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Thursday, 9 November 1911

Senator MILLEN (New South Wales) . - The Minister of Defence has stated the position, from his point of view, very fairly by asking the Senate to make such progress with this measure as it can. In dealing with that aspect of the case, may I point out that he has frequently expressed the view which is entertained by the Senate that a fairly reasonable opportunity should be given us of considering the finances of the Commonwealth. Seeing that this Chamber is disposed to extend to the Government a great deal of consideration in regard to this Bill, I think it is not unreasonable to ask them to afford us an early opportunity of considering the whole financial position, upon a motion which already appears upon the businesspaper. It is only right that the Government should give that debate a little more prominent place upon the business-paper than it occupies at present. To postpone the question until we are on the eve of the prorogation, will be merely to keep the word of promise to the ear and break it to the hope. I quite agree with- the Minister that there are matters which he mentioned which can be more advantageously dealt with in Committee, and I propose to follow his suggestion in that connexion. But I would direct attention to the serious practice which is growing up of endeavouring to circumvent the Audit Act. Under that Act, on the 30th June in each year, every sum which is unexpended falls back into the Consolidated Revenue, and has to be le-voted. However desirable a practice that may be in regard to votes for the ordinary annual services, its absurdity is becoming more and more manifest with each Bill that is presented to this Chamber. Nothing could have emphasized its absurdity more eloquently than did the remarks of the Minister of Defence in his attempt to defend it. He pointed out that because it is not possible to expend £600,000 upon telegraphic and telephonic works before the 30th June next, it is intended to establish a Trust Fund; and thus to evade the obligations of the Audit Act. This is not a solitary instance of the kind. I do not know whether the Minister can tell us how many Trust Funds are already in existence. I believe that the amount at present in them represents something like £11,000,000. I cannot better illustrate the position than by saying that on the Senate table there is a bottle of water, and several tumblers. The bottle we will suppose represents the Consolidated Revenue, and just so long as the water remains in it, the Senate exercises control over it. But if the Ministry pour a portion of that water into a tumbler, which I may liken to a Trust Fund, from that moment it passes out of our control.

That is the one object underlying the establishment of Trust Funds, and it doubtless explains the strong affection which the Treasury officials have for this mode of procedure. I have no objection to the cash system being adopted in regard., to the ordinary annual services, but when we are asked to hypothecate a certain sum of money for the purchase of a specific quantity of material, I say that Parliament, having approved of it, the amount ought to be expended, irrespective of whether or not it can be expended by a certain date. It is the acme of absurdity to say that, if Parliament, in its wisdom, votes £2,000 for the purchase of ammunition, because the money cannot be expended by the 30th June, it must lapse, and the Legislature must be asked to reapprove it. The extent to which this practice is growing is shown in the figures which are before us. Last year, we voted £523,616 in connexion with the Department of Home Affairs, of which only £330,468 was expended. Where is the justification for loading up the Estimates by this procedure, and of asking Parliament to reconsider its decision? This matter becomes more serious when we observe the growth of Trust Funds. Every session we create a fresh Trust Fund ? Why ? Merely to get away from the disabilities which are imposed by the Audit Act. Would it not be a more businesslike procedure to amend that Act, and to say that when we have made an appropriation for the purchase of material, or anything else, it should stand good ? When the general Estimates are under consideration, I propose to ask the Senate to consider the sums of money which are being dealt with under cover of these Trust Funds, and which thus pass beyond parliamentary control, notwithstanding that we may have had no information whatever as to the specific purposes to which they are to be applied. The Minister of Defence has assured us that though this £600,000 will be paid into a Trust Fund, not a penny of it will be spent until a Bill has been submitted containing a schedule which will disclose the details of the proposed expenditure. But 1 would remind him that a similar promise was made to the Senate on a previous occasion, and was not redeemed. I refer to the promise made in respect of the Naval Trust Fund. We were invited to' appropriate a certain sum which was to be paid into the Naval Trust Fund, and we were given the solemn assurance by the Government of the day that not a single penny of that money would be touched until Parliament had been afforded an opportunity of approving or disapproving of the proposed method of expending it. We know that that promise was not redeemed. The fund was rifled, and appropriated without any further reference to Parliament at all. The justification urged was that there had been a change of Government, and that the Ministry of the day were under no obligation to redeem the promise of their predecessors. I refer to this as showing that the Ministerial promises, although under existing circumstances they may be of value, do not in any sense protect the rights of Parliament. If we place this £600,000 in a Trust Fund, there will be nothing to prevent the Government from spending the money as they like, barring their own word ; and while I do not doubt that their promise will, in this instance, be rigidly observed, there is no guarantee to Parliament as to how the money will be spent. Parliament practically gives up its right even to inquire, or, at any rate, to control the expenditure, once it gives permission for the money to be passed into the Trust Fund. With regard to wireless telegraphy, I should like to have an assurance from the Government that they are not committing themselves more and more deeply to the Telefunken system, until at least they have had some assurance as to the result of the legal action recently instituted in Great Britain by the Marconi Company. The Telefunken system was very severely criticised elsewhere, and in the Senate, some time ago. Although the departmental view was not disturbed by parliamentary criticism, I think I am correct in saying that grave doubts existed in the minds of some honorable senators as to whether the correct course was being taken. Since then those doubts have been considerably strengthened. If any one wants proof of the assertion that the cheapest tender is not always the best, we have it in the disclosure made to-day by the Minister with reference to the Small Arms Factory. The Government of the day, with regard to both the Small Arms Factory and the wireless installation, felt itself almost compelled to accept the lowest tenders that were offered because of the low figure quoted for each. In both of these cases, an American firm in the one instance, and the local representatives of a German firm in the other, put in tenders very much below the rates quoted by their competitors. In regard to the Small Arms Factory, the Minister has to-day .furnished us with particulars as to what has occurred. The successful tenderer had hardly got to work when a claim was put in for compensation, because it was professed to have been discovered that there had been some variation from the original conditions. The same thing occurred with reference to the con. struction of wireless installation, where the Government paid 50 per cent, increase over the tender price because of some alteration in the conditions, which, I venture to say, was not worth anything like the amount of compensation claimed. We know the subsequent history of this wireless company. It is a marvellous thing to me that, while we insist upon a Commonwealth monopoly with reference to wireless telegraphy, the Government should have consented to pay 50 per cent, in excess of the tender price almost as soon as the tender was accepted. I can only hope that the Government are not going to allow themselves to get further and further involved, so that they will be compelled to go on extending the Telefunken system as new wireless installations are required. I do not say at the present time that the Telefunken system is either the best or the worst system that we could adopt. I do not raise that point at all, nor is it necessary to do so. What I am anxious for is that the Government shall not be compelled, in regard to fresh installations, to deprive itself of the opportunity of adopting any other system which may be considered to be better ; and, above all, I am anxious that the Government shall make itself abundantly safe by seeing that all legal difficulties are satisfactorily disposed of before we permit the Telefunken system to be finally installed in Australia. I have one remark to make concerning the Northern Territory. The observations of the Minister concerning the policy of the Government did not seem to promise a very hopeful future for that portion of our responsibilities. The Minister spoke of the amount set down on the Estimates for experimental farms, and said that it was intended to experiment in order to acquire that knowledge which would enable the Government to determine on lines of development.

