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Wednesday, 19 October 1904

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - If the explanation which has just been made by the honorable and learned member for Wannon be correct-

Mr Fisher - I do not think it is.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I put it hypothetically. If the explanation be correct, it is regrettable that the PostmasterGeneral did not give it in the first place, instead of practically evading a question put to him by one of his most loyal supporters. The duty of a Government towards its supporters is often greater than that which it owes to its opponents. It is perfectly natural that the supporters of a Govern ment should be jealous of any reprehensible departure from a policy which they are supposed to favour, and on the strength of which they are prepared to follow them. I should not have added even five minutes to the time occupied by this debate, if my name had not been drawn into the discussion. I did not think when I asked the questions, to which reference has been made, that they would lead to so lengthy a debate as that which has taken place this afternoon. I should like to say that the honorable member for Coolgardie, who moved the adjournment of the House, has evinced a new-born friendship in coming to my rescue, with the professed object of saving my dignity and consistency. J suppose that the honorable gentleman and I are as wide apart as the poles on every political principle, and I have never detected until now - three years after we first met in this Parliament - any indication that he was prepared to become my champion, because he thought that I had not been properly treated by the Government of the day. I desire to tell the honorable member and all other members of his party that I am quite capable of looking after my dignity, my loyalty to my party, and all other matters of my own concern, without any affected desire on their part to help me.

Mr Mahon - It was not altogether a desire to help the honorable and learned member that induced me to take this action. It is a matter in which I am personally involved.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I say that, so far as the honorable member took this action on my behalf-

Mr Mahon - I did not take action on behalf of the honorable and learned member; I would not walk two steps at anytime to serve him.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have not said anything to which the honorable member should take exception, nor have I invited him to say anything unpleasant to me. The explanation given by the PostmasterGeneral seemed to be nothing more nor less than a long-winded tu quoque. He seemed to derive satisfaction from the fact that the honorable member for Coolgardie had done the very thing of which he is accused. That does not justify him at all. I take it, and I speak with Ministerial experience, that when a Minister assumes charge of a Department, and finds in existence there practices which seem to him to involve a contravention of the law, it is his bounden duty to put an end to them on the very first occasion which presents itself. The PostmasterGeneral, in the course of his explanation - which I found very difficult to follow - did not once mention the simple fact which was referred to by the honorable and learned member for Wannon, that, as there is no duty' upon these goods, he, in giving a preference, was merely extending to them that which the Legislature had provided for in regard' to other material.

Mr Fisher - I do not think that that is so.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - If it be so, it is not an answer, because if the Legislature has seen fit to give a preference on certain goods under certain conditions, by providing that these goods shall enter the Commonwealth free of duty, we are justified in supposing that it did not intend that preference should be given to Commonwealth goods. It is very important that a Ministry should regard seriously any question of this kind asked by a supporter. We have our constituents to deal with. The basis of the party partnership which now exists between the protectionists and free-traders in this House, is the continuance of the status quo with regard to the fiscal question, and we who are free-traders are perfectly justified in looking to the Prime Minister and to his colleagues to see that that status quo is maintained in every way. If I passed over a matter of this kind, being what would be called a very rigid and uncompromising free-trader, and coming from a very strong free-trade constituency, I should be liable to be asked at any time why I tolerated this unjustifiable departure from the limited protectionist policy of the Commonwealth, which is the status quo upon which the coalition has been' founded. It is the duty of every Minister, when he takes office, to ask himself, not merely, " What has been the practice of my predecessor?" but " What are the practices existing in my Department, and are they justified by the Constitution and the laws of the country?" If they are so justified, well and good ; but if they are not, it is his duty to get rid of them/ If a supporter of the Government conceives that a Minister is departing from the recognised principles laid down by the Legislature, he has a perfect right to ask a question on the subject, and there is an obligation upon the Minister, to satisfy his supporter that what he is doing is justifiable, so that that supporter may explain the matter to his constituents in a manner which will be satisfactory to them. The debate has done good - because the PostmasterGeneral evaded my question.

Mr Reid - That is the honorable and learned member's opinion. He cannot finally decide the matter.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It is not a question of opinion.

Mr Reid - I venture to say that it is.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I insist that it is not, and I shall show why it is not. I asked three questions of the PostmasterGeneral. The first was - Whether it is true that he has continued this practice? My second question was - Had he consulted the Cabinet? I wished to know whether his action was independent of the Cabinet, or whether he had taken the trouble to obtain the sanction of the Government of which he was a member for going beyond the legal bounds. My third question was - Whether he could give me any legislative or constitutional authority for the practice? Those were three very simple and very civil questions. I do not say that because I wish to be cheered by the Opposition, but because I expect the support of my party. We have a Tight to ask such questions. But what answer did I receive? The Prime Minister gave a reply to a question asked by another honorable member, which touched the first of my questions, but which did not touch or refer to my second or third question. That is not a statement of opinion, but a statement of fact. If we are sure of our existence, and of the meaning of the English language, we must know that those questions were not answered. As -the Postmaster-General has not done me the courtesy to answer my questions, I have gone to the head of the Government, and I say without hesitation that I shall not stop until I get satisfaction. I shall not support the Government even for an hour unless I can. get civil and satisfactory answers from them on questions of policv.

Mr Reid - Has the honorable and learned member had an uncivil answer?

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have not had any answer yet.

Mr Reid - The honorable and learned member - has a question on the businesspaper which I am ready to answer when I get an opportunity to do so. Is it not a little too soon to talk of incivility

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - What I am complaining of is the action of the PostmasterGeneral, and I have sought relief by going to a higher authority. I make no complaint about the Prime Minister's treatment of my questions, because the opportunity has not yet arrived for him to answer them.

Mr Reid - The honorable and learned member spoke of going further, as if my conduct would require him to do so.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Not with regard to my questions. What I complain of is that the Prime Minister turned round upon me, and said that it is a matter of opinion whether the Postmaster-General has properly answered my questions.

Mr Reid - Surely it must be. The honorable and learned member cannot be the final arbiter.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) -I do not wish to be misunderstood by the Prime Minister, and I do not wish to misunderstand him. Although I sit in this Chamber, and belong to a party, I am not going to meekly follow the Government in such a way as to sacrifice my principles.

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Postmaster-General) - No one has asked the honorable and learned member to do so.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am not addressing the Postmaster-General. I am sure that the Prime Minister would not ask me to do anything of the kind, because he knows too well my political character. As I have already said, I think that the discussion has done good. A coalition Government is always in a very difficult position, since those who support it are liable at any moment to be misunderstood by their constituents, because of their acquiescence in certain acts in the nature of a compromise between the two parties. For that reason I gave notice of my three questions, in order to obtain a denial or a justification which I could, if necessary, pass on to my constituents. I have now gone to the Prime Minister, failing to obtain a reply from the Postmaster-General, as one goes to the High Court from a Supreme Court. The discussion has laid down the principle that legislation is the test of whether a Minister should do this or that in connexion with the work of his Department. The PostmasterGeneral has stated that the matter was only a small one, because in one instance only 6s. 8d. was involved. That excuse reminds me of Marryat's famous story of the nursemaid who excused herself on the ground that " It was only a little one." Whether much or little was involved, the principle is the same, and, as a free-trader, I am justified in seeing that the status quo upon which the coalition was formed is preserved by Ministers.

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