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Tuesday, 13 October 1931

Mr GREGORY (Swan) .- I cannot understand why the honorable member for Warringah (Mr. Parkhill) did not move for the repeal of the Public Works Committee Act instead of asking the Government to withdraw this measure and introduce another to provide for the abolition of the committee. I thought that an honorable member so anxious to save the public money would have the common sense to suggest the more direct and effective method. The honorable member said that no member of the Public Works Committee has any qualifications for reporting upon projected undertakings. Apparently, their ignorance is equalled by that of the honorable member in regard to parliamentary usage. At the present time, there is no need for the committee, and I hope that the Government will find temporary employment for those permanent officers employed by it who, otherwise, are likely to be unoccupied for a long period. The committee itself must be kept in being, because past experience has shown how necessary such a body is. I recollect the inquiry into the proposal of the Government of the day for the construction of a railway from Yass to Canberra, and the excitement in this chamber when the committee reported against the project. Many honorable members suggested that- the committee should be abolished and urged that the railway be built, despite the committee's adverse report. The line was estimated to cost £750,000, and time has confirmed the committee's opinion, that it would not pay the cost of axle grease.

The inquiry into the Kidman-Mayoh shipbuilding contract was outside the ordinary functions of the committee. The Hughes Government proposed that the wooden vessels constructed by that firm during the war period should be sent to Cockatoo Island Dockyard to be completed. The committee's investigations disclosed, that if the ships had ever put to sea they would have sunk in the first storm. Had it been possible to give effect to the committee's report the Government would have saved in respect of a disastrous contract about £130,000, but it did recover as a result of arbitration £75,000 from Sir Sidney Kidman, who, although no party to the scandals, had to bear the financial consequences. But for this inquiry the cost to the Government would have been over £200,000, and probably the lives of over 100 seamen. I mentioned this afternoon the wasteful expenditure that was prevented in connexion with the Henderson Naval Base at Cockburn Sound and the sub-base at Flinders. Several millions of pounds were saved by the committee's reports, but I lost a number of friends in Perth and Fremantle, because the committee, of which I was chairman, recommended that construction work in the Henderson base be discontinued. I anticipate that when the financial outlook improves other big works will be proposed, which this Parliament will require to be investigated. The honorable member for Oxley (Mr. Bayley) said that money was expended unnecessarily by the committee in investigating proposals for the construction of automatic telephone exchanges, and he referred particularly to the committee's visit, to Western Australia. Two members of the committee represented that State, and were in Perth on private business. They, and the chairman, constituted a sectional committee, the -chairman being the only member to visit Western Australia especially for the inquiry. Only about three meetings of the subcommittee were held ; it will be seen that no unnecessary expense was incurred in connexion with that investigation. Although the mechanical equipment of automatic telephone exchanges is standardized, there is often room for differences of opinion as to the most suitable site and the danger from fire in adjacent buildings.

Mr Archdale Parkhill - Ministerial responsibility has ceased if the Government is so dependent on committees.

Mr GREGORY - Docs the honorable member think it advisable to leave these matters entirely to the judgment of public officials? In the early inquiries into automatic telephone exchanges the committee sought evidence from representatives of manufacturers throughout the world, and insisted that specifications should require that all parts be interchangeable, so that if any extension of the work were found necessary in the future the Government would not be at the mercy of the original contractor, who had installed patent appliances which he alone could supply. For instance, if a contract for the erection of a telephone exchange for 10,000 subscribers were let to one manufacturer, and its extension to 30,000 lines subsequently became necessary, the whole contract would not be in the hands of that firm. These matters were given great attention by the committee. I have received repeated assurances, particularly from the Works Department, of the appreciation of the work of the committee, more particularly in respect of outside evidence, which has been very helpful and not in the least detrimental to Commonwealth departments.

Mr Beasley - What happened with respect to telephonic communication with Tasmania?

Mr GREGORY - I know nothing about that. I feel quite satisfied that if the act were now repealed, within a few years, when we start to carry out public works, a keen demand would arise for an investigating committee of this sort. The Public Works Committee has, in the past, done good work, and saved the Commonwealth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Its value is fully appreciated by the various departments, and we shall be making a big mistake if we repeal the act entirely.

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