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Tuesday, 25 October 1904

Mr WATSON (Bland) - The Prime Minister sought to meet this attack, ashe is accustomed to parry all thrusts of this character, by impugning the motives of his assailants. He commenced by saying that we, on this side, are so consumed with the desire to cross the floor, in order , to obtain possession of the Treasury benches, that everything else pales into insignificance in our eyes. He was reminded that, although as leader of the Opposition in this Parliament he did not move a great number of motions of no-confidence-

Mr Reid - Onlyone - on the Tariff. That was a fair occasion.

Mr WATSON - Yes, but in his earlier political career he was continually engaged in moving motions of want of confidence.

Mr Reid - Where?

Mr WATSON - In New South Wales.

Mr Reid - I moved four in four years, and could have found occasion to move fully a hundred more.

Mr WATSON - I do not deny that. But after the right honorable gentleman's . challenge to this side of the House at Kyneton, Warragul, and at other places, how can he complain if we seize every honorable opportunity to thrust him from office? The right honorable gentleman has himself declared that a matter of principle divides honorable members on this side of the House, or, at any rate, the large proportion of them, from the Government and its supporters.

Mr Reid - But the honorable member would not move a vote of want of confidence every week?

Mr WATSON - I shall come to that point presently. The honorable gentleman stated that the question dealt with in the motion of the honorable and learned mem-

Mr Isaacs - What else but this motion has created their anxiety for the appointment of a Commission?

Mr WATSON - Nothing. The terms of the alliance were made public months ago, and from that time until now the right honorable gentleman and his colleagues have been carefully looking for some way out of this particular difficulty. The justification for the present course on the part of the Opposition is that, so far as the mo- tion of want of confidence is concerned, it dealt with a specific series of questions which the Government put forward. Now there is an altogether new development on the part of the Government, and we are entitled to express our opinion upon it.The right honorable gentleman stated, in the course of a newspaper interview the other day, and practically repeated the statement to-day, that if Tariff anomalies were proved to exist he was prepared to have them rectified, if an agreement could be arrived at. He. made that statement in three different ways in the course of the one interview. He stated -

I don't for a moment say that some anomalies might not be brought to light in the course of the investigations, which both sides upon the fiscal question could with equal readiness be prepared to deal with.

On the 20th September the right honorable gentleman quoted the alliance programme, and pointed out that it proposed certain legislation, including Tariff legislation shown to be necessary. The right honorable gentleman went on to attack me for inconsistency in supporting a proposal of that sort, and told the honorable and learned member for Darling Downs that

Mr McLean - The honorable member is much more anxious to take the place of the Prime Minister than is the right honorable gentleman to remain where he is.

Mr WATSON - I am anxious to see the right honorable gentleman and those with him dispossessed of office, because they themselves have declared that they are opposed to all the principles which I have advocated throughout my public life. What kind of person would I be if I allowed them to quietly remain on the Treasury benches after the declaration they have made. It is beyond contempt for the Minister to be continually reiterating his statement with regard to our anxiety to take possession of the Treasury benches. When the Barton Government were in office I was not in any way linked to them, but I do not think that I was as harsh or unkind a critic as was the Minister of Trade and Customs, although he was a professed supporter of the Government. It does not, therefore, befit him to talk about our anxiety to secure office.

Mr Isaacs - The honorable member for Bland showed that he would not hold office at the sacrifice of principle.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Barton Government were pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for the Labour Party.

Mr WATSON - I was not referring to the honorable and learned member for Parkes, who was an opponent of the Barton Government, and had a perfect right to oppose them whenever he chose, but to the Minister of Trade and Customs, who occupied a very different position.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I thought the honorable member was justifying his own party in opposing them.

Mr McLean - I was a thoroughly independent member.

Mr WATSON - The Minister was independent in this Chamber, but I did not see any great evidence of independence on his part at election time.

Mr McLean - I refrained from opposing the honorable member's Administration because of its weakness.

