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Friday, 11 March 1932

Mr SCULLIN (Yarra) .- The moving of the adjournment of the House is an action which an honorable member is privileged to take to direct attention to a subject of great importance and urgency. I do not think that any honorable member will deny that the problem of unemployment is important and should be treated with urgency. Therefore, I make no apology for asking honorable members to give their attention for some two hours to this problem, which, in my opinion, transcends in gravity and importance every other confronting us. . It is not to be expected, of course, that a debate, whether it last for two hours or two weeks, will solve this problem. We all have responsibilities in this matter. The Government of the day - like other governments - has the greatest responsibility, but it is the responsibility of all honorable members to indicate where they stand, and the responsibility of the Opposition to show that it is prepared to support the Government and to encourage it in any sound action that it proposes to alleviate distress and remove unemployment. The States are spending millions of pounds on sustenance. There has been some expenditure on works, but so far as the relief of unemployment is concerned, the expenditure has been confined practically to sustenance. Something like £1,000,000 a month is being expended in that direction. It is true that it is the duty of a State to provide sustenance, and in that respect I agree with what was said by the Assistant Treasurer the other evening. It is also true, as has been stated in the GovernorGeneral's Speech, that the bulk of employment is furnished by private enterprise, and; therefore, it has responsibility in respect of unemployment. But I do not agree that this Commonwealth has no responsibility. We must play our part and give our quota towards the partial solution of this problem.

Those associated with me in this Parliament are concerned because the Government, in making replies to questions, has indicated that practically no action to relieve unemployment is to be taken until after a conference of Premiers has met in May. I regret if I have misunderstood the Prime Minister and the Assistant Attorney-General, but the interpretation that I place on their answers to questions is that certain investigations are being made, a sub-committee has been appointed, and the matter will be discussed in a general way at the conference to be held in May. If there is no action to precede that, it is obvious that we shall be in the depth of winter before anything is done. It will take some time to formulate' plans and to operate them. The position will be appalling this winter if unemployment continues to increase as it is increasing at present. The figures for the last quarter are not available, but reports that I have received are to the effect that during the last two months unemployment has increased. The position did improve during the quarter ending last December, and unemployment decreased from 28.30 per cent. to. 28 per cent. We are likely to revert to the position which obtained last September quarter, towards the end of the winter months. What is the position likely to be for this coming winter? It is obvious that, unless something is done,' we shall have a greater percentage of unemployment this winter than we have had before in any year in the history of Australia. I wish to stress two things that this Government should do. One is that it should push on with the conference, and not wait until May, and the second is that it should grapple with the whole problem, or as much of it as is possible. I am not ungenerous enough to suggest that this Government can solve the unemployment problem, or that any Commonwealth Government could solve it, but it can play its part towards its solution. I had too much experience of this dreadful nightmare, which hung over my head for the two years of my Prime Ministership, to .ask another Prime Minister or government to do the impossible. But surely if the Government has a plan, action could be taken to call the governments together now, and not wait until May. I ask, further, that in the meantime immediate action be taken to reduce unemployment. I shall anticipate the retort, " You were in office for two years, and what did you do 'i " We did not solve the unemployment problem. No government in the world could have solved the problem in those two years. We took office in 1929, when unemployment was not half so great as it is to-day; but, at that time, there was chaos in this country, and the whole financial structure was falling about our heads. We were right in the centre of an economic and financial blizzard, and jio one in Australia could see the path that the Government should take. Yet, in spite of that, within two months of taking office, we made a grant to the States of £1,000,000 for the relief of unemployment. It has been said that the money belonged to the States because it came from the roads fund, but that is .not correct. It is true that we used funds that had accumulated for road purposes, but it was money that the States were unable, in ordinary circumstances, to accept, unless they were prepared to find £750,000 on their own account. They could not do that. We provided them with £1,000,000, and, at the same time, altered the Roads Agreement to prevent even one penny from being deducted from the moneys allotted to the States. It was a grant from the Commonwealth to the States. The Prime Minister knows that, because he was a member of the Ministry at the time. That action depleted our cash resources by "£1,000,000, and at that time we were unable to afford it. The grant- was made as a palliative, and as some contribution towards the partial solution of this problem. In 1929, just before Christmas, we provided that £1,000,000. Some nine months later we made a similar grant, but the States met in conference and allotted a large portion of it to South Australia, which at that time was suffering more than any other State. That money was used to provide sustenance for the unemployed. Later, we provided £500,000, and that meant that we had made a direct grant to the States of £2,500,000. Apart from that, we expended £250,000 in the Commonwealth public departments, and provided another £100,000 for relief work in our own territories. It was not a big contribution, but it was an indication that the last Government at least recognized that the Commonwealth had a responsibility, and did something towards facing it. This Government, although it has held the reins of office for two months, has done nothing to relieve unemployment. Yet we were in office less than two months when we provided £1,000,000 for that purpose. Surely it is not unreasonable for us to ask the present Government to do at least what we did when we were in office. This Government should be able to do a good deal more than we did, because the position of the Commonwealth is more secure now than it was twelve months ago, and more money should be available. We had then embarked upon an uncharted sea, and were making tremendous efforts to stem the tide which had set in against us. We have now passed through the worst of the storm. The Assistant Treasurer (Mr. Bruce) has himself truly said in the last few days that the position of Australia is better now than it was eighteen months ago. We have corrected our adverse trade' balance, and have built up a surplus overseas, because we have been able to stop the flood of imports into this country. I hope that nothing will be done to nullify the good work that has been accomplished in that direction. Having built up this credit overseas there is a greater sense of security, both at home and abroad, in regard to Australian affairs. We shall probably balance our budget by the end of the year. I know that certain fortunate circumstances have arisen, but at least our budget position is manageable, whereas twelve months ago it was un-. manageable. In the light of these facts, it is not unreasonable of us to ask the Government to take immediate action to provide some money for useful works. The State Governments are ready to undertake useful work; they were ready to do so last year when the Premiers Conference carried a resolution asking the banks to advance £5,000,000 for reproductive works. It is not unreasonable, therefore,- for us -to ask that at least that amount of money should now be(, made available. ' rr-

