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Tuesday, 9 December 1930

Senator McLACHLAN (South Australia) . - Only alarm at the suggestion made by Senator Duncan, and alarm at the statement that the Government might seize upon the suggestion that this bill should be withdrawn, prompts me to rise immediately. We had a naive suggestion by Senator Johnston that the only reason why he will vote for the measure is that a certain number of people who support the Government would be glad to see it rejected by the Senate. I trust his suggestion will not prove acceptable either to the Government or to the Opposition.

Senator E B Johnston - I do not think that the honorable senator fairly interprets my remarks.

Senator McLACHLAN - I put it that that was the veiled suggestion underlying Senator Johnston's remarks. The situation contains a measure of humour. The honorable senator was rather alarmed that the bill, if it were rejected here might go to another place, where its rejection would be received with a certain amount of acclamation by a section which does not approve of it, and that it would never again see the light of day.

I agree with Senator Duncan as to the paltry inadequacy of this poultice, which is to be placed on the blistering financial boil that is harassing the Commonwealth. I agree that this is merely a gesture made by this decrepit and broken Government, which we have been belabouring throughout the afternoon. I do not altogether join in the criticism that has been hurtled across this chamber at the Government. I believe that it .started out with the best intentions in the world. I believe that the Prime Minister was perfectly honest when he said that he wished to balance the budget of this nation, and that every State Premier should have a like purpose. But the people we are fighting here are ghosts, and the ghosts that haunt the Government in another place, the ghosts of which Australia is becoming very much scared, about which our overseas creditors hear so much. So that it ill becomes us to wage this drastic war upon the members of the Government, who, after all, are not responsible for the fragmentary nature of this measure.

Senator Sampson - I thought it was a " cark-ass," not a ghost !

Senator McLACHLAN - I do not know whether Senator Sampson suggests that it is smellful or anything of the sortCertainly some of the resolutions that have emanated from it have not the odour of sanctity. This is a paltry gesture, even from this Government. If it had been made last November, shortly after the Government assumed office and realized the position, when the Prime Minister told us that an economic council was necessary, a considerable sum might have been saved from the salaries of Ministers and members of Parliament. Instead, the Government has meandered along, and done nothing, while the position has become worse and worse. Eventually it took its courage in its hands; but when it proposed to act it was frustrated by this ghost, which at times takes a physical form, and which dealt with the Government to such purpose that it has submitted to us this piece of patchwork, a feeble attempt to deal with the problem that faces the nation.

The only justification that has been offered for confining the reduction to salaries of £725 and over was that suggested by Senator O'Halloran. He is all for letting the arbitration tribunals, or the Public Service Arbitrator, have play. In ordinary circumstances, that would be a reasonable method; but this measure is not adapted to the demands of ordinary times. The absolute necessity of the nation has compelled the Government to present the bill to Parliament. There is absolutely no tribunal to whom the Government can go, and I suggest that it had no intention of going to such a tribunal if it existed. In South Australia the public servants, though _ they knew that the court would have to be approached before any reduction could be effected in their salaries, immediately entered into an agreement with ' the Government that they should be subjected to an all-round salary reduction. That is to their credit. The Government's excuse that all employees in receipt of £725 a year or less are dealt with by the Public Service Arbitrator is futile, and it does not square with the action of the Ministry in preventing the arbitration system from functioning swiftly and effectively, because it is essential that action should be at once swift and sure. I agree with Senator O'Halloran that Parliament should not function as a wage-fixing tribunal, but I believe that, in certain circumstances, Parliament should act for the nation. If it is considered advisable that some of those employees, who are governed by awards of the Public Service Arbitrator, should be brought under the provisions of this bill, surely it is advisable that all should be brought under it and dealt with accordingly. What does the Government's action connote? It connotes that, if certain sections of public servants willingly submit to a reduction in their remuneration, either by way of income taxation or by a straight-out reduction, the willing horse will be called upon to bear the whole of the burden all the time. In other words, it will fall mainly on those who are patriotic enough to say, " I see my country in a position of great difficulty. I am in enjoyment of a steady job at a regular salary, but I see industry almost at a standstill. I see thousands of my fellow workmen out of employment, and men and women on every hand fearing an extension of the. trouble. I realize that business undertakings cannot be carried on much longer under existing conditions. I, therefore, feel it my duty to make a sacrifice in the interests of the nation and in the interests of my comrades." It is idle to say; that those Corns monwealth employees, who are not subject to the provisions of this bill, come under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Public Service Arbitrator, because this Government has refrained from making an appointment to fill the vacancy caused by the retirement of the Arbitrator several months ago. Consequently, there is no tribunal to deal with that section of the Public Service mentioned by the Minister, because the office of the Public Service Arbitrator is, at the moment, nonexistent.

