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Friday, 17 August 1906

Mr FISHER (Wide Bay) .- Last night I made reference to the fact that in the discussion of the financial problems of the Commonwealth on this year's Budget, a more national sentiment has been expressed than has been given utterance to on any previous occasion in the history of this Parliament, and it is to our credit that so many honorable members have devoted time and attention, and I presume have incurred some expense, to the production of schemes for solving the question of how best to take over the debts of the States. It is not my duty, nor would it be of much advantage to the Committee if I were, to express my opinion of the individual efforts which have been put forth in this direction. From my point of view, the bolder the scheme the more successful it will be. Political backbone means more in this matter than financial genius. The leader of the Opposition stated, during the Convention debates, and his statement has since been repeated here, that if the Commonwealth took over the debts of the States, it would make a present to the bondholders of the difference in interest.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is, before conversion.

Mr FISHER - Yes. But the States did not federate with a power greater than themselves. The Federation is made up of the six States which were formerly independent colonies, and the Constitution contains a provision which practically calls upon the Commonwealth to see that the credit of no State is injured, and that the credit of the Commonwealth is not injured through injury to the credit of a State. The Constitution having thus empowered the Commonwealth to stand by any State which may be in difficulties, the credit of the Commonwealth has practically been given to the weakest State, so that it seems to me not to make any difference whether the Commonwealth takes over the States debts now, or merely guarantees them under the constitutional provisions requiring it to see them through any difficulty. The national sentiment of Australia will never allow the debts of any State to be repudiated or its credit to be depreciated.

Mr McWilliams - The credit of the smaller States is as good as that of the larger States.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Tasmanian 3 per cents, are higher than the Queensland 3 per cents.

Mr FISHER - That may be so, but it does not affect my argument. I am pointing out that no State will be allowed to go under, and that the credit of the Commonwealth is no greater than the mean of the credits of the States.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - All the authorities concur as to that. The Commonwealth has no credit at present over and above the credit of the States.

Mr FISHER - That is so. The leader of the Opposition, however, stated in the Convention that the Commonwealth would make a present of the difference between Commonwealth interest and States interests if it were to take over the debts of the States at the present time. '

Sir John Forrest - That was acknowledged by all those whom I consulted upon the subject in London.

Mr FISHER - But does not the Treasurer see the fallacy underlying that?

Sir John Forrest - No; because one class of securities is negotiable, and has the authority of the Commonwealth behind it.

Mr FISHER - But does not the Treasurer know that the Commonwealth would be bound to meet, to the utmost farthing, everv engagement of the States?

Sir John Forrest - However reckless they might be?

Mr FISHER - It is not a question of recklessness. The Constitution makes the necessary provision. The Commonwealth is no stronger than those who have made it, and can never permit any portion of the States debts to be repudiated. I belong to a party thathas been accused of endangering the credit of the Commonwealth, but I declare that, so far as I am concerned, not a single obligation of the States shall be repudiated, whilst the Commonwealth can provide the necessary assistance. It is illusory to say that if we take over the States debts now we shall make a present to the bondholders.

SirJohn Forrest.- I say that we shall be making a present to them.

Mr FISHER - We may improve the security, but the States joined the Union with that very object in view. We are bound to see the States through, and the best thing we could do would be to take over their debts forthwith, and arrange for the payment of the interest to the bondholders.

Mr Page - The Prime Minister based one of his strongest arguments upon the proposed transfer of the States debts to the Commonwealth when he asked Queensland to join the Union.

Mr FISHER - Just so. The States are all members of the one family, and the whole resources of the Commonwealth should be behind their securities. Any disadvantage that might result from our giving greater security to the bondholders would be more than compensated for by the benefits that would be derived if we dealt with this matter forthwith in a national spirit.

Sir John Forrest - Has the honorable member any plan of his own?

Mr FISHER - I am not here to submit a plan, but I would suggest that the main thing that is necessary in dealing with this question is a little political backbone.

Mr McCay - Does the honorable member mean that the Treasurer should shake himself free of the Labour Party?

