HC Deb 20 June 1935 vol 303 cc696-704

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir G. Penny.]

11.1 p.m.


It is seldom that I address the House, but there is a question to which I wish to call attention which is of very great importance to one part of the Empire. It concerns a petition which has been presented to the House by the people of Western Australia. This is not an occasion when I can go into the merits of the petition. The whole case in connection with the secession question in Western Australia has been set out at great length in a volume which has been presented to every Member, and I hope that those who have not studied it will do so. It sets out the position very fully indeed, and it shows the grievance under which the people of that State believe themselves to be labouring. But what I want to deal with is the actual petition, the circumstances in which it came to be presented to this House and the action which has so far resulted. It is very truly the petition of the people of Western Australia. I would point out that it has only arrived at the stage of being presented to this House as a result of an Act of Parliament passed in Western Australia, an Act which itself was consequent upon a referendum of the people of the State. In that referendum over 91 per cent. of the total number of persons entitled to vote voted, and the effective votes cast in the affirmative on the question of whether the petition should be presented were 66.23 per cent. There was a majority of over two to one.

The Secession Act was passed through the State Parliament. That Act consists of a Resolution to be presented to both Houses of the Imperial Parliament and the petition itself is a schedule to that Act. The petition is signed for and on behalf of the people of Western Australia by the following gentlemen: The President of the Legislative Council, the Clerk of the Legislative Council, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, the Premier of the State Government, the Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council, and the leaders of the two other parties who sit in the Assembly and are in opposition to the Government of Western Australia. The delegation was appointed to bring the petition to this country and to arrange for it to be presented to both Houses, and it was so presented on 17th December, 1934.

It was referred in the usual way to the Standing Committee on Public Petitions, and that Committee considered it merely in order to see that it was valid and in proper form, and that the signatures were in order. The usual procedure was followed. The Committee considered that in view of the unusual nature of the petition it should be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses. That Joint Committee reported, and in a few words I will refer to one or two features of their report. I hope that hon. Members will study the report, because it is very interesting commentary on the case for secession and on the history of the Secession Act which was passed in Western Australia. I do not know how far I am entitled to comment on the report as a whole, but I can sum it up in one sentence. It may be described as exalting expediency at the expense of legality.

I would refer to one or two statements at the beginning of the Report of the Joint Committee. The first is where they say: There is no question as to the undoubted and ancient right of Parliament to receive whatever Petitions it thinks fit, or the historic right of the subjects of the Crown to present Petitions to Parliament. It is also acknowledged by the Committee that it is only by legislation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom that the dissolution of the Commonwealth or the secession of any of its constituent parts can be effected. In a subsequent paragraph they say that the legislation sought by the petitioners is within the competence of the Parlia- ment of the United Kingdom alone, and that that Parliament has in law full competence to do so, even against the wish and without the consent of the Commonwealth. After going into certain details into which time does not permit me to enter now, they came to the conclusion that the petition was not proper to be received. It seems to me that those two conclusions are very contradictory, and I cannot conceive of two extracts from a report which could more fully contradict each other. Among the other items in the Report one extraordinary thing is that in paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 they stress the point that in determining the question at issue they have only had regard to the prayer of the petition and had not taken into consideration the facts. They say themselves that they have put aside as not directly relevant the vital and material portion of the petition, wherein is set forth the history and surrounding circumstances and which lead up to the prayer. I feel there again that the Joint Committee have not carried out the instructions of this House and of another place, which were to consider the petition. This report has been submitted to this House and is lying on the table.

On Monday I asked the Prime Minister if we would have an opportunity of discussing the Report and whether he could indicate when such a discussion could take place. He replied that it might be discussed to-day on the Dominions Office Vote. I had to take upon myself the responsibility, which I regretted, of disagreeing with the Prime Minister and of giving notice that I would raise the matter on another occasion. I do not think that putting us off with the opportunity of discussing it upon the Dominions Office Vote was the fulfilment of a pledge which was given on behalf of the Government, when the Joint Committee was set up, and when it was distinctly stated that, whatever conclusion was reached by the Joint Committee, each House would remain completely free to consider their recommendation, and if necessary to act upon it or depart from it. I think I am justified in urging that an opportunity should be given for this House to consider the report of the Committee. It may be that in a debate on this subject we could deal to some extent with the merits of the case. That, of course, is a matter in which the time factor enters very largely. We do not know how it will be possible to arrange such a discussion. Every hon. Member knows, even young Members like myself, that petitions are constantly being brought before the House. The other day the hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) presented a petition from certain chiefs of the Gold Coast of West Africa, with a prayer, and an appreciative murmur went through the House.

