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Tuesday, 24 July 1906

Mr FISHER (Wide Bay) - The discussion on this important question has not been of such a character as I should have wished. And the Ministry is not doing full credit to the subject when it neglects to make a fuller explanation, and to reply to some of the speeches which have been made. It is of no use for honorable members to try to shirk the responsibility which rests upon them. The Commonwealth must be provided with a mail service in one way or the other. Since its inauguration, it has never received an offer for the carrying of its mails at a fair price and under fair conditions. Under these circumstances, we shall have to face, sooner or later, the question of carrying in our own ships, not only the mails, but also the produce of our people to other parts of the world. It may be evident that a majority of the representatives of the people are not of that opinion now, but that in no way justifies an attempt to make little of a great question such as this is. If I caught his reasoning correctly to-day the deputy-leader of the Opposition said that the subsidy paid to these boats is of general benefit to the whole of the community, and that fast services are absolutely necessary if we are to take our place amongst progressive nations.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I think that that was said in criticism of the Commission's report. I said that anything which affected advantageously the commercial class as well as the exporters of produce must necessarily affect advantageously every man and woman in the community.

Mr FISHER - That will serve my purpose equally well, and I quite agree with the honorable member, but I submit that no better argument could be advanced in favour of a national line of steamers, because if anything which affects the merchant and the importer, also affects the producer, then it is our duty to find the very best and the cheapest method of carrying on those services. That brings us to the question of whether for the carriage of mails and cargo a national service is cheaper and more effective than a service such as that which has been provisonally agreed to between a steam-ship company and the Government to carry the mails. I quite agree with those who contend that we should have the most uptodate steam-ship service between Australia and other parts of the world. Under these circumstances I consider that a large subsidy is justifiable, but although I believe that from their point of view the Government have made a fair bargain, I am of opinion that even greater advantage would accrue to the Commonwealth and its people if they could face the initial cost of pro viding a line of steamers to carry not only mails, but also the products of this country to other countries, and to bring back the products of other countries. Furthermore, it has been pointed out by the honorablemember for Kennedy that in Australia there is a shinning combine even more drastic in its operations than the shipping combine at the other end of the world. My view is that if we met this big oversea combine by a national line of steam-ships it would be equally necessary to provide a subsidiary service to meet the wants of the States. I am one of those who contend that we ought not to be afraid of things that are new if we can prove that they are right, and would be beneficial to the community. Australia has a great advantage in being self-contained. It has an advantage - from one point of view it is a disadvantage - in having no great shipping at the present time, and it would be to our distinct advantage if we could initiate an oversea service, and also an Australian service, so as to completely meet the necessities of the people who are settled over a very vast continent. Let us take the conditions which prevail at the present time in the district I represent. For some years the condition of affairs at the port of Maryborough has beensuch that no person has been free to trade as he wished. When Messrs. Hyne and Son endeavoured to send timber from Maryborough to other parts of Australia, and to bring back cargo, not only did the combine refuse to assist them, but it placed every obstacle in their way, and would not even enter into an agreement allowing them to take back freight at low rates and under a sharing arrangement. They went further, and announced that any one buying goods brought to Maryborough in the vessels of Messrs. Hyne and Son would lose the rebate's to which they were entitled. Some honorable members consider that such dealings are to be regarded as freedom of contract, and a proper system of trading; but, in my opinion, they are commercially immoral, and any Government having the power to put an end to them, and allowing them to continue would be unworthy of its position. It is thought by some that the Australian Industries Preservation Bill will meet the case ; but, even if it does, it will not put an end to the oversea shipping ring. One of the weak points in the contract - and this criticism should have been .answered from the Government Bench - is that it contains no provision preventing the company carrying our mails from combining with the other shipping companies now doing business here, and leaving us in our present position. No one who examines the correspondence and the conditions of the contract will consider that we have had a fair and honest offer for a mail service. I am of the opinion that it would have been better, as the honorable member for Bass has pointed out. to continue, for some years to come, to pay poundage rates for the conveyance of our mails, until the people of the Commonwealth became ready to make arrangements for the establishment of a national line of steamers. If we agree to the contract, we shall be bound for a period of eleven and a half years from the present time, and, as the honorable member for Coolgardie has pointed out, many developments in ocean transport are to be expected in that period. No doubt there is a majority against the amendment of the honorable member for Barrier; but the arguments pui forward in support of it have not been answered by those who are defending the contract. The honorable member for Parramatta says that the Commissioners gave an estimate of the cost of constructing a fleet of steamers large enough to carry on the Government service, which was not reasonably correct.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Commissioners say that it is not correct.

