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Tuesday, 30 September 1958

Mr L R JOHNSON (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) (12:13 PM) . - I believe it is an indictable deficiency on the part of the Government that I am the third successive Opposition speaker to rise to deal with the obvious crisis in the coal industry. The fact that Government supporters can sit silently for so long is a clear indication of their lack of concern, that is, the lack of concern on the part of the Liberal party and the Country party, which together comprise the parliamentary Government in this place. No one can deny that there is indeed a very serious crisis on the coal-fields, and one would feel that a responsible government would take the opportunity to announce for the benefit of the people of Australia the manner in which the crisis may be overcome. It cannot be disputed that the coal industry is of very great importance to this country. In itself, this bill is not a highly controversial measure. It is designed to protect the rights of the public servant who is to be appointed to the Joint Coal Board.

Mr Bowden - That is all it does.

Mr L R JOHNSON (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is so. It seems to be the extent of the interest of members of the Australian Country party to make such interjections. The proposed appointee is a second division officer. It will not be a top level appointment. Nevertheless, the principle involved in, the bill is a vital one. The appointee's rights and privileges are to be preserved and applied to his service with the Joint Coal Board, because, in joining this instrumentality, he will remain in the honorable service of his country.

It is important to protect the rights of those who serve with the Joint Coal Board, because of the retrenchments that have taken place. I understand that the number of staff employed at 30th June, 1957, was 306, but that, as a result of retrenchment, the number now employed is only 130. Those whose services have been dispensed with did not have the privilege and the opportunity to transfer to another instrumentality, which is the right of employees under the Public Service Act. The calibre of the employees concerned cannot be questioned when we have regard to the outstanding ability of a gentleman named Ormonde, who has brought a freshness of approach in another place to the problem of the coal industry. His ability indicates the standard of ability of those who comprise the Joint Coal Board. When we consider the sterling service that has been rendered over the years by Mr. Cochran, the president of the Joint Coal Board, the value of people of this calibre is apparent.

The board was established in 1946. This great enterprise which was established by Labour is, I contend, another edifice to mark our efforts to stabilize a great national industry. In the days to come, it will not be the pleasure of supporters of the Government to be able to point to such an edifice to mark their efforts. The fact of the matter is that this board, like other worth-while government instrumentalities, is a monument to the initiative and imagination of the parliamentary Labour party in this place. To-day, the Joint Coal Board has an annual turnover of £250,000 and it owns assets to the value of almost £2,500,000. The board has contributed in a very large measure and in many ways to the stabilization of this vital national industry. The board has borne the responsibility of handling grave national crises, and it has discharged in a very large degree the important obligations that were imposed on it under the terms of the 1946 legislation.

It has rallied the coal industry at a time of great national peril. I refer to the time when there was a serious deficiency in the supply of coal. In those dark and desperate days, the Minister for the Army earned for himself the nickname " Calamity Cramer ". In the true Liberal tradition, he did nothing constructive. Ultimately, the Labour party set out to overhaul this industry, which had been deficient in many respects. The purposes of the board have already been outlined adequately by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt). Basically, the board is required to provide for the stable production of coal, to conserve the nation's resources of coal, to ensure the proper and adequate distribution of coal, and to promote and safeguard the best interests and welfare of the men engaged in the industry. The board has accomplished a great deal in this respect.

Mr. Speaker,until the Leader of the Opposition concluded his speech on this measure, the debate had proceeded in a temperate manner. He referred to the plight of the coal industry. He said that the greatest tragedy in an industry such as this, and indeed, in all industries, was that of unemployment. He said -

Unemployment can be avoided by carefully planning ahead. In the case of this particular industry it is obvious, from the widespread unemployment existing, particularly in some of the areas that I have mentioned, that there has noi been sufficient planning. The matter can bp remedied, and even at this stage the effects of unemployment can be mitigated to a very great extent.

