Interview: The Baby Drought
Industrial: Lies, AWAs and Statistics
Workplace: The Invisible Parents
History: Bruce’s Big Blunder
Politics: All God's Children
Economics: Spun Out
International: Shakey Trials
Legal: Civil Distrubance
Review: Crash Course In Racism
Poetry: You're Fired
The Locker Room
An Act of Faith
Remembering Workers In Cairns
Fair Go For Injured Workers
A Question Of Choice
Galahs Up The Cross
Bruce’s Big Blunder
In the late nineteen twenties Australia was coming off a boom, and the Federal Government under Stanley Melbourne Bruce wanted to take industrial relations powers off the states and dismantle the Industrial Relations Commission.
Sound familiar? Read about what happened, and the bizarre role played by the budding motion picture industry.
When a government realises that it is losing its grip on the political situation it invariably commences to go from one blunder to another. It panics. It loses its perspective. It listens to too many advisers. Then in a moment of despair it is likely to take a desperate risk.
That was what happened to the Bruce-Page government. The 1928 election had rattled it badly. It was being sniped from its own cross benches. Its most effective critics were those on its side of the House. W.M. Hughes, Mann, George Maxwell, K.C., P.G. Stewart, all contributed to the disintegration process.
Then S.M. Bruce played right into their hands. He committed the blunder of blunders.
Bruce's fatal mistake was to try to abolish Federal arbitration. It was a complete volte face. At every election he had campaigned for "law and order". He was the great apostle of arbitration. He believed in arming the industrial courts with greater powers. He believed in penalties for those refusing to obey the awards of the courts. He wanted stronger ties between the courts and the parties.
In 1926 Bruce had tried to obtain supreme power over all trade unions by holding a referendum to give the Commonwealth complete control of arbitration. His real concern at that time was to upset my Government in New South Wales. He wanted to destroy our 44-hour week. He also wanted to sidestep child endowment. He also wanted to upset the state basic wage. But the people had rejected his proposals.
Then the Bavin Government came to power in New South Wales in 1927. The Nationalist Consultative Council believed that Bavin could do what Bruce had failed to do. They still wanted to get rid of the 44-hour week, which I had enacted by legislation.
Bavin promised that he would do it. He promised to get rid of the Industrial Commission.
But Bavin could not go through with his complete plan while the unions could still go to the federal courts. It would be no use abolishing the 44-hour week for state awards if a federal judge could still give a 44-hour week.
Then the big four told Bruce that the costs of production must be reduced. That meant that either wages had to be reduced or the working week lengthened. It could mean both. There was also a very important recommendation reading:
"A change in the method prevalent in Australia of dealing with industrial disputes appears to us to be essential, and we hold that there should be a minimum of judicial and governmental interference in them, except in so far as matters affecting the health and safety of the persons engaged in industry may be concerned."
Bluntly, that meant the return to the law of the jungle. Arbitration had protected the workers against sweating, against starvation wages and excessive hours. Now they wanted to go back to those vicious practices. Bruce was only too willing to listen to the big four.
Then, without warning, came the bolt from the blue. Bruce sent a long telegram to the premiers offering to vacate the field of arbitration altogether with the exception of the maritime industry.
At the same time he sent an urgent wire to members of the Government parties informing them of his decision. Most of them were appalled. From platforms all over the Commonwealth they had preached law and order. They had defended arbitration. They had alleged that the Communists wanted to destroy arbitration. Now their leader was doing precisely that himself.
For a quarter of a century every federal government had been trying to obtain more, and not less, powers over industrial matters. Now Bruce was trying to destroy it with one savage blow.
Bruce rose in the House and produced his bombshell. He gave notice of his intention to bring in a Bill, called the Maritime Industries Bill, which would deal with industrial matters in relation to trade and commerce. Theodore, who was leading the Labor Party in Scullin's absence, wanted to know something about the proposal. But Bruce told him that he would have to wait until the second reading stage.
