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Thursday, 24 July 1930

Senator THOMPSON (Queeusland) - I shall not detain honorable senators for more than a few minutes because in a general way my views have already been fairly well impressed upon the Senate. As I have said previously, arbitration in Australia has proved a failure. My view in that regard was strengthened by my visit to Canada and California, that magnificent State of the United States of America, which more than any other State, and even more than Canada, approximates Australia it; so far as its general conditions are concerned. But I am not unmindful of the fact that this country decided by a swingeing majority at the last election that it is desirous of retaining arbitration. I consider it my duty, therefore, to endeavour to assist the Government in making the Arbitration Act a workable one for the good of the people, but I do not admit that the mandate for arbitration the Government got at the last election permits it to bring forward any fantastic or one-sided legislation or gives it. carte blanche. There was simply evinced a desire on the part of the people of Australia to retain arbitration. Briefly, I propose to outline my attitude in regard to the principle features of the bill now before the Senate.

Senator Hoareexpressed everything that I feel in regard to secret ballots. I agree that they should be held, but I cannot conceive that we shall ever get anywhere unless the workers themselves agree to the principle. We have tried to apply it under compulsion, but the secret ballot provisions of the act have been ridiculed, scoffed at, derided and made n mockery of. What is the use therefore of insisting on something to which proper effect cannot be given ? There is no doubt as to the efficacy of the secret ballot, and now that the provisions relating thereto are to be dropped from the act, I hope that the unions themselves will recognize the desirability of using the secret ballot on every occasion when dislocation of industry is threatened.

Another matter relates to the capacity of industry to bear ,any rate of wages or conditions of labour imposed by an award. The other day Chief Judge Dethridge said nothing but the plain truth, when he remarked that whether provision was, or was not, made for it in a statute, consideration must be given by any tribunal, no matter how controlled, to the economic capacity of an industry to pay the rates of wages fixed in an award. I have only to refer honorable senators to an experience in Queensland. Judge McCawley, who was a nominee of the Labour party, took into consideration the capacity of an industry to pay certain wages without any statutory direction to do 'so. That he was right was proved to the hilt in connexion with an award given for the Mount Morgan miners. He saw that the ore reserves in the Mount Morgan mine were decreasing in value, and because the company had been paying wages at a loss, he gave an award in which the rates of pay were lower all round than the company had -been paying. The unions thought differently, and here is where the union organizers came in. They recommended the men not to accept the wages awarded by a judge appointed by a Labour Government, and for eleven months the men stood out against that award until a compromise was effected by the Government of the day. It was a Labour Government, and the men got u good deal of what they were standing out for. Not long afterwards, the Mount Morgan mine had to. close down. The facts in connexion with that award show that it is. necessary, in all cases, for a judge to consider the capacity of the industry concerned to pay the award rate.

While I should like to see this provision retained in the act, I do not feel any grief over the proposal to repeal it, inasmuch as I am certain that the economic circumstances of an industry will always require any tribunal to consider its capacity to bear the burden which may be imposed upon it. As for the conciliation commissioners, I may say at once that I do not like that type of gentleman at all. According to the bill, a commissioner is to be given the power of a judge of an Arbitration Court.

Senator Reid - Does the honorable senator think that he will bc a gentleman?

Senator THOMPSON - I intend to give him that status until he proves himself to be otherwise. I do not approve of the appointment of conciliation commissioners with the powers of judges. I should prefer to see all awards made by a. judge of the Arbitration Court as at present.

