Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 9 June 1970


Mr STEWART (Lang) - The introduction of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation Bill 1970 marks the beginning of the end of the greatest engineering authority that Australia has ever known, lt turns the giant Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority into a shadow of its former self. This Bill is an insult to the staff of the Authority. No satisfactory explanation has geen given for the drastic changes which are to be made in the responsibility of the Authority or its potential for construction, design and consulting work. The Authority is to be emasculated beyond recognition. Its staff will slowly dwindle away into other avenues in the engineering field which will give them greater opportunity for achievement. 1 cannot understand how any government which has witnessed the magnificent achievements of the Snowy scheme can make a decision which will fragment the vast store of knowledge and experience gained during the years in which the Snowy Mountains Authority has been operating. One cannot help but feel that there are political motives behind the decision. lt is well to remember that a Labor government formed the Authority and approved of the Snowy River scheme. The Authority went from success to success, from one major engineering project to another, from the solution of major problems in tunnelling and construction to inventions and methods in engineering which are now used in many parts of the world. The Authority is recognised in many fields of engineering. It is a monument to the initiative and enterprise of Australian engineers and administrators and a monument to the foresight, imagination and planning of a Labor government. For the last reason it had to be destroyed and this Bill is the instrument of its destruction. However, the Government has overlooked the fact that whilst the Snowy Mountains Authority might be destroyed the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme will stand forever. Honourable members may well ask Why the Opposition has taken such an antagonistic attitude to the Bill. The main reasons are:

1.   The formation of a consultative committee to advise the Minister for National Development (Mr Swartz) whether the Corporation should undertake certain engineering works.

2.   The restrictions placed on the Corporation in the type of engineering work it can perform.

3.   The restriction of construction to outside Australia only.

4.   The necessity to obtain ministerial approval for any work proposed to be undertaken by the Corporation.

5.   The need for private consulting engineers to engage the Corporation as consultants inside Australia if the Corporation is going to operate for a private firm.

6.   The Public Service Board control over the terms and conditions and employment of staff of the Corporation.

7.   Ministerial control over the number of staff to be employed by the Corporation.

With all these restrictions placed on the new Corporation by the Government, the Corporation is still expected under Part IV, Section 24 of the Bill to:

Pursue a policy directed towards securing in each financial year revenue sufficient -

(a)   to meet the expenditure of the Corporation properly chargeable to revenue of that year;

(b)   to enable the Corporation to make provision for income tax; and

(c)   to permit the payment to the Commonwealth of a reasonable return on the capital of the Corporation.

The Government has imposed an almost impossible task on the staff of the new Corporation. It is expected to operate as a commercial undertaking, expected to pay income tax and expected to return a profit to the Government but it is still hedged with the 7 restrictions that I have enumerated. The first objection of the Opposition is to the establishment of a consultative committee which may be used to advise the Minister whether a function of the Corporation should be exercised in respect of a particular engineering work and, if so, how that function shall be exercised by the Corporation. The committee is to consist of 6 members, 4 of the members appointed in relation to engineering works in Australia and 2 extra for engineering works outside Australia. The Minister is to have sole power of appointment. Two of the 4 members appointed for works in Australia are to be representatives of the engineering profession. But no mention is made of the qualifications or representation of the other members of the committee and no indication is given of how the committee will operate.

This Corporation is expected to operate as a business undertaking yet is to have a consultative committee, if requested by the Minister, overlooking any or all of the work which the Corporation has been asked to perform. How long will it take to make a decision? Will the representatives on that committee deliberately hold up a decision? Will the Minister deliberately hold up a decision so that the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation will not be able to perform that function because of loss of time. If this consultative committee is loaded in favour of private engineering and consulting, firms, as well it may be, the Corporation could find itself refused permission to undertake job after job. There seems to be no need, except for the purposes of frustration, for this Committee and an amendment for the deletion of this provision will be moved at the Committee stage when further arguments will be advanced.

