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Wednesday, 7 December 1938

Mr DRAKEFORD (Maribyrnong) . - It will be agreed by members of all parties that the statement made by the Minister for Defence. (Mr. Street.) last night was the most detailed one yetpresented to the House on the subject of defence. I do not think, however, that Parliament has been properly supplied by the Government with information as why this money is to be raised and I disagree with the proposals for financingthe scheme. Honorable members on this side have pointed out that no definite information has been given on which to base the enormous expenditure which the Government now asks Parliament to sanction, and I am one of those who subscribe to that view. I feel that members of Parliament, as representatives of the people, are entitled to more detailed and definite information than the Government has at any time attempted to give them inthis vital matter. Apparently one sideof the House is in possession of more information than is the other. That is entirely unfair. The Government apparently has been able to convince its supporters in the Country party and the United Australia party that it is essential to borrow the amount of money which Parliament is now asked to sanction, in order adequately to defend Australia, but we on this side have not been given any such information. One cannot wonder at the dissatisfaction expressed in regard to the need for raising all this money, and particularly the way in which the Government proposes to raise it. Although I am the representative of 63,000 people, I have not been given adequate information on which to base the spending of £63,000,000 within a period of three years. Many others on this side share my conviction in that regard. When doubts are thrown by members on the Government side upon the attitude of the Labour party towards defence, it becomes necessary to quote the policy laid down by the party at the last federal conference held in Adelaide two and a half years ago. The leader of my party has stated the position clearly from time to time, but I wish to put on record now what was decided at that conference. The first plank was " adequate home defence against possible foreign aggression ". The programme also included the manufacture of munitions of war, complete control to be vested entirely in the Commonwealth Government. The honorable member for Parkes (Sir Charles Marr) suggested that I would be concerned at the possibility of losing some of the people employed in the Maribyrnong electorate. More than 3,000 are engaged there in the manufacture of munitions and armaments, but the Scullin Government a few years ago did more than any other government, before or since, to put Australia in a position to obtain the necessary materials for making its own munitions and armaments if the occasion arose to use them. That policy is still believed in by the party to which I have the honour to belong, but it asserts that no profit should go to private firms. In furtherance of the attitude of the Labour party on this matter, it was decided at that conference to make the following declaration: -

The following is adopted as a declaration of policy and in amplification thereof: -

(a)   The AustralianLabour party expresses its greatest abhorrence to war and Fascism and urges that the Commonwealth Government should endeavour to establish and maintain friendly relations with other nations.

(b)   That the complete control of the production of munitions and war materials of all kinds, should be vested entirely in the Commonwealth Government.

The policy of the Government is vastly different. I regret that it is prepared to hand over that portion which will probably produce profits from the manufacture of munitions to its friends who come to its support at elections and other times. The declaration continues -

(c)   That preparation, to counter any possible foreign aggression, be made by the establishment of a defence scheme commensurate with Australia's ability to maintain it and adequate for our needs, and that this lie done by concentration on the following essentials: -

(i)   Aerial defence, and the further development of commercial and civil aviation capable of conversion for defence purposes.

(ii)   The establishment of airports and depots at strategical points onthe coast and inland. (iii)I be provision of adequate stores of oil fuel, and concentration upon the production of oil coal and/or shale: and the production of power alcohol from crops suitable for the purpose.

(iv)   The intensification of a scientific search for additional oil sources, natural and artificial, throughout the Common wealth.

(v)   The provisionofbomb and gas proof sheltersand the means of evacuating women and children from menaced a reus.

(vi)   Themaintenance of naval, aerial and land forces at an efficient standard, and in emergency, the mobilization of marine, aerial and land transport facilities.

(vii)   A national survey of all industries to discover their potential value for defence purposes.

(viii)   This policy to be financed by the operation of Labour's financial proposals.

Apparently the Government, if it has not adopted Labour's defence policy as a whole, is carrying out the objects which two and a half years ago the party declared that it stood for. Many of the things which the Government has criticized the Labour party for putting forward, it is now adopting and placing in the forefront of its platform. The fact that the Leader of the Labour party has been able to state on behalf of the party to-day that he is willing to sanction the spending of this money proves that the Government is now in line with the policy we advocate. I am glad that sometimes the Opposition, which is fewer in numbers than the Government party, can convert Ministers to a common sense policy. There is no mention in the statement, made by the Minister for Defence of the provision of bomb and gas proof shelters and means of evacuating women and children from menaced areas, such as is contained in paragraph (v) of the Labour party's declaration of two and a half years ago. Surely, if the Government contemplates the possibility of raids on Australia, it should have made some provision in that direction.

