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Thursday, 30 June 1921

Senator GARDINER (New South Wales) . - I should almost think from a glance at the proposed contract that it is of more interest to Tasmania than to any other State. It seems to me that the Orient Company has tightened up the . previous agreement to its own advantage. Most honorable senators, being here as the representatives of private enterprise, will consider it a perfectly legitimate business proceeding for a company having the whip hand over the Commonwealth to improve its position when a chance comes, of renewing its agreements. This company has improved its position. It has also most seriously prejudiced Tasmanian interests, by the fact that the vessels will not call at Hobart so frequently under this Agreement as they did under the old contract.

Senator Russell - Or at any other port.

Senator GARDINER - Yes ; but that is of more importance to Tasmania than to the other States. It does not affect New South Wales to the same extent, because any vessel which comes from the Old World must go to Sydney, even if it carries no mails. The principal centre of the trade of Australia must be visisted. I see very little use in the Senate discussing the proposed Agreement. I take it that- the Government have secured the best deal they could get from the company, and have brought their best business brains to bear in the negotiations. The Government have the confidence of the present Parliament, and although we might see in the Agreement something that we should like to improve or alter, the company is, under present conditions, practically in a position to say, " Here is the most we will give for the money 'we are receiving," and there is very little chance of any debate or discussion improving matters. It is quite possible that the Government, in entering into this contract, have done quite as well as any other Government could have done in similar circumstances. But the fact remains that under the system of private enterprise a big shipping company has been afforded an opportunity to take a little more from the Commonwealth and to give a little less in return. That has always been the policy of private enterprise.

Senator Russell - I do not think that the company is giving a little less in return for a little more, though we are certainly getting a less frequent service under the new contract.

Senator GARDINER - The Orient Company will carry our mails a less distance than they did formerly, and will occupy a longer time in doing it.

Senator Fairbairn - Their expenditure is much greater was.

Senator GARDINER - I know that. It is becoming greater all the time. But, no matter how large it becomes, it is the workers who will pay it. If the expenditure of the company is greater than it was, so also art the profits. The company hold the whip hand at the present time, and they are driving a hard bargain "with the Commonwealth. They are getting better results from driving that hard bargain than they obtained under the previous contract. Under the new arrangement, the time occupied by their vessels in the carriage of our mails will be greater than it has been hitherto, the amount paid for the service will be greater, and altogether the company have tightened up the agreement to their own advantage. The only consolation that we have is the knowledge that the Commonwealth is now building vessels of its own. I hope that the Government will push ahead with the construction of those vessels as rapidly as possible, so that they may be in a position to carry our own mails. If we possessed a few fast vessels of our own, which would give us a more frequent service, the position would be immensely improved. The sooner we escape from the position of the Commonwealth being obliged to accept whatever terms the Orient Steam-ship Company chooses to offer it, the better. At the present time there is absolutely no competition between the overseas shipping companies here. Our only ray of hope is that the Commonwealth may expedite the building of vessels which will be able to supplant in the ocean mail service the boats which are privately owned. Believing as I do that the future development of Australia will warrant the construction of such vessels, the Government will be well advised to press forward the work of building them as rapidly as possible. I understand that in another place the PostmasterGeneral mentioned the fact that under this new mail contract we were likely to get something more than a monthly service. If that be so, I hope that provision will be made for it in the agreement itself; in order that there may be no mistake about it. I trust that the Government 'will be sufficiently alert to see that the arrangement to which' the Postmaster-General alluded rests upon something more substantial than a mere statement in a letter from the Orient Steam-ship Company to himself. Of course, we might insist upon these vessels being run upon purely unionistic lines.

Senator Wilson - I suppose that it is the labour conditions which -have compelled the company to tighten up the agreement.

Senator GARDINER -I recognise that Senator Wilson is the great champion of private enterprise in this Chamber.

Senator Russell - The labour conditions provided for in our Navigation Act will apply to the vessels employed under this contract.

Senator Wilson - So that my remark was perfectly justified.

