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Thursday, 4 December 1930

Senator LAWSON (Victoria) .- So much has been said during the course of this debate that there is little one can usefully add; but I desire to make a few general observations on the position as I see it. This is, I understand, a special emergency session. It was called pursuant to the Melbourne conference resolutions which embodied the terms of an agreement on the financial situation made between the Prime Minister and the Premiers of the various States. That agreement followed a series of conferences with Sir Otto Niemeyer, representing the Bank of England, and Sir Robert Gibson, the chairman of the Commonwealth Bank Board, at which every aspect of the financial position of the Commonwealth was fully considered. It bears the signature of the right honorable the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth (Mr. Scullin) and the signatures of all the Premiers of the States representing every brand of politics ; and we have been called together pursuant to that agreement, in order to pass financial measures which will assist in restoring budget equilibrium.

We all know the dire need of our country. Industries are languishing. There is a lack of money, and public finance is in a state of hopeless disorder. The key to the whole situation is public finance. We shall not restore financial stability or bring about that feeling of confidence which is so essential until public finance is adjusted and we have continuity of policy in regard to financial matters. The people whom we represent are looking for leadership. They are bewildered and harassed; they are in doubt and perplexity. I do not desire to sound a pessimistic note or to pose as a Jeremiah, but I see disquieting symptoms. I have abundant faith, however, in the recuperative qualities of Australia, in its citizenship and in the character of its people. I believe that, given a lead along a courageous path, the people are prepared to follow it, but I look in vain for that courageous lead. I presume that honorable senators a'gree that we are in a period of great financial stress, if not approaching a crisis, and what we want in a period of crisis is a definite and not a vacillating policy. The people have a right to expect what those of us who have been nurtured in British traditions of Parliamentary Government look for, and that is unity of command, Cabinet solidarity, which is a basic principle of representative government. They have a right to expect the Government to speak with one voice and to give a definite lead. Until we have that we cannot restore confidence or financial stability.

But we have confronting us the amazing spectacle of honorable senators closely associated with the Government repudiating by implication, if not directly, an agreement to which the Government is a party and attacking the person who was primarily responsible for the promulgation of that agreement. With a leadership of that kind, what can we expect from the community, but doubt, perplexity, confusion? A principle in which you, Mr. President, have been nurtured is that of Cabinet solidarity - the Government speaking as one man and acting unitedly. In a time of military difficulty, as the soldiers in our chamber will explain, there must be unity of command; there must be purpose and determination and concentration of effort.. You must know exactly what your objective is and must devise the be3t means of arriving at it. But here we have a captain, the right honorable the Prime Minister, who has temporarily surrendered his command while away on Government business on the other side of the globe, and members of his Cabinet who appear to owe no particular loyalty to any leader. They do not appear to be able to follow consistently the declarations of the leader of the Government or the Acting Prime Minister (Mr. Fenton), but seem to be at liberty to act according to their own sweet will, and to speak at random in an utterly irresponsible fashion. Unless, in place of all this . confusion, we can restore confidence by having a definite policy and a clear line of action, and particularly a clear indication from the Government that it is prepared to lead the people along a definite line, we shall never find financial salvation; we shall never put the public finances on a proper basis, or restore them to a state of system and order.

What boots it to discuss at this stage who is responsible for the present position? There are economic factors beyond the control of any Government that are partly responsible for it. But what does it matter? Here we are an allegedly united people in a state of great financial difficulty. Some are more pressed than others, but obviously the position is calling for drastic remedies, earnestness, resourcefulness, fixity of purpose and definite leadership. I cannot find that definiteness of leadership in the responsible Government of this country to-day. I do not know what the Government wants us to do. I do not know where it proposes to lead the people. Is it really going to honour the Melbourne agreement, and seek to restore budget equilibrium? Is it making an honest and concerted effort to that end or is it endeavouring not to do those things which will offend its political supporters? Is it influenced by a consideration for the wellbeing, honour and credit of Australia or by political considerations in the policy or lack of policy which it has announced ? I do not know whom I am to follow. I understand that the Nationalist party is only too willing to give support to any party that is prepared to take its courage in both hands and lead the people out of this financial morass. Our party is prepared to make the necessary sacrifices in order that the interests of Australia may be placed above party considerations. That should be the attitude of all of us.

