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Tuesday, 6 August 1946

Mr HOLT (Fawkner) .- As clause 13 is the key machinery provision . of the bill, I desire to make one or two comments on particular aspects of it. There are certain criticisms which I believe should be directed towards the functioning of the board as an entity in itself. In my view the Government is making a piecemeal approach to, the whole problem of fuel and power supplies for industrial and community purposes. As a member of the Parliament for a number of years and as Minister for Labour and National Service in an earlier government, I have seen something of this industry at first-hand, and I frankly confess that I despair of any short term answer to the problems that confront it. In concentrating on the problems of the coal industry by the methods proposed in this bill the Government is avoiding* the major problem that concerns the Australian people- as a whole. Coal is unquestionably basic to our whole economy; but coal is not the only source of fuel and power available to us. It may be the most important source ; it may be the most convenient for development ; undoubtedly if we reach the potential productive capacity of the New South Wales coal-fields we shall be able to meet the needs of industry and of the community for the next few years. I doubt very much, however, whether we could meet long-term needs. The board proposed to be established under thi3 clause is to confine its attention to the problems of the coal industry. The Government should have established an authority with a very much wider jurisdiction, which would have in its membership capacity for exploring the potentialities of the production of hydroelectric power and, more important than that, the maximum use of fuel oil in industry and the development of our brown coal resources. ' Such an authority might even be empowered to consider the emergency use of wood where wood was found to be a useful substitute. I have yet to be convinced that the Government has fully explored the possibilities of the importation of coal from countries which produce quantities surplus to their needs. We have the experience of other countries to indicate that coal can be produced in tremendously increased quantities if intelligent methods are applied to its production. In Holland after World War I. the annual production of coal amounted to only 2,000,000 tons. As the result of rehabilitation of the industry and the raising of the status of coal-miners to that of respected and honoured workers of the community, the production of coal in that country was increased to 17.000,000 tons. Something along those lines is possible in Australia. The other possibilities I have mentioned are not merely a part of a long-term plan, but are also aspects of the general problem of fuel and power provision which might be investigated immediately. At present we are only dealing with a segment of the problem; and if we are to tackle the problem as a whole we shall have to consider fuel and oil production divorced from coal.

Mr Dedman - What constitutional power has the Commonwealth over those other matters?

Mr HOLT - The Minister takes' refuge in the Maginot line of the constitutional powers of 'this Parliament Let me remind him again that Labour to-day controls the Senate and the Bouse of Representatives in this Parliament, and that there are Labour governments in office in five of the six States of the Commonwealth. I would be surprised if . the honorable gentleman would claim that he has been thwarted in his efforts to exploit the fuel and power resources, of South Australia by the Premier of the sole remaining State, South Australia. It is of no use for the Government to take shelter behind the constitutional limits of this Parliament in matters of this kind. Has the Government ever convened a conference to consider in what way all aspects of fuel and power distribution and production should be tackled? I realize that Australia has limited hydro-electric capacity, but I have yet to be convinced that we have developed it to its fullest potential.. I know that there is limited fuel other than coal for industrial purposes, but I have yet to be convinced that our resources of such fuel have been exploited to their fullest capacity. Because coal has been in the forefront of politics of this country for the last generation, coal has been predominant in the minds of the Government and its planners. But coal represents only one section of the general problem of providing power and fuel for industry. Surely no' one is so optimistic as to believe that by passing this bill we shall get a quick, short and complete answer to our fuel and power needs. That is the general criticism that- 1 make of the clause. This clause deals with the problem of the distribution of the limited resources of coal that are at present available to us. All honorable members are familiar with conditions in their own

States-; I happen to be familiar with conditions in Victoria, particularly during the last two or three months. Paragraph c of sub-clause 1 gives the board power .to determine how coal is to be distributed in the various States and the use to which it is to be put. As far as I can see that power merely perpetuates the general mechanism that has been operating in recent times in respect of the distribution of coal. During the second-reading stage we indicated that political interference with the work of instrumentalities such as the proposed Joint Coal Board detracts from their successful functioning. I believe that is happening to-day in the distribution of our coal. In Victoria, we have had no industrial coal for most of our important industries for seven weeks. The industries have been trying to carry on by make-shift methods. They have been using fire-wood, for instance, but that, as the Government well knows, cannot be continued indefinitely. It is my belief, which. I have yet to be convinced is wrong, that political considerations have directed the use to which the limited supplies of coal reaching Victoria have been put. It is significant that with the general elections approaching, despite the fact that - gas was rationed all last winter and early this year, and despite the unprecedentedly desperate position of Victorian industries, gas-rationing has not been reintroduced on a continuous basis. I do not wish 'to subject the citizens of Victoria to the inconvenience of gas-rationing - I would only hope for a sufficiency of coal to meet the needs of- industry and domestic users of gas - but I do criticize the policy which, in order to avoid the odium that would, attach to restriction of the- use of: gas by domestic users, deprives essential industries of the coal that they need to produce commodities" and to provide employment. That policy is reckless, short-sighted and irresponsible, and it must have repercussions on the economy of not only Victoria, but also, as it is one of the principal- industrial States of the Commonwealth, on Australia. Either the Government is wilfully blind to this disproportionate distribution of coal) or it is condoning and supporting that policy. At question time to-day, I put a question to the Minister for Post-war Reconstruction (Mr. Dedman), and I remind the committee that he is the Minister vitally concerned in the development of post-war industries. I asked him whether he knew that these things were going on or whether the Government had taken any action in the matter. His answer was significant. He said that the matter was within the jurisdiction of the Minister for Supply and Shipping, a New South "Wales Minister, and that he did not have first-hand knowledge of it, but that he would try to get the information for me. ' He went on to say that responsibility for the distribution of coal was in the hands of the Commonwealth authority, which cooperated with the State authorities. I am quite certain that he is not unaware that the Government of Victoria has taken a direct interest in the manner in which coal has been distributed and in the situation that has resulted in no coal being received by our industries for the last seven weeks. But the situation apparently has not been considered by him personally or placed before the Commonwealth Ministry. The Government cannot avoid responsibility. There should, not be political interference in these matters, because it makes .governments the subject of pressure, as is all too evident in this instance. Here we have a desire to avoid criticism and political disfavour because the consumer is directly affected:

Mr Burke - There is a good deal of supposition in the honorable member's argument.

Mr HOLT - I should be interested to have the facts, and most people in Victoria would be, too. "What would the honorablemember not suppose if gas rationing which had been: imposed with considerable severity throughout last winter and early this year; when industry was kept going, has not been reintroduced, with the result that- our principal industries have been starved of coal? Of course, there is a lot of supposition in my argument. If the Minister in charge of the bill (Mr. Dedman) will not give us the facts, what else can we do but suppose that political influences are at work? Until I get a satisfactory explanation I rely on the interpretation that I believe is just. Tb*>

New . South Wales railways are feeling the pinch as are other sections of the community. The railway unions have -put pressure on the Government to make more coal available to the railways. The Prime - Minister (Mr. Chifley) and other Ministers were summoned to a conference and told .in plain terms, according to the press, the demands of the railways. In that incident we have evidence of the political interference' to which we are opposed.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Mr Clark - Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

Question put -

That the words proposed to be added (Mr.

Harrison's amendment) be so added.

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