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Wednesday, 24 May 1939

Mr FORDE - I am sure of that. It is most reprehensible to proceed with such a gigantic building proposal involving the expenditure of approximately £500,000 of public moneybefore a searching investigation has been made by a committee. If a parliamentary committee competent to undertake an investigation into a project of this class were not in existence I should strongly urge that a select committee of honorable members representative of all parties in this chamber be appointed to investigate the whole matter. Such a committee would be able to examine departmental heads, architects, engineers, the DirectorGeneral of Posts and Telegraphs and the

Director-General of Works. But there is no need to urge the appointment of a select committee if the Government will give a definite assurance that the whole matter will be referred to the Public Works Committee - a committee already in existence - for investigation and report on works of this kind. With indecent haste the Government has accepted a tender which is not the lowest for carrying out the work, and against the considered opinion of the honorable member for Calare when Minister for Works and two other Ministers.

Mr Thorby - With the concurrence of the then Postmaster-General and the Director-General of Works.

Mr FORDE - That is so. Probably we do not agree with the honorable member for Calare in many matters, but we must admit that he is very thorough in whatever he undertakes, and that he would not accept the lowest tender for a sandstone building unless he was satisfied that such a building would be the most serviceable type to erect.

Mr Nock - And he knows something about building construction.

Mr FORDE - I think that we can admit that. Not only did he come to that conclusion but he also submitted the proposal to the Commonwealth Director of Works, the former PostmasterGeneral, the former Assistant Minister who is the present Postmaster-General, and the then Minister for Repatriation, who is now Minister for the Interior.

Mr Anthony - Did he have the concurrence of the present Minister for the Interior ?

Mr FORDE - That Minister at first refused to depart from the earlier decision of the honorable member for Calare. He endorsed that decision when he became Minister for the. Interior, but he now endorses the decision of the present Postmaster.General. The honorable member for Calare, when Minister for Works, had the support of three Ministers.

Mr Harrison - That is not so.

Mr FORDE - He had the support of the then Postmaster-General, the present Minister for the Interior, and the then Assistant Minister (Mr. Harrison). He placed his proposal before the gentleman who is the present Postmaster-General who now waves this aside, and explains, " We were looking out of a window when we decided that a certain plan should be adopted ", and that he did not realize the significance of the statement of the honorable member for Calare on the occasion when he was looking out of a window. Was not the PostmasterGeneral a member of the sub-committee that was appointed? He was a responsible Minister in a cabinet which appointed a sub-committee to inquire into a project estimated to cost nearly £500,000. In such circumstances surely he was entitled to ask for plans and specifications, and any other information he considered necessary.

Mr Harrison - I have already explained that that sub-committee had no voice in the matter?

Mr FORDE - The sub-committee had no voice in the matter? I cannot believe that statement.

Mr Harrison - That is so.

Mr FORDE - This matter was considered by a sub-committee of Cabinet, the then Assistant Minister who is now Postmaster-General, the honorable member for Calare who was then Minister for Works, and the then PostmasterGeneral. These gentlemen had every opportunity to confer with the principal architect, the Director-General of Works and other officials and to have asked for plans and specifications if necessary. The present PostmasterGeneral cannot absolve himself from blame in this matter simply by airily waving his hands, and saying that he did not realize the significance of a conversation. The honorable member for Calare said that he was prepared to answer all questions put to him. I was wondering whether he had deceived the present Postmaster-General, but he said that he had given frank and complete answers to every question put before him by the Postmaster-General when the latter was Assistant Minister. I cannot speak with any authority as to the relative merits of terra cotta or sandstone, and it is evident that the Postmaster-General did not go fully into this matter at any time. If he did, then what justification is there for departing from the decision to accept the lowest tenderer? It is absolutely essential that before any contract is signed the whole matter should be referred to the Public Works Committee for a thorough investigation. That committee would have an opportunity to call evidence from the departmental experts, including the DirectorGeneral of Posts and Telegraphs, the Commonwealth Director of Works and the Commonwealth Government Architect. These officers should be called and asked for their opinions as to the relative merits of these two materials, because a government should have a very good reason before it gets away from the principle of accepting the lowest tender for a contract of this kind. Particularly when the then responsible Minister and two of his colleagues, supported by the Director-General of Works decided that sandstone facing was more suitable. I am looking at this matter in a purely non-party political way. The explanation given by the Postmaster-General to-day is not convincing, and, therefore, the whole matter should be probed by the Public Works Committee. That body could then submit a report to this House, and thus place honorable members in a better position to arrive at a decision than they find themselves in to-day after hearing the conflicting statements made by the honorable member for Calare on the one hand and two Ministers on the other. I see that the ex-Postmaster-General, the honorable member for Barker (Mr. Archie Cameron), is straining at the leash, awaiting his opportunity to rise in order to contradict the very definite statements which have been made by the PostmasterGeneral. All of these gentlemen were members of the same composite ministry, and if they, after being on the same subcommittee and hearing all the evidence put before that committee, violently disagree as they have shown to-day to be the case, the time has arrived when the matter should be probed thoroughly by the Public Works Committee. I leave the matter there. I shall not express an opinion on the relative merits of terra cotta or sandstone, but on this point I have no don bt that honorable members generally would be prepared to be guided by a report from the Public Works Committee. For that, reason, on behalf of the Opposition, I urge the Government to take no further step to carry out this work until the whole project has been thoroughly investigated by the Public Works Committee.

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