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Tuesday, 24 May 1904

Mr ROBINSON (Wannon) - Like other honorable members. who have spoken on this side of the House, I feel that the present position of parties is unprecedented in the history of Australian politics. Any observer who comes within this legislative chamber must be struck with the fact that, while on one side of you, Mr. Speaker, there is a small number of members, there is, on the other side, a great majority apparently opposed to the present Government. The sooner that state of affairs is put an end to - the sooner we have a division which will settle up matters once and for all, and separate the " sheep " from the " goats " - the better I shall be pleased. I shall welcome any motion likely to divide the House on proper lines.

Mr Tudor - Let us have a dissolution.

Mr ROBINSON - I am quite prepared for a dissolution at the present time. No time would suit me so well as the present; no time suited me so badly as the middle of harvest time, last December. It is a matter of indifference to me who leads the attack in the present state of affairs. If a motion is submitted by any recognised leader to secure a division on the sound basic principle of whether or not there shall be majority rule, I shall be quite content to follow him.

Mr Tudor - What about the majority of the electors at the ballot-box?

Mr ROBINSON - If the honorable member will allow me, I shall deal with these matters in my own way. In the last Parliament this House was divided on the fiscal question ; but in this Parliament

It is highly desirable that a uniform system of old-age pensions throughout Australia should be adopted as soon as possible, and that steps should be taken to accomplish this in co-operation with the States.

What does that mean? It means that the Federal Government should approach the States Governments, and say to them, " Will you consent to our taking over the old-age pension scheme, and deducting from the three-fourths of the Customs revenue, to which you are entitled, under the Constitution, the sum necessary to pay the pensions?" There is no contradiction whatever between the present . attitude of the leader of the Opposition and his attitude last session. On the contrary, . the part of the programme, which I have read, shows that his sentiments on the previous proposal were absolutely just and fair j and the fact that such a proposal is now put forward is practically a victory for the principle which he advocated then. That any responsible Minister should charge the leader of the Opposition with inconsistency, and political dishonesty, on so slender a basis, is most marvellous. I opposed Federal old-age pensions. because I saw, as every honorable member must see, that we could not raise the necessary sum, in addition to our present taxation. But the scheme proposed for the coalition seems to be one whereby all the difficulty which previously existed might be overcome. If the consent of the States were obtained, there would be no difficulty in submitting such a scheme. But where is the Labour Party's scheme for old-age pensions? It was a prominent plank at the last general election, and when the present Prime Minister spoke from the Opposition cross benches. It has been dropped. He has run away from that scheme, and the party have run away from it.

Mr Mahon - Nonsense !

Mr ROBINSON - The honorable member for Bland, at the time I speak of, promised direct taxation to initiate an oldage pension scheme.

Mr Tudor - Would the honorable and learned member vote for it?

Mr ROBINSON - Now we find that there is no old-age pensions scheme in this two sessions programme. There is no mention of it, and no mention of direct taxation, to bring in the money for the oldage pensions, which were so good a cry during the general election. Now that honorable members opposite occupy soft and comfortable seats, they prefer to leave these contentious measures to a more convenient season.

Mr Spence - Has the honorable and learned member read our programme?

Mr ROBINSON - I have read, the programme, and I listened with much pleasure to the speech delivered by the present Prime Minister. I. distinctly recollect, and Hansard will bear me out, that the honorable gentleman said that, as soon as the Government could possibly give time to it, they would submit a scheme for old-age pensions, the revenue necessary for the purpose to be raised by direct taxation.

Mr Fisher - Next session.

Mr ROBINSON - This is the party that accuses those opposed to them of shirking their principles. It seems to me that, in connexion with the measures to which I have referred, they have themselves shirked their principles as completely _ as has any Government known to Australian history.

Mr McDonald - The honorable and learned member is a marvel.

Mr Mauger - Of course - he is a Victorian.

