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Thursday, 21 July 1921

Senator DUNCAN (New South Wales) . - I have felt somewhat relieved after listening to the statement just delivered by the Minister for Repatriation (Senator E. D. Millen). It is indeed' a pleasure to know that the finances of the Commonwealth are being placed onsuch a sound footing, as the honorable senator's statement would indicate to the critics of the Government and of Parliament who are so fond of talking of the extravagance of the present Administration. Since the discussion in another place on this :Supply Bill, it has been interesting to notice that -certain, of the- daily press have, to a' very large extent, changed their tune. For instance, in the daily press of Melbourne this morning the Government is congratulated upon its very fine handling of the finances of the Commonwealth. Those of us who have taken the trouble to make ourselves cognisant with the real financial position have known for a considerable time that the Government has been doing all it possibly could from the financial point of view. Nevertheless, critics of the Government outside have never lost an opportunity to endeavour to hold it up to the contumely of the public by suggesting that it has not paid that attention to the finances which their importance deserves. It is, therefore, indeed a pleasure to learn from the Minister for Repatriation that the finances of the country are in such a sound position, and that, so far as the future is concerned, it is not necessary that we should be so anxious regarding the financial situation as some persons would suggest.

There are one or two matters referred to in the Supply Bill to which I should like to refer at this stage. One was mentioned by the Minister. I refer to the question of soldier land settlement. There is quite a large sum of money set aside in this Bill for Repatriation purposes. It amounts to something like £544,000, and of this amount £520,000 is for payments in connexion with the expenses of repatriation. So far as the question of soldier land settlement is concerned, there has been for' some months a dispute raging between the Treasurer of the Commonwealth and the Treasurer of Nev) South Wales, with respect to the amount of money which is payable by the Commonwealth to that State for the purposes of repatriation. Whoever may be in the wrong, the sooner this unseemly squabble is ended, and some regard is paid to the interests of the men who are suffering by reason of its existence, the better it will be both for the Government of the Commonwealth and the Government of New South Wales. Whilst the squabble is in progress, our soldiers are being denied the opportunities which the people have de-' cided they should get. It ought to be possible to bring these two Treasurers together, and for them to arrive at some' basis of settlement in the interests of the soldiers, who are chiefly concerned. It as a distinct loss to the nation that these men, who would become producers if afforded the opportunity, are being prevented from doing so.-

There are one or two other matters to which I think attention should be called. There is, for example, a question which is of interest, not merely to the people of New South Wales, but to those of the entire Commonwealth. The Bill 'contains no. adequate provision for the carrying on of necessary works in the Federal Capital area.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - This is not a Works Bill.

Senator DUNCAN - I quite recognise that. It is a Bill which is intended to cover the costs of administration. The small amount of administration for which it provides in the Capital area shows that no great amount of work is being carried on there. It is some time since the Government promised that work at Canberra would be vigorously proceeded with. Yet in spite of that promise, very little is being done in that great national centre.

Senator Wilson - That is much to the credit of the Government.

Senator DUNCAN - This matter is regarded so seriously by the people of New South Wales that I cannot see anything looming on the political horizon which is so likely to smash the Government in the near future. I know the feeling which actuates a large number of members of this Parliament.

Senator GUTHRIE (VICTORIA) - Does the honorable senator put Canberra before Australia?

Senator DUNCAN - I put the fulfilment of pledges before the continuance in office of a Government which is not prepared to honour its pledges. People are growing tired of the shilly-shallying policy of the Government in regard to Canberra. Attention has already been called to this matter by various members of this Parliament. I view it so seriously, knowing the feeling of a great many members in respect of it, that I think it constitutes the greatest danger which the Government has to face if it is to continue in office.

Senator Wilson - If that is the only thing which threatens them, they are safe for life.

Senator DUNCAN - I do not think so. One -political party is solidly prepared to proceed with works at the Federal Capital. Another section has just about concluded that" if something be not done immediately to honour the constitutional obligation of the Commonwealth to the people of New South Wales, some other Government ought to be afforded an opportunity of honouring it.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I think that is quite enough. The statement of the honorable senator is just about as near to a parliamentary threat as I have heard for a long time.

Senator DUNCAN - It may be. But the statement was not made with the idea of exciting any commendation in New South Wales.

Senator Wilson - Thehonorable senator will not get it anywhere else.