Dr Page then presented his Budget. It contained a couple of shocks. But the treasurer was full of abounding optimism about the future.
Next day Mr Bruce produced his Maritime Industries Bill. The Conciliation and Arbitration Act was to be repealed.
They would be replaced with committees representing both sides with an independent chairman, who could be a judge. But the unions were not free to nominate their own representatives. The government would do that out of a panel submitted. The chief judge would make the recommendations. There was to be no evidence in open court. The entire proceedings were to be in-camera without calling evidence.
There was also provision that the tribunals had to take into account the economic effect of their awards on the national economy. The new formula satisfied the shipowners. They didn't want to have their profits made public. They didn't want their affairs probed.
For the rest, all the awards were to be torn up and tossed in the wastepaper basket. Why was Bruce taking such revolutionary action?
His theme was that Australia was already in a grave financial and economic plight. It was the first time the Prime Minister talked depression. To cure the depression he had one magic formula: get rid of arbitration. He offered it as his contribution to the economic crisis. His reason was naive: "The passing of this legislation will free industry from many of the embarrassments from which it has suffered in the past."
By industry, Bruce meant big business. He meant Flinders Street, the shipping combine, the coal vend, industrialists and the graziers. How were they being embarrassed? By the shorter working week and award wages.
Bruce left the nation under no misapprehension. He clothed it in his usual self-righteous unction, that the Bill was not being brought forward in a party spirit. It was simply for the benefit of the nation and the empire. Later he was to regret his statement that it was non-party. Some of his own followers took him literally.
Bruce thought the workers should accept the piecework system and payment by results. They would then earn enough to keep their families. Of course, there would need to be safeguards.
Of course, Bruce knew that he had enemies. The enemies within his party were more dangerous than any on the Labor side. Chief of them was the irrepressible William Morris Hughes, who had founded the Nationalist Party. There were times when he believed that he had founded the Labor Party. That, of course, was historical licence. But there was no doubt about him being expelled from the Labor Party. There was also no doubt that he founded the Nationalist Party after the conscription break. He even hand-picked his own executive.
But his break with Bruce was now irretrievable. He was out to get his revenge for what he believed was the double-cross perpetrated by Bruce in 1923. He had waited patiently for almost seven years. Now it seemed as if might get his opportunity. But Bruce got in the first blow. He expelled Hughes from the Nationalist Party. With him went E.A. Mann, a caustic critic of the government, who was Nationalist member for Perth.
The Labor member for East Sydney, Jack West, raised the matter in House when he asked whether Hughes and Mann were to be barred from certain rooms and, if so, for how long. Bruce tartly replied that if he wanted know whether it was true that Hughes and Mann would not in future be invited to attend meetings of government supporters, the answer was in the affirmative. In short, they had been expelled from the Parliamentary Nationalist Party.
Riley Senior then asked Bruce whether the Nationalist Party had blown out its brains. Bruce said the suggestion was completely unwarranted. Frank Brennan followed by directing the attention of the Speaker to the fact that P.G. Stewart, Country member for Wimmera, had withdrawn his allegiance to the government, that the member for Wannon, A.S. Rodgers, had retreated to a private room in the basement of Parliament House, and now Mann would need a room, while even W.M. Hughes had been turned out of his own house. He wanted to know what steps the Speaker intended to take to accommodate all the segments of the government that were breaking off. Latham suggested they could all find refuge in the Labor Opposition rooms.
Bruce still had the numbers if he could hold the rest of his party together. His proposal was not getting the newspaper support he had anticipated.
Theodore, in the absence of Scullin, led the attack for the Labor opposition. He said at the caprice of one man, and without warning, the Bill had been flung on to the table of the House. One man was about to undo the work of generations. It was a wrecker's policy. He recalled all Bruce's speeches in favor of arbitration. How he would never give it up. How Latham had defended it.
Bruce had appointed a royal commission to inquire into the constitution. It had not yet finished its work. Yet the government was going ahead without waiting for the report.
