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Wednesday, 20 March 1957


Mr WEBB (Stirling) .- I suggest to the honorable member for Canning (Mr. Hamilton) that he should have a friendly word with the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden) to see whether he can get more money for Western Australia instead of doing what he can in his talks to this chamber to cripple the interests of that State. The honorable member said that the housing problem in Western Australia had been settled, according to the Minister for Housing in that State. The problem was well on the way to being settled at that time, but due to the credit restrictions that were applied by the Menzies Government and due to the failure of that Government to provide adequate funds for housing the position got out of hand. Consequently, there is another lag in house building in Western Australia. Then men were put off from some public works, timber mills and brick works. That was not the fault of the Labour Government which wanted to retain them in employment. It was the fault of the Menzies Government, which did not supply the necessary funds to keep those works going.

I sincerely hope that all those people who are without homes listened to the broadcast of the speech of the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) to-night, and recognized the unsympathetic attitude that he adopted towards their claims. They got cold comfort from him. According to figures issued recently by the Acting Commonwealth Statistician, housing loans granted by the Australian trading banks have fallen by £7,400,000 in the six months ended 31st December, 1956. That means that for the eighteen months up to 31st December, 1956, housing loans had fallen by £18,500,000. lt means, in terms of houses, that in that period approximately 6,000 houses were not built which would have been built if the money had been available. The rate of national homebuilding has fallen from 77,000 houses to 69,900 houses per annum up to last year. As the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) mentioned this afternoon, the rate of construction at the present period is even less than that. It is at about the 60,000 mark, and that indicates a further fall during this financial year. On top of that, the migrant intake of this country is still at a very high level. During the twelve months ended 31st December last, the number of immigrants who came into this country was 86,728 - that is after departures were subtracted from arrivals. That meant, in effect, that at least 20,000 houses would be needed to accommodate those people.

So, instead of restricting finance, or providing the same amount for housing, the Government should advance more money to the States for home-building so that they can meet the housing requirements of the people. The Prime Minister has claimed - and he repeated the statement to-night - that the limitations on housing are supplies of man-power and materials and that more money would not increase those supplies but would add to inflation by raising costs. That is very cold comfort indeed to thousands who are living in rooms and substandard flats, and sharing houses with relatives or friends. Those people are eager to have decent homes and they would have them if they could get the finance.

It is true that the Commonwealth Bank has increased the advance for the purchase of houses from £1,750 to £2,500, but that does not help a great deal, because many people who desire homes cannot afford the other substantial amount which they have to find in the first place. They have to be able to purchase a block of land and all those other things that are needed in a home. It would take a lifetime for a young married couple, who may be looking to the future and hoping to have a home, to save £1,500 or £2,000. What chance have they in view of the way in which this Government is restricting finance for this very important matter? Thousands of people in the community, many of them young married couples, cannot get homes at tha present time and many of them have given up trying. That is the unfortunate position. They have been frustrated to such a degree in trying to get the initial amount that they say, " We have not enough money to put down as the initial cost of a home, but we have enough to put down on a car ", and some of them are getting cars instead of homes. Consequently, many young people disappear permanently from the group which is saving to buy a home. They are not getting a home because of the weekly payments on the car and the cost of running it to which they are tied.

I think that everybody will agree that the best Australian citizen is the man who works to pay off a home and who works to improve it after he has bought it. The man who buys a car helps to boost the volume of money that is poured into hire-purchase transactions and which is accounting, to a large extent, for the enormous growth in those' transactions at present. The value of such transactions has leapt from £5,500.000 in 1945 to £224,51.4,000 in November, 1956. The bulk of that amount represented loans to car buyers. Of course, the finance companies prefer the higher returns that they are getting, as the Prime Minister mentioned. They prefer to have investments in hire-purchase transactions from which they can get a return of 10 per cent, or 12 per cent, compared with a possible 5i per cent, from housing loans. The private banks, as the honorable member for Wilmot (Mr. Duthie) reminds me, and as the Prime Minister has mentioned, have tremendous holdings in hire-purchase finance companies. Esanda Limited is owned by the English Scottish & Australian Bank Limited and is a finance company. The Custom Credit Corporation Limited is owned mainly by the National Bank of Australasia Limited. I understand that 40 per cent, of the shares in the Finance Corporation of Australia Limited are held by the Bank of Adelaide. That money, instead of being made available for housing, is going into these finance companies from which much higher interest rates can be procured.

The honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) read an advertisement that was inserted in the press during the general election in 1949 and in which the Prime Minister, in order to get votes, mentioned how much a Liberal party-Australian Country party coalition government would do for the people. In 1939, the present Prime Minister, who was Prime Minister at that time also, took an entirely different view. He then refused to make money available for a housing plan, and said that the construction of homes was the responsibility of the States. That is the real attitude of the Prime Minister to this problem, if the truth be known, and it has been the attitude of successive anti-Labour governments. Their apparent change of heart in relation to this problem is in reality a sham. The plain fact is that they have no real policy on housing except to hand it over to private enterprise in the long run. They believe in free enterprise. But, as applied to housing, that simply means a return to the allegedly good old days of the land shark and the spec, builder, with no thought of protection for the home-seeker.

This Government is gradually strangling the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement, and in my opinion is doing it deliberately. When the Labour government negotiated the first agreement with the States in 1949, a three-bredroom house of 12} squares cost aproximately £1,800. To-day, the cost of a comparable home is about £4,000. Under the new agreement that has just been signed, the rent of a £2,900 house will be increased from £3 1 ls. 6d. a week to £4 4s. fid. a week. As has been so ably demonstrated by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) and the honorable member for East Sydney, this Government has destroyed the rental rebate system, so that families suffering from unemployment will not be able to obtain rental rebates. It is indicative of the attitude of this Government that it has done this at a time when unemployment is rearing its ugly head throughout Australia.

If the Government really intended to do anything, it should give the building industry not a limited guarantee, but a guarantee of a continual flow of funds for home construction until the people of Australia are adequately housed. Loans should be made at low interest rates, and homes should be sold on low deposits. The Commonwealth Trading Bank should be directed to establish a special department foi- the provision of finance to assist people to build and buy their own homes, and for the provision of more funds for the co-operative building societies. The expenses of such a department should be underwritten by the Treasurer to at least £100,000,000. That is the way to solve the housing problem and make up for the refusal of the private banks to advance for home building the funds that they are putting into hirepurchase finance companies.

I want to show how this problem is related to the unemployment that has occurred in Western Australia. There is no doubt that the credit restriction policy of this Government in relation to housing and other matters has adversely affected employment in Western Australia. The value of new buildings commenced, completed, or under construction in the September quarter of 1956 fell in each case by more than £1,000,000 compared with the figures for the June quarters. As a result, the building and allied trades continue to feel the effect of curtailed operations, and the number of men employed in the building trade has been heavily reduced. Cement works have had to shut down sections of their plants, and brickworks and the manufacturers of clay tiles and piping, sinks, stoves, baths, hand basins, and enamel ware have reduced output. This has caused a consequent reduction of staffs. Joinery works have experienced reduced demand for joinery, and have been forced to close down, or reduce staff. Timber mills are closing down, reducing staff, and introducing part-time working. Yet. while this is happening, timber is being imported into Australia from overseas, as has already been mentioned.

On 3 1st October. 1956. I asked the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr. McMahon). who was then acting for the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen), a question, which read, in part -

Are licences being granted to import timber from dollar and sterling areas for purposes for which Western Australian timber is suitable?

The relevant part of the answer reads -

The productive capacity of the Australian timber industry falls short of the level of requirements for this very essential commodity, and the honorable member will appreciate that it is necessary to supplement local supplies with imported timber.

That is not the position at the present time, because timber mills are closing down, and it is about time the Government took action to prevent the importing of timber from overseas when it can be supplied locally. The sooner it does so, the better it will be for the Australian timber industry.

