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Friday, 29 March 1946

Mr LAZZARINI (Werriwa) (Minister for Works and Housing) .- If the honorable member for Wentworth (Mr. Harrison) will give me a copy of the letter which he read, I shall hand it to the gentleman who is making the inquiry. In addition, I shall specially request him-

Mr Abbott - Will the gentleman who is conducting the inquiry have authority to compel witnesses to give evidence?

Mi-. LAZZARINI.- The honorable member for New England (Mr. Abbott) will have an opportunity , to speak later. When the inquiry is made, the statements of the honorable member for Wentworth, may possibly prove to be as wild as were his statements on a previous occasion about the Commonwealth Salvage Commission.

Mr Harrison - I did not make this statement. Is the Minister accusing the firm which wrote the letter?


Mr Harrison - Well, be honest about it.

Mr LAZZARINI - The honorable member referred to an answer which I gave to-day in reply to a question -asked by the honorable member for Wide Bay (Mi-. Corser). I remind the House thu the honorable member for Wentworth first, made allegations against the Salvage Commission, nearly six weeks after an inquiry, which I had ordered, had commenced.

Mr Harrison - That was a different inquiry

Mr LAZZARINI - That is true. On that occasion, the honorable gentleman referred to a specific case, and mentioned prices which he was given, I think, by a certain person from the Salvage Commission in New South Wales. He quoted the prices paid in a deal when some clothing was sold as. " rag ". I ordered an inquiry. My letter to the Auditor-General will show that that was the first intimation which I had received that these things were happening. The Salvage Commission was granted wide powers under the National Security Act, as the result, of a decision by War Cabinet. Reference to Hansard will show that the main allegation, which the honorable member for Wentworth made on the previous occasion, was based on the sale of clothing as rag. He stated that he had been informed that; the material could be worn by people, and should not have been sold as rag. The chairman of the Salvage Commission did not deny that sale had taken place - I am not justifying it - and I stopped the sales immediately I had knowledge of them. I issued a ministerial direction that such sales should cease, and they did cease. The members of the Salvage Commission are highly placed public servants from various Commonwealth departments, and they carried resolutions endorsing the action of the chairman. Stores, particularly in Queensland, were cluttered up with some bad material, and the commission instructed him to make the best bargain he could as early as possible. As soon as I received the information and saw a list of the goods, I approached the Treasurer (Mr. Chifley) and expressed the opinion that a quick investigation could be best conducted by a treasury official. Mr. Dunk was assigned to the job. His report is confidential, but the honorable member for Wentworth may peruse it. After having made a rapid examination, Mr. Dunk reported that a further inquiry was necessary. I emphasize that that occurred six weeks before the matter was raised in this House. I then requested the Auditor-General to appoint an officer to conduct the inquiry. The honorable member for Wentwortb declared that the Auditor-General inquires only into financial transactions and balance-sheets. Mr. Harrison. - Within a department.

Mr LAZZARINI - On this occasion, the Auditor-General went farther than that. His report is a critical statement, and I shall read it to the House. It is as follows : -

So far as the commission's records are concerned the quantity of clothing transferred to " rag " was not appreciably large, but as stated previously the records are not reliable.

Mr Harrison - That is the very point.

Mr LAZZARINI - The honorable member should not anticipate what I am about, to' read. I remind him of the proverb " fools rush in where angels fear to tread ". The report proceeds -

In any circumstances it would not be possible for auditors to chock the genuineness of any such transfers nor are they able to ascertain from the inquiries made whether any large quantity of clothing was unjustifiably classified and sold as rag. The chairman has stated that a quantity of clothing was included as "rag"-

The chairman made that statement to the Auditor-General, the Commonwealth Salvage Commission and myself, and the commission endorsed his action - in a particular case and has reported fully to his department his reasons for so doing, l.t is not possible for me to express an opinion whether such transfers wei;e justified by the state of the market for Worn and obsolete clothing at the date in question but I have no reason to doubt that the Chairman of the Commission acted in good faith in the matter.

That is the statement of the man that the honorable member for- Wentworth has brought to witness' in regard to the Salvage Commis-sion. I am not endeavouring to coyer up anything. If a public servant or anybody else working under my administration does something that is- wrong, he will pay the penalty. Honorable members opposite may have all the inquiries they like. I ask the honorable member for Wentworth for a copy of the letter to which he referred. I shall send it to Mr. Conde and- ask him to examine this specific transaction. I can assure honorable members opposite that a searching inquiry will be made. So far as I am concerned as a Minister, I have nothing to hide. I shall place on record the history of this matter. On the 30th July, 1945, I asked the Treasurer to allow an official of his department to carry OUt an investigation. This request was made because of information supplied to me by an official of the Salvage Commission in Sydney. On the 2nd August, a treasury official, Mr. Dunk submitted his report, and in a covering note stated -

In my view Coleman has not exercised good judgment,, but I think there is nothing sinister in it. This, you will appreciate, is a purely personal .impression - I was not able to carry out any investigation, which would cither prove or disprove it. 1 received that' report on the 4th August and on the 6th I made a personal request to the Auditor-General, confirming it later by letter, to have this matter thoroughly investigated. I told him to make the most searching inquiries and I assume that he did because his report was not completed until the 3rd December. On the 6th August, I gave definite instructions to the Salvage Commission that no serviceable articles were to be converted to or sold, as, rag. On the 6th September, the honorable member for Wentworth raised the matter in this chamber, and on the 5th December; the Auditor-General's report dated the 3rd December, was received. I point out that the Salvage Commission is responsible for the disposal of rag and unservice- able- clothing, but not for the disposal of blankets. The blankets which were sold as rag were placed in the Salvage Commission's stores as rag, by the Army. Blankets that are. serviceable as such are disposed of by the commission. The honorable member for Wide Bay can take as much umbrage as he likes about the way I answered his question to-day, but if he or any other honorable member asks me a question couched in such terms, I shall have no hesitation in replying to it, as I did this morning. I shall not be told by the honorable member for Wentworth or any other member of the Opposition how 1 should answer questions. That is a matter for you Mr. Speaker.

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