NEW FEDERALISM OR NATIONAL UNITY?
JOHN CURTIN MEMORIAL LECTURE-1977
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Contribution to Australian Unity
So secure is Curtin's place in the history of our country and the affections of the Labor Party that we scarcely feel it necessary to seek new evidence of his greatness or foresight. Yet even the most cursory study of his period in office can yield fresh insights on his life and work. He is, of course, still justly honoured above all as the leader of the Government that in a time of supreme danger ensured the security and survival of Australia. That record, however, should not obscure his illustrious contribution to Australia's peace time development or the lessons it carries for Labor today. Thirty-six years after Curtin became Prime Minister, the principles for which he fought, and many of the specific reforms he pioneered, are under challenge from the most conservative Government in our history.
Curtin's signal accomplishment as a leader was to set the seal on our national unity. Establishing and consolidating that unity was the key to his efforts in rallying the nation for war. He was our first and greatest nationalist Prime Minister; but his nationalism was not just a catchcry for the duration of the war, as Hughes's nationalism had been a generation earlier. It was a fundamental and pervading element in his character and style of government. Australian nationalism was born, not with the Anzac landing, but with the response of the Curtin Labor Government to the external threat to our security in 1941. Curtin's nationalism was a lasting and permanent projection of his ambitions for the Australian people. It was also an embodiment of the aspirations of the people at the time.
Those aspirations were for unity and nationhood in place of old fashioned divisions and State rights; for national independence in place of colonial subservience; for planned national growth and security in place of the haphazard practices of the past. Curtin knew that Australia needed unity and national purpose to survive in war; he knew also that only a truly united and purposeful nation would prosper in peace.
It is timely to put his record in this light because it will help us to understand the enormity and folly of the present trends in our national life. What would Curtin have made of the Fraser Government? What would he have thought of the new federalism? I shall return to these questions in a moment. Beyond doubt, the developments in Australian politics in the past two years would have been anathema to Curtin--very probably incomprehensible to a man of his temperament and vision. I am not thinking only of the attacks on living standards and the dismantling of initiatives in welfare and community services. The fragmentation of national will, the fostering of State rivalries and divisions, the pandering to State rights and other colonial dogmas, the gross malapportionment of our national resources implicit in Mr Fraser's new federalist doctrines--all of this is a turning back, a turning away, from the spirit of unity and nationhood that Curtin espoused. After all, his great unifying message and his great personal example were concerned not just with the war but with the whole course of Australia's future development and character as a nation. The reforms and initiatives of the wartime and postwar Labor Governments, most of them the result of Curtin's inspiration, were designed to chart a course for Australia and establish a set of principles in our national life which would carry us into a new era of postwar growth and maturity.
I want to deal tonight with the most important of those principles and show how the Fraser Government, in subtle but profoundly important ways, aims to alter the fundamental assumptions of our political life. I am not suggesting that the methods and priorities for governments in Curtin's time are an infallible guide to the actions of governments today. Quite clearly the problems we face now are of a different order and a different kind. Even in a nation that had experienced the rigours of depression, there was no way that the Curtin or Chifley Governments could have prepared us for the novel and seemingly intractable economic difficulties that beset the western nations in the last quarter of the 20th century. The problems of resource management, of mineral development, of environmental protection, of structural economic change, of rural decline--to mention a few--were largely unknown in Australia in Curtin's day. Nevertheless, I believe it is true that Curtin inspired certain guidelines for our national life that must still serve as our inspiration in the difficult conditions of today's world.
The first of these is full employment. Full employment was laid down as an objective of Labor policy during the period of the Curtin Government and proclaimed in a White Paper by its successor. Every subsequent government adopted full employment as a national goal; the Fraser Government has been the first to discard it. It is the first government to abrogate a responsibility for preserving the livelihoods of the Australian people. No one denies that the achievement of full employment is a more difficult task today than it was in the postwar years or in the growth decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Those difficulties only make the objective more urgent and important. For it is precisely in times of economic difficulty and personal insecurity that a Government's commitment to full employment is most needed. That commitment has now been abandoned, and the Fraser Government does not bother to conceal the fact.
