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Wednesday, 22 June 1904

Mr HUTCHISON (Hindmarsh) - I cannot believe that the Government will allow the present position to continue. Not only should immediate action be taken, but there should be a thorough investigation, in order to ascertain whether the fifty-one cases referred to this afternoon are all that can be discovered. The honorable member for Grey has pointed out that one contractor received a sum of £160, and got the work done for ^72. Either too much was paid by the Commonwealth under this contract, or the person who is really doing the work is receiving too little. I should like to know what the original contractor really does in return for the balance of ,£88. If he puts that sum into his pocket, the Commonwealth is being robbed, because he is receiving money for, apparently, no work, not even supplying the necessary coaches. The Postmaster-General interjected that no complaints have been made as to subletting. But that does not affect the question in the slightest, for the simple reason that a sub-contractor is afraid to make a complaint, no matter what he may be suffering, lest he should lose the work. It would appear from the evidence laid before us by the honorable member for Grey, that the Postal Department, instead of trying to carry out the Act, which declares that there shall be no sub-letting, has done everything possible to shield those who are committing a breach of the law which should not for one moment be tolerated. No inquiry has been made as to the opinion of the sub-contractors, and it is highly desirable that that opinion should be obtained. The hired agreement appears to me to be a mere subterfuge, and I am astounded to hear that the Department has taken no notice of the practice. Everything possible should have been done to show that this hired agreement is genuine, and at any rate to show that the Government will not countenance any attempt at an evasion of the law. I shall support the honorable member for Grey, and I trust that he will be supported by honorable members generally, not only in getting some of these contracts determined as an example, but also in securing the work for those who are performing the service. If £i6o is a fair price to pay, the man who is doing the work for £12 ought to get the larger sum.

Mr Mauger - It will be found that the men who do the work for the lower prices always work wretchedly long hours.

Mr HUTCHISON - I feel satisfied that they do, and, therefore, I contend that in this case the man ought to receive the difference between the sums, if . £160 is a fair price, and thus be able to get sufficient assistance to enable him to work a reasonable number of hours, and still carry out the service efficiently.

Mr Skene - Does not the other man take a risk under the contract in the first instance ?

Mr HUTCHISON - Apparently he takes no risk-

Mr Skene - But in the first instance he does.

Mr Poynton - The sub-contractors have to get bondsmen.

Mr HUTCHISON - It has been pointed out by the honorable member for Grey that a sub-contractor has to sign an' agreement with the contractor.

Mr Skene - But, in the first instance, the man who takes the contract takes the risk of letting it at a higher or lower price.

Mr HUTCHISON - Apparently he is not taking any risk. He is getting from' the Commonwealth almost twice the amount that he pays to the sub-contractor.

Mr Skene - That is so, but still he takes a risk.

Mr HUTCHISON - It is an extraordinary imposition on the Department that a firm of contractors like Cobb and Co. should in this instance put in a tender for twice the sum which they consider the work is worth. It must be so if the sub-contract is let for , £72. Of course the public do not complain, as the service is rendered in a satisfactory way. The contractor who is pocketing this large sum takes good care that the public are properly served, otherwise he would not get a contract again.

Mr Skene - But which of them is responsibleto the Government for the carrying out of the contract ?

Mr HUTCHISON - Undoubtedly the first contractor is responsible, but under the Act he has no right to sublet. The Department, it seems to me, has been trying to shelter firms which have been committing a breach of the law. Surely the honorable member for Grampians does notcountenance that.

Mr Skene - No; I did not know that it. was a breach of the law.

Mr HUTCHISON - Undoubtedly it is.

Mr Skene - I was under the impression that if he took the responsibility of the contract he would have the right to sublet.

Mr HUTCHISON - If the honorable member will look up the Act he will find that the contractor has no right to sublet, and that in the opinion of the AttorneyGeneral a breach of the law has been committed.

Mr Mahon - But these people deny thev are sub-letting.

Mr HUTCHISON - I am not blaming the present Ministry, but their predecessors, who, instead of carrying out the law and determining the contracts immediately, did. all that they could to get from the AttorneyGeneral an opinion that would enable, the same state of things to be continued. I trust that the House will not countenance.- the sweating that has been going on as some honorable members have said, not for a year or two, but for forty years. Surely now is the time to take action. I am astounded to hear the Postmaster-General, by interjection, apparently showing a disinclination, to do the only thing that should be done - to do justice to the sub-contractor, to the public, and to the Commonwealth. I trust that the matter will be thoroughly investigated.

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