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Thursday, 23 November 1905

Mr WILKS (Dal ley) - I shall not detain the House much more than a quarter of an hour, because I have no wish to deal with this question at length, or to go over again ground which has been traversed by other honorable members. But I cannot allow the occasion to pass without expressing one or two views on the subject. In my opinion, if we adopted the closure, we should make the admission that the House is unworkable, and I am not prepared to admit that this body is an unworkable institution, or composed of men who neglect their public duties. No doubt every Ministry is apt to consider that the Opposition is taking up too much time, but to try to make the public believe that business can not be conducted in this House is to utter a libel on Parliament. I am in favour of limiting speeches, and I think that the amendment suggested by the honorable member for North Sydney would be an admirable one to adopt to effect that purpose, while it is more democratic than the suggestion of the Government. The honorable member, except under certain circumstances, would not allow members to speak longer than an hour. I think that if such a rule were adopted, it would result in betterthoughtout speeches. Honorable members, knowing that only a certain time would be available to them, would prepare their subjects more carefully, and would present their views with more method, so that our discussions would do great credit to us, and cause the House to be respected by the press and by the country. I do not wish the public to think that this House has descended so low that business cannot be conducted here without the drastic rule which the Ministry wish to apply. In my opinion, the proposed new standing order has been brought forward in a spirit of petulancy, but I hope that the feeling provoked last week will not continue, and that a special session will be devoted to the whole subject of standing orders. There is really no needfor the closure here, because the number of subjects on which the Commonwealth Parliament is permitted by the Constitution to legislate is not very large. In the States Parliaments, where the members number more than the members of this House, and there are more subjects to legislate on, there may be some reason for the adoption of machinery to prevent delay, but, as I have said, we have not that reason in our case. Besides, all our measures are subject to the review of the High Court. I hope that it will be the aim of honorable members to make our legislation as perfect as possible. Apparently, the object of some of the States Parliaments is to rush through as much legislation as can be passed, in order to make a record for the session, though the result generally is that a great part of following sessions has to be devoted to the consideration of amending Bills. The value ofthe work of a Parliament cannot be ascertained by applying a foot-rule to the measurement of its legislation. In this matter, the Federal Parliament should set an example to the Parliaments of the States, and while dealing with measures slowly, should take pains to deal with them thoroughly, because our usefulness is to be gauged by the effectiveness of our legislation, and not by its quantity. Some honorable members seem to think that the duty of Parliament is to rush through so many measures each session - to merely nominate them; but our real work lies in criticising and making suggestions in regard to the proposals put before us. The very fact that our membership is small should constitute an argument against the adoption of drastic closure rules. No comparison can be instituted between a House containing, only seventy-five members and the British House of Commons, containing 670 members. Neither are our conditions on all-fours with those which obtain in theStates Parliaments. Our working strength is about fifty members, but assuming that we could secure the attendance of the whole seventy-five representatives in this Chamber, the Opposition could not number more than thirty-seven, and it is not likely that the whole of the members forming that section of the House would engage in obstructive tactics. It seems to me that the Government are proposing to use a Nasmyth hammer to crack a hazel nut. It would be far preferable to adopt the suggestion of the honorable member for North Sydney. The honorable member for Franklin elicited from the honorable member for Wide Bay last evening the important admission that the " gag" was being brought into operation for the special purpose of doing justice to the working man. That was an admission that the Government proposal was introduced with a specific object. Do I understand that the Labour Party are supporting the closure in order that they may pass a certain measure through this House?

Mr Frazer - No.

Mr WILKS - The honorable member for Wide Bay stated that the object was to secure justice to the working man. I think that our energies should be directed to securing justice, not only for the working man, but for all sections of the community. I represent as large a number of working men as any honorable member, and I belong to the working class. I understand that the working men desire that all their ends shall be achieved by constitutional means. They do not wish that the closure shall be applied in order that the measures of which they approve may be rushed through Parliament without proper con sideration. If they are not successful in one Parliament they appeal to public opinion, and endeavour to secure such support as will enable them to achieve their ends at a later stage. If the Labour Party, in supporting this proposal, aim at the erection of a strong party engine, they will before long regret their action. In the next Parliament, another Ministry may be in power, and the Labour Party may find themselves in opposition. They may resist to the utmost of their power the passing of certain proposed legislation, but if the closure be applied to them all their efforts will be without avail. I cannot understand why members of the Labour Party should lend their support to the Government proposal.

