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Wednesday, 7 July 1920


Mr MATHEWS (Melbourne Ports) . - Hitherto .there has been a. good deal of sentiment surrounding the men who go down to the sea in ships. Much poetry has been written upon the beauties attaching to a sailor's life. Indeed, upon one occasion, the British Government specially subsidized a poet to write songs of the sea with a view to inducing the young men of the Old Country to embark upon a maritime calling. To the seamen themselves, however, there is very little sentiment connected with their avocation. On the contrary, very strong language is frequently used in regard to it. I intend to discuss this question from the stand-point of the seamen themselves, and not from that of a first class passenger in the saloon of a well-appointed ship. A long time back what were known as coffin ships were very much in evidence. Some owners used to insure their vessels and have them sunk in order to get the insurance money. The lives of the seamen were never considered. Conditions in the past were so horrible that it is a wonder men were got to work on ships. I suppose the sentiment with which a seaman's life was surrounded induced some men to go to sea, and crews were often recruited from boys who wished to get away from the Old Country. The conditions which prevailed were, however, so bad that I think many of the men must have been brought very close to the edge of starvation before they consented to sign on.


Mr Stewart - They were brought very close to starvation afterwards.


Mr MATHEWS - Exactly. We all know that the services of crimps were . used to man ships, and we are told that this evil is still in existence.

After all that has been attempted, from the day of Plimsoll down to the present, to render ships safe and to provide for the safety of those who go down to the sea, the difficulties and trials of sailors are still great, although not so bad as formerly. The Minister (Mr. Greene) in introducing the Bill alluded to the fact that, with all his ingenuity, man had not succeeded in building an unsinkable vessel. We know that many million pounds' have been spent on well appointed ships, but any special provision made has been for the benefit of the passengers, and not of the crews. I hold that for the limited time passengers are on board ship they could put up with a little discomfort, and that full provision should be made for those who are obliged to live permanently on the sea. We all admit now that the seaman is a human being and ought to be considered, just as his fellow men are.

Hence our attempt to bring in a navigation law to improve his conditions. Other nations have followed in our footsteps.. The International Conference is following very closely the Bill which we passed in 1912 but never proclaimed, bub we are informed that the delegates to that Conference, while recognising that our law does not contain too many provisions for the benefit of seamen, are indicating where many improvements could bo effected.

It is now proposed that portions of Australia shall be exempted from the operations of the Navigation Act. The western coast, for instance, is to be exempted. But there ought to be some limitations in this regard. I have no desire to isolate the people on any particular portion of the Australian coast, which would be the case if the exemptions were not made, unless the Government chose to run their own ships, but my contention is that we ought to demand from every country in the world that conditions should be provided on their ships which would obviate the necessity for making these exemptions. They ought to be asked to see that their standard is that which we have laid down in our Act. However, our seamen will see to this. They have no desire to interfere with the position of people on any part of our coast, but at the same time they contend that these exemptions from the operationof the Act should not be used to their detriment.

Recently I introduced a deputation of seamen to the Minister (Mr. Greene), who was very courteous in listening to what they had to say, and promised to give their representations consideration, but it was the usual stereotyped reply. I hope that the consideration given totheir requests will be satisfactory to them. One thing they complained about was that they should have been consulted before this Navigation Bill was submitted to Parliament. In days gone by the employer always said that it was not the place of the workmen to interfere with his business. He ran his own business, and would not let a workman interfere with it. But that day hasgone. Weare in a new world, and the employers recognise that the man who works for wages will demand, and, in fact, has demanded and received, better terms than were conceded to him in the past. I hope that the workers will continue to demand and get better terms until their position is improved. But there is only one method by which their conditions may be improved, and that is by consulting them when anything in which they are interested is under consideration by a Government or any one else. The sailors contend very rightly that they should have been considered in this case. They claim that they are at the mercy of shoremen. Parliamentary representatives of seaport towns are mostly men who have never been to sea, and while they may exercise the ordinary amount of common sense with the opportunities they get of seeing the conditions on ships, and how essential it is to improve them, they can by no stretch of imagination place themselves in the position; of the seamen themselves. They can only do so by actual experience of the conditions under which these men are asked to work.


Mr LAIRD Smith - When the Navigation Bill was under consideration there were three honorable members who worked on it - Messrs. Archibald, Roberts, and Guthrie - who were essentially practical men; in fact, three more practical men could not be found in Australia.


Mr MATHEWS - That is quite correct, and the Bill passed in 1912 was the best we could get up to that time; but since then the world has advanced marvellously. The British Government, who felt that we were bringing into operation something, that might work against their mercantile marine, are now asking that the conditions of seamen should be raised to the standard that was brought about by the war. We now realize the fact that no vessel can go to sea without seamen: That being the case, the men were perfectly justified in claiming that before the introduction of this Bill, they or their representatives should have been consulted. The secretary of the seamen asked the Minister, " How would the farming community like to have laws made for them without first consul tin r them or their representatives?"


