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Thursday, 13 September 1928

Mr PERKINS (Eden) (Monaro) . - I wish first to congratulate the Treasurer (Dr. Earle Page) upon his early presentation of the budget. Every year since he has held that office he has introduced the budget at the earliest opportunity. On this occasion he brought it down on the day after Parliament reassembled. Such a practice gives satisfaction to honorable members. In the State Parliaments the budget is invariably presented late in the session. I know of cases in which the budget was presented when half the year with which it dealt had expired, and on one occasion the financial year was in its ninth month. In those circumstances a Treasurer has an easy task, because he can forecast for the balance of the year in the light of his returns during the first portion of it. The present Commonwealth Treasurer cannot have in the month of July reliable information regarding the seasonal prospects. The indications may be favorable, and yet the results may be disastrous. That was the case last year; it promised well, but there was a shortage of 50,000,000 "bushels in the wheatcrop. Such an occurrence must exercise a marked influence, upon the flow of imports, and affect every department that is concerned with finance.

It is particularly disadvantageous to a Federal Treasurer, who has to rely so largely upon customs receipts and the export of wool, wheat, and other primary products. It was only to be expected that in the circumstances the honorable gentleman's forecast of receipts would not be realized.

Dr. EarlePage occupies a most unenviable position. Although he can congratulate himself upon having held the office of Treasurer for a period longer than any of his predecessors, at the same time he is subjected to criticism in the press and by honorable members of the Opposition when he has a surplus and also when there is a deficit. It appears to be a case of you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't. The criticism that has been directed at this budget is not supported by the facts. Ever since the present Government assumed office the press of Australia has been urging that the annual surpluses should be devoted towards reducing taxation. Shortly after it came into power the Government made a considerable reduction in income tax, and on two subsequent occasions gave further relief in that direction. It has also lowered the land tax and amusement tax, and reduced the postage rate for letters from 2d. to 1½d. Those reductions represent an amount of £6,000,000. Oldage pensions have been raised during the last five or six years by 5s. a week, and the act has been liberalized in the direction of allowing a greater number of persons to come within its scope. The last financial year ended with a very small deficit.

Mr Fenton - It is the biggest deficit since the establishment of federation.

Mr PERKINS - On the basis of population it is small compared with that which occurred recently in the State of New South Wales. Some persons argue that the deficit should be wiped out by an increase in taxation. They say that this is the first occasion upon which the Commonwealth Parliament has not adopted that course to restore the balance during the current year. I point out, however, that on former occasions when Parliament passed a special act to increase taxation it was found later to have been absolutely unnecessary. I have every reason to believe that we shall pull through this time without recourse to that expedient.

The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Scullin) has stated that the estimate of customs receipts for the months of July and August has not been realized. On the other hand, a few days ago the Treasurer stated that those receipts were, if anything, in excess of his anticipations. If that is correct, the prospect of ending the year with a surplus looks particularly bright.

When the last budget was presented, honorable members of the Opposition were challenged by the Prime Minister (Mr. Bruce) to indicate directions in which savings could be effected. The only suggestion advanced was that of the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Brennan), who said he could save £4,500,000 by omitting the proposed vote for defence.

Mr Brennan - Can the honorable member quote me to that effect? .

Mr PERKINS - I am trusting to my memory. The suggestion was made in an aside. Does the honorable member repudiate it ?

Mr Brennan - I do, absolutely.

Mr PERKINS - If the honorable member denies having made the statement, I shall not press the point. Last evening, the Leader of the Opposition suggested several directions in which money could be saved; but the items to which he referred are as infinitesimal as a fly on the dome of a large cathedral. He asked a few pertinent questions in respect of small amounts, but did not deal with anything involving large sums. I have no doubt that effective replies will be made to the questions he asked, for the public business is being transacted by honorable men. Even if economies were effected along the lines suggested by the Leader of the Opposition our deficit would still be nearly as great as it is.

