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Tuesday, 30 July 1946


Mr RYAN (Flinders) .- The coal problem has been before this House on a number of occasions, and I have not the slightest -doubt that measures such as we now have before us will frequently be brought before the Parliament in an attempt to solve it.- I should- like to know whether the Government really believes that the proposals contained in the bill will result in the production of an additional ton of coal. I listened with interest, as I invariably do, to the speech delivered by my friend the honorable member for Hunter (Mr. James). The honorable gentleman, who seemed to regard the bill with somewhat mixed feelings, said that he would oppose the penal provisions which it contains. I myself would also be prepared to oppose them if I thought, as I do, that the Government had no intention whatsoever of applying them. One of the greatest causes of. indiscipline in the coal industry to-day arises from the fact that, although a number of regulations and laws have been promulgated from time to time in respect of the industry, in only very exceptional circumstances have they been enforced. Thus, respect for law and order has largely gone by the board. If the Government does not intend to enforce the penal provisions of the bill, it would be better to drop them altogether. The second point raised by the honorable member for Hunter was that the contract system had been objected to by the coal-owners. I have no doubt the honorable gentleman's . long experience of the industry makes him perfectly aware that that statement is open to very grave doubt. The main objection to changing from contract to day work has come from the coal-miners themselves, because of the big wages they are able to earn under the contract system. Until their objection to the changeover is removed, it will not be possible to institute a system of day work as quickly as we would like. I have discussed this matter- with a number of coalowners, the majority of whom have indicated that they would be glad to see the day-work system brought in, because it would lead to fewer strikes than have occurred under the contract system.* The other point raised by the honorable member related to what he described as the exploitation of coal-fields by the owners. The honorable member repeated all the old charges that have been made in this House, but which, as far as I know, have never been substantiated; certainly they have not been substantiated in any .evidence given before Mr. Justice Davidson, or to any responsible tribunal. It -is true that a great many of the mines in New South Wales have not been well worked. Mr. Justice Davidson, . in his report, has drawn .attention to that fact.


Mr Bryson - Does the honorable member intend to support the bill?


Mr RYAN - I am in favour of some of it but opposed to other parts of it. The miners themselves have mainly been responsible for the exploitation of the mines. Any one in this House who 'knows anything about the coal problem - and most .of us know something about it, having discussed it so often - will readily agree that it is a difficult problem to solve.

No problem, whether it be easy or difficult, can be solved except on the basis of the facts of the situation. What are the realities of the coal-mining industry? No other subject has been discussed so often inside this chamber, or outside, or on which more mis-statements have been made or so much nonsense has been spoken. I am surprised that not only honorable members opposite, but also Ministers, should talk so much' nonsense about the industry. The Minister for Post-war Reconstruction (Mr. Dedman), who is in charge of the measure, made many statements in his second-reading speech which are not in accord with the facts, and tended to obscure the facts. It is obvious that we can establish peace and prosperity in the industry only- by having regard to the facts, and by ignoring sentiment or prejudice. I propose to deal first with certain remarks made by the Minister in his second-reading speech. Dealing with the acute shortage of coal in Australia, he said -

Indeed, the acute coal shortage in Australia to-day is, in part, the result of the very . coal strike of 1040, because if there had been no strike at that time reserves of coal would have been available in Australia to enable us to meet an emergency as faces us to-day.

The Prime Minister ' (Mr. Chifley) repeated that statement; but the facts refute it. I take my figures from the records of the Government Statistician in New South Wales. As at the first July, 1942, that is roughly two years after the coal strike to which the Prime Minister and the Minister for Post-war Reconstruction referred, coal reserves in New South Wales totalled 1,062,000 tons." The reserves fell to 903,000 tons in- 1943, 474,000 tons in 1944 and 69,000 tons in 1945. I should not like to say what reserves of coal exist in New South Wales at present, but I suppose that they would not exceed a few thousand tons, which is approximately the total of reserves at ' present held in Victoria. Those figures completely refute the. statement made by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Post-war Reconstruction that the present shortage would not exist but for the strike that occurred in 1940.

The Minister for Post-war Reconstruction said that Australia's requirements of coal in 1946-47 would total 14,500,000-. tons, rising in 1949-50 to 16,500,000 tons. Giving the reasons for this estimate, he said -

The plain fact is that the demand for coal, not only -in Australia but also in other parts of the world, has increased enormously in recent years. It has increased, of course, pari passu with our population, which, has grown by 300,000 in the last seven years.

The Minister continued -

Had the Government allowed unemployment to develop as did the parties which now sit in opposition years ago, there would not now be the existing demand for coal for industrial purposes . . . The present demand is due to the very great increase of the productivity of the community during the past few years.

