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Thursday, 20 May 1920

Mr HUGHES (Bendigo) (Prime Minister and Attorney-General) . - I wish to deal with the very important issue raised' yesterday by the honorable member for Cowper (Dr. Earle Page) in relation to the conveyance of fodder to starving stock. I promised yesterday that I would get into communication with the manager of the Commonwealth Line of Steamers, with a view to seeing what relief could be given. I have discussed the situation with Admiral Clarkson and Mr. Eva, and I now desire to put the Committee in possession of the facts. Honorable members will admit that the facts are a little surprising in view of the continuous demands that have been made that Commonwealth vessels should' be made available for this work. Three of the Commonwealth steamers are now engaged, and have been engaged for a considerable time, in bringing phosphatic rock from Ocean Island to Australia, without which the farmer could not carry on his operations. No other vessels are available for the purpose, and practically the whole of Australia's requirements in phosphatic rock are carried by the Commonwealth steamers. A fourth vessel of the Commonwealth Line, the. Bulga, is now on its first visit to Ocean Island, and will return to Australia with a cargo of phosphatic rock. The second three vessels built in Australia are now employed solely on the coast. Thus are seven of our vessels accounted for. In addition, the ex -enemy vessels Goo-ee and Parattah were allocated to the coastal trade In December last. That accounts for nine vessels. The tenth, the wooden steamer Bundarra, is now loading for her first coastal trip. In addition to the regular coastal work in which these ten vessels have been engaged, our other oversea liners have been utilized for coastal work on every occasion on which cargo has been available. For instance, the Australpeak was employed to carry fodder on 4th November, 1919, from South Australia to Sydney and Brisbane whilst she had still on board her original oversea cargo. All this work, of course, involved great loss of money to the Commonwealth; not one of these vessels returns the cost of the oil she uses.

In order that honorable members may know the extent to which we have assisted in carrying coastal cargo, I may state that, since the beginning of 1918, 275,317 tons of such cargo have been carried by Commonwealth steamers. So much for what has been and is being done. When the honorable member brought up this matter yesterday I had not, as I complained, the facts before me, as I should have had if he had given me notice of his intention. I therefore take this opportunity of putting them before the Committee.

In pursuance of the promise that I made yesterday I have instructed the manager of the Commonwealth line of steamers to get into wireless communication with the Bakara, now en route from Cape Town to Melbourne, and to arrange for her to pick up coastal cargo. This she will do. I also instructed him that the steamer Australglen, due in Sydney very shortly, should, upon the completion of her discharge, be used for one or more trips for the carriage of coal and produce.She will carry fodder to New South Wales and return with a cargo of coal. A new steamer, the Eurelia, now being constructed, will shortly be available, and I have given instructions that she shall be placed on the coastal trade. That will make a total of eleven Commonwealth steamers on the coast, exclusive of those which we are diverting for coastal carriage purposes. I sent a cablegram yesterday to London to ascertain at what price three 5,000 to 6,000 tons dead weight vessels could be purchased or chartered for immediate delivery. Upon receipt of an answer I shall bring the price before the House, and it will be for honorable members to say whether or not we should buy.

This disposes at once of the statements that have been made that the Commonwealth line of steamers is doing nothing in the coastal trade to assist the pro ducers. In addition to the vessels I have named, every one of our steamers going overseas is carrying Australian produce to the world's markets, and by its competition is keeping down the Combine's oversea freights. I must say this - and I say it with all respect to those who differ fromme -that if Lord Inchcape had briefed men in this House to destroy the only competitor the Combine has, these honorable members could nothave acted more effectively. The only competitor that now stands against the British Shipping Combine is this line of steamers owned and wholly controlled by the Commonwealth. Some honorable members never seem to be satisfied unless they can put the vessels of that line where they not only cannot " earn their own salt," so to speak, but where they actually lose thousands of pounds on every voyage.

Mr McWILLIAMS (FRANKLIN, TASMANIA) - Because you run them half empty.

Mr HUGHES - What nonsense! If the honorable member were only half as full of wisdom as these vessels are of cargo, he would make a better impression on the House and the country. Take one instance. We loaded a vessel with 9,000 tons of cargo. Not only was she full, right up to the hatches, but she carried deck cargo. And yet we lost on the voyage. And we shall continue to lose, even with the 20 per cent, increase in freights.

Mr McWilliams - To what vessel does the Prime Minister refer?

Mr HUGHES - To one of the Commonwealth line.

I come now to another point. While stock are starving in New South Wales, fodder is abundant in Victoria. Why is it that Victorian fodder is not going into New South Wales? I shall give the House some of the reasons. It is due mainly to the delay in unloading Victorian railway trucks at the New South Wales border. Here are some facts and figures from an officialreport that will prove my assertion -



From the above it will be seen that there are at present 1,194 Victorian trucks, of which it is safe to say over 1,000 contain fodder, waiting to unload at New South Wales border towns. Yesterday 178 tracks were unloaded, and this was greatly above the average for many days.

These facts speak for themselves. I think I have given a complete answer to the complaint that has been made. Our vessels have beenput on the coastal trade. I shall put on others if we can obtain them. When we obtain an answer to our cablegram as to the price at which additional steamers can be purchased, I shall submit the price to the House; and when I do so the first honorable member to rise and say, "We ought not to buy these steamers," will be the honorable member for Franklin.

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