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Gordon Munro Bryant (1914–1991)

by Gordon Bryant

Maiden speech

I hope that in this, my maiden speech in this House, I shall evince such energy and evident sincerity as did my two predecessors in this debate, lt is my honour to represent the people of Brunswick and Coburg in Victoria who, during the past 50 years, have consistently elected to the Parliament men who have kept the Labour party on the straight and narrow path. So, unlike the honorable member for Hume (Mr. Anderson), who said he thought it was necessary for the nation to re-affirm its faith in the system of private enterprise, I should like to commence my parliamentary career by reaffirming my belief in Labour's socialist philosophy.

I believe that this Parliament is the means by which we shall be able to achieve the good for every individual, the desire of the honorable member for Wannon (Mr. Malcolm Fraser). When we think of private enterprise, and we are asked to re-affirm our faith in it, we must have regard to the interests of the nation. Private enterprise has never shown any tendency to put the national interest first if it conflicted with its own. Therefore, I urge the Government not to consider selling, or giving away, any of our national assets, whether they be ships or the whaling enterprise, because this Parliament cannot afford to surrender any of the powers that it possesses. First and foremost, we must realize neither this speech, that of the Governor-General, nor the good wishes of honorable members on both sides will mean anything unless we recognize the fact that the Constitution, as it stands at the moment, hamstrings us and prevents us from ruling the nation adequately. Repeatedly, we are confronted with the fact that this Parliament is not empowered to make laws in relation to certain matters. I shall therefore direct the attention of the House to what I consider should be done in relation to our constitutional problems. Parliament House attracts the attention of a great many tourists. I understand that on Sunday last, about 400 people visited this building. It is becoming a place of increasing national interest. That, in itself, is a tribute to the importance of the Parliament, and should make us proud to be members of it. The Opposition believes that the sovereignty of the nation should reside in the Parliament, and we should strive to ensure that it does.

The Governor-General mentioned three deficiencies in the Constitution: first, the relationship between the two Houses of the Parliament; secondly, the conflict between the State and Federal arbitration systems; and thirdly, the lack of adequate power to deal with inflation. It is important that we should turn our minds to these matters. Over the last few years, many people have abandoned all hope of amending the Constitution. I believe that in the past we have proceeded too hastily when seeking to alter it. Previous governments, upon encountering constitutional problems, have almost immediately referred them to the people by referendum. If we are to commit 5,000,000 people to the task of altering the Constitution, we should not do so hurriedly. First, we must decide what amendments or alterations are desirable. I believe that, unless the all-party committee which will be established to handle this matter accepts the fact that finally all power and responsibility must rest in this Parliament, it will break down after a series of conferences without having achieved anything worthwhile. The changes that have been taking place gradually since federation, have given this Parliament most of its power, and have resulted in the States becoming almost cyphers in some respects with their representatives having to plead to the Commonwealth for financial assistance. Perhaps, in furtherance of that evolution, we should simply insert in the Constitution as paragraph 40 of section 51 a new section to give to the Parliament "such other powers that it considers it should possess in the national interest".

In the past, when referendums have been conducted, many people have considered it would be dangerous to give additional powers to the Parliament in Canberra. Many members of this House are better known to the people of Australia than are the members of their local governing bodies, because, by means of the broadcasting system, the utterances of members of this House are literally taken into the homes of the people. At least, our parliamentary elections are more democratically conducted than are the elections of other bodies in this country. Therefore, generally speaking, the people have nothing to fear in giving additional power to the Parliament. This Parliament is just as worthy of the right to rule in an absolute fashion as is the British Parliament. Sovereignty in Australia should reside in this Parliament. Let us direct our thoughts to convincing the people in this respect.

Recently, I engaged in research to ascertain what copies of the Constitution are available to the citizens; because, after all, it will be necessary for us to convince at least 2,500 people in a majority of the States of the necessity to amend the Constitution. Honorable members on both sides are agreed in principle on the necessity to amend the Constitution, but we must acknowledge the fact that the people of this country will not vote willy nilly on matters that they do not understand. I suggest that we should embark on an educational campaign, in order to inform the people fully of its provisions. It is not really a very lengthy document. I have before me a copy on which is endorsed "Price, 2s. 3d.". I urge the Government to issue free an annotated edition of the Constitution, in order to encourage the people to study its provisions. After all only the most public-spirited citizens would be prepared to pay 2s. 3d. for a copy. In view of the developments that have taken place in the printing industry, no great strain would be imposed upon it in producing a large number of copies.

The Government ought to issue free not less than 3,000,000 annotated copies of the Constitution to the people. That will be our first task, and it will take us some time. I hope that we who have spoken here to-night for the first time will live to see the day when that result has been achieved. I do not think we should despair of taking new steps in the matter of constitutional development or expanding the rights of Australians generally, simply because the Constitution stops us from doing so at present.

