Stanley Bruce's great industrial relation blunder

Representing the elite of Vaucluse and Rose Bay, he had expected to be invited to join the Cabinet on the

Stanley Bruces great industrial relation blunder


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Bruce's chief proposition was that the constitution should be altered in such a way as to hand over all power dealing with the regulation of the terms and conditions of employment, and the rights and duties of employers and employees in all industrial matters to authorities to be established by the Commonwealth. That meant giving absolute power to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court.

There was a second clause, intended as a sop to the Federal Labor Party, to grant control over trusts and combinations operating "in restraint of trade". Charlton and his party didn't realise that the clause could be used against trade unions as well as against powerful trusts. Then as a separate question there was a proposal to give the Commonwealth power "to protect the interests of the public in case of actual or probable interruption of an essential service".

The federal caucus, after many comings and goings between the two parties, finally agreed to support Bruce in an appeal to the people. In Sydney, I immediately denounced it as an attempt to deprive the people of the 44-hour week. I pointed out that the states would jettison all rights to enact factory laws. Conciliation and arbitration courts would no longer be state affairs. Workers' compensation, early closing, motherhood endowment, would be solely federal matters. The Commonwealth could kill the state laws. "The whole social and industrial life of the Australian people will be at the mercy of three legal gentlemen, who will be superior to all laws, federal or dtate. Mr Bruce's proposals are fraught with tremendous danger to the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth," I told the Labor Party. The ALP executive backed my stand.

In Melbourne, Bruce and Charlton collaborated to the limit. The only criticism came from within the government parties. A West Australian member of the Country Party, Mr Gregory, called it an unholy alliance. WA Watt, a former treasurer and deputy prime minister, said that it would split all parties. He had grave doubts. He described the rival groups as two well-bred dogs watching the bone held in the Prime Minister's hand. He was suspicious of giving judges too much power. "Even if they were angels from Heaven, I should hesitate to repose in these three judges of the Arbitration Court the enormous powers contained in this measure," said Watt.

Hughes was also against giving the power to the judges. He said it should remain with Parliament. That was the original proposal of 1911. But it didn't satisfy Bruce. He wanted Lukin, Dethridge and Beeby to have the power, and not Parliament. However, Hughes finally agreed that half a loaf was better than none and agreed to support the Bill. Mr Rodgers, a former Nationalist minister of trade and customs from Victoria, openly attacked the Bill. He said he preferred to leave industrial matters to the wages boards as they had then in Victoria. He said the Labor Party could appoint its own judges to bring in a 30-hour week and £10 a week wage.

The Bill to refer the proposal to a referendum was carried by 56 votes to two the dissenters being Messrs Gregory and Rodgers. Watt and Hughes supported the Bill. A number of Labor members, including Frank Anstey, Percy Coleman and Billy Mahony, didn't vote.

The fight then moved into the electorates. A council of federal unions was formed in Melbourne to urge a yes vote. The committee had unlimited money to spend and millions of pamphlets were distributed with arguments by Matt Charlton and Scullin in favor of the Bruce proposals.

The counter came when Albert Willis called an All-Australian Congress of Trades Unions in Sydney and invited Charlton to attend. It was the first meeting of the ACTU.

Charlton put up a passionate defence of his stand. He was told that he had been guilty of an act of treachery against the working class. The miners were particularly bitter, and they controlled his selection. Charlton said that the proposal was the same as Labor supported in 1911 and said that Bruce had seen the light. "For God's sake don't let your opinions bring disruption to the Labor movement," he pleaded. He said every member of the Labor Party was free to vote as he liked.

By 144 votes to 10, Charlton was rejected by the congress. It was a humiliating defeat. In Melbourne, Maurice Blackburn was one of the few to come out in opposition. On the other side of the political fence there was growing confusion. The Nationalists in this state wanted it. They wanted to kill the 44-hour week. The manufacturers, retailers and wholesale houses all backed Bruce with cash.

But Thomas R. Bavin, state leader of the Nationalist Party, was against it. "You will never get industrial peace through a Court." He pointed out that they would be giving the power to the next federal Labor government. He had the foresight to see what such powers could lead to in the future. "The federal proposals would vest the whole power over the fortunes of Australia in a body of professional politicians sitting at Canberra who would be far removed from contact with the electors," he told the Constitutional Association. "An enormous administrative machinery, such as had never been attempted in the world before, would be created to administer the affairs, of a large continent."

Bavin and I had disagreed on practically every issue in politics. We were bitter opponents. But for once we thought alike. The Nationalists supporting no formed a Federal Union with R. Clive Teece, KC. as its president. Bavin led the campaign in NSW for the Nationalist no side, while I led the Labor side.

In Victoria, Bruce had more trouble with his own backers. The Victorian manufacturers were afraid it would bring the 44-hour to that state. Some of the Nationalist papers openly opposed Bruce for the first time. Sir Arthur Robinson, a powerful industrial figure, led the no campaign for the federal union in that state. He said he was opposed to giving more power to politicians who always wanted more power. "These politicians will be meeting miles from anywhere surrounded by thousands of public servants and they will get a distorted reflex of public opinion," he said prophetically. "Politicians cannot get a reflex of public opinion when they are out of touch with the public. The atmosphere of Canberra will be that of officialdom, the atmosphere of the tax gatherer, and not of the taxpayer."

Sir Walter Massy Greene agreed with that viewpoint. "It is as easy to find icicles at the equator as to get the federal Parliament to agree to limit Commonwealth powers," he said. Among those to join the Federal Union campaign with the big money battalions in Victoria was a well-known barrister with political aspirations, R.G. Menzies. He was also on the no side. It was all very, very confusing to the average elector.

I campaigned throughout the state denouncing any plan to give power to a legal oligarchy. There were huge audiences everywhere. In Goulburn there were two attractions: Toti Dal Monte, the opera singer, and our meeting. We attracted the bigger house, but Toti got the money. In Bathurst, the mover of the motion congratulating me was a former engine-driver who been victimised in the 1917 strike, J.B. Chifley. He pledged his loyalty and was supported by Gus Kelly. Chifley still had to seek political honors. On the Sunday there was a vast meeting of 75,000 in the Domain, all with hands upraised for a no vote. Some of the federal Labor politicians had switched sides, leaving Charlton isolated. Our final advertisement was directed against control of Australia by the "Three Men." They were judges Lukin, Dethridge and Beeby, who would become economic dictators of Australia as visualised by Bruce.

Bruce himself left Australia two days before the poll to go to an Imperial conference. We appointed state government scrutineers at every polling place. Before leaving, Bruce ordered the PMG to grant him an additional broadcast, although it was against the previous order of the PMG that sides should have equal time.

Then the numbers went up. We were all beaten. There were two proposals. Both were defeated by some 400,000 votes in all. The majority against them for no in Victoria was just on 250,000, in South Australia 120,000, West Australia 70,000 and Tasmania 10,000. There was a yes majority of 33,000 in New South Wales, and 16,000 in Queensland, on the principal proposal. The majorities for no were smaller on the question to give the Commonwealth powers to deal with industrial emergencies.

The actual figures in NSW on the principal question were:

The chief lesson was that even though Parliament was practically unanimous, the people still prefer to do their own thinking. It was certainly a topsy-turvy referendum.


Bruce's blunder


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. He gave no preliminary warning. He didn't consult his party. Even his ministers were in the dark until he had gone too far. It was a

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