects of the Victorian strike know how the producing and distributing interests of this State suffered because of the interruption of the carriage of commodities over the railways of the State which occurred during that period of confusion and disorganization. If such a state of things extended beyond one State into another, or throughout the Commonwealth, it would bring about loss compared with which the slight extra taxation that might be necessary to enable the Railway Commissioners, or others administering the Railway Departments of the States, to pay increased wages in compliance with an award, of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court would be a mere bagatelle. The true function of our Railway Departments is often lost sight of by those who contend that they should be managed purely as commercial concerns. Australia is in the unfortunate position of having no large navigable rivers flowing from the interior to the coast, and, in the absence of these natural highways, we have to provide artificial substitutes in the shape of railways. Railways are the national highways of this country, and are necessary for the development of its interior. Anything that would interfere with the continuous exchange of productions and commodities between the interior and the coast would seriously impede the development of our country. Those who oppose the Bill, lock, stock and barrel, say that whilst there may be some reason for applying such a measure to disputes between private employers and employes, there is no reason for applying it to disputes between the Governments of the States or of the Commonwealth and their employes, since -the latter never come into competition with the general public. I deny the truth of that statement. In almost every State there are railway workshops, in which locomotives, carriages, waggons, and rollingstock generally are constructed ; while similar work is also undertaken for the States by private manufacturers. In the States workshops are to be found fitters, blacksmiths, carriage builders, boilersmiths, upholsterers and tradesmen of almost every kind, while men belonging to the same trades are also found in the private workshops. It would be unjust to compel private manufacturers of rolling-stock to submit to the direction of the Arbitration Court as to wages and hours of work, whilst permitting the Railway Commissioners to work their men as long as they chose, and to pay any rate of wages they liked. Such a condition of affairs would render it impossible for private employers to compete with the Government works. This is an argument which I think should appeal to those who are opposed to socialistic legislation of any kind. We have heard a good deal regarding the advantages of private enterprise, and the fact that fair competition is the soul of business, and yet it appears to me that if we were to exclude railway employes from the scope of the Bill, we should bring about unfair competition between the State institutions and those of a similar character conducted by private enterprise. We can carry the contrast a little further. In nearly all the States railway construction is being carried on by means of day labour under direct State supervision. In some cases, however, railway lines are being built by private contractors. Is it contended that the private contractor should be subject to the direction of the Arbitration Court as to the wages which he should pay his navvies, whilst the State is to be free to pay any rate of wages it likes? If so, the State will be placed at a great advantage, and the results of their operations will afford the strongest arguments in favour of the daylabour system as compared with the construction of railways by private contract. The honorable member for Gippsland, to whose utterances great weight is deservedly attached, referred to the fact that the public servants of the States were very favorably situated as compared with persons in private employment, owing to their security of tenure ; and the large number of applicants for employment, particularly in the Railway Department, was mentioned as testifying to the attractions of State employment. I would point out, however, that there .are hundreds of applicants for every job that may be offering. Therefore, the fact that hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of persons are trying to secure positions in the States services only tends to show the great stress of the times upon the working population. Honorable members can bear me out when I say that one of the most trying ordeals through which we now have to pass is that to which Ave are subjected in dealing with the applications made to us by persons who are seeking work, and whom we are not in a position to help in that regard. Hundreds come where only one is required. But this condition of thing's is not confined to public Departments, it is the same with respect to private employment. Honorable members who have work to offer could tell us that their difficulty is not to find hands, but to choose those they require from the many unfortunates who are seeking work. As I have previously remarked, the extension of a dispute beyond the borders of any one State would bring it under the consideration of any Court or tribunal which might be set up by the National Legislature. It has been argued that such disputes could only occur in connexion with the seamen's or shearers' unions, but I do not share that view. For years past annual conferences of railway officers and Railway Commissioners have been held, and one such meeting was concluded in Sydney only yesterday. The attention of the railway officials at these gatherings is not directed only to such subjects as the best way in which railway lines can be constructed, the most suitable gauge to adopt, or the best form of cattle truck, but the hours of labour and the conditions of work generally enter into consideration. The Conference recently held is to be followed by a meeting of Railway Commissioners, and there is no doubt that the general tendency at present is to, as far as possible, assimilate the conditions of work and wages in all the States. What will be the result? It has been stated that private employers are more likely than are public officers to impose harsh conditions upon workmen, because private employers are seeking their own profit, while public officers are not. Our experience, however, is that the Railway Commissioners are interested in endeavouring to work their Departments as cheaply as possible. Although they may not be so directly concerned as are private employers in economical working, we know that the transfer of the control of the railways to Commissioners, so far from having improved the position of the railway employes, has had the reverse effect. I do not argue that railway servants should be brought within the scope of the Bill, because the railways have been placed under the control of Commissioners. I recognise that this delegation of control does not in any way alter the position of the service as one of the Departments of the State. I believe, however, that the tendency will be to reduce wages down to the lowest plane, rather than increase them to the highest standards now in force. I regret to say that the position of railway employes in Queensland is not so favorable, as regards wages, as that of men similarly employed in Victoria. I. do not know that in respect to other conditions the Queensland employes are under any special disadvantage. In Victoria the wages paid to railway servants in the locomotive branch are higher than in any other State, but the influences now at work are in the direction, not of raising the wages of the Queensland engine-drivers from the present rate of i2s. per day to the Victorian rate of 15s. per day, but rather of reducing the 15s. rate down to 12s. On the other hand, the federation formed by the railway employes would use its best endeavours to' resist a reduction, and would level up instead of levelling down. Here we have the seeds of dispute at any time. I do not say that there are likely to be extreme developments; I hope there will not. I am not, and never have been, an advocate of strikes ; but strikes we shall have so long as they remain the only weapons whereby men may redress their grievances. There are no men more earnest in their endeavour to do away with strikes or locks-out than are those who are advocating the inclusion of railway men within the provisions of the Bill. I suppose no one knows more acutely the suffering and hardships which are endured in times of strikes or locks-out than some of us who are advocating the amendment. Only those who have been through the mill, as some of us have been, know the amount of misery, suffering, and hardship which a strike entails, not on the work men alone - theirs is the least of the suffering - but on the wives and children, who feel the effects in a much keener degree. And the suffering is not confined to the strikers and their families, but extends to that most useful portion of the community, the producers, who depend on the railways as the only available highways by which to transport their produce to market. A railway strike affects producers to a much greater degree than does a strike in any other industry. If we are justified in saying to private citizens that they shall not disturb the peace of the community or interfere with industry or the means of exchange by any dispute amongst themselves, but shall be compelled to continue work, and refer any difference to a properly appointed tribunal, we are justified in taking a similar attitude towards a State when a dispute, originating in that State, may extend beyond its borders, and affect perhaps a considerable section of the people of the Commonwealth. I do not regard such a contingency in relation to a State as by any means remote. The seeds of a possible strike are already sown, as shown in the fact that there are conferences of Railway Commissioners, and also a federation of engine-drivers, firemen, and cleaners. I go further, and say, as one who knows, that there is a movement on foot to federate associations composed of other classes of railway workers. Traffic employes, as well as the men engaged on the permanent way, are already discussing the question of federation, and if their ideas be carried into effect there will be a united organization, or united organizations, of railway employes, who will be able to take a common stand. These employes are one in sympathy, and will be one in actual fact to-morrow, prepared to assist each other in claiming what they deem to be their proper rights. I do not say that all that these men demand will be proper and right. That is why we should have a tribunal to decide. The men may ask for too much, and it should remain with the Arbitration Court to say whether their demands are or are not reasonable.