Mr ROBINSON - Will the honorable member permit me. In addition to the shirking of these measures, they now have a bunch of carrots held up in front of one or two of the shaky members. We are now to have a complete change in the attitude of the Labour Party in regard to the conduct of elections. A basie principle of that party is to be sunk, at any rate, until the present crisis is over; I do not know for how much longer.

Mr Mahon - There is- no crisis.

Mr ROBINSON - It would appear that now-a-days we are to have a reversal of the old parable of the pharisee and the publican. Be'fore it was the pharisee who thanked God that he was not as other men were, and to-day we have the Labour Party thanking God that they are not as other men are.

Mr Mahon - With good reason, too.

Mr ROBINSON - They are not unjust, extortioners, and pledge-breakers, as are those who are opposed to them.

Mr Spence - It is correct to say that thev would be tax-gatherers.

Mr ROBINSON - In this connexion we witness a distinct breaking of pledges, and an abandonment of the fundamental principle which differentiates the Labour

Party from all other parties in political history, in order that they may be enabled to tide over the present crisis. We were told by the Minister for External Affairs - and I understand that the honorable and learned gentleman's statement has to-day been backed up by the Prime Minister - that those who support them in this present trying time will not have opposition at the next elections from the Labour Party. Nay more, not only will they not have opposition, but they are to receive the enthusiastic support, without fee or reward, of the whole of the labour leagues scattered throughout the various electorates. That important principle upon which they have conducted their business for the past fifteen years is to be thrown over at once. Such a thing was not proposed at the last Federal election,, nor was it suggested during the debate on the Address-in-Reply. It was not suggested during the debate on what was practically a no-confidence motion, which ousted the Deakin Administration, but it is suggested now, so that honorable gentlemen opposite may not be removed from the Treasury bench.

Mr Spence - The honorable and learned member did not suggest the proposed coalition either.

Mr ROBINSON - I ask honorable members to compare this attitude with the attitude adopted by the party in Victoria, and throughout the States of Australia in the past. The party has been beseeched by genuine and sincere Radicals to abandon the practice by which they have levelled the most bitter attacks at those who have been most nearly associated with' them in political thought. They have always refused requests of this kind which have been made to them. Let us take the present Victorian elections, and the case of one gentleman, who, unfortunately, is somewhat down in public opinion at the present time.

Mr McDonald - Mr. Bent?

Mr ROBINSON - Mr. Bent'sparty will wipe out the honorable member's party effectively on the 1st June.

Mr Hutchison - The honorable and learned member should not prophesy, unless he knows.

Mr ROBINSON - There is one gentleman who has long been associated with' radical politics in Victoria. I refer to Sir Alexander Peacock, who brought in a very far-reaching Factories Act, for which he received the thanks of the whole of the Labour Party. They actually presented him with his own portrait in oils, so that his work on behalf of the Labour Party and the oppressed workers should never be forgotten. They went to that extreme length of adulation in order to thank him for the work he had done for them. But to-day there is no gentleman who receives more bitter and adverse comment from the same party than does Sir Alexander Peacock ; not because he has changed his opinions, but simply because of their definite plan, one by one, to cut the throats of those who will not pledge themselves to the party platform. I am reminded by the Minister for Trade and Customs-

Mr Fisher - The honorable member does not want to be unfair.

Mr ROBINSON - No ; I am reminded that according to the Ministerial programme, an Old-age Pensions Bill will be introduced next session after the Navigation Bill.

Mr Fisher - The honorable and learned member denied that it was mentioned. A young member should be put right sometimes.