Senator Daly - Then why did the Nationalists in the Victorian Parliament move a motion of want of confidence in the Labour Government ?

Senator LAWSON - I am not answering for the Victorian Parliament at the present time, but I have no doubt that if a party in that Parliament moved a motion of want of confidence, it did so on the ground that the measures which the Victorian Government was proposing were not adequate to meet the situation.

Senator Sir William Glasgow - The Victorian Government was not complying with the Melbourne agreement.

Senator LAWSON - In many respects the Victorian Government is making a courageous effort to honour . that agreement, and I give credit to the Premier of Victoria for the fact that he has declared that the agreement must be honored and the budget balanced. I do not commit myself to agreement with all the methods Mr. Hogan has employed, but he has. said that his signature has been given to the agreement and that he proposes to honour it.

Senator Dunn - Without consulting his party.

Senator LAWSON - As an individual and Premier of the State, Mr. Hogan signed the agreement, and has since said, " That pledges my personal honour ". He is endeavouring to carry out the agreement in that spirit. Mr. Scullin signed the agreement, and if there be anything in Cabinet solidarity or Cabinet loyalty, every member of his Government should be standing right behind him in honoring it and in carrying out its terms.

Senator Daly - Hear, hear!

Senator LAWSON - I am gladto hear the Vice-President of the Executive Council saying, " Hear, hear " ! I do not doubt his loyalty to his chief, but when I find members of the Cabinet travelling hither and thither throughout New South Wales condemning, in unmeasured terms, the Melbourne agreement, I say, " What a travesty of responsible government " !

Senator Daly - They are not condemning the agreement, they are criticizing the interpretation placed upon it.

Senator LAWSON - But when I find those criticisms couched in terms which are most offensive to a distinguished guest, I ask myself, "What is responsible government coming to in this country"? Such actions are subversive of all the principles of parliamentary government, and of a responsible executive in which I have been trained to believe.

SenatorRae. - Times change !

Senator LAWSON - I know that times change, but it is very difficult for one to accustom one's self to the abrogation of principles well founded by tradition, which have a utilitarian purpose, and which, as my experience in administration has shown, are the wisest to he observed if leadership or continuity of policy are to be attained. If there is to be satisfaction in the command of a team, there must be unity and solidarity.

Senator Dunn - There is solidarity in the Labour party.

Senator LAWSON - I have seen in that party many evidences of lack of solidarity.

Senator Dunn - I can assure the honorable senator that its solidarity is 100 per cent.

Senator LAWSON - My criticism is based upon statements which I have read in the public press and upon circumstances which I have noted as a result of personal observation, and I very much doubt the solidarity of the Labour party. I certainly doubt the solidarity of Cabinet, and I cannot see any evidence of definite agreement in regard to a policy which is to save this country.

We have met for a financial session. I have taken part in emergency sessions of Parliament, and have found them characterized by a spirit of determination, concentration, earnestness1 and zeal. 33ut during this so-called emergency session, we have drifted on and on in a vague, vacillating and indefinite way. How long have we been, sitting? What has been done ? One would think that there was no crisis, no emergency, no need to meet the financial situation. The actions of the Government have been characterized by hesitancy, delay, and vacillation. Long before Parliament was summoned, it was obvious that the finances were drifting, and that the position called for immediate remedy and drastic action. Yet time was allowed to slip by. Instead of taking their courage in both hands and saying, " Parliament must meet, irrespective of whatever elections are taking place in any of the States, so that it may have the earliest opportunity to deal with ' appropriate remedies to meet the present situation'", Ministers hesitated. "He who hesitates is lost ". And that is what has happened. Instead of being strong and courageous, Ministers delayed. They listened to the voice of the tempter and finally, when they called Parliament together, presented a financial statement which is obviously a compromise between the conflicting factions in Cabinet and the party. The public still remains without definite leadership in this hour of crisis.

