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Thursday, 29 November 1973
Page: 2280

Senator WEBSTER (Victoria) -The Appropriation Bills have been brought forward for debate this day. I hope the Government in expecting that the Senate will pass them this afternoon, will recognise that it has the responsibility for the program that it has laid down and that it has this day brought forward for debate particularly important financial Bills. It is curtailing debate on them by saying: 'We are in such a position that the Bills must be passed this day'.

It is completely unfair that lie after lie is put forward by the Government when it suggests that the Senate is holding up the Government's legislation. Let the fact be made quite clear that Senator Murphy this day for the first time said that he requires these important financial Bills and important wheat Bills to be passed this day. The proposition is an unfair one. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Withers) that the move is intended to curtail criticism of the Government's financial policy.

Over past years the Senate has developed a system whereby the Estimates are referred to Senate Estimates committees. While the former Government was in office and for the nine or ten months that this Government has been in office, this system has worked. There is great benefit in making available to the public a scrutiny of the direct financial matters which affect this Government. Prior to the introduction of the Senate Estimates committees system, the Senate adopted a system similar to that which applies now in the House of Representatives. In my opinion, important Government financial matters do not receive critical analysis in that House, but rather the political side effects of those matters receive the attention of that House. That was the situation in the Senate. Today the situation has changed because of the establishment of the Senate Estimates committees system. The committees meet in a room. The public and the Press can attend. A Minister sits at the head of the table. He is backed by senior departmental officers who are there to answer questions asked by honourable senators if the Minister should feel that it is appropriate that the officers answer them. There has been a most wonderful change in the way in which the Senate has been able to scrutinise expenditure and obtain from the officers who probably drew up the estimates for the various departments the reasons for the expenditure and the particular policy provisions. I think that the system has been most successful. It has been a great advancement. I sincerely hope that the system will continue no matter what Party holds the reins of office in Canberra.

I served on Senate Estimates Committee F. The discussions that took place during that Committee 's hearings can be seen in the Hansard record of the proceedings. There was prolonged questioning by members of the Committee. The officers from the various departments with which the Committee dealt and the Ministers responsible for those departments who attended the Committee hearings gave direct and efficient answers to the questions. The Committee showed the greatest interest, I believe, in the estimates for the Department of Minerals and Energy. That Department was established when Labor first came into office. The philosophy adopted by that Department is most important in these days because the energy crisis which is said to prevail throughout the world may have a great effect on the Australian community.

It would appear that Australia is one of the most fortunate countries in the world as regards the energy resources available to it. We need to give sufficient attention to investigating the use of both solar energy and, more particularly, tidal energy. These 2 sources of energy have not received sufficient attention in the past. In the future we may be prompted to look at these matters more closely. It appears to me that the philosophy of a socialist government in relation to minerals and energy is perhaps more apparent than its philosophy in relation to any other field. The attention of our Committee was directed to the immensely important matter of the development of the gas fields in South Australia and the proposal to carry gas to the metropolitan areas of Sydney. We learnt of this proposal early this year. Indeed, there was provision in the Advance to the Treasurer for an expenditure of some $7m or $8m in relation to that particular venture.

Those of us who see great benefit in the retention of private enterprise in this community- this is something which is being challenged by the

E resent Government- take the view that it would e much better to allow the Australian Gas Light Co., to cope with the enormous problem of carrying the gas to Sydney, a project which will require the borrowing of something like $150m. We take the view that that private enterprise company should shoulder the burden of meeting its obligation to the consumers in the Sydney metropolitan area. Previously this problem was not thrust on the Australian people. It was to be undertaken by private enterprise. This Government saw fit in the early stages of the establishment of the Department of Minerals and Energy to take over this obligation and to put the burden on the Australian taxpayer. The Government cannot say that the Labor Party is doing certain great things because it is the taxpayer's money which is at the heart of all of these ventures. So today we have a proposal- indeed, it is a positive example of inaction- that the Commonwealth Government will be taking over the supplying of the pipes and the laying of the gas pipeline from South Australia to Sydney.