Mr Street - I could not go into everything.

Mr DRAKEFORD - The Minister could at least, when making so comprehensive a statement, have indicated what he was prepared to do to protect women and children if raids took place. I should have thought that some consideration would be given to that subject in the allotment of the £63,000,000. The financial proposals of the Labour party are indicated by the amendment which has been moved by my leader. Several honorable members on the other side have disclosed their belief that the Government's policy is inadequate. The honorable member for Flinders (Mr. Fairbairn) definitely did so. He said that the Government might have gone further in its financial proposals, but he did not say that he was prepared to do what the leader of my party has suggested. Whilst generally approving of the attitude of the Leader of the Opposition, the honorable member was not ready to sanction the necessary extra taxation of the wealthy sections of the community. Seeing that they have the major portion of the wealth of Australia in their possession, they should be asked to finance this £10,200,000 loan. In view of the policy of our party, honorable members can readily understand why its lender has put forward this amendment. I believe that it is quite within Australia's financial capacity to raise the loan in the way suggested. We should not go overseas to borrow, because that would be detrimental to the interests of Australia, although it is in accordance with the policy that has been pursued for a number of years by governments similar to the present one. I regret that, whilst the Government is learning a little from the Labo.ur party, it is not prepared to adopt our proposals in full. If we do become engaged in a war, I am sure the Govern ment will have to follow the policy adopted by a certain nation which has financed at least part of its war expenditure by a system of internal credit. It does not go to foreign countries to raise money, and I venture to say that we should not ask people overseas to lend us money for a scheme of this kind. I trust that even now the Government will be prepared to give some consideration to that matter. I should like to see .honorable members, like the honorable member for Flinders, (Mr. Fairbairn), who always makes reasoned statements in this House, realize that if Australia is called upon to incur this tremendous expenditure, the wealthy sections of the community should be compelled, in view of their greater stake in the country, to provide a great deal more in the future than they have in the ' past. The honorable member for Parkes (Sir Charles Marr) said that he was recently in New Zealand and that he had to admire the spirit of the people there. I believe that if conditions in regard to employment and social services operated in Australia similar to those that operate in New Zealand to-day, there would be no difficulty whatsover in securing sufficient volunteers to complete, or even extend, the programme of the Government for the raising of the strength of the militia, because our men .would feel that they were citizens of a country worth fighting for. Because of the failure of this Government to take any steps to improve the social security of this country, Australia to-day . is lagging far behind New Zealand. In these circumstances, one cannot expect to see the -workers springing with any great enthusiasm to assist the Government in its campaign for the enrolment of volunteers for the militia. I believe that the Government is creating in the minds of the people a. psychology of fear. We have been given no information that would lead us to believe that this country is in danger of attack within the next two or three years. Although we are to embark upon the expenditure of a very large amount of money to meet an emergency, until the Minister has told us how, when the 70,000 recruits are raised they can be transported to the point of attack, we shall not be satisfied. No attempt has been made to deal with the question of transport of troops; we are simply told that we have to raise 7O,0Q0 mcn and he ready to meet an aggressor who might effect a landing on Australian shores. As a matter of fact, I think the Minister made a definite reference in his statement to the necessity for having an army and an air force of sufficient strength to resist an aggressor who had secured a footing in this country. I cannot see how it would be possible to transport with sufficient rapidity an army of 70,000 men or any substantial number of them to the place where an aggressor might land. The Minister knows quite well that eminent military authorities have stated time and again that it is absolutely essential that more adequate transport facilities than exist at present should be made available for the rapid transport of troops in time of emergency. Under this programme, involving the expenditure of £63,000,000 in three years, however, no provision is made for improved facilities for the rapid movement of troops. In the last resort, it is on the transport of an adequate force and of their supplies by sea that the different parts of the Empire will have to rely to resist aggression. It is from the sea that Australia must look for danger; yet the transport facilities in this country are so inadequately capable of dealing with* the movement of troops that in the event of a landing being made on our shores it would be necessary to send troops by sea to repel that invasion, notwithstanding that the navy of the opposing forces had brought the invaders here by sea. I venture to suggest that the Minister has not been properly informed. I say that with the utmost respect, because I wish it to be understood that I do not believe he would give misleading information to the House, particularly in connexion with a matter of this kind. In order to satisfy myself that the Minister had stated that the last thing necessary for the defence of this country from a military standpoint was the standardization of railway gauges, I recently asked the following questions : -

