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Thursday, 22 April 1915

Mr HUGHES (West Sydney) (AttorneyGeneral) . - I am not going to deal with this matter at length. The Leader of the Opposition has suggested that I should make some statement going to the root of the matter; but I cannot, of course, do that now. I should, however, like to state the position shortly, so that the attitude of the Government may be clearly understood by the general community, and by those who were, in fact and substance, the plaintiffs in the Wheat Acquisition Case. Under section 92 of the Constitution it is provided that -

On thu imposition of uniform duties of Customs, trade, commerce, aand intercourse among tlie States, whether by means of internal carriage or ocean navigation, shall be absolutely free.

The Government assumed that those words meant what they said. I think it is correct to say that that is .what was assumed by 99 per cent, of the people of this country. That was the meaning put upon the section which induced an overwhelming majority of our people to vote for Federation. It meant a sweeping away of all restrictions to trade within the Commonwealth. It represented a very real advantage and a very real gain. When I was approached by the wheatgrowers, I thought it only proper that the matter should be forthwith remitted to the only tribunal which was indicated in the Constitution as not only competent but proper to deal with it. I therefore referred the matter to the Inter-State Commission. I did so, not only because it was the only obviously competent and proper tribunal, but also because it was a tribunal which, shorn of all technicalities, would be expeditious in its proceedings. The matter was heard before the InterState Commission, and it was decided by a majority in favour of the Commonwealth. The matter was then remitted to the High Court by way of an appeal from the Inter-State Commission, and subsequently by way of an action by the Commonwealth. The High Court decided that the right of the States to acquire property within their own boundaries was not affected by section 92 of the Constitution. I do not for one moment attack or even criticise the action of the New South Wales State Government in endeavouring to protect the people from exploitation, and to prevent speculators in the necessaries of life from robbing the people. I only point to the limits of its application and the effect of these limitations upon the general community. The object of Federation was to place every citizen of Australia on the same level, that he should be subject to the same laws in respect of trade and commerce, and have equal power, so far as opportunity was concerned, from Perth to Sydney, and from Hobart to Darwin. When there was abundance, we should all alike enjoy the advantage of it, and when there was scarcity we should all suffer together. That was the idea of Federation. There were to be no water-tight compartments inside of which there would be plenty, and outside of which there would be scarcity. Yet this very position has arisen through the exercise by a State of its sovereign powers to acquire property within its boundaries. The exercise of the right of eminent domain by the Commonwealth would have a very different effect from the exercise of the right of eminent domain by any State. If the Commonwealth acquired any commodity, every citizen and every contractor throughout Australia would be in the same position, and every contract would be treated similarly. As the position stands now, the people of one State get their wheat for 5s. or 5s. 6d. per bushel, whilst the people of another State are required to pay 8s. 6d. I am not going to follow the matter any further beyond saying that the present state of affairs is, in my opinion, contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. If it is competent for one State in this" Federal partnership of ours to acquire any particular commodity, a subject-matter of trade and commerce for its own benefit, it may acquire all commodities. And what New South Wales has done in respect of one commodity, all States can do in respect of all commodities. But the very idea of Federation is unthinkable in such circumstances. And if the States exercised their powers, the position of Commonwealth citizens would be intolerable. If Queensland decided to keep within its boundaries all sugar and beef, what would be the position of the other States of Australia? There ought to be, and there must be, some alteration of the Constitution whereby, whilst every necessary precaution is taken to protect the people, it shall be the whole people of Australia who are protected, and not the people of any particular State, to the detriment of the people of the other States. That is the view of the Government in this matter. And I think it a proper view. We were perfectly justified in our action, which I regret only because it was unsuccessful, and I still think that the bulk of the people of Australia are of opinion that section 92 of the Constitution really meant what it said and guaranteed - that every citizen and every trader of the Commonwealth should be placed on the same level, and that, although we might cancel contracts, and protect the people from exploitation, we should not do it in such a way that one contractor should be caught, and another go free; one man have plenty, and another go hungry; one man pay 5s., and the other 8s. for the same article. The basis of the Constitution is that there should be no discrimination between States and parts of the Commonwealth - between one citizen and another by reason of geographical position. Without going into the merits of this matter any further, and without venturing to deal with the difficult question as to what sort of an amendment is necessary to meet this situation, I say that whatever amendment is required ought to be made, and without unnecessary delay.

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