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Wednesday, 1 May 1957

Mr McEWEN (MURRAY, VICTORIA) (Minister for Trade) - As the right honorable gentleman knows, I will not answer a question on a prospective issue of policy, but on a question of fact I can give some information. The Government is, of course, seriously conscious of the implications of the high freight rates on Australian trade, both outwards and inwards. The Government would appear to have little authority in respect of freight originating on the other side of the world, but in respect of freight originating in Australia I have no doubt that the Government does possess authority. But it has been the common policy in this country to enable the groups that are directly concerned to negotiate their contracts with the overseas shipowners, and this has been done by virtue of a statutory arrangement. The negotiations are conducted by the Overseas Transport Association, which was established by statute. The present freight rates are the outcome of negotiations between Australian shipper interests and the shipowners. " Shipper interests " is a jargon term for the people who actually pay the freight, but who are not necessarily the producers, who, I concede, are vitally interested in this matter. I have had no request to intervene and to determine freight rates from those who are directly or indirectly concerned with carrying the burden of freight

Representations have been made to me concerning the adequacy of the representation of interested parties on the side of the conference table opposite to the shipowners. Those representations are in accordance with my own thinking, but the Government believes, as I believe, that this general concept which has worked pretty satisfactorily for about a quarter of a century is probably, although not necessarily, the best one. Speaking for myself, I believe that the best thing to do - and in due course I will make proposals to the Government after consulting the interested parties - would be to overhaul the character and adequacy of the representation on the side of the table opposite to the shipowners so that there shall be on that side of the table, not merely those who contract to pay the freight, but those who indirectly, as owners of the produce, finally carry the burden of the freight. We need completely adequate representation there. In that regard, there is a heavy responsibility on the producers and those who pay the freights to see that they are well advised at all levels and that they are equipped to argue their case. In that respect, at all times I have said to the Government that I and the Department of Trade are available to be invited to aid in the compilation of facts and in the assembly of valid arguments in defence of the case, and to see that that arrangement is established. If, as an outcome of that, the Government felt, or I felt, that there was exploitation of Australian interests, then I have not the slightest doubt that we would come to the Parliament and propose something constructive with a view to seeing that there was no obstruction. May I say, in conclusion, that the fact that freights are increased is not in itself evidence that they should not have been increased. I remind the House, with particular reference to the Labour-governed State of New South Wales, that rail freights are completely within the control of the State governments. In relation to timber, which is so vital to the cost of home-ownership in this country, the Labour Government of New South Wales has, rightly or wrongly, felt impelled to raise freight rates on governmentowned railways by more than 500 per rent. So there cnn be no singling out of ship-owning interests.

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