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Thursday, 25 September 1958

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) (Minister for Labour and National Service) . - The bill before the House is a very short and simple one. Its sole purpose is to preserve the rights of a member of the Public Service who has been appointed to the Joint Coal Board. That is the beginning and end of it. All sections of the House approve the terms of the bill, as has been indicated by the Opposition. But the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) has taken the opportunity afforded by the presentation of this very minor and virtually administrative measure to make a survey of the current coal situation. In the course of that survey he has not merely made a plea - as he is, of course, entitled to do, and as he is to be commended for doing - for the coal miners of New South Wales; he has also tainted that plea with some very strong language used in relation to my colleague, the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner), who is the Minister directly concerned with the problem of the coal industry. I feel, Mr. Speaker, that it is desirable in the circumstances to say something, not only of the current situation, but also of the manner in which this Government has faced up to the problems of the coal industry, of the way in which it has collaborated with the Government of New South Wales, which is the principal coal-producing State, of our present activities, and of what we are prepared to do in the future.

Let us take a short, quick look back at this industry as we found it when we took office. When "this Government came to office at the end of 1949, the state of the coal industry was a disgrace to Australia. There was not only irregularity of production, but also an incidence of industrial trouble, which has continued to the present time, out of all proportion to the incidence of industrial trouble in other sections of Australian industry. There was inefficiency in production and the output per man was low. Coal was losing customers because supplies were irregular, the quality of the coal produced was not consistent, and coal was not able to compete with alternative fuels which industry was able to use. Industrial users turned to those alternatives. State governments were being forced, although they would have been very happy, if they could have been assured of regular supplies, to go on using good quality New South Wales coal, to turn to alternative coal supplies produced by less economic production methods within their own borders. So, in South Australia, in Victoria, in Western Australia and in other parts of the Commonwealth, local coal production increased and. as I say, alternative fuels were used.

In that situation we found that, in order to get some stability and to enable us to go forward with a really constructive programme in regard to coal, we had to take positive measures in relation to the coal industry inside Australia, and we had actually to buy coal from countries outside Australia. We had to build up a stockpile of coal at grass so that the customer, the industrial user, could feel some confidence about regularity of supplies in the future.

The right honorable gentleman has asked for a new approach to the problems of the coal industry. I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that no industry in Australia has received more attention and consideration from governments, irrespective of their brand of politics, than has the coal industry. The Joint Coal Board itself was the creation of the governments of New South Wales and of the Commonwealth years ago. It has continued to function on behalf of those governments ever since. The fact that there has been, as a result of re-organization inside the coal industry, some displacement of labour, is not denied. There has been a substantial displacement of labour. My own department, this Government generally, my colleague, the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner), and the Government of New South Wales, all have given active attention to the problems which have been raised as a result of that re-organization. It is only because of the re-organization which has taken place inside the coal industry of New South Wales and the greatly increased mechanization which has occurred, that we can look forward to-day to a healthy future for coal, to an established and permanent place for coal in the economy of this country, and to the prospect that the industry will have scope for expansion as Australia develops.

Nothing that I shall be saying in the minutes during which I address myself to this matter to-night should be taken as expressing any lack of sympathy for the coalminer and his family. 1 say that quite deliberately and very emphatically. I have given as much thought and attention to their problems as any man sitting on the other side of this House, over the nine years that I have been a member of this Government-

Mr Ward - That is not enough.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - And long before that, when I was first a Minister, away back in 1940, when we first set up a Department of Labour and National Service. We were giving attention to the problems of the coal industry in those days. I go on public record as saying that the individual coal-miner is a very fine type of industrial worker. I say that he more than holds his own, as an individual, for character and capacity, with any counterpart in any other section of Australia's industrial fabric. I make that point because I know how our remarks in this place can be twisted and misrepresented when we are not present to correct what is said against us.

But having said that, Sir, 1 go on to say that much of the criticism of the right honorable gentleman is, as he knows only too well, unfortunately attributable to the unhappy state of industrial relations which has persisted in this industry through so many years. He makes no progress in this matter by attacking the managements, which have had the enterprise, the hardiness and the courage to go on with their investment in coal during years when it looked to be a most unprofitable and unrewarding enterprise. I say that the coal industry owes a very great debt to its present leader, Mr. Ted Warren, a man for whom I have a great admiration, who has done more than any other individual to pull coal out of the doldrums in which it has found itself.

