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Wednesday, 6 July 1949

Mr MCBRIDE (Wakefield) .^- This bill provides another example of failure of the industrial policy that the Government has tried to operate during the last few years. It represents an admission of the failure of the various methods by which the Government has endeavoured to change the old order of arbitration in order to bring about what it describes as a " streamlining of arbitration ". Under this policy, the functions of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration have been very materially reduced. Functions that were previously exercised by that authority have been handed over either to conciliation commissioners or to special tribunals that have been appointed to deal with the problems of certain industries. It is of real importance to the people that the Government failed to give attention to these tribunals as soon as it was demonstrated, in my opinion very clearly, that many of them were not productive of good for the men, the industries with which they dealt, or the country in general. I was extraordinarily interested "to hear the claim made by the Minister for Post-war Reconstruction (Mr. Dedman) in his second-reading speech that the Stevedoring Industry Commission, which will be supplanted by a board under this bill, had proved beneficial to the men, to the industry, and to the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is well known that the stevedoring industry constitutes a very important factor in the economy of this country. I do not know whether the House or the country realizes the great importance of sea transport- in the general transport arrangements' of Australia. As 90 per cent, of our interstate trade is carried by sea, it is of the greatest importance that sea transport should be conducted by the most efficient methods that are possible. An examination of the history of this industry since the institution of the Stevedoring Industry Committee, which was first a war-time body, and during the operation of the Stevedoring Industry Commission, which has functioned for :a period of less than two years, enables us accurately to gauge the success or failure of this Government's industrial arbitration legislation. It is common knowledge that the rate of cargo handling has been very materially reduced since the beginning of the war. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that since the beginning of the war the rate has dropped by approximately 50 per cent. But what is even more serious is the fact that in spite of the efforts of the Stevedoring Industry Commission to effect improvements the rate did not improve to any measurable extent. Before the war it was generally conceded that in the course of trade a vessel spent one-third of its time in port and two-thirds of its time on the high seas. To-day the proportions are completely reversed. Vessels now spend two-thirds of their time in port and one-third in travelling to their destination and back again. This change has resulted in substantially increasing the cost of freight to commercial interests and, in the final analysis, to all of our citizens. Freight is a very important factor in all costs that come within the general economy of this country. Whatever may be done by the Government in relation to this industry, its main objective should be to reduce the cost of handling cargoes on the Australian coast. In making that statement I do not want to be misunderstood. I assure the House that I am not an advocate of low wages. I believe that every effort should be made to improve the methods by which cargoes are handled so that wages may be increased and the working people of this country may be able to enjoy greater leisure than they have hitherto been able to enjoy. For that reason I have always advocated the improvement of working conditions, the use of modern equipment and the' provision of better amenities for workers generally. All of these things should contribute to the more efficient handling of cargoes and the improvement of the general conduct of industry throughout Australia. When we examine what was achieved by the Stevedoring Industry Commission, which is now to be thrown overboard by the Government, we must be very disappointed. It will be remembered that the Commission was clothed with very wide powers. Indeed, it had almost complete power over the industrial conditions to be observed in the stevedoring industry. It had power to take evidence and to make determinations in relation to rates of pay, hours of work and working conditions generally in the industry. It also had very wide powers to examine the position with relation to the equipment and amenities available at various ports in Australia for the people engaged in industry. The commission was empowered either to supply equipment or to make advances to the port or other authorities to obtain such equipment as was considered to be necessary. It had' almost complete power to do whatever was thought necessary, after due examination, to make the industry more effective and to improve the conditions of the workers engaged in the industry. However, despite the improvements of amenities and equipment as a result of the activities of the Stevedoring Industry Commission, the general loading rate has remained static, and in some instances has deteriorated. The reason for that is not difficult to ascertain. In order to lessen the physical effort necessary to remove cargo from the wharf shed to the ship's side, forked lift trucks were introduced. However, waterside workers determined that those trucks should not be allowed to function at full capacity. While they allowed the trucks to move cargo from one part of the wharf shed to another they would not allow them to move cargo from the shed to the ship's side; it had to be manhandled across to the slings. Although that has been happening for nearly two years, the Stevedaring Industry Commission did nothing about it. It is futile to suggest that men in the industry did not realize that they were sabotaging the efficiency of the industry, or that they improved their conditions by restricting the use of equipment.

In spite of this state of affairs, a body very similar to the Stevedoring Industry Commission is to be established by this measure. The arbitration powers of the commission are to revert to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. Doubtless, the judge who is now chairman of the Stevedoring Industry Commission will be assigned to this work. There is scant evidence of anything in this bill that will bring about improvement of the efficiency of this most important industry. The House is entitled to know the effects on the general economy of this country of the practice that has developed with the condonation of the present Government. Under legislation recently enacted the Australian Shipping Board was established. That board will have very wide powers with regard to shipping on the Australian coast. It was decreed that all new ships for the' Australian trade should be built in Australia, under the authority of the Australian Shipping Board. The freight charges for the carriage of goods to-day are based on the costs of a number of different items, in- eluding the handling of cargo. Costs in this connexion have increased by about 300 per cent, or 400 per cent, during the past ten years.

