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Monday, 11 June 1928

Mr FENTON (Maribyrnong) . - May I suggest to the honorable member for Wannon (Mr. Rodgers) that, if he is in such doubt as to the meaning of the clause, he would be much wiser to vote against it. The more this proposal is analysed the more ridiculous it appears. When the Attorney-General is cornered on one point in regard to it he makes another, and when he is cornered there, he adopts some other pretext; he has now reached a pass at which he has been forced to say that if the provision is not found to be effective regulations can be framed to make it so. If he imagines that our trade unions will be ready to accept government by regulation he is making a big mistake. Instead of promoting peace in industry, this provision is much more likely to cause war. The honorable member for Hunter (Mr. Charlton), the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Anstey), and several other honorable members on this side of the chamber have been connected with the trade unions for the last 35 or 40 years, and I have had a long experience of them: I concur in the view, that it would be absolutely impossible for a trade union to comply with these conditions. Everybody who knows anything about industrial affairs is aware that trouble may arise in a factory or workshop or elsewhere in a moment through a remark by a foreman to those working under him. In such circumstances a trade union official is on the spot in a few minutes, and it is likely that the difficulty may be overcome. But if this provision is agreed to a few recalcitrant individuals could say, " We refuse to agree to the settlement of this dispute, and demand a secret ballot upon it." It would then be necessary for the court to be moved. We all know that it is impossible to find an Arbitration Court judge round any street corner, so the matter might have to wait the convenience of the judge.

Mr Latham - It is provided that this shall take precedence of all other business.

Mr FENTON - Even if that is so, there must be delay. The applicants for a secret ballot would have to submit their case, and so would the union, and the judge would have to consider the representations. In the meantime, the dispute would continue, if it did not extend. There would be great danger that, in such circumstances, the minds of the workers would become inflamed. In any case, I submit that it would be impossible for either party satisfactorily to submit its case in writing to the judge.

Mr Latham - There is nothing to prevent the parties making representations to the court in person if they desire to do so.

Mr FENTON - If they did so a long legal argument would follow, and finality would be delayed. But let us suppose that a ballot has been ordered.

Mr Lazzarini - Who is to pay for it ?

Mr FENTON - If the court ordered it, I presume that the Government would pay the expenses, for the court is, to some extent, the instrument of the Government. The Attorney-General has not said anything on that point. Such ballots would be expensive. The "whole thing is ridiculous and unworkable. In any case, what could the Government do if a union declared a strike or the employers a lockout? I have been present at trade union meetings when we have had a fight to get the rank and file to accept a reduction in wages, for, prior to the cost of living reaching its present high point, unions did on occasions accept reduced wages. I know that a minority in a union may cause a great deal of obstruction, and I submit that if an attempt is ever made to put this proposal into effect, it will delay the settlement of disputes and cause great trouble. Who shall say that a properly-organized meeting of union members is not entitled to come to a legitimate conclusion in regard to subjects submitted to it, without the necessity of taking a vote ? . If unionists are not satisfied to take the advice of their officials, they may have recourse to a ballot, but that would not be done with a strike impending. Whenever trouble occurs, the officers of my organization get to work at once. Every member of the union is circularized, and given an opportunity to attend the meeting at which the matter in dispute will be discussed. It is all nonsense to talk about unionists being intimidated. The mere fact of men joining unions to protect themselves is a proof of their grit. The greatest trouble has been to prevent the rank and file from taking the bit in their teeth and carrying matters beyond the stage advised by their officials. If an endeavour is made to frighten or coerce a unionist, it only gets his back up. I believe that, if the Government insists that members of a union shall be circularized with ballot-papers in order that a secret ballot may bc taken, the unionists will make a bonfire of the ballot-papers, and pour ridicule upon the action of the Government. When the official of the court collects the voting papers he will find that only the ten men who called for the ballot have voted - and probably some of them may have refrained from doing so. To illustrate how employees act in unity, I mention that some two years ago my own union, after having failed to obtain certain reasonable concessions from the printers, their employers, decided that on a specified day every employee in a job printing office should tender his or her resignation. That was done, and it caused considerable consternation among the employers. If the father of a chapel told his fellow employees that he did not intend to vote, none of the other members would record their votes, and the whole procedure would be reduced to an absurdity. Every union will resent the intrusion of the Government in this matter. Why should it interfere with their legitimate activities? 1

No doubt the Attorney-General will claim that those unions which are innocent of any offence have nothing to fear. I can assure the honorable gentleman that the majority of unions conduct their affairs in a manner that is above suspicion. The management of my union is not allowed to vote more than £25 at any one time. If any greater sum is needed, no matter for what purpose, the proposal has to be submitted to a vote of the members. Every one of the officer? in my union is elected by ballot, and everything is settled on the decision of the majority. Frequently I and other honorable members who are unionists receive ballot-papers, so that we may vote on certain matters. We should complain if it were not so. lt is ridiculous to assert Chat the officials, of a union do just what they like.

Mr Latham - Is the honorable member aware that recently a ballot was taken in the Coal-miners' Union, as to whether a newspaper levy should be imposed, and that- the officers of the union disregarded the verdict and insisted upon the collection of contributions?

Mr FENTON - I leave the coalminers to deal with their own affairs, but 1 cannot conceive that they would allow other than the will of the majority to prevail. I have no objection to majority rule. It exists in this chamber. 1 can assure the Attorney-General that even a layman will be able to drive a coach-and-four through the loopholes that will exist in this measure when it becomes law. I consider that, the Government was very foolish to introduce the bill. Honorable members opposite really do not believe in tlie bill, yet they will vote in favour of it. Those who, knowing nothing about them, interfere with the affairs of unions, are sure to burn their fingers. The Government is ill-advised to attempt to make unions do something that is distasteful to them. The Attorney-Genera] would be wise if he withdrew the whole bill, because it will make the Government appear ridiculous, and it is calculated to cause industrial unrest in Australia. It will not only force unions to have nothing' to do with ballots; it will drive them out of the industrial court, altogether. If that is the intention of the Government, why is it noi honest enough to admit it? I know of no instrument more calculated to smash the principle of arbitration in Australia than this bill. If the Government is intent, upon carrying out its destructive work it may go ahead, but this party will not collaborate in that work of destruction. Instead, it will try to minimize the damage that will be done. I make it quite clear that the responsibility must rest upon the shoulders of i his Government if, in the near future.

Australia is plunged into industrial turmoil through the operation of this measure.

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