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Tuesday, 30 October 1956

Mr WEBB (Stirling) .- The Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden) referred to babies several times during his speech. He referred to price control as the unwanted child which some honorable members had suggested should be placed on the knees of the

The Prime Minister also suggested that the price of potatoes should not be taken into account in determining the C series index figures, because of the fact that the price of potatoes has increased to an exceptionally marked- degree. The Prime Minister should bear in mind that the C series index is merely a guide used to measure fluctuations in the cost of living, and the index shows the movements in prices of only those goods that are included in the regimen. Potatoes and onions are the only two vegetables that are included in the regimen, and their price fluctuations must suffice to cover the movements in prices of all other vegetables, and also fruit. If the prices of other items not included in the regimen rise excessively, the consumer must pay those increased prices.

Dr Evatt - And when, the prices, of potatoes and onions fall, causing a consequent decline in the C series index figures, consumers still have to pay the higher prices for other vegetables.

Mr WEBB - - That is so. The price ofbeans, in Western Australia, increased recently from. ls. 6d. .per lb. to over 3s. per lb:, but that increase was not reflected in the basic wage in any way. Increases: of the. prices of fruit and vegetables, generally, are measured by increases , of .the, prices of potatoes and onions, the only, two such commodities in the regimen.

What about the rent element of the basic wage?- Will any one say that the sum that

There is no doubt that Australia's economic ills are becoming worse as time goes on. The blame for that lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Government parties. They were responsible for inflation running riot in the first place, because it was due to their efforts and the efforts of their cohorts in the States that the Commonwealth prices referendum of 1948 was defeated. They told the people that the States could control prices just as effectively as could the Commonwealth. We knew that the States could not do so, and we told the people that they could not, but the people were misled by our opponents. Finally, prices control collapsed because of separate and individual systems of control.. As a result of the loss of the prices referendum of 1948, Australia, which then had the most stable economy in the world, now has. the most unstable economy in the world.

There is no doubt that, under this Government, our economic position has worsened. If honorable members will look at the " World Economic Report " for 1950-53 - I take that period because it - represents the first three years of office of this- Government-they will see that, in European countries and in the- United : States of America, prices rose by an average of 15.6 per cent, during that period, but, in Australia they rose1 by 48 per' cent. That - is"an indictment of this Government.' That report indicates what happened in this country in the first three years of office of this Government, but things have become considerably worse since then. In September, 1948," the G series index- figure was 1278, but, in September of this year it was 2570- over 100 per cent, greater.

Prime Minister says, now, that he does not want prices control or any - other form of control, but that was not what he said in 1946. On 20th August, 1946, speaking of prices control, he said -

We shall unhesitatingly maintain it as a means of preventing inflation.

This Government, after it came into office, abolished capital issues control, reintroduced it and later abolished it again. That is indicative of the attitude of the Government. It has followed a policy of drift and change and of attempt and failure throughout its history. We do not know at any moment whether import restrictions are on or whether they have been taken off. The old song, " Off again, on again, gone again Finnegan ", is quite appropriate to the Government's policy.

The fact is, as I think many honorable members opposite appreciate, that the only way in which we can stabilize the Australian economy is by re-introducing economic controls. Unless we do so, we shall not get anywhere. We could get the necessary powers, either from the State Premiers, who are in the mood to do something in that direction, or by means of a referendum, if the case were put properly to the people and if both sides of the Parliament were prepared to support the referendum. At the last Premiers conference, the majority of the Premiers present wanted some form of control, but this Government went to the conference only with a plan to deal with wages. It said that it did not want to peg wages - and, of course, it did not want to do so. It wants to reduce wages, so that the basic wage for all workers will be that applicable to the 50 per cent, of the workers who are unfortunate enough to be covered by federal awards. The federal basic wage now is £12 6s. a week. If it had not been pegged, it would be £13 9s. a week. So 50 per cent, of the workers are losing 23s. a week, or £59 16s. a year. By the end of this month, the accumulated losses of workers operating under federal awards will be £42 14s. in Sydney, £48 8s. in Melbourne, £56 16s. in Brisbane, £56 3s. in Adelaide, £154 15s. in Perth and £86 in Hobart. Those are the sums that, by the end of this month, the workers will have lost since the federal basic wage was pegged. That is the workers' contribution to an economy which is not recovering, but is deteriorating.

Dr Evatt - It is the workers' contribution to profits.

