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Wednesday, 7 July 1920

Mr STEWART (Wimmera) . - I rise to support the appeal made by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Tudor), and the honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Mathews), for the improvement of the conditions of our merchant seamen, particularly on the Australian coast. The latter put his finger on the spot when he said that the mere betterment of the conditions of the past would not suffice. What we should aim at is to put the seamen on an equality with those who live on shore. In trying to do that we must not take as a guide the conditions of British seamen. For a number of years my lot was cast among British seamen on British ships, and I speak moderately when I say that the conditions under which we lived were a disgrace to the British flag. Some years ago, in the early days of this Parliament, an inquiry into the condition of seamen was set on foot with a view to some alteration of the navigation laws.

Mr Tudor - There was a Shipping Commission.

Mr Fenton - Of' which the present Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) was chairman.

Mr STEWART - If my memory serves me, its inquiry was m'ade about 1904 or 1905. A Port Phillip pilot giving evidence before it said, among other things, that he would not send his dog to sea under the conditions which then existed; that British seamen were the worst fed in the world, and British captains, as a rule,. preferred foreign seamen, because they would stand more than British seamen.

Mr Watkins - There is no doubt about that.

Mr STEWART - When in Cardiff, some years afterwards, I was taken by a friend to one of the docks where a ship was signing on her crew, and at the gangway was the notice " No Britishers need apply." This was in a British port, bear hi mind. The captain made it a rule ito sign on none but foreigners, because Britishers gave too much trouble at sea. Most of those who have been to sea in British ships, particularly sailing ships, will corroborate my statement that, at the outbreak of the war, four-fifths of the men before the mast were foreigners, though most of the officers were Britishers.

Mr Watkins - In some cases the officers under the captain were foreigners.

Mr STEWART - In many cases.

Mr Watkins - And a percentage of the captains were Germans.

Mr STEWART - One of the reasons why conditions were so bad was that, notwithstanding the poetry about the sea to which the honorable member . for Melbourne Ports referred, English lads were not attracted to a sea life.

Mr Tudor - What was the pay - £3 per month ?

Mr STEWART - Less than that, in many cases. I signed on out of the port of Melbourne in 1905 for 50s. per month. The food, the wages, and the conditions on board ship were such that English lads were not attracted to the sea in any number, and consequently the British mercantile marine was largely manned by foreigners. The effect of this was seen, when , the war broke out, to be suicidal. Many a British ship during the war failed to reach port because of the foreign element in her crew. We want to guard against this with regard to our merchant seamen on the Australian coast, by making the conditions such as may attract our lads to sea. If we do that it will be better for everybody, and better for the nation, particularly in time of war. I was rather surprised, as I think the whole House was, to hear the statement of the honorable member for Melbourne Ports that the forecastle accommodation on the new Commonwealth steamships was unsatisfactory. I hope that statement will be inquired into, because it is rather an extraordinary one to make, and a scandalous thing if it is true. We in Australia should not set up for our seamen a standard based on the conditions given to the seamen of Great Britain. We should insist on a fanstandard for the other nations of the world to copy, in spite of the plea of uniformity raised by the honorable member for Wannon (Mr. Rodgers). If the honorable member meant by uniformity that we should lower out standard to conform with that of the British Mercantile Marine, I for one will not favour such a proposal. Although I am a country representative, I took the opportunity of rising to-night in order to put up a plea for the men among whom my lot was cast for a number of years, and because the organised farmers, of Victoria have adopted the principle that, while they are out to secure justice for the men on the land, they are prepared at all times to give justice to all other sections of the community.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

In Committee:

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 (Commencement).

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