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Thursday, 26 August 1920

Mr MATHEWS (Melbourne Ports) .- The other day I moved the adjournment of the House to deal with the unsatisfactory distribution of sugar. I can assure the Government that I did not do so merely for the purpose of obstructing business, but because there is among a lot of traders considerable difficulty in obtaining supplies. Of course, Irealize that a Minister cannot be expected to go into all the details of everything connected with his Department, but he is supposed to have some officers under him on whom he can rely for information concerning those details; and when it is said that the distribution of sugar is unfair, I think he ought to take steps to discover what is thereal position. It is useless for him simply to say, "I have received such and such information from my officers," that being an end of the matter as far as he is concerned. The case I mentioned the other day was that of a man who, as is well known by those associated with him and others trading in the district, has not been getting his fair share of sugar. When the House was dealing with the sugar agreement the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) assured us that all purchasers of half a ton of sugar could secure the full rebate.

Mr GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Trade and Customs) - That was not the promise. He said that purchasers could go straight to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company and get their sugar, and that they would get a full rebate according to the quantity they bought. The rebate is not the same for half a ton as it is for 100 tons.

Mr MATHEWS - My memory is that half a ton was fixed as the (minimum on which the full rebate would be given, and that quantities beyond half a ton had to be secured through some wholesale house. However, since I raised this matter last week, I have received numerous letters emphatically asserting that the writers have not got their full rebates, . although they have purchased half a ton of sugar. It would appear that although they have offered to purchase half a ton at a time, they could only get a few bags, and although in the aggregate their purchases amounted to half a ton, the full rebate was not allowed to them. Honorable members opposite must have heard of the difficulties which traders are sufferingin the matter of securing supplies of sugar. If they have not heard complaints in this direction they are indeed very fortunate. Possibly, the traders know that it is useless to approach them, because, being under the thumb of the Government, they may not care about kicking over the traces. However, this is not a party question. The honorable member for Hunter (Mr. Charlton) did not raise the matter as such, and I have not done so. Surely on a matter of this kind honorable members on both sides of the House ought to be able to add to the information already put forward, and the Minister ought also to be pleased to get it.

Thousands of our soldiers who went overseas have not been repatriated from Great Britain; they are missing; but, unfortunately, many of them left dependants in Australia who are now quite unprovided for. I quite realize the difficulty of the Department in having to support persons who have been found guilty of some crime or misdemeanour, but it is unfair to penalize the dependants of those men. Some of the cases which have been brought under my notice relate to men who were at the Front for years, and proved themselves to be good soldiers. Their meritorious conduct was brought under the notice of their superiors. However, after distinguishing themselves in this way, through some cause brought about by the stress of war conditions, they committed offences, not only military, but also civil, and, in order to evade punishment, they deserted. Their dependants here were, of course, maintained by the Defence Department until the information was cabled out that the breadwinners had deserted, when naturally the separation and allotment payments were suspended until the men were found again. The payments were restored then, and continued until the offenders were punished and discharged, after which the dependants received no further support from the Defence Department. These dependants were guilty of no offence. The action of the husband or son in deserting is no more the fault of the wife, or children, or parents dependent on him than it could be regarded as the fault of a widow that her husband was killed. Yet the latter continues to receive support from the Government while the former are deprived of any assistance whatever.

Mr McGrath - The man who is supposed to have deserted may have been killed for all the Department knows about the circumstances of his case.

Mr MATHEWS - I know that that is quite possible, because of what I have been told by dozens of men who have returned. When there was to be a " hopover" the men in the "booby hatch" were taken out and put into the line, where they were willing enough to go. They hopped over with the rest, but many of them did not come back, and, not having been properly released from prison, were regarded as having escaped.

Mr McGrath - It was quite a common occurrence to take them out of prison in such circumstances.

Mr MATHEWS - There are many peculiar circumstances associated with the act of desertion, and we ought to realize that we have a responsibility to those women and children who were dependent upon those who have been reported missing from that cause. At any rate, the fault was not theirs, and when they make application to the Defence Department for consideration of their peculiar situation, I hope the usual stereotyped reply will not be given to them. I am sure that the Assistant Minister for Defence (Sir Granville Eyrie) sympathizes with these women and children; but the time has come when the Ministry as a whole must recognise that we owe something to them, and should provide for them, irrespective of whether the men did or did not desert. It is unfair that the women and children should suffer for any offence committed by the men. I know that the Department has had the matter under consideration for some time; but in the light of information now in its possession, that thousands of men who went overseas have been reported as having deserted, and have never returned, something should be done for these people. These missing men may not have deserted in the ordinary sense of the word, and many of them may not be alive to-day. Had they deserted their families here, proceedings could have been taken against them in the Law Courts; but the Government, having taken these men away for service overseas, should do something for their wives and children, who have been left without means of support.

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