Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Tuesday, 19 July 1904

Mr SPENCE (Darling) - It is an old saying, that the strength of a chain depends on its weakest link. The strength of the chain of the argument of the honorable and learned member for Illawarra, and of some other honorable members of the Opposition, depends on their showing in what way these navigation clauses will seriously affect the producing and shipping interests - the export trade. T thought that the honorable member for Illawarra, following up his line of argument, and dealing with the quantity of coal required, and so forth, would have endeavoured to show some connexion between his statistics and the clauses. But we have utterly failed to get any honorable member on the other side to show how these provisions will be seriously detrimental to the shipping trade. . Honorable members on the other side seem to be - raking up any and all kinds of arguments - if they can be called arguments - some are arguments and some are not. At any rate, honorable members are introducing all kinds of irrelevant matter. Statements of fact have, no doubt, been made as to the producing and exporting interests. I do not think, however, that the honorable and learned member for Illawarra would argue that only one class in the community should be considered in this matter, although any one listening to him would draw the conclusion that his opinion was that only the producers were to be considered, and that the seamen who, of all workmen, follow the most risky occupation, ought not to be provided for in a Bill of this character: -It is the bounden dutv of those honorable members who oppose these clauses, and who contend that they will detrimentally affect the export trade, to show from actual evidence in what way they will have that result. The arguments of honorable members opposite have been in the direction of proving that when a case came before the Arbitration Court that aspect of affairs would not be regarded. But it has been proved by the Western Australian representatives that the large mail steamers do not carry Inter-State freight, and that they charge enormously high rates for passengers. If that be so, they do not compete with Inter-State shipping. In that case, what possible objection can there be to allow the Arbitration Act to operate with regard to shipping generally? The Judge of the Arbitration Court, before making an award in favour of the seamen, would consider all the facts relating to the position of the Inter-State trade. But honorable members opposite argue in such a way as to induce one to believe that they desire to help the ship-owners of Australia to keep down the wages of Australian seamen. Those wages are already below the rate which the seamen themselves consider to be reasonable. . The men are contenting themselves with a reduction of 10s. per month below what they considered to be fair, in anticipation of the passing of this legislation. Suppose that this -Bill were passed without these clauses. The shipowners could reasonably argue, if the British and foreign shipping are not brought under the control of the Court, that they are subject to the unrestricted competition of that shipping, and perhaps, so arguing, might affect the award of the Court. What would happen if the seamen were compelled to go before the Court? It would mean that the British ship-owners could not' be brought into Court as witnesses by either party. There would be nothing to compel them to give evidence. On the other hand, ifthe clauses remain, it does not follow that the sward of the Court would be against the interests of the producers. If. the evidence showed that there was no degree of competition between British and foreign shipping and Inter-State shipping, the Judge would be in duty bound to recognise that fact, and would not give the seamen as favourable an award- from their point of view as they would otherwise be entitled to get. But the difficulty of our seamen would be increased if they were unable to bring the British and foreign ship-owners into Court, in order to show to what extent they did compete. No facts whatevei have been brought forward to show any connexion between the wages of . the seamen and the freight rates that are charged by the companies.

Mr Mcwilliams - I have shown that it costs100 per cent, more to ship produce viâ Melbourne than to ship by the English boats direct to Fremantle.