In his second reading speech the Minister said:

The principal engineering fields in which it-

The Corporation - will operate may be broadly described as those relating to the development of water and power resources and for underground works.

Part ITI of the Bill sets out the functions and powers of the Corporation. Its main functions in Australia will be in a consultative design and supervisory capacity. It will not be allowed to act as a constructing authority as the Snowy Mountains Authority has been. Why it has been found necessary to restrict its construction work in Australia bas not been explained in the Minister's second reading speech. There is just a blunt statement that it will not be permitted to act as a constructing authority in its own right as it has in the Snowy area. One can only conclude that it is to protect private engineering firms from the competition that could be offered by the Snowy Mountains Authority. Yet the Minister has told us that since 1966 annual expenditure of the Authority has been between $30m and $56. 5m per year. All the work performed in the Snowy area has received Australian and world acclaim. The works have been completed within the estimates and time limits imposed. The honourable member for Farrer (Mr Fairbairn), the previous Minister for National Development, in a speech at the opening of the Murray 2 project on 1 1th October 1969 said:

T.   only wish we could say in government that every other department and form of government were so accurate in its costing as the Snowy Mountains Authority has been. There would be far less worries, I can assure you, for Treasurers if this were so.

In the same speech the former Minister for National Development said:

So from April 1972 these units in Tumut 3 will start to come on line and it will be completed I know I can say this definitely because I have never had any concern about any dates given to me by the Snowy. They always meet those dates. It will be completed by March 1974.

Even with this recognised and acknowledged record in design, costing and construction, the Snowy Mountains Authority is not to be allowed to continue in construction work in Australia.

The poor excuse for the breaking up of the Snowy Mountains Authority which is given by the Minister is that 'no other project in Australia has been or is likely to be big enough to support the cost of the specialist staffs which the Snowy scheme needed'. I am certain that no-one who wants to retain the Authority at near its present size and with its present know-how has ever suggested that only one scheme or engineering project should engage the attention of the Authority at any one time. This Authority has the knowledge and personnel to' diversify its activities as any major private engineering company would do. In the policy speech for the Labor Party at the 1.969 Federal elections, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) said:

At a time when the River Murray Commission has been discredited, when South Australia faces the real threat of strangulation of its industrial and population growth because of salination of the Murray, its sole source of water, and when Queensland is suffering the worst drought this century, the Liberals have decided to cripple and I believe ultimately destroy the Snowy Mountains Authority.

This greatest investigation, design and construction team ever assembled in the southern hemisphere is to be down-graded to the level of a consultative body. All its works in progress on the Snowy and elsewhere in Australia will have come to an end in 4 years time. If the Liberals are to be allowed to proceed with their plans to destroy an authority they have always resented since the Chifley Labor Government established it, it is inevitable that the experience and expertise of its team will be disbanded and lost. Most of them will go abroad.

Labor will establish a national water conservation and construction authority with the Snowy Mountains Authority as its nucleus. There is room in Australia for such an authority. The State governments are letting out major contracts for the construction of dams and other engineering works to overseas companies. The New South Wales Government has recently announced that the construction of major sections of the Copeton Dam had been entrusted to an American consortium for a contract price of over $2l£m. Many hidden features in this contract will make the final price much higher and will greatly enhance the profit-making prospects of the consortium. The Snowy Authority in cooperation with the New South Wales Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission could easily have handled this construction, and probably at a far lower cost. I cannot understand why the members of this Government are so afraid of allowing a government instrumentality to compete openly and fairly with private enterprise in this and other fields. The Bill demands that the Snowy Corporation shall make sufficient profit each year to meet its running costs, pay income tax and return a dividend to the Commonwealth. The Corporation's activities will, therefore, need to be as efficient and economical as any private enterprise undertaking. It is a completely unfair and harsh restriction not to allow the Corporation to undertake construction work in Australia on any and all types of engineering work which it is capable of performing. An amendment to delete this restriction will be moved by the Opposition in the Committee stage.

