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Friday, 8 June 1906

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) -- I listened with a great deal of interest to the speech of the Prime Minister, and I often envy him the gift of that graceful, elegance of diction and flowery language which holds the interested attention, yet conveys no intelligible meaning to the listener. Honorable members, 1 think, are most anxious for enlightenment upon the attitude of the honorable and learned gentleman and that of his Government in regard to the proposal for a progressive land tax; but he has fenced the question so adroitly that he has left the House in considerable doubt as to his real position, and has provided himself with a number of avenues of escape from possible awkward questioning in the future. Although it is necessary that we should know his exact position in this matter, we are as much in the dark in regard to it now as we were before he rose to speak. It has been not inaptly said of the Governor-General's speech that, whereas that of last session was the shortest on record, for perhaps one of the longest sessions we have had, this is the longest speech for what will probably be one of the shortest of our sessions. The mover of the AddressinReply practically censured the Government when, at the commencement of his remarks, he declared that the speech contains a number of proposals which cannot be submitted to the House, and carried into effect during the present session. I hold the opinion that, seeing that in the present position of parties, even a semblance of responsible government is impossible, we should confine our efforts this session to absolutely necessary legislation only, and should deal first of all with the proposed redistribution of seats, so as to get an earl) appeal to the electors, and the return of a House which will more closely represent the opinions of the country. At the present time, this House misrepresents the country, because the electors have not had an opportunity to express their opinions on some of the most vital matters proposed for the consideration of Parliament.

Mr Watson - The honorable member should be content to speak for himself. He may misrepresent the country.

Mr JOHNSON - I may fairly claim to represent my own constituency, because I was returned by an absolute majority of votes, but a great many members, especially in the Labour corner, represent only minorities.

Mr Watson - There are more minority representatives on the Opposition side of the chamber.

Mr JOHNSON - We should not permit for any longer than is unavoidable, the continuance of arrangements which, under a pretence of an adult franchise, give people in one electorate three times the voting power of those who live in another electorate. Such a state of affairs is a disgrace to us as a Parliament which should not be tolerated for a moment longer than is necessary. Therefore, if the Government really believe in the principle of equal representation - of one man one vote, which is supposed to be so dear to a certain section of honorable members - they should lose not a moment in bringing about a redistribution of seats, and in immediately remitting to the country for decision all those questions of national importance with which it is proposed to deal. An appeal should be made to the electors as soon as the rolls can be prepared, and I would strongly urge that it should take place not later than October next. If this course were adopted, an opportunity would be afforded to residents in the rural districts to record their votes. When an election takes place in the middle of December, the harvest is at its height, and thousands of men in the country districts cannot leave their occupations to attend the polling booths, because their absence from their holdings at such a time might result in very heavy loss, if not ruin.

Mr Watson - Would the honorable member disfranchise thousands of others for the sake of those whom he mentions ?

Mr Reid - Cannot they vote bv post?

Mr Webster - No. The farmers' men can better vote bv post.

Mr JOHNSON - I am not wedded to any particular month for the holding of the elections, but I am anxious to bring about an appeal to the country at a time that would be most convenient for the electors generally.

Mr Watson - Hear, hear; say next March.

