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Friday, 27 September 1912

Senator ST LEDGER (Queensland) . - I did not expect to have to speak on this subject this afternoon, and am, therefore, at rather a disadvantage. It is almost impossible to approach the subject without some reference to the legislation by which the sugar industry has been - I say advisedly - always tormented by the Federal Parliament since we . assumed jurisdiction in the matter. There is but one conclusion to which any impartial student of our politics for the past few years must come, and that is that the Commonwealth Government ought, as far as possible, and as soon as possible, to remove this great industry out of the arena of political conflict. The sooner Parliament resolves to do that, the better it will be, from the point of view of effective legislation. Acts have been passed time and again dealing with the subject in the light of previous experience. The regulations which have been framed under our Acts would fill a large library. It is not an undeserved or unfair comment to say that the more Acts have been passed and regulations issued on the lines originally adopted the greater has been the dissatisfaction, wrangling, and strife which have been developed in connexion with this industry. The Commonwealth and State Parliaments have adopted in regard to industrial matters one important economic principle, and that is that the relations between employers and employes shall be, as far as possible, relegated, if not forced, for settlement to some local industrial tribunal consisting of representatives of both parties interested, with an. impartial chairman, if such a being can be born upon this earth. I have just risen from the perusal of an article in which a good deal is expressed against that principle. Still the State and Federal Parliaments, notwithstanding adverse signs, and almost open rebellion in certain quarters, have determined that the settlement of industrial disputes shall be left to such tribunals.

Senator Blakey - Do not the employers nearly always rebel when they are compelled to pay good wages?

Senator ST LEDGER - It may be so ; but I would ask the honorable senator whether the employes do not always complain when they do not get what they desire as sufficient wages. It is only human nature that they should, and it is to be expected that these differences of opinion will be very strongly expressed. Another economic principle which we have adopted, and in the application of which no distinction is made between primary and secondary industries, is the Protectionist principle. If it can be shown that, by Protection, which is the settled policy of Australia, any industries can be developed, we are prepared to encourage their development in that way. I am not surveying mankind from China to Peru, but it will be admitted that these are two very general principles, and have an important bearing upon the industry with which this Bill deals. The first principle is that the settlement of conditions of labour and rates of wages in this, as in other industries, should be left to local tribunals, and the less any Government have to do with them the better.

Senator Findley - Is not that the object of this Bill?

Senator ST LEDGER - No; I think not. I hope I am not doing the Government an injustice when I say that I do not believe they have introduced this Bill for the express purpose of releasing, so far as it is possible to do so, the hand of the Minister of Trade and Customs from the industry. If the honorable senator will consult the terms of the Bill,. he will find that my statement is substantially correct. What other protected industry in "Australia is subjected simultaneously to the operation of an Excise duty and a bounty. I believe it can be shown that the disputes connected with the industry have arisen from the simultaneous operation upon it of these contradictory fiscal principles. If the Government desired by their legislation to make the industry more easy to carry on they would never have introduced this measure. They have been told more than once by disinterested authorities who are competent to advise that the root of the difficulty in connexion with the sugar industry is not to be found in the industrial conditions and rates of wages paid to the workers in it, but to the operation simultaneously upon the industry of two diverse economic principles. The Government might have persevered with their policy of obtaining some direct control of the conditions of employment and rates of wages in the industry, and at the same time have met the clamour throughout Queensland for relief from the two conflicting fiscal conditions under which it is being carried on. The Government still profess faith and hope that this continuous tinkering, with the relations between employer and employe" in the industry will make the position of the workers better. How many more Acts are to be passed, and how much more mischief is to be perpetrated in connexion with this industry before the Government will learn the obvious lesson? It should be remembered that before this Bill was introduced, another method of dealing with the question was suggested by the responsible State authorities of Queensland. That is borne out by correspondence which, I believe, has been laid on the table. Mr. Denham, the Premier of Queensland, offered, if we abolished the Excise and bounty, to introduce a special measure in the Queensland Parliament to prevent the employment of any alien labour in the sugar industry, and he proposed, in order that the workers in the industry might have their interests guarded, to modify a measure which was going through the State Parliament in such a way as to secure to them good conditions and fair rates of wages. As a means for the improvement of the condition of affairs in the sugar industry, I regard this Bill as I should regard the application of a mustard plaster to a wooden leg. It is a mere howling pretence to induce the people of Queens- land, and all engaged in the industry* to believe that one more heroic effort is being made to put it upon a satisfactory basis. The overwhelming testimony of those interested in the industry is against this perpetual tinkering legislation. The Prime Minister is himself an exponent of a principle which does not find a place in this Bill. It will be admitted that the grower is an essential factor in the industry. Without the growers, there would be no need for the workers. It is not unreasonable to regard the grower as the basis of the industry. I am prepared, if honorable senators please, to admit that the workers in the cane-fields represent another essential factor. Both go into the industry from practically the same motive. The grower desires to get all he can for the sugar that he grows, and the worker desires to get all the wages he can for the work he does in the field.