I mention full employment as a cardinal principle of the Curtin Government because it was far more than an economic objective. Curtin undoubtedly saw it as the first test of a government's social responsibility. The Liberals still treat the employment statistics as a mere indicator--usually the least important indicator--of economic recovery rather than the definition of recovery itself. They still seek to evade their responsibility by pointing to rising unemployment when Labor was in office. Everyone knows that unemployment in Australia increased between 1972 and 1975 when the world was first gripped by recession; but it increased in that time in every major western country. Between the end of 1972 and the end of 1975 unemployment went up in every OECD country. The difference is that while unemployment has since fallen in other western countries, in Australia it has steadily risen.
It is now clear that behind the attempts to blame Labor for this problem is a massive Government drive to institutionalise high unemployment. Unemployment is no longer just a difficulty or a problem: it is, we are now told, an inevitable fact of life. The Treasurer has more than once stated in the past month that we can look forward to continuing high levels of unemployment for the foreseeable future. Already we have had unemployment in Australia of more than 5% of the workforce in every month since last September--easily the longest and worst period of sustained unemployment since the Depression. According to the Statistician, one in every six young people in the labour force was unemployed in February. Of those between 15 and 19 years, more than a third--33.9%--had been unemployed at some time during 1976. In other words, more than a third of Australia's youth--the best educated generation Australia has produced--has tasted unemployment under this Government and the scars will stay with them for the rest of their lives. What should worry us about the figures is not so much the incompetence of the Government but its attempt to condition Australians to unprecedented and largely unnecessary new levels of industrial stagnation and human suffering.
Unemployment is only one aspect of our current economic malaise though it happens to be the one where the Liberal retreat from established and humane social principles is most conspicuous. The fact is that in practially every area of economic management the Fraser Government has made matters worse. Unemployment is worse, the deficit is worse, business confidence is worse, interest rates are higher, industrial production and retail sales remain stagnant or in decline, the value of the dollar is down, inflation is still running at more than 12%. I confess that if there is one myth about the Liberals that I have never been able to understand it is the myth of their superior economic competence. We should never forget that the highest inflation in Australia's history occurred under Menzies. It was Liberal incompetence and irresponsibility that sowed the seeds of our inflation in 1973 and 1974 and it is Liberal incompetence and callousness that is prolonging our current recession.
I don't want to canvass here the particular remedies needed to deal with our current problems. The point I make in this context is that never before has there been a greater need to affirm our belief in full employment as an objective of democratic governments. Never before has there been a greater need for national unity and national direction in achieving this goal. The Fraser Government's retreat from national unity and cohesive national purpose is the greatest single obstacle to sustained recovery. Full employment and genuine recovery will not be achieved by leaving economic remedies to the States. They will not come about if we expect the States to sort our their problems unaided.
When Curtin introduced the system of uniform taxation in Australia in 1942 he had more in mind than the efficient and equitable financing of the war effort. By that reform--the most important in our economic structure since Federation--he was fashioning an instrument for marshalling the nation's revenues and resources, an instrument for national prosperity. Certainly it placed an important new power and responsibility in the hands of the central government, but it was essentially a measure for national unity, for strengthening the sinews of national government and promoting equity among the States. It was part of an historical movement towards nationhood, and it was accepted in that spirit by all governments and all parties. Curtin himself said, when introducing the uniform tax bills in May 1942:
Whatever be the character of the Australian political structure--a structure which consists of a Federal Government and six State Governments--the fact is that all these instrumentalities are the agencies of the one people. We must look at this matter not only in the light of immediate requirments but also in the light of the evolution of the federal system.
There can be do doubt that the new federalism--with
its return of State taxing powers--is intended to end uniform taxation as
we know it and as Curtin intended it. Once we admit the principle that the
economic prosperity of a particular State is largely the responsibility
of that State--and can be determined by the particular taxes and surcharges
it chooses to raise--we destroy the whole theory of national responsibility
for our economic affairs.