Those seem to be rational contentions. Bui the effect of those statements, coming from the Leader of the Opposition, was to sting the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr. Holt) into a state of fury. He made his following speech in a most irate fashion. He launched a bitter attack on the miners and spoke disparagingly and inaccurately of the time that had been lost in the industry.

I wish to refer to the facts as they are presented in the last annual report of the Joint Coal Board, especially with regard to the losses through stoppages at coal mines. The Joint Coal Board was, of course, set up under an arrangement between New South Wales and the Commonwealth. As a consequence, the figures in this report pertain exclusively to the State of New South Wales. Without going through all the figures in regard to losses because of the lateness of the hour, I point out that the peak period for losses was in the financial year 1949-50. We know the disastrous state of affairs which existed at that time. The loss during this peak period was 3,015,000 tons of coal. From that year, the figures start to fall, and the last figure was not 3,015,000 tons, but 1,031,000 tons. That is a fairly worthy accomplishment by the coal-mining industry. I do not know to whom the Minister for Labour and National Service is prepared to attribute this remarkable achievement. Perhaps he is prepared to say that it is due to the Communist leadership of the unions. I do not know. But at least he should be prepared to concede that the miners have responded well to the appeal to produce more coal. Instead of saying that, he let loose a wild tirade of recrimination, and condoned, in the manner of his speech, the retrenchment which is taking place despite the remarkable response to the appeal to produce more coal.

Retrenchment has been the only reward of the coal-miners. It is not fair for the Minister to say that the mining industry has been irresponsible. Table 29 in the report of the Joint Coal Board shows that the percentage of man shifts lost has also been reduced to a considerable extent. The man shifts shown as lost in this table have been lost due to all causes including a large number of breakdowns, accidents, and transport breakdowns. These figures refer to underground coal mines and they are no more expressive for my purposes than the figures with respect to open-cut mines.

Here, again, there has been a progressive diminution. The peak period occurred in the year 1950 when the man shifts lost represented 23.51 per cent, of total time worked. In the last year for which figures are available the figure fell to 12.50 per cent. In other words, this is the best record that has ever been achieved. But the Minister gave no recognition to this great achievement. He went on with abuse and vilification and a battering barrage of belittlement and belligerence towards the mining community. The mining work force has responded remarkably well to this great crisis. It has achieved a record production.

In New South Wales, the output of coal in 1939 amounted to 11,000,000 tons. In 1957, the figure had moved up to 15,500,000 tons. In underground mining, the New South Wales output has increased since 1951 by a yearly average of 5 per cent. It seems to me that the mining community has probably responded to appeals for increased production in a far more effective way than most other sections of the Australian community. This increased production has been achieved in the face of a declining work force. According to the report of the Joint Coal Board, there were 16,000 employees in the industry in June, 1957. although in 1952 there had been 20,310. Retrenchments have been solid in recent years, particularly during the last twelve months when they have increased rapidly.

The miners have had a very much improved record in relation to industrial disputes as time has moved on. The man shifts lost through industrial disputes have fallen from a peak figure of 14.28 per cent, of total shifts in 1951 to 3.93 per cent, in 1957. It seems to me that some credit is due to the industry and that the vicious attack which the Minister made on it in his speech last Thursday night was not justified.

The Minister endeavoured to justify the giving of only one week's notice to miners. I do not believe it is possible for any one to justify the action of this man Warren, who represents the colliery proprietors, and who, in his capacity of general manager of J. & A. Brown and Abermain Seaham Collieries Limited decided it was desirable to give only a week's notice to employees who had served in an industry which had required them to dedicate themselves to it in an exclusive 'manner.

The Minister made great play on the fact that, on some previous occasion, when some one was contemplating the closure of a mine, he had given longer indication of the intention to do so than would ordinarily have been given, and that the employees had tended to take advantage of that situation. The Minister is completely lacking in his understanding of the situation in criticizing this tendency on the part of employees. When employment is drawing to a close and a miner who is concerned with the welfare of his family is confronted with the fact that he will not be required to work after certain things have been accomplished, does the Minister consider that he will go flat out with a view to terminating his employment with the least possible delay? The net result would be that the miner would be unable to obtain things that were tremendously important to the health and welfare of his wife and children.

