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Wednesday, 26 April 1961

Mr McMAHON (Lowe) (Minister for Labour and National Service and Acting Attorney-General) . - In my remarks to the House on the employment situation I will deal with the substance of what the honorable member for Bass (Mr. Barnard) has said. I think I should direct attention in a preliminary way to two of his statements. The first one is in relation to the work force figure of 4,200,000. He claimed that that figure is a completely fictitious figure coined by me, as Minister, in recent months. He then went on to state that he believed that the Department of Labour and National Service itself would not publish false figures and that I had coined the figure. In effect, he implied that I had acted independently of the department. I take no part in the preparation of these documents and the collection of the facts. The honorable gentleman wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to praise the department, but to criticize me. If he himself looks at the document issued by the department, at the end of it he will see these words -

There are no precise statistics of the work force available, except at census dates, and the estimate of about 4,200,000 is based upon certain assumptions.

I have not made any change in the basis of those assumptions since I became the Minister. Neither did my predecessor, the present Treasurer (Mr. Harold Holt). The figures have been computed in exactly the same way ever since this Government came to office.

Mr Barnard - Those are the Commonwealth Statistician's figures.

Mr McMAHON - You did not say that. You said I had coined the figure, and you implied that I had acted on my own, without reference to the department.

The second point I wish to make clear is that there has been what can be regarded only as a deliberate misrepresentation of an answer that T gave in this House, to the effect that the Government had taken action to cure a position of over-full employment and to bring employment into balance. The honorable member distorted my answer. He misinterpreted it and suggested that it meant that the Government had deliberately intended to create largescale unemployment. Either he did not know the meaning of the conclusions he was drawing or he misunderstood the answer that I gave to the question that an honorable member had asked me.

That is all I wish to say about the honorable member's speech. I think my remarks in this debate can be grouped under three headings. First, what has been done and what has been achieved; secondly, what is happening to-day; and thirdly, the important question of what is likely to happen in the future. As to what has happened and what has been achieved, I think the House remembers our diagnosis of the economic problems that existed in October and November of last year. The Opposition agrees with that diagnosis and, I think, so do most other honorable members of this Parliament. I think it can be summarized in this way: We had a rising rate of inflation, we had balance-of-payments problems, and we had a problem of over-full employment. The economic and financial reforms adopted by the Government represented an attempt to improve that state of affairs and - this is of enormous importance - to bring about a set of economic conditions in which Australia could progress, and in which job opportunities would continue to increase. Far from having any intention to create unemployment, the Government was desirous of ensuring increasing employment opportunities in the future. It is against that background that we have to look at the problem.

I made it clear to this House on an earlier occasion, Mr. Speaker, that during each of the last two months the Department of Labour and National Service itself has effected transfers of at least 40,000 individuals from industry to industry and within industries. There have been, of course, many such transfers apart from those for which the department is responsible, and the total number of transfers is much greater than 40,000 in these months. The result of this activity has been that personnel have been transferred from important industries, in some cases quite important ones, to industries that are essential to our future progress. People went from industries such as the motor vehicle industry and certain other manufacturing industries into others engaged in carrying out public works programmes, or into heavy industries such as the metal trades industries, or into the transport industries. These transfers were on such a scale and were so successful that although there was a fall in employment in manufacturing industry to the extent of 13,700 employees, the number of public works employees increased by 14,000, and the number of those employed in other avenues of private employment increased by 11,700. In other words, something that we regarded as essential for our future progress has largely been achieved.

We knew that it was essential, in the interest of this country, that transfers of employees should take place to essential industries, and I, personally, think that the economy of the country is in a sounder position than it has been for some years past.

If you ask what proof there is of this contention, I shall refer you to the production statistics for March, 1961, as compared with March, 1960. If you consider the figures for essential industries such as those concerned with pig iron, steel, tin plate, electricity and sulphuric acid, you will find that these essential industries now have the manpower that they need, and that their production is increasing at a significant rate. The Government is entitled to claim credit for its part in the re-deployment of labour from admittedly important industries to other industries which, in our present circumstances, are much more important and even essential. In other words, we are justified in claiming that, economically and industrially, the country is stronger than it has been for some time past.

