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Friday, 18 June 1915

Sir JOHN FORREST (Swan) .- After the storm of eloquence to which we have just been subjected, a little quiet argument on my part may be justified. I fail to understand why the Attorney-General, who has just resumed his seat, should have displayed so much excitement and warmth in dealing with this matter. The issue is a simple one, and may be put very clearly in a few words, without any of that thumping of the table, or enforced, excited and out-of-place rhetoric to which we have just listened. There must be something very important, from the point of view of the Labour party, in the amendment which the Leader of the Opposition has moved, since we have had from them two mostfurious party speeches, traversing' the whole arena of Labour organization and aspiration for many years back. We have had the Prime Minister telling us what happened in Queensland some twenty years ago, we have had from him references to the Electoral Act, and a story concerning people who went to prison, although he did not tell us for what reason they were sent there, and we have had to listen to the right honorable gentleman steering all round the political compass in stating his objections to the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition. Now, what is that amendment? The motion is that leave be given to introduce the first of the six Referenda Bills proposed to be submitted by the Government, and the amendment is in the way of an addendum that the leave be given " as soon as adequate provision has been made by theunited energies of the Government and Parliament for the successful prosecution of the war." There is nothing in such an amendment that calls for any excuse. The Labour party should not be surprised at the action we have taken. One .might think, after hearing these two hostile party speeches, that these proposals were new, whereas they have been twice submitted to the people by referenda, and have been twice rejected. In these circumstances, is it reasonable that we should consent to their submission once more to the people at this time of crisis in the fortunes of the nation ? They say, in fact, to the people, "You did not know your own mind on the two occasions when you rejected those proposals, when we were at peace, and now that we are at war, we ask you to change your mind as we, the Labour party, know better than you do." I think that a good deal of the excitement that has been displayed by honorable members opposite must have been entirely assumed.I cannot believe that the Government expected the Opposition to allow any of these Bills to pass without comment. It would not be reasonable or justifiable for us to allow them to go before the country at any time, and particularly at the present time, without full discusssion. In the first place, the Opposition, as every one knows, are opposed, and have been for many years, to these proposals on the part of the Labour party. We regard them as an attack upon the fundamental principles of the Constitution; more particularly in relation to the bargain that was made when the States handed over bous the powers that we, as a Parliament, now possess. I personally believe that until the States themselves are willing to give us more power affecting the fundamental principles of the Constitution, we should not seek to wrest it from them at the point of the bayonet. The Opposition have, from the. first, been trying to impress upon the Government and their supporters that we are opposed to any party strife during the continuance of the war. We have told the Government that we are willing, to assist them in making the financial and all other arrangements necessary to the successful prosecution of the war." But we think that we should not engage in any polemical or disputatious measures during the present crisis. There are good reasons for this stand on our part. I speak with some knowledge of what is demanded of a member of the Cabinet when I say that Ministers cannot possibly attend to their departmental duties in a time of stress and danger like the present if they are to attend here day after day and control the parliamentary machine. They need to be able to give their undivided attention to their Departments, and to the work of administering the affairs of the Commonwealth with reasonable economy and efficiency. It is in the interests of the country that we desire to get away from party strife in this House, and that we plead that the. Parliament should devote all its energies to the successful prosecution of the war. In these circumstances, it seems, to me that the surprise" and anger expressed by the. Prime Minister and the Attorney-General are. entirely assumed. Why should they display such a hostile feeling in respect of the attitude we have taken up? It was absolutely necessary that we should take this stand if we were to be consistent with the views that we have expressed since the opening of this Parliament. Let me repeat that we believe that during this war the whole time of Ministers should be devoted to promoting measures for the national safety, and honorable members on all sides should be eager, ready,, and willing to assist the Government in carrying out their great and important duties. But there is no necessity for the introduction of any of these Referenda Bills during the continuance of the war. What is more, so far as I am able to' judge,, there has been no demand for them.

Mr Sharpe - There is a demand for them.