For nearly two years, until the Premiers' Conference last April, the Federal Liberals sought to cover up and distort the real meaning of their new federalism. It is now clear that the Prime Minister has on his hands a major rebellion by the Premiers--not from the Labor Premiers alone, but equally, indeed more vehemently, from the non-Labor Premiers. Their objections take different forms and have different motivations, but all the Premiers see clearly the real intention behind the Prime Minister's protestations of high principle and goodwill. The Prime Minister wants to pass the buck to the States for all the failings of governments. Whenever there is some odium or blame to be faced--for raising taxes, for failing to meet people's legitimate needs, for failing to produce sound economic policies, for starving essential services of necessary funds--it is the States which would have to accept that blame. High-flown talk about a fixed share of certain Federal revenues will not guarantee the States an adequate or rising proportion of the nation's financial resources for their responsibilities.
The new federalism means dual taxation; it means double taxation; it means the end of the system of uniform taxation which has served Australia well since Curtin's days; it means the withdrawal of the Federal Government from all creative programs and all responsibilities for the people's welfare and the nation's advancement. Far from signalling a new era of cooperation between the States and the Federal Government, it means the end of cooperation, the end of any joint and shared responsibility for the needs of the Australian people. Under the Fraser federalism the real creative cooperation between State governments and Federal Government--the cooperation that has been the basis of all new initiatives and all constructive ventures for the people's welfare since the war--would be destroyed in reality and in spirit. The Premiers have seen through it and the people have seen through it--not just the Labor Premiers and the Labor States but the Liberal States. Even Mr Bjelke-Petersen's Government has rejected this policy out of hand.
Let us be quite clear that the Fraser federalism is not meant to kill off Labor's programs alone, but any cooperative Federal-State venture. It would spell the end of Federal initiatives not only by my Government but also by succesive Liberal governments--the Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon--governments alike. This is the first Liberal Government to undo the work of its own Liberal predecessors. Every initiative in public welfare or national development since the war has been taken by the Federal Government or with its participation. There was no welfare housing in this country before the Federal Government made it happen. How many universities would there be and of what standard would they be but for Federal involvement during and since the war? What would be the prospects of our railways, hospitals, schools or technical colleges if their recent development had been left to the States alone? Have the States been able to preserve our heritage? Have they been able to service the postwar suburbs and resource centres? It is inevitable that initiatives in these areas must now come, as they have come since Curtin's day, from the Federal Government. The Federal Government alone can raise direct taxes on individuals and corporations in an efficient and equitable manner; it has a constitutional monopoly in indirect taxes--customs and excise, including sales tax. The States lack the means to raise revenues efficiently and equitably because the revenue measures available to them--apart from income tax and death duties--consist of licences or franchises. Their methods of financing services from their own resources are inequitable or incomplete. Adequate public services and public accountability are not to be secured by resurrecting the financial arrangements of an earlier era but by accepting the respective responsibilities required in a modern nation.
Uniform taxation was preserved in this country because we recognised, as a nation, that the States were so disparate and diverse, so unequal in their populations and their tax resources, that without a coordinating and overriding Federal responsibility for growth, welfare and development, the very ideal of federation would be at risk. Pressures and disparities among the States would produce a grossly unequal and therefore divided nation. Every successful Federal initiative, every attempted Federal initiative, has produced benefits for our people and drawn us together more closely as a nation. Without Federal intervention there would be no unbroken rail guages between the States; urban transport, particulary the railways, would still be burdened with antiquated equipment and rolling stock; young people would still have inadequate and unequal opportunities for secondary and tertiary education; and new initiatives in health centres, the environment and child care would not have been contemplated.
