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Thursday, 7 December 1911

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) . - In supporting this Bill I feel inclined to be enthusiastic, not necessarily because it is perfect, but because it goes in the right direction.

Senator Millen - The honorable senator is a born pessimist; is he not?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - There is danger ahead of which the honorable senator need not remind me; but we need not. think of that at present. There are certain specific reasons why I favour this measure. We may divide the Public Service into three classes. First, there is the professional class, which we need not trouble about in considering a Bill of this description. Secondly, there is the clerical class. I have no hesitation in saying that I know of no clerical service in any part of the world that enjoysbetter conditions than does the clerical service under the

Commonwealth. These conditions have prevailed, not only under the present Ministry, but under previous Governments. Some members of the service may have grievances against the Commissioner, but they are generally of a temporary character, and not serious in their nature. No one need complain about them. But when we come to the third section, the General Division, I am compelled to say that, though I have always believed in having a Public Service Commissioner, and though I believe such an officer to be more necessary under this measure than he was before at any time, I do nevertheless feel certain, although I am not prepared to allege deliberate motives, that the Public Service Commissioner, as an individual, apart from his office, has absolutely failed even to grasp the ordinary principles that should be applied to the work of labourers and artisans.

Senator Chataway - What would the honorable senator put in the place of the Commissioner ?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - The Commissioner has his faults, but I believe him to be an exceedingly capable officer. I want him to be retained. I wish to help him ; but, nevertheless, I venture to say that there is not a trade whose members are employed in the Public Service, in which, if it were not for the generosity of the trade unions, and for the stretching of their rules, there would not be trouble. That consideration applies to nearly every branch of the General Division.

Senator Chataway - Who stretches the rules ?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - The trade unions do. If the Commissioner wants a painter, instead of engaging aman at the ordinary rate that prevails in his trade, the Commissioner makes him commence at £12 per year less, and gives him two annual increments. I admit that the man gets three weeks' holiday in the year.

Senator ALBERT GOULD (NEW SOUTH WALES) -Colonel Sir AlbertGould. - He also has certainty and regularity of employment.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - I admit that artisans employed under the Public Service Commissioner are better off in that respect than outside employes. But, nevertheless, were it not that the unions have waived claims in the case of men entering the Public Service - were it not that they have not insisted on the observance of the rates which are paid for outside labour - it would be impossible for workmen to enter the Federal Service without leaving the unions to which they belong. I believe that all honorable senators are agreed on the principle that the National Government should be a model employer. I do not mean that it should throw away money needlessly, or conduct its affairs uneconomically. But it should be a model employer of labour. When it employs a tradesman he should not receive one single copper less than is paid to a similar workman outside the service. I consider that the Public Service Commissioner has failed to grasp that principle as far as the General Division is concerned.

Senator Chataway - If the honorable senator wants to attack the Public Service Commissioner he should do it in the regular way by indicating him in Parliament.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - I am speaking from the point of view of one who has a great deal of sympathy with the Commissioner. I recognise the largeness of the task that he has had before him. I thoroughly understand the magnitude of his work. This Bill also will be principally used by the General Division. I do not believe for one moment that the Clerical Division will make use of it. They do not require it. Therefore, they will simply go on as they are doing at present, under the Public Service Commissioner. This Bill does not involve any interference with the present position so far as they are concerned.

Senator St Ledger - The General Division have not asked us to interfere in this manner.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - Had I known that honorable senators wanted to receive petitions on this subject I should have seen that they were supplied. I would have got several of the unions to send some petitions in to me.

Senator Chataway - So that the honorable senator is a mouth-piece for unions ?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - I thought that honorable senators received enough circulars and documents without being troubled with more.

Senator Chataway - It is a good thing to know that the honorable senator can engineer petitions.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - Senator Millen has made one of his usual clever speeches. It is impossible to hear him make a speech, whether one agrees or disagrees with him, without admiring the cleverness with which he puts his case. I greatly admire the honorable senator's ability. I concede him what he is entitled to in that respect. He said that we never heard of strikes in the Public Service until the present Government came into office. All the talk of striking in the service, however, has been on account of conditions of labour fixed by those Governments which preceded the present Ministry, and not on account of conditions fixed by the Labour Government. Therefore, these threats to strike were a condemnation of preceding Governments. The present Government have attempted to remove grievances.

Senator Millen - Those who threatened to strike said " No."

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - The present Government -have spent about a quarter of a .million extra on the Public Service. If that has not been effective it shows the impossibility of the Government or Parliament dealing with these cases, and the need of a body that is capable of dealing with the conditions of the service.