That statement, more or less, is in accord with the facts,* but the figures given by the Minister do not disclose the real situation. With the permission of the House I incorporate the following table in Hansard : -

 

Those figures show that whilst internal consumption -of coal increased by 1,032,000 tons, coal required for bunkering and export decreased by 622,000 tons. This means that from 1939 to 1945 the net increase df consumption was only 410,000 tons. Under existing conditions the mines in New South Wales are capable of producing sufficient coal to meet our requirements. In 1942, the industry's production in New South Wales was about 12,236,216 tons, a, record, whilst 1,800,000 tons was lost as the result of strikes. Therefore, the mines in New South Wales have a potential output of 14,036,219 tons. That output could be attained without recourse to any long-term plans. By adopting Saturday work it is estimated that the tonnage could be increased by 1,400,000 tons, whilst the working of two shifts - and I can see no reason why two shifts could not be worked in any industry - the output could be further increased by 5,000,000 tons. In. addition, if the miners' federation would withdraw its objection to machine cutting and loading in pillars, still more tonnage could be produced. Mr. Justice Davidson, in his report said -

The miners are opposed to the extraction of pillars by mechanical means on the ground that as they formed them by handwork in the solid workings they should have the benefits of the easier task of taking them down when crushed in the process of time.

Danger is the main reason given by the miners for objecting to the removal of pillars by scraper-loaders,' but it has been ' proved, not only in this country, but abroad, that mechanical pillar extraction appreciably reduces the accident rate. Mr. Justice Davidson reported a 30 per cent, decease of accidents in mines where pillars are mechanically extracted. Figures in Great Britain and the United States of America are corroborative. Adoption of my suggestions would mean that in the next two years more coal would be produced than will be necessary to meet all Australia's requirements. The Minister further said -

Mining is at best a strenuous, thankless means of earning a livelihood. It is at worst an avenue of fitful employment, constant fear of disease and the ever-present possibility of death or disablement by accident.

As to the Minister's statement that mining is a thankless means of earning a livelihood, I point out that miners' earnings are considerably higher than in any other industry in Australia. The high rate of earnings is unjustified by the quality and type of work. - The work is no more unpleasant and no harder than that in many heavy industries.__


Mr Ward - How does the honorable member know that?


Mr RYAN - I have been to the mines many times and had a look at the work.


Mr Ward - What pit did the honorable member work in?


Mr RYAN - I will deal with that later. In the last few years the miners have earned in three or four days sufficient to enable them to live reasonably well for the rest of the week. The public has been continually misinformed about conditions in the mines. One constantly hears about the miners working in the bowels of the earth and sweating in the heat. Those terms have no relationship to the truth. I know the, conditions under which the miners work. The conditions of the miners in New South Wales, in whatever mine honorable members like to name, are incomparably better than the conditions of hands in the rolling mills and other heavy industries. Yet the miners have very good conditions and receive higher pay than do the men engaged in the heavy industries. I do not ask now that the miners' pay be reduced. With that 'aspect I shall deal later. But when honorable members, and many people outside, talk about the terrible working and living conditions that miners have to contend with, they are far from the truth.


Mr Ward - In the last twelve months more than 2,000 men have left the coalmining industry. How does the honorable gentleman account for that?_


Mr RYAN - They probably had better jobs to go to.


Mr Lazzarini - But' the honorable member said that the miners have the best job of all.


Mr RYAN - I only compared their job with that of men in the heavy industries. I think most people will agree that . they have a better job" and better pay than men in those industries. The Minister also referred ' to the grave dangers existing in the . mines. The fatality rate in the coal mines of New South Wales is. 1.4 per 1,000, which is considerably lower than that in the mines in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. In the latter country the rate is 4 per 1,000. I do not say that is necessarily a criterion, because one wants to reduce the fatality rate here. Even a fatality rate of 1.4 per 1,000 is too high. But, as everybody knows, there are needless deaths on the roads and in other industries, particularly the heavy industries. The fatality in the metalliferous mines is considerably higher, 1.7 per 1,000.

