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Wednesday, 9 March 1932

Mr SPEAKER (Hon G H Mackay - -Honorable members who have been interjecting have had an opportunity to put their case before the House. The Assistant Treasurer is endeavouring to reply, and, in fairness to him, they should be prepared to listen to what he has to say.

Mr BRUCE (FLINDERS, VICTORIA) - We must reduce our production costs to a reasonable level, and not adopt the policy that so many people have advocated, of increasing internal prices. Although such a policy, might give us some immediate relief, it would not help us to return to prosperity, nor would it enable us to obtain any benefit from an increase in the price of world commodities. That is the basis upon which we have to build, if anything substantial is to be achieved. By forcing up costs of production we shall defeat what we all wish to see, the restoration of prosperity. There is a fundamental difference of opinion in the various political camps, because they all start from a different point, although all have in mind, I sincerely trust, the attainment of the same objective.

I come now to the question, where does the Government stand in this matter? Many references have been made to the expectation that the Government would restore prosperity overnight. As a matter of fact, conditions have improved to a certain extent, because the feeling of confidence in the country has increased ; and that is one of the fundamental conditions if prosperity is to be regained. But we must build on that. The question is repeatedly asked " What is the Commonwealth doing in regard to unemployment ? Who is feeding the people who are; out of work?- The States!" The manner in which, that statement is made suggests that it constitutes a reflection upon the Commonwealth. The contrary is the case. Under the Constitution it is no part of the function of the Commonwealth to deal with these problems. They are State problems. The Commonwealth can give, and has given, a measure of assistance. I am certain that the Leader of the Opposition, the late Prime Minister (Mr. Scullin) will agree with me that under the Constitution it is not one of the functions of the Commonwealth to provide rations for the unemployed. The honorable member for East Sydney will probably retort, "What has happened in the Federal Capital Territory? This great Commonwealth, with its abounding revenues, cannot feed 30 people, and the State of New South Wales has to bear the burden on its behalf." What the honorable gentleman overlooks is that, if unemployment relief were provided in this Territory on other than a travelling basis, we should have unemployed from eVery portion of Australia coming to Canberra.

The honorable member for Hunter (Mr. James) asked me incidentally what opinion was held of me by the coal-miners in my electorate. I admit that they have said some rather crisp things to me and about me, but not of the character visualized by the honorable gentleman. The only occasion when I did not have the usual cheery meeting at Wonthaggi - when there is always a considerable amount of backehat, but no particular animosity - was subsequent to my granting a subsidy of ls. a ton to the New South Wales coal-fields, to stimulate their interstate and export trade. The miners that I represent had not any use for me then. In the Newcastle and Maitland areas we have probably the best seams of coal in the world, judged by their width and the comparative ease with which they can be worked.

Mr James - Has the right honorable gentleman ever tried to work them?

Mr BRUCE (FLINDERS, VICTORIA) - I have never been a coal-miner,- but 1 have performed a good deal of work and exercises. of a physical nature. I am not discussing the difficulty or otherwise of coal-mining, but am merely, affirming, that Australia., is better placed than other countries, in regard to the working of her coal deposits, because these are of a better class than most. Coal is the basic commodity of the whole industrial life of this country ; consequently, can we hope for a return to real prosperity if we adopt the attitude that we are unable to work our coal-fields or produce coal at a price that will enable us to compete with the rest of the world? Is it right to say that we can keep going only by the payment of an export bounty on coal, or the absolute prohibition of the bringing of coal by the vessels that trade with this country from abroad? I invite the honorable member for Hunter (Mr. James) to give careful consideration to that proposition.

A certain measure of assistance towards the relief of unemployment can be afforded by the Commonwealth in a time of crisis, to tide over the worst period of the nation's economic and financial sufferings; but in order to do this the necessary money must be raised. In all previous crises of this character there, was the possibility of raising money either in this country or in Great Britain. On the present occasion, however, owing to our general position and the condition of our credit, it is doubtful if we could raise a loan, even on the Australian market. We might, by appealing to the patriotism of the Australian people, obtain sufficient to tide us over our difficulties. But so far as the external market is concerned, we already have ott,t against us so many short-dated securities that whatever we could raise would have to be utilized in discharging existing obligations. The question, how much further can we go in the direction of utilizing bank credits, is one that has to be very carefully considered. It must be remembered that we arc to-day handling the whole of our huge deficits on that system, and that for a long time the money thus obtained has been used upon public works. Even though this might be a wise palliative to apply, there has still to be considered the question of what expenditure can be reduced, and what sum can be made available for this specific purpose. No good service will be rendered by following the oft-repeated suggestion to provide a little work here and there. The only result of such a policy would be to place a few men in employment for a short period, probably undermining still further our finan- cial and economic structure, and eventually causing unemployment to become more widespread. To the question, " What is the Government going to do ; how is it going to solve this problem," I frankly reply that nobody can solve it in a simple fashion. The trouble is deeprooted, and the remedy must be a sound and well thought-out one. At the moment, the Government is exploring the whole question, in the hope that it will be able to make suggestions to the States as to a basis on which common action may be taken. Whether we can make any valuable suggestion has yet to be determined. I believe that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Scullin) will admit that the furthest point he was able to reach was that of saying that if the banks would make available credits for public works a certain number of mon would be placed in employment. That is as far as any government has got up to the present time. Whether it will be possible to do something which will help to solve the problem, I do not know; we are exploring every avenue that suggests itself. It is useless to fix a day for debating the subject; that will not get us any further. What we want is a constructive lead, and when we have that we shall call the States together, and put the matter before them. The Government is not going to deceive the people by holding a debate on this subject in an attempt to make them believe that we can solve the whole problem. It cannot be done in that way, and I will not be a party to suggesting that it can.

Mr Makin - If the Government cannot see its way to afford the relief which is necessary, will it throw the responsibility on the House, and permit the House, in its collective wisdom, to determine a course of procedure?

Mr BRUCE (FLINDERS, VICTORIA) - The House may be afforded an opportunity of expressing its attitude on this matter, but the responsibility of saying what should be done belongs to the Government, and it cannot hand over that responsibility.

Mr James - The Assistant Treasurer said that the Newcastle and Maitland coal-fields were easily worked. Is he aware that on the Maitland field there are more casualties than in any other field in the world?

Mr BRUCE (FLINDERS, VICTORIA) - If that is a fact, it is most regrettable, and I would be a party to doing everything possible to reduce the number of such unfortunate happenings. But when I stated that the coalfields of Maitland and Newcastle were among the best in the world, I meant only that they were among those from which it. was possible, most economically, to extract coal. That is generally accepted, and surely the honorable member will not deny it.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

House adjourned at 1 1.13 p.m.

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