Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 8 May 1930


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) .^ - Any proposal to amend the Constitution is of such importance that every honorable senator should express his views concerning it. That is more particularly desirable at this time, when, in both Houses of this Parliament, and in the country generally, there is a wide divergence of opinion as to the effect of the Government's proposals, if carried. I approach this subject from a somewhat different angle from that from which other honorable senators who have spoken approached it. I have a very high opinion of the ability of the gentlemen who framed our Constitution, and of the great work that they did for the Australian nation; but we have now reached a more advanced stage of . national development, and are able to view matter's in the light of the experience gained in the working of the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution were, to a great extent, bound by the political necessities of their day. The political situation at the time of the federal conventions must be taken into account when we. in the3e clays, are considering any proposal for the alteration of the Constitution. We must have regard' to the state of public opinion regarding federation in pre-federation days. It was then extremely difficult to reconcile the conflicting interests of the States, or to break down the strong feeling that existed as to' the rights of the States. Throughout Australia there were tens of thousands of people who were opposed to federation. There were others who, while favoring federation, were not prepared to hand over to a Federal Parliament the full control of Australia's future destiny. They were not prepared to agree to a constitution which would take from the States powers which they believed the States should retain. The framers of the Constitution realized that a constitution which would be acceptable to the people of Australia must make due allowance for the strong feeling in favour of the rights of the States. As practical men, for the most part members of the various State legislatures, they knew that if their efforts were to be successful they must frame a constitution which would embody, not necessarily their own ideas, but principles which would be acceptable to a majority of the people in each of the States. .They had to enumerate certain powers to be exercised by the Commonwealth Parliament, and make it clear that all other powers would still be vested in the States. They also took particular care not to overload the Constitution. J submit that what would have been regarded then as overloading the Constitution would not necessarily overload it to-day.

We have gone a long way since the Commonwealth was founded. We have had some terrible experiences which have welded the States and the people of Australia into a real living Commonwealth. We have overcome many of the initial difficulties. There is not now so much rivalry, amounting almost t;o hatred, between the various States ; nor is there such a strong feeling in favour of the sovereign rights of the States. We have, in fact, reached that stage in our national development at which we can take a further step forward as a nation. Realizing that -fact, the Australian party advocates an extension of the powers of the Commonwealth Parliament. That is no new doctrine, for all parties recognize the inadequacy of the Constitution to meet present day needs. Both the Labour party and the Nationalist party have made attempts to amend the Constitution in the direction, not of limiting the powers of the Commonwealth Parliament, but of extending them. In advocating extended powers for the Commonwealth Parliament all parties knew that they were advocating a diminution of the powers of the State Parliaments. The Australian party, which I have the honour to represent, believes that the Constitution should he amended almost immediately if this Commonwealth Parliament is to legislate effectively in the interests of the people as a whole. It is not in favour of unification. It believes that the ideal of unification - if unification can be called an ideal - is outside the realm of possibility at the present time, even wore it desirable. The excellent speech of Senator Colebatch last night should dispose for all time of any desire to bring about unification. The honorable senator made it clear that unification would result in injury to the Commonwealth and its people.


Senator Daly - I thought that the Australian party stood for unification.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - It does not. The Labour party believes in unification. The Labour party is prepared to wipe out the State Parliaments, and even the States themselves as we know them, and substitute provinces with provincial councils to control them. I do not think that the majority of the people of Australia desire unification. Indeed, the Labour party, which professes to believe in it, can have but little faith in its doctrine, or at least in the possibility of its being accepted by .the people, because in this bill it proposes to make unification possible without the people being consulted at all. The passing of this bill through Parliament, and the acceptance of the Government's proposals by the people, would make possible the fulfilment of Labour's ideal of unification. The people ought not to be asked to give their approval to proposals which would enable the Constitution to be altered in a way of which they might not approve. If the Labour party and the Government mean by the proposal to amend the Constitution that they seek to bring about unification, they should in all honesty tell the people what they are after.


Senator Daly - It is impossible to bring about unification under federation.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - This proposal to amend the Constitution is an outrage to that Constitution. If carried, it will certainly bring about unification and break down federation as we know it to-day. An honorable agreement has been entered into between the people as a whole, representing the Commonwealth and the States.


