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Thursday, 28 March 1957

Mr THOMPSON (Port Adelaide) . - It has been interesting to listen to the debate that has taken place on the Governor-General's Speech. I think it is a unique experience, when speaking on the Governor-General's Speech, to be limited almost to one subject. This has been brought about by the amendment which has been moved by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) in connexion with housing. I intend to deal mainly with that subject but, before doing so, I should like to refer to the subject of transport, which has been raised by several members on the Government side. I quite agree with them that one of the big questions in Australia to-day is transport, not merely from the point of view of the roads, but from the point of view of the economy.

I find, in travelling between Canberra and Adelaide, on the Hume Highway in particular, that the roads are carrying a tremendous quantity of goods from one capital city to another. One honorable member on the Government side of the House said that the quantity carried was 5,000 tons a day. I do not know whether that figure is correct, but I do know that the carriage of goods by road is having a tremendous impact on other forms of transport. Our interstate sea traffic is being seriously interfered with. The number of ships that were on the coastal trade has been reduced considerably. In Port Adelaide, men are being very adversely affected by the reduced tonnage of shipping. I would not think so much about it if the people who were using the roads to carry this big quantity of goods were paying a reasonable share of the cost of the upkeep of those roads. The honorable member for Farrer (Mr. Fairbairn) who spoke on this matter, referred to the petrol tax and other taxes. I interjected, "What about a tax on diesel fuel that is used in road transport? " The honorable member rather hedged on the question of such a tax.

Diesel transport is doing more to destroy roads in Australia than any other form of transport. Until this Government puts some form of tax upon diesel fuel that is used for road transport and makes that money available to repair the roads, I think that the highways will get in a worse condition instead of a better one. Some people say that so much diesel oil is used in industry, on the farms and in other ways that it would not be practicable to place a tax on it. But I have heard it said that some other countries have the simple method of colouring the diesel oil that is used in transport so that the tax may be placed on that oil only. This Government should give earnest consideration to that aspect.

I did want to refer to the attacks that have been made on my own party in the House. Attacks were made on the Labour party, and individuals sitting on this side of the House were accused of insincerity, their knowledge was questioned and the work that they have done was ridiculed. In reply to one of our members who happened to interject, a Government supporter said, " You have never swung an axe and you have never used a hammer ". When that sort of statement is made by men who contend that they are superior to the Labour party it shows that they are very far down the road indeed. Opposition members have as much knowledge and experience of real, hard work, in the rural areas and elsewhere, as Government supporters have. If I liked to do so, I could talk about the number of lawyers, accountants, and businessmen on the Government benches who have never swung an axe and would not know how to wield a hammer. But I would not stoop to that sort of thing, because I realize that in this place they are doing valuable work for Australia. I would not belittle them in any way. There may be some Opposition members who have not swung an axe and are not experts with a hammer, just as there may' be among Government supporters, but, generally speaking, Opposition members know what real, hard work is.

The honorable member for Gippsland (Mr. Bowden) stated that it was Labour's policy to refrain from interfering with the Communists. The industrial members of the Australian Labour party are the only men who have fought the Communists. I quite agree that the Communists have had some success in attaining the leadership of trade unions. But I know also that we could point the finger of accusation at some aspects of the lives of men who have obtained control of other organizations in the community.

Mr Hulme - Secret ballots solved a lot of the problems in the unions.

Mr THOMPSON - They may have settled matters in some unions. I believe in secret ballots. The Chifley Labour Government was the first administration to take action to afford the benefit of secret ballots to those unions that desired them. Certain proposals that were adopted at the recent biennial conference of the Australian Labour party at Brisbane were designed not to do away with secret ballots, but to ensure that a mere handful of union members could not put a union to heavy and unwarranted expense. However, I do not propose to undertake a lengthy discussion of the merits of secret ballots. I know that the leadership of some unions has changed since secret ballots were introduced. But this does not mean that good leadership depends entirely on secret ballots. We often hear a great deal of talk about Communist control of the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia, and I have previously told honorable members about the position in the Port Adelaide branch of that organization. Year after year, all but one of the ten or eleven members of the executive of the branch were members of the Australian Labour party. The one exception was a Communist. If the Communists had been able to control the branch elections by unfair methods, they would have ensured the election of enough Communists to dominate the executive, and not only one. I admit that rigged or unfair ballots may take place in some unions, but, generally speaking, ballots are conducted in the Labour movement fairly and properly.

