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Tuesday, 29 November 1938

Mr CURTIN (Fremantle) .- I move -

That the amount be reduced by fi.

This amendment, if carried, will be regarded as an indication to the Government thai; -

The Estimates of the Department of Defence have been inadequately dealt with by the committee of the whole House, which has been rendered unable to examine the details of this colossal expenditure in a way which would safeguard the nation against profiteering and exploitation, and to ensure that the amount asked to be voted is the minimum necessary adequately to defend Australia against aggression.

Acceptance of the amendment will not in any way impair the efficiency of our defence forces during the current year. The Opposition feels that a strong protest should be made against the incurring of the colossal expenditure of £6,874,000 for defence until Parliament has been provided with an adequate opportunity to consider all the details of the Government's policy. This is imperative, if we are to do our duty to the taxpayers of Australia.- Earlier to-day, I pointed out that only three hours have been allowed us to discuss this proposed vote,. although our endorsement of it will involve an expenditure of about £16,000,000 in this financial year. We should be given an opportunity to determine for ourselves whether the allocation of this huge sum as between capital and maintenance is satisfactory. It might be that after discussion it would be agreed that the Government's proposal should be endorsed, but at least we should be permitted reasonable time to consider the subject. We ought also to be allowed to review the allocation of the proposed vote as between the different arms of the service to ascertain whether it is satisfactory. The Opposition holds the view that the development of certain phases of our defence service is imperative to the safeguarding of the country. For example, we regard a standardization of our railway gauges as so important that it should be put in hand at once; but the Government has made no provision for that work to be undertaken. The Estimates have been submitted to us in such a way as to preclude any consideration of the balance as between the various activities. The whole vote is being submitted under the generic term of "defence of Australia". I have no desire to do more than to emphasize what I said earlier thi3 afternoon. I mentioned that the assurance in respect of safeguarding the country against profiteering did not appear to have elicited any positive programme by the Government. What we do know is that it, for the most part, favours the utilization of private enterprise which operates for profit as against the utilization of national or State instrumentalities which would perform their functions at a reasonable cost. Furthermore, we are not in a position, in view of the way in which these Estimates have beer submitted to us, to decide whether the expenditure which is to he incurred outside Australia on capital equipment could not be equally economically and more advantageously, for other reasons, spent within Australia. I asked the Minister's predecessor how much of certain equipment was to be imported, and, for reasons which he said were confidential, he refused to give the information to me or to the House. I know 1 can get an approximate idea of what the expenditure outside Australia will be by looking at the external loan floated by the Treasurer (Mr. Casey) and the increased amount of exchange which the Defence Department expects to pay within the present year, but the dissection of the accounts in order to ascertain that total is an accountancy problem which, I confess, is so difficult that the liability to. error is very great. The Estimates should have been presented in a way which would have enabled us to know exactly what we are doing in this connexion.

An announcement has been made within the last two or three days which leads me to the belief, which may, or may not, be justified by events, that this colossal expenditure does not represent the entirety of the amount which the Government intends to ask Parliament to vote for the defence of Australia in the very near future. Should that be the case, then more than ever it appears to me that the Parliament, which is to tax the people in order to provide the money, should be given far more time and more information than have been given to us to consider this expenditure. Furthermore, we should be enabled to be certain that we are not wasting a very good deal of this tremendous amount which now exceeds £16,000,000. When this total is compared with the expenditure in past years the only justification for the stupendous increase involved should be the realization by the Parliament that the country is actually in grave peril. This is a reasonable construction to be placed upon the difference between the amount which we are asked to vote this year and amounts voted in respect of previous years. I know that this yea] the Government, apparently, has bad information which has warranted the Prime Minister in making a series of statements in which he has justified a very great expansion of the defence programme, but up to date the country has had only the generalization that increased defence is imperative, that the international situation is parlous, and that Australia is far from being secure. Those statements appear to me to call for something move than a mere declaration. In this committee there should have been given to us more substantial evidence of the imminence of the danger.

In conclusion I can only add that there can never be any doubt in the minds of the Australian people, or in the minds of the Government and its supporters, regarding the policy of the Opposition for the defence of Australia. We are ready - indeed, it is an integral part of our policy - to defend this nation adequately, and to make it self-reliant in its own defence.

Mr Hutchinson - How far would the Labour party go? That is the point.

Mr CURTIN - I am asking the Government to give to us now a specification of what it says is required in order adequately to defend Australia. I have the feeling that these estimates involve an expenditure which is in part "wasteful, and which represents an amount of taxation upon the people that goes beyond what is required adequately to defend the country. Instances of profiteering and exploitation in connexion with war and defence, as I have already said, have been notorious. Those honorable members who support the Government can console themselves that they trust the Government, but the obligation of the Parliament is to make certain that it does not deplete the resources available to the people for the pursuits of peace merely because the Government feels it ought to spend more upon defence. The Opposition is willing to find every pound which, it is assured, is essential to the defence of Australia, and this committee is the place where that assurance, and that information, should be given.

Mr Gregory - The Government needs more than money; it needs men.

Mr CURTIN - It is money we are asked to vote for in these Estimates.

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