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Thursday, 2 August 1934

Mr SCULLIN (Yarra) . - I draw the attention of the committee to the proposed expenditure of £508,500 for naval construction. From a brief reference to this matter in the budget speech and from statements published in the press, one gathers that the Government intends to purchase a new cruiser from Great Britain at a cost of £2,280,000, and the item set down for naval construction is about one-fifth of that amount. Is Australia committed to the purchase of this cruiser, and, if so, on what authority has the expenditure been incurred? It was certainly not on the authority of this Parliament, which is the only tribunal that can give the Government the right to spend any money. If this vote is agreed to, however, the Parliament will be definitely committed to this expenditure without any information having been supplied to honorable members regarding it. The reference to the matter in the budget speech was most meagre, and only a few isolated statements regarding it have appeared in the press. We have been told that the Government intends to purchase the cruiser overseas. In the dying hours of the Parliament and on the eve of the general elections we are asked to agree to this expenditure. It appears to me that contempt is being shown for the new Parliament, and for the people who will create it. A moribund Parliament has no right to commit the next Parliament to an expenditure extending over five years. We have been informed by the press that this vessel is now under construction. Has the Government agreed to purchase it? Is it being built as the result of an arrangement or agreement that has not received the sanction of this Parliament? Surely we have some responsibility in a matter of this magnitude. The Parliament should determine whether there is need for such an expenditure, and if so, whether the money could be spent in a better way, -whether it could be expended in such a way as to provide more adequate or a better kind of defence; and, further, where the defence equipment should be made.

I shall deal first with the need for this expenditure. That is a matter which Parliament ought to consider very seriously, because it involves consideration of the European situation and of Australia's relation to European affairs. Have we so completely lost faith in the Disarmament Conference that we should increase expenditure to the extent proposed in the general estimates relating to defence? It is questionable whether the building of a new cruiser to replace one that technically has become obsolete is the most adequate means of defending Australia. On this subject the views of experts differ. I have had the privilege of presiding at a defence council, at which are expressed the views of the representatives of the different arms of the Service, and I know that in certain well-informed quarters there is the strong belief and the definite opinion that raids on its vulnerable points constitute the only danger to Australia in time of war, and that shore batteries to repel an invader and aircraft to prevent approach to our shores, would adequately safeguard Australia without the assistance of cruisers. The money expended on a cruiser would purchase many aeroplanes, which, it is believed, would be more effective. I do not speak dogmatically, because I am not an expert ; but I have listened to experts. Their views have not been placed before honorable members on this occasion; we are asked to vote blindly for the expenditure of £2,280,000 to purchase a cruiser abroad.

I take it that this Parliament will not shirk doing whatever is necessary to defend Australia; but it must be satisfied as to the necessity, and that requires consideration. A further view very strongly held, in which I share, is that, to the extent to which defence is necessary, we should concentrate upon purely defensive, nonaggressive equipment that will not be provocative, but will emphasize Australia's desire to live at peace with the rest of the world.

A further point that I emphasize is that we should consider most seriously where Australia's defence equipment, including the proposed cruiser, ought to be constructed. We are told that the cruiser is to be purchased from Great Britain. With thousands of Australians unemployed and eking out a miserable existence on sustenance, the placing of this contract overseas is monstrous. There was no justification for similar action when it was taken nine years ago, and there is none now. I stress the point that whatever is needed for the defence of Australia should not 'be purchased overseas if it can be made in Australia. I know that two contentions will be advanced which were raised in 1925, when two 10,000-ton cruisers were constructed for Australia overseas. The Labour party on that occasion fought to have both constructed in Australia or, failing that, to have at least one built in this country. The reply then was that the cost would be prohibitive, and that too great a delay would be occasioned. My rejoinder to that plea of urgency is that the only engagements in which those vessels have participated are social engagements such as the Melbourne Cup and tha Hobart Regatta. The Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Bruce, said that it would cost £800,000 more to have one cruiser built in Australia. His comparison waa not a fair one, because he estimated the cost of one built overseas by halving the contract price for the two. But even accepting that estimate, the difference would be considerably less in the case of a 7,000-ton cruiser. The exchange on this purchase will amount to £450,000.

Mr E F HARRISON (BENDIGO, VICTORIA) - If the present rate should remain constant.

Mr SCULLIN - It may go either up or down; but that is the official figure, and I am not challenging it. That would go a long way towards wiping out the difference between the cost in Australia and overseas. There is also the saving to the State Treasury in connexion with the provision of sustenance for the men who would be employed on this work. The labour cost in the construction of a cruiser of this type is estimated at round about £750,000, and the cost of local material at approximately £250,000. Expended in Australia, that £1,000,000 would employ directly and indirectly 1,000 men for more than three years. Honorable members can estimate what would be saved in sustenance alone if those men were taken off the unemployed market and given constant employment. There is, in addition, the stimulus that would be given to certain businesses aud trades, the extra revenues that would be derived from customs and excise duties, and the larger income tax returns resulting from the improved incomes of business people. It can be said without exaggeration that, taking all these facts into consideration, the cost of construction in Australia would be cheaper.

I shall quote for the benefit of honorable members a statement that appeared in a leading article in the Melbourne Age last May, which sums up the position so aptly that it is worthy of being placed on record. The statement reads -

In employing ship-builders 12,000 miles away, the Federal Government entirely ignores vital requirements, places Australia in leading strings, shows a sense of inferiority, and belittles the capacity of Australian workmanship and skill.

After all, we all stand for a policy of adequate defence. But what does the adequate defence of Australia involve ? It does not begin and end with the purchase of a few vessels that may cruise around the shores of Australia. It means, first, self-reliance. That does not imply dependence upon overseas for our equipment or replacements. If we are to be a self-reliant community for purposes of either defence or development, we must promote Australia's basic industries, use our raw materials, of which we have an abundance, train our artisans for great constructional works, and, by constant employment, keep fit our man power, which is the ±nj great safeguard of any country. All theBe essentials have been ignored by this Government, without reference to, or the slightest consideration of the opinions of, this Parliament. The announcement made is that the cruiser is to be purchased, that it is now under construction, and that all we have to do is to pass the first item of the Defence Estimates. We should not be committed to that course.

If this work is necessary, it should be done in Australia. We should be prepared to provide our own equipment. To enable the new Parliament, which, is shortly to be elected - a parliament which, I hope, will be constituted differently from that which is about to expire - to review the whole position in the light of all the facts, I move -

That item No. I of Division No. 6, viz.: - Naval construction, £508,500, be omitted.

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