Mr JOHNSON - The present Parliament must be brought to an end not later than December, lt the honorable member for Bland could suggest any means by which the elections could be put off until March, no doubt his suggestion would meet with ready indorsement by. a number of members. We know, however, that no such delay could take place without an amendment of the Constitution. If the elections are held in December thousands of voters will be disfranchised, and the new Parliament will te composed of members elected in many instances by minorities. That is what I want to avoid, lt should be the desire of all parties to obtain a straight-out verdict upon the main issues submitted to the electors, so that we might have a majority upon one side or the other, irrespective of the interests of parties. It is only by means of such representation that we can arrive at the will of the majority, and if any honorable member can suggest a more suitable time than I have mentioned I shall be only too ready to fall in with his ideas. I am anxious that we should have removed from us the reproach that we cannot induce a majority of the electors to record their votes. How can we do so if the election is held at such a time that thev cannot go to the poll? Whilst the re-adjustment of seats is the first matter that we should take in hand during this session, there are two other important questions to which we might address ourselves, namely, the settlement of the Federal Capital Site, and Federal quarantine. The three matters to which I have referred are the only urgent Questions with which we are called upon to deal, apart, of course, from the granting of supply necessary to cover the period between the dismissal of this Parliament and the meeting of the next. None of these matters need involve any party strife. The Prime Minister has given no clear indication of his intentions with regard to the proposals of the Labour Party. Apparently he is approaching nearer and nearer to their platform. Some little time ago he stated mat the question of land taxation was one entirely within the province of the States, and he declined to recognise that the Federal Parliament had anything to do with it. In the course of his next public deliverance he modified his previous attitude, and, finally, he coquetted with the proposal of the Labour Party for a progressive land tax. His latest utterance on the subject of land taxation is sadly out of tune with his declarations of a short month ago, and he appears now to regard it as, not only advisable, but obligatory upon this Parliament to deal with the question. These three separate declarations have been made within the short space of one month, and show that the Prime Minister possesses a wonderful faculty for climbing down. His utterances of to-day cannot be taken to represent his opinions for to-morrow, and his' convictions of to-morrow can by no means be relied upon to hold good for the day after. However much we may admire the personal qualities of the Prime Minister, we cannot escape the conclusion that he is a difficult kind of opponent to dea'l with. He Is as slippery as an eel, and exceedingly difficult to handle, because it is impossible to pin him down to any one set of opinions, or any particular line of policy. ' At present his great anxiety is to raise the fiscal issue, and yet at the last election he told the country that the time had arrived when fiscal strife should be ended. The Minister for Trade and Customs also declared that the fiscal issue was dead - that it was settled for all time; and vet he is .now joining with the Prime Minister in declaring that fiscal warfare must again be entered upon. I wish to quote the statement made by the Prime Minister upon this subject at the opening session of this Parliament. He said -

If we commence with the acceptance of the fact that the fiscal issue is dead, the way is open for dealing with the practical problems before us with a much freer hand than we have hitherto possessed. Up to the present, considerations foreign to these problems have weighed upon our minds, and have occasionally deflected our views in spite of ourselves. The fiscal issue being put aside, we are free to look these questions straight in the face.

In view of that declaration, we are entitled to ask the honorable and learned gentleman what has brought about this wonderful change in his opinions during so short a period. We can further recollect that when he joined an alliance with the right honorable member for East Sydney, at the time the Reid-McLean Ministry was formed, he still held the view that the urgent need of the country was fiscal peace. Two of his present colleagues, the honorable members for Hume and Indi, at that time broke away from him, and sat in opposition on the cross benches, and declared for fiscal war, whilst the honorable and learned gentleman was himself sitting behind a Ministry that was carrying out his own, policy of fiscal peace. These honorable gentlemen were at each other's throats at that time, and we now find them sitting together on the Treasury bench in perfect amity, all pledged to fiscal war when they had previously declared that the most urgent need of the country was fiscal peace. This is a most peculiar position for us to face, and it leaves us in doubt all the time as to what ls, the actual attitude of the Prime Minister on all these questions. We have no guarantee that between this and the general election he may not make some other somersault, and once more declare that he is done with fiscal strife for ever. Touching the position of the Government in relation to the Labour Party, we are faced with another peculiar set of circumstances. After the Prime Minister's declaration in favour of fiscal war, the protectionist manufacturers of Victoria approached the Federal Labour Party with a proposal for an alliance between the protectionists and the Labour Party, on the basis of mutual concessions. That probably was in view of the Prime Minister's declaration in favour of high protection. What was the (result of that conference? The Labour Party refused to have anything to do with such an alliance, and the Prime Minister was, in consequence, left practically out in the cold Why ha should seek to continue in alliance with a party that repudiates and insults him on every conceivable occasion is more than I can understand. I am unable to understand how any man having a spark of proper feeling can continue to hold office in such humiliating circumstances as those in which the present Prime Minister and his colleagues hold office. Let me show what the official organ of the Labour Party in Queensland says about the Prime Minister. I quote from a leading article in the Brisbane Worker, headed, " The Perfidious Deakin "-

Laugh and jeer as we may at G. H. Reid, what can we wish him worse than the partnership of Alfred Deakin? He built his little house upon the faith of Deakin ; had he read his EncylopediaBritannica more closely, he might have been forewarned by the parable of the house built upon sand. Deakin is all sand - sand without grit, quick-sand. Woe betide the political wayfarer who ventures his feet that way ! There is no foothold in Deakin. He is true to nobody, not even to himself.

That is the way in which the organ of the Labour Party in Queensland describes the present ally of the leader of the Labour Party.

