by a Modest Member of Parliament, “… then I had a flash of inspiration,” The Australian Financial Review, January 31, 1975, p. 3.
I remember, with awful clarity, one of my first election meetings. I’d just finished parading my political platitudes and sat down to the obvious relief of the few people present.
Then the chairman said I would be willing to answer any questions.
There was a long and pregnant pause while everyone shuffled around on their seats.
The chairman waited for a while and then said that I must have satisfied them all, and he smiled determinedly at his joke.
Then Fred sitting at the back slowly got to his feet, cleared his throat threateningly, and then asked, “If the Federal Government wanted to take action which was to the benefit of Australia but to the detriment of this State, would the candidate support the Federal Government?”
Gosh, it was awful, I didn’t know much about politics then (Mavis says that I still don’t) but I knew that the thing to do at election meetings was to keep out of trouble.
So I danced around like a cat on hot bricks for a while, trying to drown the problem in a sea of words.
But Fred’s gimlet eyes bored into me, so I finished up saying rather lamely that I would fight for our State against the Commonwealth, even if it was to Australia’s hurt.
I’m not quite sure why I came down on that side of the fence but I guess that I had a gut feeling that the sympathy of most citizens is first felt for their State, rather than for the Commonwealth.
My answer pleased the few people in the audience who were awake at the time. Even then I had some rudiments of political cunning.
But the question of whether my first loyalty should be to my State or the Commonwealth has been worrying me ever since and it rears its ugly head more often than I like.
Look at the Government’s recent decision on motor car protection.
The Government has taken action which will heavily protect the car industry at an estimated cost of $300 million a year, compared to the recommendation of the IAC which would have cost us $100 million a year.
This action was the result of strong pressure from South Australia which is a poor State, depending to a large degree on the car industry.
We will now have to subsidise the overseas owners of the car industry to the tune of $300 million a year, to pay them for producing the kind of cars we don’t want. This will encourage more firms to come here and so increase our fragmentation problems.
For instance, Renault recently announced that it is going to invest more money here. This will mean a smaller throughput for GM-H who will probably have to be helped yet again. And the Japanese are now flirting with Chryslers, so they may come here also encouraged by the Government’s action.
The question is, should I support the Government’s decision if I came from South Australia but was a member of the National Parliament, and I thought the action would be wrong for the nation as a whole?
I was mulling this problem around in my muddled mind, trying to think of a form of footwork that would get me out of the mess.
Suddenly the answer came to me as a flash of inspiration and I yelled out to Mavis, “I know what we’ll do, we’ll have a Customs house at the South Australian border and put a high tariff on imported cars coming in into that State.”
What a lovely solution, I thought. It had all the virtues, it would take care of South Australia’s problem, its cost would not be noticed by people used to paying the price of tariff protection, and above all, it would be popular.
I was so excited that I trotted immediately around to tell Eccles.
He listened to me with increasing irritation and when I’d laid my splendid plan before him, he pointed out that when the decision was made at the end of the last century to weld the Australian colonies into one nation, Section 92 of the Constitution was specifically inserted to prevent this happening.
“Commerce between the States shall be absolutely free,” the founding fathers said.
They did this deliberately to prevent my kind of solution which would, I admit, tend to keep the States as a separate economic entity instead of encouraging us to be one nation.
So I expect I’ll have to find some other solution to the problem of whether I should support my State to the detriment of the nation.
But perhaps we aren’t yet really one nation, except at cricket, and then only if we are winning.
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