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Friday, 25 November 1938

Mr BERNARD CORSER (Wide Bay) . - In addressing myself to the budget and its proposals, I realize that, as the subject was under consideration throughout the whole of Wednesday night and until 7 o'clock yesterday morning, and was also considered yesterday until midnight, a great deal has already been said on it. With a good deal of this I agree, but with a good deal of it I disagree. The most important subject dealt with in the budget is defence; but, probably, that which is causing the most concern to the general public has relation to our new national health and pensions insurance scheme. The more the National Health and Pensions Insurance Act is considered, the more serious, unjust and exorbitant appears to be the taxation that it will impose upon the people of this country. I regard it as one of the most objectionable measures inflicted upon the public since federation. The health benefits provided by it are nebulous. This legislative infant narrowly escaped execution at birth. Now that its swaddling clothes are being unwrapped from it, we are able to see it in all its hideousness. I feel sure that Ministers and honorable members generally who supported it must be ashamed of it. It should be designated to the waste-paper basket without delay. The measure, in my opinion, imposes most unfair penalties upon employers and employees alike, and may, in every respect, be classed, in respect of its alleged health benefits at any rate, as disgusting. It is so iniquitous that it should be repealed without delay. If it actually comes into force it will cause to be extracted from the people of this country in the first year of its operations no less a sum than £12,000,000, at a time when we have been told that all of our available resources should be devoted to the provision of adequate defence measures for this country. Probably in five years time the Crown alone will be required to provide £10,000,000 annually for the purposes of the act, and within a very few years not less than £30,000,000 will have to be contributed annually by the people of Australia in one way and another for so-called health and pensions insurance purposes, yet the Parliament will still be required to provide large sums of money for invalid and old-age pensions under the- existing law. One of the most serious complaints against the new act is that it does not provide assistance for persons who are unemployed or for women and children. When the measure was being passed through Parliament we were assured that a supplementary bill would be introduced to provide similar benefits for certain primary producers and self-employed persons under a voluntary scheme. We have since been furnished with a general idea of the form of that bill. I was staggered to find that it was proposed that primary producers, many of whom are in receipt of less than the basic wage, should be required to pay 4s. a week for benefits under two headings. Such a scheme would be absolutely ridiculous, and I do not think for a moment that the Parliament would pass it. As honorable members are aware, I bitterly opposed the National Health and Pensions Insurance Act at every stage, and, as I have watched the preliminary steps that have been taken to bring the measure into operation, I have found my opposition to it hardening. Whatever admiration any honorable member must have had for the act when it was passed must surely have been turned to disgust by now. Recently. I invited the attention of the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) to a proposal which could be adopted to avoid the worst effect of the act, and yet make some use of the organization which is being developed by the National Insurance Commission. I proposed that approved societies should be asked to submit a scheme on the lines of our friendly societies, a national subsidy being paid to enable them to broaden the scope of their benefits and enable persons of both sexes, and also children, to be covered. The scheme would have relation, of course, only to men and women in receipt of less than a certain stipulated remuneration. My scheme would also have afforded benefits to unemployed persons. If it were adopted, and the Treasury would make some contribution towards the fund proposed to be established, it should be practicable to make an equitable arrangement through approved societies to carry into the fullest effect the ideas that I enunciated. Such a scheme would avoid making heavy inroads into the income of our lower-paid city and rural workers week by week, and would be much more valuable generally than the scheme of the act which we recently passed. It may be claimed by some honorable members that the Government was in duty bound to introduce a national health and pensions insurance scheme in consequence of the mandate it received at the last elections. I readily concede that all parties in this Parliament advocated some form of national insurance during the last general election campaign, but I do not believe that anybody realized that a British expert on national insurance would be able to persuade a government of this country to adopt some of the provisions, of our new act. The contributions side of the national scheme is undoubtedly heavily overloaded, and many people will not be able to afford to pay the contributions required from them. The Treasurer (Mr. Casey), more than any other member of the Government, has been responsible for that legislation, and he should now be big enough to realize that the people of Australia are not satisfied with it. He has made the mistake of following too slavishly the scheme in operation in the Old Country. This is to be deplored, particularly in view of the fact that, in respect of social services, Australia has for many years outdistanced the old conservative European countries. All of the States have their baby clinics and child welfare centres where free and expert attention and advice are given for the care of city children right from the cradle. In respect of hospitalization, also, we have made far greater progress than the old countries, whilst our strong friendly society movement is unrivalled in any other country. We have left the older countries far behind in social legislation. Surely, we cannot now be expected to abandon all our excellent social services in favour of a less progressive scheme. The criticism which has been levelled against this legislation because of its failure to provide for unemployment insurance has to some degree, perhaps, been unjust.

