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Thursday, 13 May 1915

The PRESIDENT - The honorable senator seems to be under a misapprehension. This is a Bill covering Supply for the ordinary services of the year. It is quite true that a debate upon the first reading of such a Bill is quite in order, but the honorable senator seems to be under the impression that this is the proper stage at which to discuss the Bill itself. The motion for the first reading of such a Bill is a motion upon which it is competent for honorable senators to discuss matters that are not relevant to the Bill. The second reading is the proper stage at which to deal with the subject- matter of these Bills. It is quite in order, of course, to deal with the subjectmatter on the first reading, but at that stage matters not relevant to the Bill may also be discussed. I rose to correct what might be a misapprehension.

Senator DE LARGIE - I am thankful to you, sir, for the information. It is quite immaterial to me whether I speak on the first or on the second reading of this Bill. The matter I wish to bring under notice has reference to the unemployed question in Western Australia. I should like to have the attention of the Minister in charge of the Bill, because this is a matter in which he, as one of the representatives of that State, is personally interested. Since the war began, the timber industry of Western Australia has been very much disorganized. The industry very largely depends upon the export trade, and since the war began that trade has practically ceased. The result is, of course, that a very great deal of hardship has followed upon the closing down of the mills and the stoppage of work for the supply of sleepers. In the matter of the number of hands employed, the timber industry of Westtern Australia is second only to the goldmining industry in that State. Though the fact that a very large number of men who were engaged in the industry have gone to the front with our Expeditionary Forces has, no doubt, prevented the most serious results following upon the depression in the industry, there is still a very large number of men thrown out of employment, because most of the privately owned mills in Western Australia have been closed down. But for the extension of~>the industry due to the establishment some time ago of mills operated by the Western Australian Government, the timber trade of the State would be practically non-existent at the present time. This should go to show honorable senators the advantage to be derived from a Government undertaking work of this kind. Since the war began, the Government mills in Western Australia have been, the only mills that have continued working. They have, in fact, double shifted the work of their mills, and have produced twice the quantity of timber they were formerly producing. The Government were obliged to do this in order to absorb as many of the unemployed as possible. This accounts for the fact that we have not heard a great deal more about the unemployed problem in Western Australia. I might mention that the orders or contracts upon which the Government mills have been engaged are those which were let by the Federal Government for sleepers for the building of the railway from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta. Those contracts are now about completed, and the trade they were responsible for is almost a thing of the past, so that even the Government mills are now working short time. This, on the top of the closing down of the privately-owned mills, is bringing about a very serious condition of affairs in Western Australia. I think that the Federal Government can, and ought to, do something to mitigate the hardship of unemployment in that State. With that object in view, a number of Western Australian senators waited upon the Prime Minister and submitted to him a project which, if acted upon, would materially help those engaged in the timber industry in Western Australia. Certain proposals have been made for the construction of defence or strategic railways in Australia. The Prime Minister has ventilated that subject, and it has also been referred to in this chamber. Besides the strategic railways, there is a proposal for the construction of a transcontinental railway, running north and south. Sleepers will be required for these railways, and the proposal submitted to the Federal Government was that now is the time to obtain those sleepers, when they can be obtained at a much lower price than would have to be paid for them under ordinary circumstances. We know that railways will be built in Australia, and that we are pledged to the construction of the north and south transcontinental line. By purchasing sleepers at the present time the Government would be able to get them at least 15 per cent, cheaper than they can hope to secure them when the war is over, because there is sure to be a great boom in railway building as soon as peace is proclaimed. Honorable senators will., recollect that when we proposed to proceed with the Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta railway we experienced considerable difficulty in letting contracts for the supply of the necessary sleepers. The biggest timber combine in Western Australia was at the time doing so remunerative a trade that it did not trouble about the enor- mous contracts for sleepers advertised by the Federal Government. It was a very fortunate circumstance that the Scaddan Government in Western Australia had in the meantime opened up a new timber area, and extended the operations of the industry by the establishment of Government mills, for which they secured a very large contract. I refer to this to remind honorable senators of the difficulty in normal times of securing a large quantity of sleepers. We are not asking for anything in the nature of charity, or for any unnecessary or extravagant expenditure of money. All that we ask is that a necessary article which we know will be required later on, and which can be obtained more cheaply now than then, may be secured at the present time. The adoption of this course would accomplish two things. We should obtain a necessary article more cheaply than we could obtain it later, and at the same time we should relieve the very serious unemployed difficulty in Western Australia. These considerations should weigh with the Government. Unless something of this kind is done the unemployed problem will become more acute as time goes on, and, looking at the proposal from a business stand-point also, there is everything to commend it. We know that in the past a tremendous amount of public money has been frittered away in Australia in foolish expenditure. I do not wish to refer to the foolish proposals which have been made in the past, involving great public expenditure, but Senator Gardiner, no doubt, remembers the shifting sand proposals of the New South Wales Government in the past.