Mr FISHER - I submit that the figures of no one connected with the Commonwealth are generally regarded as so reliable as, and' will be taken more readily than, those of Mr. Coghlan. I have always found greater accuracy in his works than in those of any other statistical writer to whom I have had to refer, and have always been satisfied5 with' my dealings with him. It is his figures which are impugned when the estimate of the Commissioners is challenged. The Commissioners put forward no estimate of their own. All they say is, " We have done everything that we can to obtain the best estimates." No doubt Mr. Coghlan was able to obtain information from some of the most competent authorities in London.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - No doubt; but experts here say that he has not been supplied with a full estimate.

Mr FISHER - An estimate going into shillings and pence was not expected, but that furnished by Mr. Coghlan is fairly complete, and, I 'venture to say, as nearly accurate as could be obtained by appealing to any one else on the subject. ' If that is the only difficulty which prevents the honorable member from favorably considering the proposals of the Commissoners, I suggest that the Commonwealth Government should ask some of the chief ship-building firms what they would build the necessary steamers for. It is a usual thing for firms to submit estimates of this kind. No doubt Messrs. Harland and Wolff would say what they could build the vessels for, and would be quite willing to undertake the work, because they would be sure that, upon its completion, the payments d'ue would be made. Then, to deal with another statement of the honorable member for Parramatta, the people of the Commonwealth would be benefited if the effect of establishing a national line of steamers were to increase competition and reduce rates. That would bring about a state of affairs which, to the honorable member, is almost ideal. We have heard from him a thousand times of the advantages of competition, and the fact that there would' be fierce competition between the national line and the private lines is a reason why we should support the proposal. Even if there were a loss in the working of , the national line, the public would benefit bv the reduction of rates created bv the competition. There would be an indirect benefit somewhat akin to that which results from the construction of nonpaving railways.

Mr Wilks - The honorable member refers to developmental lines?

Mr FISHER - A railway constructed' as a developmental line soon becomes a paying line, and, ultimately, helps to support other lines, which do not pay directly, but, indirectly, are beneficial to the community, as a national line of steamers would be, even if it did not show a profit on its working expenses. It has been contended by some honorable members that our railway systems, which are socialistic, are monopolies,- with which competition is impossible. I do not believe, however, that Socialism can exist only where there is monopoly. If socialistic principles could not hold their own even against private competition, I would not support them long. It is because I believe them to be sound, beneficial, and necessary to the development of the community, where there is competition, that I support them. I am as willing to face competition on the high seas as in connexion with any State enterprise on land.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is the honorable member in favour of increasing the loss at present incurred in connexion with the postal service, by carrying on an unprofitable mail service ?

Mr FISHER - The honorable member is assuming that there would be a loss in connexion with the mail service.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Commission show that there would be a profit of £11 2,000 per annum.

Mr FISHER - I am not here to father the figures put forward by the Commission, but I would point out that manifestly inaccurate figures have been submitted by other authorities, and that the most egregious blunders have been committed by some of the leading newspapers. I cannot vouch for the correctness of the figures put forward by the Commission, because I am not acquainted with the details. It cannot be denied, however, that Mr. Coghlan is most reliable in matters of this, kind.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Mr. Coghlan did not make up the balance-sheet.

Mr FISHER - No, but the capital expenditure estimated by the Commission is based upon Mr. Coghlan's figures.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Yes, but how could boats built at a cost of £375,000be equal to vessels costing £500,000?

Mr Thomas - What steamers cost that amount ?

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company's steamers.

