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Friday, 22 May 1936

Senator MILLEN (Tasmania) . -Of all the extraordinary speeches I have listened to in this chamber that just delivered by the Postmaster-General (Senator A. J. McLachlan) is the most outstanding. Had the Minister made that speech before a vote on the cement duties was taken last week, the vote recorded would have been entirely different. An extraordinary situation has arisen over the Ottawa agreement. Viewing the intangible spirit of Ottawa through one end of a telescope the Government saw stars and the wings of spirits, but having reversed the instrument, it can now see only moths. The Ottawa agreement should not be studied as a sentimental compact; it is a clear and definite business arrangement between two countries. The Minister cannot contend that the Government of the United Kingdom entered into the agreement to grant concessions to the Commonwealth, without an assurance that we should do something in return. That is arrant nonsense. The agreement, was entered into with the object of benefiting British manufacturers and Australian primary producers. When we raise our hands and speak in adoration of the spirit of Ottawa and the Ottawa agreement, the whole position becomes ridiculous. I am more amazed when I see what the Government has done. The Government could have agreed to the compromise advocated last week by Senator Foll. But no, it returned the request to the House of Representatives, and when a member of that chamber suggested a course similar to that proposed by Senator Foll, the Government said, " Surely we have made a slight mistake. These duties constitute only a technical breach, of the Ottawa agreement, and are not something which will upset the relationship of the British and Australian peoples." Studying the basic principles of the matter, I find that the British manufacturer of cement is prepared to send his product to Australia in British bottoms to be sold here at 19s. a ton, which is less than the cost of transporting the Australian cement from the centre of production to the centre of distribution. I stand for the observation of the whole of the terms of the Ottawa agreement, which I consider is a business relationship between two peoples. While we advocate that the British manufacturer should be given a fair deal, his Australian prototype should also receive similar treatment. I deeply regret not only that the Minister has seen fit to take this action, but also the tenor of his speech.

SenatorFOLL (Queensland) [3.32]. - Listening to the speech of the Minister, I can only assume that he has carefully read the remarks which I made upon this subject a few days ago. I made my position perfectly clear in connexion with this item. The Minister stated that the negotiations being undertaken in Great Britain by the Attorney-General (Mr. Menzies) and the Minister for Commerce (Dr. Earle Page) would be seriously hampered if a breach of the Ottawa agreement were committed, that such a breach would occur if the Senate sanctioned the duties imposed on British cement by the House of Representatives contrary to the recommendation of the Tariff Board. I said frankly that, for no other reason but the necessity for preserving the Ottawa agreement would I have supported the decision of the Government. Now, the Minister has stated that, in his view, a breach of the Ottawa agreement will still be committed by the proposal received to-day from the House of Representatives. For my part, I shall not be a party to committing any breach of the agreement, and I shall not alter my previous decision to support the request originally moved in this chamber by the Minister. I consider that I was treated most unfairly by the Government in regard to the suggestion for a compromise, which I made. After rejecting my suggestion, the Government adopted it a few days later in the House of Representatives. I know of no arrangement between the Commonwealth and the British Governments in this regard; but I know that the cement industry in Queensland would have been seriously affected had the decision to admit British cement free of duty been given effect to. I asked the Government to give consideration to the position of the industry in Queensland, where it is not in so flourishing a condition as in other States. I urged the Government to allow a period of time, before admitting British cement free of duty, in order to give the Australian industry an opportunity to adjust its costs to meet the competition of cheap overseas cement. The Minister said definitely that my suggestion to postpone the issue for twelve months would be just as much a breach of the agreement as was the original decision of the House of Representatives. But now I draw attention to the Minister's change of front. He asks us to postpone for six months the free admission of British cement. Are we to believe that the postponement for twelve months would be a breach of the Ottawa agreement, while the postponement for only six months would not be a violation of it? If the agreement is to be subjected to manipulation of this kind, a most dangerous principle will be created. I believe that the Ottawa agreement is the most valuable trade arrangement that Australia has ever made, and I am prepared to support it to the last line and the last letter. I shall cast no vote which will commit a breach .of it. In view of the fact that the Government previously stated that as the recommendation of the Tariff Board must be adopted in full, in order to avoid a breach of that agreement, I shall not change my vote. I hope that the Minister will inform honorable senators whether any communication has passed between the Commonwealth and the British Governments in this connexion, and particularly whether the British Government has stated that it does not consider that postponement for a period of six months will constitute a breach of the agreement.

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