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Friday, 12 August 1904

Mr BATCHELOR (Boothby) (Minister of Home Affairs) . - This debate has been marked by some very extraordinary features. The attitude taken up by the Opposition in. refusing the Government the right to recommit a clause which they conceive to be so framed that it would not work in harmony with the objects of the Bill, is in itself remarkable; but I wish to direct attention not so much to that phase of the situation as to the curious fact that whilst this is undoubtedly a no-confidence motion, not one leading member of the Opposition has, so far, seen fit to take part in the debate. Where are the leaders of the Opposition ? I am inclined to think that this is the first time in the history of Australian Parliaments that a leader of an Opposition has declined to address himself to what is avowedly a no-confidence motion. The leaders of the Opposition have scarcely dared to show themselves. Occasionally they have put in an appearance, but finding, apparently, the criticism of their actions too warm for their peace of mind, have immediately taken their departure. I do not think that this is altogether fair. We might reasonably have assumed that those who intended to secure the defeat of the Government-

Mr Bamford - Did the honorable gentleman expect anything better?

Mr BATCHELOR - I certainly did.

Mr Bamford - The honorable gentleman is altogether too sanguine.

Mr BATCHELOR - I at least expected that the treatment usually meted out to Governments would be extended to even . a Labour Ministry. It seems, however, that we are to be submitted, not to ordinary, but to extraordinary treatment, which, in my opinion, and I am sure, in the opinion of the people, reflects but little credit on those who are engineering our overthrow. What is the object of this Bill? That is a consideration to which we may well devote a few moments' attention. Is it designed to benefit honorable members on this side of the House? Certainly not. It was brought forward with a view to put an end to strikes, not in the interests of unionists, but for the public good. If this Bill be not in the public interest it should have no p]ace in our deliberations. If it be a measure not solely to benefit unionists - although it has been treated by the Opposition as if it were - if it be designed to prevent strikes, in the public interest, because it is recognised that industrial disputes involve tremendous loss to the whole community, should it not be worthy of our serious consideration ? The Bill is not primarily framed in the interests of unionists; as a matter of fact they will lose a great deal more than they will gain by submitting to the principle of compulsory conciliation, and arbitration. During the debate on the Bill it was suggested that the Government and their supporters had failed while on the hustings to tell the unionists "that this measure would probably work, in many cases, to their disadvantage. That assertion is incorrect. During the last election campaign I announced from every public platform on which I spoke that if the people imagined for one moment that compulsory conciliation and arbitration would invariably work for the benefit of unionists and the workers generally, they made a great mistake; I clearly told the workers that it would benefit them only as members of the community.

Mr Wilks - The less the workers resort to it the better it will be for them.

Mr BATCHELOR - Undoubtedly. The only benefit which trades unionists or other workers can hope to derive from the Bill is simply that which it will confer upon them as members of the community. It is desired that they should be peacefully employed in carrying on their industry, in stead of employers and employes being, as they too frequently have been, at arms' length. When employers and employe's are constantly fighting with each other, a very large section of the community pro- duces no wealth. It is solely to increase the production of wealth that we ask for a measure of this kind. We ask for this measure, not to improve the status of unionists, but solely in the interests of the public. Every member of the community from the largest capitalist in the Commonwealth, to the humblest labourer, is concerned in the bringing about of a state of affairs in which, instead of having a large percentage living on the labours of others, we shall find all persons producing to the fullest extent of their power. On these grounds, and on these alone, can this Bill be defended. I have been a trades unionist ever since I served my apprenticeship to engineering, and as such I have always recognised that nearly all that has been gained by the workers has been the result of agitation and of strikes, and that for them to sacrifice the right to strike would be to part with a very great power. In order that trades unionists might be protected - in order that they might not be left entirely without organization - it was considered that provision for preference to them was an indispensable part of the Bill - that it was essential to its proper working. That was the view adopted by the author of the Bill, and the honorable and learned member for Ballarat, who originally introduced it, recognised that the principle of preference to unionists was absolutely vital. After he had had an opportunity to carefully consider the question during a recess, extending over several months, and after it had passed through the furnace of criticism associated with a general election the honorable and learned member again moved the second reading of the Bill last session, when, as the honorable member for Brisbane has pointed out, he announced that he merely proposed to make some slight verbal alterations in the measure. He still thought that preference to unionists, without any qualification whatever, as originally provided for in the Bill, was essential,, and it must therefore be taken that the late Government was in accord with the principle. I do not mean to suggest that every individual member of the Cabinet agreed to every detail of the Bill, but we may fairly assume that the Cabinet as a whole were favorable to the granting of preference without any qualification, because we are confronted by the fact that the Bill as brought down by them on two occasions provided for the undiluted application of that principle. Up to the time that the present Governmnent took office preference to unionists was recognised as a necessary part of the measure. There was no proposal from any quarter to whittle away the provision in any respect, but from the "date on which the present Administration took up the reins of Government the whittling down process began. There was an effort, apparently, on, the part of the Opposition to damage the prestige of organizations and trades unions. And what was the reason? Was it because trades unionists are among the Government supporters that it was proposed that unions should be crippled for political purposes? Apparently so. At any rate, I am at a loss to understand the move of the Opposition upon any other hypothesis.

Mr Wilks - The Government accepted quite a number of amendments.

