Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Wednesday, 5 September 1906


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON (South Australia) -21]- - I do not think that any one will question1 the advantage of our Constitution, to which Senator Trenwith has directed attention, in respect to its elasticity and susceptibility to amendment, as compared with the American Constitution. But, while that is the case, it does not alter the circumstances or conditions which ought to justify us in amending it. The ease with which amendments may be made is, perhaps, a temptation to amend; but it does not alter the great principles on which we ought to' proceed in making amendments. I do not regard the Constitution of the Commonwealth, or any instrument emanating from the brain or hand of man, as sacred'. I do not regard it as an "Ark of the Covenant " on which hands are not to be laid, if the exigency and necessity for amendment should arise. But I strongly object, as I think all members of the Senate do, to what I call tinkering with the Constitution. I do not think that anything would warrant us in amending the Constitution in that which did not affect a fundamental principle, and which would not improve it, in its essential principles, and give us a better instrument, on broad grounds, for the purposes of government, than we at present possess.


Senator Trenwith - A more representative Parliament, for instance.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - So far as I am aware, no alteration of the Constitution will give us a better, more representative, or more democratic Parliament, or one more broadly based upon the people's will, than that which it' is possible for us to get under the Constitution as it stands. I do not regard what Senator Trenwith has been referring to as a substantial alteration of the Constitution, or one which affects the principles of the government of a great democracy. I am against all tinkering with the Constitution, .and against every proposed amendment of it that does not deal with some great, vital, and essential principle. I approach every proposed amendment of it from that stand-point.


Senator Trenwith - The honorable and learned senator means to say that to make the Constitution slightly better is not good enough ?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I start with the assumption I have already indicated, and I say that that should be the principle on which this Parliament should proceed. Some amendments have been shadowed forth in this Parliament, and in the Senate itself, which would affect essentials of the Constitution, but I say that the principles by which we should be governed in considering proposed amendments of the Constitution are those which I have indicated. That is a view which I commend strongly to Senator Trenwith, who was a member of the Convention that framed the Constitution. If I had any doubt as to the propriety of supporting this Bill, or as to my absolute duty to oppose it, they would be furnished by the arguments of Senator Trenwith! The honorable senator has literally demolished the contention that there is any necessity for this Bill. He has damned it with faint praise. He has declared that he regards it as a trifling measure. That is a kind of thing which we should not seriously consider for a moment in connexion with an amendment of our Constitution. Senator Trenwith has said that he regards this as a matter of no importance, . and that the Constitution will not be seriously imperilled if we do not make the proposed alteration. I say that we should not adopt any amendment of the Constitution unless it is vitally necessary to the better working of the Constitution, unless without its adoption the great principles of the Constitution will be imperilled to a greater or less extent. Senator

Trenwith has explained that the object of this measure is to remove some inconvenience, and I deny that we should alter the Constitution merely to remove an inconvenience. When it is pointed out that another body of the producers would be benefited if the Federal elections were to take place at some other time, Senator Trenwith sa.vs that if another inconvenience is found to arise we can remove it. At present a certain section of the community, whose interest should be regarded as far as possible, claim that December is an inconvenient time for them to go to the poll. By-and-by another section might claim that March, April, or May would be an inconvenient time for them, and then apparently we are to have another amendment of the Constitution. We should have no end to amendments ofl the Constitution if the convenience of every section of the community is to be separately met in that way.


Senator Trenwith - Every section will be consulted under the Bill.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Yes, but only as to one proposal. We might have another proposal next year, when another section would claim that the alteration we made was inconvenient to them, and our Constitution would become like " Joseph's coat, of many colours," if we adopted the principle advocated by Senator Trenwith of making amendments of the Constitution to meet the convenience of each section of the people, who might find it more convenient for them to go to the poll at one time than at another. The honorable senator's damning of the measure with faint praise shows that the Bill is one which should not be seriously entertained for a moment. He admits, as we must all admit, that its efficacy is absolutely dependent on the contingency that there will be no penal dissolution of the House of Representatives.


