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Wednesday, 23 November 1927

Senator NEEDHAM (Western Australia) . - I remind honorable senators, and particularly those who occupy seats on the Treasury bench, that the bill which is about to be read a third time is different from that which first came before us for discussion. It has been changed most vitally, because of the persistence and stubborn opposition of honorable senators sitting in opposition here and in another place. It is just as well to refresh the memory of honorable senators, and emphasize the fact, if emphasis is necessary, that a vigilant and determined opposition, although small in numbers, may sometimes accomplish very much. I. venture to remind the Minister in charge of the bill that he himself realized that he had to back down.

The Ministry has made a complete volte face in connexion with a vital principle of the bill. When the measure was introduced in another place, it contained a provision for the separation of the savings bank branch from the general business of the Commonwealth Bank, because the directors of the bank, so it was stated, could not efficiently administer the housing scheme. Members of the opposition pointed out, however, that the duties of the board would not be of an onerous nature because all that the bill contemplated was the raising of a sum of £20,000,000 to assist citizens of Australia in receipt of a certain salary to secure homes of their own. In other words, the bill proposed that the directors of the Commonwealth Bank should be in the position of lenders of money to certain State authorities in whom would be vested the responsibility of building the houses and repaying the amount advanced together with interest. The honorable the Treasurer - he has been aptly described as the tragic Treasurer -stated definitelythat members of the board had been consulted concerning the proposed housing scheme, and that they had expressed the view that they would not be able to carry out the duties required of them under that scheme, without the separation of the two branches of the bank. We urged, however, that the scheme would not involve any increase of responsibility, that no increase in the staff would be necessary, and, further, that the proposed separation of the savings bank branch from the general business of the bank would, if agreed to, lower the prestige and usefulness of that national institution. With that object in view, we strenuouslyopposed the second reading of . the bill. At that stage the Government had another consultation with the board of directors. I do not know whether the directors sought the interview or whether the overtures were made by the Ministry; but the fact remains that another consultation was held. Subsequently, the Treasurer announced, in another place, that an amendment would be made to the bill in the Senate to provide that the savings bank branch of the bank should not be divorced from the general business of the bank. Originally it was proposed to hand over the housing scheme to a commission. This Government has always shown a disposition to appoint royal commissions and boards on the slightest opportunity.

The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon. Sir John Newlands). - Order! The honorable gentleman is now discussing a matter outside the scope of the bill. I must ask him to confine his remarks to the motion for the third reading of the measure.

Senator NEEDHAM - I propose to advance reasons why the bill should not be read a third time. The duties of the proposed commission, as was pointed out during the second-reading debate on the bill, would have been to lend the money to certain authorities in the respective States. The bill has since been amended, and we are given to understand now that the commission will not be appointed. The Government has completely backed down in the face of criticism against its proposal. It has retreated under cover of a barrage to be found in clause S. In the circumstances the Honorary Minister (Senator McLachlan) should ask for a recommittal of the bill to permit of the excision of all proposed sections after 35 e. It is obvious that the Government placed the directors of the Commonwealth Bank in an entirely false position. It is not now the intention of the Government to appoint a commission. It affords us some satisfaction to know that the bill emerged from committee in this chamber in a form different from that in which it came to us from another place, and for some considerable time to come, the Commonwealth Bank will not be rendered any more ineffective than it is because the savings bank branch will continue to be part and parcel of it.

Senator McLACHLAN(South Australia[ 3.36] . - There are two observations in the honorable senator's remarks with which I agree. The opposition to the bill has been consistent, and it has been stubborn. It is, however, beyond my comprehension why honorable senators should endeavour to aggrandize the importance of the criticism directed against themeasure by honorable senators opposite, and should so greatly magnify what is, after all, a matter of minor detail. The importing provision of the bill is chat proposing to bring about the separation of the savings bank branch from the general business of the bank, and that was passed without one word of protest from the formidable four or five honorable senators opposite. The amendment upon which my honorable friend laid so much stress this afternoon is merely part of the machinery. The proposal was to entrust the administration of the housing scheme to a commission. Now it is to be carried out by the directors of the Commonwealth Bank. Where, then, is the amazing change of front to which the honorable senator refers? What does it matter if at one time the directors of the bank said they were not prepared to undertake that work, but are willing to do it now? The machinery clauses of the bill are intact, and probably as Senator Grant said, the time will come when it will be necessary to vest, this scheme ill a commission, because, 1 can assure the honorable senator that the bill will enable the bank to work hand in hand with the housing scheme, with the assistance of existing State instrumentalities. The honorable senator has attached undue importance to the amendment of the bill. It is not vital to the measure at all. The proposed new sections 35 and 35a bring about the statutory separation of the two branches of the bank, and an earlier provision will enable the accounts of both to be published together, so that the actual position of the two branches may be ascertained.

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