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Tuesday, 18 May 1920

Mr HECTOR LAMOND (Illawarra) . -The honorable member for Maribyrnong (Mr. Fenton) has expressed the joy with which he would welcome twenty companies to explore the Australian . oil resources. But Australia has been open to these companies all along, and one result of our neglect to do anything to provide ourselves' with oil was that petrol and other oils that come from petroleum were exceptionally dear in the Commonwealth all through the war period. One would think, to listen to some honorable members, that this was a new question suddenly sprung upon us; but those who follow the news of Australia will remember that the operations of the American Oil Combines in this country were fully investigated in the Courts of New South Wales only a year or two ago. It was shown that these Combines had made enormous profits at the cost of this country during the war period, and when the Necessary Commodities Commission fixed a price which was considered fair, the Combines boycotted the State until the price was lifted to a level they thought they had a right to demand. Now, when the Commonwealth Government submit an agreement with a company which will provide, at any rate, some cheap oil, we have, from 'Unexpected quarters, these extraordinary arguments against the proposal. I was astounded to hear the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Tudor) say that, because the Government would hold half the stock, they will become a party to the extortion of high prices. I never heard a more damaging argument against any proposal to nationalize an industry. If the Government would do such a thing, are they not just as likely to extort high prices through the medium .of other industries they might wholly control ?

Mr Fenton - The Government might do it under cover of the company.

Mr HECTOR LAMOND - The argument is so artificial as to suggest that honorable members are not expressing their convictions, but looking around for some means of bolstering up the case for opposition companies. It is, unhappily, the fact that whenever an effort is made to deal with any of the big interests, we find - without the slightest suspicion of corruption or collusion - that those who wish to oppose everything the Government may do become naturally the mouthpiece of those interests.

Mr Considine - Is this one of the Government's anti-profiteering moods?

Mr HECTOR LAMOND - I am always in my anti-profiteering "mood"; I do not change it simply because the Bill to deal with it bears the name of some man I dislike. I venture to say that if this Bill had borne the name of the Leader of the Opposition instead of that of the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes), or some other Minister, we should not have heard the speeches we have been under the painful necessity of listening to in this debate. ^

I have been waiting to hear one sound reason advanced for sending this Bill to a Select Committee. We heard reasons last week in the House and in the lobbies, but those reasons have all been dissipated into thin air; and we now hear great fear expressed that a giant monopoly is being established. We in Australia have suffered under at least two oil monopolies for many years. In New South Wales a Labour Ministry introduced a proposal to deal with the matter by establishing a State monopoly, not of crude oil, but of petrol ; and that proposal was supported, not only by the Labour party, but by a large section out- ' side.

The proposal now before us is to refer to a Select Committee the agreement which the Government have entered into subject, to the approval of this House. The agreement does not establish a monopoly; and there is nothing in the way of the establishment of a monopoly to inquire into. The contract is to deliver certain quantities of crude oil yearly, and that quantity is not sufficient to meet the demands of Australia; thus the contract can have little effect on competing companies so long as their prices are as satisfactory as the prices of others. If the prices of those competing companies are better for the public than those charged by the Anglo-Persian Company the trade will soon go to them. But the fear that the public are going to be charged more is not the reason that we are inundated with expensive telegrams and literature - the- fear is that the presence of a company controlled by the Government will bring down the price of oil, and that the competing companies will have to leave the market or sell at the same figure. The whole agitation against the Bill is founded on an idea that by the establishment of refineries in Australia, where our people may find employment, we are striking a blow at the monopoly prices to which the Commonwealth has hitherto had to submit. That is not a matter for a Select Committee, but a matter on which every one who has followed the profiteering operations in this country can come to a speedy determination.

Mr Considine - Should we not have made more progress if the Government had undertaken the business themselves?

Mr HECTOR LAMOND - If the object of the Leader of the Opposition is to get from a Select Committee a report in favour of nationalization, the honorable member for Barrier (Mr. Considine') knows that such a proposal has no chance at all of being accepted by this Parliament. That choice is not open to Parliament; the choice is between the Bill as presented and no attempt to control the price of oil. The suggestion that we are to refer this matter to a Select Committee in order to get a report in favour of nationalization is an idle pretence which I do not think appeals to many honorable members. The practical suggestion is made that we should have our own refinery; but there is nothing to prevent the Shell Company or any other company from starting business here. Not many years ago, when I was on the same platform as honorable members opposite, the Standard Oil Company was an organization of which we spoke most scathingly; but to-day, apparently, the interests of that company are the inspiring theme of the opposition to the Bill. The Standard Oil Company is quite free to open refineries in Australia, give employment to our people, and sell us cheap oil if it can. There is not a line in the Bill which removes the power of the Commonwealth to encourage exploration for oil. The agreement has nothing to do with exploration for oil that is dealt with in- an entirely different agreement, which does not bind the Commonwealth to any one company. Any one of the twenty companies which the honorable member for Maribyrnong pictures in his imagination is free to explore for oil in Australia as much as it likes ; the agreement establishes no monopoly - gives no monopoly rights.

Reference has been made to the powers that may be exercised in connexion with the Customs duties; but under what conditions? If the Commonwealth Government thinks the price charged is fair and reasonable it may do the things provided, and can only do them through this Parliament; not only is the Government to be satisfied that the price is fair and reasonable, but the majority of honorable members has to be satisfied before any one of these three conditions apply. The fear that a monopoly will be created is the emptiest of all the suggestions made in support of a Select Committee. There is not a line in the . Bill that gives a monopoly to the Anglo-Persian Company, or prevents any other company establishing refineries here; and all the arguments advanced, one after the other, against the agreement are arguments that do not touch the case.

For myself, I am prepared to accept the Billin its present form. After all this talk about the amendments those we have so far seen in print are only explanations of the Bill, or intended to more clearly phrase the provisions already in the measure. To me the Bill seems entirely unobjectionable from the point of view of the establishment of a monopoly. And we must remember that we are not in a position to make a free choice. If we could have got our oil refined and sold at a reasonable price, there would have been no necessity for this Bill; but at present we are absolutely in the grip of monopolies which have been levying toll on us all along, and which will continue to do so unless we take some action.

Mr Fenton - The Anglo-Persian Company has been doing the same thing.

Mr HECTOR LAMOND - Of course it has; and, therefore, all the more necessity there is for an agreement to prevent it doing it in the future. If we could make similar agreements with other companies it would, be for the benefit of the Commonwealth, for that would, at any rate, give us some cheap oil, and enable the public to see the comparative prices, and judge what ought to be paid under present world conditions.

Mr West - You are easily pleased.

Mr Gabb - Easily " bluffed."

Mr HECTOR LAMOND - I am not so easily "bluffed " that I accept some of the speeches which have been made in this Chamber to-day, as expressing the real opinion of those who made them. Nor am I so easily " bluffed " that I can be induced to repeat here the statements which appear in pamphlets issued by what is one of the greatest monopolies in the world to-day, the Standard Oil Company. Honorable members opposite have condemned these monopolies, and yet in their speeches on this Bill they have re-hashed the arguments which the Standard Oil Company has caused to appear in the newspapers, and has circulated wherever they would find acceptance.I should have liked to hear from the honorable member for Maribyrnong something in the vein of the ' old Labour opposition to monopolies, and some slight approval of the action of the Prime Minister in making an agreement which will enable us to at least reduce the toll that some of these monopolies levy on the Commonwealth. I believe that the effect of the Bill will be to reduce the cost of fuel oil to Australian industries, and it is because I so regard it that I shall support it.

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