I am very pleased that the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) is in the chamber, because 1 want to direct his attention to a very snide trick that is being employed, in Western Australia at least, to deprive unemployed workers of social services benefits and at the same time reduce the number in receipt of such benefits. The Commonwealth does not worry about those who have just registered for employment, until the seven-day waiting period is almost up, and it then gives them one or two days' work. This means that they have to wait another seven days in order to qualify for social services benefits. This happens repeatedly, and as a result, some unemployed workers and their families never receive unemployment benefits, but arc forced to exist on the meagre amount that they are able to earn for one or two days' work in every six or seven days. The same snide trick is used against some of those who have been in receipt of unemployment benefit. This thimble-and-pea trick has the advantage for the Commonwealth that it reduces the number in receipt of unemployment benefit and makes the figures look better for the Minister, who is always trying to make them look better by saying in this chamber, as though something remarkable has been achieved, that there are fewer persons receiving unemployment benefit this week or this month than received it last week or last month, as he is enabled to do by the manipulation of the figures in the way I have described.

The unemployed who are given one or two days' work a week are in a much worse position financially than are those who receive unemployment benefit. Those who receive social services benefits and assistance from the Western Australian Child Welfare Department can obtain assistance also from the Australian Labour party in Western Australia in the form of an order for goods to the value of £2 a week. These orders may be used to buy goods at certain stores at reduced prices, and the ability of unemployed workers and their families to obtain the necessaries of life is greatly enhanced by this means. The Western Australian Government also pays to single unemployed workers 17s. 6d. a week to supplement the miserable £2 10s. a week upon which, as honorable members know, they are supposed to exist. But those unemployed persons who receive one or two days' work now and again are in a much worse position, because they are denied the assistance that 1 have mentioned. The Minister should not be a party to this sort of thing. If he knows that it occurs, he should do something to prevent it.

I now want to refer to a news release made by the Minister yesterday, in which he stated that the number of women registered for employment with the Commonwealth Employment Service had increased by 1,778 in February. Why do more women want to work? It is either because their husbands are unemployed or because they have to go to work to supplement their income so that the family may enjoy at least a reasonable standard of living. That is a most unfortunate situation for those families. I wish to refer also to a statement made by the financial editor of this morning's issue of the "Sydney Morning Herald". After mentioning the Minister's view of the employment figures given in the news release, he stated -

But some reservations must still be made . . .

Again, the number of persons reporting themselves as unemployed at the bureaux fell by 3,180 to 49,449.

The latter figure, however, remains clearly higher than the pre-January one of 37,911.

The writer stated later in the same comment -

The number of unfilled vacancies fell from 28,791 to 24,264. From personal observation, one would not be surprised if this falling tendency has since continued.

Mr. Holtacknowledges that the trend in vacancies is, for a February, the weakest in three years.

Of all the February employment statistics, this trend in demand could be the most significant for the coming early-winter months, when money will naturally tend to become tighter unless counter measures are taken.

What counter measures does the Government intend to take? Was there any indication in the speech made by the Prime

Minister to-night that the Government intended to do anything about unemployment? There was not one reference to it. Statistics for Western Australia show that the total number of vacancies registered is 1,238, but the number registered for work is 5,216. That is not a healthy position when there are only 1,238 jobs to be divided among 5,216. Of course, all the unemployed are not registered. Some are engaged in part-time work and are doing odd jobs here and there. It is useless for them to register because they cannot get the work they require. Many jobs are advertised as vacant, but it is useless to tell a labourer that a job is offering for a fitter. These statistics do not indicate that anything helpful is being done to relieve unemployment in Western Australia.

Near the end of the last session of the Parliament, I asked the Minister for Labour and National Service how much money had been expended in Western Australia on unemployment benefit from the end of May to 15th September, 1956. The Minister said the amount was £92,500. Since the number of unemployed has not varied much since then, the approximate amount expended on unemployment benefit in Western Australia would be £277,000. Would it not have been better to expend that money on useful developmental work? Would it not have been better to make an advance to the State to build up the money available to the equivalent of the basic wage so that men could be kept in employment?

We want more of almost everything in Western Australia. We need houses, schools and hospitals. The standardization of the railway gauge from Kalgoorlie to Fremantle should be undertaken. Committees from both sides of the House have recommended it. So far we have not heard any more of that project. A government committee suggested that it should be undertaken immediately to relieve unemployment. Just imagine how that would help the situation because 85 per cent, of those who are unemployed in Western Australia are unskilled labourers. They could be absorbed in work of that sort. Many others would get work as a result. Once they were put back to work, the timber mills would start to operate again.

Debate (on motion by Mm Haworth) adjourned.







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