Mr SPENCE - If it be a fact, as is assumed by the honorable and learned member for Illawarra and others, that a rise in the wages of the seamen would increase the cost of shipping to the producers, what does that mean? It means that honorable members opposite wish to refuse to allow Australian seamen to appear before the Court in any case, no matter how low their wages may be. It has been argued by the honorable member for Perth, who quoted authorities in support of his statement, that high wages do not necessarily mean increased cost. If that be admitted, it does not follow that if the wages of the Australian seamen are increased, freights will be raised one iota. I invite honorable members opposite to work out the question to its logical issue. A noticeable fact in. connexion with shipping has been the immense cheapening of the cost of carriage, especially upon the long sea journeys. The large vessels, running up to 10,000 and 15,000 tons burden, are able to carry an enormous quantity of goods at a very much lower freight cost than used to be charged by the smaller vessels in former days. It is a well known fact that when improvements in wages and in labour conditions are brought about, the result is at the same time to cause such improvements in working as to result in a saving. That applies both to vessels and to factories. Hence it does not follow that when decent wages are secured for seamen the interests of the producers will in any way be detrimentally affected by additional freight charges. Would any honorable member on the other side stand up and say that he is opposed to paying fair wages to seamen ? He dare not go on a platform and say so. But the logic of their arguments is such that they mean what I now suggest. If, however, they do not mean that, why should they oppose the creation of a Court which could consider all the facts, as well as, if not better than, any Commission? Neither a Commission nor this House can tell exactly what the effect of the law will be until a specific case has been stated for the Court, and all the evidence has been adduced. Not until then can we get an idea of how these clauses will work out. All the rest is mere guesswork. The attitude taken up by the Opposition, with scarcely an exception, I think, is such that, in order to be consistent, necessarily they must also oppose the Navigation Bill. What is the meaning of their objection to these clauses unless they intend to oppose the insertion in that Bill of any clauses which are designed to secure any advantage to Australian shipping companies or Australian seamen, or to put Australian seamen on a fair footing? What is the use of honorable members opposing these clauses on the pretext that they would detrimentally affect producers, unless they intend to take a similar, stand when the Navigation Bill is submitted? They will see, I think, that they are taking up a most extraordinary position. As to the suggested delay through the reservation of the Bill for the Royal Assent, if it contains these clauses, I am told that in New South Wales measures affecting .shipping have been passed and 'assented to by the Governor. I believe that the Government are prepared for any delay which might result from reserving the Bill for the Royal Assent. It is not fair to raise that bogy. in order to frighten us into dropping these clauses. We have to abide by the terms of the Constitution. Even if the Governor-General should deem it necessary to reserve the Bill for the Royal Assent, that, would not be a reasonable objection to these clauses. Probably the Navigation Bill will have to be reserved for the Royal Assent. Honorable members on the other side, however, in one breath tell the Government that they will not be able to get the Royal Assent to this Bill without considerable delay, because it will have to be reserved, and ask them in the next breath to put these clauses in the Navigation Bill, which they know will take a longer time to go through the House, and will have to be reserved for a much longer period. It is not even certain that the GovernorGeneral, following a New Zealand precedent, will not give his assent to this Bill. I am informed, on good authority, that several measures affecting British shipping just as much as these clauses' propose to do, were not reserved for the Royal Assent, but were assented to locally. The position in which honorable members are putting themselves is a very peculiar one. The right honorable member for Swan spoke about the effect of this legislation on shipping, and said he would not do anything which would cause-British and foreign shipping to cease coming here. I do not think that any one of us would do anything to bring about that result if it could fairly be' avoided. But the right honorable gentleman seemed to forget that Tariffs affect the' shipping industry very materially. Although the practice of big ships coming here is largely affected by the quantity of goods which they can carry, yet Western Australia has the highest Tariff in the Commonwealth. Although it must have had some effect on the shipping, the Government of Western Australia did not seem to think it necessary to reduce the Tariff in the interests of shipping companies. When it comes to a question, of the seamen's wages, however, honorable members are very much concerned about the shipping connexion with the old world, and about a little more freight being charged. We are told by some persons, who I believe know the facts, that the steam-ship owners of Australia are making huge profits. I have not heard any honorable member propose any way of regulating freights, although we have -heard about the evil effects of high charges. But if our steam-ship owners are making unreasonably high profits, they can afford to lower the freights for the benefit of the producers, and also to raise the seamen's wages. Whether that be so or not, can any honorable member show how the Arbitration Court can affect freights? Is it proposed by any honorable member, who desires no interference with freedom of trade, that we shall have a law regulating freights? Or is it proposed that that matter shall be handed over to the decision of the Arbitration Court ? If not, why should we discuss freights, except from the point of view that an increase in wagesis assumed necessarily to cause an increase in freights, and that, as an increase of freights would interfere with the butter producer, therefore we must not increase wages, because it would affect the butter producer's income. I wish the butter producer to have a good income.

Mr Lee - They pay the highest rate of all.

Mr SPENCE - I also wish seamen tohave a fair wage. When it was sought tobenefit those who work for the butter producer, under perhaps some of the worst conditions imaginable, and at the lowest pay, honorable members on the other side objected to the. proposal, and the Bill wasamended accordingly. The interests of the butter producer were considered at the expense of the interests of his fellow man. It is again urged that the interests of thebutter producer must be considered, and that so long as that is done we should' not bother about the seaman who goes to sea at the risk of his life, and insome cases, goes down with his ship, leaving his family without a bread-winner".. '

There has been much pleading for the families of the coal miners, who, I suppose, comprise some of the worst-paid men to be found anywhere, but we do not hear much concern for the other class. I wish to be fair, and to represent all classes in the community. Honorable members on the other side appear to be the only ones who do not represent all classes. We do not want to consider only the man who makes butter, and to exclude from consideration the man who works in a ship at the risk of his life. We want to consider people all round, to set up an independent Court to decide fairly between contending parties and to give an award based on all the considerations submitted. I have not heard honorable members who speak about the rates of freight say that the shipping companies of Great Britain ought to make a vigorous effort to reduce the cost of" their coal, by getting, rid of the royalties paid to British landholders. The royalty which is paid on the coal which takes a liner to America comes to more than the wages of the captain and crew. We have not the same evils here, as the ships can obtain coal in any quantity at a. moderate price. Supposing that an award were made which compelled the shipping companies to pay a certain wage if- they did Inter-State trade: considerable savings would be effected in other ways. I have heard no argument which has satisfied me that freight charges would be affected by an award. The ships which take our great products, notably wool, and even butter, would not como under the award unless they did Inter state trade: They come here to take away butter, and if they merely coal up, and load with butter, ' they will not come under this legislation. Honorable members have failed to recognise that the companies which are affected are only those which are engaged in Inter-State trade, and surely the ships which engage in that trade ought to be brought under the provisions of the Bill. If those ships are exempted they will cause unfair competition to the local shipping companies, because they employ lascars, and pay low wages. If, under such circumstances, the Inter-State shipping companies were brought to the Court by the seamen they would at once say, "The oversea ships are unfairly competing with us because they can get men for 13s. or 14s. a month, when we have to pay £,6," and the Court would probably give an award against the men. I challenge any honorable member to say that that is not a fair statement of the situation as it affects the shipping companies and the seamen. Either we have to give up the principle of the Bill and say that we are not going to' create a Court' to settle these disputes, or we have to send before the Court all parties who are entering into competition. Such questions as whether the mail-boats should carry InterState passengers, I think, can be safely left to the Court. Taking the statement of the honorable member for Perth, who does know the facts, it would seem that there is no unfair competition in the carrying of passengers. If we recognise that there is no unfair competition in that respect, the Court would also make that recognition. The point seems to have been forgotten by honorable members that we are not passing a provision which is mandatory, although the assumption seems to be that we are passing a measure which will compel an increase of freights. We are doing nothing of -the sort.

Suggest corrections