The next suggestion I have to make is in connexion with the proposed conciliation committees. These may prove to be excellent tribunals for the settlement of certain industrial disputes that occur from time to time. The proposal reminds me of the practice followed in California, where, I understand, excellent results are reported from round-table conferences between those most directly concerned in a particular industry. In California, I was informed, it is not necessary to refer any dispute to an umpire, because all industrial troubles are settled at these round-table conferences. I am, however, certain that in Australia we shall have to enlist the services of an umpire in connexion with the deliberations of these proposed conciliation committees. This is where I join issue with the framers of the bill. I consider that a conciliation commissioner is not likely io prove a good chairman of a conciliation committee, because he will be the appointee of the Government of the day, and whether one likes it or not, one cannot escape the belief that all such appointments will be tinged with political bias. I am afraid, therefore, that the scheme is not likely to be so fruitful of good results as one would like it to be.

Senator DUNN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does the honorable senator consider that thorp, was no politi cal bias in connexion with the appointment of the present Arbitration Court judges?

Senator THOMPSON - Certainly there was not. But I was about to say that this proposal to appoint conciliation committees reminded me of the old wages boards system in Queensland. I took no small part in the deliberations of those boards which consisted of three representatives of the employers on one side, and three representatives of the employees on the other. One advantage which we enjoyed over judges of the Arbitration Court was that we understood, from A to Z, the nature of the business with which we were dealing, and it was not necessary to hear a great deal of evidence concerning matters in dispute. But the crux of the wages board system is in the chairmanship. It was in this respect that it. failed in Queensland, and I venture to think we shall have the same experience with these conciliation committees. In Queensland we endeavoured to enlist the services of a chairman who was absolutely unbiased, but in practice we found it almost impossible to secure such a man. I think, therefore, that the most satisfactory course to take in connexion with the conciliation committee would be to appoint a judge as chairman.

My last point has to do with the principle of preference to unionists. I am prepared to support the provision in the bill if the Minister will agree to the reinsertion of the words "other things being equal." I take the view that there should be absolute freedom to all to work in Australia; that the right to work should not be the monopoly of trade unionists. We should have freedom of contract on both sides in industry. The employer should have complete freedom in the selection of his employees and similarly employees should have complete freedom to work in any industry. It is monstrous to say that before a man can claim the right to work he must belong to a particular trade union. I know very well what the stock argument is'. Those who stand for this, principle declare that since trade unionism, so they claim, has secured all the benefits which employees in industry enjoy as the result of Arbitration Court awards, all workers should be obliged to contribute to the funds of the union which controls their particular calling and pay their share of its administrative costs.

Senator Dunn - What about the Fanners and Graziers Union and the Lawyers Union?

Senator THOMPSON - I am not considering those associations for the moment. I am directing my remarks to the position of employees in industry as they will be affected by this proposal. I shall oppose this provision in the bill dealing with preference to unionists until the words, " other things being equal " are reinstated. It appears to me to be most unfair that a man should be required to take out a union ticket before he can offer for employment in a particular calling. In one case which came under my notice, a man had to take out tickets in four or five unions before he could offer1 for work, and even then the unfortunate man was unable to secure employment. At the present moment a measure is being discussed in the Queensland Parliament which, I think, will deal satisfactorily with this aspect of trade union administration. The proposal is that if a man holds a union' ticket he shall be entitled to apply for work without reference to any particular union, thereby saving a- great deal of expense which many men cannot afford. Many trade unions, as we all know, are close preserves. This may be said particularly o£ the Waterside Workers Union in my district. It is as difficult for a man to become a member of that organization- as1 it is to enter' the portals of Heaven.

Senator Dunn - The trade unionist who told the honorable senator that was not speaking the truth.

Senator THOMPSON - I am speaking of facts which have come- under my notice.

Senator Dooley - Then I presume the honorable senator would approve of the formation of one big union?

Senator THOMPSON - I should have no objection to one big union provided the arbitration law did not enact absolute preference to unionists. I am and alwayshave Been a firm believer in the principle of freedom' of contract, and' I hope I always shall' be.

I have said all I intended to say, and I do not propose to detain the Senate longer. With the limitations I have mentioned, I am prepared to assist the Government to make this measure more workable, in the hope that it will lead to efficiency in industry and the betterment of the country in general.

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