I wish now to refer to a matter that is close to my heart – the State education systems. For twenty years, I was a member of the Victorian teaching service, and for twenty years I saw and felt the frustration caused by shortage of finance and the inadequate resources made available to the people who were teaching in the Queen's schools. In some States those schools are called "State" schools, and in other States they are called " public " schools, but they are all the people's schools, and they are the places at which young Australians are nurtured and trained to carry on our traditions. I believe that, in the past, they have suffered a good deal of neglect, partly because of shortage of finance, and partly because many of the people who have had control of our education system have been the products of non-State schools and have not bothered too much about the problems involved. The Government should take action immediately to help to relieve the States of this heavy financial burden.

In Victoria, education takes one-fifth of the annual budget. In Australia, the total expenditure on education this year will be approximately £60,000,000. That, of course, is not a great sum to the Commonwealth of Australia. But to the States it is of considerable importance. This problem of education is one of great urgency. In Victoria, the State which I know best, the secondary schools are jammed to the doors. The building of additional schools has been undertaken, but the children who are ready to use those schools cannot wait until the nails are driven. Education is a matter of extreme urgency and cannot be deferred. If a child is debarred, because of inadequate accommodation, from entering a secondary school to-day, or if he has to spend his time in makeshift accommodation, he will never be able to regain his lost opportunities and it will be of no use saying to him. in six or seven years'" time, that we have solved his problem.

There are many ways in which the Commonwealth could relieve the States of this great burden, without resorting to constitutional alteration. Section 96 of the Constitution, the section under which we have already started to make grants to the universities, action which has relieved the States of some of their burden, would allow the Government, if it wished, to double expenditure on education. After all, the State education systems have great sources of ability, skill and man-power trained in these matters. It would not even be necessary to create another department of State, or to appoint another Minister. The States would be quite capable of handling the matter.

There are, of course, many small ways in which this Parliament could assist education in the States. I believe that the Australian nation should be able to provide for the teachers in its schools much greater facilities than are provided at present. The Government could set up experimental schools in each State for the purpose of establishing an Australian standard of education. I am completely dissatisfied, and I know that a great many other people also are dissatisfied, with the standard of our schools. We have all seen school grounds which are dusty, gravelly wastes, and class rooms that are drab. That is not the environment in which to raise young Australians and to hand on to them the culture that we are rapidly acquiring. The education system is the machine belt by which we can pass on our culture and the means of fostering the ideals that have been advocated by honorable members on both sides of this House. The establishment of experimental schools in the States would, therefore, be one method by which the Government could help to relieve the educational burden on the States. Another method would be to enlarge the library service. Australian history has been neglected, and it is almost impossible to obtain cheap publications on most aspects of our history. In my many years of teaching, I always found it much easier to find, in the school library, information about the number of men who landed with Julius Caesar on the coast of Britain in 55 B.C. than information about the number of men who landed at Gallipoli with the Australian Expeditionary Force in 1915.

Until 1926, the Government produced a publication known as the Historical Records of Australia, in which was to be found despatches from our early Governors, and other information to which every citizen ought to be able to turn. Although it is 30 years since publication of those records ceased the Government should take up the task of republishing them, and that it should make available to every secondary school in the Commonwealth a set of those already published. That is the kind of thing that the Australian Government could do, and that is one of the things that is needed in the field of education. I believe that it is impossible for the States, from their present resources, adequately to expand their education systems. The States are battling all the time even to build suffiicent schoolrooms, without even equipping them adequately.

It would be a good idea to send educational or cultural attaches overseas, and also to bring teachers to Australia from overseas, not to relieve the staff shortage in our schools or specially to teach their languages to our reluctant children, but simply to give to our children, in their formative years, the chance to rub shoulders with people of a different culture. One of the disadvantages that we incur is our isolation, due to our geographical position. I suppose that not many of us on this side of the House will have the opportunity to travel widely, nor will the majority of the people of Australia have that opportunity. At least, we should be able to have people from overseas come to live with us and help us to gain experience of their culture. In addition, we should get into the habit of rubbing shoulders with people who have different ideals.

Those are the thoughts that I want to leave with the Government in my first speech in this House. Others in this Parliament have spoken of ideals. I have those ideals, too. That is why I am here, and that is also why the honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns) and the honorable member for Wannon (Mr. Malcolm Fraser) are here. If one of the furthest back back-benchers on the Opposition side may be allowed to have any kind of aims at the beginning of his parliamentary career, then these are my aims. If, in the course of my stay here, I am able to alter the Constitution – with the assistance, of course, of the other honorable members of this House – so that it will be more fitting for the Australian nation and so that it will enable the Government to meet national problems as they occur, and if, also, I can help to make the schools of Australia worthy of the Australian children, then I shall feel that my duty has been done.

Original Publication

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19. [View Article]

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Citation details

Gordon Bryant, 'Bryant, Gordon Munro (1914–1991)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 May 2024.

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