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Wednesday, 23 November 1938

Mr JAMES (Hunter) .- I have listened to many budget debates, but I think that the present discussion is of a higher standard than usual, due mainly to the good example set by the right honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Scullin) in his speech on the constitutional relations of the Commonwealth and the States. His lead .was followed by the Attorney-General (Mr. Menzies). It is to be hoped that the constitution session which the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) promised will he held soon. Although a definite pledge was given to the people that if they agreed to the federation the State parliaments would ultimately be abolished, they have never yet had submitted to them in a simple form a refe- rendum to decide this issue. I believe that if they were asked to say whether or not they are in favour of the abolition of State parliaments, the answer would be in the affirmative. In 1925, the electors' were asked to agree to an amendment of the Constitution to give greater powers to the Commonwealth in regard to industrial matters, marketing, and trade and commerce. The referendum was fought more on party political lines than with any idea of benefiting the nation as a whole. Until we can reach agreement among ourselves, and go to the country as one party seeking these powers, I do not believe that we shall ever achieve any material alteration of the Constitution. In 1925, some sort of an understanding was reached by the then Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Charlton) and the Prime Minister (Mr. Bruce) regarding two of the three questions submitted, but when it came to the taking of the referendum, the political parties in the States found themselves at variance on the issue, though one party was no more to blame for this than the other.

The Commonwealth Parliament cannot govern in the interests of the nation unless greater powers are ceded to it. I stand for complete unification; for the abolition of State parliaments. I know that any step in that direction will be opposed by certain vested State interests. When I took an active part in industrial matters, I advocated one union for the whole of the coal-mining industry, but 1 encountered much opposition from the officials of craft unions, who recognized that my suggestions threatened their jobs. I am convinced that a similar fear actuates many State members of parliament in their opposition to unification. They believe that if greater powers are ceded to the Federal Parliament, they will lose their jobs. I do not believe for a moment that, if the State parliaments were abolished, the existing representation in the Federal Parliament would be sufficient to enable the work of governing Australia to be, carried on efficiently. The present membership of this Parliament would need to be doubled, at least. Most of the duties now performed by the State parliaments could be more effectively and economically performed by this Parliament simply by increasing its membership. At the present time, each federal electorate returns an average of three and one-half members of parliament, State and Federal. My own electorate returns five, while some others return four. If the present federal constituencies were split in such a way that each of them would return three members to this Parliament, I believe that much of the existing opposition to unification would disappear. On one occasion, when I was addressing my constituents on this subject, a member of the State Parliament said to me, " It is all very well for you to advocate the abolition of State parliaments; you have a job, but what about us?" That is typical of much' of the opposition to unification.

The conflict and turmoil that are so widespread at the present time will continue as- long as responsibility is divided between State and Commonwealth Parliaments. Much of the existing industrial unrest is due to the existence of awards which are not uniform throughout the Commonwealth. Before the Federal Arbitration Court can function, there must be an interstate dispute. Before I entered this Parliament, I had a good deal of experience in regard to industrial disputes in the mining industry. Upon occasions, it was necessary to create an industrial dispute in order to bring the matter before the Federal Coal Tribunal. The recent coalmining dispute was definitely interstate in character, but even then the Commonwealth Government refused to intervene. Its excuse was that the constitutional validity of the Industrial Peace Act was doubtful, but if increased constitutional powers were ceded to the Commonwealth, those doubts could be removed, and an important step would be taken towards achieving industrial harmony.

Another anomaly is that, while the Commonwealth Arbitration Court can prescribe wages and conditions of labour, the Commonwealth has no control over commodity prices. Sometimes, when awards are made by the Arbitration Court, manufacturers increase their prices by as much as 50 per cent, more than is necessary to meet the increased cost, but the Commonwealth Government can do nothing about it. In the same way, Parliament may grant tariff protection to a manufacturer, even to the extent of totally prohibiting the importation of competitive goods. In the same way under the cloak of the tariff protection given by the Commonwealth Government some avaricious manufacturers, because they have no competition, are able to increase the prices of their commodities above what would give them a reasonable profit. All that the Commonwealth Government can do to check them is to remove the tariff protection. These things are wrong. I could continue to relate anomalies, but what I have said should be sufficient to direct attention to them.

There is need for uniformity of the basic wage. When Mr. Lang was in power in New South Wales, the basic wage was maintained at £4 2s. 6d., whereas in other States it was forced down to about £3 a week. The result wa3 that Victoria was able to flood New South Wales with goods. The Constitution prevented New South Wales from doing anything to prevent it. All that Mr. Lang could do was to send men around the stores to ask them to indicate on their goods the State of origin. It is grossly unfair that a manufacturer in New South Wales should have to pay higher wages than a similar manufacturer in Victoria. Not for one moment will I allow it to be thought that I am advocating a uniform basic-wage rate on anything but the highest level. I say not that New South Wales should come down to the level of the other States, but that the other States should rise to the level of New South Wales.