Senator St Ledger - It may mean something else - that some people are insatiable.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - It may ; but does the honorable senator mean., to tell me that he lacks the courage to say " No more" when he believes that members of the Public Service are getting what we believe to be a fair thing? I believe that the great majority of the members of this Parliament have the courage to say " Enough" when they believe that officers are being fairly treated. Senator Millen said that the Government had introduced this Bil] because they wanted time to breathe. In what way does the Bill secure to the Government additional time to breathe? The Government have to find the money to enable any award of the Court to be complied with if that award has the effect of increasing the wages payable to our public servants. But the honorable senator might have added that the present Government, instead of wanting time to breathe, have permitted the public servants of the Commonwealth to breathe as free men for the first time in the history of this country. What Government was it that issued regulations according freedom to the civil servants of Australia? Can any honorable senator point me to a single instance in which a public servant has abused that freedom? Yet it was predicted that all sorts of evils would flow from those regulations. I admit that there is discontent in the Public Service to-day, but that discontent is not greater than it was previously. The truth is, that it finds a more ready expression to-day because the "gag" has been removed. In the past our public servants were not satisfied with their conditions, but they dared not voice their dissatisfaction.

Senator Millen - If they had spoken, could any ill have befallen them?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - I do not think so. But a great many politicians who are opposed to the Labour party have not merely threatened them, but have taken action to prevent them from approaching members of Parliament.

Senator Chataway - How does the honorable senator account for the petition which was presented to Parliament in opposition to this Bill, and which is signed by 4,000 public servants?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - I believe that the majority of the Clerical Division of the Public Service are opposed to this Bill ; and if I were an officer of that division, I should not desire to come under it. I regret to say that there are still some civil servants who approach members of Parliament with timidity, and who are always afraid that they will be punished for so doing. Why ? Simply because they remember -the old days, when neither the body nor the soul of the average civil servant belonged to him.

Senator Chataway - The honorable senator is endeavouring to " pull our legs " now.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - If Queensland enjoyed better conditions, I congratulate the honorable senator upon the fact. But I know that in Victoria, because public servants asked for fair conditions of labour, and opposed percentage reductions of their salaries, they were disfranchised and created a special class, distinct from the ordinary body of citizens. Realizing that the same class of politicians have hitherto been in power in the Commonwealth, our public servants have feared a similar visitation.

Senator Millen - I have never discovered timidity on the part of civil servants since I have been in politics.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - At all events, it is there. A great deal has been said about the power of Parliament to veto an award. But the officers of the General Division have no fear of that. If Senator Millen can show me a way in which to make the decision of the Arbitration Court final, I shall be found supporting him. I believe that it ought to be final. But, although Parliament has the power to veto any award, I believe, in the absence of exceptional circumstances, any award will be final. Is the veto something which the workers have need to fear? Time after time, in connexion with Wages Board decisions in Victoria, not Parliament, but a Liberal politician, has exercised the power of veto.

Senator Pearce - The Wages Board decision in the tannery trade was held up for months.

Senator Chataway - What about the bakers' strike?

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - I supported that strike in opposition to an award which I did not consider fair, and I would do the same thing to-morrow. I believe that this Bill contains the most scientific proposal for remedying the grievances of public servants which has yet been submitted to Parliament. It will not remedy all their grievances, but it will remedy nine-tenths of them. In nearly all cases in which bad feeling has been engendered amongst the members of the Public Service, that feeling can be traced to a dispute in regard to wages. Some officer has failed to do his duty by recommending, perhaps, the payment of an increment. As a result a public servant has got his senior officer ' ' set, ' ' to use a colloquialism. Then, because the Public Service Commissioner has failed to recommend an increment, a "set" has been made against him. All these grievances will disappear under this Bill, because public servants will feel that when they appeal to the Arbitration Court they will have a full opportunity of ventilating them. I believe that the Public Service Commissioner should appear before the Court in the same way as any private employer. All over Australia we have practically denied the individual employer the right to fix the rate of wages which shall be paid in any industry. Why should not the Public Service Commissioner occupy the position of the common employer?

Senator Vardon - He is not the employer of our public servants ; but this Parliament is.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - Surely the honorable senator does not want to go to the Court himself. At any rate, I do not. Under this Bill, if a body of public servants believe that they are labouring under an injustice, they will make a claim to the Public Service Commissioner. If that officer believes the claim to be fair,- he will either grant it or a conference will be arranged, and a compromise arrived at. If the men are satisfied, they will not invoke the aid of the Arbitration Court ; but if they are not satisfied, they will have' the right of appeal to that Court, just as has any other worker in Australia.

Senator Millen - The Bill does not give them the same right, because it allows the employer, if it suits him-, to turn down the award of the Court.

Senator E J RUSSELL (VICTORIA) - I have already said that if the honorable senator can show me any way in which to make the decision of the Court final I shall be prepared to support him.

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