Sir John Forrest - These men cannot go to the Arbitration Court unless the dispute extends beyond the limits of one State.

Mr WILKINSON - I say that where a dispute extends it ceases to be a State affair, and therefore we should not be interfering with the internal administration of a State, but in a dispute which, originating in one State, threatens to disturb the peace and the conditions of industry in the Commonwealth.

Sir John Forrest - How is a dispute of the kind to overflow into another State?

Mr WILKINSON - Before the right honorable gentleman entered the chamber I tried to make that plain to the Committee.

Sir John Forrest - If the honorable member has made it plain he has done more than anybody else.

Mr WILKINSON - I am satisfied in my own mind - just as the right honorable gentleman before dinner was satisfied in his mind as to his own attitude - that the position I take up is the' right one. We may not all be equal in analytical power and judgment, but we all have the right to our opinion, and my opinion has not been formed hastily. I spent about eleven years on the foot-plate of a locomotive on the Queensland railways, so that I know of what I am speaking. I was one of those who helped to form the first railway organization in Queensland, and who advocated the federation of the engine-drivers and firemen in this country.

Sir John Forrest - Tell us how a railway dispute is going to extend beyond one State.

Mr WILKINSON - Perhaps the Committee will excuse my repeating some of my remarks? If there were a railway strike in Victoria, and- the South Australian engine-drivers refused to drive the trains from the border to Melbourne, that would, in my opinion, create a dispute extending beyond the borders of one State.

Sir John Forrest - That is not so.

Mr WILKINSON - That is a matter of opinion. Where is the difference between an extension of a dispute of the nature to which I have just referred, and a strike originating, say, amongst the employes of the Adelaide S.S. Co. at Port Adelaide, and extending, to wherever ships of that company are in port?

Sir John Forrest - That is the case of a private company, and not of a Government.

Mr WILKINSON - Both are engaged in the carrying trade.