Mr Prowse - We have never been consulted.


Mr MATHEWS - I have been in this Parliament for thirteen years, and day after day for the whole of that period I have heard appeals from the farmers. There were always plenty of friends of the farmers in this Parliament. It was a marvel to me that there was any necessity for forming a Farmers party.

I want to show how essential it was to have consulted the seamen. Since the Navigation Bill was passed in 1912 the Commonwealth Government have built ships in different parts of Australia, but the conditions provided for the sailors on the vessels launched at Williamstown are not as good as those on the old Austral line purchased by the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes). That statement was made by the seamen to the Minister (Mr. Greene). They gave the dimensions of the accommodation provided. They explained how, in regard to the diningroom for the seamen, if a man went inside and sat down to a meal, he could not get out again until the other men nearer the door had finished and gone outside. And this is the result of our efforts, although the desires of the seamen for improved conditions have been known to us. When the demand is put forward that better provision should be provided for sailors, the argument is advanced that the structural arrangements of the vessels prevent improvements of the character being effected.


Mr Burchell - Does the honorable member say that the Commonwealth vessels are not built in conformity with the conditions laid down in the Navigation Act? .


Mr MATHEWS - I am telling the honorable member what the position is. It is the seamen who make this statement, and if it is to continue there will be trouble.


Mr Burchell - The honorable member does not say that the vessels have not been built in conformity with the Navigation Act.


Mr MATHEWS - My contention is that if the Act has produced the conditions which the sailors say it has, and if these vessels with this accommodation comply with the provisions of the Act, we might as well tear up that measure and start all over again. There are probably men who still consider that the sailors are asking for too much. The seaman does not go on a voyage for the sake of his health, or for a holiday. When he is on a ship he has to work. He is away from his home, and is obliged to conform to certain conditions. His liberty is circumscribed. He can hardly be said to be on a parallel with other individuals. Once he signs articles he is in the power of the master of the vessel. There are provisions in the Navigation Act which make it a crime for a sailor to do what men on shore would be rewarded for doing. The seamen admit that insubordination must be prevented. They realize that, to a certain degree, people's lives, even their own, are at stake 'when insubordination arises, but they contend that the conditions under which they work should be such as would not produce insubordination or mutiny. 1 do not think they are asking too much in this respect. If their request is not conceded there will be trouble. I am not talking about any intention to strike or anything of that sort. If the men who will be compelled to work under the provisions of this measure are not satisfied, a strong attempt will doubtless be made by them to improve their conditions, and quite recently we had an example of their determination. It is the duty of honorable members to see that the conditions under which these men work are such that they shall be assured of a reasonable amount of comfort - much more than sailors have had in the past - and if this is not done there is sure to be trouble.

In connexion with the construction and manning of ships that have to pass through the tropics, provision is being made for the supply of ice-chests to preserve meat and other commodities. But ice-chests are useless in the tropics, as the meat becomes putrid. Under these circumstances, it will be necessary for the seamen to revert to the " bully beef," used in Nelson's time. As ice-chests are of little use in tropical regions, it is necessary that a refrigerating plant should be installed on all ships, so that the seamon can be assured of receiving supplies of fresh food. Even if ice-chests are supplied, it is more than probable, according to the statements made by the men, that they will be placed in the vicinity of the boilers.


Mr Watkins - I have seen men sleeping in the vicinity of the boilers when ships have been in the tropics.


Mr MATHEWS - That is so. In my youthful days I understood, and since then the impression has been confirmed, that of all the " hell " ships afloat, the American vessels were the worst. Most of us have read of the dastardly actions of American ship-masters in ill-treating their men - as has been the case on some ships in the British Navy - :and if we make the conditions too stringent, our ships will be placed at a disadvantage as compared with those of other maritime nations. The United States of America holds an important position as regards her mercantile marine, but I believe that on some American vessels the degree of comfort is not up to the British standard. I have heard sailors speak of the hardships they have experienced on American vessels ; but conditions must be changing, because I have had a document handed to me which was. drawn up by Mr. P. J. Aldous, the secretary of the Port Phillip Shipwrights Association, setting out full particulars of the accommodation provided on the American steamer Liberty, which recently arrived from America. This -is not an isolated case, and it proves conclusively that American ship-owners are making the conditions so good for the seamen that we shall have to make very drastic changes if we desire to reach their standard. For the information of honorable members, I quote the following statement concerning the steam-ship Liberty, to which 1 have referred : -







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