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Thursday, 27 June 1946

Mr SPEAKER - Is the motion supported ?

Five honorable members having risen

Mr MENZIES - The purpose of this motion is to give an opportunity to this House once more in the circumstances now existing to discuss the problem of coal, because the fact is that the coal position, which has excited the attention of this Parliament before, has gone from bad to worse. It has probably never been in a worse position than it is at this moment. Queensland is in a state of emergency literally, because there is an industrial hold-up that has led to very uncommon actionby the Queensland Government. Industry in all the States that depend on coal is almost on the edge of disaster because there are no reserves of coal. A facetious attempt was made a few minutes ago by one honorable member to impute undue gloom to a member of the Sydney County Council, but the elementary fact, is that that in the industrial States hardly a factory has any reserves of coal, public utilities are literally living from day to day, and hundreds of thousands of people have employment that no longer has any security beyond the next day or two, because, as we know, all that we need to have is a. breakdown or a stoppage of supply in some large electric supply utility and we shall have from 50,000 to 100,000 people out of work within 24 hours. Hundreds of thousands of housewives are suffering intolerable interference and unavoidable hardship. Above all, vital production is delayed, and the economics of re-establishment are imperilled. I believe that is a perfectly fair summary of the state of affairs that we are now contemplating.

There has undoubtedly been within the last twelve months a marked degeneration of this matter. I might point out to honorable members in the very few minutes that I have on a proceeding of this kind a few material figures. In 1942, the average number of days lost per employee in New South Wales was 13.3. In 1945, that figure had risen to 36.1. In 1942, coal production in New South Wales, with 17,101 employees, was 12,280,770 tons, and in 1945, with 17,317 employees, it was 10,176,254 tons. So we have a calamitous reduction of more than 2,000,000 tons in the output of the industry, though there were some 300 more men engaged in it.I know, because we have learned this from experience, that the favourite reply of the Government to questions on this matter is to go back to 1940, when there was a general strike in the industry, and say, " But the figure was lower in that year ". Of course, it was. Had it not been for the resolute battle in 1940, when the strike ended without any concessions to the strikers, it is doubtful whether we should have had the production that we did have in the succeeding years. But the Government, terrified at the prospect of any dispute with the malcontents in the industry, is content to sit back and do literally nothing, while the production of coal falls by more than 2,000,000 tons from 1942 to 1945. Another answer commonly given is that trouble exists in the coal-mining industry in Great Britain, as well as in Australia. The statement is made and applauded that there is trouble in the coalmining industry in Great Britain. I took the trouble to ascertain what the comparable figures were. In 1942, when the average number of days lost per employee in New South "Wales was 13.3, the figure in Great Britain was 1.18. and in 1945, when the average number of days lost per employee in New South Wales was 36.1, the number lost in Great Britain was. 9. So, to compare the loss of coal production in Great Britain with the loss that is imposed upon this community by irresponsibles in New South Wales is to compare unlike things. Indeed, one more figure will perhaps establish what is almost a terrific fact in relation to this industry. In New South Wales, in 1940, 629,000 days were lost by 17,000 miners, and, in the same year, Great Britain ,lost 640,000 days, approximately the same total, with 700,000 miners. So it, is as clear as anything could be. that whatever trouble exists in the coal-mining industry in Great Britain is a mere trifle compared with the constant wreckage and ruin imposed on the Australian community by the coal-miners, particularly in New South Wales. The gravamen of the charge against the Government is that it has applied ' a policy that falls into two parts: it retreats; it does nothing, and, by that very futility of policy, it has encouraged stoppages in the coal-mining industry. The late Prime Minister, Mr. Curtin, on the 14th October, 1943, read to this House a statement of the things that the Government proposed to do in order to improve and maintain coal production. This, mark you, was' in 1943, when coal production was, in fact, between 1,000,000 ,and 2,000,000 tons greater than it is now. And what did he say? I quote his own words - .

Action will be taken to give effect to the following : -

Prosecutions will be applied in every case of a mine-worker absenting himself from work without lawful excuse and, similarly, prosecu-- tions will be launched against any person connected with the mine management responsible for a breach of existing regulations.

Mechanization of mines to be proceeded with as rapidly as the procurement of equipment will permit.

Provision of additional labour from personnel at present in the services, or in other industries, the number to approximate COO.

The working of a second shift in mines on the South Maitland coal-fields.

That was very specific. .The one outstanding feature of all of it is that not one of those things has been done, except the third, which was that additional employees were to be provided, and, as a matter of' fact, as I had occasion to point out in the House on the 31st August, 1944, almost a year later, although a few . additional men had been brought into the industry, production was lower than before they had been brought in. So that if we ignore the one matter which proved to be futile, the answer to all that is that, although it was stated clearly, not one of those things has been carried out On the same day, the 14th October,- 1943," the then Prime Minister used some strong words. He said -

As a result of inquiries which 1 have had . made, it is the opinion of the Government that the removal of minority malcontents and irresponsibles in the industry will go a long way towards maintaining increased coal production.

Has one of those malcontents and irresponsibles been removed ? We did hear at one stage of some being called up for military service, but before long, they returned to the mines. Without going further into the speech that the late Prime Minister then delivered, I pass to the next notable statement, which was made on the 31st August, 1944. I commend it to the thoughtful consideration of honorable gentlemen opposite. The then Prime Minister said -

There is on our statute-hook a law which deals with this matter-

He was referring, of course, to the National Security Regulations and to. the Coal Production ("War-time) Act- and I .say to the House, but more directly I say it to the industry, that that law will beenforced ruthlessly. T make no qualification about this time or any other time. I have no object in saying something merely to please the Opposition. I repeat, that the law which we have passed in respect of the coal-mining industry will be enforced ruthlessly against all those to whom it .can be applied validly, whether they be workers or members of the employing organizations.

Those fine words have been completely falsified by the result, because the law has never been enforced ruthlessly or otherwise. The policy of the Government has been one of retreat and inaction. On that occasion, the then Prime Minister glanced at the supposed remedy of nationalization, for which another campaign is being developed now. Of nationalization, he said -

I venture to say, however, that the nien who go on strike under the present management of a mine would go on strike under any other kind of management. Therefore, strikes must be stamped out. I say to the union that it will be destroyed if it cannot exercise discipline over its members-

I emphasize the following words: - and I accept also as logical, the fact that the Government will be destroyed unless it also can enforce discipline.

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