Senator Trenwith - Not entirely j we should have the Senate elections right, anyhow.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - We should not, because the underlying principle of this Bill is that the elections for the two Houses should take place at the same time.


Senator Trenwith - That is so: but it does not alter the fact that if there were a penal dissolution the Senate would go on.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - But the expiration of the term of the House of Representatives by effluxion of time would be at a different time.


Senator Trenwith - Hear, hear.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - And we should be in exactly the same dilemma. The Senate elections are not dependent upon the elections for the other House if the Government choose to hold them at a different time. I interjected while Senator Trenwith was speaking that by giving us a six months' longer term - to the ist of July - we should be landed in precisely the same position as he suggested about the two or three months, for the newlyelected senators would be simply standing by ready to step in when the others went out. I do not know when the election of senators is to be held. It seems to be put off as far as possible, but if it is held in November we shall ,have the newly-elected senators standing by ready to step into the shoes of the senators who go out of office on the ist January. If the election takes place in May we shall have exactly the same situation. There is no remedy for that.; it must happen. But suppose that the Parliaments of the States Should choose, as they may do, to avail themselves of their power under the Constitution, and fix the times and places for the election of their senators. One State might act at one time, a second at another time, and a third at a different time.


Senator O'Keefe - That is possible now.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Yes, and it will be possible if the proposed alteration be made.


Senator Trenwith - The States have not shown any such disposition up to the present, nor are thev likely to.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I cannot forecast the future.


Senator O'Keefe - It is very improbable.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - If the States felt that it was necessary to have their senators chosen at a particular time they would not hesitate to legislate. I should think that they ought to take that course, because it must be recollected by honorable senators that the "fundamental principle of our Constitution in relation to the Senate is that senators are sent here by the States, and the Commonwealth has only a. verv Qualified position in regard to them. It is the State Governor who issues the writs for the election of senators for a State, and it is the State Parliament which sa.vs when they are to be chosen. If in any State the Parliament chose to say, " We prefer that our senators-


Senator Trenwith - I admitted that very fully in mv first sentence.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I am rubbing it in.


Senator Trenwith - But how does that affect the argument?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - My honorable friend has said that he is going to vote for a Bill' which he has pulverized by his arguments. He admits that it deals with a matter of no importance.


Senator Trenwith - I did not.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I took down my honorable friend's words. He said that there is no great principle involved, and that the Constitution would not be seriously imperilled if the Bill were not passed. Of course, we know the shrug of the shoulders with which a remark of that kind is made. My honorable friend must agree with me that the Bill is ludicrous in substance


Senator Trenwith - I do not.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I know that mv honorable friend appreciates a joke as well as any man, and really it is a joke to offer this measure to the serious consideration of the Senate. My honorable friend referred to America, but he did not pursue the comparison, of course always admitting the qualification that he referred to as to the less facile means of amendment. The only amendments which have been introduced into the American Constitution have been amendments of serious principles, without which its great objects were very gravely injured.


Senator Trenwith - They would have been verv. seriously injured.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I do not wish to put it so strongly as my honorable friend did, but that was a fact. I do not suggest that we ought to be bound by American procedure, but I contend that we ought to act on the same principles as did the people in America in refusing to tinker with the Constitution, and to make only such amendments as were, to a certain extent, vital to its principles. My honorable friend knows that the first ten amendments in the American Constitution were practically an introduction of what many statesmen at that grea!t period of toil anc1/ trouble and constitution-making considered to be essential, namely, something equivalent to a declaration of rights. After the Constitution was framed and adopted bv the Convention in September, 1787, it was not ratified for twelve months, and then only by eleven States. In March, 1789 - that is, about eighteen months after - the Congress met. It was not until 1790 that the thirteen States came into line By the assent and adhesion of Rhode Island. Then the first ten amendments were introduced, practically like our amendments, which were the result of the Premiers' Conference, and submitted to a second referendum, because the outstanding States would not give in their adhesion without that declaration of rights on the face of the Constitution. They were there as though' they had been inserted in the framework of the Constitution as originally adopted. The eleventh amendment was introduced three years afterwards. The twelfth amendment removed a very grave blot on the procedure with regard to the elections of the President and Vice-President. It was vital to the Constitution that that change in the method of election should be adopted in 1804, and that was done fourteen years after the adhesion of Rhode Island, and on the strong recommendation of Alexander Hamilton, one of the greatest statesmen that the world has ever produced. There was no other amendment of the Constitution until 1865 - that is, after the war had ended.


