Diary of a Labour Man: 1917 - 1945

Full text Prime Minister


“I welcome you to this Constitutional Convention and, on behalf of the Commonwealth Government, I thank you for your practical response to the suggestion of the Government that a convention be constituted to discuss proposals made with the object of giving the Parliament of the Commonwealth sufficient legal authority in relation to the great problem of post-war reconstruction.

“On this occasion, leaders of His Majesty's Government and of His Majesty's Opposition from all seven Parliaments of Australia are gathered to consider from a non-party and national point of view the course of action to be followed at one of the great turning points of our history. At such a moment we are bound to regard our deliberations against the background, not only of the war, but of the victory that shall be ours, and of the peace that it will give us. We shall be dealing with matters which profoundly affect the future welfare of Australia and its ability to justify its standing both as a British nation and as one of the advanced peoples of the world.

“At the outset, I should like to draw attention to the circumstances in which the Convention has been called together. This Convention differs from the Convention of 1897-98 because to-day Federal Union is an accomplished fact, and there is in force a written Constitution which defines the relationship between the Commonwealth Parliament and the legislatures of the several States. The Constitution also lays down the procedure far any change in its terms. That procedure for amendment involves action by two bodies only - the Commonwealth Parliament and the people of Australia. There is no provision for anything in the nature of a popularly-elected convention or for the reference of proposed amendments to any assembly outside the Commonwealth Parliament itself.

“It was the very special needs of war which prompted the Government to convene this distinctive assembly. The fullest consultation was desirable to see if we could agree upon an effective plan by which the Constitution, which vests adequate authority in the Commonwealth Parliament to supervise the war effort of this nation, will not fail us in the vital task of post-war reconstruction. Because, when hostilities end, it is certain that Australia, Australia as a pledged nation, must proceed forthwith to fulfil all the promises that have been made to the fighting services and the people of Australia and carry out the other tasks of post-war reconstruction.

“The Government believes that this effort should be made with the object of obtaining agreement among those who to-day, both in the Commonwealth and the State Parliaments, bear high political responsibility. Between them, leaders of governments and oppositions fairly represent the greater part of our seven legislatures. Although not chosen by the people for the special purpose, those who are here assembled to-day well represent the Australian people in their dual groupings. In a real sense, this body constitutes for the occasion a special Advisory Council of the whole nation, in all its political groupings.

“Therefore, while neither law nor practice requires the assembling together of such a Convention as this, it is a body which should be able to bring to the discussion of the question of constitutional planning for post-war reconstruction a special authority and a special prestige. This will be much more than a collection of individuals, each bringing to the discussion his own personal ideas about what the Constitution should contain. At any rate this Convention of 1942 evidences the Commonwealth Government's desire and concern to seek the counsel and assistance of representative political Australia as a whole. This is done before we go forward upon the ordinary course of amending the Constitution by reference to the people. From the political leaders of the whole nation, thus met together, the nation will rightly expect constructive deliberation of a high order.

"Naturally, the process of amending a written Constitution raises many legal and technical questions. But the amending of our Constitution is, of course, not a question for lawyers or technicians. It is primarily a question for citizens speaking as citizens. The actual language of our own Commonwealth Constitution expresses this plainly. It is a people's question that we have to examine. In the last analysis it is not even a question of enlarging the constitutional powers of the Commonwealth Parliament; rather it is a question of enlarging the self-governing rights of the people of Australia when exercising their rights of Australian citizenship.

“Up to the present, my colleague, the Attorney-General (Dr. Evatt) has had the labouring oar in preparing the ground for the Convention. It is he who has endeavoured to focus attention upon the necessity for action now to strengthen our constitutional framework for the special crisis or series of crises which will face us during the post-war period. The Attorney-General has been assisted by other distinguished lawyers, notably Sir Robert Garran, Professor H. K. Bailey and Sir George Knowles. But the Government is fortunate in having the benefit of the Attorney-Generals unique experience as a constitutional jurist whose reputation extends far beyond our own county. I repeat, however, that the questions are essentially questions for the Australian people whose future may be determined by the course of these deliberations.