The Minister for the Army (Mr. Cramer) attacked the Australian Labour party's attitude to housing, and condemned the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement of 1945, which he said introduced a scheme under which the Commonwealth financed the construction of homes for rental and not for sale to the occupiers. The Minister has been telling us that sort of thing for years. Perhaps it will enlighten him if I go back a little over the history of Labour's housing policy in South Australia. The Labour government that held office in that State from 1924 to 1927 introduced what was termed the 1,000 homes scheme, which provided for the construction of homes for sale, and not for rental. The facts that I am about to relate will make it clear to honorable members opposite whether or not Labour wants the people to become " little capitalists " - a term that Government supporters frequently refer to just because a former Labour member of this House happened to use it. Under the 1,000 homes scheme in South Australia a person could buy a two-bedroom brick house on a deposit of £25. That does not indicate that Labour wished to prevent the people from buying homes. The purchase of these homes was financed by the Labour Government in South Australia with repayments over 42 years. Apart from a small number of homes that were let to war widows of World War I., no South Australian government built homes for rental until the Liberal and Country League government in 1936 established the South Australian Housing Trust to build houses only for rental and not for sale to the occupiers. In spite of these facts, Government supporters claim that only nonLabour governments have done anything to help people to own their own homes.

After the South Australian Housing Trust had been formed, I asked the South Australian Premier, who was also Treasurer, to make money available under the Advances for Homes Act, which had provided for the 1,000 homes scheme, to the banks to lend to people wanting to build homes, because not one new dwelling had been built under the provisions of the Advances for Homes Act for three years. I was told that this was not necessary, because those who could not afford to buy a house could rent one from the Housing Trust, and those who wanted to buy could obtain finance from the financial institutions. That was the answer I received from a Liberal and Country League Premier, not a Labour Premier. It was a flat refusal to do anything to house the people.

After the South Australian Housing Trust had been building homes for some time, visitors from other States began to go to South Australia to see what the trust was achieving. They all warmly commended it for what it had done. It deserved commendation on the kind of house it was building. A brick two-bedroom home with separate dining and living rooms and all conveniences was available to workers on lower incomes at a rental of 12s. 6d. a week. The trust continued to build homes solely for rental, until a few years ago, when it began to make homes available for purchase. The description of Labour's housing record by the Minister for the Army as a record of discouragement of home ownership, with the emphasis on construction for rental, does not apply in South Australia at least, where the reverse was the case, and where non-Labour governments promoted building for rental.

I do not blame the Commonwealth entirely for the present housing situation. I agree with the honorable member for Gippsland that only one or two Opposition members have laid any of the blame at the door of the State governments. I lay a good deal of the blame at the door of the State administrations, irrespective of their political colour. I think all the representatives of the State governments, both Labour and Liberal, at the last meeting of the Australian Loan Council should have taken care to see that the allocation for housing was not restricted when the loans sought by the States were reduced. I do not propose to cite the allocations and the amounts sought in detail. They were given to us by the honorable member for Lilley (Mr. Wight) and, I think, the honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Edmonds). All the State representatives at the meeting of the Australian Loan Council, irrespective of whether they belong to Labour or Liberal administrations, must accept responsibility for failing to ensure that adequate housing finance was provided. If a shortage of loan money necessitated the reduction of the amounts sought by the States, the reduction should have been applied to other fields and not to housing.

A great many new industries have been established in South Australia. In my electorate there are many new industrial establishments in which hundreds of men are employed. We do not object to those buildings being erected, but other works which in past years have had galvanized iron fronts now have newly-erected brick fronts. This makes them look very nice and people say " What an improvement ". But in many cases the man-power and materials used could have been better used elsewhere.

I am not going to blame the State governments or the Commonwealth Government for all of that, but I say we should do something to see that the men who are available to the building industry now are fully occupied. If men are out of employment we should find employment for them. The housing figures for the whole of Australia were down by between 3,000 and 5,000 last year. We do not have fewer builders than we had two years ago. In fact, many immigrant building workers have come here since then. I am not blaming immigrants for the shortage of homes. I assure the House of that. I know from experience that immigrants are doing quite a lot of the building work in South Australia at the present time. Many gangs consist mainly of immigrants who have come to this country in recent years, some from the British Isles and some from European countries. Friends have told me of language difficulties due to the fact that a large number of the employees in joinery works come from European countries. So, I know that the immigrant is making his. contribution towards home construction in our country. But we should see to it that no man who is capable of doing building work is unemployed because of lack of financial resources.