Senator Daly - The whole of the States wouldhave to agree before there could be any unification.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is certainly a safeguard, and because of that the first proposal of the Government should have been couched in different terms. I wholeheartedly support its proposals with regard to industry, and trade and commerce. I am merely consistent in doing so. Ever since I have been a member of Parliament I have realized the futility of this Parliament with regard to the control of industry, and trade and commerce. Various governments have endeavoured to enlarge the scope of the Constitution with regard to those matters. I remember the occasion when the BrucePage Government and its supporters went to the country telling the people how absolutely impossible it was for the Conv monwealth effectively to control what were really national services and activities, such as industry, and trade and commerce, under the Constitution as it stands to-day. That Government went even further and told the people at one time how impossible it was for the State Parliaments, because of their geographical limitations, adequately to provide for the control find regulation of industry, and trade and commerce. I believe that on these matters the present Government has put forward something that is reasonable and proper. It leaves the decision in the hands of the people, who will determine whether this Parliament shall have the power to legislate and administer laws dealing with the control of industry, and trade and commerce. The party that I represent stands for the rights of the people. I realize that those rights under the Constitution should be preserved. But the proposal of the Government to give the Federal Parliament power to amend the Constitution is an attempt to take away the rights of the people, and is an outrage on the Constitution. It is a truism that under any system of parliamentary government worthy of the name, the people have the right to be consulted if there is to be a change in the Constitution, or if legislation is to be introduced which vitally concerns them. Those rights must be preserved. The people are very quick to resent any violation of that custom. Foolish governments sometimes introduce legislation that is not only opposed to the issues that decided the preceding election, but that is almost diametrically opposed to the opinion of the people.What happens to those governments when the people have a chance to deal with them? Like the wicked, they " cease from troubling." If one needs an example he has merely to think of the fate of the Bruce-Page Government.


Senator Sir John Newlands - Surely the honorable senator does not think that like the wicked they have ceased from troubling for all time?


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not know. The Government endeavoured to hand over thecontrol of industrial matters to the States. That had never been an issue atany election, and the people knew nothing of it.As a result of a certain motion in this Parliament the matter was referred to the electors. They clearly showed that they were not in favour of such authority being handed over to the States, and declared unequivocally that the matter should be controlled by the Commonwealth .


Senator Herbert Hays - Yet the same people said twelve months earlier that they would not give any powers to the Commonwealth in regard to the control of industrial matters.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable senator is wrong. The electors said that they would not hand over additional powers to the Commonwealth in the form proposed by the Government. They also declared in no uncertain way that they were not in favour of taking away the powers already enjoyed by the Parliament; that the power of arbitration on industrial matters at present vested in the Commonwealth must remain with it. Now this Government proposes to increase these powers to meet the growing industries of Australia and the peculiar set of circumstances in which we find ourselves, circumstances that change almost from week to week. I hope that the granting of those additional powers will be agreed to by the Senate, not that by such agreement they will be embodied in the Constitution, but because the people will then have the right to determine for themselves whether the Constitution shall be enlarged in this way or not. The other alteration of the Constitution vesting in the Commonwealth Parliament complete power of amendment is an entirely different matter. It is something outside the Constitution; something that seeks almost to destroy the Constitution altogether.

The Government claims to speak for the trade union organizations and the Labour party of Australia. I want it to consider for a moment what would have happened had the Bruce-Page Government possessed the power that it is now seeking to obtain for this and future parliaments: that of amending the Constitution as is proposed in the power of amendment bill? The arbitration power and the control of industry would have been handed over to the States and the various Commonwealth authorities would have been disbanded.


Senator Daly - But would not the honorable senator's party still have saved Australia ?


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - It may have done so. I am expressing a hypothetical case. Had such a state of affairs eventuated, the control of industry would have been handed over to the States, and the various Commonwealth authorities abandoned.


Senator Lynch - Tes; but the first part of that Government's policy was that the Commonwealth alone should have full authority. When the States would not agree to surrender to the Commonwealth the increased authority for which it asked, the Bruce-Page Government had to resort to the other alternative.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am speaking of the final stage of their political decisions, which contemplated that the States should have authority over those activities. It must be obvious to everybody that the States could not have administered the industrial authority previously exercised by the Commonwealth without setting np new authorities, which would havevolved increased and heavy expenditure. A subsequent election may have indicated that the electors were not in favour of stripping those powers from the Commonwealth, and the Labour party would have been returned in order to restore the Commonwealth authority. That is obvious, in the light of the political history. It is easy to visualize the Gilbertian position in which we should have found ourselves. New Commonwealth ' authorities would then have had to be set up and the recently established bodies in the States disbanded.


Senator HERBERT Hays - The State of New South Wales carried the referendum the year that it was submitted by the Nationalist Government.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - It did, and it is a pity that the Bruce-Page Government did not give some consideration to that fact. I do not think that the platforms of the Nationalist party or Country party have been changed recently. I was a delegate from New South Wales at the conference held at Adelaide that drew up the Nationalist platform with regard to its attitude concerning industrial affairs. That conference pronounced itself in favour of an immediate and widely extended Commonwealth authority, and the granting of additional power to the Commonwealth under the Constitution. I believe that that still stands. Yet, during the debate on the bill now before honorable senators, members of the Nationalist and Country parties strenuously opposed any attempt to clothe the Commonwealth with additional powers.

