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Wednesday, 11 May 1921


The PRESIDENT - It is not necessary that a question should yet have been stated. Senator Earle has given notice of his intention to submit a motion for the adjournment of the Senate, and I may presume that he does not intend to conclude his remarks without moving the motion. However, to protect the rights of honorable senators it would, perhaps,, be better if Senator Earle moved his motion before proceeding to address the Senate.


Senator EARLE - I was just' about to do bo. I move -

That the Senate, at its rising, adjourn until 10 o'clock a.m. to-morrow.

That should satisfy Senator Gardiner.


Senator Gardiner - I desired only that the business should be done in order.


Senator EARLE - I know that the honorable senator is a stickler for correct procedure, and I bow to his wishes. I feel keenly the position of the silver-lead mining industry, because I was for a considerable number of years a silver and lead ore producer myself. The experience I then gained enables me to understand quite well the troubles of those engaged in the industry at the present time. As an ore producer I thought I was treated badly by ore buyers on the West Coast of Tasmania, but I realize from the experience of men working in the industry to-day that I was treated quite liberally. The importance I attach to the matter lies in the fact that if apart from the great block producers of Broken Hill, the smaller men engaged in the industry are not treated very differently from the way in which they are being treated at the present time,, the industry of silverlead mining must cease for all time in Australia. We all know that every great mineral discovery made in Australia, and I believe the same may . be said of every country, has originally been made by the enterprising worker, who has gone out with his pick and dynamite, and has made the discovery before capital has been invested to provide the machinery necessary to develop it. So it is by the initial work of ti© working miner that these discoveries are made, and' it* is to him alone that the success of the mineral industry is due- Nearly all the mines of Tasmania have been discovered by 'the man who went out on his own initiative, and if those who go out seeking to make these discoveries, or developing discoveries which have already been made, are not treated better, it is obvious that they will cease their enterprise, and that there will be in Australia no more of those mineral discoveries which are essential to Australia's welfare. The production of silver-lead ore in Australia for the five years from 1914-1918, inclusive, has amounted in value to £23,355,797. I cannot get the actual quantities of lead, nor did I think it was necessary, but the State of Tasmania produced in those five years £621,008 worth of silver-lead minerals. Those figures will give some idea of the value of the industry. I shall not weary the Senate with the figures showing the yearly production. All I want is to impress on the Government and the Senate the importance of the industry, and the desirability of the Government doing everything they possibly can to improve and continue it.

The ore producers of Tasmania in particular are at the present time absolutely dependent upon the Sulphide Corporation for the disposal of their ores. The Government exercised a control over the disposal of ores during the period of the war, and a good deal of agitation was entered upon by the ore producers, particularly those of the West Coast of Tasmania, to be relieved from that restraint. They thought that if they had an open market, and all buyers were permitted, to come in and compete for their ores, the trouble would be overcome. ' I had grave doubts about it at the time, and told them so, but they were satisfied that they were right. Subsequently they got the open market, and now, in practice, they find that there is practically only one buyer. The condition that the buyers operate on is that they pay 80 per cent, of the present value of the ore contents. That is, if they buy tq-day, and silver is 2s. lid. an oz., and lead £24 a ton, they pay the producer 80 per cent, of the value of the contents of that ore. That is sampled and taken away,

821S

and when the ore is finally disposed of the producer gets the 20 per cent, balance, less the cost of smelting- Their recent experience has been that, although the company were buying ores up to theend of 1920, they were not smelting; but they had an understanding with the producers that they should assess the actual value of the ore at the market price three months after resuming operations, which should have been about March. The ore which had accumulated during this period was held by the Corporation for a considerable time when the market had depreciated, with the result that the ore producers are now not only called upon to forfeit the whole of the 20 per cent, balance which was due to them, but arts also billed for a deficit of £7,000.


Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - You mean the balance which would have been due to them had the market kept upf


Senator EARLE - That is so. Ore smelting is one of those complex questions which no one can really decide unless he has had a very extensive experience, and understands all about the business; but it certainly appears to any one connected with the industry that the charges now made by the company are exorbitant.


Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is that the Sulphide Corporation at Cockle Creek?