To return Australia to prewar federalism is to ignore the immense national growth in the demand for government services during the past 30 years. The responsibilities of governments are vastly more extensive, complex and costly than they were. Education is a striking example. There would be scant opportunities for higher education today, and very little decent secondary education, if it were not for Federal participation and initiatives. The Federal Government, with primary responsibility for economic management, fiscal policy and the allocation of resources, simply cannot ignore the rising demand for such services. In 1947, 6.3% of young people of university age were receiving tertiary education; by 1975 the proportion had nearly trebled to 17.7%. In 1945 Federal expenditure on education was less than $10 million. The demand for education has grown so much in the past 30 years that total expenditure on education by the Federal Government this financial year is estimated at $2,204 million. Population growth and inflation alone cannot account for this growth. Growth of this order has been a feature of the economies of every western country.
It is instructive to look at the effects of the Fraser Government's policies on education, with particular reference to this State. Four weeks ago Senator Carrick stated that grants to the States for universities would be cut in the next Budget. States that want to maintain their universities or cater for new enrolments will have to find additional funds themselves or allow services to decline. They will have to cut down the number of students or impose fees. The people of Western Australia used to enjoy the only free university in Australia until fees were introduced under the Menzies Government's compulsion. Under the new federalism, how long will it be before fees are imposed again? And how long will those fees go on rising? Every Federal government since the war has made an increased commitment to universities in the Federal Budget. However stringent the economic situation, the commitment to future generations, expressed in the growth of tertiary education services, was considered inviolate. The Fraser Government is making the first reduction in the Federal commitment to education since the war--and needless to say, it is doing so in defiance of its promises.
We should never forget that the principle of Federal responsibility for education--widely attributed to Menzies--is in fact a legacy of the Curtin Government. The Fraser Government is wriggling away from it. The first Universities Commission was set up by regulation in February 1943. The Commission was empowered to supervise enrolments and assist certain students as part of the Government's plans for the regulation of manpower in wartime.
After the war, the Federal Government, with its responsibility for repatriation, began helping ex-servicemen to complete their education and undertake tertiary courses. In 1945 Parliament passed an Education Act which created the Office of Education. One of the statutory functions of this Office was "to advise the Minister concerning the grant of financial assistance to the States and to other authorities for education purposes". In 1946, through the Social Services Referendum, the Commonwealth Parliament was granted power to provide benefits to students. Just before the 1949 elections the Labor Government had drafted proposals to provide secondary and tertiary scholarships to students. The incoming Menzies Government rejected the proposals for secondary scholarships but accepted those for universities. The first of these Commonwealth Scholarships were granted in 1951. In 1957, with the universities overloaded and dependent on Federal funds, Sir Keith Murray's committee reported on their needs and in 1959 a new Universities Commission was established by statute. Since then, universities have benefited from substantially increased funds and have been able to plan confidently ahead on the basis of grants determined on a regular and rational assessment of their needs. If the Fraser Government succeeds in reducing the Federal commitment to education, and forcing universities to restore fees, it will be reversing a principle that has been steadily developed and strengthened over the past 34 years.
Of course there is the usual softening-up process to condition us for cuts in education spending, just as we are being conditioned for inevitable higher unemployment.
You will have noticed a cynical new conservative argument to the effect that what is needed in education is not more money but more rigorous standards and a return to the disciplines of old-fashioned classrooms. I recall Sir Charles Court, during your State election campaign in January, proclaiming the virtues of the three R's, as if he had made some novel educational discovery. I don't disparage the three R's--though I sometimes wonder if all the Premiers have mastered them. Nor do I assert that money means everything in education. What Labor asserts most staunchly is that where money is needed--and education of any sort is increasingly expensive--it must be allocated first of all to the schools that need it most. That is the essence of Labor's policy; it is the basis of the Schools Commission's charter; and it was the key to my Government's success in eliminating from our educational system the grossest inequalities and the worst manifestations of sectarian bitterness. Whenever you hear conservatives saying that less money is needed for education, or that money is not the answer, you never hear them say that less money should go to their private schools or their own privileged sector. It is only Government schools that should make do with less.
Housing and Health
Education is not the only target of the Fraser Government's retrenchments. Across the whole field of government activity it is cancelling Federal involvement and ending or severely curtailing Federal expenditures--not in the interests of economic management but in pursuance of its queer and reactionary federalism. Its attack on Medibank--another broken promise--has already had the effect of restoring fees for standard ward hospital treatment. Every State in Australia had free hospitals under agreements made between the States and the Chifley Government. The Menzies Government discontinued those agreements. Labor restored them in a new form. The Fraser Government has broken them again.