Mr Lyons - The banks financed last year's transactions.

Mr SCULLIN - They financed only the programme of works then in hand. But the States desired additional money for the purpose of clearing land, ringbarking, afforestation schemes, and the like. Such work would not be reproductive immediately, but it would ultimately lift a number of unemployed permanently from the ranks of the unemployed. If the Commonwealth Bank requires some relief from what it regards as the stringent legislation of this Parliament, I assure the Prime Minister that we will give to him support in providing such relief. We are not asking that wildcat schemes should be put in hand, or that a policy of uncontrolled inflation shall be pursued ; nor do we wish to return to the old policy of reckless borrowing and extravagant spending; but we do require some step to be taken immediately to stimulate industry, and to provide work for at least some of the unemployed. Many useful projects could be undertaken even under present conditions. I do not think that our unemployment problem will be permanently solved until we can put many of the people who are out of work on sma'll agricultural holdings. It may be said that that costs money. But some of the States have already embarked upon activities of this kind. In Victoria 100 small blocks were made available and 3,000 workless people applied for them. The unemployed who went on to these holdings live in very humble dwellings. But while there is nothing whatever luxurious about their standard of life, I believe that the majority of them are making good. They are clearing land, and growing some of the foodstuffs which they require. It is true that they will need help for some time to come; but eventually they will be lifted beyond tlie need of any such assistance. It may be said that expenditure of this kind is not reproductive. It is true that no money can be provided in this way to pay interest; but if we can lift 10,000 people permanently off the unemployed list, the amount pf money that would have been spent- in providing them with- sustenance \lpuld meet interest and : sinking fund charges on.i5,066yb00.' . That would be 'a valuable thing in itself ;. but a much more valuable consideration would be that the morale of our working people was being restored. Life on a sustenance of a few chillings a week is a poor thing, for men find women who have been i accusiomed to work for their living. I urge the Government, therefore, to do something of the kind- that I am suggesting. Such work would undoubtedly become valuable to the Commonwealth, for when the depression lifts throughout the world, and the prices of our products increase in the world's markets it would put us in. a far better position to take advantage of the improved conditions. It is of the highest importance that the manhood of our workers should be preserved, and not be allowed to deteriorate, as it will do if present conditions prevail much longer.

The problem which faces us will not be solved unless we exert every effort to solve it. It is a paradox that to-day wc have great tracts of land in this country untilled, labourers' idle and hungry; carpenters who are homeless; bootmakers who have no boots to wear ; raw materials which are unsaleable; and skilled labour and machinery which is idle. When it ia suggested that something should bc done to remedy this state of affairs we are told that there is no money available for the purpose. What is money but a token : a medium of exchange, or credits? We have been told that credits will be expanded if wealth is produced; that wealth can be produced if markets are available; that good markets will be available if our workless people are employed; and that we could provide more work if more money or credit were available. So there is the vicious circle. Wages are down, costs are lower than they have been for a long while, the Government has been changed, and, if electioneering statements can be believed, confidence should be restored. We were told that all that was needed to restore confidence was a change of government. The change of government has occurred. I, therefore, feel justified in asking the Prime Minister to give us actions and not words. If the financiers have greater confidence in this Government than they had in the previous Government, let them how it by providing additional money for works, and let the Government act.

A grave responsibility rests upon this Government. I do not desire to raise any controversial questions in dealing with this vitally important subject. I could quote from placards, newspaper articles, and election pamphlets by the dozen to indicate that the members of the present Government told the people that confidence would be j restored and work provided immediately if a. change of government were effected. I shall satisfy myself with quoting from the report of a meeting held by the present Prime Minister, in the LauncestonExaminer of the 9th December, 1931. The paragraph to which I direct attention reads as follows : -

Mr. Lyonsreferred, with impassioned sincerity, to the unemployment situation, and. condemned the Labour Government for having failed to do something for the solution of the problem. "That, above anything, forced me to leave the party said Mr. Lyons.

Although the honorable gentleman said that the Labour party did nothing to cope with this problem, I have outlined briefly some of the effective steps we took to meet, the situation at least temporarily. In. addition to those things, we sacrificed £14,000,000 in customs revenue in order to protect Australian industries.

There is no doubt that the hope was raised in the breasts of the suffering people of this country that if a change of government occurred their troubles would be alleviated. The people have looked with great confidence to this Government to take immediate action to cope with the situation. The time has arrived for the Government to do something. It should not wait until the meeting of the Premiers Conference in May, which will discuss larger financial issues; it should act at once, and I earnestly appeal to it to do so.

Mr. Forde rising to second the motion.

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