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Tuesday, 13 October 1931

Mr SCULLIN (Yarra) (Prime Minister) . - The position is very simple. If the committee has no work to do it cannot function. Under the Public Works Committee Act the committee cannot conduct an investigation into any proposed work until Parliament directs it so to do. It is true that the committee has investigated certain public works which have not been proceeded with ; but that has not been the responsibility of the committee, but of Parliament.

Mr Marr - That has resulted in saving money.

Mr SCULLIN - Probably it has. It is, however, an exaggeration to say that, with the exception of automatic telephones, none of the works into which it has inquired has been proceededwith. The work given to this committee is primarily the responsibility of the Government. The act under which the committee is operating provides that any work, the estimated cost of which exceeds £25,000, shall be submitted to the committee for investigation and report. I do not think it practicable to amend the law in the direction suggested by the honorable member for Oxley (Mr. Bayley). but the Government could discuss with the committee the question of unnecessary duplication in the matter of inquiries. It could confer with the committee as to whether the construction of an automatic telephone exchange in Brisbane does not involve the same class of work in Perth. In such cases there should be no need for the committee to duplicate its work in order to comply with the law. The honorable member for Swan (Mr. Gregory) claimed that in the case of the inquiry into the Perth exchange, the chairman of the committee was the only member who travelled to Perth for that purpose. In all matters of this kind, room can be found for criticism; but I think it will be admitted that, over a number of years, the Public Works Committee has justified its existence. It has been suggested that as the committee has no work to do it should be abolished; but let us hope that the time is not far distant when public works will again be proceeded with. If the amendment were adopted, it would be necessary, when conditions became normal, to introduce legislation reconstituting the committee. In the meantime, no additional cost is being involved. The only other point to be dealt with is with respect to the staff. The honorable member for Angas (Mr. Gabb) has worked up some heat with respect to the necessity for economy. In the first eight months of this Government's administration, and before any cut was made in salaries or pensions, it reduced administrative expenses by £1,000,000. The Government has endeavoured to dispense with duplication wherever possible. We cannot deal with every difficulty immediately and in the right way. Within the last month or two the Government has been devoting its attention to the position of the staff of . the

Public Works Committee. There are three officers, a secretary, a clerk, and a messenger. The clerk has been transferred to another position. The messenger is engaged as such in this building, and I believe that he is doing good work. The secretary deserves all that has been said concerning him; he is a very capable officer. It has not been easy to place him, but he has not been idle. Wherever heads of departments have been able to employ him, his services have been utilized. As a matter of fact, his name was before the Cabinet recently when a transfer was made from one department to another. We are carrying in our departments a number of officers who are classed as excess. They are not excess in the sense that they are doing nothing- as a matter of fact, they are continuously employed - but merely because they have not been appointed to some permanent position. There are a few even in my own department. I believe that it will be some time before there will be much work for this committee to undertake, and that, meanwhile, we shall have to find suitable employment for the secretary. He is a permanent officer, and cannot be dismissed.

Mr Nairn -Can you not transfer him?

Mr SCULLIN - We have already transferred the clerk and found other work for the messenger. I believe that the Department of Home Affairs is utilizing the services of Mr. Whiteford at the present time. One department borrows from another when it needs a good man for any special work. These excess officers in our departments cannot be dismissed. In some cases the loss of their services would be very serious. In the Postal Department we still have some surplus officers.

Mr Gabb - Is there a sufficient number of inspectors in the Taxation Department?

Mr SCULLIN - The honorable member has made that suggestion previously, and I have interviewed the Taxation Commissioner regarding it. I am not in a position to judge, but the Commissioner is. When additional inspectors or other officers are needed, application is made by the department to the Public Service Board. The Commissioner must protect himself. Nobody would be more ready to condemn him than would the honorable member if his estimates were increased. He endeavours to keep down his administrative costs; and he has a right to do

30.   The heads of all other departments act similarly.

Mr Gabb - The other day in Sydney one man was ordered to pay £1,300 additional taxation. The extra expenditure would be well justified if it led to the prevention of evasions.

Mr SCULLIN - The fact that these defaulters are being discovered and made to pay proves that a good deal of vigilance is shown, and that the department is administered efficiently. There may be need for extra inspectors; I cannot say whether there is, or is not. I am not so sure that the honorable member is qualified to direct the Commissioner as to what he should do. Honorable members may rest assured thatwe are not countenancing the keeping of men in idleness. I consider, however, that it is wise to keepthis law on the statute-book. I hope that it will not be long before there will be work that can be referred to the committee.

Mr Paterson - Meanwhile, nothing would have been saved by abolishing it.

Mr SCULLIN - Not one penny, because no expenditure is incurred unless there is work for it to do.

The honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Martens) made a statement which I do not wish to pursue very far, because my remarks would not bo relevant to the question before the Chair. No public moneys are being expended on abattoirs in Brisbane; but a certain sum is being advanced as a bank loan to a private body. We have no authority over it, and no responsibility with respect to it. I believe it has been alleged that this Government claimed credit for having obtained that money from the bank, and loaned it. We have not claimed to have made any such loan. All that I have said is that we requested the State governments and local governing bodies to put works in hand, and asked the banks to make advances for that purpose to them. The responsibility for the class of work proposed, and the security offered, rests with the bank and the local governing body concerned. I ask the House not to accept the amendment.

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