I heard on a news broadcast this morning that the first section of the South Australia to Sydney gas pipeline contract had been let. I took the opportunity to try to get the detailed information from Government sources this morning. I am afraid that as recently as 10 minutes ago I was unable to get any information from the Department of Minerals and Energy, which is regrettable. This is a most important matter as far as the Senate is concerned. Indeed, I would have preferred to have learnt by way of an announcement in the Senate this morning that the Australian Government had achieved the first part of its objective and was in the process of laying this gas pipeline. This is a most important matter. But we did not hear in the Senate today anything related to this matter. However, I was able to learn from a news broadcast from the Australian Broadcasting Commission this morning that a contract has been let. Of course, this makes obvious to those honourable senators who have debated this matter over the past year or so a very important facet of the project.

One must congratulate the Labor Government on its philosophy in this regard, because if this report is true- I take it that it is, although I repeat that we were unable to learn in this place today the facts from the Department- it would be my understanding that the Australian Government has an agreement with the East Australia Pipeline Corporation Ltd, which is a totally owned subsidiary of the Australian Gas Light Co., in relation to the various undertakings which had been given by those private enterprise companies to the South Australian producers. From answers received to questions asked at the Estimates Committee hearings, where answers to questions on particular matters were not forthcoming, I believe that agreement must have been reached. So the assurances that had been given to the South Australian producers in relation to the contractual supply of gas must have been met by the Pipeline Authority. However, there is a challenge at the present time as to the legal capacity of the Pipeline Authority to enter into valid contracts. In spite of this, undoubtedly agreement has been reached, and this agreement involves the Australian Government as part of the contracting authority.

I am aware from the announcement that was made in the news broadcast this morning that the first part of the contract for the laying of the pipe apparently has been granted to the Italian Government corporation, namely, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi. To me this is a particularly important matter. I was most anxious that a statement in this regard be made in this chamber on behalf of the Minister for Minerals and Energy (Mr Connor). If a tender which is submitted is far cheaper than that of any competitor, one must be encouraged to accept that tender. I take it that that is the basis on which the tender of the Italian Government corporation, ENI, was accepted in relation to this particularly important and valuable work. If the Australian Government was involved in the decision to grant this contract to the Italian Government, it is a pity that it did not allow some Australian contractor to gain this prize. We know that the Minister for Minerals and Energy, Mr Connor, envisages a network of pipelines throughout Australia. How this will be achieved, I am afraid I do not know. We have seen maps which show the pipe going from one side of Australia to the other- from Perth to Brisbane and from Perth across to South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. It is a most wonderful vision but a most expensive vision for the people of Australia.

Senator Lillico - Could not private enterprise have done the job just as efficiently?

Senator WEBSTER -There is some degree of doubt as to whether the grid initially envisaged is necessary. For instance, there is very little necessity to take gas to Melbourne from other States. Melbourne has a most wonderful future so far as the supply of gas is concerned. Right on its doorstep it has the Barracouta field and other fields in the Gippsland region. But the maps show that it is envisaged that a grid will be built throughout Australia, for which the Australian people will be encouraged to provide the finance. In many years to come it may be shown that there is some wisdom in this proposal. Perhaps it is a project that envisages the position 50 or 100 years ahead. The point I make is that it is surprising to me that a Labor Government which, to the great disgrace of the Australian community, has criticised nearly every international corporation finds itself involved in a contract, as I understand it now, for many millions of dollars, for the initial laying of a pipeline from South Australia across the New South Wales border.

Of course, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, as I understand it, is substantially owned by the Italian Government. It is a complete socialist corporation. Perhaps the position now is that Australia does not criticise international corporations if they are socialist controlled. It is interesting to me that in the initial stages of this very important work apparently this is the policy of the Australian Government. I would congratulate it if, in actual fact, vast savings can be made in the provision of this pipeline. Undoubtedly, the position is that ENI has been able to tender for the job, calculating the enormous cash involved. Perhaps it has seen the enormous future that lies ahead if a pipeline grid is to be built across Australia such as is likely under this Government. That Corporation should be able to remain in operation in Australia for many years. Once a company has the equipment and has undertaken some work it can generally quote for the ensuing stages of a project at a price which is lower than that of any competitor who has to come into the field.

