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Thursday, 17 June 1915

Mr FOWLER (Perth) .- I desire to refer very briefly, and without any party bias, to the momentous question of the part which Australia has taken in the present war. I do not propose to wander over the whole field which such a question opens up, but shall devote myself to one particular matter which appears to me to- be the very crux of the whole situation, and to require more consideration than it has yet received from the Government. Had the Government been fully seised of its importance, I feel sure that they would have made a move in the right direction long before now. I am referring, as honorable members will guess, to the Small Arms Factory. Here is undoubtedly the weak link in the chain. We hear a great deal about slackness in the matter of recruiting and of the obstacles thrown in the way of would-be recruits, but we are assured that Ministers have been able to equip all the men that have enlisted. All these statements are, no doubt, quite reconcilable, yet the fact remains that if more rifles had been available we should have had to-day more men at the front and more recruits offering. The heads of the Defence Department know perfectly well what the difficulty is in this respect, and they undoubtedly are not taking that interest in the recruiting movement which they would otherwise do. I wish to speak of this matter as a member of the Public Accounts1 Committee, which was able recently to secure considerable information regarding the Small Arms Factory. It was thought by the members of that Committee that the Small Arms Factory, which had been the subject of many and anxious inquiries in this Chamber and elsewhere both as regards its financial position and its output, might very well form the first object of its investigations. As far back as 6th February last, the Secretary of the Committee indicated to the Defence Department that we proposed to go into this question. We were informed straight away that the factory was doing its best, and that it would be unwise to intervene with such an inquiry as we proposed. We, therefore, endeavoured to arrange that our investigation would not materially interfere with the work. We recognised, of course, that it would be necessary to examine the manager, but that, apart from him, the principal witnesses would probably be those who were more closely associated with the financial side of the work, so that no lengthened absence from their duties would be required on the part of those who were operating the factory itself. These representations were made to the Department of Defence, and in order, as we thought, to meet the convenience of the manager, and to obviate any interference with the work of the factory, we advised him that we should arrive at Lithgow on a Saturday, and proceed with the inquiry during the afternoon. We also requested him to secure accommodation for us in the town. When we arrived at Lithgow shortly after noon one Saturday, we found no one to meet us at the station, but discovered that arrangements had been made for our accommodation at an hotel, whither we made our way as best we could. Mr. Fowler.

After lunch we considered how we could best proceed with the duties that we had set out for ourselves. We had still no information from the management of the factory as to what it was proposed to do. We therefore arranged for vehicles to convey us to' the works. As soon as we reached the grounds we were confronted by a sentry, to whom we explained our business, but who appeared to be quite ignorant of the fact that our visit had been arranged. The officer of the guard was therefore called. He was equally in ignorance of the fact, and, following out his orders no doubt, he politely suggested to us that we should clear out.

Mr Brennan - Such is fame!

Mr FOWLER - I am merely giving a plain statement of the facts. I am not blaming either the sentry or the officer of the guard for doing his duty. We went outside the grounds, and then a member of the Committee suggested that, as the manager's residence was not very far distant, the secretary should go there and inquire whether Mr. Wright was about and available. The secretary went to the house, and on his return reported to us that he had met the wife of the manager, who had informed him that Mr. Wright was away playing golf. That was rather a bad beginning. There was no sign of life or activity at the factory. However, on the following Monday, we started our investigation, and it was suggested to the manager that it would be a better course for him to wait until others we wished to examine had given their evidence, so that we could question him on any matters that arose during the course of the inquiry. As we were unable to complete our inquiry at the factory, we arranged with the manager, who was going to Melbourne shortly afterwards, that he should meet us and give his evidence there; but as that time approached we were informed by him that he was unable to leave the factory without the consent of the Minister of Defence, and we also had an intimation from the Minister of Defence that it was undesirable for the manager to leave the factory at that time. I believe that it was quite the usual thing for Mr. Wright to leave the factory and go to Melbourne on matters connected with it; and it was most unlikely that the factory would come to a stand-still if the manager was absent for a day or two on our account. Such a condition of affairs would reflect very little credit on the management. I believe that the work of the factory goes on just as well when the manager is absent as when he is there. However, the next thing to be done was to endeavour to meet Mr. Wright half way, so we arranged that lie should come to Sydney to give evidence on the 11th May. Prior to that date, however, he intimated that, as the Public Works Committee was to arrive at the factory in connexion with its inquiry about the same time, his visit to Sydney would need to "be a little later ; but we were able to, arrange with the Chairman of the Public Works Committee that we should meet the manager of the factory at the time indicated. All through this inquiry one fact has struck me, namely, that the manager has not been particularly anxious to assist the Committee. Now that the Minister has given instructions that a double shift shall be commenced, I am certain that the Government are making a grave mistake in allowing Mr. Wright to remain at the factory a day longer than is absolutely necessary, 1 understand that his connexion with it terminates about the end of August. I believe that I am expressing the opinion of the Committee of Public Accounts when I say that all along the principal obstacle to the starting of a double shift has been Mr. Wright himself ; and how we are to get a second shift put into operation effectively at the earliest possible moment by a man who all along has declared it to be impossible, I am at a loss to understand. I urge it upon the Government that Mr. Wright should be relieved of his duties at the factory.

