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Thursday, 11 August 1904

Mr HIGGINS (Northern MelbourneAttorneyGeneral) - I considered that the few words which I may say were ill-suited to so warm a temperature as we had in this Chamber a short time ago; but now that the honorable member for Darwin has brought the House again into good humour, what I have to say may not be so inappropriate. The limits of the discussion have, if I may say so, been very rightly narrowed by your ruling, Mr. Speaker, and in my remarks I shall narrow them still more. The question before the House is simply whether the Government shall be granted leave to recommit one of the gravest and most difficult clauses to frame which there is in the Bill. Some honorable members wish to refuse the request for recommittal, and they are, of course, perfectly entitled to do so. But the effect of their action will be that' a proviso," which all must admit was inserted without argument and without discussion, by a snatch majority, when honorable members were hurrying away to catch the trains to other States, cannot be re-discussed.

Mr Isaacs - Discussed, nott rediscussed.

Mr HIGGINS - Yes, discussed; Because it has never yet been discussed. Honorable members who were present on the occasion, remember that the Committee had been wearied with the discussion of other amendments.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - With the discussion of clause 48.

Mr HIGGINS - With the discussion of amendments in that clause. The Prime Minister at last arranged to allow a certain amendment to be accepted. Another amendment was rejected, and then the honorable and learned member for Corinella moved the proviso of which he had given notice. It is quite true that it had been printed and circulated; but ' he said, "I will not argue it, if Ministers will not do so"; and Ministers did not argue if. There was a division forthwith, and the Government were beaten. That proviso has not yet been discussed. Any one who wishes to refer to the proceedings will find them recorded on page 2689 of the Hansard report for the current session, so that I am speaking by the card. Ministers who are responsible to the House and to the country for this grave measure ask the House, under these circumstances, not to merely consider the amendment which they propose to move, but to see whether some device cannot be found, by the ingenuity of honorable members, which will make the proviso workable. Apparently a majority, led by one or two, are inclined not to give us leave to do this. If the action of the House is meant to be an insult, a slap in the face to Ministers, we must take it as such. Honorable members are quite entitled to act as they have acted; but it is not the way in which statesmen act. It is not right to refuse to discuss the amendment of a proviso which was inserted in such a grave clause as that now before the House under the circumstances which I have detailed. I assure honorable members that I have studied the proviso with the utmost care, and I have to warn them that I have come to the conclusion, which is shared byothers whose opinions I regard very highly, that it is most unskilfully drawn, and if passed into law is likely to cause great difficult)' to the President of the Court. Furthermore, it certainly will not carry out the object which its mover has expressed himself as desirous of carrying out. I say that, knowing that- 1 am speaking in some respects to . deaf ears ; but I think it is my duty to let the House know that the proviso will not achieve the object which its mover, and those who have supported it, think it will achieve. If honorable members will look for a moment at its concluding words, they will see that before a preference is granted there is required a majority, " of those affected by the award who have interests in common with the applicants." Who are those who are " affected by the award ?" I should think that they are not merely those who are bound by it, but their families and others as well. But, in order to come to graver matters, I will assume that "affected by the award" means " bound by the award:" The proviso, however, assumes that it is only by an award that preference can be given. That is a mistake. Preference may also be given by an order. Clause 48 itself allows preference to be given by an order; but there is no proviso that there must be it majority of those who are to be affected by the order. That is not the worst of it. Let us go a step further. The proviso says, " those who have interests in common with the applicants." Who are they ? The words used are not " those who are in the industry," but "those who have interests in common with the applicants."

Mr Watkins - Every workman in Australia.

Mr HIGGINS - That may or may not be; but let me give the House a concrete instance. Let me assume that an award is made affecting all seamen, amongst whom are unionists and nonunionists, including lascars in receipt of, perhaps, 15s. per week. Incidentally, I might observe that honorable members who say that where workmen are not united they do not get fair play are perfectly correct. Suppose that an award is made affecting all seamen, and application is made for the granting of a preference to unionists, who will be " those who have interests in common with the applicants " ? Surely not the lascars, and those who are not united, bur the unionists themselves, and it will be easy to obtain a majority of unionists in favour of the granting of the preference. The honorable and learned member for

Corinella, who is not now present, is i man of brains, and deserves great credit for the manner in which he prepares his work. He would be the first to admit that the clause needs to be reconsidered.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - So does the proposal of the honorable and learned gentleman. There is more slovenly drafting in it. The words " the industry affected " would include both sides.