A further restriction which will prevent the proposed Corporation from operating to full efficiency is the restriction on the type of engineering work which can be performed. The Minister has said in his second reading speech that these may be broadly described as those relating to the development of water and power resources and for underground work. Clause 17, subsection (4.) of the Bill spells this restriction out. I cannot envisage the Snowy Corporation branching out into ali fields of engineering work. It will and must restrict itself to the type of work in which it has experience and know-how. But there could be major engineering works desired by a State government, local authority or private company which is just outside the present restrictions and which the Corporation could not perform if it were requested to do so. I mention the construction of the natural gas pipe lines in Victoria and New South Wales as a work which I believe the Corporation could perform but which appears to be beyond its present charter. An amendment to broaden the scope of the type of engineering work which the Corporation can undertake will be moved in the Committee stage.

Not only does the Bill envisage a consultative committee to advise the Minister on works which may be undertaken by the Corporation; it also shackles the Corporation with obtaining ministerial approval before it can undertake any work. No business undertaking should be expected to try to operate efficiently, economically and profitably with clamps like these around its neck. To make the matter worse, it is admitted by the Minister that the Snowy Authority has been doing consultative work and construction work for outside authorities and for overseas countries for several years. Fees for this work received by the Authority last year amounted to about $3m. The annual report of the Snowy Authority for 1968-69 gives the major work which has been undertaken - and all of this work undertaken in opposition to private enterprise. For the Department of External Affairs under the Colombo Plan, work has been performed in Thailand-Malaysia, Cambodia-Burma and Western Samoa. The Authority has performed work for the United Nations in Nepal and for the Departments of External Territories and Works in Papua and New Guinea. Within Australia it has assisted in planning, design and construction of the Blowering Dam, Shoalhaven development, Liddell Power Station and the Eastern Suburbs Railway in New South Wales. In Victoria it carried out a detailed site investigation of the Dartmouth Dam as well as a cost and energy study of various power installations. The Cardinia Creek Dam in Victoria, the Ord River Dam in Western Australia, the Canberra water supply are other projects which have received the attention of the Snowy Authority. Details of other works can be found in the annual report of the Snowy Authority.

The Snowy Authority has already proved itself as a consultative body for other organisations and the fees received give an idea of the potential in this area. Under this Bill it will not be allowed to do this without ministerial approval. It is estimated that approximately $40m a year is paid to overseas engineering consulting firms practising in Australia. But a further provision of the Bill restricts the Corporation from undertaking this work for private companies unless it has been requested to do so by a private consultant. It is another case of the middle man' being given a bite of the cherry without earning it, and another example of this Government bowing to the pressure of private and sectional interests. The proposed Corporation, acting as a commercial undertaking, should be encouraged to obtain its work from whoever and wherever it can be found. Private enterprise should not need protection from a governmental body competing in the open market. An amendment to remove the need for a private consultant to engage the Corporation will be moved in the Committee stage.

I come now to a further curtailment of the freedom of the Corporation to act as it deems fit. This is the power of the Minister to control the number of staff which can be employed by the Corporation. The present Minister in his second reading speech passed over this point by saying no more than: 'I shall have power to determine the total number of staff'. He gave no indication of what was in his mind or in the mind of the Government on the total number of staff. Does he intend to shackle the proposed Corporation even further by fixing the maximum number of staff so low that only a very few projects could be handled each year? lt is completely unfair to the present professional officers, administrative and manual staff of the Snowy Authority for them not to be advised of the estimated number and classifications of posit ons which may eventuate. To fail to do so could mean the departure of many of them to other employment in which continuity of service is more definite. The previous Minister for National Development in the speech from which 1 quoted earlier did say that the proposed Corporation would have an intial maximum staff of 400. Is this figure the same as the present Minister has in mind or will his maximum staff be closer to the 100 mark? The staff of the Snowy Authority at 30th .lune 1969 was 1,173. 1 understand that the proposed Snowy Mountains Council will require a staff of approximately 430. So even if the Corporation's initial maximum staff is set at 400 it will still leave approximately 350 of the Authority's present staff without posit:ons. The Opposition believes that the Director of the Corporation would be the most suitable person to judge the number of staff required and an amendment to give h'm this authority wilt be moved in the Committee stage of the Bill.

