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Wednesday, 1 August 1906

Senator DE LARGIE (Western Australia) . - Senator Best has, in my opinion, put his finger on a very important objection to the contract in its present form. Apart from the period fixed, the contract, so far as I am able to understand it, represents a very satisfactory arrangement. My only objection is to so long a period as ten years, and that objection will be considerably strengthened if it be open to the Postmaster to hereafter extend the term indefinitely. Ministers ought to make themselves clear on this point. With the constant improvements in steam navigation, it is impossible to foresee what the conditions of transit may be ten yearshence.

Senator Guthrie - We have only to cast back our eyes for ten years in order to realize that.

Senator DE LARGIE -Quite so. I remember, many years ago, one of the principal engineers on the Clyde, in delivering a lecture, being asked when we were likely to see an end to the improvements in steam navigation, and he replied that he could not imagine any limit. On that I agree with the engineer; and, if there is any limit, it will not be in regard to speed, and so forth. There may be a limit as to the size of the boats that our harbors and ports will accommodate, but it is not possible to forecast what improvements may take place in other directions. I do not think there is really so much as is imagined in the stipulation as to the tonnage of the vessels to be used under this contract. Senator Guthrie has given shipping matters a closer study than, I suppose, has any other honorable senator; and I know that he will not agree with me when I express the opinion that the stipulation in the agreement as to the registered tonnage may refer to the net tonnage of the boats, the gross tonnage, or both. As a matter of fact, both tonnages of Australian shipping are registered under our present law.

Senator Guthrie - No.

Senator DE LARGIE - The Register of Australian and New Zealand Shipping supports my contention.

Senator Guthrie - That is issued by the Underwriters' Association ; it is not an authoritative publication.

Senator DE LARGIE - It is as authoritative in regard to Australian shipping as Lloyds' Register is in the old country and in other parts of the world.

Senator Guthrie - We cannot get behind the Merchant Shipping Act, which deals with the question of registration, and applies to the whole of the British Possessions.

Senator DE LARGIE - I will not contend that the system of registration in Australia is quite as authoritative as the registration at Lloyds', but it is our Australian system of registration.

Senator Guthrie - No ; it is only the underwriters' system

Senator DE LARGIE - In Australia both the gross and the net tonnages are registered.

Senator Guthrie - No.

Senator Macfarlane - That register is merely made for the information of the insurance companies.

Senator DE LARGIE - According to the Australian register, both gross and net tonnage are registered.

Senator Guthrie - It is printed, not registered.

Senator DE LARGIE - Take the Kanozvna, for instance, which is the largest steamer on the Australian coast. It is stated in the Australian register that the gross tonnage of that vessel is 6,942 tons, and the net tonnage 4,376 tons.

Senator Guthrie - The latter is her registered tonnage.

Senator DE LARGIE - The gross and net tonnages are in the same column, and so I take it that ships may register under either one or the other, or both.

Senator Guthrie - Ask the Australian United Steam Navigation Company to pay harbor dues on the gross tonnage, and see how they will object ! They pay on the registered tonnage.

Senator DE LARGIE - I agree with the honorable senator that the company may pay on the net tonnage.

Senator Guthrie - On the registered tonnage, not the net tonnage.

Senator DE LARGIE - But we see that the shipping companies always advertise the gross tonnage of their vessels. What is the reason ?

SenatorFraser. - To catch the public eye.

Senator DE LARGIE - And I suppose that, in a sense, that is what the contracting company under this agreement are doing when they place this clause in the contract. I feel quite sure that there is no likelihood' of the contracting company ever giving us vessels with a net registered tonnage of 11,000 tons. There are very few ships afloat of such a tonnage, and certainly no boats of the kind are coming to Australia. Even the Grosser Kurfurst, which is the largest vessel trading to this country, falls short of that in her registered tonnage. If we get vessels of a gross tonnage of 11,000 tons, I hold that we shall get a much better class of vessels than are at present carrying our mails to the old country, and that seems to be admitted by all 'honorable senators who have spoken. I do not see why we should raise so much objection to a better class of boats, because there is some indefiniteness as to the meaning of "registered tonnage."

Senator Guthrie - There is no indefiniteness.

Senator DE LARGIE - Until I have some better proof to the contrary than I have yet heard from the honorable senator, I shall continue to hold the opinion that there is.

Senator Guthrie - No one ever saw a ship marked with her gross register.

Senator DE LARGIE - I cannot say that I have ; but, according to this publication, both gross and net tonnage are given. In any case, some more important objections can be raised to the contract than that which is raised with respect to the tonnage of the vessels to be supplied. After all is said and done, there is only a little indefiniteness in that respect.

Senator Guthrie - It is1 a matter of importance whether we get a vessel of 11,000, or 15,000, or 16,000 tons.

Senator DE LARGIE - I do not believe that our harbors in Australia would accommodate a vessel of 16,000 tons.

