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Wednesday, 11 August 1920

Mr CHARLTON (Hunter) .- When I resumed my seat in order to permit the honorable member for Adelaide (Mr. Blundell) to move his prior amendment, I had almost completed what I desired to say. My amendment is -

That after the word "privileges" in the definition .of " Industrial matters " the words "profits, prices, cost of production relating to an industrial dispute or to any industry" be inserted.

Such an amendment is absolutely necessary if this Bill is to be a workable measure, and as so many honorable members have concurred in the view that, in the interests of the public, the tribunals proposed to be created should have the right to inquire into every phase of a particular matter which has been referred to them, I expect the amendment to be agreed to. It may be argued that it is not within the constitutional power of the Commonwealth to give this authority lo a Tribunal. I know that, in *the Harvester Case, the High Court held, that the Arbitration Court had no power to fix prices, but I am not asking that a Tribunal should be authorized to fix prices. I am simply asking- that it be given the power to trace a commodity from the point of production to its destination, and make the fullest possible inquiry as to whether the public are being charged an excessive price for it, and whether the employees can be given an increased wage without further increasing the charge to the consumer.

Mr GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Trade and Customs) - The honorable member recognises that the Commonwealth Parliament has not the power to control the price to the consumer?

Mr CHARLTON - I am sa.ying that we have no power to do that. I recognise that if I raise that argument I shall be met with the statement that it is already decided. I do not say that you should regulate the price to the consumer, but I say that you should inquire into every phase of the industry, to ascertain the declared selling price of the coal, what is actually got for it, what the consumer pays for it, what profits are made, and all kindred matters. The Prime Minister may advance a constitutional objection; but there is a distinction between the decisions given by the Court, as I read them, and my position. I know that the price of coal to the consumer cannot be fixed. I should like that to be done, and have said on numerous occasions that we should have the power to protect the public in connexion with the selling of commodities generally; but I recognise that there are constitutional limitations to our powers, and legal members may have something to say on that matter. What I propose, however, does not infringe any decision of the High Court. I desire that these tribunals may have the power to ascertain what is actually the price for which the coal is being sold, so that the wages of the miners may be properly fixed. When men are being paid by results, according to a scale regulated by the selling price of coal, it is necessary to provide the fullest information, so that there may be no suspicion engendered. Honorable members agree with me as to the need for preventing industrial turmoil, and giving these tribunals the fullest power to inquire into any industrial matter. I hope, therefore, that they will not raise the objection that my proposal is unnecessary, because the definition clause already gives sufficient power. That is .a matter of opinion.

Mr Maxwell - I do not think you will find any opinion against that.

Mr CHARLTON - I am glad to hear it. The principle of my proposition is that these Tribunals should have the power to investigate the matters I have mentioned, and although men who can speak with authority may think that the power is already provided for in the definition of " industrial matters," there is no reason why we should not make that clearer. If we believe that it is essential to the industrial peace of the country, we should make the Bill more explicit. Prom my experience of arbitration from the beginning, I say that what I propose would do injustice to none. I cannot discuss now the amendment that I intend to move in a subsequent clause, but I shall propose that all evidence relating to trade secrets be taken in camera", thus protecting the public without doing injustice to any one. Honorable members can well support this amendment, without letting constitutional objections weigh with them. We have made too many mistakes in the past by not expressing our intentions clearly and explicitly. The Court has said that on numerous occasions. I ask honorable members, who think that the power is already provided for, not to insist too strongly on that opinion, but" to permit the statement of it to be made clearer. Beyond doubt, these Tribunals should be clothed with the power for which I ask. I cannot speak for the organizations outside, but I have reason to believe that if tribunals were appointed, clothed with the power that I have mentioned, so that they could inquire into every phase of the industry, we should be able to settle any coal trouble that might arise.

Mr GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Trade and Customs) - Does the honorable member mean that the definition would give power to inquire as to the profits made at various stages by the different handlers of coal before it got to the consumer ?

Mr CHARLTON - I do not go quite so far as that. The Tribunals should be able to inquire what the coal was sold for, After the coal has been mined it is sold at Newcastle at a declared price, and hitherto all arbitration investigations have teen confined to the conditions of the coal-mining industry, and the amount of the declared selling price of coal. We should be able to ascertain, further, the freights paid for transporting the coal, and the charges made to the consumers, and we should then know whether the consumers are getting a fair deal.

Mr Prowse - Does not the honorable member think that it is for the consumer to find that out, not the miner?

Mr CHARLTON - It is of interest to the public to know whether they are being fairly dealt with; but what we are dealing with now is a Bill providing for tribunals to inquire into industrial disputes, and one of the parties to- a threatened dispute says, " If you give power for the investigation of the transactions in coal to the fullest extent, so that we may know whether it is necessary to increase its cost to the public, that will meet the case."

