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Thursday, 8 May 1930

Senator COOPER (Queensland) . - I register my disapproval of the proposed alteration of the Constitution now under consideration. The people would have been very much better served had the Government looked upon the matter in a more conciliatory spirit - if, instead of rushing this proposal in the way it has done, it had worked not on party lines, but had taken the members of the Opposition into its confidence and endeavoured to reach, a decision more on the lines of a conference that would be acceptable to all parties. Looking back on what happened prior to the elections last October we are rather apt to regard this proposal as a palliative to the extremist section of the Labour party. Last October, a prominent leader of the Labour party, and now a Minister said that if Labour was returned to power the coal-mines would be opened within a fortnight. The promise was evidently made to catch the votes of the workers of New South Wales. I have no doubt that the miners who voted for the Labour candidates believed that it was made in earnest, and that if Labour was returned to power not only would the mines be opened, but, in all probability, they would also be nationalized. When Labour assumed office it discovered that the Constitution prevented it from doing anything of this kind, but the extreme element in the party was urging it to make some attempt to get rid of the provisions of the Constitution which stood in the way and Ministers therefore immediately set about taking steps to submit the present proposals to Parliament. If this alteration of the Constitution were made the nationalization of the coal mines could become an accomplished fact and the Commonwealth could assume control of police, education and other State functions of that nature. The control of taxation could automatically come under one central head and there would be nothing to prevent the central Parliament from using revenue collected in an individual State in any way it pleased and not necessarily for the benefit of the people of the State in which it was collected. That is one reason why I think this power of amendment bill should not be passed. The supporters of the Government have said that the adoption of this amendment will not have the effect of destroying the Constitution in any way; but undoubtedly the basis upon which the States agreed to federate will disappear. It will certainly have a very serious effect upon section 128 of the Constitution; it will deprive the High Court of the power to interpret acts framed under the Constitution and place that responsibility in the hands of Parliament. One of the main reasons advanced in favour of the federal system was the need for uniformity in the matter of administration, particularly in connexion with the Postal, Defence, and Customs Departments. We have been informed by the members of the party opposite that under a central system of government, the costs of administration are lower; but it is on record that prior to federation departments that I have mentioned were estimated to cost the federal authorities about £500,000 a year and are now costing the country £5,000,000 a year. There is no guarantee that if additional power is granted 'to the Federal Government, the cost of departmental administration will decrease. This contention is supported in the report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution. On page 242 of the majority report it is stated that -

It has been suggested that the cost of government is increased by the existence of the several Parliaments in Australia. We are of the opinion that under a unitary system, it would be necessary to have a much larger parliament, and to have provincial councils and provincial heads of departments, and that the total cost of government under federation is not higher, and may be less, than it would be under a unitary system.

If the people of Australia adopt the proposal embodied in this bill, they will be virtually signing a blank cheque and giving this or a succeeding Government with a majority in both Houses power to do practically what it wishes.

Comparisons have been made between the Governments of Australia and those of Great Britain, South Africa and New Zealand. Australia is far removed from the closely populated centres of Europe, and, owing to its area and the sparseness of its population, large sums of money have to be spent on railway and harbour construction and water conservation, to assist development, to an extent which does not obtain in the countries I have mentioned. The area of Australia, which is approximately 3,000,000 square miles, is only about 700,000 square miles less than that of Europe, including Russia. It is the fifth largest country in the world, rich in mineral, pastoral, agricultural and timber resources. These European countries are governed by 21 different authorities. If we provide for only one governing authority for the whole Commonwealth, which is but slightly smaller in area than the countries of Europe which have 21 different parliaments or authorities to govern them, we should be faced with considerable difficulty. The conditions in European countries vary almost to the extent that they vary throughout the Commonwealth, and a central government could not govern to the satisfaction of the people. At present Australia is governed by State Governments with sovereign powers and by a Federal Government under a federal constitution. Great Britain, South Africa, and New Zealand are governed by central parliaments with sovereign powers, but there is a marked difference between the form of government in those countries and that of the Commonwealth. The power of the Commonwealth Parliament is defined by the Constitution, but Great Britain has no written constitution. There has been great conflict of opinion concerning the best method of governing England and Ireland, and it was only after years of turmoil that Ireland was granted selfgovernment. That is a striking example of the desire for decentralization at the present time.

This bill is an attempt to clear the way for a sweeping extension of the functions of the central government. This point has been dealt with by the Royal Commission on the Constitution, which states -

Many definitions of federalism, or of a federal system, have been framed by writers on political science or constitutional law, but in recommending that the federal form of government be retained in Australia, we are referring to a system which possesses features common to the Constitutions of Australia, Canada, and the United States. Between the Constitution of these three countries there are important differences, but all three have in common certain elements or institutions which may be described as fundamental. In all of them there is one central government having authority over the whole area, and there are a number of governments having authority over areas less than the whole. The powers of these governments and their relations to each other are limited and defined by a written document, the terms of which cannot be .altered by the Parliament either of the whole or of any lesser area. It cannot be interpreted except by a court, and it is for this court to determine whether any act of any of the legislatures has the force of law, or is a nullity because it transgresses the limits defined by the Constitution. Another feature which these three systems have in common is that the powers exercisable by the provincial or State Parliaments are not merely administrative, but are of sufficient importance to the. people governed to attract political interest and to give to the decisions of the legislatures or executives of the States or provinces an important influence on the well-being of the community.

In the Constitution, referred to in the report as " a written document," lies the safety of our legislature. The limits within which the Federal Government can legislate are clearly defined in it, and it is a Constitution which at present cannot be altered by Parliament. If, however, this proposed amendment is adopted by the people, the power of amendment which the framers of the Constitution determined should rest with the people will be transferred to the Parliament. The acceptance of this proposal by the people would definitely take from them that safeguard which they have enjoyed during the past 30 years - the definite power to express an opinion on any proposed alteration of the Constitution. It would also mean the slow but sure destruction of the States. The less populous and more distant States would be more or less dominated by the other States, and in time absorbed by them. New South Wales and Victoria, because of their greater population, and consequently their greater representation in this Parliament, would be able to out-vote the other States. In the House of Representatives, New, South Wales has 28 members or more than the number representing Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia combined. It may me said that the Senate would still exist to preserve the rights of the States; but if this bill is passed there is no guarantee that the Senate will not be abolished. If it were abolished, the less populous States would indeed be at the mercy of the others. The members of the Royal Commission on the Constitution regarded this matter seriously, for on page 241 of their report they say -

The advantage of an independent right of self-government may not be so obvious to the residents of those States which are in close couch with the central authority, but it is of fundamental importance to States which arc situated at a distance from the seat of government, and which by reason of the sparsemisa of their populations, have a relatively small representation in the Commonwealth Parliament.

They saw the danger of the less populous and far-flung States being neglected by a central governing authority. As a representative . of Queensland sent here primarily to safeguard the rights of that State,- I shall oppose the bill, and do all in my power to ensure its rejection by the people of Queensland.

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