What right have the mine owners who exploit the great national resources of this country to discard the work force in such a blatant fashion? I believe there is a great need to reorganize this industry to provide for planning, and, especially, to evolve a way whereby some rehabilitation training may be made available in anticipation of disemployment. If this Government is incapable of anticipating the future of an industry so as to provide for the rehabilitation of the employees concerned, it is of no worth on the treasury bench.

The industry certainly has a responsibility, but during the period that this Government has been in office, I believe that both the industry itself and the Joint Coal Board have been deficient in exercising this responsibility. This is a proud, pioneering and vital labour force which should be maintained as the vanguard of the nation's productive effort. If it is not to be used in the coal-mining industry, there are plenty of places in the north of Australia, in the hinterland and elsewhere where such an enthusiastic, worthwhile body of men can be employed, or deployed. The Government has the ball at its feet.

The Joint Coal Board was established in 1946 as a co-operative effort between the New South Wales Government and the Commonwealth Government. However, it has failed to fulfil its obligations in this matter of co-operation. In time of crisis, the board has suffered from an absence of co-operation on the part of the Commonwealth. There has been a denial of responsibility so far as the board's instrumentalities are concerned. The Commonwealth, on its own initiative, has disposed of the board's assets. It has not done so with any thought of helping to stabilize the industry. The Commonwealth has virtually said, " There is something wrong with the industry and even though the Joint Coal Board's instrumentalities are successful - in contrast with other coal-mining activities - we are going to dispose of them ". The Government's attitude has been consistent with that which it adopted in respect of the Commonwealth Bank, to give only one example. It has endeavoured to undermine that institution. The Government has adopted a similar attitude to such public instrumentalities as Commonwealth Oil Refineries Limited, Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited and the Commonwealth Shipping Line. Unfortunately, its actions in the coal-mining industry have had a very unfortunate effect. The Joint Coal Board establishments have, because of their very success, been torpedoed.

The Government takes the view that, regardless of the importance of the industry, or of the national welfare, or of its own employees and the community which has developed around them, its investment will produce more lucrative returns elsewhere. The Government is willing to let the coal industry stew in its own juice; to let it languish in the midst of its former glories; to permit its trappings to waste away in the midst of nothing more worth while than the elements.

What has the Government done to the Joint Coal Board's assets. Newstan Colliery Proprietary Limited had a modern, highly mechanized, underground mine on the Newcastle field. It was a successful establishment. It had a production rate of 2.500 tons a day from one eight-hour shift of 350 employees, was completely mechanized and was one of the model mines in the State of New South Wales. The Newcom colliery, which was also owned by the Joint Coal Board, is situated in the Wallerawang district, lt was equally well mechanized and successful, producing 700 tons a day from one shift working eight hours. T understand that the output has recently increased beyond even that figure. The mines were sold to the electricity commission for £1.382,000. That does not seem such a terribly bad thing to do, but the position is that the Government decided to dispose of these two establishments, caring little about what would happen to them or the purpose for which they would be used. In this matter, the Commonwealth ignored completely the view of the State of New South Wales. To that extent it has disregarded its obligation under the 1946 enabling bill.

The Commonwealth, having achieved the destruction of those two mines - so far as public ownership was concerned, at any rate - turned its destructive gaze upon the New South Wales Mining Company, and its open cut mine at Foybrook on the northern field. It was not big, but it was important in the overall set-up. The Commonwealth Government disposed of two washeries facilities for stockpiling and marketing and, in general, undermined the board's ability to stabilize the industry. The assets of the New South Wales Mining Company have now been sold to Clutha Development Pro.prietary Limited for £250,000. More of the company's assets are in the process of being sold.

