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Wednesday, 20 April 1904

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) - Until I heard the astounding "unofficial revelations" of th- Minister for Home Affairs, I must confess that I was very much perplexed in my mind to find out what reason could have induced the Government to push a Bill of this character into the forefront of their programme. There are many measures of more general public importance, mentioned in the Governor-General's speech, which might, and in my opinion should, have been given precedence. This Bill does not seem to have attracted any considerable public attention except in certain circles, and even in those circles only so far as some of the States are concerned. But after the explanation of the Minister for Home Affairs the reason is perfectly clear to me. He has made no secret of the fact that the idea in pushing this Bill into the forefront of their programme was to make themselves solid with a certain section of the House. But they now discover, when it is too late for them to retreat, that they have been playing with a two-edged weapon, and that it is likely to result, unfortunately for them, but fortunately for the country, in their total displacement from the Treasury bench. Thus in a very early stage of their second infancy they appear to be likely to leave a very brilliant future behind them. That, of course, is an act of their own doing*, and it has been not inaptly described by the last speaker as an act of political suicide on their part. I can well understand that this may have been intentional, for it must be galling to any Government to know that they are in an actual minority in the Chamber, and are carrying on the legislation of the country by the' sufferance of another party. I do not say any particular party j whatever party may be rendering such assistance, it is a most unsatisfactory position, not only for the members of the Ministry, but also for the country. Therefore, I say that the sooner this condition of things is concluded the better it will be for the country, even though it may have the effect of putting a Labour Government immediately in power. It is better that there should be a clear line of cleavage between parties so that we may know exactly where we are, and so that we shall by a process of evolution have a Government occupying the Treasury bench, that will ultimately command the support of a majority of honorable members. Personally, I have no fault to find with the occupants of the Treasury bench as individuals. In fact, for our esteemed friend, the Prime Minister, so far as my brief acquaintance with him goes, I can say that he has earned my very sincere regard and my highest respect, amounting almost to personal affection. Mv only fault with the honorable and learned gentleman is that, holding the fiscal opinions that he does, he is, in my opinion, on the wrong side of the Chamber. As to the introduction of the Bill at this time, the

Prime Minister has said - I do not quote his exact words - that we should wait until Arbitration Courts have been established in all the States, embracing civil servants or railway servants within their operation, before including them in the provisions of the Federal Act. If we are to do that, why should we not wait until similar Arbitration Courts are established in all the States so far as private employes are concerned ? If the argument is sound in the one case, it certainly must be equally sound in the other. The leader of the Opposition has . told us that it was never contemplated by the Convention to include civil servants or railway servants in such a measure as this. It must be as well known to the Prime Minister as to the leader of the Opposition that it was never contemplated that such employes should be brought within the scope of such a Bill. When the Government found that there was a desire on the part of a section of this House to insist on the inclusion of that class of employes, it is a matter of surprise to me that they still persisted in pushing the matter, to a conclusion at this early stage in the existence of a new Parliament. Another argument against this unseemly haste in bringing forward the measure is that even in the States where Arbitration Courts have already been established the legislation is purely of an experimental character. So far, at any rate, as New South Wales is concerned, it has not been productive of the most satisfactory results. At best it has only been imposed for a limited period. Until there was some authentic "demand for a measure of this kind, we might have pressed forward with other matters of more general public concern - such, for instance, as the matter of preferential trade, the selection of the Capital site, assistance to farmers, and other measures which, from the protectionist stand-point, certainly, one would have thought would have been regarded as of extreme urgency, and the introduction of which would have been much more satisfactory, not only for the Government, but for those who are compelled to vote against them on this amendment, and thus endeavour to oust them from their position.

Mr Mauger - They are ousting themselves.

Mr JOHNSON - But with the assistance of the Opposition. If the Government are determined to commit political suicide, that is their affair. But it would have been a better thing for themselves had they been defeated on a measure of vital policy, so far as the general interests of the country are concerned, and on which public interest itself was centred. I do not desire to go into the merits of the question involved in the Bill, because it seems to me to be futile at this stage to enter into -pros and cons. But I should like to make reference to the subject of the enforcement of awards against States Governments. In reply to a question which I put to the leader of the Labour Party, he stated that if the States Parliaments refused to impose further taxation at the dictation of the Arbitration Court - which will not be constituted under their authority - that Court could order the cessation of railway traffic until the award was complied with. I do not say that those are his exact words - I have not got Hansard; but that was the purport of what he said, as I understood it. What does that contention involve? It involves the recognition of the right of an irresponsible tribunal to exercise powers denied to States Legislative Councils - the right to increase the taxation of the country and to dictate to Parliament in matters of financial policy. If I thought that such a thing could be seriously urged as a reason for supporting the proposed amendment, I should have no hesitation in opposing it, tooth and nail. But I think that the honorable member for Bland is wrong. I am in grave doubt about the expediency of this Federal Arbitration measure at all. One of the grounds on which it is brought forward is that of expediency. Expediency is a term for which I have a deep-rooted dislike. The term "expedient" has been used in almost every Act of Parliament which has had for its object the restriction of the rights of individuals. Nearly every statute which has contemplated the attainment of that end, has commenced with the words - " Whereas it is expedient." Consequently the word " expedient " has been used to justify a multitude of public wrongs. That Courts of Conciliation are desirable for the purpose of dealing with industrial disputes, may, I think, at once be conceded, but, to me, the term " compulsory arbitration " has an objectionable sound. I do not like anything which savours of a negation of the freedom of the individual. It is true that we can fix a minimum wage by Act of Parliament, but we cannot force any employer to engage an employe at that wage. It is at that point that the principle of compulsory arbitration breaks down.

