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Friday, 24 June 1904

Mr SKENE (Grampians) - Recognising that it is the general wish that we should conclude this debate in time to permit of representatives from the other States catching their trains, I shall omit a great deal of the matter with which I had intended to deal in discussing this clause. I am pleased to note rJhat we have now reached a very calm atmosphere, notwithstanding that hitherto the debate has been as heated as has any which has taken place in this Parliamen t. I can quite understand why that has been so. I realize that we are all in earnest over this question, and also that there are two sides to it, as indeed there are to most questions. To my mind the discussion does not represent a mere scramble to determine which of two parties shall obtain an advantage. On the contrary, I recognise that there is a big economic question involved, and whilst our friends opposite claim that unionism has done a great deal for non-unionists, I contend that non-unionists could make out a very good case indeed from their point of view. In this matter we must recognise that we are dealing practically with a minority of the workers. It is always repugnant to the instincts of our race to exercise compulsion of any kind, but the compulsion of a minority seems to me to be the crowning act of compulsion. In discussing this Bill the other night the Prime Minister - and I think the Minister of External Affairs - used, the word "weapon." They urged that this clause provided the onlyweapon which could be put into the hands of unionists to give them control of the situation. Why should a weapon be placed in the hands of any section of the community to enable it to dominate any other section? I can understand that it might be necessary to put a weapon into the hands of a man who was engaged in looking after criminals, ' but I see no reason why one should be placed in the hands of a section of the community to enable it to lord it over another section.

Mr Frazer - That is just the difficulty we experience in connexion with unscrupulous capitalists.

Mr SKENE - I did not use the word "unscrupulous." I am at a disadvantage as compared with the honorable member, in that long ago I realized what is stated in the Biglow Papers, that " The further I go the harder it gits to be sure that I know." Probably the honorable member will reach that stage some day. The Prime Minister also used another word, which, I think, was as much out of place as was the word " weapon." He used the term " altruistic " in referring to the great good which has been conferred by unionists upon nonunionists. I am perfectly prepared to believe that a great deal of altruism exists in the minds of many honorable members opposite. I credit them with the sincere belief that by the enactment of the legislation proposed they will accomplish much good. But they should also remember that there is a considerable amount of selfishness at the bottom of it. The altruist may occupy one high platform, and the utterly selfish individual another. We have to deal with the selfish individual as well as with the altruist. Only the other day it came to my knowledge that one of the Wages Boards in Victoria decided not to limit the. number of apprentices employed in a certain tTade. Thereupon the employes urged that the wages of the apprentices should be raised to a prohibitive standard for boy labour. I am not at liberty to publicly state the name of my informant, but I am quite prepared to furnish it, to any honorable member who desires it, privately. When this view was pressed by a member of the Board, another member exclaimed, " Oh, if the boys cannot earn these wages let them drown." What would the mothers of Australia think of that view of the question ?

Mr Bamford - Was that Mr. Walpole?

Mr SKENE - It was one of the employes on a Wages Board.

Mr Tudor - What Board?