Theodore said Bruce was the prophet of doom. Whenever an anti-Labor leader wanted to take away reforms, or reduce wages, he invariably tried to justify himself with doleful prophecies. Even Sir Robert Gibson, chairman of the Commonwealth Bank, had said things were not as bad as they were being represented. The stock exchange was still buoyant. To Theodore that was most important. Bruce was imagining the difficulties. The stock exchange quotations were at their highest level in 20 years. The banks were making record profits. So how could there be a depression?
The attorney-general, Mr Latham, tried hard to defend the proposition. As usual, he was academic. Latham argued from a legalistic brief. He had no time for political rhetoric. He tried to rely on logic. But he was arguing against his own previous convictions. He tried to rationalise the problem. He went back over the dry legal tomes dealing with the development of industrial law in Australia: the Harvester judgment, the engineers' case. They were all given full treatment. He was on the defensive. He referred to the strikes of the marine stewards, led by Bob Heffron, the engineers, the waterside workers and the timber workers.
Then Latham gave the show away. He referred to the action of my government in passing the 44-Hour Week in 1926. He said that if the timber workers had been deregistered in the Federal Court they would have obtained a 44-hour week under a state award. The government was clearing the way for Mr Bavin to bring in a 48-hour week again in New South Wales.
Labor members like Norman Makin, J.B. Chifley, George Martens and Ted Riley Sen, who had practised in the industrial courts as advocates, trotted out all the achievements of arbitration. They were more legal than the lawyers. They cited the Commonwealth Law Report. They talked about common rule, and gave forth with lengthy extracts from various judgments. It was almost as if they were being deprived of their professional status.
Bruce's chief defender from New South Wales was Archdale Parkhill, who had been Hughes' chief propagandist when the Nationalist Party was first formed. He later went into the federal Parliament as member for Warringah. He said that when he was speaking on one street corner in Mosman, Theodore had been on another supporting the AWU candidate. Parkhill said that Theodore had said: "Mr Lang must be disciplined ruthlessly, with the gloves off." An interjector had retorted, "Your number is up for Dalley," and Theodore had replied, "There will be no shrinking on my part." Yet, said Parkhill, a few months later Theodore was licking Lang's hand. Parkhill didn't like me. In that respect I was second only to Jock Garden in his hate list.
Then E.A. Mann, Nationalist member for Perth, entered the lists against Bruce. He started off delightfully by recalling Greek customs:
"A quaint local custom of one of the old Greek states was that anyone desiring to bring into the state a new law should appear before an assembly of the citizens to propound that law with a halter round his neck, so that should the law not meet with the approval of the assembly, or not be considered necessary for the requirements of the state, the halter might properly be used to strangle him."
W.M. Hughes: "Oh, that those days might come back again!"
Mann replied they had. If the House rejected the Bruce Bill, the government would be politically executed.
In his budget Page had opened with a note of cheerfulness, with what was the triumph of hope over experience. Next day the Prime Minister had reversed the picture. Yet Bruce had described people who had issued similar warnings as Jeremiahs and croaking pessimists. Now he was saying, "We are in a bad way. We can't carry on." Now he said the only way was to reduce the cost of production. By that he meant reducing wages. Mann said the government was helping the Communists, who also attacked arbitration.
Bert Lazzarini quoted an interview given by Bavin to the Sydney Morning Herald, which indicated that he also proposed to scrap the existing system of arbitration. He proposed to follow the Bruce model.
Then another prominent member of the Government side took the floor against the measure. He was G.A. Maxwell, K.C., member for the blue-ribbon Nationalist seat of Fawkner in Victoria. He said that Bruce had said that the Bill should be considered on non-party lines. He proposed to accept the invitation. He refused to be branded a rebel or a traitor. He proposed to exercise his own judgment on a matter of grave national importance. The government had no mandate. It was against the Nationalist Party program. The party had not been consulted. He refused to be bound by the Prime Minister's whim. His electors had returned him believing he supported arbitration. The first he knew of the volte face was the receipt of the Prime Minister's urgent telegram. He had reserved his opinion until he had heard the Prime Minister's defence. Having heard, he was satisfied that he had not made out a case. Instead of providing one supreme authority in industrial matters, the government was creating six -the state tribunals.