Mr ROBINSON - I desire to correct myself. I see that we are to have Federal direct taxation proposed by the present Government. To-day, in Victorian State politics, Mr. Donald Mackinnon, another earnest Radical, is also the subject of their most bitter opposition. In connexion with other seats where extreme Liberals are fighting, the opposition to them, in nearly every instance, is due to the Labour Party, who, rather than witness the return of men who can be trusted, prefer to accept the chance of losing the seats to some third party. I am glad to see present the honorable member for Melbourne Ports. At the last Federal elections that honorable member was opposed by the party with the utmost bitterness. So was the honorable and learned member for Corio and the honorable member for Bourke. Those who read the Tocsin, the official organ of the Labour Party in Victoria, must have noticed that the most virulent abuse and the worst epithets were levelled at the three honorable members to whom I have referred. Candidates who fought the party straight out, and threw down the gage of battle to them and all their works, as I did, never got the same blackguarding as those sincere and earnest Radicals. The most vicious remarks were made about them from labour platforms, and the most vicious and contemptible attacks appearing in the labour press were levelled at the heads of those gentlemen.

Mr Mahon - Does the honorable and learned member not think that he should allow them to complain ?

Mr ROBINSON - I propose to make my own points in my own way. Those honorable members were denounced in the vilest language. Now the scene is changed, not in a day, but practically in the twinkling of an eye, and those honorable members are to be taken to the party's bosom, and guaranteed the gratuitous support of labour leagues. The Tocsin is to turn round, and instead of denouncing the honorable member for Melbourne Ports as little better than a criminal, it is to be prepared to paint him as a saint, and all labour organizations will do the same thing if he assists to maintain the present Administration on the Treasury bench. As the Minister for External Affairs has said, it is proposed that these honorable members shall receive better treatment than the party mete out to its own members. In proof of that, we have only to notice the treatment meted out to a gentleman who formerly was a member of the party in another place. I refer to ex-Senator Barrett. Before enterng the chamber, I refreshed my memory by turning up the correspondence which took place between Senator Barrett and Mr. Stephen Barker, the Secretary of the Political Labour Council in Victoria. I trust I shall be permitted to make some quotations, which will be found interesting, as showing how men will sometimes eat their principles. Mr. Stephen Barker, in a letter addressed to Senator Barrett, on the 14th April, 1903, asked the following questions: -

1.   Are you willing to allow your name to be submitted to the ballot?

2.   If so, will you sign the pledge of the party ?

3.   If willing, please sign enclosed pledge.

Pledge.- I hereby pledge myself to support every plank of this platform, and, if selected, to contest any public election, and if not selected, to retire, and support the candidate selected.

Mr. Barrett,in reply, asked

Am I to understand that retiring members are to be treated in expressly the same way as outsiders?

He stated that that had not been the practice in Victoria. He also pointed out that it was not being made the practice in regard to the members of the House of Representatives.

Mr Tudor - Yes ; it was. I had to submit myself.

Mr ROBINSON - Mr. Barker,in his reply of the 29th April, 1903, sent a copy of the platform of the party ; and on being further questioned by Mr. Barrett, replied that-

The Political Labour Council will conduct the plebiscite in accordance with the constitution of the Council.

But this system is now proposed to be abandoned for the time being. Mr. Barrett wrote on 7 th May, 1903 -

I am willing to sign and accept the whole of the Federal platform, and pledge myself to work for the principles it contains. But now, in addition to this, all are asked to pledge themselves, without regard to their records, and, if not chosen by you, to retire from the contest, and support men whom you may prefer, for reasons of your, own.

He knew that there were three or four others after his billet, poor man ! -

Your Council scarcely needs to be reminded that, until quite recently, for a period of twenty years, I had official connexion with the Trades Hall Council, devoting myself day and night to their interests. They have received the best working years of my life, and have recognised it by selecting me as their candidate for our national Parliament. What has occurred since, that I should be excluded from my post without a charge being made against me?

