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Tuesday, 28 June 1949

Mr DEDMAN (Corio) (Minister for Defence and Minister for Post-war Reconstruction) . - The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Menzies) has been giving free advice about what ought to b e done in this crisis. We all are concerned about the inconvenience and hardship to which the community is being exposed by the action of the coal-miners, but I recall 1940, when the Leader of the Opposition had to face a crisis in the coal industry. His attitude now and the attitude that he advises the Government to take are entirely different from that which he took then. It is true that the circumstances in 1940 were not exactly parallel with those of to-day. The honorable member for Richmond said that the policy of the Chifley Government had been to allow stocks of coal at grass to fall. In 1940, there were big stocks of coal at grass, but the 1940 strike exhausted them. So it is not because of the policy of the Chifley Government, or of the Curtin Government before it, that stocks of coal have been exhausted. The stocks were exhausted in 1940. The position then was much more critical than it is to-day, because, in 1940, we were at the beginning of a war and Hitler's stormtroopers were over-running Europe. The coal strike of 1940 involved the Australian com munity in hardship, not perhaps so great as the hardship that confronts it to-day, although our lives and liberties were at stake, and the coal strike hindered our war effort. That strike began on the 11th March and finished on the 15th May. It lasted about ten weeks. In the middle of April, 1940, German troops invaded Denmark and Norway and, on the 2nd May, it was announced that the United Kingdom had been forced to withdraw its troops from Norway. Early in May, the Dutch army surrendered to Hitler's stormtroopers. A fortnight later, the British army escaped from Dunkirk. That was when the coal strike occurred. Let us examine the statements and the attitude of the right honorable gentleman then. On the 2nd March, 1940, he said that the Australian Government had no intention of taking further action in the dispute. Six days later, on the 8th March, according to the Sydney Daily Telegraph, efforts by the Government of New South Wales to secure federal intervention in the dispute had not succeeded. On the same day, in a last effort to induce the right honorable gentleman to convene a conference, Labour members of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales sent him an urgent telegram as follows : -

We the Parliamentary representatives from all the mining districts, appeal to you to convene a conference between the coal proprietors and the unions immediately. Otherwise a general stoppage, involving untold suffering and misery to thousands of innocent people, and industrial stagnation throughout the Commonwealth, appears inevitable. - Knight, Baddeley, Booth, Cameron, Arthur, Davids. Dunn, Davidson, Horsington, Sweeney, Hawkins.

On the 12th March, 1940, the right honorable gentleman was reported by the same newspaper as having said that he was most unhappy about the dispute. That is the extent to which the right honorable gentleman appeared to 'be worried at that time. He was "most unhappy about the dispute ". He had already convened a conference of owners and employees, but it had not succeeded. The Daily Telegraph report to which I have just referred, continued -

Mr. Menziesstated subsequently that ho had not brought the coal strike before to-day's Cabinet.

A Cabinet meeting was held on that day and the present Leader of the

Opposition indicated that he had not even brought the coal strike to the notice of the Cabinet. On the 21st March, 1940, according to the Daily Telegraph, the right honorable gentleman is reported to have said -

The coal strike will not be settled by Commonwealth Government intervention. . . .

It would be fatal to the whole idea of arbitration and intolerable to the pUblic interest if the doctrine were established that you should get what you can from the Court and strike for the balance.

The strike is a disastrous error, and I earnestly hope that sober reflection will lead to a return to industrial peace. . . .

Commenting on that statement, the then secretary of the Combined Mining Unions said, according to the Daily Telegraph -

It is about time that the Prime Minister came to earth and recognized that his abstractions do not answer the issues with which the Commonwealth will be faced if the coal strike is continued and extended.

Casually enough the then Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) stated that his answer to the possibility of a general strike could be given in three sentences - First, the Government would not appoint a special tribunal ; secondly, the Government would uphold the authority of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court; and thirdly, if changes were to be made in the award they should be made by the court itself. That was the stand taken by the right honorable Leader when he was Prime Minister and it is exactly-

Mr Fuller - Was not the nation at war at that period?

Mr DEDMAN - The nation was at war. I have told the House about the critical nature of the war at that particular period when the forces of Hitler were over-running Europe and the British expeditionary force was about to be evacuated from Dunkirk. For ten weeks the then Prime Minister allowed a coal strike to continue and kept saying, in effect, ' The Government does not intend to rake any action whatsoever with regard to this dispute ". On the 4th May, 1940, the right honorable gentleman said that the issuing of regulations to re-open the coal mines was a preliminary step. In the tenth week of the strike, when it was evident that the miners were about to go back to work, the Prime Minister actually issued a threat against the coalminers. I shall quote from another report of that period. Speaking at Kurri Kurri the right honorable gentleman said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald of the 20th April, 1940-

The whole Cabinet has given this matter most careful consideration. We are anxious to get rid of this dispute so that urgent affairs can proceed. But we have definitely decided that the action that shall be taken in this dispute shall be by the Court and not by the Government. If we do not uphold the Court it means an end of the arbitration system.

That is exactly the stand that the present Government is taking. The Government does not propose to intervene in this dispute. The Government says to the miners, "You must go back to the appropriate tribunal that was established to arbitrate and to consider matters in relation to disputes within your industry". This strike has been caused for one reason, and one reason only. The miners' leaders have rejected arbitration and conciliation in putting forward their claims. They have made no attempt to allow the Coal Industry Tribunal, which was established' for this particular purpose, to complete its hearings on their claims. They have not attempted to exhaust the resources of the system of arbitration and conciliation that has been established by the law of the country. But, although the miners' leaders have been very ill advised to take the action that they have taken, I believe that in the last resort wiser counsels will prevail and the miners will return to work. I believe that at this stage, anyway, there- ;s very little for the Commonwealth to do beyond what has been indicated this afternoon by the Attorney-General (Dr. Evatt).

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