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Thursday, 4 May 1939

Mr FROST (Franklin) .- I support the remarks of the honorable member for Hunter (Mr. James) concerning the necessity to appoint an industrial tribunal in Darwin to hear the claims of the workers employed in the Northern Territory, and I trust that the Assistant Minister (Mr. Perkins) representing 'the Minister for the Interior will see that immediate steps are taken to ensure that justice is done to the men concerned. I know from personal experience that the men in Darwin work under most trying conditions and for unreasonably low wages, and they have no tribunal before which they can present their case. In these circumstances, they are reluctantly compelled to take direct action. The wages are fixed by a tribunal which sits in Melbourne, the members of which cannot be conversant with the conditions under which men are employed in the territory. It is the responsibility of the Government to see that the working conditions in the Northern Territory are improved. A few years ago, only a few men were employed in that part of Australia and, consequently, there was little need for an industrial tribunal, but in consequence of the construction of a new water scheme and an extensive defence works programme, many hundreds of men are now working there. Although the climate is severe, living expensive, and accommodation difficult to obtain, contractors have recently notified their employees that their wages are to be reduced by 16s. 3d. a week. It is the Minister's duty to see that they receive justice. I would rather be working for the basic wage paid in any of the States than £6 a week in Darwin. The basic wage paid in the Northern Territory is fixed by men who know nothing whatever of the conditions there. In view of all the circumstances, I trust that the Minister will make a determined effort to improve the conditions of these men.

I now wish to refer to the position of the Australian potato-growers. During January and February last, the southern part of Australia experienced the worst drought known for many years. Heat records were broken in all States. Vegetables soared to a very high price and in many places were unprocurable. Green peas and beans were1s. per lb. and cabbages were1s. 6d. each. Potatoes were also realizing high prices. But in spite of these facts, many growers in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales got practically nothing for their work because of the bad season. In some instances, the retailers took advantage of the conditions that prevailed. On one occasion when a light shipment of potatoes from Tasmania was placed on the Sydney market, it was not expected that a high price would he obtained; but, because of the action of certain merchants, supported, I am sorry to say, by some honorable members opposite who desired a little notoriety, the potatoes sold for from £25 to £26 a ton. The purpose of those who took this action was to make a case for the lifting of the embargo on the importation of potatoes from New Zealand. Those who desired this embargo to be lifted should remember what happened in 1936-37 when potatoes were being sold for ruinous prices. At that time, many growers in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania were receiving far less than the cost of production. They had expended their money in buying seed potatoes and fertilizers, and had done all the work of putting in and harvesting the crop, but they received nothing for their labour. This state of affairs prevailed in 1936 and again in 1.937. In 1938, prices were a little better, but the crop was small, so the growers were not much better off. Many hundreds of acres of potatoes planted last year were not dug for the reason that they were not worth digging. The drought ruined the crop. If it had not been for the late rains the position would have been much worse than it was. The people who worked for the lifting of the embargo were actuated only by a desire to make profits for themselves. They had no thought of lifting the embargo in 1936 and 1937 when potatoes were being practically given away. The Minister for Health and Social Services (Sir Frederick Stewart) did not at that time say : " These people are not getting a fair price for their potatoes. The Govern ment should pay them abounty." Not at all ! But I direct attention to the following newspaper report which sets out the attitude that he adopted a few months ago : -

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