Senator GARDINER - The Commonwealth is in the unfortunate position of being obliged to accept the best arrangement that it can get from the Orient Steam Navigation Company. I can only express the hope that, as soon as the Commonwealth possesses sufficient vessels of its own to enable it to conduct a European mail service, the PostmasterGeneral will give this company twelve months' notice of his intention to ter,minate the contract.

SenatorRussell. - Two of our own vessels will be ready tbis year.

Senator GARDINER - I bope that very soon quite a superior class of oceau liner for the carriage ofoversea mails will be built by the Commonwealth. Our chief need at the present time is the means of getting our primary products to the markets of the world as quickly and as cheaply as possible. One has merely to look at the enormous profits made by the various shipping companies during the war, at a time when the Empire was struggling for its very existence, to realize what has been taking place. During that period the shipping companies of the world made profits which would almost have liquidated Australia's war indebtedness. They did so by squeezing the last ounce of profit out of the Governments of the Empire and the peoples of the Empire.

Senator Wilson - Who did not at that time ?

Senator GARDINER - Senator Wilson is always candid enough to honestly express the views of his party. During the period of the war the shipping companies squeezed from the public such huge profits as to cause one to wonder whether we were a civilized community to permit such practices.

Senator Wilson - I ask the honorable senator to say who did not.

Senator GARDINER - As far as the profiteers, whom the honorable senator so ably represents, are concerned, I do not know who did not.

Senator Wilson - The honorable senator has not answered my question. He has not said who did not. The unionists, whom he represents, obtained all that they could right through the piece.

Senator GARDINER - Most of the able-bodied men whom I represent went to the war, and many of them left good positions here to fight for 5s. or 6s. per day, whilst the shipping companies were swelling their profits to an exorbitant extent. Hundreds of thousands, nay, millions, of workers in this and the other allied countries did not look for profit at that time, though they looked death in the face very often. Whilst they were doing that, the very worst offenders in the matter of profiteering wei'e the shipping companies.

Senator Earle - The honorable senator does not represent all the men to whom he has referred.

Senator GARDINER - I do not want to split straws about that.

Senator Russell - The Orient Steam Navigation Company practically went out 'of business because it lost its boats through the action of submarines.

Senator GARDINER - I know that the Imperial Government commandeered a number of the boats . belonging to the company.

Senator Foster - The company received good money for the ships, that were lost through submarines, because they were well insured.

Senator Russell - But there were no boats with which to replace them in those days.

Senator GARDINER - I remember a statement that was made by Mr. Bonar Law, a gentleman whose authority to, speak on the subject will not be disputed by any honorable senator. He said, in the British House of Commons, that he had some shares in a ship that was sunk by a submarine, and was greatly surprised to receive a cheque in compensation enormously in excess of any money he had ever put into it. He gave the exact amount which he received as compensation for his share in the ship that was lost.

Senator Foster - Yes; £130,000.

Senator GARDINER - I thank Senaton Foster for his confirmation of my statement. I am referring to the whole of the shipping companies, and any one who looks up their returns will be astonished at the profits they made, and still more astonished that a civilized community should have permitted them to make such profits when other people were not only losing money but leaving their families to eke out an existence, which became less and less satisfactory because of the increased charges imposed by profiteering firms.

Senator Pearce - In the later part of the war that was stopped.

Senator GARDINER - Before the war started, Australian wheat was carried to London by ships for a rate of from 6d. to 10½d. per bushel. It was being carried for 4s. dd. . per bushel when the war ended, and I venture to say that it is not being carried now for less than 2s. 6d. per bushel. It is of no use to deny that these shipping companies saw their opportunity during the war and took advantage of it to reap huge and exorbitant profits. I realize that the Orient Steam Navigation Company is not looking for a very exorbitant profit under the Agreement we are now considering, because I suppose there is' a limit to the profits they can make now. The shipping companies are working together, and. their spheres of influence are marked out. Because of this combination and of the conduct of the shipping companies during the war, and because of what will be their conduct in the future, so far as Australian interests are concerned, I hope that the Government will proceed with all the expedition possible to substitute for the present contract system for the carriage of mails and produce from Australia their conveyance in ships owned by the Australian people.

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