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Wednesday, 29 June 1938


Mr BRENNAN (Batman) (12:50 PM) - The inveterate principle of the redress of grievances before Supply is granted cannot be ignored, and although it is ten minutes to one in the morning I have many grievances, but I do not expect them to be redressed, and, indeed, that is my first grievance. Parliament has been sitting for only a few weeks, and, in accordance with the practice of this Government, in order to get business through, we have to sit late at night. If it is a fact that this Government wishes to preserve democratic institutions in Australia, why does it manifest so large a measure of contempt for this Parliament, and the parliamentary system? It may be a matter personal to Ministers themselves. It may be that they find the summer heat of Canberra too severe for their delicate complexions. It may be that they find the frosts of Canberra in mid-winter so trying that they are not able to acquire sufficient supplies of bed-socks, warm pyjamas, and hotwater bottles, to induct them to risk their health by a longer residence in the national capital than a fortnight now and again in periods widely separated. Therefore, we are required to discuss the really serious problems of the day in the early hours of the morning, in order that Ministers may be convenienced, and in order that they, and those honorable members who support the Government, may return to their homes, and have nothing further to do with the duties appertaining to their positions as representatives of the people than to draw their allowances, and to exercise their talents in the direction of finding jobs for their friends. That is an incidental task belonging to members of this Parliament, but in which, I confess, I have never been too successful.

Of course, as I am well aware, it is not the policy of a fascist government to consult Parliament more than it must. Parliament is, for that kind of government, an embarrassment, and not an aid; but I warn honorable gentlemen of the Ministry that, if they persist in this policy of disregarding the claims of Parliament as a democratic institution, they will fall between two stools. They will earn the respect neither of the true Fascists nor of the proletariat, and in due course - I hope at an early date - they will occupy between those two stools the ignominious position which they will have earned.

I have another grievance which I want to ventilate this morning at this extremely inopportune hour. At least, I can have what I say, provided it is in parliamentary terms, placed in the records of the Parliament, and conveyed at the proper time to those outside this chamber who will be interested in it. I am, in fact, much concerned with the application in Victoria of the Loan (Farmers' Debt Adjustment) Act, in its effect, not only upon the farmers, but also upon business people, and even on those members of the working class who are dependent on the business people. The honorable member for Wimmera (Mr. Wilson) recently dealt in a very trenchant manner with this subject, but, unfortunately, he seems to be the only honorable member in this House, outside the Labour party, with a clear conception of the rights and obligations of the farming community. The Labour party, being interested in the working class, has always maintained its interests also in the working farmer. It finds itself under the pressing duty, of coming to the aid of the only real representative in this Parliament of the farmers, so as to make sure that their rights' are protected; to make sure that they are not filched away by those associates of the United Australia party who trade under the name of the Country party for the purpose of seeking election, and then desert the farmers at the very first moment that a prize of office is offered to them.

When this matter was raised by the honorable member for Wimmera, the Treasurer said in reply that there seemed to be some misconception in the minds of the people generally as to the purpose and scope of the act.


Mr Casey - I did not say that, as a matter of fact.


Mr BRENNAN -Does the Treasurer deny that he said in my presence, and in the presence of other honorable members, that there was a grave misconception regarding the purpose of the act?


Mr Casey - I did not say that there was a misconception regarding either the purpose or the scope of the act.


Mr BRENNAN - Normally, I should, of course, be only too happy to accept the honorable gentleman's assurance on a question of fact if it were within his special knowledge, but as I was here, and heard him speak, and took particular note of what he said, I must account my memory just as good as that of the honorable gentleman, and most unquestionably he said that there was much misconception as to the purpose of the act. I say that the purpose and scope of the act emerge from the terms of the act itself. The act provides in clear terms for the raising of a loan of £12,000,000 for a specific purpose, and the Government, disregarding the specific purpose, has not kept faith with the States, and, particularly, the State of Victoria. On the contrary, it has left Victoria and the farmers of that State in the lurch in regard to farmers' debt adjustment. The explanation would appear to be that the Loan Council has met, and that some of the States - a majority of the States, it may be suggested - have urged the Treasurer to make additional money available for works. To the extent that money has been required for works, the Treasurer has reduced the amount which was to be available to the farming community for debt adjustment.