Mr HIGGINS - The honorable member is entitled to express his opinion on the drafting to which he alludes. I am quite willing to take responsibility for it, though it happens that it was not mine. What I say is that the Government are not attempting to thrust any amendment down the throats of honorable members. We wish that the clause shall be recommitted and reconsidered, and we are determined that the country shall know what our position is.

Mr Conroy - Is it not monstrous that the House should be asked to reconsider a clause which may take the bread out of men's mouths?

Mr HIGGINS - I wish that we could take words out of some men's mouths. I say with all respect that the phraseology of the proviso is obscure. Honorable members opposite, however, do not see fit to trust the House to put it right. They will not even allow their own meaning to be rightly expressed, and to be made clear. They say, " We are opposed to a recommittal. We shall not have any discussion, we shall limit the debate, we shall prevent the Ministerial supporters from expressing their minds with regard to the line of conduct that has been pursued, and we shall also secure the vote of one honorable member whose vote will count two in the division, and that will give us a majority."

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does the AttorneyGeneral desire the recommittal merely in order to remedy the drafting?

Mr HIGGINS - I wish to remedy the drafting in order to effect my object, and I also wish my honorable and learned friend, the member for Corinella, to remedy the drafting of his amendment in order to prevent the provision from being nonsensical. The only question at present is, are we going to trust the House with the task of converting a stupid clause into one which will be effective? Afterwards, when we come to the clause - if we ever get to it - some honorable members may say that they wish it to read in one way, whilst I may wish to adopt other phraseology. Surely that will be the time to discuss it. A number of honorable members have sought to persuade us that we should have no alternative but to adopt the Government proposal, or allow the proviso to stand. That, however, is not the case. The question is, is the House to be trusted, or not. Is it to be allowed an opportunity to put the clause right, and to make its meaning clear? I feel that I have no right to complain of the action taken.. As a Ministry we can submit. We came into office with out seeking it, and we shall go out without having disgraced ourselves. We came into office without cadging, and we shall go out without cringing. All that I can say is that our occupancy of office has provided a beneficial lesson for the country, which will see that a Labour Ministry has been displaced before it has committed any fault of administration, before it has proposed anything contrary to the programme put forward by its leaders at the outset. I must say that I think it is fortunate for us that the present course has been followed by the Opposition. It might have been difficult for us to explain from the platform, to those who are not versed in the intricacies of unionism and arbitration, the difference between the clause as it stands and as it would appear if the Government proposal were adopted. When, however, it comes to a question of taking the conduct of the business of the House, and the ordinary machinery of Government out of the hands of Ministers, we can make our position clear to the constituencies. We can show that, because the Ministry has been sneered at as a Labour Ministry by snobs, therefore, it has been regarded as not entitled to fair play. If the clause be not rediscussed, we shall be able to go to the outside public untrammelled. Our hands will not be tied, even by the amendment which we have put before the House. We shall be absolutely free. I think we went to the utmost limits in that amendment. I am not at all sure that we did not go too far; but we went so far in order to save the Bill from being wrecked. Whenever the people ask for bread, whatever we do - no matter what the consequences may be - we shall not give them a stone. When the people are asking for an Arbitration Bill which will work, we shall not give them a Bill which will not work. We were quite willing to exclude from the scope of the Bill for the present the agricultural industry, domestic occupations, and so forth, to which the House did not think the Bill should apply. But when it becomes a question of amending the Bill in such a way as to make it useless for any industry we hold our hands and say, " No ; we will have nothing of the sort." I regretted to hear the speech delivered by the honorable member for Moira, whom I have respected extremely in the Victorian Parliament and here. I did not understand the unjust way in which he treated the action of the Ministry in regard to the Bill now before us and the Seat of Government Bill. I ask any fair man if we have taken any unfair advantage, or have been guilty of any trickery. I am quite sure when the honorable member comes to think of it, he will see that this Ministry, whatever its faults may have been, has acted honorably and above board, and has not been guilty of any underground engineering; that it has fought for its principles, that it has not sought office, and that it will leave it with a good record and an unstained flag. The right honorable member for East Sydney is not here. He has always spoken of this measure as one embodying " a great reform."A certain air of cynical irony has characterized the right honorable gentleman, but still that is the expression that has been recorded in Hansard, and that can be referred to when there is need. He has spoken of this as a great reform. I suppose because it is a great reform it is to be whittled away as much as possible - the greater it is, the more can be cut off. I am surprised at the position taken up with regard to clause 48 by my friend the honorable and learned member for Ballarat, whom I have followed with great interest and great enthusiasm. The honorable and learned member voted for the insertion of the proviso proposed by the honorable and learned member for Corinella.