Senator Trenwith - Which might have been saved if the Americans could have altered their Constitution easily.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - No; because that was the amendment which freed the slaves, and which would not have been introduced into the Constitution by the ordinary process.


Senator Trenwith - Not by the American process ; but by ours it might.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - The price paid for the freedom of the slaves was the Civil War and the blood of its citizens.


Senator Trenwith - And the rigidity of the Constitution.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Not at all. It was because two portions of the United States were in solid battle array against each other on that question.


Senator Trenwith - Because they had no other method.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Because thev could have no other method, for the Southern States would not have consented to a line or a comma in the Constitution being altered which would have interfered with their slave rights. Therefore, that amendment, which was the fruit of the Civil War, was introduced in 1865. But not one single amendment of such a frivolous character as the one proposed in our Constitution was ever attempted or suggested in America. If it dealt with a matter of great principle, 1 should support the Bill. When my honorable friend tells me that it is introduced for the convenience of one section of the people, who wish to discharge their trust, that, I submit, is not a- ground for altering the Constitution. If it is altered for the convenience of one set of men, it must be altered for the convenience of another set. No one knows better than does Senator Trenwith that one of the problems we are trying to solve is how to compel men to vote. But, instead of doing that, it is proposed to meet the convenience of different sections of the community.


Senator Trenwith - Why do we want to compel men to vote, except that it is desirable that they should?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - It is desirable that men should vote.


Senator Trenwith - It is inconvenient for some men to vote.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I have very great sympathy with any person who has a difficulty in voting. I know that persons of all sections - producers, manufacturers, and artizans - have, I shall not say an unwillingness, but an " Oh, I do not want to be bothered " sort of feeling about going to the poll. But we ought not to alter the Constitution in this way without, if my honorable friends like, consulting the different sections in the community, and finding out-


Senator Trenwith - We shall do so by the referendum.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - No; we shall only consult the people then as to making an amendment of the Constitution for the convenience of one section.


Senator Trenwith - If they say that it should not be done, it will mot be done.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - But suppose that the people say, " We have no objection to this alteration being made, but we would like the Constitution to be amended in order to suit us too," what would my honorable friends propose to do then ?


Senator Trenwith - If they show sufficient cause, why not alter it?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Apparently we are to have a patch-work Constitution in order to take the elections, not at any particular date, but in each month, as it may suit the convenience of a large section of the community. We shall have our districts and divisions voting in sections at different periods of the year.


Senator Trenwith - We can have that now, if the people like. This will not facilitate that a bit.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - That is the logical outcome of the attitude which my honorable friend and others are taking. But what is said in support of the Bill? When is an election inconvenient ? Why is an election in December inconvenient? Harvesting operations are going on. If it is a hot day, and the farmer and his men go away to vote, there is a danger of the grain falling out of the ears. What is the remedy for that? It is not an amendment of the Constitution. It is said that, on this occasion, the elections are to be held on the 2 1 st November. I hope so, because that date would meet the case.


