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Friday, 29 October 1920

Mr RYAN (West Sydney) .- I understood the honorable member for Franklin (Mr. McWilliams) to say that he would move an amendment-

Mr McWilliams - I have done so.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Treasurer) - And before the honorable member says another word, we know that he will agree with the amendment.

Mr RYAN - I am not going to be "bluffed" by the Treasurer (Sir Joseph Cook). I wish to state briefly how the matter presents itself to my mind. The Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) came down to the House this morning, asked leave to move a motion without notice, and having obtained that leave moved what, in my opinion, is a very important motion requiring careful consideration by honorable members. This is not a matter that can be determined by conversations across the table. It is one in which every honorable member is interested. I, for one, want to know what necessity there is for this reference to a Committee. It may be that there are sufficient reasons. Apparently the Government let a contract to Messrs. Kidman and Mayoh for the construction of certain ships, and Messrs. Kidman and Mayoh now desire to have that contract cancelled. That is what I gather from the Prime Minister's statement, and he says, in effect, to the House, " If you do not allow this reference to a Committee which it is proposed to appoint to act as arbitrators, there must be a resort to the law." If the Government conducts its business properly it should not be afraid of any law in regard to the carrying out of a contract, provided that the contract was in definite terms.

Mr Stewart -Who drew up the contract?

Mr RYAN - I do not know; and before I shall be prepared to refer a matter of this sort to some Committee, the majority of which will consist of supporters of the Government, I shall want to know why it is necessary for the Government not to insist upon the performance of the contract, whatever it may be. Is not the contract a definite one? If it is a definite contract, then what need can there be to refer it to a Committee? "Why this rushing of the whole matter? Why all this urgency? This work has been going on for quite a long time, but the Prime Minister suddenly finds it necessary to rush in with a motion concerning a matter which I am sure not one-fourth of the members of the House fully understand. Before I agree to any motion I want to understand exactly what it is proposed to do, and why it is necessary to carry such a motion. Why should it be necessary to refer to a Select Committee the question of whether or not a particular firm shall be compelled to carry out its contract? The whole position should be clearly and definitely stated in the contract as between the Government and the contractors. That being so, I am not prepared to agree to the reference at all, until something more definite is put before the House.

If there is to be a reference, then I agree with the honorable member for Franklin that it should be to some body that is clothed with full power to investigate the whole subject.

Mr Richard Foster - It is really a Board of Arbitrators that is suggested.

Mr RYAN - Then should not the Government be able to say on what grounds they should refer the dispute to arbitration ?

Mr Hughes - Under the contract, the contractors can go to arbitration on all these points, and defy us. We are entirely at their mercy. If they say they want to go to arbitration, then there must be a resort to arbitration.

Mr Brennan - Where is the contract ?

Mr Hughes - It is in your office. At least it should have been had you been alert in your business.

Mr RYAN - It is useless for the Prime Minister to joke about this matter.

If the contractors have the right to refer the question to arbitration-

Mr Hughes - They have.

Mr RYAN - Then why not refer it to arbitration ?

Mr Hughes - The contractors have selected this form of arbitration.

Mr RYAN - If that is so, it is for the Government to take the responsibility of any reference, and not to come down to this House and try to shuffle the responsibility on to honorable members.

Mr Hughes - The honorable member is suggesting that we should go behind the back of Parliament?

Mr RYAN - No; but while I am a member of this House I am not going to allow the Prime Minister to shuffle on to it a responsibility which is properly that of Cabinet Ministers. The Tight honorable gentleman has a habit of doing that sort of thing. He rushes into the House, obtains leave to move a motion without notice, and shoves on to some one else's shoulders responsibilities that are properly his own.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Treasurer) - And if we undertook that responsibility the honorable member would say that we ought not to have done so..

Mr RYAN - Not at all. If we accept this proposal the Prime Minister will be able to say, later on," I referred the matter to theHouse. This is a matter with which the Public Works Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, or some other Select Committee has dealt." If that sort of reference is to bemade, it should be provided for before a contract is entered into. In that event, the responsibility would from the beginning rest upon the Committee. But what the Prime Minister does is to come to the House, and to shuffle off his responsibility when he is getting into a hole.

Mr Hughes - We have not got into a hole.

Mr RYAN - The right honorable gentleman tries to put on the shoulders of the Committee what is properly the responsibility of the Cabinet. In the circumstances, I take it that the Government will not rush this motion, but will give time for its proper consideration.

Mr Hughes - It makes no difference to me. If the wheat-growers want ships to carry away their produce- .

Mr RYAN - More bluff! The right honorable member threatened just now to withdraw the motion. That, too, was pure bluff. I do not care whether he withdraws it or not. There is always an excuse offering for shuffling out of Government responsibility, and covering up any particular transaction. . If there is to be an inquiry into this matter, then by all means let it be carried out by a Royal Commission. As suggested by the honorable member for Franklin, a Royal Commission would have full power to investigate the matter. I agree with that, and will support the amendment.

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