Maxwell was a brilliant lawyer. He dissected the measure. He exposed the weaknesses of the government's arguments. He described it as the negation of every principle for which the Prime Minister was supposed to stand. In particular, he stripped Latham's case of all its supports. He even had a dig at the moral and spiritual aspects of the matter. With regret, but without misgiving, he proposed to vote against the measure.
On Thursday, September 5, the debate was resumed in a sitting that was to last until 12.30pm on the following Saturday. For two days and nights the Bill was torn to shreds.
W.M. Hughes took up the attack. He said that it was without parallel in Commonwealth legislation. For 25 years they had advanced towards their goal. Every party had wanted more power. Now the Bruce government had sounded the trumpet for a general and shameful retreat. The temple of industrial arbitration was to be torn down. Not one stone was to be left standing. Bruce's speech was full of sophisms, irrelevancies and platitudes. Latham had made a pretence of logic but had followed his leader. After being in recess for six months, the government now said they had to day and night to get the bill through. Delay would be fatal. Had some at financial cataclysm occurred?
Bruce had accepted a portfolio in his ministry knowing that arbitration was part of its policy. When Bruce became Prime Minister he took the policy with him. He had gone to the people for a mandate to enforce the industrial law. He had obtained his mandate. Now he said that compulsory arbitration was wrong, penalties were barbarous and all courts and tribunals must go. Yesterday he was the protagonist of penalties. Today he preaches the gospel brotherly love. The parties are to turn the other cheek, penalties are to be kept away. The system is as it was 10 years ago. It is the Prime Minister who has changed. He says he believes in a high standard of living, but the cost of production must come down. So he proposes to abolish the courts that have been the guardians of the economic and industrial welfare of the people and the only barrier between them and chaos.
"What would happen if the parties didn't agree?" asked Hughes. The framers of the constitution had placed arbitration in the constitution just after the greatest industrial conflagration the country had ever seen, and while its embers were still warm. Those men had seen the "print of the nails," they had thrust their fingers into the wound.
If the price of meat came down would not the graziers suffer? If the price of bread was reduced, would not the farmers get less for their wheat? Mercilessly Hughes stripped Bruce down to his very spats. Bruce was a dilettante, said Hughes. He had made one attempt to amend the constitution but had walked out leaving the job to Latham. He had been recreant to his trust. He had betrayed the people. He had insulted their intelligence. He had affronted their sense of decency. "He is the creature of a day. What he does today, another can undo tomorrow." The Bill was an attempt to save his face so that he would not be eternally confronted with the ghost of the hideous blunder he had made when he had withdrawn the prosecution of John Brown.
Frank Anstey quickly tangled with his old adversary, Dr Page. He said that the treasurer had lifted the debate to the lofty eminence of the sewer. "Far better it is to be ignorant than to be cultured, educated, talented and to sell one's talents for the first mess of pottage that offers," said Anstey, attacking Hughes' former colleagues in the ministry who had betrayed him for Bruce.
Stewart said members of the government had referred to trade unions as "basher gangs", "a seething mass of maggots", "running sores", and "fangless snakes." He would leave them with such nauseous expressions. He would oppose the Bill.
Bruce, in reply, showed how deeply he had been nettled by Hughes. He referred to his "sinister suggestions, poisonous and offensive charges". At one stage in Bruce's reply, Hughes interjected "Hear, hear." The Speaker called him to order. Hughes naively wanted to know how he had offended. He was told that it was the tone in which he had uttered it that was offensive. Billy repeated "Hear, hear." Bruce admitted it was contrary to his party's platform with Hughes interjecting. "L'etat, c'est moi." Bruce again repeated that the depression was not temporary and was due to a fundamental defect.