Mr WATSON - I can understand the magnanimity of the Minister, when he knew that he could not obtain the support of a sufficient number of honorable members in opposing the Government.

Mr McLean - The honorable member's Government was in a minority the whole of. the time it occupied office.

Mr WATSON -We never were. The honorable and learned member for Bendigo stated that on a general motion of censure he would not have voted"" against the Government of which I was the leader. That alone is sufficient to show that the Minister is not correct, and it is quite unlike him to make such a statement. He is allowing his feelings to get the better of his judgment, and is making statements which he will, in his calmer moments, acknowledge to be incorrect. In this connexion, it is perhaps worth while to remember that the Prime Minister mentioned that on the motion of want of confidence he had a majority, and that, after that fact had been demonstrated, we should have allowed matters to rest. The Minister of Trade and Customs taunted us with having . been in a minority when we occupied the Treasury benches, but I would sooner be in a minority than be dependent upon the , vote of one man, who showed such con- , tempt for me asthe honorable member for Wilmot expressed for the members of the Ministry. Ishould not have remained on the Treasury benches five minutes under the lash of the honorable member's tongue. It seems to me that Ministers are lost to any sense of political decency, when they retain office under such conditions.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Home Affairs) - If the honorable member had been able to obtain a majority of one upon the motion to go into Committee, in connexion with the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, he would have remained in office. He would not have been concerned as to what member had given him his majority.

Mr WATSON - I should not have done so if any of my supporters had used towards me language such as that addressedby the honorable member for Wilmot to the Government - not with regard to some small matter, but with reference to their general policy. With regard to the matter immediately at issue in the proposal of the honorable and learned member for Indi, it seems to me that the Commission should not be allowed to range over the whole gamut of the Tariff. I certainly do object to the adoption of that course. I am charged, amongst others, with being false to the pledge of fiscal peace which was given at the opening of the current session. It seems to me, however, that the proposal of the Government involves a greater disturbance of fiscal peace than any which has come from this side of the Chamber. The honorable and learned member for Indi has suggested that certain specific items selected by this House shall be referred to a Commission for report, and that legislative action shall subsequently be taken in regard to them if the adoption of that coursebe justified. On the other hand, the Government urgethat the Commission should be free to roam at large from Dan to Beersheba in connexion with Tariff matters. How long wouldits investigations occupy, and what would be the disturbance occasioned to every lineof industry whilst they were in progress ?

Mr Mauger - And perhaps no action would be taken by the Government.

Mr WATSON - I shouldnot advise the honorable member to assume the role of prophet, because it is extremely difficult to forecast what the present Government will do. To my mind, to allow this Commission to conduct its inquiries without any let or hindrance or curb whatever, would be one of the greatest possible errors.

Mr Mcwilliams - Who would sebct the items which it is suggested should be referred to the Commission for consideration ?

Mr WATSON - The House.

Mr Mcwilliams - The House would not arrive at a decision within twelve months:

Mr WATSON - No difficulty would heexperienced in that direction. If the Government would allow the matter to be discussed, there ought to be no difficulty in finishing the debate in a couple of nights.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Twelve months would be absorbed in discussing the matter.

Mr WATSON - Honorable members talk about a fiscal truce. What value is there in a fiscal truce unless it be to allow businesses to develop with some foreknow- ledge of the conditions likely to exist in regard to them ? If a Commission were sitting to investigate Tariff matters, and the possibility were ever present that it might submit progress reports from week to week, we should induce a condition of unrest which would affect every business and every business man in the Commonwealth.

Mr Mcwilliams - How can we deal with one item more than with another?

Mr WATSON - The honorable member must be a political child to ask a question of that sort. Is he not aware that a Bill to alter one item of the Tariff could be introduced and passed through all its stages the same day ?

Mr Mcwilliams - It is hardly possible to select one item of the Tariff which is not interwoven with pthers.

Mr WATSON - That is quite another question.

Mr Mcwilliams - It is a very important one.

