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Tuesday, 9 September 1958

Mr O'CONNOR (Dalley) .- The honorable member for Petrie (Mr. Hulme) has given a new slant to the unemployment statistics. It seems extremely odd that whilst, week after week in this chamber, the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Harold Holt) has given the number of unemployed as 67,000, and has made no attempt to give a lower figure, to-night we have had a new explanation of the figure from the honorable member for Petrie which seeks to lower the total. Like other Government supporters, he is trying to have us accept the lower figure than the Minister himself has been giving us over a period. I myself believe that the figure of 67,000 given by the Minister does not convey the position accurately.

I differ greatly from the honorable member for Hume regarding the total, because I believe that there are thousands of people out of work to-day who have not registered with the Department of Labour and National Service for employment because they believe that they will soon find work for themselves. After weeks of bitter experience of the difficulty of finding jobs, such people finally register for employment. There are thousands of people in that category. In addition, there are thousands of people who are employed but are working only a short week - something that is reminiscent of the days of the depression of the 1930's. The industry whose employees have been particularly affected by having to work a short week is the textile industry. Trade union figures show that more than 1,000 trade unionists in that industry are working a short week. Notwithstanding all the attempts that have been made, and will be made, by the Government to minimize the seriousness of the unemployment position, the public is becoming more alarmed and more aware of those facts. All the blandishments and all the arguments about figures that we hear from time to time will not dispel the spectre that haunts many people to-day. Unfortunately, unemployment is a reality in our midst.

I rose principally to say something about the question of shipbuilding and to express my grave concern at the failure of the Government to do something adequate to protect the Australian shipbuilding industry. There has been a marked decline in this industry over the last twelve or 24 months, but the Government has been oblivious to this trend. It seems to think that by quoting figures it will satisfy everybody. I should have thought that, with this vital industry languishing, we should have had something of a definite and positive character in the Budget or in the Estimates, but, glancing through these documents, we see that the Government is prepared to allow this industry to go on in the present way. The Government is making no contribution to ensure the welfare of the industry or to guarantee permanency of employment for those engaged in it. As a consequence, the industry is facing a period of twelve months which will be just like the period of twelve months it has just had to endure. If the statements of the Minister for Air (Mr. Osborne) as to what the Government is doing to protect the industry are correct, all I can say is that the Budget papers completely contradict the Minister.

I am indebted to the honorable member for Werriwa (Mr. Whitlam) and the honorable member for Wilmot (Mr. Duthie) for information that has been supplied to them as a result of questions they asked, and some of the statements I shall now make will be based on the information that they have received. That information proves conclusively that the future of the shipbuilding industry in this country is far from happy or promising. We find that at the end of 1958 there will be fewer ships being built here than were under construction in 1949. The honorable member for Wilmot was informed, in reply to a question, that in 1949, seventeen vessels were under construction; in 1954, twenty vessels were under construction; and that now the number of vessels under construction has fallen to ten. Since 1954, in four years, ship construction has been halved. Figures that were supplied to the honorable member for Werriwa show that at the end of this year eight ships will be under construction . in Australia, of which five will be built at Whyalla in South Australia, two in

Queensland, and one at the Newcastle dockyards. At the end of that programme, there seems to be no future for the industry at all.

To prove my statement that the Government is not taking positive action to combat this apparent decline in the industry, I say that the Budget papers show that the subsidy which the Government granted to merchant shipbuilding in 1957-58 amounted to £1,800,000. The subsidy which it proposes to pay in 1958-59 will be £1,400,000. In other words, the subsidy for merchant shipbuilding will be £400,000 less than it was in the previous year. We find that the amount provided for expenditure on ship construction is £5,900,000, but it is interesting to note also that the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission hopes to recoup from the sale of ships the same amount of money. In effect, the money which the Government gets from the sale of ships will be spent on ship construction. In a year the Government is doing nothing towards giving an impetus to the shipbuilding industry.

There has been a decline in this industry, which I submit was a nourishing industry at one time. Regrettably, the signs of decay are making their' appearance. For an authoritative background of the shipbuilding industry, I think one can quote no greater authority than a report made by the Tariff Board after it had inquired into this industry at hearings commenced in 1954. The report reads -

At the time of the inquiry, the five merchant ship-building yards and their sub-contractors were employing approximately 4,300 men and of this number approximately 4,000, including those engaged by sub-contractors, were directly engaged on shipbuilding. All yards reported a shortage of labour and the indications were that if all plant available worked to capacity a further 3,000 employees would be required, giving an industry employment figure for merchant shipbuilding of approximately 7,500 men.

These figures do not include those employees engaged in the manufacture in Australia of main and auxiliary machinery, ships' fittings and equipment, estimated by Mr. Weymouth at 1,500 persons. A wide range of steam reciprocating engines and turbines is produced in Australia and in addition three types of oil or diesel engines are now in production, which collectively cover a range of from 500 to almost 4,000 horse-power.

So we find that in 1954 the industry was working at only about half of its capacity. As a result of the Tariff Board's inquiry, the subsidy was raised from 25 per cent, to 33i per cent. I do not believe that the matter should have been referred to the Tariff Board for a determination. Instead, the Government should have taken the responsibility of making a decision. When subsidies were first granted to the shipbuilding industry of this country, they were granted on the initiative of the government of the day, the Chifley Government.

This policy of allowing the Tariff Board to make these determinations sometimes involves protracted hearings and delays. The Tariff Board first sat on this inquiry on 28th September, 1954. It completed its hearings on 15th February, 1955. Its report was presented and adopted here on 16th June, 1955, approximately nine months after the board had commenced its hearings. Other countries take positive action in dealing with this question of the protection of their own shipping. Circumstances are operating here that are completely intolerable for a country situated as Australia is. We have permitted our overseas shipping to be dominated by outside interests and influences, and we are completely at their mercy. Our coastal shipping is disappearing; local owners of coastal vessels have stated that it is not their intention to replace the -vessels that now operate round our coasts. While local owners are moving from the scene, the overseas shipping interests are moving in, and1 as a result of the operation of certain sections in the Navigation Act, overseas interests are to-day carrying more of the coastal trade than ever before.

The Minister for Shipping and Transport (Senator Paltridge) a few months ago made the rather odd statement that the conditions governing the granting of this subsidy of 33i per cent, would apply to owners who wished to replace their fleets. It seemed to be an extraordinary statement for the Minister to make when everybody knew that the owners' decision was reached over two years ago. To all intents and purposes the owners here have indicated that they have no intention of replacing their existing fleet. That means, in effect, that overseas shipping combines will move in. I fail to see why the Government cannot take some positive action, not only to combat the influences of these overseas combines, but also to protect the interests of Australia. The Government should initiate steps whereby a positive shipbuilding programme would be commenced that would enable ships to be built in this country capable of competing with overseas vessels. In view of the disinclination of local owners to cater adequately for the local trade, and their failure to replace their existing fleet, there is plenty of opportunity for the Government to move in.

On other occasions I have protested in the Parliament at what I regard as practices that are strange, to say the least. I have had complaints from various shipping companies in the Balmain area about the practices that have been adopted by the Australian Shipbuilding Board. I have ventilated this matter before, but the answer I received was that the procedure was considered to be satisfactory. I submit that the failure to reveal the accepted tender to other people who have submitted tenders for jobs is quite contrary to all tradition. Local shipowners tender for jobs here and after contracts have been allotted they go to the board and endeavour to obtain the price of the successful tender, but they are unable to secure that information.

The CHAIRMAN - Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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