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Tuesday, 19 March 1968

Mr COLLARD (Kalgoorlie) - We are debating the Governor-General's Speech. Nothing is more certain than that the Australian public is wondering why the Government felt that it was necessary to delay the normal proceedings of Parliament in this manner. I thought that the honourable member for McMillan (Mr Buchanan) was very generous in apologising to the House for the Government's action. The Governor-General's Speech to assembled members of the Senate and House of Representatives is normally delivered at the opening of a new Parliament following a general election and is nothing more than a speech prepared by the Prime Minister. Such a speech has always been accepted as an outline to members of Parliament and to the general public of the Government's policy and its intentions with regard to legislation. But this year the situation was different. We had a speech by the GovernorGeneral, not following a general election and at the opening of a new Parliament, but simply as a result of an election by the Liberal Party of a new Prime Minister. That election proved conclusively the bitterness that exists between the Australian Country Party and the Liberal Party. It proved also that on the Government side in this House not one man was capable of carrying out the responsibilities of Prime Ministership.

When it became known that the Governor-General would make a speech and that a debate would ensue on that speech - this is what we had only last year - the people of Australia were entitled to believe that the Government had something new to propose. Surely we all were entitled to expect to hear from the GovernorGeneral an indication that the Government intended to introduce legislation different from that proposed early last year or that since last year the Government had found it necessary to place before the Parliament and the people something of significant importance. After all, the debate on the Governor-General's Speech consumes a considerable amount of time. Unless the debate centres on something which was not placed before the Parliament last year it is a consumption of time which could be better used in dealing with important legislation. I am sure that all honourable members and the people of Australia will agree with me that plenty of material exists which could be brought before the Parliament and dealt with as quickly as possible in the best interests of Australia and its people. This is particularly so in respect of certain sections of the community and certain areas of the country. There could be no good reason for delaying the introduction of such legislation by debating the Governor-General's Speech unless that Speech contained something significantly different to what was announced early last year.

What did the Speech contain? It contained absolutely nothing that we had not heard before. There was nothing new in the Speech - nothing of fresh importance. I suggest that those who listened to it. and who have since read it must have been very disturbed, surprised and disillusioned - even disgusted - with its vagueness and with the Government's failure to grapple with the many problems that face Australia at home and abroad. The Speech was mainly a rehash of old problems and proposals. The same old things were dished up. The only bright spots were the indications that the Labor Party's policy was to be implemented in certain respects. It was a Speech from which only one conclusion could be drawn - that the Government under its new Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) and with the reshuffle in the Ministry is still barren of ideas for handling Australia's problems and will simply muddle along as it has in the past.

This second session of this Parliament commenced 3 weeks later than would normally have been the case. I offer no criticism of that. The delay in resuming was largely outside the control of the Government and, in the circumstances, was something which we all could expect. But 1 think we are entitled to criticise the Government for aggravating the position with an unnecessary Speech by the Governor-General and an ensuing debate. We are also entitled to attack the Government, not only for having delayed the introduction of vital legislation, but also for having prevented the Opposition from introducing into this Parliament during the first 2 weeks of the session measures which would be of far greater importance than the Governor-General's Speech.

The first subject of any importance dealt with by the Governor-General was the situation in Vietnam. Notwithstanding its importance, it was dealt with in a mere sixteen lines of rather large print. It is disturbing that no suggestion is made for halting the conflict and the useless loss of life and destruction of property on both sides. The Government simply says that it seeks a just and lasting peace. These are exactly the words used by President Johnson. The Government states that it will support every effort to negotiate for peace. But it offers no suggestion as to how peace may be obtained. It must be disturbing and frightening to the people of Australia to see the situation in Vietnam becoming more serious every day. There is the possibility that Australia will be asked to send more troops there. This Government, which is prepared to conscript lads for Vietnam, should be exploring every possible avenue for peace and should not simply rely on the views, suggestions or actions of some other country. It is not good enough to say that we will support every effort for peace. The Government should be making its own efforts.

Recently we received details issued by the United States Information Service of casualties in Vietnam. That information shows that between 1st January and 2nd March this year 3,229 United States soldiers were killed in action, 9,275 were wounded and required hospitalisation - it does not say how serious their wounds were - and 8,297 were wounded but did not require hospitalisation. But it must be remembered that no matter whether or not the wounds were serious, those people could just as easily have been killed. The number of the enemy listed in the report as killed is 3,847, which is some 600 more than the number of Americans killed over that period of 2 months. The report does not state - apparently it is not known - how many of the enemy were wounded. It does not give

Australian, New Zealand or South Vietnamese casualties. Nor does it give civilian casualties. But it does show that over the short period of 2 months 7,078 Americans, North Vietnamese and others fighting on the side of the North Vietnamese were killed and 17,562 Americans and God knows how many on the other side were wounded. However, I have no doubt that we can safely say that 50,000 to 55,000 persons were either killed or wounded in that short time of 2 months in this rotten and useless situation in Vietnam.

