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Wednesday, 24 May 1939

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON (Barker) . - Judging by the statements made by the Postmaster-General (Mr. Harrison) any one would think that we had arrived at a stage when it is an offence on the part of a Minister of State to have an opinion, or a policy, of his own. The extraordinary statement of the Postmaster-General this afternoon, following an equally extraordinary report appearing in the press this morning, leads one to the conclusion that in the discharge of his Ministerial duties the honorable gentleman has no opinion whatsoever excepting that which is placed before him by the head of his department. I listened with great interest to the honorable gentleman's recital of what took place in the post office before this contract was drawn up. However, I wish to go back to a point before the tender was let, and to inform the House - aud I put this forward as one reason why I believe that there should be an impartial inquiry into the whole business - that representations were made to me in my office in this building, when I was Postmaster-General, by two representatives of the firm of H. G. Whittle and Company Proprietary Limited, in the course of which they complained that it was not until 40 minutes before the close of tenders that they, and other tenderers, were able to get quotes from John Grant and Sons Limited for the price of the stone that had to be used in this building. It, was not my job as Postmaster-General to adjudicate in any quarrel arising between various tenderers ; but I am definitely interested in the reversal of a decision of a Minister of State, a decision arrived at. by proper inquiry by a sub-committee consisting of three Ministers of the previous Government. I cannot emphasize my amazement sufficiently at the statementmade by the Postmaster-General that no consideration was given to this question of terra cotta versus sandstone between myself and the Director-General of Posts and Telegraphs.

Mr Harrison - I have read the letter; the honorable gentleman must concede me that much.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - The Postmaster-General said that there had been no discussion between myself and the department on that matter. That is not true. Furthermore, I not only invite, but also challenge the Government to inquire into that statement. I say definitely that the opinion of the head of the Postal Department expressed in Melbourne in April was not in favour of accepting the terra cotta tender.

Mr Beasley - What is the strength of that? Let us have it.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - I wish to see an inquiry held into this matter; I throw that challenge to the Government, and say that it must hold a full and open inquiry. Furthermore, such an inquiry is justified by the statement of the PostmasterGeneral himself that firms in Sydney, which have practically a monoply of supplies of terra cotta, have decided, after tenders have closed, to alter the price at which they are prepared to supply this material.

Mr Beasley - After tenders closed?

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - The Minister has said so himself. The honorable gentleman said that the Government will get a benefit in this direction.

Mr Beasley - How?

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - God only knows; the Minister should explain that point. A ministerial policy of running a department in reverse gear is one that is bound to lead to collision with some one coming from behind. That is the direction in which the Postmaster-General is moving at a rather alarming rate, if we are to judge on reports which have appeared recently in the press, and on statements made in this House this afternoon. The Government has nothing in prospect in calling tenders by a method under which a firm refuses to give quotes for certain material, as, in this case, Grant and Company declined to quote for sandstone.

Mr Harrison - Did not the honorable member report that fact to the exMinister for Works?

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - I did; that honorable gentleman knows about it and if the Postmaster-General had carried out his duties and attended that sub-committee he would have heard about it too.

Mr Harrison - If a Minister, who was not a member of the Country party, had been invited he possibly would have attended that sub-committee.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - I can smile at that; but I can assure the honorable gentleman that, before this session closes, I shall smile at one or two other things also, and I shall ask him to laugh with me. The position which has been touched on to-day is one that strikes at the very roots of parliamentary responsible government. If we are to accept the position that Ministers of the Crown are running this country, and not the heads of departments, then the method should be that a Minister of State hears the reasons advanced by the heads of his department for and against any particular proposal, and arrives at his own decision. From the statements made this afternoon it appears as though the ex-Minister for Works was at fault in daring to disagree with the recommendation of the head of his department. From the viewpoint of the Postal Department it does not matter two hoots, or a row of cigarette butts, whether the front of this building be constructed of terra cotta, sandstone or granite. The important consideration was the efficient working of the General Post Office in Sydney. This afternoon honorable members listened to a remarkable statement from the Postmaster-General. From it we gather that after tenders had been received and after the responsible Minister had signified the acceptance of a particular offer for the erection of the proposed new building, one tenderer was given the right to amend his terms in some particulars. I have always understood one of the principles of responsible government in British countries to be that a government honours the undertakings of its predecessor.

Mr Harrison - The honorable member is wrong. He misunderstands the position.

Several honorable members interjecting,

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