“The broad question before us may be thus stated: The Commonwealth has been in control of the war effort of this country; but that control has been exercised with the co-operation and assistance of the governments of all the six States. In this organization for total war. the constitutional powers of the Commonwealth Parliament have proved adequate. The Government of Australia has been as free as the Government of Britain or the Government of New Zealand, each of which operates under a flexible constitution to determine war policy as thought most fitting. In that respect, the Commonwealth Constitution has not stood in the way.

“But what will be the position after the war has been won? Australia, like all the united nations, is pledged, among many other things, to pursue the objective stated in clause 5 of the Atlantic Charter, namely, `improved labour standards, economic advancement and social security'. In the words of Mr. Menzies, M.P., this general declaration `sets out in plain language the fundamental aspirations of all the liberty-loving peoples of the world . . . It is a reminder to us that the new order for the world, of which we have from time to time spoken, is now in the making, and the war must be regarded not merely as a great struggle in which evil things must be overthrown, but as something from which positively good things for men and women must emerge'. A study of the book which the Attorney-General and his assistants have prepared will show that nearly every representative here to-day has made public statements of a similar character.

“If these noble objectives are to be pursued and not become a sham and a snare, they involve as a minimum the organization of the resources of the nation to achieve full employment and such economic planning as is calculated to achieve `social security'. Here I may interpolate that the language of the present bill has been criticized as too comprehensive and somewhat vague. However, it follows fairly closely the language used by the leaders of the united nations which Mr. Menzies, M.P., described as `plain language'. These objectives of the Atlantic Charter have been frequently repeated in promises made on behalf of Australia to the fighting services and to the people.

“Therefore the question is: Will the Constitution, as it now stands, permit this `post-war reconstruction' - for that is the same thing - to be implemented as a national plan? Clearly it does not. At every turn in the problem of post-war reconstruction we shall be confronted by some constitutional barrier. Every one who has given any serious thought knows that plans and policies must be initiated at once, and knows that doing so is an essential part of the war effort. Most of us here to-day have publicly and unequivocally expressed such views. But how can any national Australian plan for reconstruction be made unless we are assured that national Australian authority will be available to put the national plan into execution? You might as well draw elaborate plans for a new city, without information as to whether it will be possible to go on with the building of it.

“Of the inadequacy of the present Constitution to meet the tasks of post-war reconstruction, nobody has spoken more convincingly than Australia's veteran statesman and jurist, Sir Isaac Isaacs. To the present generation of Australians, he speaks with an almost legendary authority. Over 40 years ago he took a leading part in the Convention from which the present Constitution emerged. But Sir Isaac brings also to the exposition of the Constitution a lifetime of rich experience in every branch of Australian government. At the very outset of the present war, his mature and prophetic conclusion was this –

"Evidence is accumulating that thoughtful Australians believe our constitutional system is too complicated, costly and burdensome. Most of all, it is not competent to answer its highest purpose - that of adequately and promptly enabling the nation to deal with the vicissitudes of current life, nor with the complex Australian conditions that must inevitably ensue when peace is proclaimed, and the mobilization, the war work of one hand, is dissolved. Reconstruction, then, by constitutional necessity must fall almost completely into different hands, moved by different and differing minds. The Commonwealth, supreme in war, is in many directions helpless in peace.

“A few months earlier, just before the outbreak of war, and when I was Leader of the Opposition in the Commonwealth Parliament, I expressed in general terms my own view of the need for modernizing the Constitution of 1900. Experience of war, and of the tasks of government, have emphatically confirmed what I then said. Let me just repeat one or two paragraphs, the point of which has been most strongly underlined by the war

"There are several of the major sides of national life now partly or completely vested in the States, yet as to which the interests of all Australia are uniform and indissolubly interconnected. The control and resolution of these should most certainly be the function of the National Parliament. These sides of national life include the great body of laws regulating the relations of employer and employee; of company law, banking, standards of commodities, carrying of goods and the like. I know that efforts have been made to secure the passing of uniform acts by all State Parliaments. Results of these efforts have not been satisfactory. Even when they have been successful, the delay and waste of effort involved in securing the passage of a uniform bill through thirteen houses of parliament could have been avoided if the National Parliament had been endowed with the necessary power.