The Federal Government's involvement in housing--indeed, any government involvement in housing--originated with the Curtin Government. In April 1943 it appointed a Commonwealth Housing Commission which visited all States to study housing needs. In its final report, tabled in Parliament, it recommended an active government responsibility for housing. The report stated:
We consider it essential that, in Australia, the government should accept responsiblity for ensuring adequate housing of the people, especially the low income group. This will involve supplementing on a large scale building undertaken by private enterprise.
The Australian Housing Corporation was
established by my Government in 1975 to provide for all home owners and
buyers within Federal jurisdiction the services hitherto available, through
the defence services homes scheme, to servicemen and ex-servicemen alone.
It was particularly intended to benefit low-income earners. The Fraser Government
has repealed this socialist legislation. Its attack on welfare housing--an
area for which my Government established almost total Federal responsiblity
after 1973--and its 45% cut in aged persons housing in the last Budget flout
the whole spirit of the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreements first
drawn up in Curtin's day and enacted by Chifley in 1945 and the aged persons
legislation enacted by Menzies in 1954.
It may be useful if I lay to rest two persistent myths about a Labor Government's approach to public spending. The first is that because Labor believes in Federal responsibility for our growth and community services it is necessarily committed to ever-increasing Federal expenditures. I am not going to pretend that a Labor Government would not commit more of our national resources to, say, health, housing or education than the Fraser Government, but we have never supposed that Federal outlays on our programs--or, for that matter, our outlays to the States and local government--can grow without check. Clearly there is a need at the moment for greater Federal outlays to stimulate sectors of the economy and ameliorate the Fraser-Lynch recession, but Labor has never advocated unlimited public spending and does not do so now. The 1973 Coombs Task Force made possible savings in government expenditure of around $1,000 million in a full year. The Hayden Budget of 1975 actually reduced, and sharply reduced, the rate of growth of Federal spending. Labor's approach can be summarised as follows: whenever a social or community need is identified, public money should be allocated where needs and priorities demand it, and always consistently with the requirements of overall economic management. The basis of Labor's approach is fairness and equity--not an attempt to accomplish everything overnight, but to move steadily towards our social goals, ensuring that the areas of greatest human need have the first claim on the community's resources.
The second myth is that a Labor Government wants to run everything from Canberra. This charge has a special potency in the more remote States, though why people in so distant a region as the Pilbara, for example, should feel any greater kinship or loyalty to Perth than they do to the Federal capital is beyond my understanding. It is one of the tragedies of years of conservative propaganda that the very name of the nation's capital has been made a dirty word--a symbol of distant oppression and bureaucracy. Labor has never sought to run everything from Canberra. What we want to ensure is that public resources are so distributed that every State, every region and every local council will have the means to carry out its work and, as far as practicable, fulfil its responsibilities to the community. How local funds are allocated and used will always be a matter for local authorities or, where appropriate, for the States themselves. Labor is in fact far more the party of local autonomy and devolution of power than the Liberals. No Federal Government before mine had ever introduced laws or referendums to help local government or involved local government representatives in constitutional discussions.
Curtin not only had a realistic grasp of Labor's social and legislative role, he also saw clearly the need for long-term constitutional reform. In 1944 his Government tried strenuously to equip the Federal Parliament with the necessary powers for postwar reconstruction and development. I might say that it was very much due to Curtin's efforts that I first became concerned about the Australian Constitution. In 1961, delivering the second of these lectures under the auspices of the University of Western Australia branch of the Labor Party, I said:
My interest in constitutional matters stems from the time when John Curtin was Prime Minister. The Commonwealth Parliament's powers were then at their most ample and it was constitutionally, if not always politically, more open to a Labor Government to carry out its policies than it is in peace time. John Curtin, however, saw that he was presiding over a passing phase. He was not content with the paradox that the Labor Party was free to enact its policies in times of war alone. Accordingly, in 1944 he sponsored a referendum to give the Federal Parliament postwar powers. His motives for holding the referendum were based on patriotism and experience. He argued the case with his full logic and eloquence. The opposition to the referendum was spurious and selfish. The arguments were false. My hopes were dashed by the outcome and from that moment I determined to do all I could to modernise the Australian Constitution.