Senator Trenwith - Plenty of persons are harvesting on the 21st November.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I am not aware of it. In South Australia harvesting is done" at about the end of November and the beginning of .December. My honorable friend is, I dare say, familiar with the state of things in, Victoria. In South Australia we have the earliest wheat harvest that I know of, and when wheat is brought into Port Pirie and Port Germein, at the end of November or the beginning of December, the fact is duly chronicled in the press as a wonderful event. If the election comes at an inconvenient time this year, the Bill will not remedy it.


Senator Trenwith - No.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - The remedy rests with the Executive Government. What obligation is there to keep the Parliament sitting after the ist of November ?


Senator Givens - To do the business of the country.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Why should we not meet two months earlier? What is to prevent us from meeting in' April ? Why is the meeting of Parliament put off? It is to lengthen the recess until the end of June, lt is within the power of the Government and of Parliament, without an alteration of the Constitution, to have the elections held at a time that would suit the convenience of the largest section of the community.


Senator Guthrie - It has not been shown that this proposal will inconvenience any section.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I do not know. But the Bill is unnecessary. lt will not remove inconveniences in respect of the elections we are about to face. Surely we. are not going to alter the Constitution to relieve Ministers of the responsibility of calling Parliament together to do the business of the country a little earlier than usual. Surely we are not going to add six months to the tenure of those senators who were elected three years ago simply because the Government three years hence may or may not prorogue Parliament in time to allow the elections to take place before harvest. What is to prevent this Government, if it continues in office, or the next Government, from arranging the sittings of Parliament in the final session so as to convenience the farming electors? There is no constitutional point involved. The Constitution is clear. Senators are to hold their office from the 1st of January. If an election takes place during the year preceding the 1st of January in an ordinary periodical way - whether it takes place in July, in February, or in any other month up to December - the senators then elected have simply to stand by and wait for the cloak of their predecessors to fall upon them.


Senator Givens - Would it not be rather demoralizing to have a man occupying the position of senator who had been rejected bv the electors at the polls?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - The same difficulty may arise if this Bill is passed. My point is that the Government has the fixing of the date of the elections in its own hands. As a matter of fact, however, there is no guarantee that the month of May will be more convenient to the farmers than November or December will be. In South Australia there may be wet weather in May. People do not like to travel many miles to vote in severe thunder storms. It may be that the evil will be intensified by this Bill. I am quite sure that when my honorable friend, Senator Trenwith, referred to Senator Clemons' observations about the additional six months-


Senator Givens - Does not Senator Symon think that it was rather unworthy lo put that forward as a motive for supporting the Bill?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I say that there is a probability that we shall be confronted with that point by the electors.


Senator O'Keefe - But does the honorable senator seriously put that forward as a motive that is influencing any senator in supporting this Bill ?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - What is the use of asking that? Senator Clemons did not mean that.


Senator O'Keefe - Why did he say so if he did not mean it?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - But that the Bill will have that result no one can deny. It is a Bill to add six months to the tenure of senators who were elected for three years.


Senator Givens - That cannot be done without consent of the majority of the people in the majority of the States.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Of course it cannot, but my honorable friend has to face the fact that the motive suggested will be alleged. We are told that meetings have been held at which farmers have expressed themselves as opposed to the present system. We do not know what other sections of the community think.


Senator Trenwith - Except that silence means consent.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - My honorable friend does not seriously mean that. The remedy is not to tinker with the Constitution about a matter which the Executive Government can arrange quite easily. , We all know that the Constitution does not provide anything in regard to electoral details. It was never intended to do so. It is large, broad, and deals only with principles. What did Parliament do in regard to electoral details? An Electoral Bill was introduced. How did we provide facilities for meeting the convenience of people who reside at a distance from the 'polling booth? We conferred upon them the privilege of postal voting. Various other facilities were given. No amendment of the Constitution was required. To enable the electors to vote at a time that will be convenient to them is another facility. Why not give it by the ordinary arrangement of parliamentary business? Why, under cover of an amendment of the Constitution, make concessions to the electors for holding the elections earlier in the year? I believe that the farmers of South Australia will be quite content if the elections this year take place somewhere about the beginning of November. The hay harvest is nothing. But the Bill does not affect the coming elections'.