Sir JOHN FORREST - There may be in the circle in which the honorable member moves, but I have not discovered that there is. During my political campaign I used to say, whenever I had a large meeting', " Is there any one in this hall who has suffered because of some want of power on the part of the Federal Parliament ? If there is, let him stand up and tell us how he has suffered. Such information will be useful to me and instructive bo every one." But I could never induce any one in my constituency to respond to the invitation. On the contrary, I have heard it said, We have heard of many cases where people have suffered because there is too much power in the Federal Parliament, but we have never heard of any one who has suffered because of any want of constitutional power on the part of the Commonwealth." The assumption on the part of the Government and their supporters seems to be that we have no self-government in the States, and that the Federal authority should supersede the powers already existing in the Stats Parliaments themselves. I see no necessity for anything of the kind. There has been no demand for the passing of this Bill from any section of my constituents, or from any section of the Liberal party. What would the Labour party say if our positions were reversed ? If we were in office, what would they say if, in the present national crisis, we were to bring forward Bills which had been twice rejected by referenda? Let honorable members opposite put themselves in our position, and ask themselves how they would view such a proposal on our part. Why are the Labour party taking up an attitude the opposite to that which has been adopted by our great exemplar in the Mother Country ? Is it because we are far away from the seat of war that we imagine we are in perfect security? In the British Parliament all controversial legislation has been laid aside, and both parties are not only working together, but have joined in shouldering the burdens of government. Some honorable members opposite think that, personally, the Opposition in this Parliament are anxious to join with the present Ministry and to share in the government of the country,. Nothing, however, but a strong sense of public duty would induce any one of us to do anything of the kind. Some have said that we are after the loaves and fishes, but that, after all, is a most contemptible suggestion to make. No such motive influences the action of any honorable member on this side of the House. We recognise, however, the dangers and the difficulties of the present time, and believe that, no matter what our personal cr party feelings may be, our first consideration must be the safety of the country. I dp not wish to work with honorable members of the party opposite in the one Ministry, and I suppose that they do not wish to work with me in the same Cabinet; but if we are, to consider the safety of the country we must divest ourselves of all party feeling; the desire to protect the safety and interests of the. Empire and the Commonwealth must in the present terrible crisis override all and every other consideration. In two other important respects political differences in Great Britain have been sunk. I do not suppose that any question is deeper in the hearts of. the. people of Ireland than is that of Home Rule; but in this time of great national peril it has been agreed in the British Parliament that it shall be allowed to remain in abeyance. Then, again, the trade unions of Great Britain are willing to sink for the time being their fixed union principles and ideals. Why cannot the. Labour party and Labour Government act in the same way?

Mr Sharpe - The position here is different.

Sir JOHN FORREST - Because honorable members opposite think they are safe. They sit there, well satisfied, and, seem to think there is no danger. If they felt as the people of Great Britain and Ireland feel, and as the members off the British Parliament feel to-day, I think they would act very differently.

Mr Thomas - What about the brewers and distillers of England who have threatened the House of Commons in the midst of this great war?

Sir JOHN FORREST - The honorable, member has brewers and distillers on the brain. I am afraid I should be called to order if. I made any reference to that subject. Here we are at the end of the, year, and the Appropriation Bill has not been passed, although I think it is the duty of the Government to see that that Bill is passed within the financial year/ Why has the Appropriation Bill been set aside in favour of these Referenda Bills ? These Bills cannot be pushed through, as time must be afforded for their discussion. I see no reason at all why the Appropriation Bill should have been postponedin order to further the realization of a plank of the Labour party which has been twice deliberately rejected by the people with an' interval of three years between each rejec- tion, and will,I believe, again be rejected.

Mr Fenton - No, no !

Sir JOHN FORREST - If the referenda proposals are not rejected, it will only be because the people have not the heart to conduct a great contest with this terrible war hanging over them. Can any, member be expected to undertake a cam-' paign w.ith the same vigour and interest as' he. would if the war were not raging ?

Mr Sharpe - We have had to do it in Queensland.

Sir JOHN FORREST - It was most unfortunate that those elections should have to take place, and it would be even more unfortunate to have a referenda campaign in the Commonwealth.

Mr Sharpe - The Queensland election was unfortunate for your party !