Senator Blakey - They are both after the " sugar."

Senator ST LEDGER - Of course. Why do we not bravely strip our souls of cant, and, if we are employers, admit that we are looking after the dollars; and, if we are employes, that we are looking for the best conditions and wages for our labour. The workers in the field, and the growers of the cane have more than once indorsed an expression of opinion by the Prime Minister that the imposition of an Excise duty upon an article which is one of the necessaries of life is economically unsound. It represents a burden upon the industry which does not benefit the grower, and prevents a benefit being extended to the worker in the field. It is part of the history of this section that the Excise duty on sugar is paid by the grower.

Senator Chataway - I direct attention to the state of the Senate. [Quorum formed.]

Senator ST LEDGER - What .is contended is that the present fiscal and economical arrangements are wrong in every way. If the Government are honestly desirous of effectively benefiting the workers in the cane fields, they should seek to remove one of the burdens upon the industry, and one which, to the extent that it is a burden, prevents the workers from improving their economic condition. This is a. Bill to amend the Sugar Bounty Acts of 1905 and 19 10. Those Acts, together with the Act of 1903, were intended to advance the interests of the growers.

Senator Chataway - To make the growers grow cane with white labour.

Senator ST LEDGER - Yes, to be more precise. I thought that I understood to some extent the Act of 1905, and I thought that I did understand the amending Act of 1910, but I confess straightaway that if anybody understands clearly this Bill, and what is intended to be done then, without any desire to be either insulting or unduly complimentary, he has a higher or quicker intelligence than I have. I cannot understand the Bill, and I doubt whether the Government do. The difficulty is to find out where the Minister's hand begins and where it ends, if it ends at all. Further than that, the Minister, to a very large extent, was the sole tribunal, subject to certain limitations in ' the previous Act, for determining the rates of wages. That had some advantages. There was one final court of appeal, anyhow. That was the Minister, and, although he was far away, he was easily got at sometimes through the representatives of the State of Queensland.

Senator Chataway - Through the Speaker of the House of Representatives, you might mention.

Senator ST LEDGER - Perhaps it would be more accurate and more courteous to say that through their representatives the Minister could be, so to speak, approached. I should not like to use the phrase " got at " with its sinister significance. Now what does the Bill do ? It provides for the settlement of a matter in the Arbitration Court. The Minister may, at any time he thinks fit, call upon the Arbitration Court to settle a matter.

Senator Chataway - Or a State Industrial Court.

Senator ST LEDGER - The Minister may, at his own caprice, refer a matter to any Judge of a Federal or a State Court, or to any person or persons who compose a State industrial authority.

Senator Chataway - What power has he to get a Wages Board to make a decision ?

Senator ST LEDGER - I should like the Government to make the position clearer than they have done. I do not think that I was present during the whole of the speech with which the Minister moved the second reading of the Bill. Why should we complicate the industry with these alternative Industrial Courts in this way? Neither the grower nor the workers in a dispute can be sure as to which Court they will be thrown into. If that be so, as I think it is, then the last stage is infi nitely worse than the first, both to the grower and to the workers, because it is of immediate interest and benefit to both parties to know that whenever a matter crops up in the industry there will be some local tribunal which may be immediately approached. Why is it that in a matter of this kind, which for its successful working depends upon the proper adaptation of local conditions, the last body in which the Minister seems to put confidence is the Wages Board or industrial tribunal in the locality ?