The CHAIRMAN - The honorable member must confine his remarks to the amendment before the Chamber.

Mr JOHNSON - I shall endeavour to do so, although, in passing, I might observe that other honorable members, who are possessed of more parliamentary experience than I, have been allowed considerably more latitude. If we are to establish a Federal Arbitration Court, let us treat all workers alike, and not draw invidious distinctions between different classes of employes. My own opinion is that there is no need whatever for this Bill at the present time. That view is confirmed by the remarks of the Chairman of the New South Wales Public Service Board at the annual meeting of the Public Service Association, which was held in Sydney on the 7th inst. The Minister for Home Affairs has emphasized the fact that the public servants of the States have made no request to be brought under the provisions of this Bill. At the meeting to which I allude, Mr. E. S. Vautin, the president of the Public Service Association said - 1

They did not sympathize with the attempt to ; bring public servants in the different States under a Federal Arbitration Act. The Federal Go- Ivernment was apparently being pressed into 1 placing all public servants within its scope. To his mind, it seemed very strange that any representative from this State should take any step | in this direction without first ascertaining the 1 views of the principal people concerned. In this ! State the public servants, who were now all under | the Act and the Board, did not want to be inter- 'fered with by any outside tribunal. They had [ never asked for it,'and they did not want it. They ! were free men, with the full rights of citizen- j ship ; therefore, why should an attempt be made | to place upon their legs the shackles of industrial ] strife ? They would make a strong protest against ; any such interference before their freedom* was taken away.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - He spoke for the higher officers of the service, and not for the rank and file.

Mr JOHNSON - Mr. Vautinspoke for an association which represents 13,000 employes in New South Wales. The Public Service Journal, which is the official organ of the Public Service Association of that State closes an antagonistic article on this subject thus -

What the general opinion in the service is concerning the question that has just been discussed we are unable to say. It may be remarked, however, that not a single request has been made to the Council of the Public Service Association to use their influence in support of the amendment in the Federal Arbitration Bill that the Labour Party intends submitting. On the other hand, the Council have been requested to oppose the amendment. Our own opinion is that the inclusion of public servants in the Bill would be to them more harmful than beneficial, and that legitimate grievances in the service in New South Wales can be redressed without help from any Arbitration Court.

I agree with that expression of opinion. I am perfectly certain that the public servants of the States have no more sympathetic Courts of Appeal than the Parliaments by which they are employed. Reference has already been made to the comfortable positions which they enjoy, and to the general feeling of satisfaction which they entertain towards their employers. The honorable member for Gippsland touched on the generosity of Australian Governments generally towards their employes, and emphasized the fact that the liberal treatment accorded to the public servants of the States had not only prevented them from manifesting any desire to enter private employment, but had induced a desire on the part of many others to obtain employment under such generous masters. On the merits of the proposed amendments, I have, so far, an open mind. I mention . these matters to show that there is no justification whatever for the feverish haste that has been displayed in pressing forward a measure of this character at the beginning of a session, which might have been devoted to useful legislation. The Government, however, are entirely responsible for that, and for any consequences which may follow their act. To my mind the crux of the present position is, not whether the employes of the States or the railway servants shall be included within the operation of this Bill, but whether a Ministry which is responsible for the mischievous legislation from which we have suffered during the past two or three years shall be -permitted to continue to occupy the Treasury bench. I believe that that is the only consideration which will influence a great many honorable members on this side of the House in voting on this amendment. It is our duty to turn the present Government out of office at the earliest possible opportunity. I am pledged to that course. I only regret that I cannot make use of a weapon which would be more congenial to my taste. However, in political warfare, we are not always able to exercise a choice as to the weapons which we shall employ. Recognising the injury which the Government are doing to the prestige of Australia, I cannot reconcile it with my conscience to vote in such a way as will continue them in office for one moment longer than is absolutely necessary. My only hope is that, as the result of the division, changes will be brought about in the near future that will lead to a Government taking office that will be more in accordance with our ideas of the basic principles of democracy. We wish to see government of the people for the people by the people, and I hope that we shall have a Government commanding a majority that will enable it, without any coercion on the part of a third party - no matter what that party may be - to carry on the affairs of the country in an effective manner. It is because I desire to bring about such a change that I for one am not prepared to do anything to assist the present Government to remain in possession of the Treasury bench.

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