Curtin's efforts in 1944 led to the referendum
in 1946, giving the Federal Parliament wider powers over social services.
With the passage of that referendum the power of the Chifley Government
to safeguard the individual security of Australians was immeasurably strengthened.
It was a step that was wholly consistent with the movement to unity and
nationhood that Curtin had inaugurated.
The question remains: Are we any closer today to the thorough-going constitutional reform for which Curtin was working? I believe we are. I have explained elsewhere that I no longer regard the Constitution as a serious impediment to Labor's legislative program. My earlier pessimism on this subject derived largely from the casuistry of High Court judgments 30 years ago, when Labor legislation on banking, airlines and free medicine was blocked by preposterous interpretations of Section 92 and the social services power. It must be said that the High Court has improved since then. One of the significant achievements of our three years in goveriment was to show how the powers of the Constitution could be tested and used for the successful implementation of Labor's program. None of the many challenges to Labor's legislation during our term of office was upheld by the High Court. It is true that our bill for a Petroleum and Minerals Authority (PMA) was declared invalid, but this was due to an unrealistic interpretation of parliamentary procedures by the majority of the Court and not to any doubts which the Court expressed on the PMA proposal itself. The next Labor Government will be able, on the basis of our experience, to approach its task with much greater confidence and dispatch.
The real weakness of the Constitution, as I see it now, is its failure to ensure the working of the democratic system or to guarantee the democratic rights of Australians. Reforming the Constitution to safeguard democracy will be the paramount duty for socialists in the future. I am confident that such reform will eventually come about whatever the obstruction and lying propaganda of the Premiers. The May referendums showed that even when the Premiers and their friends in the Senate ran a spoiling campaign to frustrate reform they could still be rebuffed on three out of four questions and very nearly beaten on the other. The May referendums certainly proved the absurdity of a Constitution that can prevent he passage of a referendum which 62% of the voters favour. They also proved that the overwhelming majority of Australians would never again allow devious Premiers or unscrupulous senators to repeat the shameful manipulation of Senate numbers that we witnessed in 1975. The people have declared that the stacking of the Senate for political purposes will not be tolerated again. Conventions flouted by the Premiers have now been enforced by the voters.
I doubt if people have grasped just how devious and dishonest the conservative Premiers were during the referendums campaign in May. The proposal for simultaneous elections had the unanimous support of delegates to the Constitutional Convention in October. Neither Sir Charles Court and his delegation nor Mr Bjelke-Petersen and his delegation opposed it. Yet both of them tried to wreck the referendum when it was put to the people. Sir Charles Court's delegation also gave its full support to the proposal that electors in the Territories should be able to vote in referendums. At the same time his Government was sponsoring High Court litigation which will, if successful, nullify the very referendum the people have carried. The Constitution, as amended, now provides that Territory citizens will have the right to vote in referendums where they already possess the right to vote in House of Representatives elections. Yet the Western Australian Government is challenging the right of the Territories to representation in the House of Representatives--not in the Senate, but in the House itself. If that challenge is successful the expressed wish of the people would be overturned. The High Court should have no hesitation, in view of the referendum result, in throwing out the Western Australian case.
This rearguard obstruction to constitutional reform was not foreseen by Curtin, yet no Prime Minister understood more clearly the need to reform the Constitution to strengthen Australia's independence. He knew better than any politician in his day that the popular aspirations for independence would never be fulfilled while Australia remained--however tenuously or symbolically--a colonial outpost. Curtin's government in 1942 passed the legislation by which Australia formally adopted the Statute of Westminster. My own view, which I have explained elsewhere, is that the Statute of Westminster is no longer an instrument of Australian independence but an impediment to it. Bul there can be no doubt of the importance of Curtin's move in 1942 as an assertion of Australian sovereignty and independence. Together with his famous appeal to the United States, it represented the first uncompromising rejection by an Australian Prime Minister of dominion status for this country. Its example and message are still relevant today.
