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Thursday, 24 November 1927

Mr CHARLTON (Hunter) (5:28 AM) . - Owing to the brief time available to me, I shall make my remarks as short as possible, so that I shall not deprive other honorable members of an opportunity to discuss the items under consideration. I move -

That the proposed vote, " The House of Representatives, £17,920," he reduced by £1.

I do so in order to affirm the control of Parliament over its legislation; with particular reference to the Shipping Act, and to direct the Government that no instruction shall be given for the disposal of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers without first obtaining Parliamentary authority by an amendment or repeal of the act. This matter does not concern any department. It is entirely one for the committee to decide. Anticipating objection to the motion, I point out that the Parliament controls the Shipping Board. Not even the Prime Minister has power to sell the Shipping Line. It is necessary, therefore, that action be taken now to give honorable members an opportunity of deciding whether the Prime Minister shall be permitted to carry out his threat to dispose of it. The motion of censure levelled against the Prime Minister was condemnatory of the attitude of the Government towards the Line, and the defeat of that motion did not give the Prime Minister or the Government permission to dispose of it. I addressed a question on the subject to the AttorneyGeneral, and,instead of answering it, he stated that it was not within his province to give legal advice in answer to questions. I remarked that in a matter involving the sale of the vessels of the Shipping Line, which are virtually auxiliary cruisers, one might have expected a proper answer to the question submitted. "Whether he was able to answer it or not, I cannot say; but in any case it was an insufficient reply for him to say that it was not the usual practice for the Government to give legal advice in reply to a question.

Mr Latham - I said that it was not the practice of Parliament.

Mr CHARLTON - The Minister should not shelter himself behind a reply of that nature.

Mr Latham - The forms printed for honorable members' guidance show that that is not the practice of Parliament.

Mr CHARLTON - I desire to point out that the Commonwealth Shipping Board has full control over the Line. If the Prime Minister disposed of the Line he would be acting illegally. The New South "Wales press has stated that the Shipping Board itself claims that it has control of the Line, and the Prime Minister has no right to dispose of it without its consent. I asked whether a majority of the members of the board favored its sale, and I did not get a satisfactory answer. The legality of the prpposal is in doubt. We remember what happened in the case of the Commonwealth Bank Board, the members of which, it was discovered, had never agreed to the separation of the savings hank branch from the general bank.

Mr Bruce - I have stated definitely that the Shipping Board was not consulted, and that the Government takes full responsibility for its action.

Mr CHARLTON - My contention is that the Government has no power to do what it proposes to do. On the 4th July, 1923, the Prime Minister introduced the Shipping Bill, placing the Line under the complete control of a board. In his second reading speech he pointed out that the members of the board would be the actual managers and controllers of the enterprise. He said that the board would be free from political influence or any interference with the management of the Line. The Prime Minister definitely stated that the board was beingappointed by Parliament to control the Line andthat to Parliament it would have to report. When the bill was in committee the right honorable gentleman said -

No government would dispose of the shipping line unless it had considered the facts, knowing that it has to face Parliament.

The Prime Minister now proposes to sell the ships without consulting Parliament.

Mr Bruce - Surely that is not correct, in view of the discussion in the House recently.

Mr CHARLTON - By no stretch of the imagination can the recent debate be regarded as having conferred upon the Government authority to sell the ships. Do the Prime Minister and the AttorneyGeneral contend that because of the debate on the censure motion relating to the Government's attitude towards the Line, it has a right to dispose of the ships without consulting Parliament as to the conditions of sale? Has the Prime Minister authority to give the ships away if he so desires, or to sell them fora mere bagatelle? To show how the attitude of the right honorable gentleman differs from that of his colleague who leads the Senate, I quote the following passage from Ilansard of the 11th November -

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE. When speaking to the main question I announced that the Government intended to take a vote in each House.

Senator Greene.If the motion is agreed to, will the Government proceed with the disposal of the Line without any further authority from Parliament?

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE. No. There will have to be further - reference to Parliament. If a suitable offer were received it would have to be submitted to Parliament, but I do not know if the introduction of a bill would be necessary.

Senator Greene.Parliament would be consulted?

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE. Yes ; in some way.

Senator Duncan.Will the Minister give the Senate that assurance?

Senator Sir GEORGEPEARCE. Yes.

In the Senate the representative of the Government gave an assurance that Parliament would be consulted in regard to any proposed sale of the ships. In this House the Prime Minister has said that he has authority to dispose of them without further reference to Parliament.

Mr Bruce - The matter was further dealt with in another place at a later date.

Mr CHARLTON - I have no knowledge of that. The Shipping Board realizes that the Line can be sold only subject to the ratification of Parliament. In the cable sent to Mr. Larkin in London on the 28th January, 1926, and read in this chamber by the honorable member for Batman, the board said regarding an offer for the vessels -

Purchasers mustclearly understand that any agreement arrived at must be subject to ratification by the Commonwealth Parliament.

The Prime Minister is of opinion that Parliament must ratify the sale of the Line, for a cable sent to the Shipping Board in London on his behalf included these words -

My opinion you may definitely rely if Cabinet accepts there will be no difficulty obtaining ratification Commonwealth Parliament.

Mr Bruce - The honorable member will recollect that I stated that that cable had been sent by Admiral Clarkson.

Mr CHARLTON - Presumably he first consulted the Prime Minister, who said that there would be no difficulty in getting the consent of Parliament. Perhaps he is right; he understands his followers better than I do. Section 13 of the Commonwealth Shipping Act provides -

All the right, title, and interest of the Commonwealth in and to the ships and stores are by force of this Act transferred to and vested in the Board.

They are vested not in the Commonwealth Government, but in the Board. For proof of that contention I refer honorable members to the Estimates, which do not contain one item relating to the Commonwealth Shipping Line or the Cockatoo Island Dockyard which used regularly to appear on the Estimates. The Parliament deliberately gave the Board full control of the Line in order to remove it from political influence. Newspaper comment indicates that the Government's proposals in regard to the Line are causing serious perturbation. The Labour Daily of the 23rd November said : -

A question occupying attention is the power of the Shipping Board to sell the Line which was created by Act of Parliament. It is understood that Mr. Latham, AttorneyGeneral, is perturbed by the problem and is having the legal issue investigated.

The Daily Guardian of the same date wrote : -

The calling of tenders for the ships has been delayed while Attorney-General Latham and his staff make further searches to see just what their powers really are. It was Mr. Bruce's intention to instruct the Line to sell the ships by tender, taking their orders from him as to what tender they were to accept. Then when the ships were sold he proposed to introduce an Act of Parliament to wipe out the Board. But the Line was created by an Act of Parliament. The Board which manages it was also created in the same way, and by Mr. Bruce's own act placed beyond political interference. Thus the only body who can sell the ships is the Board itself.

To-day the statement is current that the majority of the Board is opposed to the sale of the ships. Evidently the members of the Board consider that the disposal of the Line would be a crime against Australian development. The only question I have raised this morning is whether the Government can, without consulting Parliament, dispose of the ships. The time at my disposal does not permit of my dealing with the subject at length, but I have moved the amendment to test the feeling of the committee.Itwillgive the honorable member for Richmond (Mr.

R.   Green) an opportunity to retrieve himself from the position in which he was placed by the vote upon my censure motion. The honorable member said he was opposedto the sale of the ships without further reference to Parliament. He knows that, the Prime Minister intends to sell the ships, and I hope that he and other reasonably minded men will support the amendment as an instruction to the Government to consult Parliament before disposing of a valuable public utility.

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