Members of Senate Estimates Committee F received excellent advice so far as it was possible from the Ministers and the departmental officers who appeared before them. I thank them very much for the evidence they gave to the Committee. Of course, this legislation, when passed, will make available to the Government the moneys required for purposes mainly outlined in a Labor Government's first Budget to be presented to the Australian people for approximately 20 years. The general attitude of the Opposition is that when a government has been elected to office and presents its Budget, the Opposition will not oppose or vary areas of expenditure contained in it. The Senate very seldom seeks to repudiate expenditures that are proposed by the government of the day. It is interesting to note that one of the first variations to the financial proposals contained in the Budget apparently was made by the Caucus of the Labor Party which suggested that there must be at least some variation in the allocation of funds as proposed. That having been done, if the Government is willing to accept some variations to its Budget and if it accepts that its proposals do not have all wisdom, it really gives the Opposition an opening, whereby in the future it should be able to vary Government budgetary proposals

There has been much discussion of Labor's proposals in relation to these 2 Appropriation Bills. It is my view that expenditure in many areas will not serve this country well. There are many areas of new expenditure. Undoubtedly, the extra people employed by the Australian Government will place a burden on the producers of goods. The Labor Government has taken into the Public Service over the last year a large proportion of those people who previously were said to be unemployed. One of the points placed before the public prior to Labor's coming into office was that there was a large and unacceptable level of unemployment in the Australian community. In actual fact, at that time the former Government had one of the best records in regard to unemployment in the world. So from a situation prior to the present Government coming to office, when the unemployment rate was running in excess of 120,000 people, we now have a situation with which the Labor Party is particularly satisfied and the Minister for Labour (Mr Clyde Cameron) saying that there is virtually no unemployment in Australia. However, the latest figures show that 67,000 people are unemployed.

It is interesting that the fact that 67,000 unemployed people is of no concern to the Labor Government. It is my view that the main body of those people would be individuals who are transferring from one job to another or who are, in actual fact unemployable. They would be unemployed not only through their own endeavours but also because they have some disability which makes it impractical or impossible for them to be employed permanently. But there is still a very big impact on the Australian community by the subsidy that is required to support those individuals. This is particularly so at a time when supposedly there are more jobs available than there are people looking for them. The position for the last 10 years has been that if good labour is available, there are hundreds of thousands of vacancies in industry. I agree with the Labor Party that at present the level of unemployment standing at 67,000 represents, as Mr Cameron says, virtual unemployment. This situation has been brought about to a great extent by the Labor Government putting the unemployed on the Australian Government payroll.

The criticisms made previously by the Labor Party about the high incidence of unemployment in the community were totally unfair. In my opinion, this action has had a great impact on the inflationary trend. Senator Cotton, who spoke previously in the debate, mentioned that this inflationary rate was disastrous for Australia. There would be few people of repute, people whose word can be accepted or who can point to some experience in the business community, who would not give as their view that the greatest strain placed on all sectors of the community is that Labor has managed to run the inflationary rate to as high as it is today. It is useless for members of the Labor Party to say that this is something they inherited. It is useless for them to point to what is happening overseas and to say: Look, some overseas countries are as bad off as we are'. The fact is that prior to Labor's coming to office there was a very high rate of inflation in some overseas countries. But the management of this country by an anti-socialist government produced a record second to none. Prior to Labor's coming to office Australia had the lowest rate of inflation of almost any country. Now, our rate of inflation is linked with the highest rates of inflation. This is a situation for which the

Government can be criticised. Perhaps it is a situation which the socialist Labor Government intends should continue. I do not know whether the philosophy of the Government is that harm should be wrought on the people of Australia by encouraging this high inflationary rate. But members of the Labor Party must accept that it has been brought about through their philosophy. The policies which they laid down during their first months of office have induced this situation.

The situation to which I referred whereby people were encouraged to be unemployed was created immediately after the Labor Government came into office. What is its philosophy if there are more vacancies to be filled than persons offering for employment in all sectors of the community, from the labouring section to the professional section? At the moment, vast numbers of jobs are unfilled. Why is it that there are 67,000 people who apparently the Australian people have to support on a fairly high level of unemployment benefits? The Labor Government saw to it that there was encouragement in various areas of the community for people to live very happily on the unemployment benefit that is provided by this Government. Let me instance one thing which I believe greatly disadvantages the community and that is that 18-year olds now can obtain full unemployment benefit. I have a son who is now approaching that age. I will be most disappointed if when he turns 18 years of age he is handed money and there is no inducement for him to get out and work for it. This unemployment benefit is at present and in future will be a disincentive for a young man to get out and get into the hurly burly of life.

