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Thursday, 7 December 1911

Senator DE LARGIE (Western Australia) . - Senator Millen would lead honorable senators to believe that there is some inconsistency between the proposal in this Bill and the recommendations of the Postal Commission. I think I shall be able to show that there is no inconsistency between the two propositions, and that, as a matter of fact, they are on the same lines and are almost identical. Before I deal with that, let me point out to Senator Millen, and those who sit with him, that when the question of the management of the Public Service first came up for consideration in the Senate it was contended that the service should be placed -under the control of a Public Service Commissioner, from whose decisions there is no appeal. Labour senators opposed that proposition, and it was supported by honorable senators opposite.

Senator Millen - Why did the Labour senators oppose it ? Was it not because they held that Parliament should not shirk its responsibility?

Senator DE LARGIE - They opposed it for the good reason for which Senator Millen would have the Senate believe he is opposing this Bill - that is to say, on the ground that it enables Parliament to shirk its responsibilities. I was at that time, and have been ever since, consistent in my objection to the appointment of a Public Service Commissioner to control the service. My colleagues of the Labour party in the Senate, on that occasion, in common with myself, took up the attitude that, by putting the Public Service into the hands of one man we should be shirking the responsibility which the electors of Australia had put on us. We have been fully justified in the position we took up, because there has been nothing but discontent in the service ever since. There can be nothing else expected so long as such a huge service is placed under the control of one man. If we are to do justice to our public servants we must give them the same liberties and privileges as are enjoyed by the employes of private persons. For the settlement of disputes with regard to wages and conditions of employment outside the

Public Service we have substituted arbitration for the old method of the strike. Instead of permitting resort to the strike and other means availed of in the past we have said to employes and employers, " Your differences must be argued logically and reasonably before a properly constituted tribunal." We have told the private employer that the day has gone by when he was the sole arbitrator in the fixing of the wages of his employes. We have said " There are two parties, and each of them must have an opportunity of laying his case before the tribunal." A decision must then be given according to the evidence.

Senator Millen - Under the general arbitration law the employer is made to obey the award.

Senator DE LARGIE - That is the principle of compulsory arbitration for which the Labour party has contended.

Senator Millen - Why does not the party opposite apply that principle in this case?

Senator DE LARGIE - Senator Millen and his party have always opposed compulsory arbitration, and have contended for voluntary arbitration instead of it. This Bill embodies the principle of voluntary arbitration, but nevertheless we find Senator Millen opposing it. It is quite plain from the tricky tactics of the party opposite that no means of settling wages difficulties would meet with their approval. The Ministerial party recognises that these laws are merely experiments, and that it is only by trying them that we shall find out the best means of settling these difficult questions. We have never contended that this or that law would prove a final cure for all the evils" of the wage system. We know very well that no law yet passed will do so. But we have said that each successive proposal that has been made has embodied the best means discovered up to the present time, and that therefore we are prepared to put it into practice. As far as the Public Service is concerned, we recognise that no satisfaction is to be obtained from putting the whole interest of the service into the hands of one man, no matter how able he may be. I have never said a word against the Public Service Commissioner personally. I believe him to be the best man we could find in the Commonwealth for the work that has been imposed upon him. But if he were even twice as able as he is, the task is too great for him. Mr. McLachlan is, and has been ever since he was appointed, in the position of an employer. He has the whole control of wages and every other condition of employment in his hands. His decision is final in every instance. His employes have no means of appealing to any tribunal against him.

Senator ALBERT GOULD (NEW SOUTH WALES) -Colonel Sir AlbertGould. - He is the servant of Parliament.

Senator DE LARGIE - What has Parliament been doing all these years but objecting to interference with this man and his work ? Whenever public servants have voiced a grievance, we have been told, " For Goodness' sake do not bring these things here; let Mr. McLachlan deal with them."

Senator ALBERT GOULD (NEW SOUTH WALES) -Colonel Sir AlbertGould. - The Labour party now say, " Let the arbitration Judge deal with them."

Senator DE LARGIE - Yes. We believe in arbitration as a means of fixing wage conditions. That principle has been in our platform for many years. Now that we are in office we are living up to our principles, and surely there is nothing inconsistent in that. Senator Millen has referred to the Labour party as having made lavish promises that they have not been able to redeem. I deny that we have ever made any promise, except that we would do justice to the public servants. We are now endeavouring to redeem that promise. We are no more pledged to the civil servants as such than are our political opponents. I say again that there is nothing inconsistent between this Bill and the report of the Postal Commission which I signed. I must admit, however, that I am sorry that we were not more explicit in our references to this question. There is nothing inconsistent between the staff committee proposed to be established by the Commission and the voluntary means of laying the case before the Arbitration Court .proposed by this Bill.

Senator Millen - The honorable senator's brother commissioner, Mr. Webster, does not agree with him on that point.

Senator DE LARGIE - Mr. Websterhas said a great deal with which I do not agree.

Senator Millen - He can return the compliment.

Senator DE LARGIE - He is quite at liberty to do so. Mr. Webster has said things about members of the Public Service who were examined by the Royal Commission that I think were entirely wrong. He has reflected upon certain gentlemen whom I know very much better than he does. Their ability is well known to me. I know that he has made a very great mistake in some cases, and probably, if the errors were pointed out to him., he would withdraw the remarks which he has made. He is, however, quite competent to speak for himself, and at liberty to hold his own opinion. I contend that Parliament is not at all fitted to deal with wages questions. This Parliament cannot summon witnesses and listen to both sides. It cannot sit and determine an issue as an Arbitration Court ran. Yet we are told that Parliament should take the responsibility.

Senator Millen - Let it give up its responsibility, then.

Senator DE LARGIE - We are not giving up our responsibility, but we are passing it on to another tribunal. Finality, however, is retained by this Parliament, which will have the last say on every question with which it has power to deal. We are setting up a tribunal which will be properly constituted for examining witnesses and hearing both sides. Parliament is not fit to do work of that kind ; and, as a matter of fact, was not chosen to do it. We are elected to make laws, not to constitute ourselves an Arbitration Court. I think that this is the best and only possible solution of the whole question. The Labour party long ago adopted the principle of arbitration. We were elected to this Parliament to support that principle, which we put into practice at the first opportunity. There should, therefore, be nothing surprising in our support of this measure. Some Parliaments in the past have ignored the principles upon which they were supposed to be elected, but this Parliament is going to stand by the principles which it laid before the country. The principle of arbitration, having been a well-known plank of the Labour party for years, we are now endeavouring to put it into practice in connexion with the Public Service.

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