The right honorable gentleman says that this movement should be a planned movement, that if mechanization is to come in, there should be a planned arrangement in relation to the displacement of employment which occurs as a result. I think, in the circumstances, that it is appropriate to quote what Mr. Warren has said on this matter within the last few days.

Mr Haylen - Who is he?

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - Mr. Warrenis president of a group of owners in the coal industry, the Colliery Proprietors Association. He is general manager of J. & A.

Brown and Abermain Seaham Collieries Limited. He is happy to enjoy the confidence of a number of electors in New South Wales and is a member of the Legislative Council. I do not think there will be many men on the other side of the House, with any knowledge of the coal industry, who will want to attack Mr. Ted Warren and what he has done for this industry. I have found, in my own departmental discussions with him, that he has had every consideration for the people in his employment and in the coal industry generally. But he made certain points, in a letter published in the " Sydney Morning Herald " on 15th September last, after criticism had been directed against the shortness of notice in respect, of the latest displacement of labour at one of the coal mines in New South Wales.

Mr Griffiths - One week!

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - Yes, one week. Mr. Warren referred, in the first instance, to experience in respect of the Wallarah colliery, which is well known to the honorable gentleman who has just interjected. In order to ease the problems of its employees at Wallarah, the company gave twelve months' notice of a cavil. In consideration of the interests of employees who were likely to be cavilled out, the company gave them twelve months' notice. Surely no one will suggest that that was an unreasonable period of time. Mr. Warren stated in the letter to which I have referred -

The employees at that mine appeared to do everything possible to prevent progress in the re-organization, including stay-in strikes, restriction of output, and so on. The capital cost of the re-organization was thereby increased by many thousands of pounds and trade was lost which still has not been recaptured. There is always an epidemic of sickness whenever a cavil out occurs, and Abermain No. 2-

One of the latest instances - is no exception. On Thursday last, before the announcement of the proposed closure, there were 25 men absent for various reasons. On Friday there were 49 men absent, and for the four days of this week the absentees have ranged from 96 to 104. This is almost one-third of the mine complement. There is little doubt that most of these men will present " Certificates " of sickness so that the employer will be obliged to pay their wages without, of course, any corresponding production. A month ago a serious heat occurred at Abermain No. 2-

This is the mine about which I am speaking - (No. 4 panel, 2 west district) and the lodge flatly refused to provide labour for emergency operations. The sealing off work that was necessary was carried out by members of the staff of Abermain No. 2 and staff drawn from other mines. The Miners' Federation was apparently prepared to abandon the mine.

Colliery proprietors, in common with other employers, do everything possible to avoid dismissal of employees and the loss of business such action usually connotes. I am sure you will agree, however, that each case must be considered according to its own circumstances. 1 mention that fact because it is, unhappily, the case that what could have been a much more orderly re-organization of this coal industry-

Dr Evatt - You are taking only one illustration.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - One illustration, but it is typical, and the right honorable gentleman knows it. I will give him one or two more illustrations, if he invites me to do so.

I was making the point that, although there has been all the goodwill in the world forthcoming from the government concerned, re-organization in this industry could have been much more orderly and satisfactory, if there had been a greater spirit of co-operation and team work between the representatives of this Communistcontrolled Miners Federation and management in the industry. The fact is, as I explained in a document 1 have circulated to all honorable members, that last year, the loss of working time in the coal industry through industrial disputes, although it is going through these admittedly difficult times, was 80 times the Australian average in other sections of industry. Does that suggest much concern on the part of the Miners Federation for the welfare of people whose future is being affected as a result of this process and who indeed have a great battle to sustain the coal industry against the competition of other fuels? Even in this year, when the position according to the right honorable gentleman has been accentuated, we find that in the six months up to June, 1958. with a total loss throughout Australia of 268,000 working days, in round figures, through industrial disputes, 117,000 were lost in the coalmining industry. That is about 40 per cent, of the total working time lost through industrial disputes, although the work force in the New South Wales coal industry represents less than 1 per cent, of the total Australian work force.

These things are said more in sorrow than in anger. I repeat that the coal-miner is a fine type, judging by what I have seen of him. But those who are now in control of his destinies, industrially, with this long heritage of industrial bitterness, have not been prepared to collaborate to see that there is the most effective and satisfactory re-organization of this industry. Despite these handicaps, the Commonwealth Government and the New South Wales Government have done what they could to produce better results.

