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Wednesday, 17 December 1941

Senator McBRIDE (.South Australia) . - I express my appreciation of the Government's action in summoning Parliament to meet in this critical period in our history. I believe that in any democratic country, it is wise that the national legislature should be called together in a crisis such as this, so that the Government can give to the Parliament, and through it to the people, a clear statement of the position. Unfortunately, too frequently during this war, and no doubt through previous wars ".ve have been misled and misinformed, perhaps not deliberately, but on occasions, in a very serious manner, and I think that it is proper that the people generally, as well as members of Parliament, should have placed before them a clear and definite official statement of the position. The Minister for External Affairs (Dr. Evatt) and the Minister for Information (Senator Ashley) are to be commended for the statement presented to Parliament on international affairs. It is comprehensive, clear, and, so far as I know, accurate. Exception has been taken to one or two comments which have been made, but I do not wish to traverse the entire ground at this stage. That has been done adequately in the House of Representatives. I consider that as a general statement the speech of the Minister for External Affairs does give to the people of this country a clear outline of the critical position that we are now facing. As a member of the previous Government, charged with the administration of one of the most important war departments, I have a very real appreciation of the difficulties, responsibilities, and the heavy burdens which are being shouldered by the Ministers of the present Government. I assure them that anything I may say to-day is being said with the object, not of offering destructive criticism, but rather helpful advice. 1 have followed very closely the announcements that have been made from time to time by the Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin), and by other Service Ministers, in regard to considerations that have occupied the time of the Government, and decisions that have been made. For instance, important statements have been made in relation to decisions which have been rendered necessary by the altered circumstances in which we find ourselves to-day. Also, we have had a number of statements announcing decisions relating to the organization of the various civil services within this country such as internal transport. We all recognize that that matter is of supreme importance in the present circumstances. Statements have been made also in connexion with coastal seaborne traffic, proposals for the organization of industry, and the investigations that are now being made in connexion with the more intensive organization, and better use of our man-power. All these matters are of immense importance. They are features of our war administration which undoubtedly cause a great deal of hard thinking on the part of the responsible Ministers, and no doubt the decisions in relation to them have been made after due consideration of all information available to the Government.

Silting suspended from 6.15 to 8p.m.

Senator McBRIDE - On several matters that appear to me to be of great importance, we have not yet had much information from the Government.I shall first refer to the man-power position. Every honorable senator will agree that one of the urgent needs at present is a maximum production of munitions and other war equipment. A board has been set up to investigate the man-power position, and no doubt its report will be considered by the Government.I hope that the Government will take the earliest opportunity, not only to consider the report, but also to implement a policy that will result in considerably speeding up the production of munitions. It is estimated that in the present programme for providing munitions and other service requirements, about 240,000 workers will be required in the next twelve months. Since almost all workers are already fully employed, it is obvious that, in order to meet this demand, it will be necessary to take into account the labour available for the purpose. A great deal of the work now being done by male labour could be well undertaken by female labour. As to the degree to which this would relieve the position, I have no accurate figures, but there are probably 60,000 females now unemployed who could be placed in useful occupations. The balance would have to be obtained, first, from the natural increase, and, secondly, by the diversion of labour from non-essential civil industries to essential war industries. This transfer cannot be effected in a short time, and I urge upon the Government the necessity for making an immediate start to deal with the problem.

Another matter of almost equal importance with regard to our war effort was mentioned by the Treasurer (Mr. Chifley) in his budget speech. I refer to the problem of rationing. A good deal of time has been available to the Government to consider that matter, and to make some progress in the handling of it, but I understand that a final decision has not been reached. The position with respect to consumption goods is becoming more acute every day, and I trust that the Government will take prompt steps to complete the institution of civil rationing. A decision has been reached with regard to petrol, one of the most important war commodities. We are told that there is to be a 20 per cent. reduction of the present allowance of petrol to civilians. I urge the Ministry to impose that reduction immediately. No administrative difficulty would prevent that being done. The holders of licences could be informed that the rations already received for December, and in some eases for January also, would have to last them for a longer period-.

I support the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition (Senator McLeay) and other honorable senators in connexion with the proposal that has come from the opposition side of the chamber for an amendment of the National Security Act. I shall not traverse the ground that has been well covered during the debate. I was pleased to hearhonorable senators on the Government side of the chamber support a statement made by the Prime Minister . (Mr.Curtin) that the present Ministry will reinforce all of our troops overseas. I have no doubt as to the honesty of the Government in its intentions in that direction, but one can well conceive of circumstances arising in which, if the Government desired to give effect to its undertaking, it might be necessary to send overseas troops at present in the Militia Forces. Of course, that is a matter for decision by the Government, acting on the advice of it? chiefs of staff. It would be a tragedy which the Government could not contemplate, if a body of militia troops were at a certain point and the necessary transport were available to take them to another locality in the Pacific, and if that could not be done by reason of failure to amend the National : Security Act.

Senator Keane - It could be done by regulation.

Senator McBRIDE - As the act now stands, the Government could not, by regulation, do what I suggest it might wish to do. If the Government has already considered this matter the Opposition asks it to reconsider it, and to seek the opinion of its legal advisers. I am convinced that the proper course to follow is that suggested by the Opposition.

This is not a time for disputes between political parties, or for attempts to take party advantages regarding matters concerning the national interests. The Prime Minister has asked for, and the Opposition is willing to give to the utmost of its ability, its co-operation and assistance. Therefore, the Prime Minister should reciprocate the goodwill that the Opposition is prepared to extend to the Government I was appalled when a statement issued by the Prime Minister over the air and also published in the press, announcing the loss of a British battleship and a battle cruiser near to Malaya, contained the rider that the disaster vindicated fully his advocacy of a powerful air force.

Senator Fraser - The honorable senator will not deny that that has been advocated by the Prime Minister.

Senator McBRIDE - The Opposition has not raised that matter. If there are to be recriminations of that kind, implying that the Opposition has made political capital out of defence matters, it will reply to such suggestions. The Opposition not only supported the policy of increasing and strengthening the air force, but also took action, when in office, to do so. Before this country was at war, the previous Government assisted in the setting up of an aeroplane factory which is now rendering yeoman service in producing planes for training and other purposes which are of immense value at this critical time.

Shortly before the conclusion of the sitting, we heard an interjection by the Leader of the Senate (Senator Collings) suggesting that the Government had spent its time cleaning up a mess left by the previous Administration. If that remark indicates the kind of goodwill and co-operation to be extended by the Government to the Opposition, I am afraid that the Minister will cut a sorry figure in public estimation. It is unnecessary for me to remind honorable senators of the legacy that the present Government took over from the previous Ministry. It is not for me to measure the war effort of this country under the previous Administration. That can be done by people who are well qualified to express an opinion on that matter. I merely call the attention of honorable senators to the fact that everybody who has come to this country and has examined our war effort has stated in no uncertain terms that it is at least equal to that of any other part of the Empire. When we hear statements like that made by the Leader of the Senate, we are entitled to consider that the Government is not sincere in asking the Opposition to co-operate with it at this time of crisis. I did not want to raise this subject, but unless the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Senate refrain from party politics the people of Australia will be their . judges.

SenatorCourtice. - The honorable senator is spoiling a good speech.

Senator McBRIDE - We on this side of the chamber are wholeheartedly behind the Government in its war effort. Those of us who have held office during the war realize the responsibilities and burdens which Ministers have to bear. We are prepared to offer to the Government our full co-operation in the difficult task that lies ahead, but we ask, in return, that Ministers shall drop party politics and devote their attention to the security of this country.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Sitting suspended from 8.17 to 8.37 p.m.

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