That is the treatment which was meted out to Mr. Barrett. Although no charge might be brought against any members of the Labour Party, and, notwithstanding that their record might be clean and honorable, they were compelled to submit themselves to a plebiscite, and, if not chosen, to pledge themselves not to contest an election. But the new friends of the Labour Party, men like the honorable members for Melbourne Ports, Bourke, and Corio, are to be treated in quite a different way. They are not to be compelled to submit themselves to the Political Labour Council for selection. The abuse which has been levelled against them is to be withdrawn. They are to be the "white-haired boys" of the Labour Party. The method of selection which has been in use by the party for fifteen years is to be abrogated in their case. In order to retain office, the Labour Party are prepared to abandon the system which makes the fundamental difference between them and other political parties. During the short time that I have been in politics, I have listened to four no-confidence debates; but I have never before known offers and bribes such as that to which I now refer to be held out to honorable members. I have never heard of members being asked to choose between having their throats cut and partaking of the fatted calf. The present position is degrad-ing to Australian politics. A direct and open bribe has been offered to honorable members. I was interested to read an observation made by another very genuine democrat who was bitterly opposed by the members of the Labour Party in his own State - I refer to the Premier of Western Australia. He has said, with what seems to be great accuracy, that the platform of the party is 25 per cent, practical politics and 75 per cent, bird-lime. Is not the proposition to which I am referring bird-lime, to catch the two or three members who may be swayed by such promises? It seems to me that it is. And it may catch some foolish birds. But what is usually done with birds which are caught with bird-lime? They are knocked on the head, and destroyed at the earliest opportunity. That is what will happen to those unwary birds who may be caught with this bird-lime. It will be found, on some trifling pretext, that they . have offended against the laws of the Labour Party, that, at the river's bank, they have pronounced "shibboleth," " sibboleth." Will the men who, for years, have been working in these labour primaries, as they have been called by the honorable and learned member for Ballarat, and who have denounced the members whose names I have mentioned, suddenly turn round and gracefully swallow the proposal of the Ministry? It is not human nature to expect that they will. On the contrary, they will soon find a reason for showing that those who are being taken to the bosom of the party are neither true labour men nor true Radicals, and for some such reason these converts will be knocked on the head before the next election. I trust that those who may be trapped with this bird-lime will take means to cleanse themselves from the sticky stuff in time. We were told by the last speaker that the programme of the Government is the same as that of the proposed coalition.

Mr Tudor - Does the honorable and learned member agree with the whole of the platform of the coalition?

Mr ROBINSON - I do not.

Mr Tudor - Yet the honorable and learned member will support it !

Mr ROBINSON - I shall support those measures in which I believe, and vote against those in which I do not believe. That is the difference between my position and that of the honorable member. The last speaker, in the endeavour to confute the honorable member for North Sydney, stated that there would be no abandonment of the public servants by the Government. Such a statement proves that he cannot have read the proposals put forward by the Prime Minister, and to. enlighten him I will read the first amendment of the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, of which the Prime Minister has given notice -

Clause 4, page 3, line 1 : -

After "State" insert "including disputes in relation to employment upon State railways, or to employment in industries carried on by or under the control of - the Commonwealth or a State, or any public authority constituted under the Commonwealth or a State."

Therefore, the great bulk of the public servants have been thrown over by the Government. The members of the Labour Party voted for an amendment moved by the present Minister for Trade and Customs to apply the Bill to all States servants ; but now that the party have come into power they are refraining from carrying that proposal into effect. They have not the courage to put the provision into the Bill, and leave it to the High Court to decide as to its constitutionality. They propose to make the Bill apply only to public servants engaged in State undertakings which are distinctly industrial.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Prime Minister has himself said so.

Mr ROBINSON - And the honorable member was quite correct in his statement that the Labour Party have abandoned most of the public servants.

Mr Webster - We never made it a vital question.

Mr ROBINSON - Why did a member of the Labour Party move the amendment, and why did his colleagues support it if they knew that they could not give effect to it? Was that honest politics? Surely not.

Mr Hutchison - The amendment was moved by a private member.

