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Wednesday, 6 July 1904


Mr WEBSTER (Gwydir) - My only reason for asking the question was that I desired to keep within the strict bounds of debate. Whilst this clause has been under discussion, it has-been a most interesting spectacle to witness the various members of the legal profession in this Committee trying to amend a clause in a Bill which is not the Bill of the present Government, but of the Government whom they displaced, and of the Government who preceded them. It seems to me that, from the party of the late Government, we have had quite a number of amiably disposed legal gentlemen endeavouring to so amend the clause asto make it provide for one or other of the difficulties which, in their opinion, will arise when the Bill is being administered. When legal gentlemen get a clause of any Bill into the legal sausage-mill, no one can tell how it will come out. We are floundering among various amendments which have been submitted. One legal member of the Committee has moved an amendment, and before it has been printed and circulated, another has been moved upon it, and a further amendment has been moved upon that again.


Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is very clear.


Mr WEBSTER - I notice that the honorable and learned gentleman is generally present only when things are not very clear. My exposition is, I think, at least as clear as the explanation which some honorable and learned members have given in proposing their amendments. I have listened attentively to the debate, and we have now three amendments before us. One is that we shall practically take away from unions the right of combination for industrial purposes if there is anything of a political character associated with their constitution or rules. In dealing with the subject honorable members opposite have confined themselves to a discussion of the monstrous injuries which the unions of employes will inflict upon society generally if they are given. the privileges provided for in the clause. They have carefully refrained from discussing what employers' unions are going to do, though it is admitted that they are political organizations.


Mr Mcwilliams - I should treat both alike.


Mr WEBSTER - We cannot treat both alike, because the men forming the employes' unions have only their manhood and combination to dependi upon. They must combine. That is where their strength lies, and as unions registered under the Bill, we can draw the line in their case; but in the case of employers, whilst they may be members of an employers' organization, they may still, as private individuals, expend money in the promotion of a political campaign, to the detriment of the party to which they are opposed. The right honorable member for East Sydney - I do not know if I should be light in describing him as the leader of the Opposition - told us last night that he had suddenly learned something new in connexion with conciliation and arbitration legislation. Notwithstanding that he was for so long a member of the New South Wales Parliament, and heard the subject discussed there so often, and that he is supposed to possess almost all knowledge, political and legal, he has admitted that he did not understand the effectof the clause upon the political rights and liberties of those who have bound themselves tpgether in unions to bring about the proper administration of the law. The whole Bill rests upon unionism. Without unionism its provisions could not be administered effectively. Consequently those who would strike at the existing unions, as the honorable and learned member for Angas is endeavouring to do, by reforming them out of existence, wish to defeat the Bill.


Mr Glynn - I do not wish to do any-, thing of the sort.


Mr WEBSTER - That is the effect of the amendment. The right honorable member for East Sydney has posed as the champion of unionists, and has denounced those who joined with the employers in a conspiracy to form the bogus Machine Shearers' and Shed Employes' Union. It is to men such as he condemns that he is' going to give the opportunities which they obtained through the indiscretion of the Australian Workers' Union. What will be the effect of the Bill if the amendments of the honorable and learned members for Angas and Corinella are carried? Existing trades unions will not be able to register under it. Then what will happen ? Just what has happened with the Australian Workers' Union. The Machine Shearers' and Shed Employes' Union took advantage of certain rules in the constitution of the Australian Workers' Union to obtain registration, and when the latter sought to have thatregistration cancelled, it found itself prevented from doing so by reason of the existence of those rules. The same thing will happen under the clause. Employers will combine with undesirable persons, such as those for. whom the right honorable member for East Sydney has professed contempt, and will register themselves as unions for the purpose of defeating legitimate unions. Where is the consistency of the right honorable member in condemning the members of the Machine Shearers' Union, because he thinks it a popular thing to do at this juncture, and supporting amendments which will enable employers and non-unionists to register under the Bill, thus cutting out the true trades unions whose members have borne the heat and burden of the day? It is the unionists who have been fighting all along for the rights of the toilers, but the amendments will rob them of the fruits of their efforts, and will take away all incentives to join unions, by preventing preference from being given to unionists. The honorable and learned member for Indi wished to be extremely cautious in this matter, and proposed ' that preference shall not be given to unions which use their funds for political purposes, or lean towards any political party. But I do not know that that is a just proposal. It is the unionists who have made a Bill of this kind possible. They have nurtured the idea of arbitration, and by their agitation brought it into practical politics. They have forced upon the attention of Parliament the desirability of substituting legal tribunals for strikes in the settlement of disputes between masters and men. But the fact that the nonunionists have enjoyed the advantages gained by the' unionists seems to be lost sight of. These benefits have been won at the cost of thousands of pounds, and at sacrifices which cannot be appraised in money. If the unionists are labouring under disadvantages which only an alteration of the law can remove, they will be prevented from taking united action to effect reform. They cannot exert a united influence in political matters unless they are prepared to sacrifice that preference of employment to which they are absolutely entitled. Under such circumstances the trades unions will not register as organizations under the Bill, and they cannot be blamed for taking up that attitude. If the amendments now before us were embodied in the Bill, not only would the unions be discouraged from registering, but they would, in effect, be told that if they did not hurry up other unions of a bogus character would be recognised in their stead. Why should not the unions exercise political power? Why should not the members of the trades unions be free to exercise their political rights? Why should we engage in a retrograde movement, which would deprive the manhood of Australia of a large measure of the liberty which has been achieved only after centuries of Struggle? The honorable member for Corangamite told us a good deal with regard to the political aims of the Melbourne Trades and Labour Council, but I would inform him that in New South Wales we have never been able to induce the unions to contribute to any appreciable extent towards the funds of the Political Labour League. I do not think there is any reason for the apprehension which some honorable members seem to feel with regard to the extent to which the union funds may be applied to political purposes. With honorable members opposite the question is not so much that of according preference to unionists or of preserving to the members of the unions their full political rights, as that of setting the Bill on one side altogether, and of gaining place and power by illegitimate means. The more closely we regard the attitude of the members of the Opposition the more clearly it becomes evident that they are not acting according to their conscientious convictions, but are being guided by considerations having relation to the personal advantages which may result from the accession of their party to power. We find honorable members who profess to be in favour of this class of legislation voting solidly against the Government. We are seeking to pass legislation in the interests of the community as a whole, and not for the purpose of benefiting trades unionists. We have been told that if we give preference to unionists we shall be placing upon our statute-book class legislation, which will have the most baneful effect upon the men outside the unions. I do not understand why the honorable and learned member for Ballarat should entertain such fears as he has expressed with regard to the probable effects of this measure, but I recognise that his attitude offers a very favorable contrast to that taken up by the honorable and learned member for East Sydney, who has endeavoured, whilst placating nonunionists, to pose as the greatest friend of the unionists. I warn honorable members of the Opposition - I do not 1 wish to use any threats - that their action in connexion with this Bill is being very closely watched. Many of them assisted in placing the present Ministry in power, ostensibly in order that this Bill might be placed on the statute-book in a satisfactory shape. But they are now adopting an attitude entirely inconsistent with that previously assumed by them. Many honorable members voted in favour of bringing the railway servants of the States within the scope of the Bill, and yet they are now prepared to support an amendment which would deprive these men of all the advantages of the unions which have been their -mainstay in the past. It is now proposed to take away all the rights which unionists have previously enjoyed, without giving them any adequate recompense. Honorable members may rest assured that their constituents will very closely watch them, and that every precaution will be taken against thedescent of our politics to the low levels which have been reached in some of the State Legislatures.







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