1.   In view of the fact that the Premiers Conference, held in Adelaide in August, 1936, decided that a further inquiry into the defence aspects of a uniform railway gauge should be made by a competent body, will he say whether this inquiry or any departmental investigation has been made since that date?

2.   If so, when was it held?

3.   Did the inquiry disclose that concentration of troops for resisting invasion could be accomplished muck more rapidly under uniform gauge conditions?

4.   If the inquiry has not been made, when is it intended to make it?

The answers were as follows : -

I am now in a position to inform the honorable member that the proposed inquiry has not yet been made.

The Premiers Conference held in August, 1936, decided that a Conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers for Transport should be held for the purpose of considering railway and transport matters generally.

It was decided, shortly after the holding of the Premiers Conference, to refer to the Conference of Ministers for Transport the question of the personnel of the body to conduct the proposed inquiry.

It has not yet been found practicable to hold the Conference of Ministers for Transport, but it is now expected that this will be held early next year.

The unification of railway gauges is listed on the agenda for this conferen'ce.

A similar reply has been furnished to nearly every question on that subject asked by me or by other honorable members. The reply entirely ignores that portion of my question which asks if a departmental investigation had been made since 1936. I am satisfied that an investigation has been made, and I believe that the statement made by the Minister in this House, when the standardization of railway gauges was under discussion, that that work was the last thing considered necessary as a defence measure, was based on reports made in 1934. I feel sure that another ' investigation has been made since that time which will be found to indicate that it is essential that the standardization of gauges should form an integral part of any effective defence scheme. I am sorry that such an evasive answer should have been supplied to questions asked by an honorable member in search of information, and I regret particularly that no answer was given .to the inquiry as to whether any recent departmental investigation in regard to this matter had been made. My rights as a member of this House should not be ignored in this way. Before leaving the question of transport, which is a vital matter when we are proposing to embark on the expenditure of large sums of money for defence, I should like to refer once again to the following statement by the Prime Minister which was published in the press on the 14th November last: -

Except for relatively short links for alternate routes transit facilities at junctions and other improvements, broadly speaking, conformed to military needs, and the railways were the principal means by which an army can be disposed strategically.

The military authorities did not consider the unification of gauges necessary for purely military purposes.

I could cite many authorities to disprove the essence of that statement, but I do not propose to do so; I content myself with saying that practically everybody who commented on it expressed doubt as to its correctness. Immediately prior to that statement being made, the Argus, in an article which I think correctly reflected public opinion with regard to the respective merits of road and railway transport, said : -

One outstanding problem that has not been faced - probably because it seems formidable - is the problem of transport. It must be faced.

That has not been faced yet.

Courageous men must be found to face it. And in view of the time the completion of the practical work will occupy it must be faced now.

And this is the important portion -

Our great highways are magnificent for the motorist; with caterpillar traction, necessary for tlie transport of heavy military material they would be crushed to pulp and powder within a few weeks. Only on steel rails laid upon substantial foundations could these great burdens be carried. The railways must bc used for that purpose. They cannot he used as they are to-day because many are single track for long distances.