I myself presided over the first meeting of a committee, representative of the Commonwealth Government and the New South Wales Government and including representatives of the Joint Coal Board, and the various managements and unions concerned in the industry. That committee has functioned ever since, with my colleague the Minister for National Development, who was also with me at the original meeting, representing the Commonwealth Government. In addition, we have had an employment committee established in the area. Again, this committee has been representative of the various interests concerned. It has functioned with great conscientiousness and with, I believe, remarkably good results. That does not say that there are not people still seeking work as a consequence of these displacements, but their number in relation to the total problem is relatively small. Those seeking work are being absorbed steadily as the economy is able to take them in. In Newcastle, in the south coast area of New South Wales, and in surrounding districts, that process has been going on.

As a consequence of this process of organization, it is true, as the right honorable gentleman conceded, that output per man has increased very substantially. Coal is once more becoming competitive with other fuels, particularly with fuel oils. Once more, instead of having to import coal, as was the situation when this Government first took office, we are now exporting coal to various parts of the world. In contrast with the import policy that we found necessary in the early stages, we are at present exporting coal at an annual rate of 900,000 tons.

Dr Evatt - That must be pursued.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - The right honorable gentleman says that that must be pursued. Of course it is being pursued by the Joint Coal Board and by the managements concerned. They want to sell their coal outside this country as well as inside it. As a consequence, there was a record coal production in the last full year, 1957-58, of 15,640,000 tons. However, if the figures are analysed closely, it will be found that, whilst there has been a very significant increase in man-hour output where mechanization has occurred, in those mines where coal production is still on a manual basis, the output per man-shift has hardly moved at all - certainly not significantly. So, there has been no great response by the individual manual worker to the severity of the crisis, as it is described inside the industry.

I pass now to the current situation. The Government is still in active consultation with the various instrumentalities that I have mentioned. Only this week, we have had a communication from the Premier of New South Wales in which he has intimated that some £275,000 will be made available for a works programme in the area, and he has asked for some Commonwealth supplement to that amount. I have no doubt that his request will receive the speedy consideration of the Government, but I think it is worth pointing out in passing that the Government has already in its loan works allocation this year greatly increased the amounts available to the States, including New South Wales. This applies not only to loan account but also to the amount being provided for general governmental purposes.

If the crisis is of the magnitude described by the right honorable gentleman, he might very well take up with his colleague, the Premier of New South Wales, the question of priorities, particularly as the Premier of New South Wales can set aside at least £1,500,000 in this year's Budget to extend annual leave from two to three weeks for his employees and to introduce the principle of equal pay for male and female employees. Arguments for and against these proposals can be advanced, but this is not the place to canvass them. However, if there is a crisis in the coal industry of New South Wales, with coal-miners unable to find proper, opportunities for work, how can the Premier of that State afford the luxury of an additional expenditure of £1,500,000 on these matters? The money could be devoted to other purposes recommended by the right honorable gentleman. In addition, of course, this is the one State persisting with quarterly adjustments of the basic wage in respect of governmental employees, and that is adding very materially to the Budget problems of New South Wales. I think that is fair comment when we are urged by the right honorable gentleman to do a good deal more than is already being done in respect of this industry.

One of the constructive proposals which have come out of the discussions is for greatly improved transport between Cessnock, the town hardest hit by the displacement of labour in the coal-fields, and Newcastle. Newcastle is a thriving, expanding industrial area. Cessnock could be a dormitory town for the expanding industries of Newcastle, provided that the time of transport of the worker from Cessnock to Newcastle could be substantially shortened. I was reading only this week in " Common Cause", the official publication of the miners' federation, a statement, attributed to one of the commentators, that it now takes li to 2 hours to get from Cessnock to Newcastle, but that with good roads, good rail and bus transport, the time could be considerably shortened. In fact, my department has been looking into the practicability of shortening the time of travel between the two places. I suggest to the right honorable gentleman that this is one of the matters he might very well discuss, in his new capacity as the prospective member for Hunter, with his colleague, the Premier of New South Wales. Roads, rail services and bus transport come directly within the province of the State Government, and I hope that something practical and useful can be done along these lines.

Mr Curtin - Say something constructive.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - That is something constructive, as the honorable gentleman would know if he had the capacity to understand these things.

