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Friday, 29 October 1920

Mr MAHONY (Dalley) .- I am somewhat favorable to having a Committee to investigate, not only the matters spoken of by the Prime Minister, but everything connected with the building of wooden ships, both here and in America. So far as referring this matter to the Public Works Committee is concerned, I think it would be a mistake to adopt that course. It would be far better for the House to appoint a Select Committee to deal with it. The members of the Public Works Committee already have quite a number of important questions engaging their attention, and there are other matters which must be referred to that body in the immediate future if our public works policy is to be proceeded with. Consequently, that Committee will be loaded up with work. We must also recollect that the Public Works Committee was constituted by a special Act of Parliament for a specific purpose.

Mr Hughes - I was just endeavouring to ascertain whether the firm which is involved in this dispute with the Commonwealth will agree to theproposal that the matter should be referred to a Select Committee. I will accept the finding of the Committee, of course. But there are other complications. We propose to refer the matter to the Public Works Committee, because that body has some legal status.

Mr MAHONY - Has it the legal status to deal with this matter? It was appointed to inquire into specific proposals for the expenditure of large sums of public money. That is quite a different matter from inquiring into a dispute between a private firm of contractors and the Commonwealth.

Mr Hughes - I would point out to the honorable member that it will be useless for us to agree to a motion for a Select Committee if the firm in question will not concur in the course which is being followed.

Mr MAHONY - I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that I believe the firm will agree to the course which is proposed.

Mr Hughes - Then I have no objection. If the honorable member likes, I will accept the suggestion that the matter shall be referred to a SelectCommittee consisting of a similar number of members ofthis Parliament, as compose the Public Works Committee.

Mr MAHONY - In my opinion, the matter is one which does not require to be investigated by a large Committee. . . It needs a Committee consisting of men who have some grip of it.

Mr Tudor - But the Committee must consist of a certain number of members from another place.

Mr MAHONY - We ought not to rush this proposal through the House too quickly.

Mr Hughes - We had better stick to a Committee of nine, composed of six members of this House and three members of another place.

Mr MAHONY - The Prime Minister agrees that a Committee of members of Parliament shall be appointed to investigate the matter?

Mr Hughes - Yes.

Mr MAHONY - That being so, I should like to know what are to be the functions of the Committee. Will its members be restricted to an endeavour to make an arrangement with the firm of Messrs. Kidman and Mayoh, or will they have an opportunity of investigating the whole of the surrounding circumstances?

Mr Hughes - The whole of the surrounding circumstances- the workmanship of the, ships, the specifications, the extent to which the specifications have been departed from, at whose instance they were departed from, whether the vessels are seaworthy, their contract price, whether we ought to be bound by that price, and, indeed, the whole thing.

Mr MAHONY - Will they also have the right to consider whether the contract for the building of thesetwo weasels ought not to have been cancelled at the time the contracts for the construction of other vessels were cancelled?

Mr Hughes - No. After all,we are endeavouring to ascertain how much the Commonwealth oughtto pay.

Mr MAHONY - Why is it that the Commonwealth is called upon topay anything? Where did the initial error take place?

Mr Hughes - There is the contract.

Mr MAHONY - That is the point. It may be that that was the initial error - thatit was a mistake to enter into the contract. Upon the other hand, it may be that the initialerror was in failing to cancel the contractat the time thecontracts forthe construction ofother vessels were cancelled.

Mr Hughes - We want a recommendation as to how much we should pay in order to get these ships. If we didnot want the vessels I would notmove my finger inthe matter, and would allow the dispute to go to law. But we do want the vessels.

Mr MAHONY - That is all right, so far as it goes.

Mr Wise - That is the whole issue.

Mr MAHONY - There is more in it than that.

Mr Hughes - The honorablemember wants the Committee to inquire into the question of whether we ought to have ordered the vessels in the beginning.

Mr MAHONY - No. But I want the Committee to inquire whether the Government should not have secured the cancellation of the contract for the construction of these vessels when other shipbuilding contracts with this very firm of Messrs. Kidman and Mayoh were cancelled, and when the firmwas paid £70,000 by way of compensation. The Government then agreed that the building of the Burnside and Braeside, the two vessels which form the subject of the present dispute, should be proceeded with. The Committee shouldbe empowered to inquire why the contract for the building of these vessels was not cancelled when other shipbuilding contracts were cancelled.

Mr Hughes - It was not cancelled, because these ships were then in process of construction.

Mr MAHONY - There were Vessels in process of construction at that time by the Wallace Power Company. At Woolwich to-day, honorable members may see the skeletons of these vessels the contract for the construction of which was cancelled by the Government undertaking to pay that company compensation to the extent of £50,000. The Prime Minister's contention, therefore, will not hold good.

Mr Hughes - Very great headway had been made with the construction of the Burnside and Braeside.

Mr MAHONY - Now ?

Mr Hughes - No, then.

Mr MAHONY - Oneof these vessels, so far as actual construction is concerned, is nearly complete. Whether she is fit to proceed to sea, is another matter. But the Burnside was not in being at the time of which I am speaking.

Mr Hughes - Why waste more time?

Mr MAHONY - I resent that suggestion by the Prime Minister. Thecontract for the construction of these vessels has cost the Commonwealth some hundreds of thousands of pounds, and I have a right to standup here and talk about it. Neither the Prime Minister nor any other honorable member has a right to suggest that I am wasting time.

Mr Hughes - Are we not proposing to refer thedispute to a Select Committee?

Mr MAHONY - But I desire to see aCommittee appointed which will be empowered to investigate the matter fully.

Mr Hughes -The honorable member wishes to make it a political inquiry.

Mr MAHONY - I do not. The Prime Minister may appoint whoever he chooses upon the Committee. The Government have the power and the numbers to place upon the Committee just what members they may think fit. This matter ought to be investigated by a Select Committee, and the Commonwealth ought not to be forced to go to law.

Mr McWilliams - It should be investigated by a Royal Commission, and not by a Select Committee.

Mr MAHONY - I want something more than is proposed by the Prime Minister. If the right honorable gentleman is prepared toagree to the appointment of a Select Committee which shall have power to conduct an inquiry upon the lines I have suggested, I have no objection to his proposal.

Mr Hughes - I am willing to amend my motion so as to make it provide for the appointment ofa Select Committee of seven members of this Parliament - five from the House of Representatives and two from the Senate.

Mr Tudor - How will the Prime Minister apportion representation upon the Committee ?

Mr Hughes - I shall not attempt to do that now. I shall do it only after consultation with the honorable member and with the honorable member for Franklin (Mr. McWilliams).

Mr McWilliams - May I suggest that a Royal Commission should be appointed instead of a Select Committee?

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