We cannot get financial order in this country until public finance is straightened out. As I have already said, public finance is the key to the whole situation. All along the line there will be embarrassment and difficulty and, in some instances, bankruptcy - all those privations that our people are called upon to suffer - as well as the dread spectre of unemployment which haunts us all. And these are what it is our duty to cure. We ought to be able to deal with them above party considerations or party manoeuvring. We ought to be able to concentrate in a united effort towards finding adequate solutions for the present difficulties. I have no right to speak for the Nationalist party, to which I belong, but I feel confident that if the Government would approach the position in that spirit, honorable senators of my party would meet the Government more than half way in an endeavour to apply appropriate remedies to the present situation. Surely any remedies proposed should involve certain principles. Senator Carroll referred to domestic economy, and pointed out what a private individual would have to do in the event of his income suddenly diminishing while his expenditure remained at the same level. Such a person would have to drastically economize. There is no difference in principle between the individual and the nation. It is absurd to be imposing burdensome and confiscatory taxation upon the people at a time like this. These heavy burdens are being imposed at a time when the incomes of the people have been diminished, and when they are less able to bear added responsibilities. It may be necessary to increase taxation. I believe in every effort being made to balance our budget; but before there is any increase in taxation, such as is proposed, there should be evidence of substantial economy. It is absurd to say that greater economy than that proposed by the Government cannot be effected. The Government is proceeding as it would in normal times, as if everything were all right. Just as private individuals have to economize in times of depression, so governments should do likewise, without, of course, sacrificing efficiency.

Senator Dunn - Did the Bruce-Page Government exercise economy?

Senator LAWSON - I am not discussing the previous Government at present. T point out that there is an urgent cry for economy in public expenditure. Certain services have to be maintained in a state of efficiency, but the principle which the people expect us to support is one under which economy precedes increased taxation. Petty economies are of no value ; we need something of a substantial nature which will aid the country at a time of crisis. If it is a question of imposing additional taxation, surely the principle which should find expression in our legislation should be that of equality of sacrifice. There should not be any sheltered persons in the community. No one wishes to bring men 'below the bread and butter margin, or to deprive them of the basic wage which they ought to receive.

Senator Dunn - Who are the persons in sheltered positions?

Senator E B Johnston - Members of Parliament have been sheltered for a long time.

Senator LAWSON - Yes, as members of this Parliament, we have, up to the present, been in a sheltered position.

Senator Dunn - Does the honorable senator include public servants?

Senator LAWSON - In some instances, yes. There should be equality of sacrifice, according to the ability to bear the burden.

Senator Hoare - Can it be said that members of Parliament, who are here to-day and gone to-morrow, occupy sheltered positions?

Senator LAWSON - They are sheltered to the extent that up to the present their emoluments have not been interfered with. When, forced by necessity, we now reduce our own allowances, there is not nearly the credit due to us, as a Parliament, that would have been ours if this gesture had been made when we first saw the financial crisis approaching. The saving involved is infinitesimal; but as a recognition that the people had suffered in their private incomes, that there had been a diminution in the national income, and that nearly every person was suffering through his pocket, such a lead by this Parliament at that time would have been more valuable than it is at this eleventh hour.

Senator Rae - To be effective we should have gone down to the basic wage?

Senator LAWSON - I do not say that.

Senator Rae - I do.

Senator LAWSON - I differ from the honorable senator. We are suffering a percentage reduction which, if made earlier, would have been more valuable, as it would have shown the people that we were prepared to accept our share of the responsibility.

Senator Hoare - It would have been an example.

Senator LAWSON - Yes, example is better than precept.

Senator Rae - That is why I am opposed to reductions. I believe in keeping up wages.

Senator LAWSON - The honorable senator holds views which are diametrically opposed to the political convictions which I have held for many years. I respect the honorable senator's opinions, and I presume that he will give me credit for my convictions, which are as honestly held as are those of the honorable senator. Finally, I again appeal to the Government to give the people a lead. If it does it will find that under courageous leadership the people will follow it along the hard path, even though it may mean considerable sacrifice.

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