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Thursday, 28 June 1906

Mr ROBINSON (Wannon) .-. After the moving and eloquent speech of the honorable member for Robertson, I feel somewhat at a loss in approaching defence matters. He has dealt with them on a high plane - a plane which might be described' as statesmanlike. I propose to deal with military questions from a much more humble aspect. The matters which I wish to discuss greatly affect the Defence Forces in the western district of Victoria. I welcome this opportunity because it enables us to get our views before the Minister before the Budget is delivered, and will enable us on that occasion to get a definite reply to the representations which we make this evening. On a previous occasion I referred to the treatment which has been meted out to certain old-settled districts in Victoria which have been favoured for many years past with some arm of the Defence Force in their midst. I am glad to see the Vice-President of the Executive Council at the table, because I hope that he will be able to supply me with an answer to the points I am raising when the Budget is being considered. I wish, first to discuss the treatment meted out to the town of Portland, the first place at which settlement on any proper scale took place in this State. It has supplied an arm of the Defence Force of Victoria ever since 1859. In that district there has been a distinct and genuine desire on the part of the inhabitants to do something towards the defence of their country. Almost continuously since 1859 they have supplied an arm of the Defence Force in a most efficient and workmanlike manner. For many years prior to Federation there was a battery of garrison artillery established at Portland, Warrnambool, and Port Fairy respectively..In 1884 these three batteries were constituted as the second brigade of the Victorian Garrison Artillery, with a strength of seventy-five men each, and it attained in those times to a very high degree of efficiency. In 1891 the Commandant desired to reduce the strength of each battery te* forty men. The powers that be, however, did not approve of that proposal, and the establishment was then fixed at the existing strength, namely, Port Fairy, 56 men;. Warrnambool, 68 men; and Portland, 63 men. The two smaller townships of Port Fairy and Portland, which are only about one-fourth of the size of Warrnambool, had each an actual strength almost equal to that of Warrnambool. In 1892, as honorable members are aware, bad times came, and a far-reaching scheme of retrenchment was initiated throughout the State. All recruiting was stopped, and the strength of the establishment in these towns was cut. down to twenty-six men each. Better times came in the usual course, and in 1899, a few years before Federation, the three batteries were merged into one, called the Western District Garrison Artillery, the establishment of the three totalling 144, or averaging forty-eight apiece. I wish to place before the Minister a few facts concerning the three batteries, so that he may see that they were efficient and animated by a high sense of duty to their country, and that they conducted themselves with that skill and .competence which are so necessary. With the whole of the Garrison Artillery and the Militia batteries of Victoria competing, in 1887 the Warrnambool battery won the Clarke trophy. In 1889, it won ,the same trophy. In 1890 the Port Fairy battery won the Dickson trophy. In 1892 the Warrnambool battery finally won the Clarke trophy, and it also wonthe Dickson trophy. In 1893 the Portland battery won the Dickson trophy also. No competitions of this nature have been held since 1894. This is a record of which any part of Victoria, or, indeed, of any other State, might well be proud. It showed that the men in the three towns were animated by something more than a desire to earn the money allowed for drill - that there was! a very strong feeling of esprit de corps in their ranks, and that they wished to give their country good and efficient' service.

Mr Ewing - Was there not some question with regard to the men being better trained in the larger centres?

