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  Issue No 11 Official Organ of LaborNet 30 April 1999  





And A Hundred Years Ago

By Jenny Doran - Senior Industrial Officer, ACTU

Just as it was a hundred years ago, it is important that trade unions and their members are actively involved in the current republic debate.

From 1897 to1900 trade unionists in Victoria were scrutinising and agitating about the Federation Bill through the radical magazine 'Tocsin' which was produced by a co-operative of trade unions, Labour Leagues and individuals.

Then as now, those seeking to engage the public in debate found it hard going. Writers in Tocsin bemoaned the lack of interest in the dangers they were revealing in the Federation Bill in colourful language. "The apathy of Australians while Australia is roping herself for suicide is appalling, and can only be explained as symptomatic of the general paralysis of an insane people. What sort of national nostrils have we, that the miasmatic odours of such a putrefaction of our freedom do not affect them?"

The trade unionists and their supporters in Tocsin were worried about both their immediate interests and broader democratic principles.

They were concerned about the effect on those colonies, like Victoria, which had relatively progressive Factories legislation at the time. It was feared that "most of the factories of the continent will be concentrated in the Sweater colony." This would force the remainder, as customers, to participate "in the crimes of those in the other colony who murder their fellows with the sanction of its laws. They will have to use goods which it would be a crime to make under similar conditions in their own colonies."

This view was summarised most lyrically by the Butchers' Union delegate to the Trades Hall, Mr. W. A. Bayst when he wrote in May 1898; "Victoria cradled in Trade Unionism, about to give birth to a newer set of ideas, higher aspiration, broader hopes and purer ideals; about to spread her protecting wing more completely over her own; about to put on her state book labour reforms that would be an eye-opener to the whole world ..... must tack herself to sleepy Tasmania; ... the best planks in the platform of Democracy must be surrendered."

At the same time it was feared that improvements in wages and working conditions, and the rights of trade unions were unlikely to occur in a Federal Parliament which was to be "subject to the veto of States owned by a few capitalists."

For Tocsin contributors; "constitutional reform is only an object with us in so far as it enables us to see industrial reforms within measurable distance. But this Federation instead of doing that, supplies our enemies with a new stock of constitutional problems and Gordian knots, all of which must be solved before we get any industrial legislation at all."

In fact federal conciliation and arbitration legislation was passed in the first few years of the new federation in 1904. However these views proved more prescient during the turbulent years of the Whitlam Government as it attempted to implement its progressive programs regarding health, social security and urban renewal in the early 1970's.

It was then that political wrangles over the relationship between the two Houses of Federal Parliament, and the Senate's powers in relation to money bills were found to be, as predicted, "useful as a war for staving off reforms that will give our children and women folk more bread and butter, healthier bodies and more cultured minds."

The most fundamental objection writers in Tocsin had against the Bill related to the Senate. "Democrats can justly object to any Second Chamber at all" but this proposed chamber was fundamentally anti-democratic because delegates to the Constitutional Convention "by their inalterable provision as to equality of State representation in the Senate, placed a permanent veto on the legislation of the vast majority of the people in the hands of the smaller States."

They were also implacably opposed to the "most dangerous cancer in this diseased Constitution" which was that it "places a NOMINEE, IRRESPONSIBLE, IRREMOVABLE FEDERAL SUPREME COURT, composed of men drawn from classes inimical and generally inaccessible to progressive ideas, over parliament and People, Victoria and Australia."

The referendum mechanism contained in the Bill was another problem. It's effect was to make the Constitution "an absolutely rigid one, a practically inalterable one, and, therefore, a dangerous and anti-democratic one...the fact of its rigidity, its inalterability, its unresponsiveness to progress must irrevocably condemn it to every true lover of liberty to every worker, to every democrat who values the privileges he has inherited and had thought for the peoples who are to come after him." An alternative requiring any amendment supported by one percent of the population to be put to the people was put forward in Tocsin in March 1898 by Mr. G.M. Prendergast, printer, journalist and later MP and Leader of the ALP.

Concern was also expressed about the possibility of "a Royal Prince, with ambitions" to become Governor-General and try to establish an independent kingdom, and whether the Governor-General would follow the directions of an English Cabinet let alone an Australian one.

These fundamental concerns were summarised by Ben Tillett, Secretary of the British Dockers Union who, in speaking on the Yarra Bank in April 1898 pleaded with his audience to, "say that we shall not be prepared to hand our liberties at this stage of our development to either an irresponsible Governor-General, an irresponsible but mischievous, Supreme Court, or an irresponsible and unrepresentative Senate."

Finally trade unionists at the time were wary of those who supported federation. As Butchers Union Trades Hall delegate Bayst put it, everyone "who is opposed to labour, who is opposed to the new movement, and to new ideas yet unborn, or if born known only to a few, is to be found on the side, screaming and barracking for the Federal Bill; every bad lawyer, every bad citizen, every bad politician, every cultured criminal says "Vote for the Bill."

Only one Labor politician campaigned for the Bill and that was W.A.Trenwith, a former secretary of the Bootmakers Union and MLA for Richmond, later expelled from the ALP and later a Federal Senator.

Tocsin, in true democrat spirit accepted the will of the people following the 1898 referendum on the Bill at which it was approved but not by the statutory limit imposed by Parliament. "In so far as the voice of the people has been heard in this modified referendum, it must be respected." It noted with some pride that the paper had taken part in the "desperate battle between Yes and No .... without faltering or hesitation on behalf of principles it strongly held and strongly holds."

It is to be hoped that trade unionists will be as active and as spirited in the battle for Yes and No in this year's referendum on the republic.

(All Quotes taken from 'Tocsin - Radical Arguments Against Federation 1897 -1900', Ed. Hugh Anderson, Drummond, 1977.)


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 11 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: The Young Republican
Jason Yat-Sen Li stole the show at the Constitutional Convention with his community consultation compromise. Now he faces a bigger challenge, convincing Australia to vote Yes.
*  Unions: ACTU Moves on the Republic
The ACTU Executive has endrosed the Australian Republic -- but it's given Howard's Preamble the short shrift it deserves.
*  History: And A Hundred Years Ago
Just as it was a hundred years ago, it is important that trade unions and their members are actively involved in the current republic debate.
*  Reader's Forum: John Passant
A Workers Online reader explains why he'll be voting "no".
*  Review: Mountain Men and Women Framed
Working Lives, a history of working people from the Blue Mountains, looks back to illuminate future challenges.
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, Labor Council's fortnightly newsletter for unions.
*  International: Performers on the World Stage
Australian performers know better than most the importance of identity, self and place. That's why they are committed Republicans.

»  Unions Challenge: Reclaim the Republic
»  Freeloader Legislation on the Agenda
»  Unions� New Years Eve Plea
»  Skill Shortage Leads to Tiling Crisis
»  Apprentice Chefs Get Fairer Share of the Pie
»  Rail Workers Strike for Passenger Safety
»  Living Wage Sparks New Activity
»  ACTU Endorses East Timor Action
»  WorkCover Troubles Can�t Hit Injured Workers
»  NSW Young Labor Turns 50!

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Computer Decision Can;t Be Taken Lightly
»  Unionists Return From Timor
»  Latham Misses the Marx
»  Help Another Student

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