Senator Chataway - The Premier of Queensland promised to establish Wages Boards.

Senator Findley - They have been promising that since the crack of doom.

Senator ST LEDGER - If that is the spirit in which the Government are going to approach the industry, they will cripple it.

Senator Stewart - You told us that long ago.

Senator ST LEDGER - I have said that in some respects this legislation has been successful. In my opening remarks, I pointed out that the difficulties are mainly of legislative creation.

Senator Findley - Legislation did rot create sweating conditions.

Senator ST LEDGER - That is only a springe to catch woodcocks. What have sweating conditions to do with this matter? There is an economic principle involved. I am sure that the Minister in charge of the Bill, however much he may sneer or throw out taunts about sweating, will not deny that it is highly advisable to let the parties to a dispute in the industry settle it among themselves, and to encourage that principle wherever the Commonwealth has jurisdiction. In this Bill, however, the Government seem to deliberately put the cart in front of the horse, instead of trying by the experience of past legislation to find out exactly which part is the front of the cart, and to put the horse there as soon as possible.

Senator Stewart - What do you object to in the Bill?

Senator ST LEDGER - It will complicate and render difficult, if not impossible, any satisfactory solution of a trouble as to wages between an employer and his employes. Our previous experience goes to show that. We have had trouble enough with this industry. Every political party is troubled with it. At every election in Queensland, whether Federal or State, this is one of the stock questions which are thrown into the melting-pot, so to speak, for the candidates of every party to make political capital out of. It is a most extraordinary thing that the amending legislation which has been brought in from time to time has, as a rule, preceded or immediately followed an election.

Senator Findley - Is not that the strongest reason why this matter should be taken out of the hands of parties and placed in the control of a Court?

Senator ST LEDGER - I should have thought that to one gifted with a grain of intelligence and reasoning power, that would be the very reason why it should not trouble the Legislature any longer, that certain economic principles being determined, the parties vitally interested should be encouraged to settle their differences amongst themselves. In giving alternative jurisdiction to four or five Courts you offer a temptation both to employers and to employes to gamble in those Courts on the industry. That is, to my mind, a radical defect in the Bill. There is another thing of which the Legislature and the representatives from other States may very well complain. What particular need or hurry is there now to anticipate the report of the Royal Commission on this industry? One of the most pressing reasons for the appointment of a Royal Commission was the charge made over and over again, inside Parliament and in the States, that the worker was not getting, and could not get, a square deal. He pressed bis claims so hard that the previous Government' determined that they would try to settle this vexed question once and for all by appointing a competent and impartial Commission to investigate it. But, unfortunately, that Commission in its form and scope was wiped out of existence. The present Government knew that they had to take similar action ; hence they appointed a Royal Commission. Every member of this Parliament, every citizen who can follow matters intelligently, knows that the more the subject was probed into by that Commission in the light of the experiences of the past, in the light of objections and suggestions put forward by all parties in the industry, the more it was found to be one of the toughest questions that a Commission or a Parliament could tackle. Yet we are asked to pass a piece of tinkering legislation. The more and more this question has been dealt with in this tinker ing way, the more difficulties have presented themselves to the Minister. Indeed, the Federal Parliament has got so tired of the subject that one can hear murmurs that it should wipe its hands of the whole industry and let it take its fate in common with other industries.

Senator Stewart - Tell us what you want.

Senator ST LEDGER - If we want to benefit the conditions of the workers, we must first begin by abolishing the Excise and the bounty, and in saying that I am only repeating what the Prime Minister has said more than once in Parliament. When we have taken that step, we may find a solution of the difficulty. If the grower cannot extend to the worker such conditions in regard to wages as he would like, my contention is that this Bill will not better his position. But there is strong reason to believe that if the Excise and bounty were abolished those conditions might be improved.

