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Monday, 11 June 1928


Mr CHARLTON (HUNTER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I ask the AttorneyGeneral to name the unions.


Mr LATHAM - I intend to do so. In the rules of the Australasian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers there is a provision for the holding of a secret ballot, which is the best that exists in any union rules of which I have any knowledge except those of the Merchant

Service Guild of Australasia. It is a very uncommon provision. It reads: -

Any fifty financial members, by a requisition in writing to the General Secretary, may direct the Federal Council to consider any subject of general interest not interfering with district government. The Federal Council must submit the proposal, with any amendment thereon, to a ballot of the institute. Action affecting any award or agreement must be initiated and sanctioned by those members interested.

That is an effective provision, but anything like it is rarely found in union rules. Honorable members opposite have said that it is absurd to enable ten members to apply for the holding of a secret ballot, and have argued that in practice it would mean that ten disgruntled men would be able to hold up the business of the union and so cause chaos and confusion. They may therefore be interested to learn that rule 45 of the Merchant Service Guild of Australasia, which is the second of the seven unions I intend to mention, provides that -

Vacated offices shall be filled by a ballot of the members, and in case of an equality of votes, the member of the committee shall be chosen by lot. Such ballot must be demanded in writing by at least ten members within fourteen days of the vacancy occurring.

That union specifies ten as a reasonable number to demand a ballot. This is the only provision in the rules of the Merchant Service Guild for the holding of a secret ballot. Rule 52 of the Government Tramways Electoral BranchWorkers Association provides that a ballot must be taken if demanded by five members present at a meeting. That, of course, is quite different from the taking of a ballot of an organization. It is a ballot only of those present at the meeting. Rule 22 provides that the committee or meeting may order a ballot. That also is a very different thing from the members having the legislative right to demand a ballot of the organization. Rule 75 of the Seamen's Union, which organization is now de-registered, provides for a ballot upon -

Any question or matter declared important by the members of the union, at a special meeting called for the purpose, or by general meeting of the members of the union.

The taking of the ballot in that case has to be decided at a meeting. That, ofcourse, does not give the members any right to obtain a secret ballot. Rule 120 of the Australian Railways Union provides, in paragraph h, that a ballot shall be taken before any strike action may be taken. The rules of the Australian Workers Union provide that there shall be an annual ballot for the election of officers. That is the only provision in them for the holding of a ballot.


Mr Blakeley - But surely the AttorneyGeneral is prepared to consider the practice that obtains.


Mr Scullin - The Australian Workers Union elects all its delegates and representatives by ballot.


Mr LATHAM - Honorable members will realize from what I have said that, generally speaking, under . existing provisions, secret ballots may only be taken in unions when those in control consider it desirable. The proposals in the bill are intended to confer upon members generally the right to obtain a secret ballot in certain circumstances. The last union to which I shall refer is the Marine Cooks, Bakers' and Butchers' Association of Australia. Its rules provide for the holding of a secret ballot of a very limited description. A secret ballot must be taken in the industry " before any industrial dispute is submitted by the Association " to the Arbitration Court. Honorable members are aware that the Brisbane members of the union desire a secret ballot to be taken in connexion with the present dispute, but they cannot, get it, and have no right, under their rules, to demand it. The secretary of the unionis not elected annually, as is the case in the great majority of unions.


Mr Scullin - We have no objection to providing for the election of officers by secret ballot.


Mr LATHAM - As an example of the necessity for some such provision as that contained in the bill, I quote the following letter which appeared in a section of the Sydney press a few days ago, over the signature of " Jas. Payne, Federated Clerks, and Clovelly branch, A.L.P. : -

The rank and file of the New South Wales branch of Federated Clerks are dissatisfied with the mismanagement and neglect of the secretary and officers conducting their affairs. To prevent members from voicing their dissatisfaction, the secretary and officers concerned refuse to hold the periodical meetings embodied in the rules.

It has, therefore, been necessary for the members to present to the secretary a requisition (as per rule) signed by over 200 members, requesting a meeting being called. The secretary point-blank refuses to call one; the rank and file are, consequently, compelled to appeal to the industrial court to obtain redress, which is about to be done.

Honorable members will recollect that some time ago, certain members of the Breadcarters' Union, in Sydney, obtained from a State tribunal, under the State law, a direction to hold a secret ballot, the result of which was that they declared their complete want of confidence in the officers then in control of their union.