The second reading passed by 34 to 30 with W.M. Hughes, E.A. Mann, G.A. Maxwell and P.G. Stewart voting with the opposition.
At the weekend members returned to their homes believing that the crisis was just about over. But Bruce was still very worried. He fully realised that the fight was entering the critical round.
Although arbitration was the issue before Parliament, outside there was raging a new political tornado. In the Parliament it was kept severely in the background. But in every city and in every bush town the people were experiencing the full impact of the best organised political pressure campaign in the history of the Commonwealth.
The movie interests had declared war on the Bruce government. The talkie age had just arrived. Like their own product the movie people had switched from the old silents to full-blast talkies on the political front. But the bad men were not the villains of the Hollywood sets. They were in Canberra.
Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Dr. Earle Page were being depicted as trying to foreclose on the mortgage of the old movie homestead. They were trying to rob the poor widows and orphans of the movie moguls. They were the vampires sucking the blood out of the innocent film distributors' bodies. It all arose out of a very small mention in Dr Page's Budget speech. After explaining that there was a heavy Commonwealth deficit, he announced that the Government had decided to increase taxes. Income tax was to be increased by £10 millions. In addition it was proposed to levy an Amusements Tax.
"This tax will be a levy upon a national luxury, which, it is considered should make a special contribution in the present circumstances." Said Page. In those days it was still possible to obtain admission to a film theatre for a shilling. To suggest that those indulging themselves to that extent were plunging into wanton extravagance was hardly good politics.
Page said the government expected to raise £600,000 from the tax. He pointed out that attendances at amusements had risen from 78 millions in 1922 to 126 millions in 1928. What he overlooked was that they mostly had votes.
The film interests immediately got busy. They abandoned political neutrality. They decided to go after Bruce and Page. The campaign was organised by the Motion Picture Distributors' Association. Its president was Sir Victor Wilson. He had been minister for markets and migration in the Bruce-Page government from 1923-26. He had been close to Bruce. Now he was the general in charge of the forces uniting to defeat him.
Petitions against the Amusement Tax were signed in every theatre in the Commonwealth. Members were bombarded with telegrams. Employees were told theatres would have to close. Builders were informed there would be no new theatres built. Shareholders in film companies were told that they` would lose their dividends because the industry could not stand the strain.
The movie strategists realised that they could not defeat the Amusements Tax in the House. But the Maritime Industries Bill to abolish the Federal Arbitration Court provided them with their best chance. If they could defeat Bruce on that, then they believed they were in the clear.
All the weekend there were feverish discussions. Every member was lobbied. The Labor Party realised that it was getting unexpected allies. It didn't hesitate to give the necessary pledges not to go ahead with the Amusements Tax. The idea of having all the resources of the movie people to call upon appealed greatly to Theodore.
In order to upset the government it was necessary to get three more votes, in addition to those who had voted against the government on the second reading.
Hughes threw down the challenge as soon as the House resumed consideration of the Bill in committee on the Tuesday. He moved an amendment that it should not be proclaimed until it had been submitted to the people either at a referendum or a general election.
Bruce rejected the idea of another referendum. It was not constitutionally possible. He said that if Hughes' amendment were carried the government would go to the people. He was confident that he would again win. Bruce's announcement caused a tumultuous scene. There were cheers and counter cheers from both sides. Members were rocked by the shock.
J.H. Scullin, who had returned from a sick bed for the climax, said the government was somersaulting on its own policy. It was trying to load the court against the workers. H
The member for New England, Mr. V.C. Thompson, who had openly attacked the government's proposal in his paper, The Tamworth Northern Daily Leader backed out. He was not in favor of a dissolution. He said that the issues would be twisted and distorted. They would have to wrestle with the prejudice of tens of thousands whose minds were being poisoned by pernicious American propaganda. He differed with his leader. He was still in favor of federal arbitration. But a referendum would be defeated.