No honorable member has challenged any really big item in the budget. We all realize that a large proportion of our expenditure is due to the war and its aftermath. About £30,000,000 of the expenditure for which the Treasurer has budgeted is directly due to the war. We must honour the promises made to our soldiers, pay the interest on our war loans, ' and generally carry out our obligations in that regard. No one has suggested that any of these obligations should be repudiated. Our old-age and invalid pension scheme involves us in the expenditure of £10,000,000 per annum. These two items alone account for about 86 per cent, of our expenditure, and I do not think that any honorable member would suggest that they present possibilities of desirable economy. There is, as a matter of fact, very little room for big reductions in expenditure. The country is to be congratulated upon having such a sound and good administration.

The diminution of our customs revenue last year is accounted for by the marked decline in the importation of luxuries. Practically the whole of the £2,105,748 was lost because of a falling off in the importation of musical instruments, jewellery, wine and spirits, motor cars, and similar luxuries. We imported fewer of these items because we encountered a bad season.

This Government deserves credit for having reduced the per capita indebtedness of the nation from £66 4s. 3d. in 1922 to £59 15s. lOd. in 1928. If it continues in office long enough and carries on in the same fashion it will ultimately wipe out our national debt. The Leader of the Opposition last night quoted figures covering a six-year period to show that the affairs of the country were more effectively administered than during the six years of the Bruce-Page Government. I propose to give a few figures in support of the opposite contention. I have, taken figures covering the concluding three years' operations of the last Labour Government, that is, from 1910 to 1913, and the last three years of the present administration. In its three years of office the Labour administration spent £9,147,951 from revenue on new works, naval construction, &c, and £1,208,078 from loan. . It paid less to the States, £7,116,230, by substituting the per capita payments for the provisions of the Braddon section. Its net expenditure, apart from loans, was therefore £2,031,731. Similar figures for the present Government are £6,171,470 from revenue; £21,781,299 from loan and £2,691,952 paid to th'e States. Its net expenditure, apart from loans, was therefore £8,862,000 on the three items mentioned. In the three years of the Labour administration, direct taxation increased by £1,564,000, and indirect taxation by £3,959,870. The increase per head in direct taxation was 6s. 7£d., and in indirect taxation 12s. 8id. making a total of 19s. 3Jd. In the last three years of the present administration direct taxation has decreased by £451,000 and indirect taxation has increased by £4,250,949. The decrease per head in indirect taxation has, therefore, been 4s. 6-Jd. and the increase in indirect taxation has been 6s. 3fd., making a net increase. of ls. 9d., as against the net Labour increase of 19s. 3|d. I suggest, therefore, that the people would be wise to return the present Government with a majority at the coming election.

The increase in our debt in the year 1927-28 was £6,1S9,205. That looks serious, but an analysis of the position show that there is a simple explanation, of it. It will be remembered that during our debate on the proposed sale of the Commonwealth ships Ave were informed that it was estimated that the vessels were worth £7,000,000. They appeared on the national ledger as an asset worth £5,113,716; but, unfortunately, the highest tender received for them when they were offered for sale was £1,736,000.

Mr Fenton - They were given away.

Mr PERKINS - It certainly would have paid the Government to give them away, and I think that we were fortunate to dispose of them for £1,736,000. But the sale of the vessels at that figure meant that we had to write off £3,377,716. This is the reason for the large increase in the debt for last financial year. In the six years that this Government has been in office the national debt has increased by only £8,166,052, so the Government's achievements compare very favorably with those of any other Commonwealth or State administration.

It may be asked what the Government proposes to do to meet the deficit. It does not intend to increase direct taxation ; but it is saving expense in other directions. For instance, the grant to Tasmania will be decreased this year by £158,000 in consequence of the bill that we passed this week. We should also save about £150,000 in respect of the wine bounty. I know that the honorable member for Angas (Mr. Parsons) and honorable members who represent Tasmania may not agree with these economies; but Parliament has approved of them in view of the stability now reached in the wine industry and the improved financial position of Tasmania.