Sir John Forrest - But a steam-ship company has nothing to do with the Government.

Mr WILKINSON - I dealt also with that matter during the right honorable gentleman's absence from the Chamber. I have tried to show that if men employed by the State in fitting, blacksmithing, carriagebuilding, and so on, are not to come under the Bill, they will enter into unfair competition with those employed by private individuals. It is my misfortune that the right honorable gentleman was not present during the earlier part of my remarks, because I think he would admit that I anticipated a good deal of what he is now calling in question. I should like the Prime Minister, or some one else, to enlighten me as to a phase of this question which has given me a considerable amount of thought. Amongst railway employes we have members of various associations. We have fitters and turners belonging to the Amalgamated Society of Engineers; members of the Boilermakers' Society, and of the Amalgamated Carpenters' Association. If the members of, say, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers did, as they have done before, fix a minimum wage of 10s. 6d. per day in their trade in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland, while the Employers' Association attempted to reduce the wage to ios. or 9s. 6d. per day, and the employers' demand was resisted, not only in one State, but in all, would that not be a dispute extending beyond the borders of any one State ? Some of the members of this society are employed in the Government workshops; would an award of the Court that the wages be ios. 6d. per day apply to those Government servants? Un- less it did so apply, no union men would be employed in any State workshop.

Mr Deakin - The pay would probably be as good, or better, in a Government workshop.

Mr WILKINSON - My experience is just the reverse. If the Prime Minister looks at the classification sheets of some of the Government Railway Departments, he will find that fitters there are receiving 7 s. and 7s. 6d. per day, as against 10s. and 10s. 6d. per day paid in outside workshops.

Mr Deakin - But have they not permanent occupation, fixed holidays, privilege tickets, and so on ?


Mr Deakin - What is the value of them ?

Mr WILKINSON - In the State workshops of Queensland the highest rate of wages paid to a skilled mechanic as a fitter is 9s. 6d. a day, unless he is a leading hand, and that position, of course, carries with it responsibilities., The difference between that sum and the union rate of 10s. 6d. a day as provided, I believe, by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers for their members, will amount to a considerable sum in the year, and more than cover the value of the extra privileges to railway employes. The term of the holidays varies according to the length of service. On the other hand, there are disabilities to be considered. If we are going to consider the privileges and the emoluments of railway servants we must also remember their disabilities. We know that in the regulations of all the States there is a provision for the retirement of men, no matter how long they may have served, at the age of sixty or sixtyfive years. I have always regarded this as a cruel provision. I would ask the Prime Minister or any other honorable member if the private employer of a man who had served him well for thirty-five or forty years, as some of these men have served the Government, would send to him in his old age a curt note informing him that he was no longer fit to work, and that his services were no longer required?

Mr Deakin - Would they have been kept on in private employ ?

Mr WILKINSON - Hundreds of them are, and I dare say that the honorable and learned gentleman could quote some cases. Private employers are often kinder than is the State in this regard. It has been well said that when a man is dealing with a body corporate he is dealing with an institution which has no body to be kicked, or soul to be damned. That seems to me to be the spirit which is operating. With regard to the tenure of employment, what have we noticed in Victoria within the last week or so? Where has the security of position come in ? The railway men have been asked to affix their signatures to a document under which they agree to retire from the service without a day's notice. The Commissioners have the power to dismiss any railway servant, on giving a reasonable notice- a fortnight, I think; but they are now asking the railway men, who apparently are completely under the thumb of the powers that be, to sign a document in which they consent to dis- ' missal without even a' moment's notice. They are no more secure in their appointments to-day than are any men working casually for a private employer. If this kind of thing is allowed to go on here, it may be taken for granted that it will shortly extend to some of the other States, and when it does we shall find the men taking united action against it. It may be said that State employés can always depend on their representatives in Parliament to redress their grievances. But in Queensland, and I believe in other States, the experience of the men has been to the opposite effect. I know, as other Queensland members can testify, that for eight or nine years in that State a public servant, particularly a railway employe, did not dare to be seen speaking to a politician in a street, if that politician happened to hold views in opposition to the Government. There is going to be a fight on the part of railway employes and other public servants for an extension of their liberty as citizens in the States to something like that which is enjoyed by them under the Commonwealth. The attitude of the Commonwealth towards these people has been liberal : the franchise has been given even to policemen. In the States they are deprived not only of the full exercise of the right to vote, but of many other citizens' privileges. _ In Queensland, not very long ago, we had a Minister for Railways who tried to copy the Minister for Railways during the time of the strike in Victoria. He came down to Melbourne, sat at the feet of that Minister, and learned from him. On his return he put into operation some of the things which had been practised here, and which had driven the railway men to revolt. Fortunately the Government, of which he was a member, did not remain in office very long, and the railway men have been freed, in a large measure, from the reign of terror which had obtained amongst them for eight or nine years. I am arguing on this line at some length, because I do not think that the contingency of a railway strike originating in one State and extending to more than one State is so remote as the Prime Minister seems to think. I am going to vote for the omission of the words as proposed by the honorable member for Wide Bay, on the understanding that some other words will be inserted which will make the Bill apply to railway employes. I am not desirous of including in its operation at the present time the employes of other departments of the States, because I do not think that they enter into competition with private enterprise to anything like the same extent that the servants of the Railway Departments do. We have only one Customs Department, only one Post and Telegraph Department, and only one Defence Department. There are no Departments in which the employes follow callings which, like that of the employes of the Railway Departments, come into competition with private enterprise.