It is not a very nice situation to dwell upon. I admit this. The reason I have given these figures is to make it clear - and it must be clear - that unless something is done in the near future to bring about peace in South Vietnam, it is pounds to peanuts that under the present Government's policy Australia will become more and more deeply involved. If this is permitted to come to pass, we shall find Australian parents and other relatives facing Australian casualty lists similar to those of the Americans or of the North Vietnamese to which I have just referred. Notwithstanding this obvious possibility, we find from the Governor-General's Speech that all that this Government intends to do about solving the problem is to support negotiations for peace initiated by someone else. If we in Australia continue to sit back and do nothing about initiating peace proposals, on whom do we rely to initiate them? Almost certainly they will not come from countries that are directly improving their own financial position as a result of the war. Nor are they likely to come from those governments that are indirectly making some profit or gain from the present situation.

Let us examine the position of Japan, for instance, and see how many countries are depending on it for trade. I refer to an article dated 27th February 1968 which is headed 'Japan Profits Most From Vietnam War'. The article states:

Japan easily heads the list of Asian countries which continue to make increasing sums of money out of the war in Vietnam.

United States military spending in Japan during the present financial year, which will end in April, is likely to exceed $446m. By the end of the halfyear which ended in September, Japan had already received a record $216.9m from military expenditure, an increase of 6% on the corresponding 6 months of 1966-67.

Japanese officials say it is impossible to determine just how much of this is based directly on the Vietnam war. However, the Japanese stock market is very sensitive to any possibility of the war being suddenly settled as a result of secret negotiations.

The general feeling is that Japan is not only profiting from the procurement orders directly related to the war, but also indirectly from increased exports to countries in South East Asia and the US.

Some Japanese economists assert that Japan was able to overcome its last recession faster than expected because of the Vietnam war. If the war ended suddenly, there would be some compensating factors, but the economics experts say aircraftmanufacturing, textile, communications and the non-ferrous metal industries in Japan would be badly hit.

The article then deals with Singapore. It states:

In Singapore, official figures show that exports to South Vietnam in the first half of 1967 totalled more than $44m, an increase of more than 160% in the past 2 years. US and South Vietnamese purchases for civil and military projects have made South Vietnam Singapore's biggest overseas market after Malaysia.

Political observers believe that this fact must have weighed heavily on the mind of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew when he recently opposed any sudden American military withdrawal from Vietnam.

Singapore's exports to South Vietnam are mainly building materials, steel plates and rods, metal containers, petroleum products, photographic supplies, lighters and beverages. Shipping schedules show that sailings to ports in South Vietnam have nearly doubled since 196S to cope with the additional cargoes.

Hong Kong's big increase in trade with South Vietnam since 1965, when the US began its massive buildup of troops, consists mainly of exports of textiles and clothing. Exports totalled about $2,357,000 in 1965, and the 1966 figure showed a three-fold increase at $7,129,000.

The article then goes on to refer to the trade situation in Malaysia and the way in which it has developed. It also refers to Formosa. If that article is anywhere near correct it gives room for a lot of thought. For instance, what would be the actual effect on Japan if the war in Vietnam were to fold up? What would be the effect in turn on those countries that export in a big way to Japan? Are they likely to take any serious steps towards bringing about success for peace proposals that this Government says it will support? The trade situation leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth, I suggest, when one thinks of our own position in this regard. We have a fairly large trade with Japan and we rely to a very large extent on her to buy our iron ore, wool and so on. At the same time we are sending troops to Vietnam to fight in a war in which Japan, both directly and indirectly, is reaping a considerable profit from the sale of materials and goods that she manufactures from raw material that she buys from us. While all this is going on, the Australian Government apparently is content to sit back and wait for peace moves to come from God knows where. Australia must explore every opportunity to bring peace to Vietnam. The position in Singapore and Malaysia has made this even more necessary. It is a rather disgraceful state of affairs when we find that the best statement than can be made by the Government of Australia is that it will support any peace proposal that comes from some other country.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the opening of the iron ore pelletising plant at Dampier in the north of Western Australia. Apparently some people have very short memories or are more concerned about putting lucre before lives. It made me feel ill to listen to people like the Liberal Premier of Western Australia referring to our very good friends, our very dear friends, from Japan. Anyone would think that Japan was doing us a very great service by buying iron ore or catching our crayfish or prawns, when in actual fact it is receiving a much better deal than it deserves at the expense of this country. No-one is more pleased than I am to see the progress and development in the north. But this, as we all know, would have taken place and continued irrespective of which Government was in office. The only difference is that under a Labor government the people of Australia would receive much more benefit from northern development than they receive at the present time. I was authoritatively informed while I was at Dampier that some 450 houses are to be built there, and some 500 at Mount Torn Price, by the middle of next year. But these are company houses. They are not to be built by the Government. As we all know, if we were to wait for the Liberal Government to build houses in the north, progress there would be seriously restricted unless people employed there were prepared to camp under mulga trees until they could get houses.