“I am firmly of opinion that the best form of government for modern Australia, having regard to all the circumstances, is one in which all major national questions are dealt with by the National Parliament and that matters of minor importance, as well as administration of national laws, should be left to the States. This development of the past and the dangers of the present combine to make it important that the National Parliament of Australia shall be competent to carry out the will of the people, to whom alone fealty is due - not the people of 40 years ago, but the people of to-day.

“I suggest that our experience during the war has justified these observations; for the war has widened the scope of those public affairs in which all Australians perceive their interests to be `uniform and indissolubly interconnected'. Illustrations can easily be furnished. The desire for unity in national affairs is far greater to-day than it was even so recently as 1939. The people desire not only reasonable security of occupation but Australian-wide standards of social security.

Having shared the burdens of war as Australians, it is natural that Australians are determined to share the benefits of peace, also as Australians. In relation to employment, I think it is certain that there will be need for organization for full employment on a national scale. In one aspect the problem of employment is the crux of the problem of post-war reconstruction.

“The war and the problem of post-war reconstruction have brought into sharp relief the question whether the Constitution as it is framed today will be adequate to the needs of to-morrow. Many of the fathers of the Constitution were more enthusiastic as to the people's power of amendment than they were as to many provisions of the Constitution itself. For instance, Mr. Alfred Deakin said at the close of the last pre-Federation convention

"After all, and much as it accomplishes, this Constitution is but the framework and ground plan of the nation that is to be. It is perhaps, by a wise discretion, that we have insufficient1y and inadequately dealt with the difficulties with which we are at present perplexed. It is enough that we have provided the means of enabling those to deal with them who will be far better qualified for that task than we are.

“The reason for the insistence upon the people's power of amendment is obvious enough. The Constitution of 1900 was, in many respects, based on an 18th century document, the Constitution of the United States of 1787. Moreover, during the 40 years since Federation, the Australian economy has undergone momentous changes which could not have been contemplated in the nineties. Above all, the question of national planning in relation both to war and peace has been brought prominently forward while the Australian federal system has had to undergo the strain of participation in two world wars and the shock of a tremendous economic depression.

"It seems to me that, having regard to Australia's obligations not only as one of the united nations, but towards its own servicemen and women and the people generally there will be three matters which must be regarded as basic to any satisfactory national plan for post-war reconstruction. These are - (1) employment, (2) development, and (3) improved standards of living.

“It is only natural to place the greatest emphasis on employment. That is the matter as to which our people are most concerned in relation to the post-war period. Perhaps the outstanding feature of our pre-war economic system was the fact that unemployment and consequent insecurity afflicted or threatened so many of our people. The people still have vividly in their minds the experiences of the great depression of 1930-1933, when one in every three of the working population of Australia was out of work. Even when the war broke out, there were still nearly 250,000 unemployed in Australia. These or most of them might have been employed on useful national developmental works.

"It is not necessary to analyse the reasons why this was not done. The fact is there was no accepted national plan, no objective or pledge binding responsible governmental authorities to secure full employment and so promote the social security of all the people.

"The war has demonstrated what can be done under the combined influence of united effort and national leadership. With the co-operation of the States, the Commonwealth Government has employed all the people of Australia because it has organized the economic life of the country with the single objective of promoting the war effort. The objective was not merely to employ all who were unemployed but to see that each person was placed where he could make his most effective contribution to the war effort. For this reason the Commonwealth Government had to organize and control the nation's economy. The use of men and materials, the establishment of war industries, the distribution of supplies, movements of costs and prices, primary production, the spending of incomes, all had to be focussed towards maximum war production while essential civilian living standards were maintained. This is described more fully in the Convention book which states a case in favour of increased constitutional powers.