In common with most honorable members, I believe that there are very real reasons for the decline of the labour force in the coal-mining industry. First, there was the labour shortage occasioned by six years of war and the subsequent years of peaceful reconstruction. As a consequence, the consumers of coal were obliged to look for alternative fuels. Secondly, many new fields were opened. Industry, because of the shortage of the coal that it desired, turned to imported oils and raw brown coal. The economies which could be effected by the use of diesel traction became apparent to the New South Wales Government Railways. This was a very important factor. Ocean-going vessels turned to oil-burning facilities and these virtually displaced coal. In addition, there were increased transport costs. Consumers looked for ways and means of overcoming heavy freight charges by the use of alternative fuels.

The challenge to coal is to re-establish the industry on a competitive basis along the lines I have indicated and thus bold1 traditional markets. However, this Government has taken the view that coal has little future. It has adopted a defeatist attitude. It considers that King Coal has been nudged from the throne by other forms of industrial power. This is not conceded by people who specialize in the industry. Many keen observers consider that the coal recession is only temporary, that coal will come back as a greater feature of om economy than ever before.

There are good reasons for hoping that the position of the coal industry will improve. First, more efficient operation of the mine has made coal cheaper than it was some years ago. Coal can now compete with oil. Australia's electricity output is doubling every seven or eight years. It is generally recognized that we are deficient in hydro-electric power. This power is to be found in large measure in the Snowy region but is not generally dispersed throughout Australia. There has been great expansion of heavy industry, especially in the steel and cement sections. The influx of foreign capital could well mean that there will be a continuing and expanding market for coal. There is the possibility of developing coal gas turbine engines for locomotion. This has been successfully undertaken in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Again, there is the possibility of opening up overseas markets such as Japan, China and Asia generally. All these factors should be taken into account.

Also, I think we should look once again at the Colombo plan. We tend to send overseas material which is desperately needed in this country. We could well examine the possibility of exporting coal, under the Colombo plan, to our northern neighbours. This would indeed help to stimulate the local industry. Last, but by no means least, the Commonwealth should assist the Joint Coal Board to establish gas industries, especially in the coal-mining towns where, very often, the people do not enjoy that amenity.

There is great scope for stabilizing the coal industry. The New South Wales University of Technology has made a number of suggestions for the use of by-products from the industry. It suggests that these could include sulphanilamide drugs, antiseptics, carbolic acid, acriflavin, perfumes, flavouring materials, explosives, insecticides, weed killers and plant hormones. All these items can be manufactured from chemicals obtained from coal. If we consider closely the various materials that can be produced from coal we realize that there is a large industrial vacuum in this country to-day.

This is a matter that the Government has chosen not to talk about. In fact, as I said early in my speech, three Labour members in a row have spoken in this debate, indicating that there is little awareness on the part of the Government of this very important problem.

Let me now consider the position with regard to plastics. In 1956 Australia imported £5,000,000 worth of plastics. Many plastics could be produced through a chemical industry based on coal by-products. In the textile industry,£15,000,000 of artificial fibres came into this country in 1956, and I am told that synthetic fibres can also be produced in a coal-chemical industry. In the same year, 1956, £17,000,000 of synthetic rubber was imported. According to the experts, synthetic rubber tyres give 30 per cent. more wear than ordinary tyres. Tests indicate that the heels of shoes may last for 2,000 miles when made from synthetic rubber, whereas heels made from natural rubber will last for only about 300 miles. Synthetic rubber can be manufactured from coal.

In 1956 more than £4,000,000 was spent on the import of fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate, calcium nitrate, sodium nitrate and superphosphates. Miscellaneous chemicals accounted for about £7,000,000 worth of imports. In all, our imports could be reduced by about £50,000,000 if the Government decided to develop a coalchemical industry, but, apart from some experimentation by the University of Technology in Sydney, no positive steps have been taken towards the establishment of such an industry.

Let us now consider the matter from a defence angle. We all know how important it is to encourage the production of oil from coal, and in this field we know that the Government has fallen down on its responsibilities. It may be that oil produced from coal cannot economically compete with oil taken from the earth, but the great importance of oil and our particular need of a local oil industry should be sufficient justification for the Government to endeavour to ensure an indigenous supply.

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