Mr Fenton - Has the AttorneyGeneral named the seven unions to which he intends to refer?


Mr LATHAM - I have. I shall leave it to honorable members opposite, who claim to be more familiar than I am with the rules of trades unions, to submit any other instances they can of trade union provisions for the holding of secret ballots; but if they quote any rule of that nature, I ask that they read the whole rule, for the value of it as a means of obtaining an effective secret ballot will depend entirely upon its terms. To say that a committee or meeting may order a secret ballot is not sufficient. That does not meet the case.

The Leader of the Opposition has asked whether it would be possible for a company to carry on its operations if shareholders had the right to demand a secret ballot. I refer him to the 12th and latest edition of Palmer's Company Precedents, the leading work on company law, by Sir Francis Palmer. The author sets out, in Part I., the form of articles of association of companies, which are really the rules under which companies work, from which I quote the following, which appears on page 673: -

At any general meeting, unless a poll is demanded by the chairman or by at least five (or if thought fit any lesser number) members present and entitled to vote.....

It will be realized, therefore, that in the ordinary proceedings of a company five shareholders may demand a poll of all shareholders.


Mr Scullin - Is that provision contained in any company law?


Mr LATHAM - It is the ordinary practice which companies- adopt. I quote the following from page 674 of the same work : -

If a poll is demanded, as aforesaid, it shall be taken in such manner and at such time and place as the chairman of the meeting directs.

A poll is an appeal to the whole constituency. That is the ordinary procedure.


Mr Scullin - It is not laid down in any company law that five shareholders shall be entitled to hold a ballot?


Mr Blakeley - Let the AttorneyGeneral quote Australian, not English, usage.


Mr LATHAM - Evidently the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Blakeley) does not realize that Australian company law, or, at all events, the Victorian company law, with which I am most familiar, has been framed to a very large extent upon the English law, The two are substantially identical and, as I have shown, contain provision that five shareholders may demand a poll.


Mr Anstey - A poll is not necessarily a secret ballot.


Mr LATHAM - It meets the purposes of a secret ballot ; it is generally taken by post.


Mr Anstey - And there may be voting by proxy. One man may hold 1,000 proxies.


Mr LATHAM - Shareholders may vote by proxy at ordinary meetings. The statement of honorable members opposite that if this provision is agreed to ten members will be able to apply to the court for an order for a secret ballot and so hold up the business of their union, is far-fetched and fantastic. I remind honorable members that one of the rules I have quoted provides that members may, upon a mere request, obtain a secret ballot; but under the provision in the bill it will be necessary for ten members not only to apply to the court, but to satisfy it that the application is bona fide and relates to a matter of substantial importance. That is the safeguard which honorable members opposite have overlooked in the lurid pictures which they have drawn. To suggest that in practice this will lead to the holding up of trade union business is ridiculous. It has be'en- stated in propaganda circulated by the 'Labour

Party in opposition to this bill that under this provision the Government, whenever it so desires, will be able to compel a union to hold a secret ballot. That is not the case, and there is not the slightest shadow of justification for such an allegation.

The Leader of the Opposition offered one objection to the provision as it appears in the bill, which is being met by an amendment I intend to move. As the clause was originally drawn, it provided that ten members might ask in a meeting for the holding of a secret ballot, and that it must thereupon be taken. It is proposed to omit the words " and the vote shall thereupon be so taken accordingly." The Government is perfectly prepared to accept the. help of the Opposition in framing this measure as well as other measures. It has also been objected that a union would not be represented before the court when an application for a secret ballot is being made. The Government has considered that point, and I propose to move an amendment to provide that the secretary of an organization or branch concerned shall be informed of any order for a secret ballot and that the order shall, in the first instance, be provisional in its terms. Then the organization will have an opportunity to submit a statement to the judge for his consideration, and in particular may state whether the organization or branch will itself take within any and what period, a secret ballot upon the question, or will take any other action in relation thereto.


Mr Maxwell - Will this provision give an organization the right' to show cause why a secret ballot should riot be held?


Mr LATHAM - Yes. The amendments submitted by the Government will enable an organization to hold a ballot without supervision by an officer of the court, if it thinks proper. If the bill passes members of an organization will be given an opportunity to hold a secret ballot if they can satisfy the court that their application is bona fide and relates to a matter of substantial importance.


Mr Brennan - Can the AttorneyGeneral point to any friendly societies whose rules contain similar provisions?