Mr FISHER - The question as to whether boats of the required class would cost £350,000 or £500,000 could easily; be settled by calling for tenders. I venture to say that if the Government cabled to some of the principal builders in England they could ascertain within a very short time exactly what expenditure would be involved in the construction of steamers of any given class. In estimating the income of the proposed Commonwealthowned line of steamers, the Commission have based their calculations upon the number of passengers carried by the present mail companies during the seven months over which the busy season extends.

Mr Thomas - No. We calculated upon the steamers having a full complement of passengers for five months in the year, and did not reckon on. having any passengers for the balance of the period.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The number of passengers carried by the present mail companies has nothing whatever to do with the question.

Mr FISHER - The Commission have allowed a very considerable margin for contingencies, and I think that their expectations are very reasonable.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Always supposing that the Commonwealth-owned steamers drove one of the other lines out of the trade.

Mr FISHER - It is contemplated that the Commonwealth-owned steamers would be equipped upon such lines that they would be superior in every respect to the vessels proposed to be employed under the new contract. No reasonable expense would1 be spared, and there is no reason why the Commonwealth line should not secure the cream of the public patronage. Moreover, we should be able to avail ourselves of the services of the officials in all the Commonwealth Departments in providing facilities to producers for despatching their produce to the best markets. The postal officials, for instance, could give information to farmers and others as to the markets to which they could forward their produce to best advantage, and there is no reason why the Customs officers should not also lend their assistance, in facilitating exportation generally.

Mr Wilks - Would the honorable member make our public servants general carriers and forwarding agents?

Mr FISHER - Why not? What is the object of government but to afford every facility for production and the pursuit of industry, thus promoting the comfort and

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The theory as enunciated by the honorable member is an excellent one.

Mr FISHER - Many wild theories have been enunciated in the history of the world. Some of the most desirable reforms have, when first proposed, been stigmatised as wild and impracticable.. I venture to say that arrangements could be made under which the railway servants of the various States could render valuable assistance to our settlers in the back blocks, and enable them to send away their produce to the best markets without incurring agency and other charges, such as thev now have to bear. I would point out that in 1888 or 1889, the Queensland Railway Act was amended to enable the Railway Commissioners to make an arrangement such as I have suggested. That action was taken in a State that was not then regarded as so radical in its political tone as some others. The idea of the St'ate owning steamers is no new one. Nearly thirty years ago a certain Premier of Queensland took it upon himself to order a steamer, with a view to breaking down a monopoly. I should like to add a great deal more upon this matter, but I have already declared myself in favour of the establishment of a Commonwealth line of steamers. I believe that the nationalization of these services is the only course which will ultimately succeed. I am not prepared to pamper any socialistic scheme, but I claim that the proposal of the honorable member for Barrier can be justified upon the grounds of economy and justice. The reason why a number of State concerns have not succeeded as thev ought to have done, is that those who have been charged with their management have not been in sympathy with, them. In some cases it was to their interests not to succeed. Can we have, a brighten example of what can be accomplished bv the State than is afforded by the Newport workshop? Its position has been challenged again and again, and upon each occasion it has come out vic

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - In fact, it is wonderful what the proposal would accomplish.

Mr FISHER - The difference which the conveyance of a few passengers would make is neither here noi there. That being so, we could bring immigrants to the Commonwealth in the "off" season for practically nothing, and we should only incur the cost of having to feed them in transit.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - In fact, the proposal is a regular bile bean. It will cure all evils.

Mr FISHER - Nothing will cure all evil's. I believe in competition. If socialistic enterprises cannot withstand competition I will not support them. I am more strongly in favour of competition than is the deputy-leader of the Opposition, because I would not support an unsound proposal.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - If the amendment were carried, a motion would soon be submitted in this House, declaring that owing to " unfair competition," other ships coming to Australia should be prevented from carrying goods.

Mr FISHER - That may be so. Perhaps such things have been done; but the honorable member must recollect that we now have an enlightened democracy sending representatives to Parliament, the like of which has never been known before. I trust that the amendment will be thoroughly threshed out in the light of day, and it is the duty of the Opposition to see that that is done. From every point of view those who support the establishment of a national line of steamers have had the best of the argument, although those who entertain the opposite view will, I think, have the best of the voting.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Dugald

Thomson) adjourned.

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