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Wednesday, 17 June 1914

Senator O'KEEFE (Tasmania) . - It has been truly stated that this is a matter of importance not only to Tasmania, but to all residents on the mainland, no matter in which State they may live. Of course, it is of greater importance to Tasmania than to other States, because Tasmania is shut off from the mainland by water, and is completely dependent upon the working of the Shipping Combine for its means of water communication with the mainland. While all the residents of the Commonwealth are to some extent affected by the high passenger fares ruling, and would be, of . course, affected even more by an increase in the fares, it is the producers of Tasmania who are more directly concerned, owing to the fact that they have no other means of getting that produce to the mainland market than the ships belonging to the combine. In four at least of the other States in the Union there is railway communication linking up at least some portion of the States. Right from far north in Queensland down to Victoria, and into at least a portion of South Australia, there is direct railway communication, so that there is competition for passenger traffic between the railways and the steamers. But in Tasmania there is absolutely no competition, and no means of getting any competition, because the whole of the shipping trade with the mainland is in the hands of a combine. It was officially recognised as a combine by the Government in accepting a tender for the carriage of mails between Tasmania and the mainland - that is, a joint tender from the Huddart Parker Shipping Company and the Union Steamship Company. Prior to the acceptance of this contract, Tasmania was paying; £13,000 a year for the carriage of mails. When the combine were asked to improve the then existing service, and it was a very defective one indeed, they said that they would do so if £2,000 a year extra was paid for the carriage of mails. The price of mail carriage was raised from £13,000 to £15,000, and to that extent the Commonwealth Government control the conditions of the contract, which runs for seven years from the date of acceptance.* The improved service will not come into operation until next year. Although it is unthinkable that the clause in the contract for which Senator Keating claims credit should be broken even with the consent of the PostmasterGeneral in any circumstances, certainly it is even more unthinkable, if that was possible, that any increase in fares and freights should be sanctioned by thePostmasterGeneral until such time as wegot an improved service. We do not knowwhen we are likely to get the improved service, and the increased price is the condition for supplying the improved service. If the companies approach the PostmasterGeneral to obtain his consent to an increase of fares and freights, the Minister should not listen to such a request for a moment. He should say, " If you do not like the contract, ask us to release you from it. Do not ask us to sanction the breaking of a clause in the agreement which says that you shall not increase fares and freights." It is all nonsense for the companies to maintain that they are justified in seeking the sanction of the Postmaster-General to increase fares and freights because of any recent awards of the Arbitration Court, because any increase in the working expenses of the shipping companies . brought about by awards of the Arbitration Court was anticipated before those awards were made. There have been two or three separate increases in fares and freights within the last year or two. As Senator Findley has stated, the shipping companies made the dislocation and decreases of trade due to the outbreak of small-pox in Sydney the excuse for a 15 per cent, rise in fares and freights throughout Australia. When trade assumed its normal proportions, the companies did not say to their customers, " Now that trade lias assumed its normal proportions, we propose to reduce fares and freights by 15 per cent." The 15 per cent, increase remains, and it was in addition to an increase of, I think, 5 per cent, which was made some time previously. Tha Postmaster-General may very well meet any request that he should sanction an increase of fares and freights by telling the shipping companies, "You are doing very well. Although the award of the Arbitration Court may have added to the expense of conducting your business, it was -anticipated by increases in fares and freights made before it was given." The State of Tasmania is specially concerned in this matter. In the mainland States, with the exception of Western Australia, the shipping companies are brought into some competition with the railways. Even in the case of Western Australia, the Inter-State shipping companies have some competition with the ocean-going steamers for the passenger traffic, although I believe there is an "honorable understanding" between them to maintain passenger fares at a certain rate. In view of the position which Tasmania occupies, no PostmasterGeneral would be justified for a moment in sanctioning an increase of fares and freights. Immediately he is requested to do so by the company, he should say, ""If you do not like your contract, apply to the Government to have it annulled. We shall not sanction the breaking of the clause in the agreement preventing you from raising fares and freights." This would put the Government in a position to call for fresh tenders for the mail service, and it would also give them an opportunity io substitute a line of Commonwealthowned steamers for those run by the Shipping Combine. Public opinion is rapidly changing on this question, and I am satisfied that a Commonwealth-owned line of steamers will in the near future be regarded as an absolute necessity. I make bold to say that if the electors of Tasmania were polled to-morrow on the subject an overwhelming majority of them would be found to be in favour of a Commonwealth-owned line of steamers trading between Tasmania and the mainland. The Minister representing the Postmaster-General was not in a position to give some information which was asked for to-day, but before Parliament is dissolved we should have an announcement from the Government that the PostmasterGeneral will not in any circumstances sanction a request from the shipping companies carrying out this contract to be allowed to" increase their fares and freights.

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