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Wednesday, 24 May 1939

Mr FRANCIS (Moreton) .- I have listened with interest to this debate, which is concerned with a major contract of the Postal Department, involving almost £500,000. There is the minor conflict as to whether terra cotta or sandstone should be used ; but the further the debate has proceeded the clearer has it become that there has been a much bigger conflict between four Ministers - the former Minister for Works (Mr. Thorby), the ex-Postmaster-General (Mr. Archie Cameron), the present PostmasterGeneral (Mr. Harrison) and the Minister for the Interior (Senator Foll). The lastnamed made two different decisions concerning the letting of this contract within a few days of each other. Then there is the further unsatisfactory position in respect of the Cabinet subcommittee, which was appointed to examine the plans and specifications of this proposed building. Obviously, on the evidence before the House, that subcommittee did not function. The honorable member for Calare and the honorable member for Barker apparently met and had certain discussions. The present Postmaster-General, who was then an Assistant Minister, was not present at and took no part in the discussions;but he looked through a window and saw certain things which were pointed out to him by the honorable member for Calare. Subsequently, a report was made to Cabinet. According to the evidence of the present Postmaster-General, the exPostmasterGeneraldid not confer with his officers.

Mr Archie Cameron - That is not true.

Mr FRANCIS - I should like to know what is correct. In every respect this is the most conflicting story that I have heard in this House in regard to any proposed public works. Does the House confidently believe that this is a work which should be continued in the muddled conditions that characterize it? Can we ask the people confidently to believe that this major work concerning one of our biggest public utilities should be proceeded with? The operations of the Postal Department in Sydney are being conducted in a building in which there is the utmost congestion. I should like to know into what further muddle the postal and telegraphic facilities of Sydney will degenerate if existing conditions are to continue throughout the construction of this new building. Parliament has been entirely ignored in this matter. It has been asked to pass, through the medium of the departmental estimates, millions of pounds for postal works. It has not been told what those works are, or where they are to be undertaken. That is a highly improper way in which to conduct the business of this country. I remind the House that in November last I asked the then PostmasterGeneral to furnish me with a list of the works included in his Estimates of £3,946,999, which were estimated to cost £25,000 and over, so that they might be inquired into by the Public Works Committee, a body appointed by this House which from time to time is asked to investigate and report upon works estimated to cost over £25,000.

Mr SPEAKER - Order ! The honorable member must confine his remarks to the motion.

Mr FRANCIS - I was referring to the purposes of the motion.

Mr SPEAKER - The honorable member has been discussing something which goes quite beyond the motion.

Mr FRANCIS - I am discussing the extraordinary situation which, by reason of bungling and conflict of opinion, has developed in the construction of a major post office building in Sydney. The departmental estimates included a fund of £3,946,999.

Mr SPEAKER - Order ! The honorable member must confine his remarks to this motion, which is in very definite terms.

Mr FRANCIS - May I approach the matter in this way : The proposal to build this post office in Sydney was never referred to the Public Works Committee. The Minister, in reply to a question that I asked, informed me that it had been decided that no postal works were to be submitted to that committee.

Mr SPEAKER - Order ! I cannot allow the honorable member to continue on those lines. My ruling is clear. The question as to whether or not works of any description should be referred to the Public Works Committee may not be discussed on this motion, the purpose which is to discuss the acceptance of a tender which was not the lowest received.

Mr FRANCIS - The matter of urgent public importance which the House is asked to discuss is, in effect, the bungling that has developed in this case. I submit that I am quite in order in suggesting that the trouble would have been avoided and that there would have been no necessity to hold up the business of the country in order to ventilate the matter, had some other course been followed.

Mr SPEAKER - The honorable member is not in order.

Mr FRANCIS - Although I am at a loss to follow your ruling, Mr. Speaker. I respectfully abide by it.

Mr SPEAKER - Order ! I remind honorable members that a motion of this kind has to be . couched in terms which are clear. The adjournment of the House may be moved for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance. Any other matter, such as whether or not the Public Works Committee should inquire into any proposed public works, is beside the question. Many reasons could be given to prove that " muddle " could have been avoided, but they may not be discussed on this motion.

Mr FRANCIS - It is obvious that certain Ministers have been charged by certain ex-Ministers with having failed to do their duty in that they absented themselves from meetings of a Cabinet sub-committee, with the. result that muddle was occasioned. The complaint that the Minister for the Interior (Senator Foll) changed the decision of a former Minister and awarded the tender to someone else accentuates the muddle. I consider that I am entitled to submit to the House that the adoption of an alternative method of dealing with public works would have avoided the trouble.

Mr SPEAKER -Order ! The honorable member appears to be defying the ruling of, or at least to be arguing with, the Chair. A mere reference would not have been objected to; but he has gone much further than that, and he is not in order in doing so.

Mr FRANCIS - In view of your, ruling, sir, I do not intend to proceed further.

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