Mr WATSON - Everybody understands that if we referred a specific machine - say a harvester - to the Commission for report, that body would be bound to take into consideration the effect which a duty upon raw iron or angle plate iron would exercise upon that particular business. All the secondary effects would have to be considered. But in many instances there would be no secondary effects. Many industries occupy a position which is quite independent of others, and therefore could be treated in one or two lines of the Tariff. It does seem to me that the wisest course for us to a'dopt is to ascertain what industries are suffering, and to ask the Commission to specifically inquire into the conditions surrounding them, whilst allowing others to rest secure in the knowledge that they are not to be interfered with.

Sir George Turner - Take the case of woollen mills, and made-up goods. Surely the one hangs upon the other?

Mr WATSON -Undoubtedly. I have already said that there are a number of industries which, because they are of a primarv or secondary character, have others dependent upon them. But there are many industries which are not in the position.

Sir George Turner - There are not many. The large industries depend upon each other.

Mr WATSON - In the absence of ironworks in our midst, there would be no desire to impose a duty upon the raw material.

Sir George Turner - Does not the honorable member recollect the big discussion which took place in this House to determine whether certain machines should be dutiable because of the effect which such a duty would exercise upon every other trade? A machine, to my mind, is about the worst instance that the honorable member could suggest.

Mr WATSON - I think that the Treasurer's remarks have reference to the free list, which is quite another question. I am satisfied that we shall create infinite dissatisfaction if we allow the whole of the Tariff to be ripped up with the uncertainty that will be engendered by progress reports on the part of the Commission, and by the fact that at any period the Prime Minister may introduce a Bill to give effect to its recommendations. That would produce a condition of things which is altogether undesirable. There is another feature in regard to the composition of the proposed Commission which calls for some comment. Thehonorable and learned member for Indi suggests that it should consist of Members of Parliament. To my mind the balance of advantage lies in that direction. At any rate, I appreciate the difficultv which exists in securing the services of men outside the House, who are possessed of the requisite knowledge to fill such a position, and who at the same time would be free from any personal interest in the matter at issue. It is all very well for the press to sneer - as it commonly does - at Members of Parliament; but there is no doubt that an individual who has been a Member of Parliament for some time does acquire a general knowledge which is open to very few in the community. He acquires a general acquaintance with social and industrial conditions that few other people obtain.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - He obtains a chance of learning how not to do it.

Mr WATSON - He at least ascertains what to avoid, and that is something gained. Even allowing that honorable members did not possess that knowledge which, say, a manufacturer or an importer would have of his business, it is at least clear, to my mind, that they would know sufficient, at all events, about the general conduct of such businesses to enable them, as members of the Commission, to glean that information which the Parliament desires and the people expect. That is all, I think, we can anticipate. As to the report itself, I must confess that I, for one, am not prepared to say beforehand that T should abide by the report of any set of Commissioners, whether they were Members of Parliament or outside business men.I should be prepared, if necessary, to take action on the weight of evidence obtained by the Commission; but certainly not merely because a certain number of gentlemen had come to a particular conclusion in connexion with the inquiry. It seems to me, therefore, that it would be preferable in appointing the Commission, to keep away from business men, who, for the most part, have interests in one direction or another. It is true that Members of Parliament have their prejudices, but we are not in any material degree, if at all, interested in any of those businesses that are affected by the Tariff.

Mr Fisher - Not directly interested.

Mr WATSON - Exactly. We, of course, have that interest which every citizen is supposed to have, in the success of all the industries of the community; but beyond that I do not think that any of us are interested in the industries affected by the Tariff, and consequently, we, as members of the Commission, should be in a position to make a reasonable and impartial recommendation.

Mr Isaacs - In addition to that, we are trustees for the whole people.