Mr SKENE - I do not exactly know what Board, but I shall be glad to give the honorable member the name of my informant. That is the other side of this question. We are not called upon to deal exclusively with altruism. Altruism leads us into very high altitudes, but, on the other hand, selfishness is more likely to prevail in matters of this kind. The view which is entertained by many non-unionists is that any interference with the free action _ of labour prevents expansion of industries. Money begets money, labour begets labour, and a free exchange of labour frequently leads to a condition of things that is infinitely better than are any artificial aids which we can employ. I freely confess that if, by their superior skill, unionists can insure peace and harmony to the employer, they are entitled to all the benefits which they can derive from their good work and better methods. We are all familiar with the story of the man who went from America, on behalf of the Westinghouse Company, to hustle the English labourers. On his arrival the unionists in England waited upon him, and placed their views before him. He inquired, "What do you want?" They replied, that they wished to work certain hours, and to be paid iod. an hour. Thereupon he said, "Very well; I will give you nd. an hour if you will do the work as I wish it to be done." What was the result? Within nine months he had completed what the English architects estimated would occupy three years, and he had accomplished that result with the greatest satisfaction to himself and to the unionist labourers. That fact proves that, if unionists depend entirely on their superior skill, they will secure a material advantage. Last night the honorable member for Darling, and the. honorable member for Moira, referred to the shearers' strike of 1890. I have a vivid recollection of that struggle, because I was specially interested in it. The year previously I had become so disgusted with some of my own class who undertook to get their shearing done upon certain lines and failed to carry it out that I engaged unionist labourers on their own terms. When the strike occurred, for some' reason or other my employes remained at work, but a great many others were called out, and the cause of unionism in Victoria was thrown back at least ten years. Since then, I think that the methods employed by unionists have improved, and if the Government are content not to press their proposal in favour of a preference to that class of employes too far - if they are willing to adopt some such method as has been suggested by the honorable member for North Sydney - I shall be amply satisfied with the Bill. There is another matter on which I desire to dwell briefly. It has reference to the limitation of apprentices, and to the payment of a minimum wage To my mind it is very clear that, if the weak man is to receive more than his value, the strong man must accept less, otherwise the industry in which they are employed will be ruined.

Mr Page - Why does the honorable member like to have his sheep shorn fast?

Mr SKENE - I do not understand the allusion.

Mr Page - The honorable member says that the weak man must go down, and yet when he engages shearers he desires to obtain the fastest men.

Mr SKENE - If we impose a minimum wage beyond the economic value of the weak, the stronger workman must accept a less wage than he is worth. Anything that we give to a man in excess of his economic value is really not in the nature of wages at all. Practically it is alms - it represents a charitable contribution. As bearing upon this point, I may mention that a case came before the Arbitration Court at Broken Hill only the other day. The men who are employed there in getting out the ore entered into an arrangement two and a half years ago bv which they could' earn as nearly as possible ns. per shift per man. They applied to the Court to fix a minimum wage, and to allow the better men to earn what they could. The evidence tendered showed that during the past two and a half years these miners had averaged ns. i|d. per shift per man. Consequently, the Judge declared that he could not call upon the employers to pay a higher rate. " But," he added " your counsel says that you are content to accept ns. per shift per man. As some of your number earn more than that amount, and others less, I would suggest that you should pool your wages and divide." To my mind, that was an exceedingly sensible suggestion. No industry can carry on which has to pay more than the economic value of the work performed. We know that with the advance of medical science, and with cheaper food supplies, 'a great many weaker persons are being reared to manhood. As we obtain improved methods of treating the young and rearing them to manhood, this trouble will become more acute. The standard wage must not be set by the weaker men.

Mr Storrer - That difficulty is provided for in the Bill.

Mr SKENE - I am speaking more of the methods which unionists have adopted in the past. Another point which occurs to me in reference to this matter is that the Government are now proposing to seriously depart from the principle which they have expressed a desire to follow in other directions.. Thev talk of nationalizing industry, and yet they propose to create a monopoly of labour. I contend that, by so doing, they are altogether departing from the lines which they have laid down in regard to other matters. Several amendments are to be submtted, which I hope the Government will accept. Although I began by admitting that I was in favour of voluntary conciliation-

Mr Page - Everybody is in favour of that.

Mr SKENE - I am not in the slightest degree anxious to go back upon the principle of compulsory arbitration at this stage. My only desire is to get the best Bill possible under the circumstances. I claim, therefore, that the Government should go as far as they can towards accepting the amendments proposed. As the honorable member for Kooyong has said, the position m California has become so acute that one realizes that it would be well, if possible, to do something in this direction. It would seem that in California many employers and employes really conspire together to exploit the consumer. In dealing with difficulties of this kind, however, a State enjoys an advantage over a Federation. Professor Fiske, in discussing similar agitations which took place in California years ago, points out that if the trouble is confined to one State it cures itself. As soon as the money begins to flow from the State the people must go too, and other States take warning. We are legislating, however, for the whole Commonwealth, and must therefore regard these questions from a broader stand-point. As I understand that it is the wish of the Committee to go to a division as soon as possible, I shall content myself with this brief statement of my views.

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