Sir JOHN FORREST - I am not now speaking from a party point of view ; and I think that honorable members opposite; ought to moderate their tone in this regard. It is quite bad enough to be defeated without having to suffer the gloatings of your successful opponents. In the ordinary affairs of life, this is not regarded as quite the proper or sportsmanlike attitude to adopt. The AttorneyGeneral told us the true reason for the urgency of the Referenda Bills. He says that the Government wish to have the referenda before the end of the year, simply because it is a great plank of the party; but I wonder what honorable members opposite would have said of us if we had been in power and persisted in sending to a referendum of the people, in the midst of this terrible war crisis, a question that has already been twice decided upon by an adverse vote. We are not entitled to discuss the merits of the Bills at this moment but they simply mean that home rule, according to honorable members opposite, has been found to be no good for the Australian States. Apparently honorable members opposite, and their supporters, prefer to be governed in their local and industrial matters by a far distant authority; but if the Bills be passed, and the referenda are decided in the affirmative, I think the people will find that a great mistake has been made. The introduction of the Bills now simply means that the party in power consider them more important than any other business - more important than the proper prosecution of the war, and the safety of the country. All day long, the Prime Minister and his colleagues are besieged with questions from both sides of the House regarding the war, and the adverse criticism comes more from their own side than from ours. As a matter of fact, Ministers have not time to attend to the pressing duties which are forced upon them by the crisis and by being present all day in Parliament. It is most difficult to get any information from the Defence Department. After a delay of two or three months the reply is that the communication had been mislaid ; and all this is, of course, very unsatisfactory and distressing under the circumstances. If a .relative or friend is wounded at the front, it is impossible to ascertain where or in what hospital he is; and the Department suggests that the inquirer might get the information desired by telegraphing to Egypt or Malta. Why cannot the Department, when they ascertain that a man has been wounded, also ascertain the hospital to which he has been taken ? At any rate, some effort should be made 'u this direction. I do not altogether blame Ministers for all this delay and uncertainty, because, as I have said, they really have not time to do all that they should do. The Prime Minister, for instance, must find it most difficult to attend to his duties, and be present in the House; and I repeat that the introduction of the referenda measures at this juncture simply means that the Labour party regard them as of more importance than the proper prosecution of the war and the safety of the country. The Prime Minister is alleged to have said that we are now " practically at peace," and to have advanced that as a reason for going on with polemical discussions concerning the powers of the States. I know sufficient of the right honorable gentleman to know that that cannot represent his real feelings, and the statement must have been & lapsus lingua. How can it be said that we are practically at peace, when each and every one of us is doing the best we can to send men to the front, and assist the Mother Country in maintaining the safety and the integrity of the Empire ? It is idle to talk of our being practically at * peace with the daily records of deaths and suffering - with those lengthy lists of killed and wounded. Almost every evening we read of hundreds of men who have been laid aside; and yet we are told by the Prime Minister that we are practically at peace. I cannot think that he meant what he said . With this cloud hanging over us, it is, as I say, impossible to give that attention to ordinary political matters that we otherwise- should. All our thoughts from morning until night are centred on the war. Each morning we eagerly scan the newspapers to see who has fallen by the way, and to ascertain what the Old Country and her Allies are doing. If things are going well we rejoice, while news to the contrary leaves us dejected. With our minds so occupied how can we turn to questions of local politics, and enter upon a campaign throughout the constituencies? If the Government persist, I think they will find their efforts result in the smallest poll ever taken on the subject. There is scarcely one of us who has not relations and friends at the war - I know I have myself - and any day we may learn that they are killed or wounded; indeed, in a few months almost everybody in Australia will bo in mourning. Then it may well be said of us, what was said of the Mother Country at the time of the Crimean War, " The angel of death has gone forth through the land, we can almost hear the beating of his wings." We are asked to throw all these grave considerations aside, and embark on a political struggle to decide whether the powers of the States shall be curtailed, and the powers of the Commonwealth increased. I do not desire to delay the House, and will only say, in conclusion, that to go forward with these referenda proposals at the present time during this terrible war should be revolting to every one not blinded by class feeling and class prejudice.

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