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Wednesday, 26 October 1949

Mr WARD (East Sydney) (Minister for Transport and Minister for External Territories) .- All honorable members appreciate the predicament in which the Leader of the Australian Country party (Mr. Fadden) finds himself. Iti order to bring this debate back to it.', proper level, I. say that the responsibility for the chaotic conditions that exist in this country at present in relation to petrol is that of the Leader of the Australian Country party. I venture to say that a great many people in Australia were influenced by what the right honorable gentleman said a few months ago when he went from one end of the country to the other asserting that there was no need for petrol rationing. It is possible that the justices of the High Court were influenced, in some respects by the opinions that the right honorable gentleman expressed then because, as I have said previously, many persons were amazed at the decision that was given by the High Court in relation to petrol rationing. It will be recalled that after the petrol rationing system was abolished, honorable gentlemen opposite tried to gain a political advantage by saying that there was no need for panic because ample supplies of petrol were available, yet throughout the country people were hoarding petrol because they believed that it was inevitable that within a relatively short space of time a petrol shortage would occur and the reimposition of rationing was inevitable. Honorable gentlemen opposite now realize that the great majority of people in Australia are to-day of the opinion that petrol rationing should never have been removed, and in consequence the Opposition is trying to escape responsibility for what has occurred.

The Leader of the Australian Country party has quoted the decisions of the Advisory War Council in order to try to avoid accepting the responsibility for the dangerously low storage of petrol in 1941. He has mentioned the late Mr. J. A. Beasley, who at the time of his death recently was the Australian High Commissioner in London. Mr. Beasley was a member of the Advisory War Council. On the 5th November, 1941, just after the Labour Government took office, he made the following statement in this House : -

I repeat my previous statement that the duty of the Government is first to restore the stocks of petrol to a safe level, and secondly, to maintain them at that level. In the light of present developments in the Pacific, I cannot forecast what the outcome will be.

When the late Mr. Beasley talked about the abolition of petrol rationing, the stocks of petrol in this country amounted to approximately 150,000,000 gallons, but twelve months later those stocks, owing to the maladministration of the present Opposition parties, which then formed the

Government, had decreased to approximately 45,000,000 gallons, a quantity that was regarded as being dangerously small.

Honorable gentlemen opposite have not. disguised the fact that their purpose is not only to embarrass the Labour Government in this country, and thereby injure the Australian community, but also to create as much difficulty as possible for the British Government, because it is a Labour government. The shortage of petrol in 1941 was not caused by a dollar shortage. There were difficulties in regard to obtaining the use of tankers at that time. Honorable gentlemen opposite have avoided making any direct reference to the necessity to save dollars at the present time. They should say straight out whether they are anti-British in this connexion. This Government, realizing the heroic struggle of the British Labour party and the British people against great difficulties, is doing everything it can do to assist them.

Although honorable gentlemen opposite have talked about obtaining petrol from almost every part of the globe, they have not gone into details about it. The Leader of the Australian Country party has suggested that excessive delay in granting an import licence to Ampol caused the loss of petrol that was supposed to be available in Poland for export to Australia. According to the right honorable gentleman, the first application for an import licence was made on the 22nd August and the licence was issued on the 6th September, approximately two weeks later. Having regard to the fact that it was necessary to make inquiries overseas to ascertain whether the petrol had any dollar content, I think that the Government acted very expeditiously. Honorable gentlemen opposite profess to be fully informed upon every aspect of this transaction. They say that they know that the petrol was available and that it was subsequently sold elsewhere, but when they are asked to state where it was eventually sold, they can give us no information about it whatever. That proves conclusively that the petrol that they have said was available for export to Australia did not, in fact, exist.

The members of the Opposition say that they are opposed to petrol rationingbecause it is a form of regimentation..