Mr FISHER - The onlv way in which this matter can be effectively dealt with is for a strong man who knows exactly what is required to put forward a proposal, and take the full . responsibility . of his action. If, on appealing to the people, he can secure the approval of the majority, he can go- right ahead with his scheme, and carryit to a successful issue. I know of no other way of settling a question of this kind. I have no confidence in conferences and boards. Finally, the whole question must be settled bv the members of this Parliament, who are directly responsible to the people. During the last session of this Parliament, we are entering upon a financial path that may lead us into the gravest difficulties, if not disaster. The Treasurer thinks imperially in regard to matters of finance - he thinks in millions.

Sir John Forrest - I have had more experience than the honorable member.

Mr FISHER - I quite agree with the honorable gentleman, and I trust that he will have much further experience. I am making no charge against him.

Sir John Forrest - The honorable member seems to infer that I am an extravagant person.

Mr FISHER - That was never in my mind. The right honorable gentleman was a child of fortune in his own State. When he ruled the affairs of that State so well there was a great boom in Western Australia. He has also been a child of fortune here. He came into office immediately that the revenue began to recover after the recent severe drought.

Sir John Forrest - There was an increase of £413,745 in the revenue last year as compared with the previous year.

Mr FISHER - But the revenue is continuing to increase. There is a difference between rising to the crest of the wave and starting to fall after the wave has reached its maximum height. The Commonwealth was launched at a time of difficulty and distress, and we started on our financial career upon sound lines. We should not in times of prosperity imagine that! the revenue will go on increasing indefinitely. Since the Treasurer made his Budget statement another body not directly responsible to the people has brought down a financial policy wjhich will have the effect of entirely upsetting the Treasurer's estimates of revenue. How will the Government face the situation ? In the States Parliaments when Ministers are embarrassed by financial proposals with which they disagree, but which are accepted by Parliament, they decline to carry on the Government. It has, however, been the rule here to deal with financial matters with the utmost freedom. When the Tariff Commission recommended alterations in the duties which it was estimated would result in a loss of £90,000 per annum, honorable members agreed to the proposals, and the Government had to accept them. The Commission may make similar proposals with regard to a hundred or more items, and the Treasury may be sadly depleted. What could the Government do in such a case? They are sadly hampered by the restrictions imposed upon them by the Constitution, and they should at least proceed with extreme caution. I do not think that this is a fitting time for the consideration of Tariff proposals that may involve a heavy loss of revenue. If the Treasury were seriously depleted as a result of the adoption of amendments in the Tariff such as those dealt with yesterday, the Treasurer would be in a difficulty that could not be over come by smooth words. I make no charge against the Government, because they have been tied hand and foot owing to the policy adopted by the Opposition. The leader of that party stated that if the Tariff Commission brought down any proposals upon which they were unanimously agreed he would support them.

Mr McWilliams - The Government should not take its policy from the leader of the Opposition.

Mr FISHER - That is not the question. I am dealing with a matter of the very first importance. We cannot escape our responsibilities. We should not deal with the finances as if we were a lot of children. This is the very worst possible time at which we could deal with the proposed alterations of duties. We are not being asked to adopt the proposals df Ministers fully sensible of their responsibilities with regard to the finances, but to act at the instance of an outside body that is responsible to no one. The idea of introducing penny postage is a grand one, and I agree with the PostmasterGeneral that one of the objects of the Federal union was to (bring about uniformity in this and other matters. But can we afford to do so now?

Sir John Forrest - Yes.

Mr FISHER - I am exceedingly glad to hear it. That statement entirely fits in with the arguments I am about to advance. What is the question of first importance before this House which has not yet been dealt with? What is the question upon which successive Governments have appealed to the country, and upon which they have practically commanded the unanimous support of honorable members? Undoubtedly it is that of old-age pensions;. Where is the policy of uniformity in that connexion? In the manifesto which was issued to the electors by the first Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, it was stated that that question was urgent, that it was necessary, that it should be dealt with, and that the Government were entirely in favour of the proposal. Yet nothing has been done to give effect to a workable scheme. Instead we find the Ministry urging the need for uniformity in our postal service - a proposition which certainly has something to commend it - and ignoring this more urgent and vital question. What about the poor unfortunates who, during the past five years, have had the stigma of pauperism attached to them, and who are being permitted to go down to their graves 'in that condition? Evidently the Government believe in uniformity in small matters, but in great questions that consideration finds no place in their programme. As far as I am personally concerned, I believe that penny postage must ultimately be adopted. But the matter is not urgent, and the system need not foe initiated until we have dealt with the Braddon section of our Constitution and with the bookkeeping provisions.