Mr Casey - The Loan Council, which includes the Premier of Victoria, reduced it.


Mr BRENNAN - I am not addressing myself to this question as an advocate for the Premier of Victoria or for the Country party, but I am regarding it from the point of view of a member of this Parliament, and urging that the Commonwealth Government should maintain agreements made with the farmers or any other section of the community in the letter and spirit of the bond. Section 3 of the Loan (Farmers' Debt Adjustment) Act 1935 provides -

The Treasurer may, from time to time, under the provisions of the Commonwealth Inscribed Stock Act 1911-1933, or under the provision of any act authorising the issue of

Treasury Bills, borrow moneys not exceeding in the whole the amount of twelve million one hundred thousand pounds.

Section 4 is the important provision. It states -

The amount borrowed shall be issued and applied only for the expenses of borrowing and for the purpose of expenditure in accordance with this act to provide for the grant to the several States, by way of financial assistance, of moneys to be used for the payment to or for the benefit of farmers to enable them to make compositions or schemes of arrangement with their creditors in respect of their debts.

The money was to be used for that purpose and no other; the section is mandatory. That is the authority which this Parliament gave. Section 6 is also mandatory, and it indicates the proportions in which this money was to be granted. Very elaborate precautions were taken. The Commonwealth Statistician was called into consultation in order to ascertain precisely the proportions in which the money should be made available, and the following distribution was provided for-

 

The money was to be handed to the State authorities under very strict conditions. The first condition was that the States should set up machinery for the purpose of discharging in whole or in part the debts of farmers by means of compositions or schemes of arrangement between farmers and any or all of their creditors. The States, acting on that understanding, provided the necessary machinery, and it was accepted by the Commonwealth Government as entirely satisfactory. Another condition was that the States should make the money available only to those farmers who had a reasonable prospect of successfully carrying on farming operations, and who would continue to conduct them. Several other strict conditions were imposed, and, above all, it was understood that this was to be something different from a moratorium which connotes long delay and procrastination.

The Acting Prime Minister at the time (Sir Earle Page) said that this was a matter of giving speedy cash assistance to farmers for a specific purpose. The essence of the bill was that the assistance should be prompt and immediate in its nature, to make cash available to the farmers who needed it. In the right honorable gentleman's speech on the second reading of the bill, there occur many passages in which stress was laid upon the object for which the money was to be loaned. If honorable members refer to page 235 of Hansard of the 21st March, 1935, volume 146, they will see that the right honorable gentleman said -

Any advance made will be, not for the purchase of plant, the effecting of improvements, or the conduct of operations during the period of debt adjustment, but solely for the purpose of dealing with debt composition. We wish to make it quite clear that the general purpose of rural rehabilitation is not being covered bythis measure; that problem concerns, not merely that section of the farmers which is to be assisted under this measure, but the whole body of farmers as well.

Later, he stated -

The Commonwealth has strongly resisted that suggestion- that the money might he used for a general scheme of rehabilitation of the farmers - because it feels that the money available is barely sufficient to deal with the aspect here covered.

Throughout his speech the right honorable gentleman insisted, as is set out with the utmost clarity in the act itself, that the money to be made available was for a specific purpose. When the States accepted the money on those terms, and set up the machinery which was necessary to give effect to the loan and its allocation amongst the States, there was a definite contract. I do not claim that it was certainly a contract enforcible as a legal instrument, but I say with confidence that there was set up a strong moral agreement at the very least, with ample consideration to perfect that agreement between the Commonwealth and the States, and binding the Commonwealth in the way, and for the purpose, which I have indicated. Victoria was amongst the first of the States to set up the necessary machinery and to proceed with the adjustment of the farmers' debts. The Treasurer now makes the audacious complaint that. Victoria has proceeded too fast!


Mr Archie Cameron - When did he say that?