Senator NEWLANDS (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - And the digging of post holes for the purpose of filling them up again.

Senator DE LARGIE - I hope that those foolish methods for the relief of unemployment will not be adopted on thepresent occasion. The Federal Government to-day have the necessary funds, and it is_ our duty to spend them to the best possible advantage. By spending some of them in the way I have indicated we shall be procuring an absolutely necessary article, and will be obtaining better value for our money than we could hope to secure for money spent in the same way later on. If in twelve months' time the war is over, and trade has become normal, all the private mills in Western Australia will be fully employed in supplying orders from all parts of the world. So far as the supply of hardwood sleepers of good quality is concerned, I question whether there is any country which has such a splendid article to put upon the market as has Western Australia.

Senator Ready - What about the Tasmanian hardwood?

Senator DE LARGIE - Tasmania has supplied a very good article in the past, but that State must take second place to Western Australia nowadays. If the honorable senator knows anything about the timber trade, he will know that Western Australia to-day supplies more sleepers than do all the other States put together.

Senator Ready - How many mills in Western Australia have cut sleepers for the transcontinental railway?

Senator DE LARGIE - Only the Government mills. But the Government have been extending their mills, and have been working them double shifts, in order to absorb the unemployed.

Senator Ready - How many sleepers have those mills turned out for the transcontinental railway?

Senator DE LARGIE - I have not the figures; but I think they are somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000,000. According to press reports which are published from time to time, the contract to which I have referred is now approaching completion. If, on top of the closing down of private mills the Government mills are also closed, great hardship will be inflicted on those who are employed in the industry. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the proposal which I have put forward, because I hold that it is a good one from a business stand-point, quite apart from the admitted desirableness of providing work for the unemployed. Of course, it may be urged that we have no authority - other than what is embodied in the agreement between the Commonwealth and South Australia - to proceed with the construction of the north-south transcontinental railway. I quite admit that we have not yet passed legislation empowering us to undertake the work; but I maintain that this Parliament is practically pledged to build that line. If a deaf ear is now turned to my suggestion, and it is found, after peace has been restored, that the cost of sleepers has increased 20 or 25 per cent., the Government will then realize the folly of their inaction.

Senator NEWLANDS (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - And in the meantime we could be seasoning the sleepers for use at a later stage.

Senator DE LARGIE - Exactly. If there is one defect in the timber of Western Australia, it is to be found in its shrinking qualities. As a matter of fact, it shrinks more than does any other hardwood with which I am acquainted. If stocks of sleepers were accumulated, and thoroughly seasoned, their value for railway purposes would be greatly enhanced. I trust that the Government will give this matter their earnest consideration.

Senator Gardiner - Does the honorable senator think that the sleepers would improve by being seasoned?

Senator DE LARGIE - Undoubtedly. 1 do not know of any timber which does not improve by seasoning. It is one of the chief defects of most Australian hardwoods that they are not sufficiently seasoned before being used. The representatives of Western Australia who have brought this matter forward have not attempted to unduly harass the Government. They have put it before them, and have allowed them ample time in which to prosecute inquiries. Several weeks ago I was charged by a conference of the representatives of men working in the industry, with the duty of directing Ministerial attention to it. Consequently, it cannot be urged that the matter has been sprung upon the Government without affording them opportunity for investigation. I earnestly ask them to take this question in hand, and to make the necessary provision for securing large supplies of sleepers, which will undoubtedly be required ere long. Even if we do not undertake the building of railways in the immediate future, it is inevitable that, upon the close of the war, there will be a boom in railway construction all over the world. The Government would thus be able, if they so desired, to dispose of these sleepers at a very handsome profit. The proposal, therefore, has everything to recommend it from an economic standpoint, and I ask that due consideration shall be given to it.

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