Mr ROBINSON - I propose to deal with that question presently. In March, 1901, as honorable members are aware, the Commonwealth took over the Military Forces of the States, and then began the troubles of the Western District branches of the Military Service. At that time, there were 144 men in the old Western Garrison Artillery Detachments, and in 1903, what was called a re-organization scheme was adopted for the Military Forces in Victoria. From our point of view, it might more properly have been called a disorganization scheme, because it absolutely disorganized the Defence Force in that part of the country. The Port Fairy and Warrnambool Batteries were termed " No. 8 Victorian Company Australian Garrison Artillery." A little time afterwards they were converted into " No. 4 Australian Battery Field Artillery." That is to say, these two batteries with long and honorable associations as garrison artillery were turned into batteries of field artillery, whilst the Portland detachment, with its fine record and historical associations, and despite the fact that it had supplied an arm of the Defence Force in Victoria since 1&59> was absolutely disbanded, and every vestige of an arm of the Defence Force at that place was stamped out by the Commonwealth Military Department. I wish, to ask why that town- was singled out' in this way, and such harsh and unfair treatment meted out to the people of the district? I have had an opportunity of perusing the file of papers on the matter, and the reasons alleged for the action taken are two. The first is that the battery was not so efficient at the time the Commonwealth was established- as it had been previously. That is a fact; but why was this so? It was brought about through the excessive retrenchment which took place in Victoria between 1892 and 1900. During that period-, the expenditure on military matters, including the vote for instruction for the various branches of the Defence Force of Victoria, was cut down to the lowest possible amount. One officer was supposed to give military instruction to the detachments at the three towns of Portland, Port Fairy, and Warrnambool. The result was that most of that officer's time was taken up in travelling. Portland is distant forty miles from Port Fairy by road, and the distance by rail is considerably greater. As a con sequence, the officer intrusted with this duty was utterly unable to give the Portland battery the instruction necessary to keep it up to a high, standard. This lack of instruction naturally led to a loss of efficiency, and the neglect of the Department to give the battery proper instruction is now used against the people of Portland as a reason why there should be no arm of the Defence Force established there, and as a justification for the disbandment of the battery that had been established so long. Another reason urged against the establishment of garrison artillery at Portland, Port Fairy, and Warrnambool, is that we do not require at those towns men trained in garrison work, and that it is better that such men should be concentrated at Port Phillip Heads. I wish to enter my emphatic protest against any such idea of centralization. The records of the Department show that when we had decentralization, the men comprising the three country batteries in the towns to which I have referred, had, under proper tuition, reached a very high standard of efficiency, and in competition with batteries from all parts of the State done excellently. My contention is that they constituted an efficient reserve for Port Phillip Heads, ,or any other part of the coast which might be attacked by an enemy. I frankly admit that the most likely point of attack by a foreign fleet is Port Phillip Heads, but men in the garrison artillery batteries could readily be shifted from Warrnambood or Port Fairy to Port Phillip Heads in a few hours.

Mr Watkins - What would they go there for?

Mr ROBINSON - I say that if it be assumed that Port Phillip Heads is to be attacked, and it is desirable to have there a reserve of men trained in garrison artillery work, these men of the garrison artillery batteries at Port Fairy, Warrnambool, and Portland could be shifted at a very little cost, and in a short space of time, to the place at which their services might be required in the hour of the country's need. I say, therefore, that the argument urged by the Department that such men should only be kept at Port Phillip Heads, the point at which an attack is most likely to be made, is a mistake. Such a policy must lead to undue centralization, and to the neglect of those ports in the Western District of Victoria, which the Government of the State have constructed at enormous expense, and in which a very large InterState, and to some extent oversea, trade has been developed. The Portland people, after the disbandment of the battery of garrison artillery, requested the Department to establish a battery or halfbattery of field artillery. There was such a strong feeling there in favour of citizen soldiery, and such a genuine desire on the part of the people to_ form some arm of the Defence Force, that they actually asked the Department to do that. That request was refused.- They then made a still further request. As they could get no permission to establish an artillery corps, they asked to be allowed to establish a corps- of rangers, in order that they might be allowed to take some part in the defence of the country. Even this request was disregarded. The Department has turned a deaf ear to all requests from that town, and the position now is that, after a long and honorable connexion with the Defence Force of Victoria, Portland is absolutely debarred from furnishing its quota to the Commonwealth Defence Forces, and every request of the people there for permission to aid in the defence of the country is refused. I think that is most unfair treatment, and should be remedied. I wish to say a word as to the manner in which, the Port Fairy and Warrnambool batteries have been treated. I have no desire to make capital out of the recent incident which has received so much prominence in the newspapers - the alleged dismissal of men at Warrnambool - except to say that I do not think that it is unfair to assume that it was a likely thing to happen, after the way in which the Department chopped and chivied the corps established at that town. Since the Commonwealth .has been established, the branches _ of the Defence Force at Warrnambool and Port Fairy have been supposed to form a battery of field artillery. Honorable members are aware that field artillery are expected to operate with a fairly light gun, which can be carried about at a good rate of speed. The type of gun should be one of considerable power and range, able to carry a good weight of metal, and yet very mobile. Honorable members will therefore be surprised to hear that the detachments at the places to which I refer have been supplied with obsolete forty-pounder guns, to shift which a team of bullocks is required. To expect field artillery to do good work with forty-pounder guns is about as reasonable as to expect mounted rifles to perform well if mounted upon cows instead of horses.

