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Wednesday, 6 May 1942

Senator McLEAY (South Australia) (Lender of the Opposition) . - The people of Australia appreciate the importance of coal in the war effort, and having watched with interest the repeated stoppages in the coal-mining industry, they feel depressed because of the repeated, but unfulfilled, promises made by the Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin) to take action against the coal-miners. Up to date, there has been a notable lack of action against extremists in this industry. My colleague, Senator McBride, pointed out very clearly that since the outbreak of war, wages in the coal-mining industry have increased by 20 per cent., and that working hours have been reduced from 44 to 40 a week. He also showed that the average wage earned in the coal mines to-day was £2 0s. 2d. a day. All that is ample evidence that the coal-miners of this country enjoy much better conditions than do their colleagues in any other part of the world. The Senate is indebted to Senator McBride for placing these facts before it, calmly, fairly and clearly, in the interests of the people of Australia. I was somewhat surprised when the Leader of the Senate (Senator Collings) became so heated, and dealt with all aspects of the matter except those referred to in the speech delivered by Senator McBride. All sections of the community deplore these continuous stoppages. Disputes have persisted despite all that has been said by the Prime Minister. What is the position to-day?

Senator Keane - All the mines are working.

Senator McLEAY - Senator Keane displays a surprising lack of knowledge when he says that. For the benefit of the Minister, I draw attention to the fact that in the Sydney Morning Herald to-day, it is stated that the Burwood colliery, which produces a larger quantity of coal than any other coal-mine in the Commonwealth, was idle yesterday when 600 men returned to their homes because the Transport Department officials set them down 400 yards from the entrance to the mine. Side by side with that statement, in the columns of the same newspaper was a report that twelve Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force men had escaped from Java in a 30-ft. boat and had spent 44 gruelling days at sea. How can the sacrifices which are being made to-day by the coal-miners compare with the trying experiences of those men? Such comparisons give food for thought and provoke action. It is proper that in the National Parliament these important matters should be debated., and that the Government should be reminded of the necessity to take immediate action. I am informed that in addition to the Burwood colliery, the Millfield colliery also is idle to-day.

Senator Keane - How does the honorable senator know that?

Senator McLEAY - It is evident that the Minister does not yet know about it. We are all aware of the seriousness of the war position which was referred to by the Leader of the Senate; we know that enemy planes were reported to be over Townsville last Saturday ; but what do we find in the coal-mining industry? Strikes again on the Monday ! To-day, the secretary of Northern Collieries Limited sent the following telegram to. the Prime Minister : -

I am directed by my board to advise Millfield colliery again idle to-day, grounds, miners refuse accept decision Central Reference Board which ground comes under your heading trifling. Respectful lj' suggest your handling coa) situation damaging Australia's war effort. Unless you apply Regulation 168 immediately you can expect further challenges to constitutional authority. If you are not prepared make effective present regulations respectfully ask you to publicly say so thereby supporting Labour Minister Ward's public refusal in both regulations against strikers. If you allow matter to remain in present unsatisfactory position we contemplate calling public meeting as mentioned our telegram' 29th February last.

Senator Keane - Sheer propaganda!

Senator McLEAY - That is not correct. This telegram was not sent to Senator McBride. It was handed to me five minutes before the Senate met to-day. Despite the fact that, as the Leader of the Senate has said, the war position is more serious to-day than ever, these two coal mines are idle. Is it any wonder that the people of Australia are concerned? I submit that we have a perfect right to challenge the Prime Minister to take action in this matter. I draw the attention of honorable senators to the following press statement published on the 1 Oth January last : -

Because there was no general resumption of work at the Kew South Wales coalfields this morning, the Federal Government at noon today promulgated a new national security order making it an offence against the National Security Act for any person, normally employed at a coal-mine, to refuse work when the mine is open and when he has been directed, or otherwise advised, to work by the committee of management of his union.

Persons who contravene the regulation are liable for a fine of £100, or imprisonment for six months, or both, if proceeded against summarily ; or for an unlimited fine and unlimited imprisonment if prosecuted on indictment.

The regulations also enable the right of exemption from military service, now accorded to employees in the coal-mining industry, to bc withdrawn from a person who refuses to work, thus rendering him liable to be called up for military service.

Announcing that this provision had been made, the Prime Minister (Mr. Curtin) said that the Government was determined that every body able to do so must either work or fight to win the war, and those who refused without reasonable excuse to work in essential industries would be called up to fight.

The public was misled by the statements that were made by the Prime Minister and the Government spokesman over a period of four months. In January it was said that action would be taken against the miners under the then existing regulations. When members of the Opposition in this chamber objected to those regulations and pointed out that they would not work, because they placed upon the Miners Federation the onus of sending strikers back tO' work, members and supporters of the Government opposed that point of view strongly, and they debated the matter with such skill that they convinced two honorable senators on this side of the chamber that they were right. Within a few months, however, the Government repealed the regulations and carried out our suggestion by placing the responsibility for sending strikers back to work in the hands of the Coal Commissioner, where it should have rested originally. Then Statutory Rule No. 77, which contains drastic regulations empowering the Government to order people to do this, that or the other thing, was issued, and again the Government spokesman said that the new regulations were necessary in order to deal with the coal-miners. We on this side of the chamber, and the public generally, are disgusted with the inaction of the Government. I take this opportunity to place the facts before Senate Ministers and to urge them to do something, knowing that strikes will continue unless the Government plucks up sufficient courage to deal with the extremists in the coalmining industry and show them who is to govern the nation.

Senator Cameron - What does the honorable senator suggest?

Senator McLEAY - I suggest that Senator Cameron display a little courage as a member of the Government and help to take action under existing regulations in order to deal with the extremists in the industry. The spineless, procrastinating attitude of the Government is deplorable in this time of emergency, and I appeal to Senate Ministers to endeavour to persuade Cabinet to act instead of talk.

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