Sir John Forrest - It need not be dealt with, I suppose, until a more convenient season ?

Mr FISHER - The Treasurer himself has asked what the object of Federation, if it was not to bring about uniform privileges. If there be any force in his contention, surely it is applicable to the question of old-age pensions. I wish now to direct attention to the misapprehension which exists in regard to the sugar bountv. In a leading article which it published uoon the 3rd instant, the Argus fell into a srrievous error regarding this matter. Not onlv did it quote old figures, but it made statements which were not in accordance with facts, and which ought not to have appeared in a journal of such standing. I wish again to point out that the sugar industry is an agricultural industry,, which is being carried on in a tropical country bv means of white labour. Practically it constitutes the first experiment of the kind in the world.

Mr Deakin - Cotton is being grown by white labour in the tropical regions of America.

Mr FISHER - When the industry was started in Australia, it afforded the first object-lesson in the world of a tropical enterprise being carried on by means of white labour. I admit that the white growers of Queensland receive a protection of£5 per ton. The whole question, to mv mind, is whether that is too high a measure of protection or not. For the honorable and learned member for Angas to argue, as he' did last night, that the Commonwealth is annually giving away a large sum of money out of the revenue to support the industry, is too absurd a proposition to debate. The reason why this Parliament sanctioned the payment of a bounty was to insure that the white growers should receive the benefit which we intended that they should secure.

Sir Philip Fysh - How much have we given them? More than , £1,500,000.

Mr FISHER - The honorable member is quite wrong. For every £2 that we have given to the white growers of sugar in Queensland they have paid £3 into the Treasury.

Mr McWilliams - But we give them a 50 per cent. Tariff on top of that.

Mr FISHER - If the Tariff is too high, let us attack it in a straightforward manner. It is extremely to be regretted that honorable members who are perfectly honest in their intentions, but who misunderstand the position, should make statements which have the effect of misleading persons who have no opportunity of becoming familiar with the facts. The Argus, in discussing this matter, said -

It is a notable fact that the policy - meaning the White Australia policy - has not been to drive black labour out of the fields, but only to stimulate the growth of sugar by white labour at the expense of the imported article.

That is not correct. The article then goes on to quote old figures which are misleading. When this matter was previously under consideration, I stated that the cur rent year would afford a true test of the efficacy of the policy which has been indorsed by this Parliament. I repeat that statement, and I venture to say that during the present year fully 70 per cent, of the whole of the sugar output of Queensland will be produced by white labour.

Mr Kelly - Will there not also be an enormous increase in the bounty ?

Mr FISHER - As I have already endeavoured to explain, for every £2 which the planters receive by way of bounty, they have to contribute to the Treasury £3 by way of Excise.

Mr Kelly - What is the increased percentage of white labour employed in. the cane-fields ? The increase of the bounty is about 80 per cent, or 90 per cent.

Mr FISHER - The increase in the production of sugar by white labour last year would represent quite that percentage. This year the increase will represent 150 per cent. Last year 50,000 tons of sugar were produced in Queensland by white labour, whereas this year the production will be 125,000 tons.

Mr McWilliams - Bow much will be produced by means of black labour?

Mr FISHER - About 53,000 tons. In No. 1 district, which embraces an area to the north of Townsville, and within the tropics, the production will be 31,650 tons.