I hold views in connexion with the Government's public works- policy which may not be acceptable to some of my colleagues. I contend that when times are bad the Government should draw upon all its resources to maintain a vigorous public works policy. It should not tighten the purse strings, for thai only sets an example for private enterprise to follow. If, when times are bad, we can maintain our people in constant employment by providing public works, we should minimize the 'difficulties of the community. Such a period is not opportune for the cutting down of expenditure from either loan or revenue if it can be avoided. The Government should be careful of its expenditure in good seasons when private enterprise has money available for undertakings which provide a lot of employment, so that it may have more money to spend when money is not available from other sources.

I was glad to hear the honorable member for Martin (Mr. G. Pratten) commend the Government last night for cooperating with the States in big national roads and housing schemes. When the federal aid roads scheme was first suggested in this Parliament, a few honorable members on both sides of the chamber opposed it; but time has proved the wisdom of it. The State of New South Wales has this year available about £4,000,000 for road work. The recent Labour administration in that State was not enamoured of the scheme, but the present Nationalist Government has signed the agreement. New South Wales is not yet reaping all the benefit that the scheme will yield her, for she has not been able to get her machinery in full working order. Hoad construction has been carried out all over New South Wales, and for this fact the Government deserves credit.

The intention of the Government to introduce a housing scheme was announced on the hustings three years ago. The sum of £20,000,000 has been allocated for that purpose, and I believe that three of the States propose to co-operate with the Commonwealth in this matter. The erection of homes under this scheme will relieve unemployment to a considerable extent, and the sooner the other \hree States come into line the better it will be for the workers.

The operations of the Loan Council have resulted in the States obtaining money at a lower rate of interest than they previously paid. Despite what, has been said by the Opposition, the rate at which the Treasurer borrowed money in New York is lower than that paid by any other country except Canada since the late war. That is an effective answer to the criticism that the Treasurer has been extravagant in his administration. The Government has reduced our war indebtedness by £40,000,000. It is true that while we have been establishing a sinking fund for the discharge of the war debt, which was a dead weight for the nation to carry, large sums have been borrowed for various works. These, however, are largely of a revenue-producing character.

Generally speaking, I have nothing but praise for the Postmaster-General (Mr. Gibson) ; but I have a few complaints to make to him this evening. He is naturally proud of his department for the great increase in the use of telephones. Country subscribers pay a lower rate than those in the city areas, and during the present Government's term of office the number of telephones in use in the country has been more than doubled. In the last couple of years many country post-offices have been repaired, and others that were inadequate have been replaced by buildings that are a credit to the Commonwealth: I take exception, however, to the policy of retrenchment that has been practised lately. The employees of the department, on the whole, do not receive the remuneration that should be paid to them. The Post Office is looked upon as the Cinderella of the Service. There is a general clamour for cheap postal facilities, and the department is practically compelled to employ a large percentage of boys and youths. Young persons should not be required to work all night in telephone exchanges.

Mr Gibson - If they were not, the service would have to be curtailed.

Mr PERKINS - I know that the Minister has not unlimited funds at ,his disposal. Australia has the lowest longdistance telephone rate in the world, and as the public desires to have a cheap service it is questionable whether cheapness should be the sole consideration. But complaint on this score has been made to me, and I bring it before the Minister. In 1926-27 the Post Office made a profit of about £350,000; but last year there was a deficit of about £47,000. Taking the operations over a number of years, however, it will be found that this department contributes considerable sums to the general revenue. I fail to see any justification for the recent dismissals of employees. To some extent, this action reflects on the Minister personally. If a post office is found to be able to do its work with one employee less than it previously had, the inference is that it has been overstaffed for some time. The residents of Bombala are indignant over the retrenchment that has taken place there. Can the Minister justify that action? The local post office is to be closed on Wednesday afternoons, but the residents are informed that the usual facilities will be available to them. If a young girl or a lad can attend to the postal requirements of that community on a Wednesday afternoon, why is not a similar staff sufficient to carry on the work of the office during the rest of the week? The statement of the department is absurd.

Mr Gibson - There has been no curtailment of the facilities. The telephonic and telegraphic business is carried on as usual on Wednesday afternoons. The postal branch only is closed, as is every place of business in the town.

