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Friday, 24 November 1905

Senator PULSFORD (New South Wales) The time that has been spent in discussing the affairs of New Guinea, though considerable, has not been wasted ; because the subject is really of greater importance than I think is generally understood. British New Guinea, although it contains only a few hundred white people, has a coloured population, estimated variously at between 300,000 and 1,000,000. This places a great responsibility on the Commonwealth ; and I gladly recognise the general desire that the people of New Guinea shall be governed in their own interests. Incidentally it seems to me that our responsibilities in this connexion will tend to create a. little more sympathy with the mother country, in her task of governing native races extending over large territories. However, I have not risen to continue the debate beyond offering one or two remarks. I have perused Mr: Atlee Hunt's report, and listened carefully to the speeches made this morning, and from both I have gained a good deal of information. Still, I feel the need of further knowledge before I can make any observations of value in regard to the government of the Possession in the future. I should like to say, however, that in my opinion the Government would be well advised if, at the earliest possible moment, they arranged to have a system of wireless telegraphy between Northern Queensland and New Guinea.

Senator Staniforth Smith - That would cost ,£2,500 a year.

Senator PULSFORD - If quick communication of the kind were established, we should be able to at once terminate what appears verv much like a scandal.

Senator GIVENS(Queensland).- The items embraced under the head of " Mail service to the Pacific Islands," in division No. 14, requires some scrutiny. I am given to understand that the position of affairs at the present time is very peculiar. These items, instead of appearing in the Estimates of the Postmaster-General's Department, are placed amongst those of the Department of External Affairs ; and the only reasonable explanation is that the Government have dropped all pretence that this is a mail contract. As a matter of fact, there has been this pretence throughout. The items set down under the head I have just quoted consist of .£3,600 as a subsidy towards the mail service to the New Hebrides, Banks, Santa Cruz, and Solomon Groups; £400 as an additional subsidy granted on condition that black labour is not used; £2,000 as additional subsidy for extension of the services ; and £6,000 for improved services to the New Hebrides and the Solomon and Norfolk Islands, and new services to Solomon, Gilbert, and Ellice Islands and New Guinea - a total of £^12,000. Prior to Federation. New South Wales was paying Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company £3,600 per annum as a subsidy towards the mail service to the New Hebrides and other Islands ; and that amount is now treated in the Estimates as transferred expenditure. I am given to understand, and I believe it is a fact, that, although these votes were discussed on the Estimates last year, and payment has been made for these services ever since, the Department of External Affairs conducts its business so loosely that, up to the present moment, no agreement has been signed as between the Commonwealth and Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company. I shall be glad if the Minister will let me know whether I am rightly or wrongly stating the case. I understand that only now is an agreement being prepared - that it has not yet been signed.

Senator Croft - Has the firm been receiving money under the vote?

Senator GIVENS - The firm has been receiving money for, I believe, the" last eighteen months ; indeed, I believe the firm has been receiving money under a similar arrangement ever s.ince the beginning of Federation. I know it to be a fact that the subsidized firm vary the terms at" their own sweet will. They simply tell the Commonwealth what they would like to do, and, in the absence of any agreement, they are at perfect liberty to act as they please; at any rate, the Commonwealth appears to always calmly acquiesce. The former service to New Guinea from Thursday Island, which is the nearest point of the Commonwealth, has been discontinued, at the express wish, I believe, of Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company, and a monthly service from Cairns has been substituted. I am not complaining about that variation, if it be deemed the best course to adopt, as it probably may be under the circumstances. What I complain of is that Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company seem to be permitted to vary the contract as they please. Why were tenders not called for this service? How is it that one firm may be given a subsidy without any competition? I have looked into this matter very carefully, and I find- that, so far as. the mails are concerned, this service is practically of little or no use. Most of the mails, even for New Guinea, do not go by the vessels of Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company, but by the vessels of Messrs. Gunn and Sons, of Cooktown. These latter vessels carry more mails at paltry poundage rates than' do the vessels of Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company under the agreement. If I am correct in this, the service supplied by Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company cannot" be regarded as a mail service. It is a fact that the French line of steamers carry the greater portion of the mails to and from the Islands; and it appears that the payments to Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company constitute really a trade subsidy - a subsidy to one particular firm to assist them in the conduct of their business. That firm, under any circumstances, will be compelled1 either to give up their business in New Guinea, or to continue to have a service of steamers at regular intervals. There is now only a monthly service with one boat to New Guinea, in which Possession we are particularly interested. Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company have a very large and flourishing island trade; and in connexion with this they would, in the same way, in the absence of any subsidy, be compelled to have steamer communication. The £12,000 is paid as practically a subsidy to enable this firm to run its own business; and to that extent we assist them to cripple other firms. Messrs. Clunn and Sons, of Cooktown, maintain regular communication between that port and New Guinea, without any subsidy, and they have offered to undertake the mail contract on lowerterms than those demanded by Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company. The boats of Messrs. Clunn and Sons run at more frequent intervals, and are the more popular, even with the travelling public, who are generally good judges of the qualities of steamers. If the subsidy be continued, the effect may be to force Messrs. Clunn and Sons out of the business, and to leave us with one line of steamers to New Guinea instead of two; and that would be manifestly unfair. I do not desire that Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Company should suffer under any disability. They are entitled to the fullest measure of fair play ; indeed, I go so far as to say that we should give them generous treatment. At the same time, we must not be unfair to other firms. If we are to continue these services when the contract comes before the Senate, I shall oppose it "tooth and nail," in order to insist that tenders shall be called for the service.

Senator Playford - Burns, Philp, and Company have the contract for ten years.

Senator GIVENS - That may be so, but we were told in the Senate last year that the contract can. be abrogated at any time. When last year I proposed a motion refusing to assent to the contract, I was told thatthe best thing I could do would be to leave the matter in abeyance until next year. I refuse now to be continually put off. If a thing requires to be done, we should do it here and now. In order to emphasize my protest against the unfair way in which this contract has been given to Burns, Philp, and Company without tenders being called for, I move -

That the House of Representatives be requested to reduce the vote " Mail Service to Pacific Islands, £12,000, " by £1.

We have been discussing many matters of importance, and have not yet been able to get any information from the Minister in charge of the Estimates. I have been accustomed to the passing of Estimates elsewhere, and though the Minister in charge of a vote might not have been personally acquainted with all the information desired in connexion with it, the UnderSecretaries of the various Departments concerned have always been in attendance in order to supply the Minister with information asked for. I ask the Minister now to say whether it is not a fact that the contract with Burns, Philp, and Company can be abrogated at any time?

Senator Playford - I do not know.

Senator GIVENS - Is it a fact that the new agreement has not yet been signed ? Pending the receipt of satisfactory information on the subject, I submit the request I have moved.

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