I was pleased to hear the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) say on Tuesday night that the Government proposed to seek expert advice on the matter, and that wherever things could be rectified, the Government would take action to do so. The honorable member for Gippsland said that the Opposition was always ready to precipitate a debate on a matter about which it knew the Government intended to take action. I say to the honorable member that we are not aware that the Government proposes to do anything about housing. We only know of the problem that exists. Even if something is done by the Government after we have hammered the question, in view of the recent statement by the Prime Minister himself that lack of money was not the difficulty, honorable members opposite cannot now suddenly concede that there is a shortage of money and claim that the Government was aware of it all the time and had decided to act even before the Opposition forced this debate.

I say that there is a crisis in the housing industry. The shortage now is not as great as it was three or four years ago. I admit that. But the real crisis, as I see it, is this: I know from my industrial knowledge, gained before my entry into politics, that the first evidence of a recession in any country is a slump in the building industry. That is generally accepted. Unemployment in the building industry has a snow-balling effect. An Opposition member has detailed the reduction in the quantities of fibrous plaster sheets, tiles, and bricks produced last year compared with the previous year. Obviously, the quantities produced two years ago could have been produced again last year if there had been a demand for them, and they could be produced now. Complaints of building inactivity come not only from the Opposition benches and from leaders of trade unions; they come also from the Master Builders Association and in leading articles in various newspapers. Admittedly some newspapers are out to boot whoever they can and whenever it suits them, but in this case the protests seem to me to be justified. Newspaper reporters see the position, and if they can capitalize on it they do. I say that the housing problem is very drastic indeed.

Reference has been made to the number of empty houses disclosed by the last census. To me the figures are ridiculous. For instance, at that time my wife and I were on a train proceeding from Perth to Adelaide and because we were not in our home when the census was taken, our house was counted as a vacant house. I suppose we were only two of many such people. On one day ours was a vacant house, fully furnished, and on the next day it was occupied as usual. The number of people travelling away from home on any one day must be considerable. Mrs. Jones says to Mrs. Smith, " We are going off to the country to Mary's for a couple of days. Will you water the garden and feed the fowls while we are away? " Mrs. Smith says she will, and if the period happens to include a census night, then Mrs. Jones's house is counted as a vacant house. So much for those figures.

The Minister for the Army spoke about the number of houses tenanted by only one person, and I was pleased to hear the honorable member for Deakin (Mr. Davis) touch upon that subject and show how it affects social services. Dad dies and mum is on her own. One of the daughters asks mum to stop with her and let her house; but mum says that if she lets the house she will get only 30s. a week after paying rates and taxes, and will lose her £4 a week pension. She says she cannot afford to do that. The Government holds that to eliminate this anomaly would be too costly to revenue. The result is that in not one but almost every, street one can find a pensioner occupying a dwelling alone. If he or she goes to live with a relative the pension is lost because the property bar is applied to the house, and most properties are worth at least £1,750 at the present time.

The housing problem has many ramifications, and many difficulties, but the greatest single factor in the present situation is the lack of adequate finance. I admit that if every applicant for a war service home loan to-day were given that loan, it would not mean that that many more houses would be built because quite a lot of applicants want to buy existing premises. If a person buys my place and I move out, that does not add another home, because I will live somewhere else. I appreciate, therefore, that the total of new homes would not be as great as one might suppose, but the position would be made very much better indeed.

An ex-serviceman may come to me and say that a house is being built and it is for sale. He can get it provided he has finance. He goes to the War Service Homes Division and is told that his application will be approved but that the money will not be available for eighteen months; however, if he can get finance to carry him over that period, his advance will be guaranteed at the end of that time. The result is that the unfortunate ex-serviceman has to pay an exorbitant rate of interest for temporary financial accommodation. Ex-servicemen's organizations have urged that this Government should take some action through its central bank powers to make money available at a rate of interest not greater than overdraft rates pending the payment by the War Service Homes Division of housing loans. That would not be inflationary. When the high cost of furnishing is added to the high building cost and the high rates of interest, the burden on young married couples is more than they can bear.

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