This Government was returned to office on the catch-cry, "Follow Great Britain ". It has done nothing in the coal industry that would indicate that that is its policy. In order to make itself independent of foreign oil and petrol supplies, Great Britain has developed the extraction of oil from coal and shale to a great degree, but this Government, despite constant urging by me and other interested persons, has refused to take similar action. It is of no use for the Minister for Defence (Mr. Street) to boast about the way in which the Australian defence forces are being mechanized, because without fuel a mechanized army is immobile. I understand that in Australia there is in reserve sufficient petrol for about twelve weeks. The average weekly use of petrol in Australia is 5,500,000 gallons, and the capacity of the storage tanks is only 60,000,000 gallons. We recently were scared by events in Europe, and if they had developed into war and our supplies of petrol and oil from overseas had been cut off, not only our mechanized defence forces - Army, Navy, and Air Force - but also our civil transport would have been immobilized. The new Minister for Defence, who has taken on his task with a will and a determination to give of his .best in the interests of this country, would wish to see Australia made independent of foreign oil supplies, and I urge that he investigate what has been done in Great Britain. On previous occasions I have advocated hydrogenation and a low-temperature process for the extraction of oil from coal and shale in Australia by methods similar to those employed in Great Britain. I have cited sufficient statistics and adduced sufficient other evidence, including a statement in th'e House of Commons by the Minister for Mines, Mr. Cruickshank, to prove that it would not be an experiment. Great Britain has undertaken this work as a commercial proposition. The product, I admit, is certainly dearer than well oil would be if discovered in this country, but when we realize that to the purchase prices of imported oil must be added the high cost of the dole now being paid to unemployed coal-miners, we must agree that it would be more economical to produce oil from the minerals which I have mentioned, at the same time relieving the States of the burden of the dole, than to import our oil requirements.

Mr Fadden - The oil companies would charge us whatever they liked.

Mr JAMES - Yes, in the event of war the combine would be able to charge us any old price they liked. Furthermore, difficulty' would be experienced in wartime in keeping up our supplies from abroad, because of the risks the oil-tankers would have to run in waters infested by enemy craft. I point out that in the Abyssinian crisis the companies which supplied Italy's requirements were chary of running the gauntlet in any region where their tankers might be attacked. Yet, in that conflict the source of supplies was comparatively close to the port of destination. Furthermore, Italy was obliged to pay extraordinarily high prices for its oil supplies, and I can well imagine that we should' be similarly penalized in the event of international conflict. We need to develop sources of supply of our own in order to meet the requirements of our transport services even in peace time.

Intimately associated with the problem of the defence preparation is that of relieving unemployment. A sum of £16,000,000 has been appropriated for defence purposes. How is that money to be expended? Will any of the unemployed be absorbed? The urgency for defending Newcastle, which i3 the centre of our great iron and steel industry, cannot be disregarded for much longer. It is an alarming state of affairs when we find that, owing to the lack of a suitable road, guns cannot be transported to Port Stephens from any point 8 or 10 miles inland. Port Stephens was once considered as a likely naval base, but it still remains unfortified. Combined military, naval, and air force manoeuvres were recently .carried out in this region, and I met a high military officer returning from those manoeuvres who agreed with me that it would be impossible to transport guns over the present road to Port Stephens. In such circumstances a hostile fleet would find it easy to enter that port, and destroy the important steelworks at Newcastle as well as practically all of the principal coal-mines in the vicinity. I sincerely hope that the new Minister for Defence will seriously consider these matters.