In No. 2 district, which covers the Burdekin, and the delta behind Bowen and Mackay, 34,000 tons will be produced; in No. 3 district, which includes my own constituency, the production will be 52,000 tons, and south of that it will aggregate 7,350 tons. In the- light of these figures, those who have consistently supported the policy of a White Australia must feel exceedingly pleased. I had intended to quote the resolutions which were passed by various bodies in Queensland at the time that legislation was introduced, but perhaps it would be unwise for me to do so. Even men of experience, who were resident in my own district, declared that it was impossible for the industry to be successfully conducted exclusively by white labour.

Mr Tudor - Every Chamber of Commerce said the same thing.

Mr FISHER - A Chinese opera would not be more interesting, in the light of the figures which I have just quoted, than would be a perusal of the communications which reached us from various organizations. I wish that honorable members, before declaring that Queensland is deriving an undue benefit from the operation of the bounty, would investigate the facts for themselves. I have never denied that this Parliament has done justice to Queensland, but I do think it is to be regretted that misleading statements in connexion with the sugar bounty should be so frequently repeated. I come now to another question. A few days ago we were assured by a leading journal in this city that a large number of the members of the Labour Partv in this Parliament were returned by minority votes. The newspaper in question published certain tables with a. view to supporting its statements. This circumstance stimulated me to institute a comparison between the number of votes polled in Victoria at the last Senatorial election by the Argus four, as against the four labour candidates. I find that the votes polled for the Argus candidates were as follow: - Sir John Mclntyre, 84,699; Mr.Derham, 81,912; Colonel Templeton, 74,062 ; and Mr. Smith, 8r,875, or a total of 312.548. The Labour candidates polled the following number of votes: - Findley, 88,614; Sollv, 80,593; Barker, 76,039; and Lemmon, 73,245. They polled a total of 318,491 votes. The Age also ran a " ticket," and the votes scored by its candidates were as follow : - Best, 97,693; Styles, 85,287; Dow, 68,123;and McCulloch, 58,284, making a total of 309,387. The Labour Party polled the highest number of votes, namely, 318,491, but . succeeded in securing the return af only, one member. The Argus, which was next on the list with a total of 312,548. votes, did not secure the return of one candidate, whilst the Age, which was last on the list with 309,387 votes, secured the return of two members.

Mr McWILLIAMS (FRANKLIN, TASMANIA) - The candidate who headed the poll was not included in any " ticket."

Mr FISHER - That is beside the question.

Mr Kennedy - I think that it affects it.

Mr FISHER - I do not care to attack a newspaper, but I should like to ask what other journal would have resorted to the contemptible tactics adopted by the Age in connexion with the candidature of Senator Trenwith. Does the honorable member for Moira claim that the votes polled by Senator Trenwith should be credited to the Age " ticket?"

Mr Kennedy - No, but I say that the figures quoted by the honorable member do not give a true reflex of the position. The honorable member should take the total number of votes polled.

Mr FISHER - The same argument might be used to explain away various difficulties. I do not object to the occasional curtain lectures which the Age gives the Labour Party, for they really assist us. Newspaper criticism has no terrors for me. At one time the Labour Party used to revel in it, and I certainly think that far too much attention is paid in this Parliament to the views of the press. The figures I have quoted afford a complete answer to the charge of minority representation made against the Labour Party by the Age. As a matter of fact, its own candidates were elected on a minority vote, and if they have any qualms of conscience in this regard they ought to resign. I wish now to direct attention to the position occupied by New South' Wales - the dear old mother State - and its " city of the beautiful harbor."

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member ought not to be sarcastic.

Mr FISHER - The reference to the "mother" State may be sarcastic, but I am not at all cvnical in referring to Svdney as the "city of the beautiful harbor." I wish to draw the attention of the representatives of New South Wales to the fact that various objections to the Federal control have been raised by that State in the narrowest possible spirit.

Sir Philip Fysh - Surely, not during the present session.

Mr FISHER - I shall give evidence' in support of my contention. As the result of clamouring on the part of New South Wales the Commonwealth Government has been induced to take a step which, if not unconstitutional, is certainly unseemly. The merchants of Sydney raised an outcry that the administration of the Department of Trade and Customs from Melbourne was an injustice to them, with the result that the Minister has practically transferred a part of the administration of that Department to Sydney.