Mr ROBINSON - And it was supported bv the whole of the Labour Party. They knew that the carrying of it would bring about the defeat of the then Government. Now that they have in their turn come into power they have not tried to give effect to it. They have put forward what is, for them, a fairly mild programme. The Prime Minister says - " One step at a time." The non-contentious measures are to be put first. The pill has been sugar-coated, but after this session the sugar will have been sucked off, and the nasty part will be tasted. We cannot ignore- the fact that the Labour Party is pledged definitely and deliberately to a policy of State Socialism. When the May Day resolutions were presented to the Prime Minister, he stated that he was com- pletely in accord with the proposals therein contained for the nationalization of land, capital, and every form of production and exchange. This -is another case of "one step at a time." We are to have the wholesale tobacconists supplanted by the State shortly, and a little later on the retailers will also find themselves displaced. It is only a question of time for the Labour Party to consider every industry a monopoly, in which they will seek, first of all, to supplant the wholesaler, with the assistance of the retailer. Then, when the latter has been fairly caught by the bird-lime, he will be knocked on the head at the first favorable opportunity. The next matter to which I wish to refer is the financial policy of the present Administration. It seems to me that, in this matter, the Labour Party have reached the height of presumption. We are told that they are against all further borrowing. No more admirable precept ]can be preached than that there should be no further borrowing. I can say, in all sincerity, that, in my own small way. I have done all I could to impress upon the members of the Australian Natives Association the desirability of checking public borrowing, and of placing- our finances upon a sound basis. But for the Labour Party to talk about putting a stop to borrowing seems to be very much like a burglar denouncing burglary. That party have been among the strongest advocates of borrowing. They have done more than any other party in "Australia to bring about the reckless expenditure of borrowed money. I am in a position to give chapter and verse for this statement. In New South Wales the Labour Party have had control of the Government for the past five years. The members of that Government have not dared to draw breath without the consent of the Labour Party, and here are the particulars of the loan expenditure of that State during the period to which I refer. In 1899 the loan expenditure amounted to £2,02.5,000 ; in 1899-1900, to £2,400,000; in 1900-01, t0 £2,788,000 ; in 1901-2 to £4,938,000; and in 1902-3, to £4,700,000. ' Thus, in five years, £17,000,000 was borrowed and spent at the direct behest of the Labour Party in New South Wales.

Mr Brown - That is not true.

Mr ROBINSON - The Labour Party did not say one word against the expenditure. Protest after protest was made by the Opposition in that State, and upon every occasion the Labour Party voted in favour of the Government which spent this huge sum. In connexion with every profligate act, which was exposed during the last two sessions of the New South Wales Parliament, the Labour Party voted to retain in power, "and to whitewash, the Government which was responsible for this large expenditure. Therefore, for the Labour Party to talk about putting a stop to public borrowing is almost as bad as for a burglar to denounce burglary. They are taking up an attitude similar to that of a drunkard, who, after having drunk every drop of liquor in the town, expresses his willingness to sign the pledge. Now that the money-lenders will not give us another sixpence, and we cannot borrow any more, they propose to take credit to themselves for the resolution not to borrow any further. That seems a very extraordinary attitude to assume. In Victoria, very much the same conditions would have obtained if the Labour Party had been able to exercise sufficient power. When I was a member of the Legislature in that State, a deputation which waited upon the Premier, Sir Alexander Peacock, asked him to borrow money in order to provide work for the unemployed. They wished the money to be spent anyhow, so long as work was provided. They pointed to the fact that the New South Wales Government were spending borrowed money - throwing it about in the most reckless fashion - and asked Sir Alexander Peacock to do the same. Perhaps their bitter opposition to that honorable gentleman is due to the fact that he had more sense than to comply with their request.

Mr Frazer - Did the honorable member say that he was a member of the deputation?