Mr PERKINS - I am ventilating the grievance as it has been stated to me by the local municipal council and other public bodies whose representations I have already placed before the Minister.

The post office at Bega is a substantial building, but it is antiquated and inadequate for the requirements of that important town. Not long ago a competition was held to decide the most beautiful town in New South Wales, and Bega would have won the prize if it had not been for its antiquated and disreputable post office. The commissioners who judged the competition made adverse comments on the public buildings of Bega. I hope that the Minister will take steps to provide a building worthy of the town.

In another direction also the department has embarked on a policy of retrenchment, with which I do not agree. In some towns in my electorate the department is utilizing the services of boys in the post office to do work which, for the last 30 years in one case and a shorter time in the others lias been performed by mail contractors. When the parents of the boys obtained positions for them in the post office, they felt that their sons were associated with a department which would foster in them a sense of personal dignity; but now they find that their boys are required to push a barrow containing mail bags two or three times a day between the railway station and the post office. The parents are naturally dissatisfied. These lads have to pass clerical examinations to enter the Service. Who can wonder if they decide to place them in different positions? A retrenchment policy of that kind should not be countenanced by the Minister.

In its last annual report, the Tariff Board exceeded its duty when it criticized members of this Parliament. The board was appointed to make certain investigations, and to submit reports thereon. Having done that, its responsibility ended, it* then remained for Parliament to approve, or otherwise, of its recommendations. While a guide to Parliament, its reports have not necessarily to be adopted by Parliament. I resent the tone of the board's report.

I should like to see a permanent representative of Australia appointed to the League of Nations at Geneva. Besides being much more satisfactory than the present system of sending a representative to the League assemblies from time to time, the cost to Australia would be much less. Last year the cost of sending the Australian delegation to Geneva was about £7,000, whereas- only about £4,000 would have been necessary if Australia had a permanent representative there.

Mr Parsons - A permanent representative at Geneva might get out of touch with Australia's view-point.

Mr PERKINS - I hardly think that would happen; but, in any case, it could be prevented by our representative paying an occasional visit to Australia. The High Commissioner in London should have sufficient on his hands without being also our representative at Geneva. We need a permanent representative at the head-quarters of the League.

In order to meet cases of undoubted hardship the legislation dealing with oldage pensions should be amended in the direction of assisting wives or husbands who are living apart. Unfortunately, many married couples who do not wish their domestic affairs to be made public, and, therefore, do not approach the courts for judicial separations, or divorces, are unable to agree, and consequently live apart. Should one of them apply for an old-age pension, and the other be in receipt of a fairly substantial income, or possess property above a certain value, the application is refused by the department. The law should be altered to meet such cases. Surely we should not force these people to make their affairs public in the courts of the land. It should be sufficient in order to obtain a pension for an applicant to produce evidence that the other member of the union has not rendered any financial assistance for a considerable period. Legislation along the lines I have suggested would probably increase the total expenditure on old-age pensions; but that would be justified in the circumstances.

Should an Asiatic, who has lived in Australia for many years, obeying the laws of the land, and contributing his share of taxation, apply for an old-age pension, his application is rejected on the ground that he is an Asiatic. I realize that the law has been liberalized in the interests of the children of Asiatic parents, but a further amendment is necessary to meet the cases of such persons as those to whom I have referred.

In different parts of Australia, particularly New South Wales, there is scope for numbers of hydro-electric schemes. The Snowy River is not only one of the largest rivers in Australia, but it has also the most rapid flow. It carries more water to the sea in a given time than does any other Australian river. Moreover, itis one of our most permanent rivers. Officers of the New South Wales Government who have tested its flow and fall regard' the Snowy River as the potential source of much electric power. It has been estimated that sufficient horse-power could be developed by the Snowy River to electrify the whole of the southern railway system of New South Wales, and supply the electric power and lighting requirements of Sydney, including its electric tramways, at a lower cost than at present. This is a matter which might well be investigated by the Development and Migration Commission. Mr. Corrin late Chief Engineer of "Works in New South Wales, has spoken in the highest terms of the Snowy River as a source of electric power. I consider that- if the waters now running to waste were harnessed, it should be possible to supply not only Sydney, but also many country districts with electric power. At one time a private company contemplated a hydroelectric scheme on this river. The manufacture of paper pulp in the Eden district received consideration. With a proper system of re-afforestation it should be possible to provide Australia's paper requirements from that district. Already some samples of paper manufactured there have been tested with satisfactory results. In addition to providing a commodity for which there is a considerable demand in Australia such a scheme would provide work for many men. In other portions of Australia there are opportunities for the development of hydroelectric schemes; I understand that, before long, Canberra will receive its electric power from Burrinjuck. That scheme, large though it be, sinks into insignificance when compared with the possibilities of the Snowy River scheme. If certain concessions were granted, I believe that an English company would be willing to establish works there for the manufacture of aluminium supplies.