My final complaint about the Bill is that the terms and conditions of employment of the Corporation's officers will be subject to the approval of the Public Service Board. All of us in this House have been inundated with submissions and resolutions from organisations representing engineering officers and from individual officers in the Commonwealth Public Service. The complaints have ranged over inadequate and depressed salaries, poor promotion prospects, an outmoded and unsympathetic

Public Service Board and a lack of appreciation of the work of the engineer in the development of the nation. In an article in the May issue of 'The Commonwealth Professional' Mr F. C. Keith, B.E., wrote:

Those charged with recruiting engineers for the CPS today must have an uneasy conscience, lt is their duty to convince graduates that they should join the CPS when they know that the graduate would have a much more rewarding career elsewhere. lt is the responsibility of all of us to make the community aware of the true situation so lh:tt young people are not misled. This will at least ensure the Commonwealth does not receive services for which it is not prepared to pay.

A meeting of Public Service and Commonwealth instrumentality engineers in Sydney passed a strong resolution attacking the Public Service Board and its attitude to the salary claims of engineers. The resolution read in part:

That this meeting calls for a public inquiry into the workings of the Commonwealth Public Service Hoard in view of the treatment which the Board has meted out to engineers.

Similar meetings in other parts of the Commonwealth also carried strong resolutions of condemnation of the Public Service Board. The meeting in Victoria resolved that:

This meeting condemns the action of the Public Service Board in failing to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Associations in 1967. i%8 and 1969, thus forcing the Associations into expensive arbitration (costing $230,000) and. resulting in considerable delays and salary losses.

Only today, Mr Deputy Speaker, the CSIRO Officers Association wrote, and I quote its letter which states:

The CSIRO Officers' Association strongly supports moves to have Parliament debate and take action on the alarming and depressing salary situation of scientists, engineers, experimental officers and scientific service officers in CSIRO and the Public Service generally, which has been allowed to develop by the Public Service Board.

The dissatisfaction of professional engineers with the Commonwealth Public Service Board is very widespread. Yet the Government intends to force this new Corporation, which is to be a commercial undertaking, to obtain the approval of the Board for the terms and conditions of employment of its officers and employees.

I come back to the point that the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation is expected to operate as a commercial undertaking, to meet its own expenditure, pay income tax and return a profit to the

Government. But its senior officers will have to seek approval for salaries and working conditions from an outside body which cannot be expected to appreciate the special needs which might arise. Certain specialist officers from private industry, urgently required by the Corporation, would expect a salary equal to if not higher salary than that which they were receiving in private industry. But this salary could not be granted by the Director until it had been approved by the Public Service Board. There would be every chance that the officer would be lost to the Corporation as a result of the delay in fixing his salary or by offering too small an amount. If the new Corporation is to operate as a commercial undertaking the Director must have the right to make his own decisions. No private company seeks approval, from outside for the salaries and working conditions of its staff.

The Opposition intends to move an appropriate amendment during the Committee stage of the debate. The Opposition deplores the action of the Government in setting up this new Corporation on such restrictive lines. No other conclusion can be drawn than that the Government does not wish the new Corporation to succeed. If there is any desire on the part of the Government to retain the expertise of the employees of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, some, if not all, of our amendments will be accepted in the Committee stage.

The Opposition does not intend to oppose the second reading of this Bill. We want to see a continuation of at least part of the Authority. We Will make an earnest and sincere attempt in the Committee stage to remove some of the shackles and restrictions which are to be imposed on the new Corporation. The Opposition does not claim that our amendments will perfect the Bill or that they are the only ones needed. We do claim, however, that they will give the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation a much better opportunity to continue the magnificent investigation, design and construction work of its forebear, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. [Quorum formed.]







Suggest corrections