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Tuesday, 27 May 1902

Mr SPENCE (Darling) - I think that the Minister for Home Affairs has taken a wise step in making a beginning in the establishment of a Public Works department. I. fail to see how justice is to be done to the Commonwealth unless we have some representative officer in each of the State capitals to. look after our interests. If that is not done, State public works will always have preference. In the New South Wales Public Works department, for instance, the staff is not sufficient to carry out all the proposed works. Many of our works have been delayed for a long time, and if we had to depend upon the States service to prepare plans for a new building, we might never have the work carried out. We ought to secure the best architects obtainable, for in that way we should save a great deal of money. It has taken a long time to induce the State public works architects to recognise that some 'regard must be had to the tropical climate of certain parts of Australia ; and in many cases buildings for State schools, police quarters, and other purposes have been erected which are simply ovens. Now, however, our Government, architects are erecting buildings suitable to the climate in which they are placed. Those who have travelled might quote many instances of stupidity shown in connexion with the erection of public buildings in Australia, and yet it would be difficult to locate the blame. I have seen solid concrete provided by nature cut out, in order to make room for wooden blocks for a building. Of course the responsible department did not know that the natural concrete was there, and the work had to be done according to specification. I should like to ask the committee to disabuse their minds of the statements made by the honorable member for Parkes, as to the effect of the day labour system. We have got beyond the time when it would be possible for the committee to go back upon that principle. I deny the honorable and learned member's statement, that the day labour system has led to increased cost in the erection of public works.

Sir William Lyne - As a rule it has led to a reduction of 25 per cent.

Mr SPENCE - Yes. The honorable and learned member for Parkes implies that labour in New South Wales is cut down to 3s. 6d. per day. I defy the honorable and learned member to obtain men to work for such a wage.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I did not advocate the payment of such a wage.

Mr SPENCE - The honorable and learned member said that the work could be done for 50 per cent, less under the con tract system.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I said the total cost of the work under the contract system would be 50 per cent. less.

Mr SPENCE - I challenge the honorable and learned member to disprove my statement. We have to take the whole result. We have all heard of the McSharry railway abitration ease. The building of the line in question by contract imposed upon the people of the State the payment of an extra amount in freights and fares. The experience of New South Wales has proved that railways can be constructed cheaper and more expeditiously under the day labour system than they can be under the contract system. Where the contract system is resorted to a great deal of time has to be spent in carefully preparing plans and specifications in order to avoid extras, which always provide a way for contractors to get at the Government. I know of one case in which it was said that it would take six months to get ready for the first section of a line in my own State electorate, but when the officers were pushed the work was done in three months. They had been accustomed to the old method of preparing plans in a way that is unnecessary under the day labour system. It is obvious that the contract system is in itself the essence of cheating, inasmuch as it always creates a tendency to slum work. I would remind honorable members from Victoria of what took place in connexion with the Coliban reservoir many years ago.

Sir John Quick - The tar brush ?

Mr SPENCE - Yes; we have never had anything as bad as that in New South Wales. If a work is well done by day labour it will last longer, and even if the initial cost is "greater than it would be under the contract system, it is less in the end. I am sorry that the honorable and learned member for Parkes is so far behind the times in this matter, because he is well advanced in others. He ought to be consistent. He ought to oppose the erection of any post-office, and favour the letting of everything by contract. He should favour the letting out of Government by contract, the letting out of the work of Parliament by contract, and the giving of a bonus for the best work done. The contract system is the lowest in commercial ethics. It is a case of every man for himself. We have got beyond that principle, however, and- we should endeavour to deal fairly with our fellow men. A good deal of stir has been made in New South Wales in connexion with public works, and the honorable member for Laanecoorie has heard a little of the noise which surrounds "The O'sullivan." It would be a good thing if we had Mr. O'sullivan here, for he has much, practical common sense. In New South- Wales the minimum wage of 7s. per day is paid on public works, and trades union wages are paid to artisans and tradesmen. The buildings which it will be necessary to erect for the Commonwealth will not be very numerous, and I think the position is being exaggerated. My own experience is that it is very difficult to obtain anything from the postal department. In the construction of any of our buildings Ave should employ tradesmen, and we shall not be able to obtain their services at less than the trades union wage, because they are nearly all members of unions. Therefore my honorable and learned friend need not be alarmed. He would take advantage of the starving man, and grind him down as much as his necessities will allow. To be consistent he should try to get the old combination laws put into force, in order to stamp out trades unionism. When we build a post-office we put an. official in charge of it at a decent fixed salary, and why should we not similarly fix the wages of the men who construct the building ? What difference in principle is there between having an office built by contract, and letting out the performance of the work to be done in it by contract? I believe that the late Mr. Eddy stated that the New-South Wales Railway Commissioners saved £10;000by carrying- out the Locksley deviation works by day labour. There may be perhaps half-a-dozen instances in which small works near Sydney were performed unsatisfactorily by the unemployed under the day labour system ; but the men in question were very difficult men to deal with, and the system cannot be judged by small failures of that kind. A big job was carried out in my own electorate under the day labour system, and I then insisted that no men should be taken on, either upon my own recommendation, or upon that of any Member of Parliament, but that the whole undertaking should be left entirely to the man in charge, who had had a long experience in connexion with works of the kind. The result was that the work was done more cheaply than it would have been under contract, and was done well, and. without loafing on the part of the men employed. The success of the day labour system depends upon good management, but in any case the profits of the contractor are saved.

While the honorable a-nd learned member objects to paying men so much per day, he does not object to contractors making their fortunes-, either out of the- taxpayers or by sweating their employes. Where loan works are carried out by contract, the public burden is increased for all time by the profits of the contractor. I do not think that I need labour this question, because I think that the common sense of honorable members is with me. I know that the Minister for Home Affairs will stick to the day labour system, and I believe that his successors will also do so. I think "that he is right in providing, for the proper supervision of works carried out for the Commonwealth. No doubt there will be a saving in getting minor works performed by the State departments ; but all large works should be inspected by Commonwealth officials, and it is wise to establish the department now, so as to get ready for the work which will have to be undertaken in the future.

Mr. BATCHELOR(South Australia).I wish to know from the Minister whether the Electoral-office; the Public Service Commission, the Interstate Commission, and the Public Works department, will all be independent and responsible only to himself ?

Sir William Lyne - No. With the exception of the Public Service Commissioner, the. heads of all the departments named will communicate' with me through my Under-Secretary.

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