Senator Primmer - Hogwash.

Senator WEBSTER - If the honourable senator who interjects does not believe me he should look at the other side of the argument. The honourable senator knows that what the Government is doing is providing groups of young men with a comfortable living without having to work. We in the Opposition believe that certain standards should be preserved in the community. In my opinion this move has not been made in the best interests of the Australian community and it will tend to create economic problems in the Australian community.

The Government has allocated money to many areas. Australian Government expenditure has been increased by some 20 per cent. The Government has flushed money for housing into the community. It has expressed a great philosophy that everyone should be housed, and

I believe that this is a correct philosophy. But the volume of money that is required today and will be required in the future to provide housing for everyone who may feel that he would like a new house will create a burden which will be beyond the resources of the Australian producer to provide. The activities of the Australian Government in this field have produced one of the worst encouragements for inflation.

The policies of the Government in the housing field have completely changed the level of demand for materials in the building industry. Prior to Labor's coming to office a genuine situation had been created in which goods were being supplied for the volume of homes and industrial buildings that were required. In this situation the consumer was able to argue for a discounted proposition if he had the ability to buy. There was the opportunity for the builder to go to the supplier and demand a discount and receive a lower price for the goods. If he was an efficient builder and was able to supply the cash at the time he was given that discount. At that time the escalation of costs was controlled.

I was the only member in either House of this Parliament who spoke against and criticised the former Government's resale price maintenance proposition. Of course, some honourable senators may have a philosophy that one cannot oppose the fact that agreements should not be made which some people say add greatly to costs. However, let me tell honourable senators from practical experience in the building industry that resale price maintenance agreements allowed a producer of a particular item to say that, for example, no more than a 15 per cent margin would be placed on an item that would be required in building a house. At least the margins of profit were known and demonstrated to the public by a price list which was generally maintained throughout the community. This certainly was not a price list which contained high profits. But this practice has been abolished by the Government under its prices justification proposal.

We find that today there are no price lists. Today when one attempts to buy goods which are now in short supply one finds that nearly all of these channels of business are bypassed. There is no indication to the community at what price a product was sold to the middle man. At all stages, the price is the best that can be gained. I believe that this is greatly to the disadvantage of those in the community who wish to acquire houses. I believe that measures which have prohibited resale price maintenance in favour of the prices justification proposals of this Government have absolutely harmed the consuming public.

Senator Cavanagh - It is time that we got control of prices.

Senator WEBSTER -The stupid philosophies that you have followed all your life, Mr Minister, no doubt will bring this country to disaster. The Minister has a socialist philosophy which leads him to believe that the Labor Party has all the brains to determine how to run this community. But the Labor Government has demonstrated very aptly in the first 12 months of office that it is ruining the economy of this country. Just about every other socialist country has done the same thing. We are in this position because of the ignorance of individuals who have never been associated with business in their lives. This is one of the problems that we have with the Cabinet today. It is made up of either legal people or people who have come from unions and who have never had to deal with the problem of running a hard working business in their lives. They do not know what it is all about. This attitude is proving disastrous to the community.

The Government's attitude to resale price maintenance and its advocacy of its prices justification proposals have serious implications to the community because they are resulting in a great escalation in cost. We argued in this chamber before the Prices Justification Bill was passed that there would be enormous problems in the bureaucracy that would be needed to control the prices of companies which had a turnover of more than $20m a year. What has the Labor Party done? It has exempted those companies which would have the most significant impact on prices. I have attempted to get a list of the companies that have been exempted from having to put their price increases to the Prices Justification Tribunal. But you can bet your life - and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Senator Cavanagh) is now looking up over his paperthat some of the big retail stores are exempted. What a horror it is for the community that this type of thing is allowed to go on. What the Government proposes is a complete fiasco. On the one hand there are companies which supposedly have a turnover of $20m a year and which have to go before the Tribunal if they want to increase their prices; on the other hand there are some other companies with a turnover of $ 10m a year- still a sum of substantial concern to the community- and they are free to do what they like. It is just plain stupidity for the Government to introduce measures which have led to the inflationary situation that we have in Australia today.

