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Thursday, 29 October 1931

Mr LATHAM (Kooyong) .- This is a proposal for the raising and expenditure of £250,000 for the purpose of relieving unemployment. The whole of the money is to be spent by the Commonwealth Government through its departments, principally the Postal and Works Departments. The first question that arises when any proposal of this kind is made, is, naturally, how is the money to be obtained? That question requires answering before we consider how it is to be spent. We all know that the money cannot be obtained from revenue, and it is not to be obtained by loan in the ordinary way. It is to be obtained, as a matter of fact, from the deficit; in other words, by obtaining banking accommoda-tion, and the deficit will be increased by the amount we so obtain.

Mr Theodore - It is not anticipated that the deficit which was forecast at. the Premiers Conference will be increased..

Mr LATHAM - The Treasurer assures me that the deficit will remain within the limit laid down at the Premiers Conference. The desirability or otherwise of this proposal depends upon how the money is to be expended. I approach the consideration of this matter with a full recognition of the fact that this is an emergency provision; that unemployment in the community is so general and so severe - though I am glad to see that there are beginning to appear some slight signs of improvement - that we are justified in taking emergency stops in an endeavour to alleviate the situation to some extent. We are being asked, apparently, to give carle blanche to the Government in regard to the expenditure of this money, because, in the bill which it is proposed to found on the motion now before the committee, there will be no schedule of works.

Mr Coleman - Because there has been no time to get it ready.

Mr LATHAM - There may be a reason for it. While the expenditure of £250,000 may be regarded as a relatively small contribution to the solution of the unemployment problem, when one considers the great number who are out of work, it i3 a very large sum to place at the disposal of the Commonwealth Government without some indication having been given as to how it is to be spent. I have no doubt that there is much work that can be usefully done. According to a statement of the Prime Minister, which was published in the press, much Commonwealth property is in risk of falling into disrepair because ordinary maintenance work, such as painting, &c, has not been done, but one cannot spend £250,000 on work of that kind. If we painted every building the

Commonwealth owned in Australia it would not cost £250,000.

Mr.Theodore. - The appropriation in an ordinary year for that class of maintenance work exceeds £250,000.

Mr LATHAM - Possibly, but provision has been already made in the Estimates for maintenance work, although the amount has, I admit, been reduced. It is now proposed to add £250,000 to what has been already provided for this work, and we are asked to do it, having in our possession only the most sketchy information as to how the moneyis to be spent. A broad outline of the manner of expenditure has been given. In the first place, it is to be applied in providing work for those persons unemployed. I presume that means those who will be unemployed when the money is to he spent, and not merely those who are unemployed now. No doubt every effort will be made to obtain value for money spent; otherwise its expenditure would be a waste. The work will be rationed, and nobody will obtain more than four weeks' work, or less than two weeks. As the Treasurer has said, that is only a small contribution, but it is apparently all that can be managed by the Government at the present time. The men are to be employed on relief work, and the question arises whether the money which is to be spent will be devoted to paying the men at wage rates as laid down in arbitration court awards.

Mr,Gregory. - Will employment under this plan be available to all, whether they are unionists or not?

Mr LATHAM - I presume it will be open to all, and that men will not be allowed to starve because they are not unionists.

Mr,Theodore. - It will be open to all.

Mr LATHAM - I suppose everybody believes in the principle of a basic wage.

Mr Keane - What is left of it.

Mr LATHAM - I accept the honorable member as a supporter of the principle I have stated. As the Treasurer has said, this money is to be expended in providing relief work, and, in my opinion, it ought to be made to go as far as possible.

Mr.Theodore. - Surely we are doing that, when we are employing the men for only short periods.

Mr LATHAM - No question here arises of unfair competition between one employer and another. Of course, if one private employer were allowed to employ men at a lower rate of wage than another private employer in competition with him, if differential minimum rates were fixed for private employers, it would he manifestly unfair. In this instance, however, considerations applying to competitive industries do not enter, and our chief desire shouldbe to make the money go as far as possible. There are many citizens who, because of their misfortune, would be very glad to obtain work at wages considerably below the ordinary minimum wage. I suggest that it would be better to spread the work in that way, than to confine it to a smaller number of men merely to have the satisfaction of paying the normal rate of wage for this relief work.

Mr Ward - What rate does the honorable gentleman suggest should be paid?

Mr LATHAM - I should not dream of making a suggestion as to the rale of wages that should be paid on a particular job; I prefer to leave that to the authority administering the expenditure. I have no qualifications to say what should be the proper wage for a painter or carpenter for certain work, but if we adhere to standards that were quite right in normal times we shall, under present conditions, deprive a large number of our citizens of a- chance of earning money.

Mr.Coleman. - Surely we should set an example by maintaining standards?

Mr LATHAM - I agree, generally speaking, but we have to recognize the position of the country. Honorable members must realize that if we were to provide by law that everybody in the country should be employed at the wages and standards that the court might have fixed in normal times, industry would break down. We have to recognize the unfortunate limitations which exist. Therefore, I ask for a statement on behalf of the Government as to its intentions in this regard. In doing so, I seek no party advantage. I can gain nothing by putting forward these suggestions. It is far easier to urge at all times that the full wage should be paid. However, so many of our citizens are now unable to obtain any work at all that I am anxious to make this money go as far as it fairly can be made to go.

The Treasurer mentioned the appeal that was made to employers to give as much employment as possible. I agree with the appeal. In so far as I have had the power to do so, I have done everything in the past year or two to increase the giving of employment. I have recently met quite a number of employers, men whom I know well, and* who are in charge of large enterprises, and I have appealed to them personally to give more employment. In common with most honorable members, I have also received many letters asking me to find employment for the writers. I know a great number of employers in our largo cities, and I have found that many of them are straining their resources to the utmost to provide employment. Others have said "We have gone on manufacturing stock, and now have our shelves full of commodities that we cannot sell. It is impossible for us to continue manufacturing goods if we cannot dispose of them." Accordingly, I am afraid that not a very great result will accrue from the appeal to employers, though I quite agree that some may respond. I admit that I should like to see the removal of some restrictions that are preventing householders in our cities from giving employment of a casual nature.

Mr Theodore - What sort of restrictions?

Mr LATHAM - The wage rates that are prescribed for gardeners and the like.

Mr Keane - Where ?

Mr LATHAM - In Melbourne, for instance. The rate used to be about 16s., but is now about 14s. I am aware that that is not the result of any federal legislation or award, and merely mention it in passing. There are many men who could do odd jobs and be quite useful, to whom the householder could not afford to pay the full award rate. If those restrictions were lifted, householder.0 would be enabled to extend the area of casual employment. Those rules and regulations, introduced in the interests of the employees themselves, are in some cases defeating their own object, and pre venting men from getting jobs for which they would receive reasonable remuneration.

I support the proposal. I should like to see a fuller specification of the manner in which the money is to be spent, but I recognize that a good deal of the work that will be done will be small jobs in various places, and that it would be a difficult thing to set these out separately. If, however, it is intended to undertake any large scale enterprise with this money, we ought to remember that up to the present it has been the rule that any work costing over £25,000 should receive special consideration by a committee of this House.

Mr.Theodore.- Thecost of any individual job under this scheme will certainly not exceed £2,000 or £3,000.

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