Mr Frazer - If we are ever guilty of wasting time to the extent that the Opposition have done, we shall deserve to have the closure applied to us.

Mr WILKS - It is not necessary to apply the closure even to the strongest Opposition that could exist in this Chamber. We know that although one or two members may occasionally obstruct business, dilatory motions cannot be availed of to any effect unless the members of the Opposition are thoroughly united, and feel that they are justified in using every means that the Standing Orders permit. The Melbourne Age has advocated a measure of this character for many months past, but I am not willing to believe that the Prime Minister is acting at the dictation of that newspaper, or that his proposal was framed in the Age office. Under the motion, as it stands, an unpopular member, erven thoughhe might be advocating in a perfectly legitimate manner the best of causes, would be silenced by the application of the "gag." We are told that the Government will not apply the closure, and that the new standing order is intended to act merely as a warning to honorable members. That amounts to an admission that a provision for the closure is useful chiefly when it is not availed of. I have some recollection of the way in which' the closure was applied in the New South Wales Assembly. It was used only after long sittings, and usually in the early hours of the morning. I have seen Ministers of the Crown rushing about the passages screaming " gag." with a view to summoning their followers to the Chamber to silence some members of the Opposition. Their cries now ring in my ears like the shrieks of tormented souls. It frequently happened that, be- cause the " gag " had been applied to one honorable member, it was thought necessary to apply it to others, in order to avoid invidious distinctions. No regard was paid to the consideration that an honorable member was furnishing the House with valuable information. If the Government proposal be adopted, the closure will bs employed to enable Ministers to pass without delay practically any legislation they deem desirable. The same course will be followed by succeeding Ministries, and the ultimate result will be instability of policy. Fighting at the elections will be keener, and the party that comes back with a majority will use the closure without compunction in order to demonstrate to the people that they are carrying out the poHey of which the majority have approved. This will lead to constant changes of policy. One Ministry will, in the most expeditious manner possible, render nugatory the work performed by a previous Administration. Take, for instance, the Tariff question. At present we have in operation a semi-protective policy, with which certain protectionists are not fully satisfied, and of which free-traders do not approve. If at the next general election a majority of honorable members favorable to an increase of protection were returned, a new Tariff might be introduced and rushed through without any discussion. Public feeling might undergo a change before the succeeding election took place, and the position of parties, so far as the fiscal question is concerned, might be so altered as to lead to further amendments of the Tariff. This is not a desirable state of affairs to contemplate. I believe that those honorable members who are now advocating the closure will be the first to endeavour to abolish it. The members of the Labour Party, in supporting it, are certainly preparing a rod for their own backs. Those who represent the most radical thought in the country should be the very last to advocate the adoption of such a conservative machine as the closure. If we had 200 or 300 members in this House there might be some reason for adopting measures for limiting debate, but up to the present time no excuse has been afforded for such a proceeding. If the motion now before us be passed, it will be futile for honorable members of the Opposition to discuss the supplementary "gag" proposals which the Government intend to submit. They call the further proposed additions to the Standing Orders "machinery clauses," but they are intended to impose j still more restrictions upon debate. If these be adopted the members of the Opposition will be, to all intents and purposes, chloroformed, and the Government will be able to perform any political operation they may please. It has been admitted that we are not a disorderly House. Notwithstanding the strain that was imposed during the: recent long sittings, it must be admitted that the proceedings were orderly, and, in view of all the circumstances, reflected credit upon honorable members. This fact in itself should be sufficient to show that there is no necessity for the adoption of such stringent rules as those proposed. There is no necessity for us to hurry' our legislation through. I think that the public would be better served if they were not disturbed by so many legislative innovations as are now being thrust upon them. If it could be shown that the Opposition were, day in and day out, obstructing the public business, there might be some reason for adopting the closure, but no one can pretend that honorable members travel hundreds of miles in order to block business. As I have said, it is evident that the Labour Party, favour the closure, \secause they think that it will enable them to secure justice for the working man.