Senator Primmer - Do not be so stupid.

Senator WEBSTER -Whoever said that I guess is a brilliant senator. Was it the senator from Tasmania?

Senator Poke - Yes, the same place as you were born.

Senator WEBSTER -That is correct. One does get the view that it is a stupid attitude and undoubtedly socialists think that way. But honourable senators opposite cannot argue against the facts. Why did the Government exempt big retail stores?

Senator Gair - Because Mr Myer supported it at the last election.

Senator WEBSTER - I did not say that and I would hate to think that that was the reason. I would rather think that these stores were exempted because of the ineptness of this Government when it presented legislation in the Senate which proposed that those enormous stores that had a turnover of more than $20m would have to put before the Tribunal perhaps 1,300 invoices a day for examination. The whole proposition was impractical. But it is interesting to ask again why the Government has exempted certain business concerns. The point raised by Senator Gair is one that leaves a query. Such a measure affects not only the business community but also those people who Labor says it supports. On 2 occasions I attempted to ask a question in this place in regard to this matter but Senator Murphy and all other honourable senators opposite attempted to intervene so that I would not get a clear answer.

Labor's policies have also affected those people who are in receipt of a basic pension, and in particular the age pension. I have asked the Minister for the Media (Senator Douglas McClelland) to supply facts to prove that my information is incorrect, but the information I have shows that the basic pension when the Liberal-Country Party was in power last December was 20.7 per cent of average weekly earnings. The Government has said that the basic pension will be lifted to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings.

What does the philosophy of a socialist government do? It aggravates the situation in which inflation eats up all the benefits that were once available to the public. Not only that, it prompts everybody who has a few dollars in the bank and who sees what is happening under the Labor Government to channel their money into fixed assests. The entire population has been attempting to acquire fixed assets, thus increasing the inflationary rate, but it was Labor's philosophy that started the trend.

Senator Wright - The honourable senator does not mean fixed assets; he means the assets of real estate.

Senator WEBSTER -No, it can be beyond those. The demand is coming not necessarily for real estate but also for those particular assets the demand for which I have suggested is causing this escalation of costs in other areas. In December 1972 the basic pension rate was 20.7 per cent of average weekly earnings. The Labor Party was critical of this and said that this ratio was too low. It promised pensioners that it would lift their pensions. When Labor attained office it increased pensions by $1.50 a week on 2 occasions. It attempted to show that it was doing something for pensioners, but the proportion of the basic pension to average weekly earnings has now fallen to 19.5 per cent. So instead of an increase for the poor pensioners, there has been a depreciation. This is happening under a socialist philosophy.

The Government must be aware of this; I do not doubt that the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) and the Treasurer (Mr Crean) are well aware of this situation. What is being done about it? The only action that has been taken in this House is for the Leader of the Government and a couple of his colleagues to try to suppress the question; they would not like it to be repeated over the air at question time. These are the facts. Labor policy is causing grave harm to people who are said to be supporters of Labor. They will wake up shortly that the philosophies of the socialist Government are total anathema to them. In actual fact the pensioners are now getting a decreased benefit. The basic pension has depreciated by 1.2 per cent, from 20.7 per cent of average weekly earnings to 1 9.5 per cent.

I do not know how a Labor Government can argue against this. Of course, the only thing it can do is to find more money from the Treasury to try to keep its promise. However, I think it will be many years before pensions catch up with the promised 25 per cent of average earnings. That objective will never be achieved, even by the proposal to increase pensions by $1.50 a week twice a year, when the inflationary rate in this community is over 6 per cent per annum. The only thing that can happen is that the value of pensions will depreciate. As the Opposition sees it, the financial policies of the Government are causing a rate of inflation that is harming every section of the community. This Government has a policy of increasing Government control over all aspects of industry. As the main spender of money, it is bringing about an increased rate of inflation. By putting on labour it is creating a labour shortage in the community. Whilst the Opposition in the Senate does not agree with the Government's policies, it does not oppose the passing of Appropriation Bills (No. 1) and (No. 2). However, we are genuinely of the opinion and can offer evidence to show that Labor policies are disastrous for the Australian community.

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