Senator DUNCAN - I care nothing for commendation from elsewhere. What I am concerned about is the honouring of the obligation laid upon the Commonwealth Parliament by the Constitution which we are pledged to uphold.

Senator Wilson - I came here absolutely opposed to the Federal Capital project.

Sena.tor DUNCAN. - And there are other honorable senators who are not prepared to honour the pledge of the National party and the Government. That is why Ministers are able to back and fill upon this important national matter.

Senator Bolton - Cannot we wait another twenty years before incurring such a stupid expenditure?

Senator Wilson -Make it forty years, when the money expended upon War Service Homes will have been returned.

Senator DUNCAN - This discussion is valuable, as showing the length to which certain honorable senators are prepared to go in the matter of honouring the constitutional compact with the people of New South Wales. Senator Wilson would be one of the first to rise in wrath if some other honorable senator urged that the building of the North-South railway would constitute a national extravagance, and, therefore, ought not to be proceeded with.

Senator Wilson - One work is a question of national development, whilst the other is a question of idle ornament.

Senator DUNCAN -Of course,- the honorable senator was bound to see a difference between the two things.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - But it looks like a geographical difference.

Senator DUNCAN - Precisely. We desire to build a national capital to which the eyes of Australia may turn; a home for the administration of this great Commonwealth ; whilst Senator Wilson wishes to run two lines of rails across an arid, stony waste, which can never be profitably developed, and which in a few years will constitute an object lesson of what can be accomplished by a Parliament when it sets out to show how stupid it can- be.

Senator Bolton - Canberra would not be a home, but a hiding place.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Then it would have its advantages.

Senator DUNCAN - Senator Boltonhas not been there. A visit to Canberra has previously resulted in a complete change of views on the part of certain, honorable senators, who now recognise the wisdom of the Commission which recommended its selection.

Senator Wilson - It is only a year or two since the rabbits left it.

Senator DUNCAN - They went to South Australia, and' one or two of them have since been elected to the Senate.

I congratulate the Government upon the financial position. They have exhibited the finest business acumen in administering the various Commonwealth Departments, although it was a sorry tale to which we listened to-night from the Minister for Repatriation (Senator E. D. Millen). Personally, I entirely acquit him of any blame, so far as that phase of his administration is concerned. But there is in it an object lesson for us. That object lesson should teach us that no very great amount of dependability can be placed upon departmental officers. Here were trusted Government officials, the remainder of the staff being business men. Yet, as the result of their maladministration, the Commonwealth has been mulct in an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of pounds, which can never be recovered. Worse than that, the soldiers have been so humbugged over the whole business that thousands of them have been forced to make other arrangements to acquire homes for themselves. They have had to wait so long . for the homes which they were "to get from the Department that their hearts have been almost broken. These are matters which should give us cause for thought when, in the future, we come to consider whether we should place any very great amount, of reliance on departmental officers. To me it is an object lesson of the danger of divorcing departmental administration from parliamentary government. This Parliament deliberately took out . of the hands of the Minister, and -out of the hands of Parliament itself, the administration of the War Service Homes Department. It would not tolerate political interference with 'the administration of that Department. What has been the result? Had Parliament, through the Minister, retained control of the Department; had we required reports to be submitted to us from time to time, there would not have been this awful waste and muddle, and the returned soldiers, whose interests we are so anxious to serve, would have received a much better deal.

Senator de Largie - The politicians will be blamed for it all the same.

Senator DUNCAN - That may be so, and the Government may be blamed for it, but it is no fault -of theirs, unless it be for agreeing to hand over to the gentle- men who formed the War Service Homes Commission the management of such a great Department and the spending of so many millions of money, outside altogether of the control of Parliament. It is an object lesson to me, and never, so long as I remain in Parliament, will I consent to divorce departmental administration from parliamentary responsibility.

Senator Bolton - It shows' the danger of nationalization.

Senator DUNCAN - Perhaps it does. It shows, at any rate, that we can have Government interference run mad. It shows also that when Government Departments, freed from " responsibility to Parliament, obtain control of any great enterprise, we can expect only muddle and extravagance in the Department, and consequent hardship to those in whose interests the Department ought to be administered. I again congratulate the Government on the financial position of the affairs of the Commonwealth, and I hope they will tatesuch steps as will - insure that never again shall we have the kind of thing that the Minister for Repatriation has 'drawn attention to tonight. I acquit him most willingly and fully of any complicity in the criminal negligence revealed in the report that he has made to Parliament to-night.

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