"Can the opposition in this House speak for Mr. Lang?" asked Thompson. Scullin retorted, "Can the government speak for the big business and oil interests?" Thompson said that what Lang decided would go with the Labor Party in New South Wales. So he would vote against the Hughes amendment.
Then came the most dramatic moment of all. A new figure came into the spotlight. He alone held the destiny of the government in his hands. It was the immaculate figure of Walter Marks, Sydney solicitor and member for the conservative blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth. He had served in the Royal Naval Forces in the First World War and was Parliamentary Under Secretary for External Affairs from 1921 to 1923. Then Bruce dumped him.
Representing the elite of Vaucluse and Rose Bay, he had expected to be invited to join the Cabinet on the death of Pratten. Instead Bruce selected one of his most vocal critics -H.S. Gullett. To make matters worse, he gave him the portfolio that Marks wanted most, trade and customs. It was Gullett who took over film censorship. That was Marks' particular hobby. For two years Marks had presided over a Royal Commission, which had inquired into the film industry. He had travelled abroad. In Hollywood he had been feted by the stars. He met Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. There was even a suggestion that he might be invited to leave his footprints in concrete. On his return he spoke for hours about his thrilling experiences. He was full of plans. But Bruce put his report into a pigeon-hole. Marks was very upset about the withdrawal of the John Brown prosecution. He knew the Baron. Some of his clients had money invested in his mines. The Baron had even bought him a bottle of beer at Randwick. But still Marks thought the law should have taken its course.
When Marks rose, the House was tense and expectant. Marks fully appreciated that the cameras and lights were on him. Veteran gallery men said that the hushed silence was almost shattering. The fate of the government was in the balance and Marks knew it. The Herald next day said: "The house was literally breathless with excitement. As Mr Marks unfolded his reasons it would have been possible to hear a pin drop. Mr Bruce alone, of all his colleagues, remained unperturbed. He was magnificent."
Mr Marks said that he had promised his electors to vote for the second reading. That was his only pledge. He recalled that he had appeared in the first arbitration case before Mr Justice O'Connor on behalf of the employees, with Hughes. He proposed to vote for the amendment. He would not be a party to repealing 15 Acts by a single vote. Even the graziers were opposed to abolition of the court.
He objected to Mr Bruce taking everything into his own hands. He had failed to consult his party. But his chief grievance was that Bruce had not consulted him personally on the Amusements Tax. After all, he was the great authority on that subject.
"If any man knew the position of the industry, I did, and I should have been very pleased to give the government the benefit of all the information I had gained, but I was not consulted concerning the proposed increase in the tax on amusements," declared Marks.
So Walter Marks, faced with the choice between Mr Bruce as Prime Minister and his loyalty to the movie interests, decided in favor of Hollywood.
"I told the Prime Minister he would have to go one way, and I would go another," he said. He would not follow him in the proposal to impose the Amusements Tax, so he proposed to register his protest by voting for the Hughes' amendment. "The present position cannot continue. Let the people give their verdict. There is one plank of the Nationalist Party in which I have always believed -that is liberty of thought, speech and action."
That settled it. The gallant sailor had torpedoed the Government. The vote was quickly taken. The House was in Committee with J.G. Bayley in the chair. Sir Littleton Groom, the Speaker, did not record a vote. He regarded himself as an impartial umpire above party strife.
Hughes, Mann, Stewart, McWilliams and Marks all remained in their seats while the rest of the government side crossed to vote against the motion. Hughes was once more back with his former Labor associates. He sat next to Theodore. Marks was in most unusual company, sitting next to Frank Brennan. The Hughes amendment was carried.
The Bruce government was defeated. Bruce was still supremely confident that the situation was well in hand. He had little idea of the further shocks in store for him.
At the subsequent election he lost his own seat in an ALP landslide.
(Abridged from The Great Bust: The Depression of the Thirties, by J.T. Lang - a full transcript and introduction from Bob Gould is available online at http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Stanleybruce.html)
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