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Thursday, 27 May 1915

Senator PEARCE (Western Australia) (Minister of Defence) . - We are all deeply touched by the picture which Senator Watson has drawn of the unfortunate position of the nien, women, and children in the coal-mining industry of New South Wales. I know how badly the industry has been hit by the restrictions on the coal trade, which has been interfered with perhaps more than any other. The Defence Department has had to exercise a very close watch over the coal leaving Australia, and we know that on account of suspicion as to its ultimate destination the export of coal to customers who, before the war, got it from Australia freely, was prevented. That state of affairs has been eased by the disappearance of the German cruisers, and much better conditions now obtain, and I believe that, with the removal of the restrictions, the export trade will gradually recover its former position. I see no reason why we should not be sending away as much coal as we previously exported. The Australian coal trade was not the only one interfered with by the war. The trade of other countries has also been interfered with, and, seeing that the demand for coal is still there, it should be possible for our coal merchants to once again get hold of the trade. The Government have not been idle in regard to the Newcastle district. A contract for about 350 miles of steel rails - I suppose about the biggest contract that has ever been let in Australia for steel rails - has been let to the Broken Hill Proprietary Company's works at Newcastle, which give employment to over 1.000 men, and where probably more men will be employed as they get into full swing.

Senator Watson - The trouble is that the works do not give employment to our men. They do take a little of our coal, but not an appreciable quantity.

Senator PEARCE - However, there is not much difficulty in getting clearances for coal cargoes if shippers comply with the general instructions which have been laid down.

Senator Henderson - I am afraid that that is not the whole difficulty. The demand for a bunkering trade, which took hundreds of thousands of tons, has entirely disappeared.

Senator PEARCE - I am aware of that. I have made these remarks in order to show that the interference through war precautionary measures has been removed. The question of explosives is a very difficult one. It is by no means a new matter. Prom time to time the advisability of having a testing station for locally-manufactured explosives has been raised, and at one time the matter was referred, among other things, to the Defence Department, probably because it was regarded as- a sort of Explosives Department, and, as such, should know something about it. However, Mr. Bell, the expert, who tests all the cordite for the Defence Department, went very exhaustively into the question of having local tests of explosives, and the general purport of his report was that if the establishment of a local testing station was decided upon, it would not be a sound proposition to associate it with the Cordite Factory. There was an idea that this could be done, but Mr. Bell recommended strongly against it. There was also an idea that the explosives used in mining could be manufactured at the Cordite Factory, but I am informed that it was condemned by the expert as a totally erroneous idea, the machinery at the Cordite Factory not being . suitable for the purpose. The question arises as to upon whom does lie the duty of dealing with this industry in the way of giving it assistance and providing our mines with explosives. By the Constitution, the powers of the Federal Government are extremely limited. There is not the slightest doubt that the control of the industry is a matter for the State Government in practically every direction,, and that the only part the Commonwealth has to control is the importation of explosives. I very much doubt whether the Commonwealth could undertake the manufacture of explosives for private purposes. We could manufacture for defence purposes or for the use of Departments.

Senator Millen - There is nothing to prevent our subsidizing private people to start the industry.

Senator PEARCE - What I wish to point out is that it is the province of the State Governments to manufacture these explosives. Why should the Commonwealth Government, for the sake of establishing an industry, take up an obligation which is a heavy financial burden, while full power over the industry fs denied to it, and while the States reserve to themselves the part that promises some definite return ? It is not fair to come to the Commonwealth Government when there is everything to pay out and nothing to receive. When there is an industry in need of assistance, is it fair to appeal to the Commonwealth, and then, when it is a question of establishing an industry, to say, " Hands off, the Constitution does not allow you to have anything to do with it: this is a matter tor the State only " ? If, when an industry is in danger, the Commonwealth is to be called on to come to its rescue financially, the Commonwealth should be given control of that industry in ordinary times, and, if necessary, should have the DOWel to take over that industry and enter upon the work itself. Very soon after the present Government assumed office it had to decide what attitude it would take up with regard to appeals for financial assistance that were being made, and evidently were to be made in a greater measure, for industries of various kinds in the different States, and it decided that as the Commonwealth did not have control of these industries, industrially or in any other way, it was the duty of the States, which alone had control of them, to come to their rescue. But we recognised that as the States had considerable financial difficulties, it was the Commonwealth's duty to give them .financial assistance, and assistance was given in order that they might be in a position to assist the industries within their borders. We are told by the Treasurer of New South Wales that the State is in a thoroughly satisfactory financial position, and the coal-mining industry of New South Wales is under the control of the State Government. Similar applications for assistance were made on behalf of a number of mining propositions. We had appeals from the tin mines of Western Australia, and the Broken Hill mines, and I am not sure that .we did not have an appeal from the Tasmanian mines. The appeal was that we should give financial assistance to those industries which had received a severe blow as a result of the war.

Senator O'Keefe - The Labour Government in Tasmania was very prompt in coming to the assistance of the mining industry in that State.

Senator PEARCE - I know that the State Government came to the assistance of the tin and copper mines in Western Australia. Although at the time there was no possibility of selling the product of the mines in the world's market, the State Government took over the output, advanced 75 per cent, of its value, and now hold it until it can be disposed of at a later date.

Senator O'Keefe - The Tasmanian Government advanced 50 per cent, in the same way.

Senator PEARCE - I do not suggest that it does lie within the power of Hie Government of New South Wales to provide a complete solution of the difficulty mentioned by Senator Watson, because if there is no market for the coal, if there is no demand for the article, nothing they can do can create a demand; and if that is the position, and if it is likely to continue, the only solution of the difficulty will' be to put the men to some other kind of work. I am sure that the men do not ask for charity, soup kitchens, or anything of that kind. They simply ask for the opportunity to earn a living for themselves and their families, and it is the duty of the State Government to step in in that way. The Commonwealth lias intimated to every State Government that it is prepared to assist financially in taking steps to that end.

Senator Millen - Does that mean additional assistance to that already rendered ?

Senator PEARCE - Yes. The Commonwealth intimated some time ago that it was prepared to give further assistance if it was required. At the same time, tha little that we can do - and I admit that it is very little - we are doing. For instance, as far as possible we are trying to remove the restrictions on the coal trade that were rendered necessary by the war,, and we are trying to expedite Commonwealth works. Obviously, we cannot build forts or post-offices as relief works - no one would advocate that course - but these are the only works which we have any authority to undertake, though we are bringing forward railway projects which should provide considerable employment in the future. But as a matter of Government capacity to give relief, the State Governments have greater prospects of dealing with the question in an effective way, and it is more directly their duty than it is that of the Commonwealth Government. I regret the position referred to by Senator Watson sin- cerely, and I trust that some steps will be taken to relieve it, but I can assure him that anything the Commonwealth can do will be done.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

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