Mr LATHAM - I have not examined the rules of friendly benefit societies and therefore I cannot say if their rules contain these provisions.

Some criticism has been directed to the clause in the belief that voting at secret ballots is made compulsory. It is not made compulsory. All that it does is to give members of an organization an opportunity to express their mind on a particular matter.


Mr Scullin - After the court .has made a provisional order.


Mr LATHAM - It is difficult to follow and understand the hysterical objections that have been made to this provision. Surely when the opportunity, given to an organization to express its will is limited as it is to matters determined by the court, to be of substantial importance, there should be no objection whatever to it on the ground of principle.

The Leader of the Opposition raised two specific points in his concluding remarks. His first was : Would the Government pay the cost of secret ballots? It is not thought proper that that should be done. If the Government were to defray the cost of secret ballots we may be sure that the provision would be utilized for the annual election of officers of a union. The holding of a secret ballot to determine matters of policy is as much the business of a union as is the election of its officers; therefore there is nothing wrong at all in the principle that if members of an organization have this opportunity to express their mind upon particular issues, the cost of a secret ballot should be regarded as the normal expenditure of an organization. The Leader of the Opposition asked whether, a secret ballot having been held, the will of the majority would be declared to be lawful. Certainly not. If a majority of the members of a union declares its will by means of. a secret ballot, it should be left to such members to see that the officers give effect to the decision. There is no need to invoke the aid of the law. The majority will be assured that it is a majority, and should see to it that its will is obeyed. If the majority cannot give effect to its will, as expressed in a secret ballot, then the majority must be regarded as a poor lot of men.


Mr Watkins - Will that apply in the case of a decision where the members of a union shall or shall not strike ?


Mr LATHAM - Obviously the honorable member has in mind the possibility of an organization deciding, by secret ballot, in favour of a strike, and wishes to know if such action then would be legal. Certainly not. Earlier sections of the act state that all strikes are illegal. No member of the Labour party and no union in the trade union movement has been prepared to move for the abolition of those sections. The act rests upon the basic principles that all strikes and lockouts are illegal. Therefore, if any organization were foolish enough to take a secret ballot as to whether or not its members should commit a breach of the law, a majority vote so obtained would no more legalize that strike than would a vote of employers legalize a lockout. Neither strikes nor lockouts are affected by this clause. Questions which arise in strikes and lockouts can be determined by secret ballot under this proposed new section; questions whether certain demands shall be the policy of the union, or whether the officers of an organization enjoy the confidence of its members. Therefore, it will be possible, by a secret ballot, to deal with all the causes that may incite members of an organization to strike.


Mr Charlton - In certain circumstances a secret ballot may hold up the settlement of an industrial trouble affecting the whole of the Commonwealth for a couple of months.


Mr LATHAM - The apprehension of the honorable member for Hunter is not at all justified. In the first place a strike, if it is in progress, is illegal, and should be stopped. The honorable member suggests that in the event of a dispute involving a strike, a decision as to the future course of action, if submitted to a secret ballot, may be long delayed in a large organization, and that the strike will continue until the views of members of an organization are obtained through a secret ballot. Such a state of affairs is inconsistent with the principle of arbitration, and inconsistent also with the attitude taken up by honorable members opposite, particularly in the discussion of clause 7>, that there should be neither strikes nor lockouts, so that no organization could justify itself in maintaining a strike by means of the secret ballot or otherwise. I wish to make it plain that a secret ballot of an employees' organization, commonly called a union, or of an employers' organization, whatever it may be called, will not make any unlawful act lawful. The Government does not propose in this legislation to allow an organization on either side to determine whether strikes or lockouts are lawful. The act specifically states that they are unlawful. That principle is not interfered with in any way by this clause. The object of this provision is to give members of an organization the opportunity to determine by secret ballot, as a matter of right, what the policy of that organization shall be. It will also enable them to control more directly their own officers. The principle is a sound one, and it is safeguarded by the amendment that an order for a ballot is' to be provisional in the first instance. The organization will then have an opportunity to be heard, and the ballot can only be held if the application is bona fide, and is directed to a matter of substantial importance. Under the provisions in the act concerning regulations, it is possible to make regulations which will assist the court in determining whether or not an application is bona fide. I now move the first amendment to this clause -

That after the word " organization " first occurring, proposed new section 56a, the words " or a branch thereof " be inserted.







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