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Wednesday, 1 May 1957

Mr DUTHIE (Wilmot) .- Members of the Australian Labour party have strenuously opposed the operation of the Commonwealth shipping line - the national line as it has come to be called - by a commission of five members as an appendage of private enterprise. I have been intrigued by the reports of the operation of the Commonwealth-owned vessels since the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission was established. Labour members have urged that some of the Commonwealth vessels be specially equipped with refrigeration in order that they may enter the overseas trade. I have personally empha- sized the importance of this proposal many times in this Parliament. The Commonwealth shipping line, independently operated by a shipping commission in the way that Trans-Australia Airlines conducts a national airline, would provide genuine and necessary competition with the overseas shipping, lines, which have a virtual monopoly at the present time. We all know that immediately the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission took over the Commonwealth-owned ships, all possibility of genuine competition, between the Commonwealth vessels and private enterprise was removed. The very terms of the Australian Coastal Shipping Agreement Act ensured that there would be no real competition.

Further proof that genuine competition was never the intention of the new commission has come to hand. It was not long after overseas shipping freights were raised, in February before the chairman of the new commission made a statement. The " Burnie Advocate " in Tasmania on 15th January headlined the announcement as follows: -

National Line Freighters will enter OverseasTrade.

I thought that this would be a move in the right direction, but then I read what the chairman of the commission, Captain J. T. Williams, said. His comment was -

The decision to use coastal ships overseas wasmade purely in the hope of making profits. We hope--

I underline this section of his statement - to take advantage of the shipping shortage and high overseas freights which resulted from theSuez Canal dispute.

That is startling frankness on the part of the chairman of the National Line. Threeships were sent to India and Ceylon earlier this year and returned at the end of March. To me, this statement lifts the lid right off and reveals the true purpose of the National Line, consisting of 53 Commonwealthowned ships. They have no intention of giving genuine competition to private companies, but merely intend to make profits and to jump on the band-wagon of high freights, thus making capital out of the Suez crisis. That is the level to which our national ships have descended. The " Bulwarra " took sulphate of ammonia to Colombo. The " River Norman " and the " River Burnett " took bulk wheat to Calcutta. The last two ships are of 7.500 tons each. Interestingly enough, three other National Line vessels - the " River Hunter ", the " River Mitta " and the " River Derwent " - have also entered the overseas trade to India. Of course, that is to take advantage of the high freights and to make profits; not to give competition, or reduce freights or for any other purpose.

The story does not end there. In a publication, " All Hands ", which is the journal of the Australian National Line, on page 2 of the March issue, we read -

Three more overseas charter voyages have been arranged for National Line vessels. One ship is destined for Colombo and the others for Japanese ports. The " River Loddon " will sail on April 18th with bagged flour for Colombo. Later in April the " River Burnett " and " River Norman " will load barley for Japan.

All that is very nice indeed. Our vessels are in the overseas trade, but with no intention of reducing freights in order to give real competition to private enterprise. Even sections of the press of Australia have come round to support Labour's contention that we need competition by the use of Commonwealth ships in our overseas trade. Strongly criticizing the projected freight rises in February, the " Launceston Examiner", on 31st December, 1956, included in its leading article the following statement: -

Why has Australia ceased to have the benefit of competition in overseas shipping? The agitation for the use of Commonwealth ships in oversens trade has been strengthened by the latest freights rise announcement. This is not surprising. lt is an idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand, as Australia's economic future may be bound up in the cost of transporting her goods to overseas markets. The restoration of unrestricted competition would be a most acceptable insurance against exploitation and inefficiency.

That is a strong statement from a newspaper which supports the Liberal party and private enterprise.

When Labour returns to office in this Parliament, we intend to repeal the bill setting up this commission and to introduce legislation to set up a genuine Austraiian shipping commission, on the lines of TransAustralia Airlines, to be run in real competition with private companies on the Australian coast and overseas. But that is not all. Further support for a Commonwealth overseas shipping line comes from the annual conference of the Australian Wheatgrowers Federation, which opened in Melbourne on Tuesday, 26th March, 1957. In reporting this conference, the " Launceston Examiner" had the following item -

Delegates said that such an overseas Commonwealth shipping line was the only alternative to a collapse of Australia's export hopes.

That is strong language. It comes from a powerful organization of primary producers, and entirely supports Labour's policy regarding our own ships. Mr. T. Vowles of South Australia said -

Present shipping combines are a monopoly thai must be curbed. When shipping combines get to a stage where they can raise shipping rates by 21 per cent., things are getting pretty serious.

He urged the setting up of an overseas line. Mr. D. P. Shehan, of Victoria, supported this view at the conference. Mr. C. T. Chapman, of South Australia, also supported this view and said -

A Federal Minister has already declared thai the overseas shipping monopoly was a racket while shipping firms were saying that unless they were paid what they wanted, they would refuse to continue Australian services.

Evidence is piling up all around us that the only answer to the stranglehold of the shipping monopolies is a Commonwealth overseas shipping service. The Conference Line, comprising fourteen British and seven continental lines, carries 60 per cent, of our imports. It also carries 95 per cent, of our exports to Britain and Europe, such as wool, wheat, butter, meat, fruit and canned goods. The Conference Line calls the tune on freights. It practically decides the freights and the whole 21 lines within the set-up charge the same freights. No one would call this competition. Neither is it private enterprise in the old-fashioned meaning of that term. This sort of thing is monopoly spreading into combines, gobbling up ruthlessly old-fashioned private enterprise, which is going out the back door fast under this Government's administration. The Conference Line has a power beyond parliaments in the matter of freight charges.

Labour has advanced three counter proposals to help break the stranglehold of the Conference Line on shipping freights. The first proposal is the setting up of a genuine Commonwealth-owned overseas shipping line in competition with private enterprise, as I have outlined to-night, just as Mr. W. M. Hughes did between 1916 and 1922. The second proposal is the setting up of an independent tribunal to fix freight rates, as in South Africa. Mr. Latham Withall, director of Associated Chambers of Manufactures, said recently -

The Commonwealth Government should take a leading part in negotiations on shipping freight rates and should not leave the matter to a body whose interests are not fully representative of Australian interests.

We urge in our third proposal the amendment of the Australian Industries Preservation Act, which should operate in a manner similar to America's great anti-trust laws. The honorable member for Bass (Mr. Barnard) and I have repeatedly contacted the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) on this matter. In a letter to me of 17th January, the Minister said -

When the Australian Industries Preservation Act was amended in 1930 to enable this procedure to be followed, no basis was established for government participation in negotiations.

We claim that this provision should be amended so that the Government, which is the mouthpiece of the Australian people, could have a direct voice in the assessment of shipping freights. Australia's imports and exports affect the welfare and security of almost every citizen in this country, but we have no voice when those freights are being worked out and cannot say what their levels should be. I put this case to-night on behalf of the Opposition, and I trust that the Government will give consideration to it because another rise of 5i per cent, is already being mentioned by the shipping companies.

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