The amount of freight that a ship oan carry in any given time is also an important aspect with relation to freight rates. As I have already mentioned, the carrying capacity of the ships has been reduced by about half. The cost of the maintenance of ships also ha3 an important bearing on the matter. The cost of a ship must be written off during the normal life of the ship. Under the new order that we are entering in Australia the cost of ships will be extremely high. Before the war a 6,000 ton freight ship would have cost amout £150,000; it now costs over £500,000. Of course, there have been changes in the general plans of ships, including very necessary improvements in crews' quarters. These and other improvements have resulted in increased total cost. The edict has also gone forth from this Government that those ships may only be used on the coast for 25 years; so the cost must be written off during that period. Furthermore, maintenance costs have risen. Do honorable members realize what effect this will have on future freight rates? In spite of the substantial increases that have been made in freight rates, the cost of new ships has not yet come into the calculations of the ship-owners. They are still working on pre-war ships at pre-war prices. When they begin, as they must do, to purchase new vessels, depreciation, maintenance and other costs that have an effect upon freight charges will increase greatly. It is just as well that the Australian people should realize where we are going. Freight rates have already been increased by approximately 300 per cent. If the present trend continues and shipping companies must pay £500,000 instead of £150,000 for a 6,000-ton ship, which will be able to carry only half the tonnage that ships of that type previously carried in a given time, freight rates will become a real burden upon the commercial community of Australia. The Government must take a firm stand in connexion with stevedoring in this country.

As I have said, I am in favour of the improvement of conditions in the industry and the installation of modern equipment.

1.   do not for one moment oppose the proposal that the hoard shall be given power to institute reforms of that kind when it considers that it is necessary to do so, but I say that it must ensure that the Australian people receive value for their money. I do not think that that is an unreasonable point of view. The nien who are employed in the stevedoring industry must realize that if their ameni-tics, rates of pay and hours of work are to bc improved, they must give something in return. I have no doubt that if they make proper use of new equipment and new methods, which will involve less and not more physical effort on their part, we shall be able to offset these ever-increasing costs. If, however, we continue to allow some people in the industry to sabotage every improvement that is suggested, conditions in the industry will become deplorable. When the Shipping Bill was being debated in the Parliament this year, the Government said that its intention was to establish a government line of steamers so that we should have a sufficient number of ships on the Australian coast if another war occurred, but the simple fact is that there will be no worthwhile shipping on the coast if the present trend continues. There is no doubt that the over-increasing costs to which I have referred are jeopardizing the position of ships on the Australia coast.

I do not oppose this measure, but I point out that, as far as I can see, it contains no provision to fortify the Australian Stevedoring Industry Board in any action that it may take to bring about the desirable state of affairs to which I have referred. However, the right spirit is preferable to regulations or provisions in acts of Parliament. If the board knows that it will have the support of the Australian Government in any action that it takes to achieve a more desirable state of affairs in the stevedoring industry, doubtless it will exercise the powers that are to be conferred upon it, but we all know what has happened in the past. Whenever a tribunal or board, established by this Government, has done what it has thought to be proper and its actions have been opposed by the men in the industry concerned, has the Government supported it? We need a change of front. I say without hesitation that no good purpose will be served by this new board or by our streamlined arbitration system unless there is a government in power that will support the bodies that it has established and enforce the implementation of thu acts of Parliament for which it has been responsible.

This bill closely follows the lines of a number of measures that have been passed by the Parliament recently. The Australian Stevedoring Industry Board will have power to expend money, but it will also have power to borrow money without seeking the authority of the Parliament to do so. Under the provisions of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Power Act, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority is given permission to borrow money from the Commonwealth Bank under a guarantee from the Treasurer, and to expend that money without seeking the approval of the Parliament. Clause 42 of this bill provides that the Australian Stevedoring Industry Board shall have power to borrow money on overdraft from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia upon the guarantee of the Treasurer.

Mr Fuller - That is the people's bank.

Mr McBRIDE - I am not discussing the source from which the board will borrow money. I am questioning the action of this Government in not following the tradition of British parliamentary institutions that Parliament shall have control of the national purse. Over the centuries there has been a fight to establish that principle. This Government is deliberately flouting the will of the Parliament. In my view, it is a very dangerous and wrong practice to give boards such as this power to borrow money without the authority of the Parliament. I hope that the Government will ensure that the normal procedure is followed and that the money that is needed by the board will be appropriated by the Parliament. Unless that is done, the powers of the Parliament will be whittled away to a dangerous degree.

I hope that when the new board is established it will enter upon its duties with a real desire to improve the position on the waterfront from the point of view both of the workers in the industry and the country as a whole. I hope that it will be assured by the Government that it will be supported in any action that it takes which may for the time being be unpopular with the employees, the employers and perhaps the community. I trust that the Government will stand firmly behind it, so that Australian ships may continue to provide the very efficient means of transport that they have provided over the years.

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