Chapter 25 - The Function of the Opposition in Parliament

Posted in The Forgotten People

Every now and then you will read an allegation by somebody to the effect that the Opposition is "playing party politics" or that some individual member of the Opposition is open to criticism because he has criticized or attacked some aspect of Government policy or administration.

We are urged to pull together, apparently on the assumption that once a war comes upon us we should all think exactly the same way about all our problems. This kind of criticism seems to me to exhibit a confusion of thought which requires a few minutes' quiet and dispassionate examination.

What is the function of the Opposition and its members at a time like this?

You will remember that in Australia we do not have, as they have in Great Britain, an all-party administration. I need not go into the history of the reasons for this, because you are no doubt familiar with them. But the fact remains that we have a purely party Government, with its inevitable consequence, a purely party Opposition. In other words we are, in Parliament, divided on party lines.

The present Government has always maintained, even when it was in opposition, that this is the proper way of constituting Parliament, notwithstanding the war, and I have no desire at this stage to debate it. I merely accept it as the fact.

Now, what are the consequences of this? The first and greatest is that you cannot maintain the party system of government and at the same time expect the Opposition to treat the Government as if it were an all-party Government. In all-party Government differences of opinion must inevitably arise between individual ministers, but they are ironed out in the Cabinet Room, and the result, while it might not fully express the views of any individual, will represent what we call the "corporate wisdom" of the Cabinet.

In a party system of government there is no joint cabinet in which differences may be ironed out, and therefore those differences must be discussed frankly and fully in Parliament so that Parliament itself may arrive at its own ultimate conclusion as to what is the wise thing to do.

It follows from this that the function of an Opposition is to be quite unhesitating in its willingness to debate large matters of policy, to criticize the Government views on those matters, to put forward and maintain its own. Only in this way will Parliament serve its function of giving expression to contending opinions which in fact exist in the community.

This does not mean that we are to behave as if there were no war on. In time of peace it is legitimate and proper to debate all your differences great and small, but in war trivial matters must clearly be put aside. The great thing that we have to remember in days like these is that we have a common danger - a danger which touches and concerns every one of us, whatever his political views or economic position - and a common aim which is, among other things, to enable free parliamentary institutions to continue in this country when the war is over. It follows from this that whatever the party alignments may be in Parliament, we must be prepared to suppress or forget all differences which would weaken the war effort.

You will see, however, that this does not mean that, because there is a war and our position is critical, Parliament is to be conducted as if the Opposition were not present or, being present, were devoid of ideas and incapable of speech. If Parliament is to be a collection of what our American friends call "yes-men", then it will become uncommonly like some European Parliaments, and might as well not sit.

If a member of the Opposition expounds his view on an important public question on which he has the misfortune to differ from the Government, it is foolish simply to say "party politics", when that is our system of government. In any case the members of the Opposition believe that their ideas are right and good just as our opponents belonging to the Labour Party believe that Labour ideas are right and good. To seek to prevent either side from having its own ideas is to exhibit a distrust of parliamentary government instead of a realization that it is, or should be, one of the real sources of our strength.

So, as I see it, the Opposition has certain duties and rights. As a body of patriotic men, it is bound to co-operate by being willing to accept joint responsibility for unpopular but necessary measures. It would be scandalous to endeavour to make political capital out of something the Government was doing in the best interests of winning the war.

But there is a converse side to all this. Just as it would be scandalous to oppose necessary and good measures, so it would be weak and irresponsible to refuse to oppose strongly any measures that the Opposition regarded as nationally unsound. On some great matters of debate we may think, and do think, strongly that we are right. Our opponents equally strongly think that they are right. It is only by the frankest and most manly exchange of argument that the truth will ever be ascertained.

As an Opposition, therefore, we must be willing not only to oppose what we think wrong but to suggest those things that we think ought to be done. We have a constructive function, and because of that we must avoid mere sectional argument and barren debating points.

Take the questions that arise in connexion with domestic or internal policy during a war. The people of this country have always been sharply divided about them. If, because of the gravity of the war position, our various views on domestic policy are to be put on one side - if partisan arguments about them are to be abandoned all round - well and good. But it is ludicrous to suggest that they should be maintained on one side and abandoned on the other.

As an individual I happen to have strong views, developed by study and experience over a number of years, on such questions as socialization, public finance and the encouragement of enterprise. I have no desire to go on discussing these matters at a time like this just for the sake of discussing them. But if I honestly come to the conclusion that domestic policies are being pursued which run counter to my beliefs on these matters and which therefore, from my point of view, are damaging to the best interests of Australia, it is my plain duty to speak up clearly and unambiguously about them.

What we occasionally forget is that, while we are all agreed upon the supreme necessity of concentrating the national effort on the war, there is always room for marked difference of opinion as to how that concentration can be best effected.

One of my friends on the other side of the House may say, "I believe that we can get the best concentration of effort by having the Government take over industries." All right. But if I believe that for the Government to take over the industries of the nation will hinder and not help the war effort, am I to be silent just because some onlooker accuses me of party-consciousness?

We must have realism on these questions, and we shall get it to the greatest possible extent if we make up our minds that in politics today we shall debate only those things which are of really national importance, and that when we have our debates we shall conduct ourselves with a proper mixture of vigour, courtesy and good sense.

8 May, 1942