“We are also capable of organizing our resources for the great task of peace. First, there are the men and women of the armed forces who are giving everything to save Australia. Then there are the men and women who have left their normal employment to work in war industries. Before the war we suffered from under-employment, from lack of social and economic security for the people, from inadequate housing facilities, from inadequate and disparate social services. We should see to it that, from the very moment when hostilities cease, our economic structure is so shaped or guided that not only the service men and women but the war workers and the people generally will obtain suitable and secure occupations in accordance with a plan which will be of permanent benefit to the nation.

“We, as representatives of the Parliaments of Australia, can hardly contemplate a complete return to pre-war conditions. With the experience of the war, the re-adjustments that have had to be made during the war, the inroads into the way of living of the people during the war, the promises made during the war - with all these things stirring the public conscience as never before - Governments can hardly escape the responsibility of planning a peace effort that will be no less effective than the war effort which will gain us victory. Therefore, it is not a question of governments marking out for themselves particular spheres of action and jealously guarding themselves against any apparent loss of prestige. All the governments of Australia in the post-war world must be prepared to join in a common attack on the grave problems that will arise on the cessation of hostilities. No dispassionate observer of the pre-war world of Australia, no disinterested student of the Constitution, can pretend for one moment that the existing constitutional arrangements will enable the post-war problems to be tackled effectively.

“In short it is not a question of merely seeking additional legal power for the Commonwealth Parliament, but rather one of imposing responsibilities upon the Commonwealth Government on the one hand to develop a progressive and comprehensive post-war policy, and of imposing responsibilities on the State legislatures and governments on the other hand to co-operate fully in the administration of a national plan for reconstruction.

"No doubt it is somewhat easier to lay down national policy in war-time than in peace-time. In the emergency the people are united. We must overthrow our enemies. The cost is immeasurable but although some complain, there can be no resistance to the development of a policy which aims at victory. But we must come to realize that the post-war period should evoke from us a similar response towards united effort. If so, we can be grateful to our war experience if we learn from it the lesson it can teach us - that we have an enormous production potential, that it can be directed by the people as a whole, through their governments, so that the maximum peace production can be developed towards the goal of maximum living standards for all the people of Australia.

“Fairly interpreted, such planning involves no real threat to legitimate private enterprise and initiative. But private enterprise often languished before the war, and one result was unemployment and inadequate standards of living. The truth is that, with proper encouragement, Australian industry and enterprise could be expanded enormously. Just as there is an immense production potential, so there is an immense untapped potential of public consumption and demand for the use of resources to develop our country. Up to the present private enterprise has not of itself succeeded in bridging the gap. If the Government takes the initiative and encourages and assists, private enterprise may become a powerful instrument for developing our economy and fulfilling its true function.

“Let me quote a short statement by Mr. Perkins, a member of the United States Board of Economic Warfare, who recently said –

“The plain people of this earth know what they want in the post-war period. Above all else they want to be wanted; they want a chance to work and be useful. They want an income which will give them enough food and clothing and shelter and medical care to drive the fear of want from the family fireside. And they want these simple things within a society that guarantees their civil liberties. The plain people will be understanding about the problems of re-adjustment. They will work hard for all this, and they will walk any reasonable roads to these ends. But the chains of the ages have snapped. The one thing they won't do is to take 'no' for a final answer to their cry for full employment. Not after all this suffering; not when they see themselves surrounded later on by too much of what they need most and yet might not be able to get. Idleness, be it of men or money or machines, will be the one unforgivable sin of the post-war world.

“While the Commonwealth should assume the obligation to provide employment and to undertake the general superintendence of a national plan for post-war reconstruction, at the same time, the States must co-operate in the administration of the national plan. The States already have the machinery and much of the experience necessary for such a task. But the Commonwealth should take the lead in laying down a vigorous plan aimed at securing employment and satisfactory standards of living. While the Commonwealth must be able to define police where necessary, normally the policy would be carried out by collaboration between the Commonwealth and the States. The primary responsibility for post-war reconstruction rests on the Commonwealth, and that Parliament should have the powers necessary for it to face up to that responsibility.