We have heard to-day a great deal about the forthcoming arrangement in connection with the Protectorates in South Africa. I had the honour of presenting to the House the Petition of the people of Western Australia—a population of some hundreds of thousands of people which is loyally devoted to the Empire and which considers that it is suffering unduly from a constitution under which it has worked for many years, a constitution which was brought into being by an Act of this Parliament representing the policy which at that time was considered in the best interests of the Commonwealth. The people of Western Australia have appointed a delegation which has come over here and has spent many months here, and the Petition itself was presented in December. The members of the delegation are acquainted with all the facts relating to this subject, and they are ready and willing to give evidence—if such a thing were possible—before the House as a whole, or before a Committee of the House. They wish to have the whole question ventilated and discussed and to feel that they are going to get a decision of this Parliament, which has never denied the rights of the subjects of the Crown in any part of the Empire to present petitions. It is a right which has been exercised for hundreds of years and one which we surely cannot deny to the people of this great State of Western Australia.

11.13 p.m.


My hon. Friend was good enough to give me notice of his intention to raise this matter on the Motion for the Adjournment instead of taking advantage of the suggestion of the Prime Minister that the matter should be raised this evening on the Dominions Office Vote. I am not quite clear, although I have listened carefully to the hon. Member, what his precise intention is in raising the matter this evening in this way. My hon. Friend indicated that what he really wants, perhaps, is an opportunity of discussing the report of the Joint Committee. If that is his intention I think I can give him a comparatively short answer. The Committee was appointed, not as he seemed to suggest—and indeed as he stated—for the purpose of considering the petition, but for a much more limited purpose. As the Committee say in the first paragraph of their report, they were appointed to report whether the petition of the State of Western Australia is proper to be received. The Committee in the course of their report, in paragraph 3, set out the prayer of the petition. The prayer of the petition was that this House and the House of Lords may, as soon as is reasonably, cause to be introduced and passed by the said Parliament of the United Kingdom a Bill to effectuate the withdrawal of the people of Western Australia from the Federal Commonwealth of Australia established under the provisions of the Australian Constitution Act. Having regard to that prayer, the Committee thought it proper to consider, not the merits of what I may call the complaints or grievances of Western Australia against the Commonwealth, but the power of the United Kingdom Parliament to pass the legislation which the prayer of the petition asked might be introduced as soon as it reasonably might be, and passed. Having considered that question, the Committee came to the conclusion that, although it would be within the strict legal competence of the United Kingdom Parliament to pass such legislation, it would not be within the constitutional powers of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to do so except upon the definite request of the Commonwealth of Australia. My hon. Friend said that that last finding, in paragraph 13 of the Committee's Report, was to him unintelligible, and seemed to be at variance with the previous opinions expressed by the Committee. I do not agree with him—


May I direct the Attorney-General's attention to the concluding parts of paragraph 6, and also to the first part of paragraph 12, which bring out what I said, namely, that it is only this Parliament that can institute such legislation? There is the extract which begins: The Commonwealth itself has no power to amend the Constitution to the extent of enabling any State to secede, While at the top of the paragraph it states: It is true that as things stand the Parliament of the United Kingdom… And so on.


I was saying that I differ from my hon. Friend in his view as to the inconsistency between the three statements to which he has called attention. I think he has not yet fully appreciated the argument which was accepted by the committee. The committee say, in paragraph 6, that it is only by legislation of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that the dissolution of the Commonwealth can be effected. That, I suppose, is a statement with which he does not quarrel, and it is no doubt the view of Western Australia itself, because otherwise Western Australia would not have come to this Parliament with the petition in question. In paragraph 12 of their report, the committee express the view that to pass such legislation would be within the strict legal competence of the United Kingdom Parliament, but they go on to say that it would not be within the constitutional competence of the United Kingdom Parliament to pass the legislation which, as they said in paragraph 6, the United Kingdom Parliament has the power to pass, unless the United Kingdom Parliament were to be requested by the Commonwealth of Australia to initiate and pass such legislation.


Could the Attorney-General give me some explanation of the difference between the legal competence and the constitutional competence?


