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Friday, 11 March 1932

Mr LYONS (Wilmot) (Prime Minister and Treasurer) . - The subject to which the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Scullin) has directed attention is suffi- ciently grave and important to justify the action he has taken. Although I realize that the discussion of .this subject in this chamber for two hours or longer will not lead to the solution of our problem - because nothing that can be done by this Government and Parliament alone can solve it - yet suggestions which honorable members may make may be helpful to the Government in dealing with the situation. I, therefore, welcome the discussion which the right honorable gentleman has introduced, and I have no fault whatever to find with his speech.

Unemployment is confronting the whole nation and every parliament, and should not be regarded as tha responsibility of any one government which happens to be in power. No matter what undertakings may, or may not, have been given by political parties on the hustings, we must realize that conditions are operating in Australia that are tending to emphasize the seriousness of the position, and to increase the urgency of the problem. I also feel it unnecessary to remind honorable members that some of the conditions surrounding this problem are of a nature that we, in Australia, cannot of ourselves rectify. The Government is very much concerned about the seriousness of the position. The Leader of the Opposition has said that, in reply to questions on the subject, I have indicated that practically no action has been taken by the Government to apply remedies, and that we are simply waiting for the Premiers Conference to meet in May. I have, however, made it clear that there was' no necessity at any time for the conference to be held as late as May, for there were other matters, such as the report of the Transport Conference, which would have justified the calling of the conference together at an earlier date. The chief work of the conference to be held in May is the consideration of the financial proposals for the coming year.

The Government has, ever since its assumption of office, given close consideration to the subject of unemployment. As I indicated the other day, we have set up a special sub-committee of Cabinet, which has already consulted with the authorities which our predecessors in office consulted. Although we propose to carry this investigation much further, we have already reached the point at which we recognize the extreme urgency of the problem. The sub-committee is about to submit to Cabinet certain propositions, which we will put to the Premiers, I hope much earlier than May. At present I shall not be quite definite in my undertaking, but the matter is so urgent and important, particularly in view of the approaching winter months, during which the unfortunate unemployed will have to endure much greater privations than iu any other period of the year, that it may be necessary for me to defer the reassembling of Parliament after the Easter recess for a week or two longer than was intended at first, in order that a Premiers conference may be called to consider the proposals which we have to make, and other proposals which the State governments may bring forward, with the object of relieving unemployment.

Dr Maloney - Would that conference deal only with unemployment?

Mr LYONS - Perhaps not only with that subject; but that subject is, of itself, sufficiently important to justify the calling of a Premiers conference. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that this is the most important question which we have to deal with at present. We have given certain undertakings with regard to the balancing of budgets, the resuscitation of industry in Australia, and so on, but our success in carrying them out will depend entirely upon whether we can get our people back to work. Unemployment is a problem of vital and primary importance, which would, of itself, justify a conference. The Premiers will also consider the report of the committee which investigated our transport difficulties, and will make a preliminary investigation into the future financial position of the nation generally. Those matters are closely associated with our unemployment problem, and must be considered side by side. Prior to that conference, and while the Government itself is investigating these problems, we shall be only too pleased to receive suggestions from any section in the House, and from any individual member, whether of this chamber or another place.

The right honorable the Leader of the Opposition has pointed to the action that was taken by his Government during and after the time that I was associated with that administration, to relieve unemployment. I am aware that the grants be mentioned were made with the best intentions in the world. It may be that this Government will have to take similar action in the near future. But SUCh a course will not provide any solution of our trouble. The position will remain as it was. It is merely temporizing. 1 agree that now, and during the winter months after thu important conferences that will be held overseas - from which we hope some measure of relief will result to ourselves and to the world generally - we shall have to give some impetus to industry in an endeavour to obtain financial buoyancy. It is with that object that the Government is convening the Premiers Conference at an early dare. It would be unwise merely to grant sums of money to carry on work which will not finally be of real value to the community.

The Leader of the Opposition says that the position is more secure to-day than it was when his Government made those grants. That may be, but this Government has obligations which had not then been imposed on the Scullin Government. At that time we were groping in the dark, and did not know exactly what course to follow. I admit that the action then taken was justified, as it at least temporarily relieved the suffering that existed. While the position may be better to-day - and I hope that it is so - the Government now shoulders the obligations imposed upon it by the Premiers plan. On the one hand it has to consider the advisability of financing a grant to relieve unemployment, and on the other hand it realizes clearly that it has a duty, in accordance with the undertaking that the Leader of the Opposition himself gave, to keep its deficits within pertain bounds.

Mr Scullin - That would not prevent a special loan being raised for a special purpose.

Mr LYONS - Perhaps not. It might be inferred from the right honorable member's speech that the banks were not so generous as they might have been when they refused' to advance an . additional £5,000,000 for the works programme of tb° States and Commonwealth last vear.

It may not be generally known that, excluding the £7,300,000 that was advanced for the State and Commonwealth works programme, the banks agreed to provide £20,000,000 to cover the deficits and other requirements of the States and of the Commonwealth. At the difficult period of the year prior to the Commonwealth and States obtaining the full benefit of their revenues, the banks will have advanced a total of, roughly, £33,000,000. I ask honorable members to compare that amount with the total borrowing programmes for works in other years. Had the banks not had the responsibility of finding that huge amount, the bulk of it to cover deficits, they would have been in an excellent position to make further moneys available for works.

I am with the Leader of the Opposition when he says that we must not go back to the old period of borrow and burst. I am aware that we could nol at present, borrow money if we desired to do so. Although the Leader of the Opposition declares that the position to-day is more secure than it was, I remind him that the governments arc now borrowing more money to meet deficits than they did in the past to cover their works programme, and that interest has to be paid on every penny that is made available by the banks for this purpose, lt will, therefore, be realized how difficult it is for the governments and the banks to meet the situation this -year. Without doubt, the orgy of borrowing in which governments of every political brand indulged in the past is one of the greatest causes of the troubles that now confront us. We have all erred, and I hope that we have learned a lesson. If we, in desperation, again started out on the same track, the community would suffer as the result of our action. Whatever we do must receive very careful consideration, and we must lose no time iti acting, because the matter is urgent." Any money that we borrow for the relief of unemployment must be spent on works of a reproductive character, or works that will be of real value when prosperity is restored, otherwise the position will be worse than it. is now. -'I appreciate the way in which ;the Leader, of the Opposition brought this matter forward. It is a problem which should receive our united attention. Honorable members on this side of the House are co-operating in an effort to save the situation, and we shall be only too pleased to receive practical suggestions from honorable members who sit in any other part of the House. I assure the Leader of the Opposition that no time will be lost in endeavouring to relieve the sufferings of our people. As soon as it is determined, the Government will notify the House when the Premiers Conference will meet.

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