Mr Watson - Will the honorable member read what they said about the right honorable member for East Sydney ?

Mr JOHNSON - I have already read that what they said was that the worst they could wish him was an alliance with the present Prime Minister.

Mr Watson - They said more than that.

Mr JOHNSON - I' am not concerned so much with that at the present time.

Mr Watson - The honorable member should read what they said about his alliance with the honorable member for Lang.

Mr JOHNSON - I am not concerned about something which never existed, and I do not think I ever insulted the honorable and learned member for Ballarat, either as a friend or an opponent, but the difference, so far as the leader of the Opposition is concerned, is that the right honorable member for East Sydney is not in alliance with, nor has he any understanding with, the Labour Party. They are not working together, and are not pulling the same coach in double, harness, as is the Prime Minister's case, and, therefore, anything which the Brisbane Worker may have said in regard to the right honorable member for East Sydney has no application to existing circumstances. The article to which I have referred goes on to say -

Look what has happened. During the crisis that preceded the downfall of the Watson Ministry, Deakin was at one and the same time in secret negotiation with both Reid and Watson ! So Tittle was he concerned about the political principles at issue, that he could not make up his mind which side to join ! . . .

The attitude which the honorable and learned gentleman then assumed is practically his attitude to-day. He is holding out one hand to the leader of the Opposition and the other to the leader of the Labour Party. I will not wound the honorable and learned gentleman's feelings by quoting what follows. I do not think that he knows even at the present moment what the ultimate result will bc, or where he will ultimately find himself. He has openly favoured the idea of an alliance wilh either party. A Prime Minister holding opinions so elastic may end them convenient to himself, but they are very embarrassing to everybody else, including, 1 suppose, his allies. I wish to say a few words about the speeches delivered yesterday by the honorable members for Barker and Moira. The honorable member for Barker, in referring to the item in the Governor-General's speech about the acquisition of the Northern Territory, indorsed the idea that it should be acquired by the Commonwealth. I also, with some qualifications, indorse that idea. I think it advisable that, as a Commonwealth, we should acquire as much territory as we possibly can, in view of the future development of Australia in connexion with immigration, the increase of population, and the development of rural industries. I have suggested, and I now repeat the suggestion, that if any scheme is approved of by this Parliament, by which this Territory can be taken over by the Commonwealth, it should be handed over to the Socialists; they should be at liberty to take full control of it, and experiment with their theories in a land absolutely free from all the trammels of civilization as we know itMr. Webster. - Does not the honorable member think that it would be a good place in which to plant the single tax doctrine?

Mr JOHNSON - 1 do, and if the Commonwealth will hand the Territory over to me I shall undertake the administration of it on those lines, with a promise, I believe, of far greater success than is likely to accompany any experiments on socialistic lines, to which the single tax idea is entirely opposed.

Mr Watson - Let the anarchists, like the honorable member, go there.

Mr JOHNSON - That is a stale and oft-repeated joke of the honorable member, which has no application whatever to me or my principles. The administration of 1 he Territory, under my plan, would be carried out on lines of individual freedom 10 the fullest possible extent, consistent with the equal freedom of everybody else. In the course of his speech, the honorable member for Moira referred to the first paragraph of the Governor-General's speech and the reference to the general prosperity of Australia at the present time. He chided the anti-Socialist, for having declared thai Socialism would ruin the country ind bring about stagflation, and so forth, and, inferentially, associated the progress and prosperity which has marked Australia during the last few months with the socialistic legislation which has been carried by the Commonwealth Parliament, Everybody knows perfectly well that the prosperity we have enjoyed is due, not to any legislation, enacted by the Federal or States Parliaments, but to the good seasons which have occurred all over Australia. I do not think that any Parliament of the States or the Commonwealth Parliament can take any credit to itself for bringing about these conditions. Those conditions have been brought about in spite of legislation passed by these Parliaments.

Mr Webster - Is not the honorable member aware that Mr. Carruthers takes credit for all the good that has happened to New South Wales.

Mr JOHNSON - I do not know that he does, but even in that event I should speak as I have done. As it is now 4 o'clock, I should be glad to have leave to continue ray remarks on a future occasion.

Mr Deakin - What further time is the honorable member likely to occupy ?

Mr JOHNSON - At least another halfhour.

Mr Deakin - I have no objection. Leave granted ; debate adjourned.

House adjorned at 4.3 p.m.

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