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Thursday, 29 July 1920

Mr HUGHES - At the Premiers Conference the other day complaints were made by the Premiers of Victoria, South Australia, and other States, to the effect that there was a very great shortage of coal, which was attributed to three causes, the scarcity of shipping, the growth of the export trade, and the very frequent and serious stoppages of the men at different mines. I do not propose to apportion to each of these three causes its due and proper weight, but merely repeat what has been said. It is obvious that in discussing any shortage which may be due to industrial unrest, we are considering one particular phase of a general world-wide problem; and the shortage of shipping may also be said to be a phase of a problem similar in extent, but in reference to the export of coal overseas, we are dealing with a condition of affairs which has been created by the war, a most extraordinary position which has enabled Australia to sell coal to European countries at a lower rate than that charged for British coal. Coal goes where it can get the highest return. Obviously, that is the principle which guides men in all their actions, whether they be miners or mine-owners, and the only step the Commonwealth Government could take in this regard would be to prohibit the export of coal.

Mr Charlton - The Government cannot do that.

Mr HUGHES - That is true. We cannot do it unless we pass legislation to that effect. The existing law does hot, I understand, empower the Minister for Trade and Customs to prohibit the export of coal, and if it be the desire of the House that the Government should be clothed with that power it must express an opinion to that effect, and legislation can be brought forward which honorable members may discuss and adopt or reject as they deem fit. This is a general question that does not affect any party. Coal consumers are not members of political parties. A man does not burn coal because he happens to be a farmer, or a member of the Opposition, or a member sitting on the Governmentside. He burns it because he wants to do so.

Mr Tudor - The trouble is that one cannot get much coal to burn.

Mr HUGHES - Quite so. I accept that correction. But if honorable members express a general desire that the export of coal should be interfered with, the Government will consider whether it is desirable to bring in the necessary legislation, throwing upon the House the responsibility for it. If, on the other hand, we are not to interfere with the export trade - and I certainly do not think we should do so - then I tell honorable members candidly that we cannot expect the coal mine-owners notto sell their coal in the market which pays them best. I think, in the best interests of Australia, it would be a very bad step to kill the foreign trade.

Mr Charlton - Hear, hear! If we did so it would kill the mining.

Mr HUGHES - It would be a case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. We must have an expanding, and not a diminishing, coal trade. I have answered this question at some length, because it is a matter of importance. I think I have dealt with it fairly. I repeat that if there is a general desire to interfere with the export coal trade, the House must express that desire, and if it does so, the Government will consider the matter of bringing in the necessary legislation. Otherwise it does not propose to interfere with the trade.

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