Mr BATCHELOR - I admit that freely. The Government were naturally desirous to obtain from the. House the best

Bill possible, in order that it might be of some service to the workers ; but I certainly do not think that in its present form the measure will be operative in the slightest degree. Upon this question my opinion has been sought by leading members of trade unions - by members of the organization with which I am associated, and by others - and I have advised them that unless a very substantial alteration is effected in the Bill before it becomes law, those organizations ought not to register under it. I am convinced that they will not register under it. Have . we not urged that honorable members ought not always to aim at an ideal of freedom? Why? Because we have recognised that it .is incompatible with the working of a Bill of this character. We have taken this course, not in the interests of unionists, but in the interests of the public, and to prevent the Bill from being whittled down to such an extent as to render it inoperative. In its present form no trade union will register under its provisions, notwithstanding that we have been engaged in discussing it for some months. Why have the vital principles of the Bill been thus whittled away? Simply to spite the present Government. There is no other explanation of the extraordinary action of honorable members opposite.

Mr McCay - Is it not a fact that, with the exception of this amendment, every other alteration effected in the Bill has been accepted by the Government?

Mr BATCHELOR - As I have previously stated, the Government desired to obtain from this House the most effective measure possible. We could not make every amendment vital to our existence. We had to accept the best Bill that we could secure. But naturally there is a limit to compromise - a point at which we recognise it is useless to further proceed with the measure. To do so would be a perfect farce. I am not prepared to tell the unionists of South Australia that I assisted to pass a worthless Bill. I do not wish to gain kudos for having passed a measure relating to arbitration if it is of no real value. Having pleaded with unionists to subscribe to legislation of this character, having induced them to sacrifice their right to strike, can I tell them that we have enacted a law which will be ineffective? The honorable and learned member for Corinella has twitted the Government with having accepted other amendments.

Mr McCay - I did not twit the Government with having done so.

Mr BATCHELOR - The honorable and learned member certainly did.

Mr McCay - I did not intend to twit them.

Mr BATCHELOR - We fought against any whittling away of the vital provisions of this Bill. But modification after modification has been proposed merely for the purpose of creating an appetite for more.

Mr Wilks - The proposal of the Government would only feed that appetite.

Mr BATCHELOR - At any rate that proposal possesses the virtue of being a workable one, and it would achieve the result which the honorable and learned member for Corinella desires.

Mr Wilks - I am as opposed to his amendment as is the Minister himself.

Mr BATCHELOR - I do not think that our proposal is a necessary one, but, never-' theless, it is workable. A proposal which requires that any union before being granted a preference shall satisfy the Court that it substantially represents the workers engaged in the particular industry affected, is not one which I can characterize as highly objectionable, or as likely to impair the efficient working of the measure.

Mr Henry Willis - It is a very astute proposal.

Mr BATCHELOR - If it be astute, it is certainly straightforward. The honorable member is at liberty to rise in his place, if he dares, and to explain in what way it is astute and not straightforward. The terms employed in it are those which are generally adopted by Courts charged with the administration of kindred legislation. In making their awards they have frequently required that a majority of the employes interested in any particular industry must be represented before any preference is granted to unionists. I do not intend to labour this question. The refusal of honorable members opposite to allow the Bill to be recommitted - an act which is unparalleled in party warfare - is thoroughly consonant with the treatment which this Government have received from the very moment of their advent to power. I care nothing for Ministerial office - I do not think that I can be accused of having exhibited any desire to grasp it.

Mr McDonald - The leader of the Opposition accused the Government last night of hanging on to office.

Mr BATCHELOR - I know that the spiteful remarks which were made upon that occasion were not meant. It is rather a pity, I think, that the first Labour Ministry in the Commonwealth should have been denied that fair treatment which is ordinarily accorded to Governments. It is regrettable, because of the appreciation by the public of that spirit of fair play which usually distinguishes Britishers. Not a single accusation has been urged against the administration of the Government, or against the policy which we have put forward. I did not_ expect that we should be defeated by a union of the forces of honorable members who are opposed to this legislation, and of that section of the House which opposes the Government merely for party purposes. I did not anticipate that a procedure would be adopted which would have the effect of preventing the Ministry and their supporters from fully and fairly expressing their opinions upon other matters. There has been a conspiracy of silence on the part of honorable members opposite. One or two of them have been anxious to address the House, but they have been held down by other honorable members.

Mr Wilks - The Minister cannot apply that remark to all.

Mr BATCHELOR - I admit that the honorable member is an exception. I do not complain of the treatment which he has meted out to the Government. Generally speaking, he has been very fair.

Mr McDonald - He has. not sunk the fiscal issue.

Mr BATCHELOR - I do not know whether he has done so, or not. It is a singular circumstance that the widest differences of opinion between honorable members of this House have been bridged over with the sole object of displacing the present Ministry at all costs. Even the honorable member for North Sydney must admit that the present Ministry is a cohesive body with one policy. We do not possess as many policies upon every conceivable subject under the sun, as there are members in this House. The combination of honorable members opposite is a peculiar one, which we may well allow the public to appraise at its true value. In conclusion, I am satisfied, that if the Government are defeated upon the amendment submitted, its members have not brought discredit upon the positions which they have held. They vacate office without one accusation of administrative failure having been levelled against them. They will relinquish the reins of Government - if they do so - owing to the action of a unique political combination, and simply because they happen to be members of the Labour Party. Under no other conceivable circumstances could such a remarkable union of forces have been effected.

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