Mr ROBINSON - I did not. I would not accompany a labour deputation for something. We next have banking legislation proposed by the Government. We find that a couple of the leading, or misleading, articles of the Sydney Bulletin have been half digested, and that the proposals therein contained have been put forward as the financial policy of the Government. We are told that there is to be no borrowing in the future; but, as the honorable member for Wentworth pointed out, when the Prime Minister was speaking, the Government propose a forced loan. They contemplate taking 40 per cent, of the gold reserves from the banks, and substituting their I.O.U.'s. What is the difference between that and burglary, except that the burglar does not leave his name and address with the bank? The Government propose to take £8,000,000 of coin out of the bank reserves, and to leave their I.O.U.'s in its place. Upon what principle of expediency or justice can such a proposal be defended? The Government consider that our conditions are analogous to those of Canada, but the slightest reflection should serve to show that they are entirely different. We have not a New York close at hand upon which we can rely to replenish our gold reserves in time of stress. We have to cross the ocean to make good any deficiency it>. that direction. I would ask why the banks are singled out for special treatment in this regard? Why should 40 per cent, of the reserves be taken from the banks only? Is this another case of " one thing at a time " ? Are we to expect a proposal during the next Parliament to appropriate 40 per cent, of the reserves of other companies, and will such a scheme be ultimately extended to embrace a proportion of the reserves held by all private individuals? Those persons whose reserves were appropriated would have a very keen interest in the Government of the country. Is the policy of the Government to be regarded as one step in the direction of the confiscation of all property bv taxation or otherwise? The proposal to which I refer is not confiscation by taxation, but direct confiscation. The effect of adopting the suggestion of the Labour Party would be to further impoverish the States! At present Victoria derives a revenue of from £24,000 to £25,000 pdr annum from the tax on bank- notes, and the States would, therefore, be impoverished to the extent to which they now rely for revenue upon that class of taxation. One good point in connexion with the Australian democracy up to the present has been its freedom from currency quackery. In the United States that element abounds, because every third or fourth politician is a currency quack. Such persons think that if they could secure command of a printingpress they could make the country rich in no time. The same impression appears to be gaining ground in Australia. The progress of America has been retarded to an enormous extent owing to the time which has been wasted over the discussion of the currency question. Honorable members who read the American periodicals, as I have done, must have noticed tint some of the wildest schemes ever urged for the conversion of the currency are advocated by the political organizations of that country. Once we start meddling with our currency, which is now founded upon sound British money lines, Heaven knows where we shall end. We shall not be far distant from the time when the Labour Party will think that all we need to keep the country going is a printing-press, by means of which we can turn out notes at so much per ton. As one of those who are opposed to the present Government, I hope that we shall come to a division soon - the sooner the better, from my point of view.

Mr Frazer - On what question?

Mr ROBINSON - On the question whether this Government and its principles and methods of conducting business are such as to merit the confidence of the House. When that time comes I shall have no hesitation in casting my vote in opposition to the Government. At this stage I should like to address one or two words to those doubting Radicals who may be caught by the political bird-lime that is being employed by the Ministry, only to be knocked on the head at a later period. I warn them that if they are deceived into swallowing the baits held out for their acceptance a very radical change must take place in Australian politics. Hitherto we have had in the Commonwealth Legislature a party, which was known as the Liberal Party, with a strong Radical wing, which was composed of labour members and members imbued with very similar ideas. If these Radicals take the bait that is now being offered to them that position will be completely reversed. The tail and the dog will change places, and they will become the appendages of the Labour Ministry. Instead of the labour members being one of the advanced wines of that party, the position will be entirely reversed. The Radical members will be' treated as Conservatives, and unless thev join the Labour Party, sooner or later their political death-warrants will be signed. Therefore, the more speedily this question is determined the better. Whatever may be said of the platform and the principles of the proposed coalition, it seems to me that one great merit may be claimed for it. Everything connected with the negotiations has been fair, square, and above board. The principles on which that coalition ought to be formed have been clearly defined, and the platform which it advocates has been plainly set out. Indeed, I know of no attempt to form a coalition Government in Australia against which so little can be urged. If any effort be made to resolve the members of this House into two genuine parties, I shall welcome it. I shall do my best to end the system under which, at present, minority rule obtains, and under which, if the Labour Party are successful, socialistic measures affecting production and exchange will be brought within an appreciable distance.

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