Surely they do not believe, that any political party would: be foolish, enough t©> continue to ration petrol ono necessity to do so-. It weald be. of great political advantage to- the Labour party at the forthcoming general election if we were able to say that there is no longer any need to. ration petrol in this country. The honorable member for Wentworth (Mr. Harrison), has talked of the governments! of the three countries in which petrol rationing is still in existence,, which are the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Those are Labour governments.. They recognize the soundness of the principle that when a commodity is in short supply it is proper to ration it and thus ensure that available supplies are distributed equitably. Honorable gentlemen opposite do not want petrol to be rationed because they know that,, without rationing, persons who are prepared to pay black market prices will be able to get all the petrol that they require, and the unfortunate ordinary members of the community will have their means of transport immobilized because they will be unable to obtain any petrol. The responsibility for what has happened in the last few weeks must fall on honorable gentlemen opposite, who are making- a desperate bid to win the next general election. They know that they have played every other card in their hands. The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Menzies) was not foolish enough to stick his neck out ; he persuaded the Leader of the Australian Country party to do so. The Leader of the Opposition is too astute a politician to put himself into the position in which the Leader of the Australian Country party now finds himself. That right honorable gentleman is now desperate. For weeks on end he has remained silent in this House because he has no answer to make to the criticisms that have been levelled against him in relation to petrol.

The daily press has allied itself with the Opposition parties and the oil companies of this country in a campaign to discredit the Government. Honorable gentlemen opposite boycotted the official opening of the Snowy Mountains scheme because they thought they would gain some poli tical advantage by doing so. The quantity of petrol that was used to transport members of. Parliament to the scene of the ceremony in comparison, with the total petrol requirements of this country, was a, mere; cupful. Nevertheless, honorable gentlemen' opposite considered that it, was a good political move not to attend the ceremony. I think that the great majority of the- Australian people will regard their absence from that important ceremony as an indication of their lack of judgment and balance. As I have said, the daily press has allied itself with the Opposition-. A few days ago the Sydney Daily Telegraph published an article about the wastage of petrol. Details were given of the quantity of petrol that has been consumed by ministerial cars in the last twelve months. I was agreeably surprised at the figure that was given. According to- the Daily Telegraph, in the course of twelve months the nineteen Ministers of this Government used approximately 27,000 gallons of petrol. Having regard to the duties that Ministers perform, 1 think that that was a moderate figure. Wa know full well that when the Opposition parties were in power Ministers were not so moderate in their use of government motor cars and petrol as are the Ministers of this Government.

A few days ago the honorable member for Indi (Mr. McEwen) made an attack upon a conciliation commissioner. 1 did not know at the time what was behind that attack, but I have made it my business to find out. I have discovered that the attack was not made because the honorable gentleman was desirous of challenging the impartiality of the conciliation commissioner. A difference occurred between him and the honorable member for Indi when that gentleman was acting in his official capacity as a trade union representative in the Australian Capital Territory. I discovered that when the honorable member for Indi was a Minister and had the use of a government car, the official driver objected to the honorable gentleman using that vehicle to carry dead sheep on his property. If we can take any notice of all we hear about the use of government motor cars, we may believe that the right honorable member for Cowper when a Minister was using a government vehicle on hia property in the Northern Rivers district, and I think that it would be safe to say, without any fear of exaggerating, that the car was employed on work usually performed by a boundary rider. He preferred to use government petrol to feeding half a dozen cattle dogs. It would be a good thing for the public if a close examination were made of the use of government motor cars and petrol since liquid fuel has been in short supply. I think that it would be discovered that this Government had not abused the use of petrol in government vehicles.

Mr Rankin - The Minister sent a government car to Queensland in order to pick up his wife.

Mr WARD - The honorable member for Bendigo (Mr. Rankin) is more concerned about Red Star spirit than the spirit provided by Ampol or any other company. This Government has set out to preserve the interests of the community, and the Prime Minister has not been stampeded by the propaganda that the Opposition parties have distributed on the petrol situation. The leader of this Labour Government is never stampeded. The Australian community is very fortunate to have as Prime Minister a gentleman who displays so much balance in the various crises which arise from time to time as the result of political manoeuvring on the part of the Opposition parties. He knows the real position, and he has challenged the Opposition parties to produce the facts. The Leader of the Australian Country party has not told us where petrol is available. If it is available, where is the source of supply? Have any companies been refused a permit to import petrol, if they can prove beyond doubt, as they must necessarily do, that there is no dollar content in that petrol? The Prime Minister has pointed out quite truthfully that the petrol difficulties of the sterling area arise from the shortage, not of crude oil, but of refining capacity.