The States must accept the responsibility for the rejection of the Commonwealth Government's original proposals in that direction; they refused to surrender their powers under the Constitution in that respect. Here again we see the need for a re-alignment of powers under the Constitution in order to enable the national Parliament to legislate effectively in the interests of the people as a whole. I listened with interest to the suggestion that a convention should be held to deal with alterations of the Constitution. The only alteration which would satisfy me would be the abolition of State parliaments, and, I suggest, this issue should be the first to be submitted to the people by way of referendum. I have not the slightest doubt that it would be carried. I do not agree with the Attorney-General (Mr. Menzies) that to prepare the way for such a referendum considerable time will be needed in order to educate the people to the wisdom of the proposals which may be submitted. If there is one thing which the people desire it is that State parliaments should be abolished.

Mr Gregory - Does the honorable member suggest that that was demonstrated on the occasion of the last referendum ?

Mr BERNARD CORSER - I do not suggest that every one is in favour of the abolition of State parliaments, but I have no doubt that the majority of the people are, and would immediately adopt such a proposal if it were submitted to them hy way of a referendum. If the Commonwealth fails to take the initiative in this matter as soon as possible, there is a danger that State governments and State public servants will make the most of the delay to organize opposition. Under one parliament we would have one people with one destiny, and local matters could be entrusted to local councils.

Defence is the most important subject dealt with in the budget. I oppose the suggestion that the Government should immediately re-introduce compulsory military training. I wholeheartedly support its accepted policy of voluntary training, and I trust that we shall experience no difficulty in bringing the strength of our militia up to the pro posed minimum of 70,000. Earlier this year it was suggested that as much as £43,000,000 would be immediately required for defence, but it is now hinted that £50,000,000 may be insufficient for this purpose. I believe that more could have been done in the past to maintain our defences. Nevertheless, had not this Government made reasonable provision in that direction six years ago, we should find ourselves very much worse off than we are to-day. In recent years we have done twice as much as any of the other dominions in making provision for defence. For that fact we can now feel thankful.

Mr Brennan - In that case we should be safer than any of the other dominions.

Mr BERNARD CORSER - I am aware of the views of the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Brennan) on defence. He declares that there is no danger of war, and that the Government exaggerates the need for defence preparations. However, members of the British Labour party, who, I suggest, are in a far better position i,o realize the dangers arising from the present unsettled international position, do not hold that view. In fact, they believe that the very substantial measures adopted by the Government of Great Britain are not sufficient. It is not a matter of preparing for dangers which may arise at some time in the future: the dangers already confront us. I do not deceive myself that three great aggressor nations have not arrived at an arrangement whereby, if any of them he involved in war, the others will come to its aid. In any consideration of our defences we cannot over-emphasize our dependence on the British fleet, and should that fleet be engaged elsewhere our position would he very precarious indeed. Honorable members opposite who are inclined to deprecate any suggestion that Australia could possibly be in danger of attack should read their own paper, the Labor Daily, which, within the last few days, published a report that a formidable naval squadron was present in our waters during the recent international crisis.

Mr Pollard - The Prime Minister denied that report.

Mr BERNARD CORSER - The Prime Minister has no official knowledge of it. As the honorable member does not always believe what the Prime Minister says, I suggest that he read his own party's paper on the matter, which, as late as yesterday, repeated that report. Whether it be correct or not, it provides an illustration of what is possible in the northern parts of Australia, particularly Queensland. Considerable attention is being paid in the Government's present programme to the defence of the Northern Territory, but, I suggest, no attacker would wish to invade the Northern Territory, because that part of the country would be of little use to an invading farce. The northern part of Queensland, however, would be prized by any enemy. It is one of the most productive portions of the Commonwealth. We should, therefore, do everything possible to defend it by establishing and maintaining a sufficient force of all arms in order to be able to repel, as soon as possible, any attack that might be made from that direction. Under its present programme, the Government should make provision for the manufacture of munitions in some of the inland towns in Northern Queensland.

Mr Curtin - Does not the honorable gentleman regard the north-west of Australia as being just as important as the north-east ?

Mr BERNARD CORSER - I have not referred to the north-west. Its claims are so often advanced by many honorable members who can speak of nothing else, and I have no desire to encroach upon their ground. If T may be permitted to mention Queensland, I suggest that there is every reason why substantial forces of all arms should be maintained in the northern portion of that State. Great Britain would probably be fully occupied in Europe and in protecting its outposts. British territory in the Pacific would be largely at the mercy of foreign powers, and Australia would face a serious situation. Anything that we can do to guard against disaster should be done while the opportunity exists.

