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Tuesday, 6 August 1946

Mr SPENDER (Warringah) .- I support the amendment. In order that, its purpose may be clear it is necessary to restate the power that clause 13 confers upon the board. . "Sub-clause 2 (g) of clause 13 provides that the board is to have power to make provision for or with respect to -

The regulation of prices for the sale, purchase, or resale of coal, the values at which coal is recorded in the accounts of any business- and of profits in the coal industry.

Before dealing with that provision I invite attention to paragraph h of subclause 3. It provides that the board shall have authority -

To suspend or exclude from employment in the coal industry, subject to appeal as prescribed, any superintendent, manager or otherperson employed in the industry who acts in a manner prejudicial to the effective working of the industry.

The purpose of the amendment is toallow an appeal where the board exercises power for " the regulation of prices for the sale, purchase or re-sale of coal, the values at which coal is recorded in the accounts of any business, and of profits in the coal industry". This evening we were treated to a lecture by thehonorable member for Fremantle (Mr. Beazley) upon the " balance-sheet mentality". I point out that clause 13 is expressed in terms of power. One matter ' which has impressed me is that legislation introduced by this Government almost invariably confers power upon some board. The Government itself rarely exercises the power. Clause 13 expresses in terms of power what the Joint Coal Board may do. Paragraph g of sub-clause 2 is very important because we are dealing . with a field, which, by virtue of clause 4, can cover a vast number of industries, and power is given, inter alia, to regulate the prices of coal, and of all by-products and derivatives of coal. That does not mean that one price will be fixed for coal. ' The board will be permitted to prescribe differential rates for various collieries. The board will have similar - power regarding the profits of coal-mines. In other words, the board will have complete power over the coal industry. It may prescribe differential rates of price for various mines, fix different values, and so affect entirely the economic working of a colliery, and determine- differential profits for various mines. I do not dispute the need to confer on the board very wide powers. If the Government controls an industry it must confer substantial powers upon the board. However, speaking in terms of power is one thing. Another aspect to be considered is in terms of obligation to people in the community. During this discussion, we have heard a great deal about the obligations owed to the coal-miner. So be it! But there is also an obligation, as I see it, to people whose money is invested in the coal-mines. I know that the answer may well he, " Who cares about them ? ". In reply, I point out that those people are spread over a vast section of the community, and have a right to be protected. If the need exists to protect employees by allowing them the right of appeal, why should there not be a right of appeal in respect of the exercise of the power contained in paragraph g of sub-clause 2. This is a major point for discussion. During the war, the power to fix prices and profits in industry was vested, without appeal, in the Prices Commissioner. Whatever the criticisms may be of certain aspects of it, I would be the last person to dispute that the Prices Commissioner did a firstclass job. But in peace-time, the necessity does not exist to continue that arbitrary system. I know, as many other honorable members know, that in the fixing of prices, many injustices were worked. Perhaps that was inevitable in the circumstances.

Paragraph g of sub-clause 2 gives to the board such a comprehensive authority to control any particular company or mine as to have a most' serious repercussion upon the value of the investment of every shareholder. Under this particular clause, no right of appeal is given. The authority vested in the' board is arbitrary. The Minister said of another power given under this bill that there was no real danger in it because the acquisition of mines was a matter for the Government of New South Wales. 1 remind the honorable gentleman that we must study the clause in terms of obligation as well as of power. This clause is expressed solely in terms of power. Apart from clause 57, no term of obligation is imposed upon the board. It is true that the whole scheme must be implemented by legislation passed by the Parliament of New South Wales, but. I assume that the board to be appointed by the State will be the same body, with the same powers as . the board established by this bill. By Commonwealth and State legislation, a board will be created with complete power to control the industry and acquire mines. The Commonwealth will not be able to acquire a mine, except on just terms, but the State will be able to acquire it without any obligation to compensate the owners. This is a matter of not merely academic interest.- I desire to provide proper 'protection for those who may suffer loss as the result of the exercise of the powers conferred by this clause. The Minister said, "After all, .the board, which may fix prices, can adjust any losses ". That might not be so. Under the general powers of the bill, there is a general authority to do exactly what was provided specifically in the National Security (Coal Control) Regulations of 1941. Regulation No. 17 provided that the Coal Commissioner may -

Direct that the owner of that mine shall .. for a time to be specified or until further order cease to produce coal at that mine.

Obviously, that position is not met by the contention that the power to fix prices will cover such an eventuality. Coal goes into the profit return for the year in which it is won, but at the same time, the capita] asset is. rapidly depreciating. Paragraph g of sub-clause 2, together with other sub-clauses, gives to the board a most extensive power to conduct a mine, to close it wholly or temporarily and to fix the price of the coal which in certain eventualities, may result in great loss to the shareholders of the company. It may be said, "Well, the board will probably do the right thing". Generally, that is so. The authority which is set up attempts to do the right thing for the individual. But most ho.n'orable members will agree that it does not always do the right thing, because no organization is infallible. Some limitation is placed upon the power of the board to suspend or exclude a person from employment in the coal industry, so causing him loss. The Government has seen fit to allow such an individual the right of appeal. Why? Very rightly, because the individual may suffer loss, and the Government is not prepared to trust to the omniscience of the board to mete out justice to the individual in this case. Why, then, should not an equal right be given to shareholders who can prove that they have suffered substantial loss as the result of the exercise by the board of the power conferred by paragraph g of sub-clause 2? I am not seeking to give a general right of appeal in every particular case. When I use the words " as prescribed ", I give to the Executive power to limit the right of appeal in order to prevent vexatious appeals. But -if there is real substance in an appeal, why should not the shareholders have the right to approach an impartial tribunal to determine their loss? After all, a board, no matter how competent its members may be and how desirous they may be of doing the right thing, will make mistakes. If the exercise of these, powers may result iri losses to shareholders, why should they be deprived of the right of appeal? An employee has the right of appeal against any loss that he sustains from a decision of the board. . The. Minister will not meet my contention by saying, " This position will be dealt with by the board or by the State ". The entire bill, subject to clause 57, is expressed in terms of power. Ho obligation is imposed upon the board, although I believe that it would in most instances endeavour to do justice, to give fair compensation. Against the decision of the board in this matter, no right of appeal is provided. During the war there were occasions when the fixation of prices worked gross injustices to individuals. I recall one instance. A particular organization was. " declared " as having engaged in black-marketing. As the. result of that declaration, its prices were fixed at rates much lower' than those of its competitors. After twelve months," the Prices Commissioner admitted that a mistake had been made in declaring the firm. In the meantime, the firm had supplied, under compulsion, to the Munitions Department, articles at the fixed price. When the ban was removed and the mistake was admitted, the firm, asked the Munitions Department to make up the difference between the fixed price and the price that had been allowed to the trade generally. That request was rejected.

The CHAIRMAN (Mr. Riordan)Order ! The honorable member has exhausted his time.

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