Senator Sir George PEARCE - In any case, it is not a statement of fact to say that the Public Service Arbitrator does not deal with public servants in receipt of salaries above £750 a year.

Senator MCLACHLAN - I am aware of that. But I arn taking Senator O'Halloran on his own statement, and on that basis the position is so much the worse, because, if public servants, who come under the jurisdiction of the Arbitrator, should be excluded from the provisions of the bill then none should have been included. But let us examine the reasons advanced by the Ministry and its supporters in relation to other taxation measures introduced by this Government. Is it suggested that, in its other taxation proposals, the Government regards as sacrosanct the widow or the working man on the lower range of incomes or wages? No. We shall see presently, when we have an opportunity to discuss other legislation which will come before this Senate, that the Government does not intend to hold its hand as regards the taxation of those people.

The discrimination evidenced in this measure suggests to me that there is something sinister behind the protection offered to these " curled darlings " of the Public Service, as I think Senator Lynch termed them. It is not for the good of Australia that they should be exempt from taxation. In every department of State and in every State of the Commonwealth severe .reductions of salaries have been made, and I have no doubt that, in some of the States at all events, further economies will be necessary in order to balance the State budgets. The Commonwealth should set an, example to the people of Australia. We should not be expected to put our imprimatur on legislation which at best can only be regarded as a paltry attempt to right the financial situation. Inequalities in treatment of the Public Service have already been referred to. I remember, a short time ago that, when the cost of living figures were being investigated by the Arbitration Court, it was pointed out that, because of a temporary increase in the price of potatoes, wages of public servants living in Canberra were increased by £6. It seems to me that we are living in an unreal atmosphere when such things as these can happen while the country is passing through one of the gravest crises in its history. Apparently tlie Government is becoming alarmed at the turn which events are taking. Nobody wishes to see a general reduction in wages, because, economically, it is to the advantage of all that wages should be high, provided the employee earns the wages paid to him. It is better for the community, economically and in every way, to have a uniformly high rate of wages; but. when the wage fund is not there,- it is better to provide a little for everybody than to allow some people to starve from lack of work. It is better tomake an all-round reduction and endeavour to spread the hardship evenly over the whole community than to allow this sheltered class of public servants to escape.

I feel sure that honorable senators who are supporting the Government in this matter are not fully aware of the true significance of this proposal. Some of them may become enlightened before long. One honorable senator has said that the bill is an attempt to camouflage the real intentions of the Government. I do not go so far as that, but I do suggest that, it is a compromise designed to get the Government out of a difficulty. It would have been better if the Government had taken its courage in both hands and submitted a definite policy to meet the present situation. If it had honestly attempted to balance the budget and, in in doing so, had endeavoured to mete out even-handed justice to every man and woman in the community, it would have received whole-hearted support from honorable senators on this side.

Sitting suspended from 6.15 to S p.m.

Senator McLACHLAN - Senator O'Halloran has indicated that an understanding existed that the States were to beleft to deal with persons whose salaries fell below £500 a year - apparently the extent of the exemptionhas now gone up to £725 - but there is nothing to prevent the Public Service Arbitrator from dealing withthe salaries in excess of £725, and the honorable senator's argument in that respect therefore goes by the board. The phantoms that seem to be in control of the Government may haunt them in years to come. At a time when this country is passing through a crisis unparalleled in its history, it ill becomes persons with any thought for its future or for civilization to harass a government which is -making a real attempt to rehabilitate its finances and restore to the minds of investors, oversea and local, a sense of confidence in it. The measure will receive my support, not only for reasons advanced by Senator Johnston, but also because it is part and parcel of the Government's financial policy.

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