Mr WEBB - Of course it is. The Government wants to force reductions of wages on all workers in accordance with decisions of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. The Government blames the restoration of quarterly cost of living adjustments for recent inflationary trends. b.ut the president of the Western Australian Arbitration Court does not believe that it is responsible. In July, delivering a judgment on the basic wage, he said -

It is perhaps worthy of note that this rise over the last quarter does not seem to have reflected the recent rise in the federal basic wage as, in general, it can be said that the rises have taken place in commodities that are not greatly influenced by increases in labour costs. It could be said to be more particularly influenced by recent decreases in subsidies or increases in excise or customs duties.

Those remarks by the President of the Western Australian Arbitration Court indicate that this Government is doing the very things that cause inflation, lt reduced the subsidy on butter, which caused the price of butter to the consumer to increase - an increase which is reflected, or should be reflected, in the basic wage. In the " little horror " budget, the Government placed an additional tax on petrol of 3d. a gallon and increased the sales tax on motor vehicles from 12+ per cent, to 16$ per cent. Those increases led to an increase of the cost of transport. Fares and freight rose, and those rises have been reflected in the cost of living. The index figure for the miscellaneous group of items increased by 3.56. That is the group containing cigarettes, tobacco and fuel, all of which were subjected to increased sales tax when the supplementary budget was presented. The effects of those increases are being felt now, and will be felt more as time goes on.

The suspension of quarterly adjustments of the basic wage in September, 1953, should have been accompanied, if this Government had any sense of responsibility at all, by adequate measures to control prices and profits. But, since the pegging of the basic wage, prices have continued to rise and profits have continued to increase. The Commonwealth Bank Bulletin for

June, 1956, covering 831 companies, showed that profits as a percentage of shareholders' funds increased between 1954 and 1955 by 1 1 per cent., while the workers' wages were pegged. The stevedoring report that was tabled last week by the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) shows that profits in that industry jumped by 433 per cent, between 1947-48 and 1953-54, although the hourly rate of pay for the waterside workers increased by only 1 1 4 per cent, in the same period. Mr. Justice Barry, of the Queensland Arbitration Court, said something of importance about the pegging of the basic wage. He stated -

Everyone is agreed on the desirability of halting the inflationary trend resulting in the " cost price spiral ", but the real issue is the method by which this desirable state of affairs can be attained. The quarterly adjusted wage always lagged behind spiralling prices to the wage-earner's disadvantage. Why should the wage-earner now be asked to pioneer the way back to stability, when those better able to make the necessary sacrifice do not make, or offer to make, a corresponding contribution by pegging prices?

So we see that the Presidents of two State Arbitration Courts are critical of this Government's handling of our economic problems.

Since 1949 successive Menzies-Fadden Administrations have been returned to office on promises to maintain full employment. The Government has panicked. It has not one progressive idea on this matter. In recent months it has merely repeated the measures that were taken during the panic clays of the depression. The little horror budget of March last, for instance, helped to create unemployment. There is no need for me to discuss it in detail. I have already mentioned the decline of the production of tobacco and cigarettes that occurred as a consequence. Michelides Limited, a Western Australian tobacco and cigarette firm, employed 162 workers before the little budget was introduced in March. It now employs only 35. This shows the devastating effects of the little budget on that small industry. The credit restrictions that were imposed by this Government in September, 1955, also helped to create unemployment. I have no doubt that that was their purpose. The Government wanted some unemployment - not a great deal, but just sufficient to enable it to bring pressure to bear upon factory workers. It wanted to have a few unemployed available to take their places if they did not play the game according to the Government's rules.

Mr Freeth - Even in Western Australia

Mr WEBB - Be quiet! This Government has no real solution to offer except the old tory one of making the ordinary Australian bear the burden. Many big businessmen, most of whom support this Government, say bluntly that a policy of deliberately promoting unemployment is the only solution to our present economic problems. Of course, they expect to reap profits as a consequence of unemployment. I have previously quoted the remarks made by the present Prime Minister in 1945 in the byelection campaign at Fremantle. He said there should be a pool of unemployed in order to discipline the workers, and that observation was recorded in the " Wheatgrower " of 24th April, 1946.

What is happening? Families that have pinched and saved for years are being forced to draw on their meagre savings in order to keep out of debt. Those that have no savings are in an even worse plight because they are forced to rely on inadequate unemployment benefits. A man with a wife and one or more children cannot receive more than £5 15s. a week unemployment benefit and permissible income. This Government has not increased the limit of permissible income, which still remains at £1 a week. The permissible amount of benefit in respect of the first child still remains at the 1948 level of 5s. a week. The Government should give urgent attention to this matter.