Mr Fenton - He has to stand aside ; the assistant manager is the man who is looking after .the new shift.

Mr FOWLER - If he is to stand, aside, I do not see why he should be there at all. My impression regarding that factory, and its inability to come up tq our anticipations, was based to a certain extent on preconceived opinions that the workmen were at fault; but on going to Lithgow as a member of the Committee of Public Accounts ' my mind was entirely disabused of that misapprehension. I found that the men were of a very high class indeed, both as artisans and as individuals. Some of the foremen and leaders of the sections were exceptionally intelligent men, and there was a remarkable unanimity among the men that a second shift could and should be instituted at the earliest possible moment. I had, therefore, to discover other reasons than that the men were at fault in this regard, and I have been forced to the conclusion, most unwillingly, that the obstacle to an improvement in the output of the factory is the manager. The Committee of Public Accounts has supplied Parliament with a report upon the general conditions of the factory from a financial stand-point; but as the members of the Committee could not fail to. observe other things, it is their duty to express themselves fully and freely on what appears to be an important matter in connexion with the part Australia is taking in the war. I say, without hesitation, that the fact that Mr. Wright has been in control of this factory during this period has been a misfortune to Australia.

Mr Richard Foster - Is he not very expert?

Mr FOWLER - I do not say anything about his technical qualifications; but it does appear to me that he has lacked tact in dealing with the men, and is deficient in powers of organization. All along there appears to have been a very lamentable lack of co-ordination in the factory for which we cannot find any explanation than in the short-comings of the manager. We were unable to discover that, although the factory was short of raw material, any special effort had been made to overcome the shortage, even at a time when it was obvious that every energy and effort should have been used by the management in order to bring the factory to its very highest possible pitch of perfection.

Mr Palmer - Is the manager a British subject?

Mr FOWLER - He is British by birth, but for the greater part of his life he has been in America. I think that he has failed to realize the importance and urgency, of developing the work of the factory, and of overcoming the comparatively slight difficulties that stood in the way of a very distinct increase in the output of rifles. The Committee of Public Accounts has suggested that it may take six months to get a second shift actively and effectively at work. That period may safely be put down as the maximum. If the proper steps were taken, it should be working in very much less time, and the output should be practically doubled. We had evidence at the factory that there were many men in Australia trained to a class of work nearly akin to that which would be required from them in a small arms factory, and that a very short experience in the factory itself would make them perfectly competent. Most of the machinery in the factory is almost automatic, and none of it would be very difficult to be handled by the ordinary trained mechanic. We have in Australia, in such industries as motor-car repairing shops, men who could, in a very little while indeed, work effectively the vast bulk of the machinery employed in the manufacture of small arms. There are one or two positions in the factory for which special training is required, but I have no hesitation in saying that we could find the men, not only for a second shift, but also for a third shift, inside two, or at the most, three months. Of course, we would need to pay the men well in view of the importance of their work, but I feel certain that we would have that enthusiastic support and loyalty from the men that would make a very great improvement in the output of rifles. I trust that the Government will take the suggestions that I am making in the spirit in which they are offered. The Minister of Defence should have discovered this situation for himself without waiting to have it pointed out by two Parliamentary Committees, but I am quite prepared to admit that possibly he thought the opinion of the manager was sufficient. It was not. I think that circumstances will prove that what I say now witu regard to the manager is fully justified, and I hope that Mr. Wright will be relieved of his attendance at the factory as soon as possible. I hope also that every effort will be made to obtain the men who, I know, are to be found in Australia, who can apply themselves to the production of these rifles two-fold or three-fold, and in this way enable the Government to overcome the essential difficulty that has met the Commonwealth In regard to the part it is playing in the war.

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