Every one will agree, that we need more coal. In the last six years, according to the statistics, production has fallen alarmingly in spite of the fact that since 1939 mechanization of coal mines has increased by about 20 per -cent. As honorable members may know, the ratio of output of a mechanized mine to that of a mine where the coal is extracted by pick- . and shovel is five to three. The causes of the decline of output are well known to most of us. The Prime Minister referred to the inherited hostility of the miners to the owners. The right honorable gentleman talked about psychology. The aftermath of the depression is a contributing factor, too. . Then there is the matter of nationalization of the coal 'mines. Perhaps the major trouble is the fact that the miners' federation is controlled by Communists. If I believed that nationalization of the coal mines would be a complete cure of the ills of the industry, I would not be against it, but experience 'shows that nationalization has not made for the production of one more ton. After World War I., when the coal mines of Great Britain were brought under the control of the Government, production declined.. .We have our own experiences. ' The Lithgow mine, which was re- ferred to by Mr. Justice Davidson in his report and by the Leader of the Opposition in his speech, is in point. When that mine was' taken over by the Government of New South Wales production slumped. The same thing happened when the Wonthaggi mine was taken over in Victoria. Neither of those mines, when under government control, produced coal to the same quantity, as it did when it was privately owned and operated. Moreover, the reduction of output has been accompanied by heavy' financial loss. Let us consider the record of the Coalcliff colliery, which the Com- . monwealth Government has controlled for the last two years. The figures are most illuminating. In the year ,1944-45, the net loss was £28,350; production costs a ton were 24s. 10d. ;. the selling price a ton was 21s. 3d.; the loss was 3s. a ton; and absenteeism was 22 per cent., compared with 14 per cent, in other mines on the South Coast. In the year 1945-46, the net loss was £27,650; the production costs were 27s. 3d. a ton ; the selling price was 22s. lid. a ton; and absenteeism .was 34 per cent., compared with 17 per cent, in other mines. In 1944-45 three strikes occurred at Coalcliff, with' a resultant-loss of production of 1,701 tons, but in the following year, there were ten strikes, with a loss of 2,000 tons.

I cannot conceive how we can possibly obtain peace on the coal-fields while the miners' federation is dominated by Communists. It appears to me to be a complete contradiction in terms. Every Communist is bound to strive for the introduction of communism in Australia. In order to achieve his ideal, he is pledged to disrupt all industrial activities to the utmost of his ability. How, then, can we expect to produce coal when the Communist knows, as we know, that coal is the life-blood of the country, and that if the flow of coal is seriously interrupted, industrial confusion will ensue and cause mass unemployment. Under such conditions, how can we expect to obtain cooperation from a body of men who have that particular ideal?

The shortage of supplies of coal in Australia and the poor prospects of improving the situation in the future, have driven Victoria and South Australia to develop their own resources of coal or to utilize substitute fuel. Their object is to escape from the thraldom of New South Wales. Whilst this policy is most uneconomical and parochial, it is understandable. Unless the Commonwealth Government, by some means, can restore discipline on the coal-fields, and increase production adequately, the tendency for each State to make itself self-supporting must, and will, continue. If it does continue to any great extent, the coal-miners will lose a part of their market and their employment. Surely, the miners themselves take a short-sighted view when they do not attempt to meet the demands for coal ! Honorable members may not . be aware that the cost of the coal required for the production of an article is comparatively low, being between 3 and 5 per cent, of the. total. Therefore, if the Government believes that the price of coal must be increased, the effect upon the cost of producing other goods will not be so devastating as most people think. I suggest to the Government that no great objection would be raised to a proposal to increase the price of coal, provided the advantages were commensurate .with the actual amount of the increase. We shall require money to provide for the coalminers the additional amenities that have been proposed. Honorable members oppo- - site have stated that the cause- of the trouble on the coal-fields is the fact that . the mine-owners have been "difficult" in the past and have not been prepared to meet the claims of the employees.


Mr Bryson - They are still difficult.


Mr RYAN - I do not attribute to the coal-miners all the blame for the industrial unrest. Except during the years of war when the coal-owners did not have control of their mines and had no opportunity to carry out improvements, they were to blame, to some degree, for what occurred. The hostility between owner and miner was born 100 years ago, and doubtless has been accentuated since then. Many years ago, employers adopted a rather inhuman attitude towards their employees, but during the last few years every progressive employer has attempted to improve his personal relations with his employees. In the United States of America, every big business man employs a personnel relations officer, whose function is to acquaint himself with the employees, act as an intermediary between employer and employees, and see that, as far as possible, the owners meet the wishes of the workers. In Australia, a similar arrangement is necessary. The owners should enter into a much closer relationship with their employees than that which exists at present. That may be achieved in many ways. For example, amenities can be increased, and employees can be told exactly what the business means, how they are playing an important part in it and how they can assist and co-:operate. ff that were done the relations existing between employers and employees would be materially improved.

This bill will hot. be effective unless the Government realizes that discipline can be obtained on the coal-fields only by firmness. The Prime Minister (Mr. Chifley) asked whether the members of the Opposition advocate repressive action. Of course, we do not. But we do advocate firmness in dealing with law-breakers. If the Government declines to enforce the law, it should repeal that law.


Mr Bryson - Does the honorable member suggest that the men should be put in gaol?


Mr RYAN - I propose that the penalty which the law imposes should be inflicted. If the Government declines to take action to- ensure that the penalty shall be. inflicted, that law should be repealed. Not to enforce the law is to subvert all discipline. As I stated, this bill will not be effective unless the Commonwealth enforces discipline on the coal-fields.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Morgan) adjourned.







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