Senator Stewart - There would then be £i per ton more to divide amongst those who are engaged in the industry.

Senator ST LEDGER - Exactly. The honorable senator has made a very sensible interjection. In reading the Queensland Hansard the other day I saw that in some localities the millers had made a distinct offer to increase the price which they paid for their cane if the Excise and bounty were abolished.

Senator Chataway - The Premier of Queensland has authoritatively stated that he will introduce legislation which will guarantee to the growers an increased price for their cane. \

Senator ST LEDGER - That fact is not disputed. It was an insult to the Premier of Queensland to suggest that that offer was not made perfectly bona fide by one who has the power to make good his offer. This Bill consists of only a few clauses, and perhaps it will be more appropriate if I deal with its extraordinary wording in Committee. I may have become very dense since the present session of Parliament opened, because I confess that I cannot understand its provisions. But if I do understand them aright the sugar industry will be landed by this legislation in a maze of complication and trouble. If a State Court, upon the reference to it of a matter in respect of wages, gives its decision, and that decision is not acceptable to one of the parties concerned, what will happen? Will the dissatisfied party say, "I am dissatisfied with the decision, and therefore I will go down to the Minister, and ask him to throw the whole matter into the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court?" Where is the thing going to end? Are the decisions of these Courts to be final ? What penalties are to be imposed in case of any breach of their awards? I have long abandoned all hope of achieving any good by dealing with the constitutional aspect of questions in this Chamber.

Senator Blakey - The honorable senator objects to the wording of the Bill.

Senator ST LEDGER - I object both to its intention and to the way in which that intention is expressed. I can see in the Bill neither beginning nor end, scheme nor plan. I hope that the Honorary Minister will be able to show me that I am labouring under a strong delusion in regard to this matter. Sub-clause 4 of clause 2 of the Bill provides - " If the Minister finds that the rates of wages and conditions of employment, or any of them -

(a)   are below the standard rates and conditions of employment prescribed by any Commonwealth or State industrial authority, or

(b)   are below the standard rates and conditions applicable to the locality and agreed upon between representatives of associations of employers and employees registered under any Commonwealth or State Act, or

(c)   are below the rates and conditions declared, asin the first sub-section of this section mentioned, to be fair and reasonable, the Minister may withhold the whole or any part of the bounty payable.

It seems to me that under that provision, after any one of these tribunals has pronounced its judgment upon the question of the wages to be paid in the industry-, the Minister may ignore that judgment, and say, " I do not believe that the Court has fixed a reasonable rate of wages."

Senator Findley - Does the honorable senator think that, after a properly constituted Court had made its award, any sane Minister would refuse to pay the bounty to growers who had complied with the conditions of that award?

Senator ST LEDGER - This is not a question of whether the Minister will be sane or insane, reasonable or unreasonable. The question is, " Who is to be the final authority in the matter?" It is a most imperfect answer to say, " Cannot you presume that the Minister will be sane and reasonable?" Surely the Minister ought to have sufficient common sense to know that at some stage there should be finality. Parliament should see that when a decision has been given by a properly constituted tribunal the Minister and everybody else shall abide by it until good cause has been shown why it should be reconsidered. I have always advocated that economic difficulties in the sugar industry, should, as far as possible, be settled by arbitration. But I have always refused to set myself up as the arbiter of what is a fair wage in any industry. I know that I am incompetent to decide that question. I think, too, that Parliament is the most incompetent authority to decide it.

Senator Stewart - This Bill does not propose to leave that matter in the hands of Parliament.

Senator ST LEDGER - Nor does it propose to take it out of the hands of Parliament. The measure will tend to increase the irritation which breaks out sporadically and periodically in the sugar industry. I regret this circumstance extremely. We would all like to discover some satisfactory solution of this great problem. It is a very important one.

Senator Chataway - To stop interfering with the industry is the solution of the problem.

