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Wednesday, 24 May 1939

Mr ROSEVEAR (Dalley) .- Honorable members have been treated this afternoon to a rather inelegant display of bitterness between Ministers of the late Cabinet. One might truly say of them what was said by the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) on one occasion of members of the Opposition, namely, that although they may sleep in the same bed they do not dream the same dreams. The public will be interested to know the methods adopted by the Government in carrying out its investigation into this most important matter. At the outset, it delegated its responsibility to three members of the Cabinet, one of whom at least, to give him credit, decided that he was going to function as a Minister, and there fore would decide how £500,000 of public money was to be spent. Apparently the honorable gentleman's colleague "of the same party endorsed his views. Although the Postmaster-General (Mr. Harrison) wag a member of the Cabinet sub-committee which undertook the investigation, evidently the only interest which he took in the proceedings was to look out of a window. That appears to be all that the honorable gentleman knew about it. This afternoon, reading from an official document, he told us what he thought of the position.

Out of all this confusion arises the question of whether or not heads of Commonwealth departments have authority to go further than merely to indicate to the Government what their accommodation requirements are. In my opinion, the former Minister for Works (Mr. Thorby) did the right thing in making a decision after hearing all views on the subject. I note, however that in defence of the Government's attitude, the PostmasterGeneral stated this afternoon that the chief architect had supported the use of terra-cotta facing for the building, mainly for the reason .that that material was obtainable in a variety of colours, ranging from a rich red at the bottom to the shade of cream to be used at the top of the building. I am wondering whether, in future, all government buildings are to be built according to the aesthetic taste of those who, for the time being, happen to be heads of departments. If so, then we may rapidly be approaching the time when officials will be so pernickety about colours, that the head of a department may suggest that buildings be faced in the colours of the " old school tie." The range of colours covered by terra cotta was one specific reason advanced by the Postmaster-General for what was not merely a change of plan, but also a definite reversal of the decision of a special sub-committee, to which ministerial approval had been given. Of the three honorable members who constituted that sub-committee, two are now standing by the decision arrived at, and the other - the honorable gentleman who apparently took the least interest in his obligation - is now supporting a complete reversal of that decision. The circumstances indicate the need for the exercise of extreme Bare in letting government contracts to private enterprise, and are an additional reason for investigation by a responsible committee of this House.

The honorable member for Calare referred to the fact that some of the tenderers were unable to get a satisfactory quote for some of the materials to be used in the building, and he expressed the opinion that that was distinctly unfair to other tenderers. I remind him, however, that the tender which was originally approved by him as Minister for Works, was submitted by John Grant and Sons Limited, a firm which, in this respect, is one of the worst offenders in Sydney. Therefore, there may be some poetic justice in the contract being taken away from that firm. Another argument advanced in favour of the use of terra cotta was that it was cheaper than sandstone. If that were so, then, in view of the amount of terra cotta to be used in the building, there should have been a vastly greater disparity in the tender entered by H. G. Whittle and Sons Proprietary Limited, which was for terra cotta, and that entered by John Grant and Sons Limited, which was for sandstone. Instead, however, there was very little difference, the amount being approximately £1,400. Responsible Government officers emphasized that terra cotta would be rauch cheaper than sandstone, and therefore, had the tender entered by Whittle and Sons been genuine, there would have been a much greater disparity between it, and the price quoted, by John Grant and Sons Limited. Out of the whole affair another point arises. The Minister, in justification of the change-over from one builder to another, and from sandstone to terra cotta, now says that, subsequent to the acceptance of a price based on the original cost of terra cotta, the discovery was. made of some new process which cheapens the cost of terra cotta, and that the Government will obtain an advantage from that fact; yet he was not able, by any stretch of imagination, to prove that ultimately the Government will benefit from the use of terra cotta. Two questions arise. The first is whether the sub-committee of Cabinet did its job. Judging by what has been said to-day by some of the members of that committee, without regard to the energy, expended by each member, it is very evident that between them a vast difference of opinion existed. The second question - arising out of the first, and out of the complaint of the previous Minister (Mr. Archie Cameron) that certain tenderers were prejudiced because they were unable to obtain some materials at a reasonable price is whether it is not abundantly clear that it is necessary for a committee of this House thoroughly to sift the evidence, and to decide whether the Government was or was not justified in this change of policy and in adopting the course chosen to effectuate the change. It is most illuminating to this House and to the public to find the gentleman who is just embarking on a ministerial career justifying the argument that ministerial heads of departments are really the clients of the Department of Works. ' I consider that both the Department of Works and the Postal Department are dependent on the Government and its purse. When the Government has to " pay the piper " it should " call the tune." If anything be left of ministerial responsibility it is that, when a department asks for certain accommodation and the Minister approves of that accommodation, he should have the last word. It would appear that the two Ministers who spoke to-day voluntarily surrendered their prerogative and indicated their preparedness to become rubber stamps in the hands of the highly-paid officers of their department.

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