Sir John Forrest - There are the Printing Departments.

Mr WILKINSON - That is an exception, but a dispute in that Department would not materially affect the interests of the public. I am not arguing in favour of the inclusion of railway servants in their interests entirely. I am arguing for their inclusion in the interests of the general public quite as much as, if not more, than in their interests.

Sir John Forrest - I thought the honorable member said that he was going to be an out-and-out supporter of the Deakin Government.

Mr WILKINSON - I never said anything of the kind.

Sir John Forrest - The honorable member is reported to have said so at Ipswich.

Mr WILKINSON - I suppose that the right honorable gentleman has been long enough in politics to learn that sometimes the reports of his speeches are not accurate.

Sir John Forrest - It was an incorrect report then?

Mr WILKINSON - My statement on the public platform, and in my manifesto to the electors, is quite consistent with the position I am taking up here to-night. I said that I would be a general supporter of the Deakin Government, but I specifically excepted this particular clause in the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, and some pro visions which might be inserted in the Navigation Bill. On those two measures alone did I say that I would have any difference with the Deakin Government. It is a matter of considerable pain to me to think that the vote I am about to give may assist to displace them, but I have my conscience and my constituents to satisfy. I cannot break the pledges which I gave on the hustings. If the arguments which have been adduced here had influenced me to such an extent that I felt that I should be justified in voting in another way I should have referred the matter to my constituents. I should not have been prepared to give a vote until I had first consulted them on the subject, because I think that if a candidate secures the votes of his constituents in favour of a certain policy he owes it to them when he changes his mind to give them an opportunity of changing their mind too. While I am pledged to a general support of the Deakin Government, I am also pledged to support a measure of this kind which will include the railway employes. That I intend to do. When it is said that there has been no demand for the inclusion of these men, I reply that in my case, at any rate, there has been. The circular which has been read by the honorable member for Echuca is some evidence that a demand for inclusion has been made by a very large and important section of the railway servants. That document emanated not from Mr. Robert Hollis, although it is signed by him, nor merely from Victoria or New South Wales, but from the federated associations of engine-drivers, firemen, and cleaners of Australia. I know many of these men. I know the members of the council of the body to which I alluded. When a copy of the document was sent to me, my reply was that if a reference were made to my action when this Bill, was before the last Parliament, it would be found that I had acted in accordance with the resolutions embodied in the circular. The votes which I then gave were in accordance with what the association requires, and I shall give a similar vote on the present Bill. The Minister for Home affairs has congratulated the Committee on the good feeling that has prevailed throughout the debate, notwithstanding that very important changes depend upon the vote to be taken. Let us maintain that good feeling. I do not think that there is a single honorable member who will vote for the amendment, but will regret the effect of his vote so far as the Government is concerned. I do not want to see a change of Government ; but I cannot sacrifice my convictions and my conscience in order to keep the present Government in power. My regret at casting this vote will be due to the effect it will have upon those of whose administration of the Departments I have approved, and with whose general policy I am most heartily in accord.

Sir John Forrest - All for a thing which will be of no use when it is obtained !

Mr WILKINSON - We have heard that before; but there is a value in a provision of this kind which may never be made quite apparent. " Prevention is better than cure," and if we insert in a Bill a provision which will prevent strikes, Ave shall have accomplished a great purpose. If a strike does occur it can be setled by an appeal to the Arbitration Court without the interruption of our trade and commerce. I am sure that if such a dispute should arise, and if this provision prevents the interruption of our traffic for only one week, we may feel that we have spent our time well. I had intended to refer to some other matters about which nothing has been said. The words proposed to be omitted include other public bodies " constituted under the Commonwealth." Something might have been said with regard to the effect of leaving in the Bill the words proposed to be omitted upon disputes amongst the employes of City Councils, Boards of Works, and other such bodies ; but the chance of such disputes, if they ever occur, extending beyond the boundaries of one State is so distant as to be hardly worth consideration. I say finally that much as I shall regret the effect of my vote, still, in supporting the inclusion of the railway men, I shall only be voting in accordance with my pledges and my conscience.

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