Mr McWilliams - That was the fault not of Sydney but of the Government.

Mr FISHER - I may illustrate my point by mentioning that last night the Chairman of the Tariff Commission informed me that his reason for capitulating in regard to a certain matter before the Committee was that no honorable member had risen to support another proposal in which he believed. The Government apparently, for similar reasons, yielded to the clamour of the merchants of Sydney. It seems that they were prepared, if the clamouring were loud enough, to do a wrong thing in order to placate the merchants of Sydney.

Mr Liddell - That shows the weakness of the Government.

Mr FISHER - I agree with the honorable member. It was a concession made in a weak moment.

Mr Liddell - A concession for advantages ?

Mr FISHER - If the step was taken in order to secure political support, it was a most contemptible one.

Mr Kelly - It was not taken for that reason. I do not think that the Opposition knew anything of the matter until the step had actually been taken by the Minister.

Sir John Forrest - It was done solely for departmental convenience.

Mr FISHER - Then what has the right honorable gentleman to say as to the position of the more distant States, Queensland and Western Australia?

Sir John Forrest - The honorable member is raising an outcry about nothing.

Mr FISHER - I make no serious complaint regarding the partial transfer of the administration of the Department of

Trade and Customs to New South Wales, but there is a smallness about the whole proceeding that is unworthy of the great State of New South Wales. The action of the Government in yielding to the clamour to which I have referred was also unworthy of them.

Mr Kelly - Did New South Wales clamour for the gazetting of an Assistant Comptroller-General of Customs? No one asked for it.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I never heard of such a demand being made.

Mr FISHER - The Minister of Trade and Customs agreed to administer his Department partly from New South Wales and partly from Victoria.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It was entirely of his own motion that he did so.

Mr FISHER - But it was to conciliate the people of Sydney, who were clamouring for the change.

Mr Kelly - I never heard of any clamour.

Mr FISHER - If, as the Treasurer alleges, the action taken by the Minister of Trade and Customs is a wise one, why should not the administration of the Department be, so to speak, perambulatory, and transferred from time to time to the capitals of all the States? As a matter of fact, the people of the other States capitals have not demanded anything of the kind.

Mr Kelly - Is it not reasonable to assume that, for the sake of convenience, it may be well to centralize a certain portion of the administration of the Department in the largest port of the Commonwealth?

Mr FISHER - If the procedure were constitutional it might be justified on that ground, but as a matter of fact it is not. The Constitution provides that, until the establishment of the Capital, the Parliament shall meet in Melbourne.

Sir John Forrest - That the Parliament shall meet, not that the Departments shall be wholly administered here.

Mr FISHER - Does the right honorable gentleman say that a Department may be administered in any other State?

Sir John Forrest - Certainly.

Mr FISHER - That meets the position I take up. If it is necessary to centralize a portion of the administration in New South Wales, it is far more necessary to adopt the same course in regard to Queensland, where we rarely see a Commonwealth Minister.

Mr Frazer - And also at Perth.

Mr FISHER - Quite so. Why do not the Government frame a policy with a due regard for the smaller as well as for the larger States? Are they to yield only to the clamouring of the majority ?

Sir John Forrest - It might be legal to transfer the administration of a Department from one State to another as the honorable member suggests, but at the same time it might not be necessary or convenient.

Mr FISHER - I have no doubt that the Minister considered it necessary tlo partly transfer the administration of his Department to Sydney, or he would not have done so.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member says that Sydney clamoured for this change. He seems to know more about the matter than do the representatives of that State. I never raised the question.

Mr FISHER - The honorable member will not deny that the leader of his own party, when Prime Minister, stated that he found it necessary or advisable during certain months to administer the Government from Sydney in order to conciliate the people of New South Wales.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not remember such a statement being made.

Mr FISHER - It certainly was published.

Mr Kelly - When was it made?

Mr FISHER - I shall look it up. I am speaking only from memory, and should not have referred to the statement I have mentioned but for the demand for evidence in support of my contention.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It would appear, according to the honorable member, that it is wrong for a Minister to go to New South Wales.