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Hear, hear !

Senator MILLEN - Are we to wait until those experiments have been concluded before we attempt to develop the Northern Territory ?

Senator W RUSSELL (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - We do not want to spend thousands of pounds before we know how to spend it.

Senator MILLEN - Are we to wait until scientific research has demonstrated how best we can develop the Northern Territory before we make any attempt to develop it?

Senator Pearce - No; but we think it advisable to ascertain what particular kind of development is likely to be successful.

Senator MILLEN - I have quoted the Minister's words, as far as I could take them down. I understood him to say that these experiments were necessary to enable the Government to decide on lines of development. I take it, from the Minister's interjection, however, that he did not mean that remark to be construed too literally.

Senator Pearce - Hear, hear !

Senator MILLEN - I understand that we are not to wait for the result of the experiments before we attempt to develop, but that developmental works will go on side by side with the experiments which will enable us, from time to time, to readjust our developmental policy. If that be the meaning, I quite approve of what is being done. The policy pursued is satisfactory, so far as it goes ; but I should have liked to have had a more definite statement as to what is intended with regard to the Northern Territory. For myself, I am not free from apprehensions concerning it. First of all, I recognise that this is perhaps the biggest responsibility that we have yet shouldered.

Senator Findley - It is certainly a very big contract.

Senator MILLEN - It is; and I will add - and I say this with a full sense of responsibility, and with seriousness - that I regret the Government have not obtained the services of a better adviser with regard to agricultural development. I urge the Government not to tie themselves absolutely to the advice which they will receive from those to whom apparently they are looking for guidance at the present time. There are persons in Australia whose capacity is beyond question, and who have had' some practical experience - and I lay a great deal of stress upon practical experience - of tropical agriculture. The advice of these people is available to the Government if they seek it. They will do well to avail themselves of such advice before they proceed further. At any rate, I trust that they will not lay too much stressupon the reports which have been presented to them by their own officers. Before I sit down, I may draw attention to one little matter regarding the form of the Bill. We might as well be correct. The Bill professes to vote money for the purpose of " Additions, New Works, and Buildings, &c." That title finds its way on to the face of the Bill because it was the title of the first Works Bill introduced into this Parliament; but the Minister will see that this measure is quite dissimilar from that. It contains large votes for defence purposes, for the purchase of material for military stores, for armaments, ammunition, the establishment of an aviation corps, the re-armament of vessels, and so forth. These items of expenditure can hardly come under the denomination of" Additions, New Works, and Buildings." I admit that the point is not important, but I suggest that it is about time for the Government to alter this stereotyped heading in order to make the title conform to the purposes of the measure itself.

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