Mr Webster - Members of the Labour Party desire to do justice to all.

Mr WILKS - I am sure that that is the desire of honorable members generally. I am a representative of the workers, and am, indeed, a member of the working class ; but I am not prepared to join with the Labour Party in passing a motion which will enable the closure to be applied to prevent the proper consideration of the various measures submitted to us. I cannot understand why honorable members should be so anxious to lead the public to believe that a House consisting of only seventy-five members cannot carry on its business without the application of the " SaS-" I well remember the occasion on which the honorable member for Gwydir was held by the Chairman of Committees to have been guilty of tedious repetition. From a perusal of the Hansard report of his speech. I have come to the conclusion that he was badly treated ; but at the time in question, a heated debate was taking place, and, as a supporter of the Government, I did not wait to consider whether the honorable member for Gwydir was in the right or not. The only consideration that weighed with me for the moment was that he was in opposition, and I, therefore, supported the proposal that he be no longer heard. The incident furnishes an illustration of the way in which the closure may be applied. The adoption of such a motion as that now before us will give rise to unpleasantness. I am confident that those who are closured will seek to get behind the standing order, and, in some way or other, to obtain revenge. I am satisfied, Mr. Speaker, that if you were on the floor of the House, and were closured in a way which you considered unjust, you would succeed, despite the existence of such a standing order as that now proposed, in "stone-walling," and so wasting the time of the House, if you desired to do so. I know, at all events, that that is the course which, in like circumstances, I should follow. Another point is that the proposed standing order may be unfairly applied. An honorable member who, because, perhaps, of a mere mannerism, is somewhat unpopular, may be closured almost as soon as he rises to speak ; while another, who, although possessing less ability, is very popular in the House, may have not only liberty, but licence, extended to him. I would ask honorable members to carefully consider the amendment suggested by the honorable member for North Sydney. His proposal is a democratic one, and would place every honorable member on an equal footing. If the limitation of debate which he suggests be imposed, I think it will lead to honorable members preparing their speeches more carefully than many of them do at the present time. My experience as a member of this House forces me to the conclusion that the Government proposal is absolutely unwarranted, and that the application of the closure will cause friction. Then again, if, as the result of a general election, one party in the House be returned with increased strength, it may seek by means of the closure to graft on to the statute-book of the Commonwealth the particular proposals which are embodied in its programme. In this and other ways the proposed standing order, if adopted, must tend to weaken the stability of our parliamentary institutions. I utterly fail to understand why honorable members should be anxious to see measures forced through the House without being adequately discussed. No one can say that the House is a disorderly one ; if it were, there might be some reason for the adoption of this motion. Every honorable member should bear in mind that in supporting the motion he will assist in forging a weapon that maybe used against himself. Its adoption will be an indication to the public that the House is neither intelligent nor publicspirited. I am sure that that is not the case. The members of the first Parliament, like those of the present one, were all public-spirited men ; but it seems that the Government desire to pass this standing order in order that they may be able to control even an Opposition thirty-seven strong. I trust that the motion will be amended in several respects.. In conclusion, I have only to say that if any one ought to be grateful for the consideration extended to him by honorable members, it is myself. During the last few days I have received the most kindly treatment at the hands of honorable members, and this is only indicative of the feeling which prevails among honorable members generally. We are not an assembly of savages that we need to be dealt with in the way proposed by the Government.

Mr Webster - We are martyrs.

Mr WILKS -It cannot be supposed that honorable members travel 1,200 miles - as many of the Opposition do - every week merely for the purpose of attending here to block the transaction of public business. We have neither the temper nor the inclination to do anything of the kind ; and I regret that it should have been thought necessary to introduce such a proposal as that now before us. It will enable the " gag " to be applied, not merely to an individual speech, but to the various questions that may be submitted to us. If the dominant party at any time seek an excuse for applying the "gag," they will put up an obnoxious member, who will soon give rise to a feeling of irritation, with the result that the closure will be applied, and the measure under consideration rushed through. I earnestly hope that if the House is not prepared to accept the amendment foreshndowed by the honorable member for North Sydney, it will at least insist upon the Government proposals being amended in several other directions.

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