Mr Webster - Does the Department supply the bullock team too?

Mr ROBINSON - I believe that the Government allow the corps to hire a bullock team when the occasion arises. They get that concession. It is possible that the supply of obsolete guns to these men has led to a loss of the esprit de corps so necessary to keep a battery in a high state of efficiency, and is responsible to some extent for the disaffection existing among the Western District batteries to-day. If the Department wish to keep this corps as a battery of field artillery, they must give the men up-to-date guns, which they will know are of some use, and in which they can take some pride. To supply such men with obsolete guns, which are of no use to anybody, which could be out-ranged in active service, and which it requires a team of bullocks to shift, is to make a farce of the whole of the defence system in that portion of the State. I am of opinion, for the reasons that I have already stated, that it would be much better, in the interests of the whole State, to have a battery of garrison artillery there. That would revive the feeling, which once existed amongst the people of those places, of pride in the records of their towns, which led, in times past, to the establishment of very efficient corps. I shall not devote any further time to the matter at present. 1 mention it now so that I may not take the Minister at a disadvantage when the discussion of the Budget comes on. When we reach the Estimates, I shall refer to the matter again, and I hope that by that time the Minister will be able to furnish me with some satisfactory statement as to the intentions of the Department. I should like to say that I will not be satisfied, nor will the people of Portland be satisfied, until we have some evidence that the Department is prepared to meet the laudable, patriotic wishes of tha people of that place to help in their country's defence. A good deal has been said about Australian officers. It is not my intention to debate that question. All I desire to say is that, if we have Australian officers who are capable men, and who have had a reasonable opportunity to prove their capacity, I hope they will be given a chance to rise to the top of the tree. I did not hear the whole of the speech made by the Minister, but I heard his remarks on this subject, and I think they should be indorsed by every honorable member. If officers born and bred in Australia have had large experience, and have seen war in other parts of the world, they should get a show, and I hope they will. I notice that this matter was referred to in the Governor-General's opening speech, in the following terms : -

For over twenty years Australia has enjoyed the assistance of a number of Imperial Officers for the purpose of training those in command of our local Forces, in addition to which many of the latter have been sent to England and India for instruction. Hereafter preference in appointments will be given to Australian officers and non-commissioned officers. The policy of sending men of promise to England, India, and elsewhere for training will be continued ; and arrangements have been made for the periodical exchange of our own officers with those of the Imperial Army, both in England and India, and also with the Canadian Forces. The advice and assistance of officers in the Navy and Army of the mother country possessed of special qualifications for judging our progress will be sought from time to time.

If that policy is carried out on proper lines, I am in accord with it. By that, I do not mean to say that I believe in selecting a man because of social influence or some' kind of " pull " that he may have, to be sent to other parts of the world to get the benefit of a trip, which such a man would possibly look upon as a pleasure jaunt. But if we have men who love their work, and take an interest in it, and such men are given an opportunity of seeing war carried on, or of being in close touch with active operations, I hope they will be given a chance of fair promotion, and anything I can do to help them to it will be gladly done. There is one other matter to which I should like to refer, and it is one in which the Vice-President of the Executive Council is interested probably as much as I am. I speak of the manner in which telephone extension in the country districts is choked by the red-tape of the Department. I have no wish to trench upon the matters dealt with by motions on the businesspaper, but I desire to deal with the extraordinary obstacles thrown in the way of any honorable member who wishes to see a telephone line constructed in his electorate between two townships that have hitherto been denied the advantage of such means of communication. The estimates which are presented to us by the Department are perfectly staggering.