Senator Givens - The same set of circumstances may arise on a future occasion.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Surely we should leave some responsibility with the Government.


Senator Givens - The Government is not responsible if it cannot get its business through earlier in the vear.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Is it not? Why cannot the Government call Parliament together earlier? Why not call Parliament together in January if necessary? Why should there be a recess from December to June?


Senator Henderson - Let the honorable senator tell us why the Government of which he was a member did not call Parliament together until the end of June?


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - We called Parliament together in ample time, and prepared more business than the honorable senator and his party were inclined to do. For that reason they went over and supported another Government that was more lenient.


Senator Givens - The honorable senator's Government called' us together to do nothing.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - We called Parliament together at a time when if we had had our will the elections would have taken place at the season most convenient for the people of this country. My honorable friend, Senator Trenwith, referred to the argument which he said had been addressed to the Senate as to " opening the doors" for constitutional amendments.


Senator Trenwith - It is to be Hoped that the door is always open. It would be a pity if it were not. The Constitution has left the door open.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - That is not the meaning which my honorable friend attached to the phrase. What was meant was that if an amendment was proposed about a trifling matter it would immediately put into the hands of any one who wanted a fad to be put before the people by way of 'referendum, to use the argument, " As you are having a referendum about a trifle, why not have one at the same time about my proposal " ? That is what is meant by "opening the door." I myself consider that there are considerable merits in a referendum on some matters of legislation. But it should never be taken except on important matters, as is the case in Switzerland. It is not a good thring that the Senate, on the eve of an election - to which this Bill cannot be applicable - should take the initiative in a direction which will lead to lengthening the term for which honorable senators were elected. Senator Trenwith's arguments effectively convinced me that this is a Bill that should be laughed out of the Senate instead of being seriously dealt with. He has also convinced me that the remedy is not to enact a measure of this character, which will be absolutely ineffective in the event of a penal dissolution, and will not remedy the apparent anomaly to which he referred of one set of senators standing by without office whilst the others conclude their terms. The honorable senator has also convinced me that the remedy is in the hands -of the Executive and of Parliament. Just as the provision of electoral facilities for registering the votes of the electors are secured under our electoral laws, so this Bill simply gives a further facility by rearranging the times ; and this also ought to be in the hands of the Executive. I know that the present Parliament cannot do so effectively, but certain! « the next Parliament ought to insist on the Executive giving serious heed to the position, and taking care that the business o± Parliament is so arranged that the elections shall be held at a time as far as possible convenient, not to any particular section or place, but to the whole people of the country. I object to the Bill, first because, to use Senator Trenwith's words, it deals with a trifling matter not worth an amendment of the Constitution, and, secondly, because we should not have an amendment of the Constitution except in regard to some vital principle.


Senator Trenwith - Until it has reached breaking point.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - Senator Trenwithhas already said that if. the Bill be not carried, the Constitution will not be imperilled.


Senator Trenwith - And the honorable and learned senator says that the Constitution must not be altered unless it has " reached breaking point."


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - I never said so.


Senator Trenwith - That is implied by the honorable senator's remarks.


Senator Sir JOSIAH SYMON - The honorable senator is doing me an injustice. What I say is that any alteration ought to be in regard to some matter of principle, and not in regard to a matter which, as Senator Trenwith has said, is of no importance. I had an opportunity to gauge Senator Trenwith's views at the Federal Convention, and I appeal to him as a strong Federalist, to say that he will not permit an alteration of the Constitution in regard to a mere trifle. At any rate, the remedy is that which I have suggested, and it is one in which the honorable senator practically concurs. I hope that that suggestion will be adopted, particularly as the election for this year, which it is said will be prejudicial to the farmers if held later than the middle of November, cannot in any way be affected. I shall record' my vote against the Bill.







Suggest corrections