Senator ST LEDGER - Possibly. Certainly the less we tinker with it the better. There is another reason why the Government should immediately seek a satisfactory solution of this difficulty, namely, that the sugar industry is inseparably connected with the maintenance of a white race upon the tropical and subtropical lowlands of Queensland. Of all the means which have yet been devised to secure the settlement of a white population upon those lands, none has proved so attractive, or, on the whole, so remunerative to the worker, as has the cultivation of sugar.

Senator de Largie - The poorest paid work in Australia.

Senator ST LEDGER - One is quite accustomed to interjections of that kind ; but I am absolutely impervious and pachydermatous to the sneers of the Government and their supporters. I am not arguing whether the economic condition of the workers is remarkably bright and attractive or otherwise, though certainly many of those engaged in the cane-fields are much better off than are numbers of men and women who are employed in Melbourne factories. The real point is that the growth of sugar has been a powerful instrument in encouraging white settlement in Australia.

Senator Pearce - It never encouraged white settlement until the Commonwealth brought in its legislation.

Senator ST LEDGER - If we wish to promote and develop white settlement, we shall have to give a fostering hand to the sugar industry. Given a tropical country, with a remunerative industry, and such a hinterland as Queensland happily possesses, and you induce population by reason of the very attractiveness of occupation. That population is able to reproduce itself, and to recuperate its strength, by easy access either to the hinterland or to the southern portions of the continent for terms of residence. There is no problem of greater interestto Australia, and, indirectly, of wider moment to the Empire, than that of the rapid settlement of the empty spaces of which ournorthern coastal districts are splendid examples. Even the tropical coast- line, warm and moist as it is in summer, will sustain a white population if the staple industry be wisely and properly managed. But this Bill affords a magnificent instance of how not to do it, and of how to cure one bungle by making a greater one. There is every reason to believe that the measure will be entirely unacceptable to every interest concerned with sugargrowing in Queensland. I have not heard that the workers are hungering for it. I know that they have complaints, and that, about eighteen months ago, they went on strike.

Senator Blakey - For 30s. a week and forty-eight hours' work.

Senator ST LEDGER - The question now is not the sufficiency or otherwise of the wage, But whether this legislation is demanded by anybody.

Senator Findley - There has been seething discontent amongst the workers for a long time.

Senator ST LEDGER - Can the Minister give us clear and overwhelming official proof that the workers want this legislation ?

Senator Findley - Did they not strike?

Senator ST LEDGER - They did.

Senator Findley - What did they strike for?

Senator ST LEDGER - A few ignorant fanatics misled the men, as the same tribe have misled others throughout Queensland.

Senator Blakey - They only wanted two guineas a week, finding themselves.

Senator ST LEDGER - That is not the question.

Senator de Largie - I would like to see the honorable senator working in the sugar industry.

Senator ST LEDGER - Although I am a fairly good specimen of physical development, I am quite satisfied that, after three hours' trial in any Queensland sugar field, I should be instantly despatched to the nearest hospital. Therefore, my point of view is strictly impersonal. The question, I say again, is whether this Bill is wanted.

Senator Findley - The growers themselves have been asking for finality.

Senator ST LEDGER - That is the one cheering ray of light which the Minister has contributed to this debate. If the growers have made representations to the Government, i shall be glad' to hear that they have received careful consideration. But have either the growers or the workers asked for this Bill? The great bulk of them joined with the growers in asking for an entirely different solution of their difficulties. Many have requested that matters in dispute should be referred to local tribunals. The original Act enabled the Minister to be guided by local information.. It was sound in that respect. But under this measure matters in dispute may be referred to Court after Court, and at the end of it all the Minister may put his hand upon the fabric of decisions that has been built up and tear down the whole edifice. I regret that I cannot command language sufficiently strong in which to condemn this Bill, and to convey my warning of future disaster. This much I do know - that legislation on the sugar question, after the report of the Royal Commission is presented, is going to throw the industry again into the arena of politics, where such questions in dispute can never be satisfactorily settled, and where each successive step taken makes things worse than they were before.

Senator Vardon - I think we ought to have a quorum. [Quorum formed.]

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