I am pleased that the Government contemplates completing the transfer of many public servants to Canberra earlier than was at first expected. Both the Mint and the Note Printing Department should be established here. If Canberra is to be indeed the national Capital, Government enterprises of that kind should be established here. With the early transfer of an additional number of public servants it will be necessary to provide further homes. I understand that only about 25 of the residences provided for public servants are now vacant. Reports that visitors to Canberra cannot obtain accommodation in the Commission's hostels are damaging the reputation of the national Capital. People who otherwise would visit Canberra now pass it by. The people of Australia generally, are not aware of what has already been accomplished here. In the press and elsewhere it is frequently stated that about £10,500,000 has been expended in the Federal Capital. That is misleading, for the amount includes items which should not be debited against the establishment of the Capital. The cost of education of the children resident in the Territory is charged against the Federal Capital Commission.

Sitting suspended from 6.15 to 8 p.m.

Mr PERKINS - Before the dinner adjournment I was dealing with the cost of the establishment of Canberra, and this has been set down, at £10,500,000. I hold that the cost of services should not be a charge against the city. No other country town is similarly charged. I understand that the Government of New South Wales is paid so much for the education of the children here, and that is a charge against Canberra. The maintenance of the police station and the police force consisting of about a dozen men, is also charged against Canberra. When offences against the law occur in the Territory, the cases are heard in Queanbeyan, and any fines imposed are paid to the State Government. We cannot even make a profit out of our criminals. The cost of such services is not charged to any other country town.

Mr Gullett - Canberra is not a country town.

Mr PERKINS - In comparison with the cities, the position is worse. If these costs were deleted I am assured by the late Minister for Home and Territories that Canberra would practically be a paying concern. It was anticipated this year that the return on the moneys invested in the lands and buildings of the Territory would be 5 per cent. These lands were taken over by the Commonwealth at a nominal figure, and in many cases they are under lease at so much a foot, so it is easy to understand why some slight percentage of interest should be returned on the money invested. I feel that as the years go by Canberra will be an asset indeed to the Commonwealth. As a result of its establishment, land values within 100 miles of the Territory have increased. Several new motor services have been inaugurated, and to -a certain extent, decentralization has taken place. I have no wish to criticize the. Federal Capital Commission harshly, as "did the honorable member for Swan (Mr. Gregory) yesterday, but I should like those workmen who reside in Queanbeyan to be given the privileges that are enjoyed by workmen residing in Canberra. Canberra workmen receive preference when work is offering. Many workmen have established their homes at Queanbeyan, and they are now unable to obtain work in the Territory because of the unfair decision of the Commission. It should not matter to that body whether their workmen reside in Bourke or Timbuctoo, so long as they present themselves for work at the ordinary starting hour and knock off at finishing time. Some of my constituents feel this injustice keenly. They are taxpayers of this country, and they contribute towards the upkeep of the Federal Capital.

Mr Parsons - Queanbeyan has done very well out of Canberra.

Mr PERKINS - Yes, and Canberra has benefited because of the proximity of Queanbeyan. I again congratulate the Treasurer on the budget that he has presented under adverse circumstances. It was surely a great compliment to him that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Scullin), the financial critic of the Labour party, could complain of extravagance only to the extent of a few thousands of pounds in a budget representing millions of pounds.

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