I am quite convinced that the official unemployment figures do not reveal the true position. For instance, the September returns show that there are now 9,614 persons throughout Australia receiving benefit and 33,796 registered for employment. They show also that there are 27,045 registered vacanies for positions. But we should realize that the vacancies registered are for many kinds of jobs, quite a number of which are for boys and girls. Some employers want young boys and girls who are just leaving school. Other registered vacancies are for specialized jobs. An unskilled worker cannot do specialized work. It is of no use to tell a labourer that there is a vacancy for a fitter or some other tradesmen, because he cannot take advantage of it. I know for a fact that many building tradesmen in Western Australia and elsewhere have suffered a severe setback and are now obtaining only two or three days' work a week. They cannot register for unemployment benefit because they are doing some work, although it is barely enough to keep them going.

The latest figures for Western Australia show that since the September returns came in unemployment has increased slightly. 1 Jo not make any point of it because it is a matter of only 30 or 40 more unemployed workers. But the mere fact that the number has increased indicates that unemployment is not being reduced, as it should be. The Timber Workers Union reports that 350 of its 2,000 members in Western Australia are unemployed, and 540 of 4,500 carpenters also are out of work. The Building Labourers' Union is similarly affected. Although the motor industry in Western Australia is not very large, 100 motor workers are unemployed, and that is a big proportion of the workers in the industry there. Import restrictions have hit the clothing trade hard, and as a consequence many workers have been dismissed or put on part-time work. The building industry in Western Australia has been hit rather badly by the credit restrictions, and the Western Australian State Housing Commission can plan to build this financial year only a small proportion of the number of homes it built last financial year. The Acting Commonwealth Statistician has already indicated that at 30th June last there were 61,170 houses being built throughout Australia compared with 65,359 a year earlier. In Western Australia the number has fallen from 2,700 at 30th June, 1955, to 600 at 30th J une, 1956.

It is true, of course, that this Government has made an additional £2,000,000 available to Western Australia to relieve unemployment, but that sum is sufficient only to keep in employment the people who are already working. Credit restrictions and the like have forced private industry to put workers off, and the Western Australian Government is taking on as many as it can employ with the available funds. The number still unemployed clearly indicates that the Commonwealth allocation of £2,030,000 is not nearly enough to relieve unemployment and can only help to keep in work those who are already employed, lt should have been made available weeks before it was. If it had not been for the political bias of some Government supporters from Western Australia it would have been made available earlier. There is no question about that. I am sorry to see that the honorable member for Forrest (Mr. Freeth) has left the chamber. He was one of those who strongly opposed additional financial assistance to the Western Australian Labour Government. Indeed, his opposition was so strong that the tory newspaper, the " West Australian ", took him to task. Referring to the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden) it stated -

It is the duty of his West Australian impress this obligation on him. They should tell him that his stiff-necked attitude is endangering the Federal Government's goodwill in Western Australia. Surely they are not indifferent to the unemployment situation here. Yet nothing: has been heard from them about it, except an unhelpful piece of straight party propaganda from Mr. Freeth.

In Western Australia we have had to institute some form of relief for the unemployed. We are obtaining funds from sympathetic people and the unions for this purpose. Unfortunately, we can give real assistance only to those who are eligible foi help from the Western Australian Child Welfare Department. If we assisted others we should merely prevent them from obtaining social services benefits. The Western Australian State executive of the Australian Labour party supplements the assistance given to unemployed workers with families by the Child Welfare Department as much as it can, without affecting their social services benefits, by giving them orders for food, groceries, and the like. In Fremantle, free meals are provided for the unemployed. That is a sorry state of affairs. Indeed, it is tragic, and this Government stands condemned for allowing it to occur.

Mr George Lawson - How many workers are unemployed in Western Australia?

Mr WEBB - I have the exact figures, but I do not want to waste time reading them. I think the number is about 1,800 The present situation would not have been allowed to occur under a Labour government in the Commonwealth sphere. Mr.

Chifley visualized what would happen to Australia's economy if the prices of wheat and wool fell, and he prepared plans for public works to take up. the slack and prevent unemployment. Of course, all that has been shelved, and is now out of date. What is needed now is some bold action on the part of the Government. There is much to be done. Schools and hospitals are waiting to be built with the financial help of the Commonwealth Government. Commonwealth financial assistance is also required to take up the slack in housing programmes throughout Australia. Nobody can tell me that the housing problem has been satisfactorily settled. Developmental works are waiting to be undertaken. The gravity of the position in respect of rail services is exhibited in the fact that we have had before us a report by a committee of members of both sides of the Parliament recommending the standardization of rail gauges in Australia. That report clearly indicates that here is a job of national importance that should be done. The labour to carry out that work is available, and the job should be begun immediately, so as to take up the slack in employment. It is not good enough to give a man the dole. Every man is entitled to a job, and until every man has a job the Government cannot claim that we are living in a society which has decent standards.

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