Chapter 26 - The Opposition's Duty

Posted in The Forgotten People

In May last I took the opportunity in one of my broadcasts of discussing what seemed to me the function of the Opposition in the Federal political structure.

Recently this topic has come under active public discussion because certain public criticisms made by the Opposition through its leader have given rise to an exhibition of resentment in Government circles and even to threats of an immediate election. It is therefore appropriate that I should once more state what I believe to be the true principle which must determine the Opposition's conduct and mark out its duty.

There is in Australia no all-party administration. For better or for worse the present Government, when in Opposition and continually since, has made it clear that it does not believe in an all-party government; that, on the contrary, it believes that even under present circumstances there should be a party administration acting through the ordinary party machinery and giving effect to party policy.

The inevitable result of this is that there must be a party Opposition. We Australians have a deep-rooted and sound instinct against anybody being allowed to have things both ways, and there will be little public sympathy for an opinion which says that, while there is to be a purely one-party administration on the treasury benches, there is at the same time to be a non-party Opposition.

It is, I believe, a grave misfortune for Australia that party politics should not have been suspended for the duration of the war; but it is a misfortune for which the Opposition cannot accept responsibility, and for which you will agree that I myself who, when Prime Minister, offered to stand down and serve under a Labour Prime Minister, can accept no shadow of responsibility.

The Opposition, then, being forced to be a party Opposition, has had to consider its duty. In its view, with which I think you will agree, its duty falls into two parts: First, on the positive side, it must constructively help in the carrying out of all measures, however unpopular, which truly relate to the marshalling and use of the country's resources for the prosecution of the war to a complete success. Second, on the negative side, it must oppose by every means within its command any use of the war powers for purely partisan domestic ends, and criticize within the limits of national security any acts it believes to represent erroneous or harmful administration.

Just turn your mind back for a few weeks and recall the chief matters upon which the Opposition has voiced criticisms. They have been: The Government's proposed four per cent profit limitation, the failure to convert the Australian army into one army with the same conditions of service, compulsory unionism, certain censorship matters, and the Government's handling of the man power problem.

Was it improper to criticize the four per cent proposals? It can hardly lie in the mouth of the Government to say so, because the outstanding result of the criticism made was that the Government admitted their force and publicly announced that it was abandoning the proposals.

Then take the question of one army. Here is a matter of first class importance to Australia, particularly if we are, at a suitable time and under suitable military circumstances, to conduct an offensive. Are we really to be told that the Opposition in Parliament, though it may have the strongest views on such a question, is to suppress them? Why, you might as well abolish the Opposition altogether and say that, for the rest of the war, the Executive is to govern Australia without reference to Parliament and unaffected by any public opinion which has had - what every public opinion needs - a fair and full statement of both sides.

To be a member of Parliament at a time like this and to be compelled to be silent about matters of first class importance in Australia's war effort would be a position intolerable to a self-respecting man. It is one that I could not myself accept for a moment.

Then there is compulsory unionism. Recently I had the opportunity of making a broadcast to you about it. Was the making of such a broadcast an improper thing? Am I or are you, because there is a war on, to sit silently and allow freedom of industrial association to disappear, perhaps for ever?

Is censorship, to take the fourth matter I have mentioned, to be not only authoritative, which I agree it should be, but also placed beyond criticism? If it is, then opinion in this country will cease to be the product of the exercise by each of us of an immemorial privilege, and will come under complete control.

My last example was man power. Here we have a question which is at the very root of our national effort. Australia has not an unlimited population or unlimited resources. She is bound in this war to do absolutely everything she can to play her full part. But what is her full part? It is one in which the greatest practicable number of fighting men are adequately trained and adequately equipped for modern war, while production and distribution are sufficiently carried on to attend to the needs of the services, munitions, the civil population and certain essential exports of foodstuffs and material to our allies, notably Great Britain.

In other words, the problem of man power is not a question merely of adding up the maximum demands of the services and of munitions and then subtracting the necessary power from the rest of the community; it is essentially a problem of scientific balance, and of so apportioning our resources that each vital element gets as fair and as full a share as is practicable.

Is the mere fact that one or two ministers are put in charge of these matters to close the mouths of all the rest of us? Is an Opposition bound to be silent if it honestly believes that blunders are being made, that maladjustment is resulting, that unnecessary shortages are being imposed upon people because the man power problem has got out of balance?

You see, it is not a question of the Government saying to the Opposition, "You are wrong in your arguments, and therefore you must not say what you in fact say." Who is to determine whether the Opposition is right of wrong? Obviously not the Government but, in the long run, public opinion. The whole essence of the parliamentary system is that we get at the truth by the process of debate, by the process of educating our minds and judgments by the hearing of reasoned arguments on both sides.

I notice that certain correspondents, writing to the newspapers, are disposed to dismiss all this argument as if it were irresponsible wrangling in the face of the enemy. But we must think calmly and clearly about this matter.

Personal abuse is one thing; to sensible people it rarely does more than condemn the man who engages in it. But honest argument about important questions is quite another; and the argument does not become any the less honest or important because it is expressed and pursued with vigour and determination.

I have a very clear recollection that for the first two years of this war, when I was myself Prime Minister, there was no lack of criticism and discussion. A great deal of it was engaged in by some of those who now seek to tell us that a wartime Government should be above criticism and beyond debate. Has criticism come to an end in Great Britain or in the United States? You have only to read your cables to know that it has not. In the House of Commons they still enjoy full liberty to say what they think of the Government or of any minister. It is only in Germany and Italy that this democratic privilege no longer exists.

And has the criticism in Great Britain been dangerous or useless? The fact is that it has, since the war began, produced one major change of Government, a great number of changes in Government personnel, and from time to time considerable alterations of policy. All this is to the good.

When I was in office I used to hear loud demands from those on the other side of Parliament that Parliament should sit more frequently and for longer periods. Why was this? Was it so that the Opposition could practise uttering a concerted "yes" to everything the Government put forward, or was it in order that Parliament should perform its proper function - not of being mischievous or irresponsible, but of soberly and strongly debating the conduct of the war and of our external and domestic policies?

I tell you, listeners, that it will be a black day for self-governing freedom in Australia when to be a political critic is considered improper, or when the only criticism permitted is one couched in mild and apologetic terms.

In time of war in a country like this no word is to be spoken which will give information to the enemy or which will assist him to conduct his war against us. No wild and offensive statements are to be made which will divide the people on immaterial grounds. Of all action justly and necessarily taken by any Government, no Opposition should seek to take party advantage. But within these limits I maintain and will continue to maintain that, where you have a party Government, a party Opposition has a duty not merely to itself but, much more importantly, to the people, which it is bound to discharge fearlessly and persistently.

28 August, 1942