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Thursday, 13 May 1915


Mr CHARLTON (Hunter) .- This discussion seems to be engendering a great deal of heat.


Sir John Forrest - -On that side."


Mr CHARLTON - I think that the right honorable gentleman, in submitting the motion, exhibited a good deal of heat. It is just as well for us briefly to look at the facts of the case. Much has been said on the question of preference to unionists; but may I remind my friends opposite that it is only recently that we appealed to the people of the country on that very question, with the result that we now occupy the Treasury bench.


Mr Fowler - The Labour party did not appeal on that question, but kept it very carefully in the background!


Mr CHARLTON - As a matter of fact, we were compelled to discuss the question, because the Liberals took good care to make it most prominent; and we had to answer many assertions that were, perhaps, not strictly in accordance with truth. We were returned, and are now here carrying out the policy then determined on, and the Minister has said that he sees no reason to apologize for tha action of the Government in connexion with this particular contract. A tender was accepted on certain terms and conditions, as against another tender that was only a shade less. Even if we admit that the difference in the tenders was of some importance, we must not lose sight of the fact that honorable members opposite, in this very House, were instrumental in passing an Act establishing an Arbitration Court in order to prevent, industrial disputes, and to give reasonable conditions of employment. Surely, by the establishment of that Court, we at once placed the brand of unionism on our legislation to a certain extent; and are we to permit an Act of Parliament to be overridden by employers who are not prepared to tolerate arbitration, and who definitely state that they will not employ unionists? Such people are actually defying the very Act passed, not by this side - though certainly supported by this side - but by the Deakin Government, with the present members of the Opposition behind him. If that be. so, how can we expect the great body of industrial workers outside to be loyal to a law of the land ? How can we expect the workers to observe the law if there be employers who may defy the Act at any time they feel inclined, so far as the conditions of employment are concerned ? It has been said by some honorable members that all these firms do pay the proper rates of wages; but the firm now under discussion openly stated that they would not employ union men.


Mr Pigott - That has been contradicted.


Mr CHARLTON - At any rate, honorable members opposite say that similar wages are observed in both these factories. But, while the same rates of wages may be paid, the same conditions as to hours and so forth may not be observed. It is possible that this firm may be talcing exception to the employment of unionists because they know that unionists would enforce their rights under the Arbitration Act, and according to the decisions of the Arbitration Court. The very reason for the creation of an Arbitration Court was the existence of employers who impose grasping and sweating conditions - who were not prepared to do what was right by the workers, sweating them to such an extent that it waa almost impossible to earn a decent wage. It is all very well for honorable members opposite, who have never been industrial workers-


Mr Patten - What?


Mr CHARLTON - The honorable member for Flinders is an example of what I mean.


Mr Sinclair - He is the most industrious man in the House.


Mr CHARLTON - Of course I know that the honorable member to whom I refer, and' others, work very hard mentally; but the legal profession, the medical profession, and all other professions, have their organizations, with preference to unionists, a preference which, because of their power, they can enforce without the aid of an Act of Parliament. Yet we have the spectacle of gentlemen rising here and endeavouring to deny to the workers rights that they have secured for themselves.


Mr Pigott - This has nothing to do with the workers.


Mr CHARLTON - The honorable .member, perhaps, owes his very presence here to the fact that there are workers in his constituency. It has been said by the honorable member for Flinders that we on this side represent unionists only; and I am proud to say that I have been a unionist all my life, and that it was unionists who took me from the pick-point and placed me where I am to-day. While that is so, I submit that there is a very large- proportion of the electors itf Australia who are not members of unions, but who support the Labour party because they know that that party is trying to deal out even-handed justice in the industrial world. If that is not so, how is it that, although there is not a majority of unionists in the country to-day, there is a large majority of Labour members as a result of the voting for the Commonwealth Parliament? The same fact is observable in the Parliaments of four different States, clearly proving that, notwithstanding what may have been said about preference in this House, on th© platform, or elsewhere, the people of Australia are beginning to see that preference is to be found in every profession, and that we are justified in looking after the weaker sections of the community who have not power to enforce proper conditions for themselves.