Mr WATSON - I was going to say that it must always be recollected that the Commission must be such as will command public confidence. That, to my mind, is the first consideration. If attention be paid to that consideration, it does not seem likely that any of those abuses that were indicated bv the Prime Minister will creep in. It is ridiculous to suggest that a majority of extremists from one side or the other might be made members of such a Commission, because, whoever carried their way in regard to. the selection of such a majority, would surely find, when the Parliament was called upon to take action on the report and recommendations of the Commission, that they had defeated their own ends.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does not the honorable member think that the public would have greater confidence in a mixed Commission?

Mr WATSON - I do not know ; it would all' depend upon who went to make . up the , other half of theshandygaff. I think that the country wouldhave every confidence in a Commission composed of honorable members of this House, assuming' that a body of extremists were not selected. Personally, I should have no objection to the appointment of a couple of extremists - one on each side - for their presence on the Commission might lead tothe gaining of information which might not otherwise be elicited. If we had the honorable and learned member for Werriwa and the honorable member for Melbourne Ports on the Commission, we could be quite sure of the facts on each side being brought out.

Mr Wilson - The Prime Minister has made the Opposition an offer. Why not choose the honorable member for Melbourne Ports from the Opposition side of the. House ?

Mr WATSON - So far as that is concerned, it seems to me that the Prime Minister has receded very materially from the. position that he at first took up. If the leader of any other Government had done that which he has done, I suppose that the Argus would have come out next morning' with a statement that it was another evidence of the weakness of the position of the Government ! When I was in office, that journal seemed to find quite a number of instances, either real or alleged, in which the Government were accused of backing down because of their anxiety to preserve their position. I repeat that the Prime Minister, to "my mind, has receded very distinctly from the position that he took up only a few days ago.

Sir George Turner - Why should he not do so if he thinks it is right ?

Mr WATSON - I have no criticism to offer in that regard, except that I should certainly prefer to see a selection made by the House rather than by myself. I am not in a responsible position.

Sir George Turner - The House would be sure to select a majority in one wav.

Mr WATSON - Perhaps so.

Mr Mcwilliams - A selection made by the leaders would be generally accepted.

Mr WATSON - It might.

Mr Isaacs - A selection of Members of Parliament.

Mr WATSON - The Prime Minister said this afternoon that my attitude to-day was distinct from that which I assumed at the last general election. I admit that that is so. At. that election, I told the people that I desired to see fiscal peace preserved, and that, in my view, frequent disturbances of the Tariff were not in the interests of the community. I believe in the main, that it is well to suffer some little trouble in regard to the Tariff rather than haveit perpetually ripped up. I have held that view from the first, and I still say that it is desirable not to interfere too frequently with the Tariff. I admit that on 9th of August last, when speaking at Wagga, I stated that I did not see any probability of a demand for the re-opening of the Tariff being responded to during the present Parliament. But my position may besimply stated. As honorable members are aware, I have all through my public career held protectionist views.

Mr Mcwilliams - Down here the honorable member is a free-trader.

Mr WATSON - That may be alleged, but I am always inclined to the protectionist side of the fiscal issue. If it can be demonstrated . that real hardships are being suffered, that injustice is being perpetrated, that injury is being inflicted upon certain branches of industry by the present Tariff, I am prepared, in spite of what I may have said at the last general election, to attempt to re. medy such difficulties and troubles. I do not think that any one of us should be prepared to close his ears to a cry of suffering simply because twelve months ago, on the information then available, we were satisfied to allow things to remain as they were. The Prime Minister spoke of my voting for a reduction of the duty on woollens from 20 per cent, to 15 per cent. And why did I do so? We were bringing in an experimental Tariff to apply to the conditions prevailing all over Australia, and it was impossible for any one to say exactly what rate of duty would be necessary to give our industries an opportunity to succeed against foreign competition. It was impossible for anyman, I contend, to accurately define the degree of help that the industries would require. I voted to bring down the duty on woollens from 20 per cent, to 15 per cent, because, in the first place, I thought 15 per cent, sufficient for this industry, and secondly, woollens are the raw material of another industry to which, I think, protection of only 20 per cent. or 25 per cent., is allowed.

Sir George Turner - The duty is 25 per cent.

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