The Opposition parties are making a desperate bid to win votes at the forthcoming general election. They are saying in effect: "Return us to the treasury bench on the 10th December, and. we will abolish petrol rationing. There will be petrol for every one ". Many people towhom I have spoken during the past few weeks have expressed the opinion that the sooner rationing is re-introduced thebetter it will be, because- °very one will get his proportion of the available supplies. The Opposition parties realize that they must make a desperate bid to win votes, and, therefore, they say that if they are returned to office, there will be ample supplies of petrol for every one. I hope that the Australian people will not be so foolish as to believe that claim. The major oil companies broke the agreement that they made with the Government. After the High Court had declared invalid the National Security (Liquid Fuel) Regulations, the Prime Minister summoned representatives of the oil companies to a conference and laid before them all the information that was in the possession of the Government about petrol supplies. The oil companies evidently realized at that time the necessity to conserve petrol and consequently dollars, and they agreed that they would not release any more petrol to their distributors than they had made available during the rationing period. But, the moment the Government turned its back, the major companies were canvassing for custom, and urging primary producers to lay in stores of petrol. It is generally recognized that those people who knew that rationing would be reintroduced began to hide their petrol. Primary producers at various places are reported to have rolled drums of petrol into rivers so that they would not be discovered if a check were being made on stocks. The Opposition parties are responsible for that state of affairs. I believe that petrol rationing is essential. Petrol must be conserved in order to preserve our industries. Much petrol is wasted in this country. It has been said that we cannot afford to retain petrol rationing. 1 say that we cannot afford to do without petrol rationing.

The Leader of the Australian Country party has spoken about an arrangement that was made at the conference in Great Britain to allocate petrol among various nations in the sterling area. I did not agree with the right honorable gentleman's reasoning, when he said that other mem'bers of the British Com.monwealth had received better treatment in the distribution of petrol than Australia had received and that we should force the position to get as advantageous treatment as he alleges had been conceded to the other countries. None of the countries which the right honorable gentleman mentioned are large and important. He referred to Luxembourg and Ceylon, which use a small quantity of petrol compared with the great quantity that is consumed in Australia. The Leader of the Australian Country party spoke of the contributions which we made to Unrra, and to other countries that are less fortunately situated than we are. He said that we should have used as a bargaining medium those contributions that we made to relieve distress, and even the contributions that we made for the alleviation of distress among children throughout the world. The right honorable gentleman implied that we should not have been prepared to give tha', assistance unless we had been guaranteed supplies of petrol. Honorable members opposite speak with two voices. Sometimes they complain that the Labour Government is not doing enough to assist the people of the United Kingdom, and at other times, they complain about the alleged adverse commercial and trade agreements that we have made with Great Britain. They say that we are not receiving enough in return for the food which we send to the United Kingdom, and that we are not obtaining sufficient value for the contributions which we make to relieve international distress. 1 hope that the Australian Labour Government was not at any time of opinion that it would receive any benefit in a material sense in return for its contributions to the alleviation of international distress. I believe that the value to this country was the great goodwill which we established throughout the world as the result of those contributions. The Leader of the Australian Country party is desperately in need of arguments or he would not have had to introduce those matters into the debate. He referred to the agreement that the United Kingdom had made with Argentina, and said that Great Britain had agreed to supply oil in return for meat. Argentina was able to force upon the United Kingdom an unfair and adverse agreement, and apparently the right honorable gentleman believed that we should follow suit. That attitude is peculiar, in view of all the speeches that I have heard from time to time in this House about the need to preserve the British Empire. It appears to me that the Opposition parties consider that the British Empire is worth preserving only when a Conservative government is in office in the United Kingdom. "When a Labour government is in office in Great Britain the Opposition parties here adopt an entirely different attitude.