Yes, I can give my hon. Friend a very easy illustration. I could give him a number. Indeed, I think he unduly disparages his own historical knowledge and acquaintance with the Constitution if he does not supply his own instances. It has been within the legal competence of the United Kingdom Parliament to legislate for all our Dominions—with regard to the internal affairs of Canada, for instance— up to the passing of the Statute of Westminster, without any request being addressed to this Parliament; but nobody in their senses has ever suggested that it was within the competence of this Parliament, having regard to constitutional conventions and the nature of our Empire. My hon. Friend is also aware that the Crown has certain legal powers, but the Crown has long since ceased to exercise them, though it is still conceivable that in some particular emergency the powers might be again exercised. I could go on multiplying these illustrations, which I am sure my hon. Friend could supply for himself. When he says that he desires to discuss the correctness of the view taken by the Committee, all I can say is that nothing that my hon. Friend has said this evening seems to suggest or justify for a moment the view that the House would differ from the report which has been presented. Let me remind him that the Committee was composed of representatives of all parties in the House, of persons of special legal ability and experience and of those who may be described as laymen in these matters. The Committee unanimously came to the conclusion expressed in the report, and what my hon. Friend has certainly not done is to show that there is any reason at all to suppose that the House would wish to differ from the report of the Joint Select Committee.

Let it be remembered that this House has always regarded the question of the receivability of a petition as one of Parliamentary privilege and peculiarly one for settlement by Parliament itself. If there was any sort of intention on the part of the House to differ from this very careful report, no doubt my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would consider providing certain facilities for allowing the House to give expression to its opinion. Although I may admire the zeal of my hon. Friend in this matter, the condition of the House hardly suggests that he has much support for his view, or that even if the House wished to consider this matter, it would differ from this report. On a question of this kind the House would naturally wish to be guided by the advice of its own committee specially appointed. They have made a very careful report. They have not entered into the merits of the case, which would be wholly outside the powers of a committee appointed for a very de- finite purpose. I hope that my hon. Friend, having relieved his feelings by expressing his personal dissent from the opinion of the committee, will feel that on the whole there is no reason to suppose that his personal view would have any general support in the House. In these circumstances, having regard to the crowded nature of the Session, I cannot hold out any hope that it would be found possible to appoint a day when my hon. Friend could enlarge upon the views he has presented with so much engaging candour.

11.24 p.m.


I regard this question as being of far too great importance to the British Empire, the Commonwealth of Australia and to Western Australia to be debated at this hour on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House. The demand for secession on the part of the people of Western Australia has created a very great problem within the Empire itself. It has raised a matter of the greatest constitutional importance. It is one upon which the report of the Committee of the two Houses has shed no light and done nothing to resolve. The report merely says that unless the request for intervention by the Imperial Parliament comes from the whole of the Commonwealth of Australia it is beyond the jurisdiction of the House to intervene. The Attorney-General said that the report does not deal with the merits of the question, and he asked us to put them aside. I put them aside also in the hope, reinforced by the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Moreing), that the Government will at some time before the end of the Session give an opportunity to the House to debate this question and deal with the merits of the petition presented by the people of Western Australia.

This House is not going to avoid its responsibility for what is likely to happen by shirking the issue or by endeavouring to shelve the question. There is not one Englishman or Scotsman, not one Britisher, not one man in a thousand, but realises the gravity of the view which the people of Western Australia take of this problem or the feeling which it has aroused among the people of Western Australia. It has been for years the one burning question which has dominated West Australian politics, and it is the question whch is uppermost in the minds of the citizens of Western Australia of every shade of political opinion. It is no use trying to shut our eyes to the strength of the desire for secession. The referendum gave a two to one majority in favour of secession. That is an overwhelming majority. We cannot ignore the danger that these people, embittered by a sense of real grievance, may be tempted to take the law into their own hands. That is something which no one who has the welfare of the country at heart can contemplate with equanimity. Campbell-Bannerman said that no form of government was any substitute for self-government. These loyal West Australians, who are as loyal to Australia as they are to the British Empire, demand only the right to manage their own affairs. They entered voluntarily into the Federation. They have found that they made a mistake, they consider that they made a mistake, and they ask the Imperial Parliament to relieve them of the responsibility of having made that mistake.

I regard the question as being largely an economic one, and I confess that I have been profoundly impressed by the economic arguments put forward by the West Australian delegation. I hope that the Government will give a day for a discussion of this question. It is no use to enter into the argument of the case at this late hour, but I must impress upon the Government the point that these people feel that they are suffering from a very grave injustice. They have appealed to this House, and I think that we should be very foolish indeed if we turned a deaf ear to that appeal. If this House and if the Commonwealth Government refuse to redress these grievances, then, as they entered voluntarily into the Federation, there is nothing to prevent them from voluntarily walking out of the Federation. That is the danger I see. It is a danger to the Empire, to the Commonwealth and to Western Australia itself, and I ask the Government to realise it whilst there is still time.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.