Mr Prowse - A representative of the consumers should be on the Tribunal.

Mr CHARLTON - I am not giving away any secret when I say that there is to be a representative of the Commonwealth present at the Conference to which the Prime Minister has referred.

Mr GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Trade and Customs) - I do not see how it would assist the settlement of a dispute between an employer and employee in the coal industry to ascertain whether the person to .whom the coal-owner was selling his coal was making an extra profit.

Mr CHARLTON - That is what we want to find out. We wish to know what profits are being made. I have already stated this afternoon that it has come to my knowledge that third class coal, the price of which is fixed under the War Precautions Act at 13s. 6d. a ton, is being sold at Newcastle for 23s. 6d. a ton. We want to probe these matters, to ascertain what is happening, and to find out whether any one is profiteering and doing an injustice to the consumer as well as to the coal-miner. The production of coal is paid bv results, and the price at which the coal is sold has to be ascertained to determine the wages of the coalminer. If t"his coal- is being sold for more than 13s. 6d. a ton, the coal-miners should get their share of the extra price. If these Tribunals have the power for which I am asking, they could get at all the facts. At the present time an inquiry cannot go* beyond the facts of the particular industry in which the dispute has arisen. The proprietors say that they are selling for 13s. 6d., and the investigation cannot go beyond that statement. If the tribunals had power to ascertain the whole of the facts, and it was found that the coal was being sold for 23s. 6d., it might be possible to bring about a reduction in the price of coal to the public, and also to increase the wages of the miners.

Mr Fenton - It might be ascertained that the person purchasing the coal was really a dummy agent of the coal-miner.

Mr CHARLTON - I am not going to make any suggestions; but we know that profiteering has occurred during the last few years, and it should be stopped, because the public should not be fleeced. We want the right to have these matters inquired into. The wages of the miners being based on the selling price of coal, they should know exactly what the coal is sold for.

Mr Maxwell - The wages of the miners are based on the selling price obtained by the men who pay those wages.

Mr CHARLTON - But if we can show that some one is acting in concert with the men who are paying the wages, to increase the price of coal, we can insist on the miners getting their fair share of the higher price.

Mr Bruce - Surely that would be' a conspiracy.

Mr CHARLTON - I should say so.

Mr Bruce - If I contract to pay wages according to a scale based on the price I receive for the commodity I am selling, and I make a secret arrangement whereby I obtain more for that commodity than I declare to be its price, I am conspiring against those to whom I pay wages.

Mr CHARLTON - Undoubtedly.

Mr Bruce - Cases of that kind are to be dealt with by the criminal law, not by these. Special Tribunals.

Mr Maxwell - The Tribunal might discover the facts.

Mr CHARLTON - A Tribunal clothed with the necessary powers- could unearth the facts, and then there would be oppor- tunity for putting the criminal law into motion. There must be means for giving publicity to these things. Some persons are making fabulous fortunes at the expense of the community. It is because of that that we want power to inquire into these matters. I am positive that the definition does not give the power that is required to put into force the amendment which I intend to propose later. If honorable members wish to prevent disturbances in the coal trade, this is their opportunity. Let them show that they are prepared to give the men a fair deal,by equipping these Tribunals with powers sufficient for an inquiry into all the facts. I do not think that there will be a stoppage in the coal trade if that power is given. We are all anxious to prevent industrial unrest, especially in the coal industry, which provides the lifeblood of most of our other industries. To-day Australia has to live within itself almost entirely; we cannot borrow money abroad. If we had a coal crisis, it would cause the greatest calamity that has yet befallen the country. A coal strike would last for a considerable time; because the miners do not come out without making a good fight. None of us wishes to see a strike in the coal-mining industry. Therefore, I say, " Put a provision into the Bill which will prevent all strikes." As a citizen I would suffer from a strike as others would suffer; but my object is to protect the country. I want this country to go ahead and produce. At the present time, the export of coal is greater than it has been for years past, and that will continue, if the miners are given something to look forward to. Therefore I hope that the definition clause will be amended so that there may be no doubt about the scope of the powers conferred on the Tribunals. If this is done, the leaders can go to the men and say, " Parliament has passed a measure which we can recommend to you, because it will permit investigation into all the facts of the industry, and you will get a fair deal." The men will then accept the Bill, and there will be no industrial trouble, and the wheels of industry will be kept going. I ask honorable members not to pay regard to constitutional limitations. I do not think there has been before the High Court, since we passed an Arbitration Act, a case such as might arise under the amendment.

The Committee knows my views. I am speaking now in the belief that the best interests of the community will be served by amending the definition clause, and by amending a subsequent clause in such a way that these Tribunals will be able to inquire into all the facts connected with the dispute which they are investigating. If that is done, I believe we shall have industrial peace instead of disruption.

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