The second section of my remarks is concerned with what is happening to-day. As I have said, we have been passing through a transition stage. The Government has been criticized in various quarters, but I would point out that while the critics have highlighted the problems, few of them have said anything about the success that has been achieved as a consequence of government action. I want to state quite clearly, Sir, that it is much too early to be able to say in positive terms when the transition period will come to an end. So far as employment is concerned, I believe that the position relating to the transfer of labour has by now just about straightened itself out. As to the economy as a whole, I think it would have been fatal to make any major change before now in the policies we announced in August and November. In other words the policies are working out much as they were expected to work out. They have achieved good results. To have changed them prematurely would, 1 believe, have been hazardous. This does not mean that in particular circumstances, affecting particular States or particular industries, the Government has not taken special action.

The honorable gentleman who led the debate for the Opposition made the amazing statement that we had done nothing. Let us look at the matter from the point of view of particular industries and particular States. Take the case of Queensland. Because of seasonal conditions in that State, the Government felt that special action should be taken, and action was taken to give assistance, by way of the provision of special finance, in the building of roads and the provision of housing. 1 personally have received a letter from the Queensland Treasurer thanking the Government for what it has done to help Queensland in the difficult circumstances in which it found itself. I believe the Queensland position will correct itself fairly quickly, because it is expected that as the meat season gets under way about 3,500 persons will obtain employment in that industry. As the cutting and milling season for sugar cane commences and builds up, an additional 1 1 ,000 persons will be given employment in the industry.

It can be seen, therefore, that in special circumstances the Government acts on a State basis. It acts on an industry basis in exactly the same way. A good deal has been said about the housing industry and the textile industry. A thorough review has been made of the housing situation, and the Government has taken preliminary action to increase the number of units commenced. We believe that the Government's action will, over a period, have a quite decisive effect. There is before the Government at the present time a paper giving a review of the textile industries. If it is thought necessary and it is practicable, action can be taken to help those industries to increase the numbers of their employees.

I have given examples of special action taken by the Government, whether for the benefit of a particular State or of a particular industry, in order to sustain a high level of employment and to ensure that the economic foundations of the country remain sound. Let me now turn to what is likely to happen in the future. As I have said, we are going through a period of transition, and it would have been hazardous in the extreme to have changed major policies during that period. But again I say that action is taken on a special basis when we consider it to be necessary.

Now let me mention one or two other matters that ought to be kept in mind when we are considering the problem of the future. The honorable gentleman who led the debate for the Opposition dealt with figures showing the total numbers of unemployed, and the numbers of registrants for employment, year by year. I think his comparison was incorrect, for this reason, that between December, 1949, and December, 1960, the population of this country increased steadily from something like 7,900,000 to 10,400,000. So to compare the greater unemployment figures of 1960 with 1949 figures in that way is to make a quite illogical comparison.

Secondly, Sir, I think that when looking at the percentages we should remember the circumstances in which we find ourselves. This is a transition period in which the basic industry of the economy is being strengthened. We have had seasonal problems in Queensland, problems of mechanization and, I believe, in a sense problems caused by bad commercial judgments made by certain sections of industry. We have had all these problems in this period. For these special reasons, we should look at the figure of something like 2 per cent, as being not unacceptably large in these circumstances. In this proportion of about 2 per cent. - I leave out seasonal unemployment, which some people put as high as li per cent. - there are perhaps between 20,000 and 30,000 people who are not permanently employable. No one who takes these figures into consideration can honestly say that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves unemployment has reached a dangerous level. I do not think that in fact the position is dangerous.

Events have turned out much as was expected by the Government. What will happen in the future is now the important question, and there are some figures which should be mentioned. Since October, the numbers in civilian employment have increased by well over 12,000. This means that job oppportunities continue to increase. The number of people in civilian employment - this is not total employment - has risen to 3,077,000 - a quite substantial increase compared with the figure for October. So we are entitled to say that all this propaganda and argument by the Opposition ignores the fact that the work force is expanding and job opportunities are increasing.

I finish on this note, Sir: Those who do the greatest evil to this country are those who are attempting to destroy confidence. Those who cry fear usually die of heart failure. I suggest that over the months ahead of us the Opposition will regret, although it has not attempted to make exact forecasts on this occasion, that it has so consistently and mischievously raised the subject of unemployment in this House.

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The honorable gentleman's time has expired.

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