When the work is undertaken by private individuals, who subscribe the money themselves, an efficient line is constructed in many cases for less than half the official estimate. There is a desire to have a line constructed over a distance of about 14 miLes between Chetwynd and Harrow, and, after the usual departmental inspection, the officer presented an estimate that was absolutely appalling. The line is now being built bv a few individuals, who are finding the money themselves, and, if the work cannot be carried out for one-quarter or one-third of the Government estimate, I shall be prepared to join the Ministerial party, and it would take a great deal to make me do that. One of the reasons for the extraordinarily high cost of construction of these telephone lines is the cost of the labour. I believe that the Federal Government, or any Government, should set an example as employers, and, therefore, I have no abjection to the minimum wage clause, on which the Government insist, and which ought to find: a place in all such contracts. But I find that the men employed, who are paid the reasonable minimum wage of 7 s. per day, all come either from some town in the Western District or from Melbourne, and, in addition to the minimum wage, they are given a living allowance of 6s. or 7s. a day, on the ground that they are absent from their homes. The result of this arrangement is that the labour cost is practically doubled - that men are paid 13s. a day for work which is not worth more than 7s. If the Department allowed shire councils or other local bodies to do the work, and insisted on the minimum wage being paid1 - I am prepared to agree to that - it would be found that menin the country districts, who know as much about putting in posts or straining wires as do the men in the employ of the Department, would, as they ought, be given the work, and would earn a good wage, while the line would be constructed at about half the price, and a great impetus given to telephone extension. The cast-iron regulations of the Department check telephone construction, and render it exceedingly difficult to obtain lines for people who badly need the convenience. I have placed a number of requests before the Department for telephone extension, and in only one case has the Department agreed to construct a line. I admit that that is a good case, being ia line from, the Prime Minister'sconstituency to my own. The line which extends from Ballarat to Hamilton, a distance of no or 112 miles, is about to be constructed by the Department, and it is one on which,' I think, the Government will receive good interest on the expenditure. But other lines which would assist the people in country districts, and bring them more- in touch with civilization, cannot be constructed because of the throttling system of the Department, with its 'accompanying enormous cost. If, as I say, the men in the country districts were employed, earning the departmental minimum wage, but without the totally unnecessary living allowance, lines would be constructed much more quickly, the benefits of telephone communication would be diffused over a greater area, and there would be a great increase in the revenue of the Department generally. The telephone is one of the few benefits which we in this House may hope to see extended amongst our constituents; because our brethren in the States Parliaments have control of most of the matters which more closely affect the comfort and well-being of the people they represent. It seems to me that we should do our best to get the advantages of telephone communication diffused as widely as possible. Another matter which I would like to see the Minister take into consideration is one that, I believe, could be settled in a very short time if he had a friendly chat with the State Premier of Victoria. In many places, the telegraph office is at the railway! station ; but when a condenser telephone has been provided, and people desire to use it, they are told that they cannot do so, because the telephone is in the stationmaster's office. If the PostmasterGeneral and the State Premier, instead of writing letters, were to have a quiet chat for ten minutes, they could easily frame regulations, which would, so to speak, protect the sanctity of railway property, and yet allow private persons who wish to use the telephone, access to the stationmaster's office. The telephone is being installed in a number of towns in my district, and in all the places where the telegraph office is' at the railway station, the instruments are absolutely useless to the public. It is found impossible to ask a question, or even to ring up the doctor, and all the expenditure of the installation is practically thrown away. As I say, a short confab between the PostmasterGeneral and the State Premier, who is also Minister of Railways, would settle the mat ter, because I am sure that two such sensible men could come to an arrangement in a few minutes. If this- were done it would confer great benefit on the people in country districts, and I hope the PostmasterGeneral will give the matter his attention. These are all the grievances I have to submit, and if they are remedied in the way I indicate, the people generally will reap great advantage.

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