I should like to refer to two other matters which arise out of the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, and which call for some comment. He referred to excessive profits in the industry and apparently suggested that they were a factor in causing the dismissals. Any one who has studied the economic history of the coal-mining industry knows that for a long period the returns have been what any normal investor would regard as highly unsatisfactory. Does the Leader of the Opposition think that if even nominal profits could continue to be earned the coal owners would be shutting down mines that could earn such profits? No one likes to shut down an enterprise that, with some improvement in demand, would be capable of making greater profits. If the owners are shutting down mines in the area, it is because the coal produced from those mines is not able to compete - even on the most modest profit basis or on a break-even basis - with coal produced from other mines. It is unhappily a fact that Cessnock coal - that is the district which, I know, the right honorable gentleman is thinking of particularly - is high-cost coal. There is a responsibility, not only on the management, but also on those who have a responsibility to the workers in the industry in Cessnock, to see that the costs of coal production in that district are brought more closely in line with the costs of production in other coal-fields of the State.

Then, the right honorable gentleman spoke in very critical terms of what he called the philosophy, frankly stated, of my colleague the Minister for National Development (Senator Spooner). I believe that the Minister for Development has had a warm sympathy with the coal-miners in the predicament that has developed in their industry. I know that he has given as much time to this matter as any Minister could reasonably be expected to give. He has talked realistically to all concerned, whether they be representatives of management or representatives of the miners. Does the right honorable gentleman think that he is improving the prospects of successful development in these areas when he frankly expresses his philosophy in relation to this matter? The frankly expressed philosophy of the right honorable gentleman is the nationalization of the coal-mining industry.

I am not raising what I think the honorable member for Hindmarsh (Mr. Clyde Cameron) calls the socialist tiger or the socialist bogy. I do not think the Leader of the Opposition will seek to correct me on this, because I have in front of me an extract from " Common Cause ", the journal to which I referred a little earlier. It is the official publication of the miners' federation. The extract comes from the issue of 21st September of last year, a time when the Leader of the Opposition was being canvassed as the likely new member for Hunter and was making a tour of the district in company with officials of the Australian Labour party - who were there to shepherd him along - and officials of the unions concerned. A report in " Common Cause" refers to this tour. The honorable member for Parkes (Mr. Haylen) was in the company, so he will know whether I am reporting the facts correctly. " Common Cause " reported Dr. Evatt as having said, at a meeting preceding a conference attended by his party, members of the Newcastle Trades Hall Council, officials of the. miners' federation and of other mining unions and area committees -

The coal industry is crying out for nationalization.

The intention to nationalize the coal industry was expressed in formal terms - the other statement was made in the course of a speech at the gathering I have mentioned - in a document entitled " A Labour Charter of Needs in the Coal Industry ", drawn up in the course of this tour by the right honorable gentleman and unanimously adopted by the conference.

Special significance, I suggest, is to be attached to this declaration on coal nationalization in this charter, when it is read in conjunction with the official printed federal platform of the Australian Labour party. The other night the honorable member for Hindmarsh said that I was not up to date in the platform which I produced. I have taken the precaution tonight, not merely to be up to date, but to have with me in one bound volume, not only the blue-covered issue which he talked about the other night, but the orange, the red, the beige and the grey issues of preceding conferences. In all of them, although there may be some sugar coating of the socialist objective and other items of that sort, the methods by which the socialist objectives are to be given effect have not varied. Under the heading, " Paragraph 4, Nationalization ", there is a list of items, which I read out the other night. I do not think I need repeat them now. There is a list of the industries which it is the policy of the Labour party, to nationalize. The significant thing is that although the Labour party has there set out in specific terms the industries which will be nationalized, there is no mention of coal, lt is only a short list, so perhaps 1 had better read it. It is as follows: -

(a)   Banking, credit and insurance.

(b)   Monopolies.

(c)   Shipping.

(d)   Public health.

(e)   Radio services and television.

(f)   Sugar refining.

That is the list. There is no mention in that list of the nationalization of coal. That is rather significant. The right honorable gentleman made no public reference earlier to the nationalization of coal. He is the leader of the Labour party. He goes on to the coal-fields as the prospective member for Hunter and he adopts, as a policy, the nationalization of coal. Was he speaking for himself, or was he speaking for the Labour party as a whole? That is a very pertinent question.

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