During this debate I have listened to the speeches of honorable senators belonging to those parties, and they have not said one word as to what would be done by a future Nationalist or Country party Government, or a composite 'Government consisting of those parties, if the extended powers now proposed were granted. I have been asked inferentially whether there is any possibility of there being such a government. I do not think that there is, but that does not destroy the logic of the argument. I ask any honorable senator from either of those parties who speaks after me to say what would be the attitude of their parties with regard to these matters if this additional power of amendment were given to the Commonwealth Parliament? Would they hand back to the States the activities that had been handed over to the Commonwealth? They are at present bitterly opposed to the proposed amendment.Would they seek to secure a further amendment, eliminating that which is now proposed? Would they retain their love for State authorities and State activities as against the control by the Commonwealth of industrial affairs and trade and commerce? I am afraid that my question will not be answered. These honorable senators would not like to say at the moment what attitude their parties would take in this regard, even if they knew it. Actually, I do not believe that they know what is the policy of their organizations in the matter. I have already stated that the policy of the Nationalist party with regard to amendments of the Constitution was clearly outlined at the Adelaide convention. Apparently the party turned its back upon its policy at the bidding of the Government.


Senator H E ELLIOTT (VICTORIA) - The attitude of our party towards constitutional amendments has always been the same.


Senator Sir John Newlands - Tell us about the policy of the Australian party.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have already done so. I am convinced that the acceptance of the first of the proposed amendments will not mean finality; on the contrary, it will make the political foundations of the Commonwealth more insecure than ever, because what one Parliament does, another Parliament may undo. This proposed amendment is a leap in the dark and will result in legislative chaos.


Senator Rae - There never is finality in legislation.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable senator may be right, but I know it is claimed by some members of his party that if this particular amendment is ac cepted by the people, the constitutional limitations of the Commonwealth Parliament will be removed for all time. I am afraid that we shall have more industrial and political conflict than ever before. But I have not any doubt as to the attitude of the people towards this suggested amendment. I am firmly convinced that they will not accept it. Knowing the state of public feeling throughout Australia on this matter, I am certain that this proposal will be ignominiously defeated. Unfortunately the hostility of the people towards this amendment will endanger the other constitutional alterations outlined in bills Nos. 2 and 3, which will come before this Chamber later for consideration. Those amendments are proper and reasonable, but I fear that they, also, will be rejected because of the people's objection to the first proposal.


Senator Herbert Hays - Will not the people discriminate between the several proposed amendments?


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The great majority of the people are not always capable of discriminating in the way suggested by the honorable senator. We all have had some experience of the manner in which political issues are clouded during an election campaign. I am afraid that, when these amendments are submitted, the people will be so confused by the flood of literature and by the speeches of supporters and opponents of the Government's proposals that they will be disposed to reject all of them. We shall hear very little of the merits of the proposed amendments in respect of the industrial and trade and commerce powers. Practically all of the speeches will be directed to the criticism or defence of the Government's proposal contained in this bill. Consequently the minds of the electors will be confused. Those whose passions are stirred by this suggested amendment to vest in the Parliament authority to amend the Constitution, will vote against the whole of the proposals. It would be most unfortunate if, because of the intrusion of this proposal, Parliament is once more denied the authority to legislate effectively with regard to industry, and trade and commerce.


Senator E B Johnston - Are there many supporters of this proposed amendment outside?


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have not met many.


Senator Dunn - Australia is full of them.


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am aware, of course, that a certain section of the people stand for unification. Naturally, they will vote for this amendment, and possibly a percentage of other electors who do not realize the significance of this amendment will also vote for it. But there is no possibility of its acceptance, and even at this late stage the Government would lit; well advised to concentrate on the proposalsto give this. Parliament increased legislative power over industry, and trade and commerce. If this were done, the issue would be unclouded. I believe that the time has arrived for those two amendments to be made to the Constitution. I believe also that the people would accept them. But I am very much afraid that if thisproposal is included in the referendum questions, the whole of the amendments will be rejected.


Senator Rae -Would not the honorable senator be wise if he kept in mind Mark Twain's advice, never to prophesy unless you know?


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - No doubt the honorable senator is right. But his remark is capable of more than one interpretation. He may have in mind my prophecy concerning the result of the referendum or he may be thinking that the proposed amendment now under consideration might not be put to the people at all. I hope the latter interpretation is the right one. I trust that the Government will not persist with it. At times we are given to prophecy. We all would like other people to believe that we know what is going to happen when an appeal is' made to the electors. I have never yet heard of a government that wasnot certain it was going to be returned, and I have never yet heard of an opposition that was not equally sure that it was going to defeat the Government. Likewise, I am convinced that there is not the remotest chance of this amendment being accepted by the people. It appears to have been submitted as a compromise for political reasons, and I have yet to be convinced that the majority of the party supporting the Government are in favour of it, and will fight for it with that earnestness which one would expect every government proposal to command if it is going to secure acceptance by the people.


Senator Dunn - Does the honorable senator suggest that there are certain hidden forces behind the Government?


Senator DUNCAN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Unification is one plank of the Labour party's platform. May we not assume, therefore, that to conform with its platform, the Government has included this amendment in its referendum proposals? I believe it will endangerthe other two amendments which have been urgently needed for many years. It has, I suggest, been submitted because unification is a plank in the Labour party's platform, and the Government considered that it had to make some sort of a show of giving effect to its policy. I trust the Senate will reject the bill. I hope, however, that when the other measures come before us, they will be given favorable consideration so that the people may have an opportunity to say whether or not they desire enlarged powers over industry and trade and commerce to be embodied in the Commonwealth Constitution.







Suggest corrections