There has been some opposition to the trade agreement entered into between the

United Kingdom and the United States of America. Ihe honorable member for Wimmera (Mr. Wilson) claimed that greater consideration should have been given to bring the United Kingdom to an understanding that it should trade with us. In the light of the facts, that was a curious statement for ihe honorable member to make. Great Britain is the only country to which Australia can look as the market for its excess production of wheat, meat, wool and fruit.

Mr Gregory - Why?

Mr BERNARD CORSER - It is the only country which has opened its doors to us.

Mr Gregory - That is because we have closed our doors to other countries.

Mr BERNARD CORSER - Australia is Great Britain's third best trade country. Statistics for 1937 - the latest available - show that in that year Australia sold to Great Britain goods to the value of £71,805,000: and bought in return goods valued at £37,530,000. Those figures illustrate clearly the success of Australia's representations in the Old Country and the desire of Great Britain- to trade with Australia to the fullest degree possible.

A matter of considerable interest at the present time is the effect of the trade agreement on the export of canned fruits from Australia. It has been said that the Government was willing to sacrifice the canned pineapple industry in the interests of the trade in other canned fruits. This is now proved to be untile. I cannot agree with any action which would injure or destroy an industry which makes possible closer settlement to a degree greater than in any other primary producing industry in this country. The information which has been made available shows that, in respect of apples and peai-3, the preference will be reduced from 4s. 6d. to 3s. per cwt.

Mr Nock - For a part of the year only.

Mr BERNARD CORSER - That, is so: the old rate of 4s. 6d. per cwt. will still operate during the Australian season. In respect of tinned and bott' ed fruits and syrups there is to be a reduction from 3s. 6d. to 2?. 2d. per cwt., whilst the 15 per cent, ad valorem duty on grape fruit is to be entirely removed. In regard to fruit salads there is to be a change from an ad valorem duty of 15 per cent, to a specified rate of 5s. 6d. per cwt. The ad valorem duty of 15 per cent, on pineapples is to be changed to a specific rate of 5s. per cwt. Loganberries will be subject to the specific rate of 4s. 3d. per cwt. instead of an ad valorem duty of 15 per cent. The alteration in respect of pineapples will benefit the better or higher-priced product which is the grade supplied by Australia. The fears that the delegation was prepared to disregard the claims of the Australian pineapple industry have been proved to have been unfounded. Some sacrifice is worth making in order to strengthen the ties between the United Kingdom and the United States of America, but in this instance no sacrifice at ail has been called for. Acting on advice received from its Agent-General in Great Britain and from Australia's Trade Commissioner in Canada, that increased markets for canned pineapples, existed in both countries, the Government of Queensland, through its Department of Agriculture, took action to increase the production of pineapples. In 1937, Queensland produced 774,000 cases of pineapples, but, as the result of the efforts to expand the industry, the production for the first ten months of the present financial year reached 1,2.18,000 cases. Then prices dropped, the Australian market became glutted, canning factories closed down, and growers were left to face up to the position. I have placed before the Government a request for a bounty of £20,000 a year for three years on the export of pineapples. Instead of expending . millions of pounds on such schemes as national insurance, the Government should do something to assist industries, the development of which would be of lasting value to this country. The Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page) said that he would give attention to this request when the treaty had been announced and, consequently, I hope that before Parliament adjourns for the Christmas recess a bill to provide assistance to the growers of pineapples will be introduced, so that they may be able to compete in the world's markets against pineapples grown in other countries under cheap-labour conditions.

A good deal has been said lately regarding the necessity for the standardization of Australian railway gauges. Some have advocated that this work be undertaken immediately in the interests of the defence of Australia. In my opinion, the defence value of the change would be negligible in comparison with the cost. It would do the troops good to stretch their legs at change-of-gauge stations while the transfer of ammunition and equipment took place. I suggest that machinery be installed at such places to expedite the transfer. If we have millions of pounds to expend, let us devote it to hydro-electric and water conservation schemes in different parts of Australia. This country will always suffer from periodic droughts, and. money expended in conserving water would be a good investment. If additional storage were provided for the water which falls ia abundance, but is now allowed to run to waste, there would not be the same call on the Treasury to find money for drought relief, and, what is more important, there would not be so much suffering among primary producers, nor would the resultant distress in our cities be so great as it is now.

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