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Tuesday, 25 September 1906

Senator DE LARGIE (Western Australia) . - I do not wish to give a silent vote on an important measure of this kind. In mv opinion, it is a dutv that is forced upon this Parliament to do something in the direction of transferring the debts of the States to the Commonwealth. It has been said that no demand has been made in this direction. But I think it is obligatory upon us to take some steps towards a settlement of this large financial question - perhaps the greatest undertaking that this Parliament is likely to venture upon for many years. Though it is true that no cut-and-dried scheme is presented for our acceptance, we shall, by the passage of this Bill, give the voters of Australia an opportunity to say whether the Constitution shall be altered in such a manner that Parliament will be able to propound a scheme for the settlement of the question. I quite agree that if the Government had submitted a definite scheme with, the Bill the electors might have been afforded an opportunity to express their opinions upon it. But really I do not know of any subject upon which there is so much difference of opinion amongst the members of various parties as there is upon that of the means of settling the great States debts question. We have only to read the speeches that have been made, and the papers that have been published upon it, to realize that there is no unanimity in any one party with regard to it. That being so, it appears to me to be evident that some steps should be taken to clear the way, in order that later on a definite 'scheme may be propounded. The public have a just cause for complaint that nothing has been done in this direction. State politicians are fond df complaining that the Federal Parliament interferes with their rights, whilst the very problem which Federation was brought into existence to settle, we have made no attempt to deal with. We even hear the same allegation made in this Parliament. There is some ground for it. At last a beginning is made by the Government.

Senator Drake - This Bill contains no scheme.

Senator DE LARGIE - I quite agree with that remark, but the Bill is a beginning. It gives the people of Australia a right to say by referendum - the . most democratic method of appealing to the electors - whether 'they are willing to give the Federal Parliament power to solve the problem in a comprehensive way. I cannot understand why any opposition should be made to the proposal from that point of view. I see no reason for party feeling upon it.

Senator Drake - Oh, no.

Senator DE LARGIE - But the debate upon the Bill has undoubtedly manifested a party complexion.

Senator O'Keefe - There is no party question about it.

Senator DE LARGIE - Well, up to the present moment not one member of the Opposition has risen to support the Bill.'

Senator O'Keefe - How can the honorable senator say that it is a party question when members of his own party are voting against the Bill?

Senator DE LARGIE - Strange things have happened lately, and I can quite understand that some of the members of my party have not yet recovered from the influence of recent caucus meetings.

Senator O'Keefe - The honorable senator is not very fair, and his opinion is not worth much in the light of the facts.

Senator DE LARGIE - Senator O'Keefe shed very little light on the question. I listened to him carefully, but he did not instruct me to any extent. The fact that not one member of the Opposition has given this proposal its support justifies me in saying that it has been made a party question in the present debate. I do not think that we should look at this matter purely from the States standpoint, notwithstanding all the lectures we have recently had about States rights. I quite admit that Western Australia will not receive any immediate benefit from this measure, owing to her financial position. In that State there are no loans maturing in the near future, and there is not likely to be any great saving of interest for the reason that that State is more favorably situated than are the other States. The interest that Western Australia has to pay is at a lower rate, the money having been borrowed on more advantageous terms than were obtained by other Governments. There is no reason, however, why other States, which have to pay a heavy interest on loans shortly to mature, should not be given the advantage- of some scheme to afford them relief as soon as possible. It is not as though one State would benefit at the expense of the other State. Victoria, for instance, would get an- immediate benefit from any action taken under this Bill, for the reason that that State has loans maturing ; so' that' in one sense this may be regarded as another Victorian measure.

Senator Best - But there is no disadvantage to any other State.

Senator DE LARGIE - That is so ; and consequently we can afford to be generous to Victoria. Western Australia, as I have indicated, is not so deeply interested in the proposal to bring all the debts into one fund, because in that State there is a sinking fund, which will, in due course, pay off all the debts. As a matter of fact, that sinking fund in Western Australia is greater than all the sinking funds in the other States put together, and it is so hedged round with safeguards that no Treasurer could use it in ways that sinking funds have been used in bygone years in other States. There is no doubt that the States have a great burden of interest to bear. Victoria's load is, I think, the least per head.

Senator Stewart - Victoria is much better off than Western Australia.

Senator DE LARGIE - Yes, per head of population.

Senator Stewart - In every way

Senator DE LARGIE - The debt of Western Australia may be greater per head of the population, but in the western State there is a. much higher percentage of adults than elsewhere, with a greater earning and spending power, which necessarily means a larger revenue. In reply to Senator Clemons, I point out that in Western Australia, owing to the larger adult male population, there is a greater income through the Excise than is the' case in the other States.

Senator Clemons - I do not deny that, but the value of the bookkeeping clause to Western Australia consists in the import duties.

Senator DE LARGIE - The imports from the other States to Western Australia are greater than the imports from the other States to Tasmania, so that, in this connexion, there is nothing un-Federal on the part of the former State. It is a notorious fact that, since Federation, goods which used to be imported from Great Britain and foreign countries, have been displaced by goods from the eastern States.

Senator Clemons - The honorable senator ought not to use the term " imports" when referring to goods from another State.

Senator DE LARGIE - I am obliged to mention the fact in reply to the argument used bv Senator Clemons.

Senator Clemons - I dealt only with imports.

Senator DE LARGIE - The honorable senator made it appear that Western Aus' tralia took up an un-Federal attitude by doing business with outside people at the expense of the eastern States.

Senator Clemons - Andi that is so; and just because of that Western Australia benefits.

Senator DE LARGIE - Western Australia is doing a greater business to-day than she ever did before with the eastern States. In the case of Victoria, we can see how great the benefit would be if a scheme were launched by which the heavy interest bill could be lessened. As I have already said, Victoria is the lightest taxed per head of any State of the Commonwealth. Speaking in round figures, Victoria, during her fifty years of self-government, has borrowed £50,000,000, and has paid something like £50,000,000 in interest. The debt still remains, .and the interest has to go on being paid; and surely if that load can be lightened without disadvantage to any other State steps should be taken to that end.

Senator Best - The honorable senator is overlooking the fact that £42,000,000 of the £50,000,000 are invested in railways, which pay the full interest.

Senator DE LARGIE - I am not questioning the way in which the money has been spent or invested, but simply indicating the great load of interest which; the taxpayers of Victoria have to bear. At the present time Australia pays between £7>000>°0° and £8,000,000 per annum in interest; and if that amount can be reduced we should take the opportunity now presented, always bearing in view the fact that the scheme will not involve additional cost to any State. I, therefore, hope that this Bill will be passed, so as to give t/he people a voice on the question whether power shall be given to the Commonwealth to deal with the whole of tire debts, including those incurred since Federation.

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