The Governor-General's Speech contains very little indication of better things to come, but I notice that it is intended to review the field of social services, as His Excellency said:

.   . with the object of assisting those in most need while at the same time not discouraging thrift, self-help and self-reliance.

It is quite certain that at existing pension rates, a very large number of age, invalid and widow pensioners, other social service pensioners and repatriation pensioners are living in a state of either poverty or near poverty. At least, they are merely existing. Whilst a further easing of the means test is very desirable, it will in no way help the people I have mentioned. Those who have no money, no income and no likelihood of ever having either will not receive any benefit whatever from the easing of the means test. Their situation in life will not be improved simply by giving them another 50c or $1 or some such miserly amount. Much more than that needs to be done if they are to be given the opportunity to live decently. I will certainly be very interested to see what comes from this review of pensions, lt will be very interesting to see the overall result of the review. Of course, the field of social services goes much further than the payment of pensions. It includes the maternity allowance, unemployment and sickness benefits, child endowment, supplementary assistance and funeral benefit. In all the areas in which these benefits are paid, we can find large numbers of people who are in very poor circumstances and who require more assistance than others do.

I hope that the committee making the review will give favourable consideration to the difficulties facing married couples who have no income other than their pensions and who own their homes or are renting a home. They deserve some additional help. When the Minister for Shipping and Transport (Mr Sinclair) was Minister for Social Services, he told me that a pensioner who owns his home already receives the benefit of a concession under the Act because the value of the home is disregarded for pension purposes. I point out at once that if such a pensioner has no income or money he receives no concession whatever because the value of the home frequently is nowhere hear the permissible maximum allowed under the Act for property or moneys other than a home. Many of the people in this situation are in real need of assistance and I hope that the review will result in consideration being given to them.

We were also told in the GovernorGeneral's Speech that the Government intends to conduct an independent inquiry into the operations of the medical and hospital funds. This action is certainly not being taken before the proper time, but if the past practice of this Government is followed the report will not see the light of day for a considerable time after it is given to the Government. If the report recommends that the Treasury subsidise further the operations of the funds, it is most unlikely that we will ever see it. Some funds, of course, are providing a very good service to their subscribers and would do even better if the Minister and his Department permitted them to do so. I should like to refer briefly to a fund in Western Australia. I was a member of the management committee from the inception of the fund until I became a member of the Parliament a short time ago. Although the fund may not be classed as one of the major funds, having regard to its size, it still has a fairly substantial membership. Its management committee is constantly looking for ways and means of increasing the benefits, giving better service and reducing costs without increasing subscriptions. It is easily one of the best funds that we have in Australia and I will be very surprised if the inquiry does not prove that this is so.

The administration expenses of the fund for the year ended June 1967 were only 5.5% and they have never exceeded 6.3% in the 14 years it has been operating. Its expenses would certainly compare more than favourably with those of many other funds. I understand that the administration expenses of many funds are as high as 15% and even higher in some instances. Not only are the administration expenses of the fund I have mentioned low, but it is also paying 83% of the cost of all medical services obtained by its members and it wishes to increase the benefits. As all honourable members would no doubt know, funds in all States except Western Australia have announced, with the approval of the Minister for Health (Dr Forbes), that benefits paid for major surgery will be increased.

I understand that the fund I have mentioned has made submissions seeking permission to do likewise but has been told that, as major funds in Western Australia have not made a similar approach, it is unlikely that approval will be given. If this is correct, and I have no doubt it is, surely the situation is not only ridiculous but also quite unfair to the contributors. A financially sound fund that has been operating for 14 years is prevented from providing further benefits for its subscribers simply because the major funds in the State are not willing to do likewise. I hope that the inquiry into hospital and medical benefit funds will explore situations where Government action is proving to be an obstacle to better service. 1 am quite certain that the fund I have referred to will welcome an inquiry and will hope that it is commenced as speedily as possible. The management committee will be pleased to see placed on record the fact that its good sense and good management have not only kept the fund on a sound footing but have also enabled benefits to be provided to the maximum extent. An inquiry will reveal that subscribers are not receiving much better benefits not through the fault of the management committee but through the action of the Government. The fund will shortly be opening new offices, not in the city but in the country. The fund certainly will not be putting on a lavish opening ceremony, similar to those we have witnessed elsewhere - and I do not refer only to other funds.

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