Mr BRENNAN - Last week. I hope he will not deny that, too. Why has Victoria gone too fast? And in what respecthas it gone too fast? It has gone ahead rapidly in carrying out the adjustment of the farmers' debts in the letter and in the spirit of the agreement made with the Commonwealth. This matter affects, not only the farmers, but also the credit and vitality of our economic system as a whole. It affects notably trustees and those who carry on business, particularly those who invest funds for beneficiaries. When this Parliament enters the wide field of trade and business, it is necessary that whatever is arranged to be done shall be done promptly and decisively, so that those affected by a measure of this kind will know to what degree they will be affected, when the statute will cease to operate, and, generally, what is the ambit of its operations. The unfortunate farmer - who is looking to this measure as a way out of his oppressive difficulties which were advertised and enunciated in this chamber not so long ago by the only honorable member, outside of the members of the Labour party, representative of the farming community in Victoria, namely, the honorable member for Wimmera (Mr. Wilson) - should know how he will be affected by it. The Treasurer (Mr. Casey) has intimated, that, the Premier of Victoria might, have made a very simple calculation in order to ascertain how much money he was entitled to from the Loan Council for the purpose of debt adjustment. My comment upon that is that the simple calculation, whatever other features it may have, would be based first upon the terms of that statute and secondly, upon the agreement made between the States and the Commonwealth, the one being disregarded and the other broken by the Commonwealth Government. That is the position as I see it. In these circumstances, the Treasurer, I think, very impertinently, says that the State of Victoria finds itself in difficulties. That State finds itself in no difficulties except those brought about by a breach of faith on the part of the

Commonwealth Government. The honorable member for Gippsland (Mr. Pater- son) stood in his place and, by that process of interrogation which we have come to know by the homely and euphonious title of Dorothy Dix, put certain questions to the Treasurer. First, he stated that he was much interested in the representations made by the honorable member forWimmera, but as he continued to speak it was obvious that his interest in those representations was limited to his anxiety to extract from the Treasurer something which would operate as a complete answer to the honorable member for Wimmera and cause his discomfiture. He addressed to the Treasurer a number of rhetorical questions as to whether it was not a fact that the States had preferred that some of their loan moneys should be diverted to works instead of to debt adjustment, and whether that was not the reason for the very great shortage in the advances made by the Treasurer in respect of debt adjustment. In the latter question lies the very gravamen of our complaint. It was perfectly clear that the honorable member for Gippsland, who has so recently passed off, if I may say so with respect, the pay-roll of the United Australia party, was concerned not with the interests of the farmers but with his reputation as one associated irrevocably with the United Australia party to the great detriment of the farming community in the State of Victoria. That was the position of my respected friend, the honorable member for Gippsland. The Treasurer, taking his cue from the honorable member for Gippsland, made a succession of very polite bows as the speaker continued, in that excellent shop-assistant's manner so characteristic of him, and expressed his entire approval of those rhetorical questions, and said that it was quite true that the States required more money for works and, therefore, there was less money for debt adjustment. The simple fact is that this bond between the Commonwealth and States in respect of debt adjustment had nothing to do with works; the statute simply provided £12,000,000 for debt adjustment and, in my view, in so far as the Commonwealth has gone outside the purposes of the statute and has employed the money for purposes other than those for which it was earmarked by the statute, it has acted illegally.


Mr Archie Cameron - I invite the honorable gentleman to look at section 3 of the act, which states that the Commonwealth shall provide the money " from time to time."


Mr BRENNAN - I have quoted it. I ask the Acting Minister for Commerce (Mr. Archie Cameron) if he will take upon himself the responsibility of saying that, from time to time, the Commonwealth Government has made advances which could be raid to honour in substance the promise made by the Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page) when he introduced the bill into this House.


Mr Archie Cameron - I should like the honorable member to quote those promises.


Mr BRENNAN - As regards the precise amount promised,I might be able to supply the figure later on; at the moment, however, I am able to say that there is no dispute about the fact that the money has not been supplied within millions of that promise. The Treasurer does not deny that, and he gives as his reason that the money was diverted to other purposes. Because of that admission I have not made a feature of the precise amount promised and the amounts paid; but I know that the discrepancy is very great, and that the Treasurer does not argue that point. The Treasurer and the honorable member for Gippsland say, " We have acknowledged that the States have not had the money promised for debt adjustment because it was diverted to other purposes at their request". To that, my answer is that that was the very moment at which the honorable member for Gippsland should have been heard in this chamber. If he had been a critic and not a member of this Government he would have said that money which should have been applied to debt adjustment in all States of the Commonwealth was diverted to public works in Victoria, one State of the Commonwealth.