Mr FISHER - The honorable member is seeking to shift his ground. I come now to another point. Although the Constitution Bill, when first submitted to the people, contained no provision as to the site of the Capital, it was accepted by a majority of those who went to the poll in New South Wales. But for a provision inserted in the Enabling Bill by the State Parliament that there should be a certain number of votes cast in favour of the Bill, the Constitution would 1have been finally adopted without any reference in it to the site of the Capital.

Mr Kelly - The State Parliament declared that not less than 80,000 votes should be polled.

Mr FISHER - Not less than 80,000 affirmative votes. I blame the politicians rather than the people of New South Wales. The people themselves were more far-see;ng and straightforward than were their politicians. I do not believe that the great body of the people of that State are so narrow-minded as to make all the demands upon the Commonwealth of which we hear so much. I think that the trouble arises from the clamouring of politicians. As the result of the action taken by the State Parliament, the Constitution had to be amended by the insertion of a provision as to the site of the Capital - a provision to which I do not object - before it was finally accepted by New South Wales. It would now seem that we are to be tied down to other conditions demanded by the politicians of that State.

Mr Henry Willis - Why did not the other States federate without New South Wales? Was it not that they could not carry on without her?

Mr FISHER - Why did the Government of New South Wales insist that, before it joined the union, Queensland should declare in favour of it?

Mr Henry Willis - For the good of Queensland.

Mr FISHER - The grand old mother State desires to direct the national policy. I speak in this strain not because of anyfeeling against New South Wales.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The remarks of the honorable member suggest that he has such a feeling. '

Mr FISHER - I repeat that the people of New South Wales are not so narrowminded as are their politicians.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member should allow their own representatives to speak for them.

Mr FISHER - Those who know me are well aware that I have no ill-feeling towards that State.

Mr Henry Willis - The honorable member is exceedingly provincial.

Mr FISHER - That may be so, but I do not make statements in private concerning New South Wales which I am not prepared to repeat in public.

Mr Kelly - Do the honorable member's strictures on the politicians of New South Wales apply to his own leader?

Mr FISHER - I make no exception. My convictions may be wrong ; but those who differ from me will have an opportunity to point out that my views of the situation are narrow, short-sighted, and oblique, and that I do not understand the New South Wales position.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - We wish to know whether the honorable member is expressing the feeling of his State?

Mr FISHER - I am expressing the broader national feeling.

Mr Fowler - And the feeling in other States too.

Mr FISHER - I am sorry if I have irritated honorable members. I did not intend to do so. A site was selected by this Parliament. Since then, trouble of various kinds has arisen, and faults have beer, committed by one and. another; but we should! have the matter definitely settled as soon as possible.

Mr McWilliams - Was it not narrowness to say that the Capital should not be within 100 miles of Sydney?

Mr FISHER - When two parties are bargaining, and one tries to get the better of the other, the second is entitled to defend himself by insisting on modifications. The site of the Federal Capital is an Australian, not a State matter, and why New South Wales should have insisted that, as a matter of right, the Capital should be located within her borders is more than I can understand. Her claim did not breathe a national spirit or feeling. Every true Australian must feel that the Federal Capital should occupy the best site in Australia.

Mr Kelly - When the honorable member voted for the Constitution on the second referendum, he indorsed the New South Wales demand.

Mr FISHER - I did, and I desire that the terms of the Constitution shall be carried into effect. The people of New South Wales have attempted to embarrass the situation. I wish to have the matter absolutely settled as soon as possible: but I am unwilling to have put aside what I consider to be. within the provisions of the Constitution, the best site available. I have held these views for a lonr time, and express them the more freely, because I have endeavoured on every occasion to assist the representatives of New South Wales in bringing the matter to an issue bv obtaining a determination from this Parliament. It does not matter when the question is dealt with, or where the site is fixed. New South Wales must in any case be benefited. What is of importance to me and to the people of Australia, is that the settlement of this question will put an end to local interests and rivalries, and afford opportunities for the growth of an Australian sentiment worthy of and beneficial to the great country of which we have the honour to be citizens.

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