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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y. Some of his own followers took him literally.

Then he proceeded to outline the plight of the nation. Public finance was in a bad way. Both the Commonwealth and the states had deficits. Bavin had one of more than a million, while Page had one of almost five millions. Prosperity was rocking badly. Loan money was difficult to obtain abroad. Public expenditure had to be reduced. But he still didn't believe that he could abolish old age pensions or reduce them. So taxation had to be increased. But he was afraid that increased taxes might increase the cost of production.

Wool and wheat were the only two products which could be sold at a profit abroad. Even there there had been a heavy decline in prices. Secondary industries were being threatened by imports from abroad beingsold lower than local prices. But Bruce said that he could not agree with any increase in tariffs.

Then Bruce produced his magic elixir. The costs of production must be reduced. So they must get rid of duplication of awards and tribunals. His solution was a kind of collective bargaining. But because of large-scale unemployment, that placed the employer in the box seat when it came to the bargaining. So the government had decided to vacate the field of arbitration. Bruce wanted round-table conferences. Then the workers would realise that their claims for higher wages, shorter hours and better conditions would only lead to more unemployment. He was suddenly all in favor of the American system of collective bargaining instead of having industrial courts.

In particular, Mr. 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.

"At present Australian industries are passing through a serious economic crisis. Tens of thousands of our workmen are unemployed. It is essential, therefore, that we should all recognise the urgency of improving the relations between employers and employees," he said.

He also wanted equality in competition between the states. "Has any more fatal blow been struck at equality in interstate competition than the 44-hour week and child endowment legislation of the last Labor government New South Wales," asked Bruce, again trotting me out as his King Charles' head. But he still had no idea of the political hurricane building up. He was not left long in suspense.

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.

But he made no mention of the lockout of the miners. He said the unions had campaigned against arbitration. Senator Arthur Rae had written a book, The Curse of Arbitration. The ARU had rejected arbitration. Yet, at other times, the government was attacking those against arbitration as red-raggers and extremists.

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.

At that time there were only 88 federal awards in force in NSW as against 455 state awards. Once the state government had sole control of industrial matters, Mr Bavin could impose whatever industrial conditions were wanted by the Nationalist Consultative Council.

Latham rejected a suggestion by Curtin that the men could elect their own representatives to the Industrial Boards for the maritime industries. Frank Brennan said the proposal was begotten out of a craven spirit by cynicism. Bruce had given the impression that he knew little or nothing about the subject, while Latham had given the impression that he knew all about it but wanted to keep it dark.

They had appointed their own judges at bigger and better salaries, with bigger pensions and tenure for life. Now there was to be a dismal procession of self-confessed failures going back on their tracks.

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."


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