Mr Deakin - Hear, hear.

Mr HIGGINS - The honorable and learned member said that he had not voted against a single line of the Bill he introduced.

Mr Deakin - Hear, hear.

Mr HIGGINS - That is true, but although it is literally true, it conveys an impression which I am sure the honorable and learned member would not wish to convey.

Mr Deakin - I said that I had voted for two alterations.

Mr HIGGINS - Yes, but the point is that it is not necessary to cut a clause, or even a line, out of a Bill in order to injure it. You may kill a man as well by poisoning him as by cutting a piece out of him, and you_can kill a Bill as effectually by inserting a proviso as by taking one out of it. We never entertained the least idea that the honorable and ' learned member would favour the proviso. He never suggested it in his great second-reading speech on the Bill. We brought down clause 48 in the exact form in which it had been proposed by the' honorable and learned member, and without any warning to us, the proviso was inserted,' with the assistance of the honorable and learned member.

Mr Conroy - The Attorney-General is blaming the honorable and learned member for making two alterations, whereas twentythree alterations are proposed by the Government.

Mr HIGGINS - I can assure the honorable and learned member that I was not referring to him when I was speaking just now. The best test of the present situation is this: Let. us talk of this great reform. The right honorable member for East Sydney frequently reiterates that this is a great reform. Let us see upon which side those who are honestly opposed to all arbitration matters are going to vote on this occasion.

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member who proposed arbitration - the honorable and learned.member for Ballarat - is voting on this side.

Mr HIGGINS - The honorable member is very ready at edging away from the point. The point is, upon which side are the avowed opponents of the Arbitration Bill going to vote?

Mr Batchelor - They are wreckers of the Bill.

Mr Lonsdale - They put the Ministry on the Treasury benches.

Mr Batchelor - We did not thank them for it.

Mr Lonsdale - Ministers were very pleased to accept their assistance.

Mr Batchelor - That is not true.

Mr SPEAKER - I must ask the Minister to withdraw that remark.

Mr Batchelor - I withdraw.

Mr HIGGINS - All I desire to say is that not only will the proviso not have the effect which the honorable and learned member for Corinella wishes, but it will prove unworkable. ' The majority of those engaged in any industry cannot be ascertained unless a census is taken. It will be necessary to have practically an electoral roll, practically a revision court, and practically a referendum, and all the machinery necessary for ascertaining who are on this side or on that. Other honorable members have dealt with this measure with a grasp and grip which only experience, can give, and I am not in the position to follow them. I can only avow myself to be convinced by the experience gained in New Zealand, New South Wales, and Western Australia that the very best thing for Australia is a good Arbitration Bill, with a very strong preference clause. I do not think that an arbitration measure can be worked without preference to unionists. I know enough from my experience in regard to union delegates having been " spotted " by employers, and told that they must stand down without any reason being given. I feel convinced that, unless a preference is given to unionists, the employers will be able to weed out whenever it suits them those men who stand up for the rights of their fellows. I thank honorable members for having listened to me for so long. I do not speak at any great length as a rule, and I do not propose to extend my remarks beyond reiterating that the clause is vague and imperfect, and will not carry out the purposes of its framers.

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