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Thursday, 30 April 1942

Senator McBRIDE (South Australia) .- I call the attention of the Senate to a matter which I consider to be of first-rate importance. Some time ago I asked the following question : -

Were the machines in the tool room at the Government munitions factory at Lithgow kept going fully 24 hours of the day?

I received a reply to the effect that they were kept going to the degree that men were available to operate them. As' an ex-Mini ster for Munitions, I fully appreciate the very difficult problems that confront my successor, and the Government, in this department. However, as the Government has now been in office for six months. I think that we are entitled to expect from it greater expedition than it has evidently achieved in dealing with the dilution of labour in the tool room at government munitions factories in Victoria and New South Wales. This problem was very acute when I was Minister for Munitions. It will be recognized that tool-making is a highly skilled occupation, and that, in peace-time, the demand for toolmakers is limited. Before the outbreak of war, sufficient toolmakers were available to meet the needs of government factories. However, it was recognized very early in the munitions programme laid down by the previous Government that the number available was not anything like sufficient to meet our increasing requirements. Consequently, as Minister for Munitions, I had several conferences with representatives of the engineering unions ' with a view to making some arrangement by which we could dilute labour in the tool room. Those conferences were very fruitful up to a point. It was agreed by the representatives of the engineering unions that the number of toolmakers envisaged in our programme, which was placed very frankly before them, was unobtainable in Australia, and the required number could not be trained in the time at our disposal. It was also agreed that, with modern automatic and special purpose machines, a very large proportion of tool-making could be undertaken by semi-skilled, or process, workers. The precise proportion of tools that could be made in this manner, and also the number of toolmakers that could be made available to us, were agreed upon. The additional number that we required could be obtained by using semi-skilled or process workers. At that time a hitch in our negotiations occurred in relation to conditions under which the unions would agree to this dilution.. On that matter we had several conferences, but I am sorry to say that -we could not reach agreement. Had I continued as Minister for Munitions I should have referred the matter to the Arbitration Court for decision. I point out that I, as Minister for Munitions in the previous Government, conducted negotiations of this kind direct with the unions concerned. Whether that practice is being followed by this Government I do not know; but from a reply given to a question which I asked recently, I take it that at present the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Ward) deals with matters of this kind, even in respect of government munitions factories. It is rather interesting to note that honorable senators opposite are continually clamouring for the nationalization of industry. They assert, in support of such a policy, in season and out of season, that it would solve all our industrial problems.

Senator Collings - We have never said that.

Senator McBRIDE - I do not wish to misrepresent any honorable senator opposite; but that is the inference I drew from the very strong and, in some cases, extravagant statements made on the subject by honorable senators opposite. I point out that what we sought to achieve in the government munitions factories, namely, dilution in the tool room, is at present in operation under industrial awards in private industry. Yet, in government munitions factories, in which no question of competition or profit arises, we have been unable to reach agreement on this point. That disagreement is still acute; it was acute six mouths ago. In a reply which I received yesterday from the Minister I was informed that -

Negotiations are proceeding with the engineering union concerned in connexion with the utilization of unskilled labour in the mass production of tools and gauges, and there have been several conferences and discussions. Certain preliminaries in which agreement was necessary have been cleared up.

I do not know what those preliminaries are; but when I was Minister I cleared up the preliminaries arising in this problem, and it was only in connexion with the additional rates of pay and conditions demanded by the unions that agreement had not been reached.

Senator Collings - The honorable senator knows, of course, that we have dilution of labour in the government factories.

Senator McBRIDE - Yes ; but according to the answer supplied to my question dilution of labour in the tool room is still the subject of negotiation. I have no information in addition to that answer, and I accept it as being accurate. Therefore, I am surprised to hear the Leader of the Senate (Senator Ceilings) make that interjection when I am officially informed that negotiations in respect of dilution are still proceeding. I know that the number of skilled men available is not sufficient to meet the requirements of government factories, and that our present munitions programme would Be seriously held up if it were not for the fact that the Government is obtaining tools from outside factories for use in its own factories. It is about time that the

Government made some real endeavour to settle this problem. It can be easily settled. The proper way to do so is, failing prompt agreement, to refer the matter to the Arbitration Court.

Senator Arthur - Get rid of Thorpe.

Senator McBRIDE - Mr. Thorpe has nothing whatever to do with government tool rooms.

Senator Arthur - He decides priorities.

Senator McBRIDE - He does not decide priorities at all in respect of government tool rooms. It is about time this Government, which is continually shouting about its war effort and the speeding-up of production, did something to remedy this trouble. A settlement is required so that the munitions programme can go ahead as planned.

Senator Collings - It is going ahead now.

Senator McBRIDE - It has gone ahead so far that a bottle-neck which existed six months ago is still a bottleneck. I am sorry to know that after six months this problem, which could have been settled in a month if it had been referred to the Arbitration Court, is still unsettled. The practice followed by Government munitions factories in the past was to settle industrial disputes by negotiation, and the previous Government was able to settle in this way the various problems that arose from day to day. Before 1 left the department, the question of war loading in munitions factories had been referred into court. It was adjudicated on, and a decision was given promptly. The dispute I am now discussing could have been dealt with in exactly the same way.

The Government is not showing any real desire, or making any real endeavour, to settle the dispute, and while that is so it is futile for members of the Government to tell the country it is making a 100 per cent. war effort and extending the programme laid down by its predecessors. That programme cannot be achieved until the important dispute with the toolmakers has been settled. I hope even at this late hour the Government will take its courage in its hands and refer the dispute to the Arbitration Court, where the parties can obtain an unprejudiced decision. If the Government will do that, those unions which at present are refusing to come to an agreement, in some cases for reasons not related to this dispute, will be prepared to abide by the decision of the .tribunal.

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