Curtin was convinced that despite the trappings and relics of colonialism that survived in his time, the principles of responsible government were nevertheless safely entrenched under the system of constitutional monarchy. Two years ago, when delivering the Curtin Memorial Lecture in Camberra, I recalled the circumstances of the great constitutional crisis in October 1941 that brought Curtin to the Prime Ministership. I said:
The first Curtin Government ... was a government formed solely through a majority of the House of Representatives and maintained solely at the will of the majority of the House of Representatives. Neither in attaining nor retaining the Prime Ministership did Curtin ever have to consider the state of the political parties in the Senate. Thus, in the most critical time in this nation's history, one of the strongest of our governments was sustained by the narrowest possible majority in the House of Representatives. But that bare majority was enough for the highest possible of all purposes--the security and survival of this nation. There could be no more striking proof--if proof were ever needed--of the power and absolute supremacy of the majority--even a mere majority--in the House of Representatives ... With that paper-thin majority in the House of Representatives, despite its minority position in the Senate, the Curtin Government went on to mobiIise Australia and to steer Australia through the perils of 1942 and 1943. That Government was not only Curtin's vindication; it was a vindication of the authority of the House of Representatives, a vindication never to be forgotten.
That authority, so strong, so unquestioned
in Curtin's day, was overturned by Mr Fraser and his wretched henchmen less
than two years ago. Such an act would have been inconceivable in Curtin's
time. It was not just that the Senate was regarded in 1941 as an irrelevant
anachronism; the authority of the House of Representatives in making and
unmaking governments was rightly considered supreme. No one doubted its
authority for a moment, least of all the Governor-General. In 1945 Prince
Henry could become Governor General without qualms of any kind, because
the basis of constitutional monarchy and responsible government was thought
to be firm and unchallengable in Australia. The Queen would not allow Prince
Charles, and he would not want, to be Governor-General today. On the afternoon
of 11 November 1975, when the House of Representatives declared its want
of confidence in the Fraser Government, the Governor-General took no notice
of it. The Parliament was defied. Until our constitutional practice reasserts
the supremacy of the elected House of Representatives in forming the government
of Australia, democracy in this country will remain imperilled and unstable.
The violation of constitutional rules and conventions is not the only legacy of the Fraser Government. In this lecture I have sought to show that in a number of crucial areas, all of them central to our system of government and way of life, principles that have served Australia for more than 30 years have been scrapped or are being scrapped.
Full employment, the cornerstone of individual prosperity and personal security in all industrial nations, has been abandoned as a goal by the Fraser Government.
Uniform taxation, a key instrument of national unity and national equity, is being replaced by a hodge-podge of new taxes, levies and charges by State and local government.
The long-standing and inevitable movement towards Federal responsibility for community services and social welfare has been put into reverse.
Specific initiatives by the Curtin Government for Federal involvement in education and housing have been abandoned.
The natural aspirations of Australians for true democracy and independence have been thwarted.
I put it to you in all earnestness that the Fraser Government's policies are weakening our national unity and fostering new schisms in the nation's life which will make the great problems before us infinitely more difficult to surmount. There is nothing new about a conservative government promoting class divisions; the Fraser Government has been adept at doing so. What is novel and pernicious in this government is its promotion of regional conflicts as well, the encouragement of fresh State rivalries, with the inevitable fragmentation of our national will. We have seen in the Fraser Government a retreat from the principles of nationhood itself--the beginning of a slippery slope that will lead us back to pre-federation days, that will make us once again a congeries of competing States, conflicting interests and squabbling factions. I firmly believe that the Australian people will reject this course. I fully expect that after the next elections--whenever they are held--Australia will return to a path of unity and progress--a path first chartered by the greatest of my predecessors, John Curtin, 36 years ago.
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