Mr Patten - It is the stronger, and not the weaker, who get the preference.


Mr CHARLTON - Apparently the honorable member would have us believe that the persons who did not get this tender are the weaker. It is possible, however, that if we knew the facts, we should find that the head of this firm is one of the wealthiest men in Australia to-day. As a matter of fact, those who take a high stand in opposition to preference to unionists and to the employment of unionists, are, generally speaking, people with very large interests, who are well able to defy the arbitration laws in the matter of unionism. The weaker side is certainly represented by the industrial worker. The honorable member for Moreton has made a statement that I think he ought to make a little more definite. I concede to every representative the right to voice his views on the floor of the House, but I think the honorable member ought, in th:s instance, to supply definite information to the Minister, so that the matter may be sifted to the bottom. It is a most serious statement that an officer of the Department has actually requested a contractor to increase his price by 3s. per suit for the supply of clothing. That is the statement, amongst others, made by the honorable member, and if there is a tittle of evidence in support of it, it ought to be adduced. But when the Prime Minister said that, if the honorable member would produce any evidence, he would at once arrange for a judicial inquiry, the honorable member began to recede from his position - began to back down - saying that it was most difficult to get anybody to give evidence on oath on a matter of the kind. This shows a great weakness in the allegations that have been made. If I felt it my duty to make such a statement here, I should at once supply the Department with all the information I had in my possession, and leave the Government to have the matter investigated on oath. Of course it is open to any one to make statements to an honorable member, and for that honorable member to repeat them in this House, and unless some inquiry is made, it cannot be known whether there is any foundation for what is said.


Mr Mcwilliams - If a deliberate statement is made by an honorable member, is it not the duty of the Government to make inquiries?


Mr CHARLTON - Quite so ; only the honorable member for Moreton ran away to a large extent, saying that it would be difficult to get anybody to give evidence. If the honorable member is prepared to supply the head of the Department with the names of those who made the charges, then it will rest with the Department to" have that full inquiry which I, as a supporter of the Government, would expect.


Mr Sinclair - I will supply the name of the firm who are getting the money, and that is all I am concerned about.


Mr CHARLTON - While I believe in protecting the public purse, I do not for a moment admit that this is a question mainly affecting the public purse, but, rather, one more affecting the interests of the public of Australia. If we permit individual, employers to defy our industrial laws, and to obtain contracts at a little less than the amounts tendered by those who employ unionists, what will it lead to? How long can we expect to keep the big army of. workers outside loyal to the Act, if they find certain people, who will not tolerate unions, practically defying that Act?


Sir John Forrest - We did not force the Act on them ; they desired it.


Mr CHARLTON - Every Government have to take the responsibility for their actions, and it says very little for the right honorable gentleman and his Government if they did not believe in this measure when they placed it upon the statute-book, but were simply driven to do so by the force of Labour opinion outside. It suggests that they were not in earnest, so far as Australia was concerned, but acted for the purpose of conciliating certain sections outside, who forced the matter before them. I have always thought that any party in power was supposed to be prepared to take the responsibility for what it believed to be the right thing, and to legislate accordingly; and in spite of what the right honorable gentleman has stated, I believe that his party thought the time had arrived for the introduction of industrial legislation, in order to prevent industrial strife. The Tramway litigation has been referred to. There the Judge decided that, inasmuch as a certain tramway company would not employ unionists, he would grant preference, in order to overcome the difficulties that had arisen. This action showed plainly that, in his mind, preference was in the interests of industrial peace.


Mr McWilliams - Have you any authority that the Automatic Company has refused employment to men because they were unionists?


Mr Page - Yes. I will tell you nil about it, if you want to know.


Mr CHARLTON - The Minister himself stated that he was informed that they would not employ unionists.







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