Honorable gentlemen opposite have not made out a case against the reintroduction of petrol rationing. They say that the Government should produce certain papers and cables relating to the Empire dollar pool and petrol supplies. I do not know what the official files contain, because they are not in the departments which I administer, but I venture the opinion that, if the Government could trust the Opposition parties, it would- be quite willing to make any confidential information on the subject available to them to show them exactly what the position is. But I think that the Government would be very unwise to make any files available to the Opposition parties, in view of our experiences with them. They would not worry about the welfare of Australia or Great Britain, but would use confidential information, if it suited them, for political reasons, as they have done in the past. They have even been prepared to use the contents of stolen documents. Therefore, is it unlikely that they would use improperly the information that was voluntarily given to them by this Government? The Australian Labour Government has nothing to hide in this matter. The Australian public are the best judges of the position. The Minister for Information (Mr. Calwell) briefly described the situation that existed in 1941, and I shall not cover that ground again ; but we must not forget that the Labour party was not returned with a majority in this House at the election in 1940. "We became the Government in 1941 when the Opposition parties fell ito pieces .after they .had bungled the affairs .of the country. 1 repeat ;a 'statement that I made om a previous .occasion, because the position was never properly clarified tto my .satisfaction. A Minister for Supply in -an anti-Labour government, who was in control of petrol .supplies just prior to ;the .entry of Japan into the, attended -a function .at a .consulate in Canberra. He evidently '.consumed so much liquor that one of the .Japanese gentlemen who was .attached Tto tie Japanese consulate ait the time, had to take the Minister ito has hotel in Canberra, ;and put him to bed. Those are the people -who now say that they should be entrusted with the welfare and safety of -the people of Australia.

I do not want to repeat what is now' history and is known to all the people of Australia, but the Opposition parties, when in office, bungled affairs, immobilized transport and reduced reserves of petro! to such a degree they had to evolve a plan for abandoning one-half of Australia when the Japanese threatened to invade this country. Everybody knows to-day that that statement is true. Prom General MacArthur down, it was recognized that that plan had been brought into existence by an anti-Labour government. The plan was popularly known as the "Brisbane line" plan.

Mr George Lawson - Sir Leslie Wilson, a former Governor of Queensland, has acknowledged the existence of that plan.

Mr WARD - That is so. General MacArthur rejected the advice that had been given to him to the effect that Australia should be defended on a line .extending from a point a little north of Brisbane to & point a little north of Adelaide. General MacArthur has stated that, in his successful campaign to turn the tide of the Japanese invasion, he was backed by the Labour Government led by the late Mr. John Curtin. Those words are not a statement by a member of the Australian Labour party. They were uttered by the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in this theatre of war. As the honorable member for Brisbane (Mr. George Lawson) has interjected, Sir Leslie Wilson, who was Governor of

Queensland in 19&1-42, referred on his return -to .the United Kingdom .to the strategy -which had -been worked out for the abandonment

Honorable members -opposite are now trying to take advantage -of the situation which they have created. Every Australian who has been immobilized during the last few weeks because he has not been .able to get petrol for .his motor car and >evEry primary producer who has been unable to .get petrol for his tractor should remember that if petrol rationing had not been interfered with by the High Court the economy 01 the country -would have continued to function smoothly. The need for petrol rationing is recognized by the State Premiers regardless -of their political views. If petrol rationing is not .quickly .restored the position will rapidly become -chaotic. An anti-La'bour government could not obtain 'additional supplies of petrol, because they are simply not available from the sterling area. Australia .can import additional petrol -only by drawing more dollars from the Empire dollar pool. We already have a dollar deficit, and additional dollars 'are not .available to ns.

Mr Edmonds - The only way in -which Australia can obtain additional petrol is by reducing dollar 'expenditure in other directions.

Mr WARD - That is true. Australia would be obliged to reduce its purchases in the dollar area of agricultural machinery and various essential commodities. The position, in that event, would be worse than it is at present. 1 have great faith in the common sense of the Australian people, and I know that they will not fall for what is a cheap political trick.

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