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Thursday, 14 December 1905

Senator PULSFORD (New South Wales) - It is four years this month since the principal Act was before the Senate. Honorable senators will remember something of the origin of the provision to which reference has been made. When the Bill was -originally introduced it contained no such provision, and that is some indication of the small attention which was given to a subject which now seems to be all-important to some people. When the Bill came to us, I tried to persuade the Senate to omit the provision altogether. Not succeeding in that, I suggested that we should make it come into effect only if the contract proposed the payment of wages below current rates. Unfortunately, I did not succeed in getting even that accepted. Had it been accepted, Australia would have been saved a great deal of disgrace. There is no doubt that in the four intervening years Australia has suffered a great deal in reputation by the action of that provision. I at once admit that a very great deal of the feeling in the old country is based on a mistaken impression, that the fault which undoubtedly exists in Australia has been immensely magnified, and that we have been painted very much blacker than we are. But need we wonder at this? The people of England cannot, all of them, study these Bills, or be made acquainted with the facts. It is quite evident that throughout the length and breadth of that country the fact that a certain number of Englishmen were checked - I use that limited word - when they wished to land here was widely known, and the fact attracted wide attention, and came as a great shock to the people from whom Australia derives all her right and title to this Continent. There is no doubt at all that this feeling has grown until it has become very acute. This afternoon Senator Henderson read a statement explaining officially the facts with regard to the six hatters' case. I do not dispute a word when he read. I suppose that, from the official point of view, every word is accurate; but it does not undo the fact that British-born subjects were not allowed to land in Australia on the arrival of the ship. There is. no disputing that simple fact, nor can it be denied that a grave and painful feeling was aroused in the United Kingdom, and I think I might add, throughout more than the United Kingdom, in consequence of the existing state of affairs. Is it not true, then, that a great occasion had arisen? I think I have heard of a writer who spoke of a statesman as one who knew when "to take occasion by the hand." It would have been well, I think, if the Government of Australia and all those who occupied leading positions in political circles had risen to the occasion and taken it "by the hand." Instead of that, the Government and the Labour Party seem to be almost afraid to take the occasion by the little finger. It would have been very much to the advantage of Australia if the Government had taken a generous view of the situation, and recommended Parliament to eliminate paragraph g from section 3 of the Act. That would have been a great stroke. It would have done Australia great good. But, instead of that, we have the eleven lines in that paragraph expanded into a Bill of three pages, and it is so full of entanglements, to use the word of Senator Symon, that I am afraid we shall get but limited praise even for the concessions which undoubtedly it does contain. I am free at once to admit that by the mere elimination of paragraph g certain risks would be run, and that occasionally contract labour might have got in under objectionable circumstances. But all life is full of risks. We cannot walk the streets, or eat, or drink, without taking certain risks, If' we were to refuse to eat or drink because in some cases trouble arose in consequence of doing" so, what would life come to? For the attainment of a great object we might have run this very trifling danger. The number of persons who are likely to come to Australia under contract is so minute that it is not worthy of the prolonged discussion which has been given to the subject here. It would have been very much to the advantage of Australia if we had been willing to take a broad view of the position, and contented ourselves with at once sweeping away the provision, knowing, as T say, that there would have been a little risk, and that at the same time there would have been a great gain. It has been stated by a gentleman who has only recently visited England, that he believes that the detention of the six hatters, if it were put into money, meant that Australia had suffered to the extent of at least £6,000,000. It is quite easy for Senator McGregor and Senator Findley to laugh at a statement like that. I dare say that it is exaggerated, but there is no doubt that Australia has suffered very greatly in credit and repute, and that is an influence which does affect us in various ways. It affects us in the money market. It affects us when we wish to renew our loans, and in other ways which are more or less obscured to the vision of a gentleman like Senator Stewart. The law as it stands does operate detrimentally to us. Therefore, I regret very much indeed that the Government has not risen to the occasion and simply swept it out of existence. It appears to me that under this very extended Bill the Minister of the day would always have a very great amount of power. He would have the power to interfere when he should not interfere. I am not quite clear as to the explanation given by Senator Playford. He took it for granted that an officer with authority would be appointed in England. I am not at all sure that, under the clause giving the Minister certain power, an officer would be appointed at Home. I ask honorable senators to think out how extended the period of time would be before an arrangement could be made by any person in Australia who desired to arrange a contract for one or two persons to' come out from England. He would have to write to England; arrangements would have to be made in that country, correspondence would have to be sent to Australia, and before the men could come out the employer here might almost have ceased to want them. These are difficulties thrown in the way which might well have been avoided. The Bill is undoubtedly in the right direction. It does something to accomplish what we want, and I join with those who have expressed the wish that in time we may be able to remove the whole of this oppressive legislation, and to stand before the rest of the British race as free men in matters of this sort.

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