Mr Archie Cameron - Is the honorable member quarrelling with that?


Mr BRENNAN - I am not quarrelling with any money raised for the purpose of public works, and I am not arguing whether the amount applied for the purpose of public works was adequate or inadequate ; but I am saying and maintaining that whatever was applied for the purpose of public works, £12,000,000 of that money was appropriated by this Parliament for the specific purpose of debt adjustment.


Mr Archie Cameron - To be expended "from time to time."

Mr.BRENNAN.- I have dealt with that. Where, may I ask, have been the champions of country interests in this Parliament? They have been silent. Over in the ministerial ranks we have the Minister for the Interior (Mr. McEwen), who, before he became a member of this Ministry, declared, in effect, that members of Parliament had to be disciplined and that the first act of discipline to be applied to them was to see that they did not sell themselves to any United Australia party government. From the day the honorable gentleman joined this Government, however, we have never heard his voice raised in any effective manner on behalf of the farming community of the State from which he comes. The same may be said of the Acting Minister for Commerce (Mr. Archie Cameron), who, before he joined the Government, was loudest in his criticism of it. As a matter of fact, the honorable gentleman crashed into the ranks of ministerialists by his caustic criticism of the Government. The honorable gentleman made himself so obnoxious from the outside that the Government found it better to bring him inside; having done so, it discovered that, like the apple with the codlin moth, he is much worse inside than he was outside. The provision of this money was not to be dependent upon the decision of the Loan Council; it had nothing to do with the Loan Council. When the bill was introduced into this House the then Acting Prime Minister did not tell the people of Australia, and certainly not the people of Victoria, after he made his eloquent speech stating how much he had resisted the efforts on the part of others to make any part of this money available in any general scheme of rehabilitation, that the provision of the money was to be dependent on the Loan Council. At that time the question of making it available for works never arose for a single moment. The right honorable gentleman said firmly that it was not to be applied for general rehabilitation purposes. The position now is that Victoria finds itself in serious difficulties. It has arranged compositions; it has a very efficient scheme of arrangements prescribed by the Commonwealth and set up by a statute approved by the Commonwealth for the purpose of dealing with these debts; it has entertained applications of debtors, and through its officers it has made compositions in respect of those debts. It is ready to proceed to completion with the adjustment ofthese debts. All sections of the people - workers in industry, business men, especially the working farmers - are most anxious that this machinery should continue to work smoothly, efficiently and rapidly until the work has been accomplished. The Treasurer says that Victoria is in difficulties because it has proceeded too rapidly. The money has gone somewhere else. That is no excuse for the Treasurer departing from both the letter and the spirit of this statute, from the promises made by the Acting Prime Minister at the time, and also from the agreement which was entered into with representatives of the farmers, as is shown in a parliamentary paper of 1934, entitled, "Report of a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers with regard to Agricultural Matters". At the conference, he dealt with the subject of debt adjustment, and it was there that the loan of £12,000,000 was foreshadowed by him. Even at that early stage, the agreement set out that "advances and/or payments will only be made available to effect composition payments in respect of liabilities which it is necessary to compound to ensure the farmer remaining in production and to give him a reasonable prospect of carrying on successfully". That was the beginning. First, there was the agreement; then followed the statute, the speech, the breach, and finally, the insult about Victoria proceeding too rapidly. Victoria was only doing what it was bound to do. One of these gentlemen who claim to be members of the Country Liberal party is the present Acting Minister for Commerce.


Mr Archie Cameron - I come from South Australia.


Mr BRENNAN - That is so. The honorable gentleman must answer for himself in that State. But the Minister for the Interior comes from Victoria. He has a lot to account for. I want him to account for this matter of debt adjustment, and to explain to the working farmers of Victoria how it is that he is sitting beside a Treasurer who, figuratively, apologizes and endeavours to explain the fact that money that was set aside for the relief of the present needs of the farming community has been hypothecated for other purposes, with the result that the money is not now available within the bond. Millions of pounds can be found for hysterical war-like operations, as well as for "wild cat" national insurance purposes, but no money can be found for the protection of small working farmers. Nothing could be done for them by honorable gentlemen who are supposed to represent farming interests!







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