Senator EARLE - Yes. The first charge, called the "base" charge, is £6 19s. 6d. per ton on all ore, then they make a charge of 1 1/2d. per oz. on ore up to 80 ozs. of silver per ton, and a charge of ls. 6d. per unit on all ore when lead is under £23 a. ton, and 3d. per unit for each £1 over £23 a ton.


Senator Fairbairn - How much is a unit?


Senator EARLE - It is 1 per cent, of' the metallic contents. These make a charge on ore which goes 70 per cent, lead and 80 oz. silver of £12 14s. 6d. per ton, so the company apparently, no matter what the price of metal is, exact that sum per ton of lead and silver ore from the producer, plus freights and ordinary forwarding charges. The balance is returned to the producer, but if the ore is sold on a low market his returns are very small indeed.

I suppose it is not well to be too suspicious, but still the lay mind sees the possibility of a great corporation like the Sulphide Corporation being able to manipulate the market, if I may use the expression, to their own advantage in consequence of their subsidiary interests. So the ore producer, seeing the position in which he is placed, prays the Commonwealth ' Government through me today, that ari exhaustive inquiry may be made into this industry- and that he should be given some clear understanding. If the industry will not pay on its merits, of course he will have to get into something else. But if it is being despoiled by manipulation and unjust charges we ought to know it, and there ought to be some redress.


Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - How does the honorable senator make out that there is only one buyer?


Senator EARLE - In practice there is only one there. There are a number of buyers of course, but still there is only one firm taking the ore from the West Coast of Tasmania. I do not know whether there are more buyers operating in any part of the Broken Hill block, which, of course, is the main producer of silver-lead ores in Australia.


Senator Bakhap - At one time tha high class lead' ores used to be shipped away to Europe.


Senator EARLE - Yes, to Germany. In the early days of the West Coast of Tasmania there were quite a number of buyers who competed with one another, and the deal which was obtained by the miners was pretty fair.


Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am inclined to think that the operations on the metal exchange have something to do with the position. 1


Senator EARLE - I do not know about that.


Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Has the Tasmanian Government. ever had1 Government smelters ?


Senator EARLE - No. They owned a smelter at one time which they closed upon for a debt, but they never operated it.


Senator Fairbairn - A good job, too.


Senator EARLE - 'Yes. I would not propose to erect Government smelters on any such isolated place as the West Coast of Tasmania, because it is not possible to 'obtain all the plant for smelting, and the necessary ores are not available.

I desire to quote briefly from a statement uttered by the manager of the Sulphide Corporation, who, a short time ago, visited the West Coast of Tasmania and endeavoured to show the miners that they were giving them a fair deal. He said -

The corporation have not made any profits to speak of for a long time; and, further, that it had offered certain people to smelt at cost plus 10 per cent, for the use of the smelters, plant, and all equipment; but that offer was not' accepted.

I have not consulted the Leader of the Senate (Senator E. D. Millen) in connexion with this matter, and I, therefore, do not expect him to make a statement this afternoon. I am, however, very desirous that the Government should give earnest consideration to the suggestion I am making that the Government should appoint an expert officer with the powers of a Royal Commission to make full inquiry into the smelting and handling charges imposed by the Sulphide Corporation, in an endeavour to ascertain whether the statement I have quoted' is correct. If it is, we cannot do anything further, unless the Government, realizing that the production of such base metals as lead, tin, and copper is absolutely essential to the welfare of Australia, are prepared to purchase, even if it means holding the stocks for some time. Personally, while copper or tin is cheap, I would' just as soon see a million pounds' worth of such metals in the hands of the Government as I would see a million sovereigns in the vaults of the Treasury.


Senator Drake-Brockman - Would not such a Commissioner have to probe the Metal Exchange to the bottom to obtain satisfaction ?


Senator EARLE - I cannot say what is necessary.


Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Metal Exchange is only concerned in registering sales.


Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is not so.


Senator EARLE - As protectors of the welfare of the Commonwealth, the Government should do everything possible to ascertain what is the matter. The manager of the Sulphide Corporation went on to say -

The profitable production of base metals in Australia is controlled in the first place by the London market, which, in turn, is greatly influenced by the United States of America, and finally determined by the world's conditions. We consume such an infinitesimal quantity of raw metal that it may be said that we are entirely dependent upon the trend of affairs outside Australia as to whether we can or cannot produce at a profit under Australian conditions.