“The objective is therefore not distinguishable from that which we are bound to aim at because of the pledges defined in the Atlantic Charter. Post-war reconstruction requires a national policy. That policy must be consciously directed to securing social justice. If we can give employment and economic security to all those who work or are capable of working we can get right away from the undesirable `dole' attitude of social services. Our social policy will be directed to protecting individuals from exploitation by individuals or groups stronger than themselves; to providing services which are really social or national such as guaranteed minimum standards for those unable to support themselves; by the provision of old-age, invalid and widows' pensions, child endowment, maternity allowances, and allowances to others unable to work; above all making a reality of the four freedoms - `Freedom of speech, religious freedom, freedom from want and freedom from fear'.

"The three features of (a) employment, (b) national development, and (c) improved standards are closely related. In seeking ways to employ our people, we will use them to develop our country and to raise our standard of living. In developing our country, we will give employment to our people and raise our standard of living. In order to raise our standard of living, we will give employment to our people and we will develop our country.

“There are slums to be cleared and to be re-built. There is an accumulated housing shortage to be met. This will require the building, after the war, of at least 250,000 new houses. Spread over ten years, that will employ at least 60,000 men a year. This is a very striking and important example. But the construction of roads and public buildings, the extension of irrigation, afforestation, soil conservation, the development of power and lighting services, the building of railways, and the unification of railway systems, the development of air transport, the building up of industrial enterprises, the improvement of child welfare, of health and fitness services, can all help to give employment, supremely useful employment, to all the men and women who will otherwise be crying out for work. In fact, we have so much to do that we have no chance of doing it all, no chance of doing the best we should do, unless we carefully plan our whole programme of development and see that our resources are used where they can contribute best to the welfare of our people.

"The bill introduced by the Attorney-General into the House of Representatives followed closely the statement made by my colleague the Treasurer, in his budget-speech, referring to post-war reconstruction and the need for constitutional reform in relation thereto. Since the introduction of the bill there has been considerable discussion, public debate and some valuable criticism. From the beginning both the Attorney-General and myself have emphasized three things -

“1. The bill is designed to establish the principle that, in relation to post-war reconstruction, the Commonwealth Parliament should be invested by the people with a greater measure of constitutional power. “2. The bill was not and is not definitive or final in form or substance. “3. The main questions to be determined are -(a) Is the Australian nation to have the means of planning to solve the problems of post-war reconstruction and of carrying such plan into effect? (b) Are those means to be placed in the hands of the Commonwealth Parliament? and (c) What means are required?

“The Australian people have a great mission to perform in the days of peace. How is the task to be performed? Surely we can determine here and now what legal powers are desirable to enable the Commonwealth Parliament to perform its duty to the fighting services, their dependants and the people as a whole and to perform its duty as one of the united nations to achieve economic security and social justice during the period of post-war reconstruction. The carrying out of these pledges - internal as well as external - is a task that cannot be avoided. It was the Commonwealth which gave these pledges. The Commonwealth Parliament must carry them out.

“Before I come to the question of the precise legal means which we shall ask you to endorse, I must emphasize that the problem cannot be shelved. It must be faced now. I agree with the Premier of New South Wales (Mr. McKell), who said "to put off planning for post-war reconstruction until the war is over would mean economic and social disaster'. The Leader of the United Australia party (Mr. Hughes), I think, has said much the same thing. Indeed, practically all those present to-day at this Convention have agreed in substance. Thus, the Leader of the Opposition in New South Wales (Mr. Mair) has insisted that it would `be unwise to wait until the end of the war to deal with the problems of putting back into industry the men who are now in the war zone and others who are serving on the home front'.

“Then what is to be done? After the closest consultation with the Attorney-General and the other Government representatives at this Convention, we have come to the conclusion that we should make a great effort to obtain unanimity in achieving the main objective of the bill, which is to give sufficient authority to the Commonwealth Parliament to assume primary, though not exclusive, responsibility for the problem of post-war reconstruction. In this spirit the Attorney-General has re-examined all the objections which have been raised and has endeavoured to meet the most important of them. Therefore he will suggest amendments to the bill and I now ask him to announce them."

JCPML.  Records of the Commonwealth of Australia.  Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches by the Prime Minister. No. 46, 12 November - 6 December 1942.  JCPML00110/51