I have no doubt that that statement was not merely an assertion of the opinion of the Argus but also was published on the advice of people of military experience. The honorable member for Bendigo (Mr. Rankin) reached high rank in the last war, and I am sure that he spoke with a practical knowledge of the needs of the country in time ofemergency when he said on a number of occasions that it is absolutely essential that this problem be tackled. I wonder whether his voice has been heard at the party meetings. In view of that statement by the honorable member for Bendigo, and other authoritative opinions which have been expressed, how can the Minister still say that he is satisfied that the standardization of gauges is not an urgent necessity for defence purposes? Reference has also been made to this matter by the honorable member for Parkes, who regards the undertaking of this work as most essential. He also is a man of military experience. One section that has dominated the policy of the Government in this connexion is composed of the interests that stand behind the big shipping combines. I remind the Minister that Sir Ragnar Co] vin, the first naval member of the Naval Board, said recently that for every ton of produce carried by the railways, sixteen tons were carried by sea. I suggest that he would not make a statement of that kind without authority to back it up. It, therefore, appears that the shipping interests have been able to influence the Government against the carrying out of this work. If that is so I regret that the -influence of the shipping combine should be permitted to prevail against the real interests of Australia and thu wiser counsels of military experts. When such a statement is made by the first naval member, it is quite apparent that the shipping interests will be allowed to continue to exert their influence upon the Government, even at the risk of injuring Australia. It' is difficult to understand the present apathy of the Government in regard to this proposal, particularly in view of the fact that General Sir Harry Chauvel, the Inspector-General of the Military Forces, in three successive statements in 1921, 3923 and 1925, made it quite definite and clear that it was essential to have the means to shift a division of troops from one area to another with rapidity. I venture to suggest that the Government is falling down on its job in not making some provision for the standardization of railway gauges as a part of a defence programme which envisages the expenditure of no less than £63,000,000 in three years. It is admitted that it would take seven years to complete the standardization of gauges, and if we do not tackle the problem for another three years almost a decade will elapse before this important project can be completed. Maybe the Government feels that, having neglected the problem for so long - in 1931, all parties declared themselves in favour of it - there is not time to tackle it now. Apparently, tho Government believes that it must obtain fast gunboats and torpedo boats capable of travelling at a speed of :'6-i} knots an hour and that the troops of this country should be moved as expeditiously as possible with existing facilities in time of emergency. I am amazed at the statement of the Minister that the standardization of railway gauges is the last thing necessary in our defence programme, because that is not the opinion of experts in the forces and of many qualified people outside of them. As I have said, that policy has been adopted as the result of reports made some time ago, and I think it will be found that it is based on reports and advice tendered to the Government in 1934. I believe that later information is available to the Minister, and I hope he will search for it. The Labour party accepts, as it always has done, the policy of adequate defence against a possible aggressor, and it is quite prepared to assist in providing the necessary money to prepare against imminent aggression. The point on which 1 am not satisfied is that the danger is imminent. However, since the Government accepts that view and appears to possess information on which' it feels justified in asking Parliament also to accept that view, we must decide whether or not we can acquiesce in the expenditure of this money. My criticism is aimed, not at the amount, but at the manner in which it is proposed to be expended. I believe that we can raise all of the money we require without going overseas. We can utilize the credit of the nation, and in providing for our defence requirements, we can establish permanen t assets. I am afraid that the money will be so expended that within a decade w« shall not have one permanent asset to show for it, whereas one-third of the amount could be devoted to the standardization of our railway gauges. In that wa.y, we should acquire a permanent asset which will be of value, not only in time of war, but also in time of peace. If is no. wonder then that honorable members on this side are not convinced of the sincerity of the Government.

We should have been given a very much earlier opportunity to discuss, this measure. I do not blame the Minister in this respect, because I know that he has only recently assumed Iris present, very important post; but the Government could have presented a complete scheme to this House a month or more ago, and thus given us ample opportunity to consider these proposals, which are among the most important yet brought before this Parliament. However^ it has chosen to throw this measure before us during the last few days of the session. That is entirely unfair. We should have been informed very much earlier of the details of this programme in order that, having agreed to the principle of the adequate defence of Australia, we could have made suggestions as to 'how best the money should be spent. In such circumstances, we might have been able to persuade the Government as to the desirability" of allocating some of this money to the standardization of railway gauges and to other purposes not included in its programme. The Government, however, has taken fine care not to give to honorable members such an opportunity. I again protest against its action in presenting, during the closing hours of this session, a measure which involves the expenditure of an unprecedented sum on defence. I believe that the policy enunciated by the Leader of the Opposition will be approved throughout Australia. It shows that the Labour party is fully prepared to safeguard the interests of the people. I repeat that any doubt as to whether the workers of this country will respond wholeheartedly to the Government's call for volunteers would bc dissipated if employment were found for the work ess, and the workers were given a. standard of living equal to that enjoyed by workers in New Zealand. We should immediately attend to the claims of the workers for better treatment in this respect, and I have no doubt that, if the Labour party were in power, no difficulty would be experienced in raising sufficient forces to defend this country adequately.

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