That leads me to wonder whether it would not be wise for the Federal Government to take into consideration the advisableness of acquiring a quantity of these metals which are not perishable, and are just as lasting as gold, and which must necessarily increase in value. We must not overlook the fact that minerals are becoming scarce and more costly to mine. There are thousands of miles of auriferous land in Australia, which, up to the present, are unexplored ; but, so far as we know, deposits of value do not exist. But those deposits which we know exist are becoming more expensive year by year to exploit, and necessarily metals must appreciate in value. It is a question of whether it would not be good business for the Federal Government to acquire a large quantity of these base metals in order to keep the industry buoyant.


Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Surely the honorable senator does not suggest that purchasing lead at £24 per ton would be good business.


Senator EARLE - That is a matter for consideration. We must not think that because lead was sold at £11 per ton for a considerable time that it is likely to be sold at that price again. At that period, thousands of tons were being produced at Broken Hill, Mexico, and other large mining centres, and we cannot fairly assume because it was sold at £11 that £24 per ton is an exorbitant price. I am not prepared to say if it would be good business for the Government to purchase at £24 per ton; but I think it is reasonable to suggest that the Government should step in when these three metals are at their base - if I may use that expression - to prevent a further reduction and to keep the industry alive.


Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Free the trade - that is the trouble.


Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - From what?


Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - From restrictions here.


Senator EARLE - Mr. Evans goes on to explain that the sales from the West Coast realized so much less than the amount payable at the time the samples were taken that the ore producers had been requested to refund £7,000.. Mr. Evans also referred to the extra cost of smelting, which of course means nothing to us unless the statement is supported by the opinion of an independent expert. He points out that in 1914 coke was 18s. 6d. per ton. and that in 1921 it is £2 12s. 6d. He mentions a number of articles -which are supposed to be used in connexion with smelting, and shows that the increases in some cases range from 60 to 80 per cent. He also states that the1 wages paid have increased from 8s. 6d. to 17s. 6d. per day, but I cannot believe that the wages paid by the Sulphide Corporation have increased by over 100 per cent, during that time. I do not know - and I am sure other honorable senators do not know - what quantities of the articles to which Mr. Evans has referred are used in smelting a ton of ore. These are points which need clearing up if we are to ascertain if the company is justified in imposing these enormous smelting charges.

This matter is of vital importance to a large number of people in Australia, and to a number of people on the West Coast of Tasmania. I am sorry that, at present, there is looming on the horizon one of the most serious industrial troubles, from the workmen's point of view at any rate, that has ever occurred, at Lyell, on the West Coast of Tasmania.


Senator Bakhap - The men on the spot have shown that they have plenty of common sense, if they were only let alone.


Senator EARLE - It is strange that the men did' not take the matter into their own hands and insist upon conducting their own , affairs apart altogether from the union. From all I can learn from the published details, the men made a very good deal. They had secured themselves against any reduction in wages throughout a period during which the cost of living is falling and I think they assured the company that no increase in wages would be sought. The only concession made by the men apparently was that they would work one week 48 hours instead of 44. It appears, however, that the executive of the Australian 1 Workers Union, with which the miners are associated, refused to accept the agreement. Their action, in my opinion, constitutes one' of the strongest arguments it would be possible to get against the One Big Union principle, and I think the men of Lyell will take it to heart. If anything happens at Lyell hundred's of men who have put their all into their little homes will be absolutely ruined, because there is only one mine there and no other chance of employment in that district if work at the mine fails. I do not know whether the miners will or will not allow the situation to develop at the behest of men, themselves far removed from all the misery and suffering likely to ensue, but my advice to them is to manage their own affairs. It is perhaps true that some will seek employment in the Zeehan field, where there is a number of silverlead lodes, and their activity there may result in further discoveries; but if not, and if some effort is not made to induce the men to believe there is something better for them in the future than that which is being experienced at present, Uley may as well starve doing nothing as starve working hard. Consequentlythese developments cannot take place.

In the interests of Australia, and particularly in the interests of my own State, I hope the Government will seriously consider the position and see what can be done. I do not care what is done, so long as this mysterious question of the treatment of silver-lead ore is cleared up. An investigation may or may not show those engaged in the business that the cost of smelting is too high, or else prove that the companies are wrong, and then of course it will be necessary to take some steps to right the grievance.







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