I condemn the Government for applying the gag in order to curtail the debate on the problem of unemployment, on the motion moved yesterday by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Forde). I am convinced that it has no sympathy with the unemployed. Yet honorable members opposite, particularly the honorable member for Barton (Mr. Lane), have the audacity to say that Labour members have no interest in the, unemployed. The Minister for Works (Mr. Thorby) said in that debate, that unemployment was not so serious on the coalfields as we had stated it to be. Unemployment figures based on returns supplied by the Registrar of Trade Unions are unreliable. A census which was recently taken of the unemployed in the northern district of New South Wales recently showed that in that district there were 10,000 youths, from 14 to 26 years of age, who had never done a day's work. When I became a member of this Parliament the membership of the Northern Miners' Federation was 14,000, whereas to-day it has decreased to 7,500, due entirely to unemployment. Some of the money which will be expended for defence purposes should be utilized in relieving unemployment on the coal-fields. These men have every right to be re-employed. Their position is tragic. Having worked beside them, I know them well, and can well understand their plight, which has been brought about through no fault of their own. I repeat that conditions on the coal-fields are appalling, many towns being stricken with destitution. Is it any wonder, therefore, that hundreds of these men harbour mutiny in their hearts? Is it any wonder that many of these men are opposed to the present order of society which condones want, destitution, misery, and despair? Prior to the 1934 elections, the Prime Minister and " the then Postmaster-General (Senator A. J. McLachlan), who was Minister in charge of Development, visited the Newcastle district and definitely stated that something would be done to assist the unfortunate unemployed miners. The Prime Minister definitely promised in his policy speech in 1934 that the Government would proceed with the extraction of oil from coal. Instead of redeeming that promise he arranged for Lord McGowan, the chairman of directors of the AngloIran Oil Company, to report upon the whole project. Is it likely that that gentleman would report favorably upon an Australian project which, if success' fully developed, would compete with th« company with which he is so closely associated? It was merely a means of shelving the whole subject ; the Prime Minister had no intention to give effect to his promise. Surely the Government does not expect single men to continue receiving a dole of 8s. a week and display the necessary patriotism in joining with the Government's proposals of enlisting in the defence forces. I invite those honorable members who have said that there is no unemployment problem, to visit the coal-fields district where they will see for themselves the distressing conditions under which many persons are compelled to exist. During the whole time I have been a member of this House I have always stated the truth, and have never attempted to mislead any one. Contrast the position of the unfortunate coalminers with that of the wheatgrowers whom the members of the Country party represent. Whenever the wheat-growers are in difficulties the Government introduces legislation to provide a bounty on wheat or a tax on flour. Measures are frequently brought before this House to assist fruitgrowers and other producers. Only to-day several" bills were introduced to assist wheat-growers who, owing to drought conditions, are in difficulties. Have we ever heard of a wheat-grower who has lost his home or has been compelled to go on the dole? Miners have been compelled to live in tents in the bush, but it is seldom that farmers have to contend with such conditions. The Government should rehabilitate the coalmining industry, by producing oil from coal in the interests of defence. When the flour tax was imposed the unfortunate men receiving a dole of 8s. had to contribute an additional amount of tax. As they consume more bread than anything else the tax fell more heavily upon them than upon any other section. The poorer people must have a sufficiency of vitamins, which they get chiefly from bread. Other more fortunate sections, including members of this Parliament, having higher incomes, can get all the vitamins they require from more expensive foodstuffs. The percentage expended on bread by the parliamentary refreshment rooms is trifling in comparison with the percentage expended on bread in the average worker's home, or ever the home of a man who is on the dle. Bread should be made available to workers on the basic wage at a more reasonable price. The poorer people, being large consumers of bread, make a far greater contribution than other sections to the incomes of wheat-farmers through the imposition of a flour tax, which is most unfair. I have mentioned this matter on other occasions in this House, but it is of no use to appeal to the Government for concessions on behalf of the poor, because it- takes no notice. The provision of Christmas cheer was urged a day or two ago by honorable members on this side, but the appeal brought no response from the Government. In fairness to the Treasurer (Mr. Casey) I must say that two years ago he made available to the Defence Department for clothing the sum of £3,000 for the distribution of surplus military clothing to the poor in my district. But what happened ? The Defence Department sent a lot of useless junk, which was immediately condemned by the health inspectors, and it should have been thrown into the incinerators. I do not know whether the Treasury was reimbursed the amount, but it certainly should have been returned, because the Defence Department did not give value for the money voted. I regret that we have never had an opportunity to discuss this important matter in an impartial way, and without becoming heated. If honorable members supporting the Government would accompany me to my home at the week-end - I travel approximately 700 miles each week in order to be at my home every Sunday - they would find in my yard a queue of workless people waiting to interview me and find out if I can do something for ' them. These people are not hoboes. They are decent living folk. During the last war the miners responded more generously than any other section of the community to the call to fight in the defence of their country. They sent two battalions of infantry and three battalions of sappers overseas. No one can question the loyalty of the miners, who to-day have to go cap in hand begging for the dole and left-off clothing. All that this Government can give them is worn-out military uniforms and boots. I have seen this stuff, so I speak from personal knowledge. The soles of some of the boots offered were worthless. The mayor of the town requested me to inspect this clothing, and asked me if I could expect the men to wear it. I said " Certainly not." I remember the occasion very well, because on returning to my home I had the misfortune to crash into a telegraph pole, and, as the result, had to spend five weeks in hospital. These men have a just claim to the consideration of the Government. If the Government wishes to display generosity towards one section of the community, let it be towards that section the members of which take their lives into their hands in the bowels of the earth in order to extract the coal supplies necessary to produce power for transport and industry. I have worked side by side with these men. I have witnessed many disasters, and have seen many of my mates slain. To-day they are subjected to want and poverty. They do not want the dole; they want work. But, because they represent only a small section of the community, and because their parliamentary representatives in th is chamber do not sit on the treasury bench, nothing is done for them. The treatment of these deserving people is vastly different from that meted out to another small section of the community represented by the Country party in this House which, because it holds the balance of power, is able to satisfy its most exorbitant demands.

Progress reported.

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