Senator Guthrie - Yes; Adelaide can.

Senator DE LARGIE - I have yet to learn that Adelaide has a harbor of any kind. I hold that the question raised with regard to the control of freights is of very much more importance than the question of the exact tonnage of these vessels. The Government might contend that in making a contract purely for the carriage of mails it would not do to include any provision regarding the regulation of freights, but it should be borne in mind that, in' common with other parts of the world, Australia has suffered more or less from the operations of shipping combines in the control of over-sea, as well as of Inter-State, freights. There have been continuous complaints against the exorbitant freights charged by shipping companies in the combine. We know that the shipping combine in the old country, which is known as the Shipping Conference, has controlled freights to such an extent that the people of Fremantle have had grave cause of complaint "in the high freights charged to that port.

Senator Guthrie - The merchants of. Fremantle are members of the combine, and draw dividends from it.

Senator DE LARGIE - No doubt the merchants of Fremantle are as keen in busi- ness matters as are the merchants of Adelaide, but that does not justify a continuance of inordinately high freights. We are now concerned in securing for Australia as good a steam-ship service as we can possibly get. If the tender received from the new company is a genuine one - and I think it is - under this contract the company will be free to join the shipping combine, and to raise freights to the extortionate rates we have heard so much about, in the past. The action of the Government in the matter would have been more consistent if legislation in the direction I have indicated, and which is proposed in a Bill under consideration by this Parliament, had been taken advantage of in this contract. We have anti-trust legislation! now before Parliament, and why the principle of that legislation should have been lost sight of when this contract was being drawn up I am unable to understand.- Australian industries have . suffered in the past from the combination of shipping companies to raise freights above a reasonable, rate, and I am therefore very sorry that there is no clause in this contract for the regulation of the rates of freight to be; charged by the vessels engaged in this service.

Senator Clemons - Surely the honorable senator is not satisfied with the Inter- ; State freights.

Senator DE LARGIE - Fair from it. There is much graver cause of complaint against the Inter-State freights than there is against the oversea freights. The action in this respect of the oversea shipping companies is extremely "fair when compared with the action of our own InterState companies. When the last mail contract was under consideration in the Senate, Senator Pearce directed attention to the labour to be employed upon the boats engaged in the service. I am not now referring to the colour of the labour, but to the question whether it should or should not beunion labour. At the time the honorable senator proved that the action taken by the Orient Steam Navigation Company was undoubtedly hostile to union labour. They were taking advantage of the operations of a shipping federation in the old country, which is an employers' association, that practically led to the boycotting of members of the seamen's unions of the old country. It is an important omission from this contract that no provision is included to deal with that kind of thing. Seeing that the matter was discussed in connexion with the last contract, and that the complaint made was justified, the Government might very well have borne it in mind in making this contract. They should have seen to it that the British sailors who are members of the seamen's unions, comprising the best seamen leaving the old' country, would be given a' fair deal so far as employment on the boats to be run under this contract is concerned. It has been said that the new company may hawk this contract about with the object of assigning it to some one else - that, in fact, the contract is not a genuine one on their part. I do not think there is much danger of that, because I do not see that the company would have very much to gain from trickery ofthat kind. Believing that the contract is a desirable one, I do not think we should be justified in deliberately refusing to take advantage of all the good which may follow from it, simply on the ground that some one believes that some trickery on the part of the new company is intended. I do not agree with those who say that the proposed contract is too good to be true. I believe that it is a desirable contract, and I believe also that the persons who are parties to it will be honest enough to carry it out. The" suggestion that they are not likely to carry it out has probably originated with some disappointed tenderers. If the new company do not carry out the contract, their action will only afford a further argument in support of the contention that the only course which will go to the root of the trouble will be the establishment of a national line of ships, over which we should have full control. Senator Fraser, when referring to the terms of the present contract with the Orient Steam Navigation Company, stated that it provides for cool chambers and the supply of selfregistering thermometers in those chambers. I asked the honorable senator at the time whether he was quite sure of his ground in making that statement. He said that he was ; but I have since looked through the contract, and can find no such provision in it. The contract does make provision for cool storage, but there is no reference in it to the supply of selfregistering thermometers.

Senator Turley - I think I remember seeing that in the contract.

Senator DE LARGIE - I cannot find any reference to it. It must be borne in mind that in the contract before us we are not making provision for the carriage of any kind of cargo. This is a mail contract only, and in making such a contract I think that the Government have acted wisely. I have been sorry to find that some honorable senators, who, when we were dealing with the Orient Steam Navigation Company's contract, complained that it provided for more than the carriage of mails, now assert that this contract should be something more than a mail contract. That is an inconsistency which they will find it hard to explain. With respect to the term of the contract, I think very little objection can be taken to it. I intend to support the Government, but I hope they will take steps to make it clear that the term will not extend beyond ten years.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 7.45 p.m.

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