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Wednesday, 21 August 1912

Senator McCOLL (Victoria) .- With the remarks of Senator O'Keefe as to the work of the Department of Home Affairs being too cumbrous I quite agree. There ought to be another Minister to look after public works. Indeed, the time is not far distant when we shall require a Public Works Committee, to supervise the immense works that are going on under Commonwealth control. The idea may be premature at present, but 1 am satisfied that the Public Works Committees, and similar bodies of the States, have saved millions of money by the inquiries they have pursued, and the check which they have exercised over expenditure. The debate seems to have centred itself largely on two questions, preference to unionists and " The man on the job." I do not propose to labour either point. I have made no charges against " The man on the job."' My opinion was that we required information. I therefore asked for a return in> connexion with a particular work. When the expenditure is known it can be checked, and we shall be able to see whether the work is costing more than it ought to have cost. I believe that, given honest inspectors and honest workmen, the day-labour system is by far the best. Of course, if you have not honest inspectors and workmen, you will not get good work done under any system.

Senator Millen - I presume that the honorable senator means honest inspectors, free from political influence?

Senator McCOLL - Certainly. We require honesty all round. With regard to preference to unionists, Senator Needham brought forward a case with regard to which he displayed a great amount of indignation. It appears that a firm in the Wimmera refused to employ a blacksmith because he was a unionist. I think that that was a very wrong thing to do. It was unjust. But do not honorable senators see that the indignation displayed in regard to that case is sufficient justification for the indignation displayed on the other side ?

Senator Rae - Oh, no.

Senator McCOLL - It is worse ; because a private individual can do as he pleases. He can employ whom he pleases. I do not think that a man ought to be dismissed because he is either a unionist or a nonunionist. He should be considered solely from the point of view of whether he is a good workman. But, as indignation has been displayed because a unionist was not employed, we are justified in manifesting the same kind of indignation when nonunionists are not employed simply because they are non-unionists.

Senator McGregor - They are not employed because they are not good.

Senator McCOLL - That is an absoluteslander on the great majority of working men in this country; because we must' remember that the great majority of working men are not unionists. I have no doubt that they will take full notice of the Minister's observation. I say again that a private employer can do as he pleases, though I do not say that there is any justification for the non-employment of a trade unionist. But in the case of Government employment, where the whole of the people of the country have to find the money that pays the men to carry out works, it is very wrong to say that a man who is a unionist shall have preference over a man who is not. Yet that is the policy that is being pursued by this Government to-day. I look upon that policy as involving a malversation of public funds. It is unfair to the country. No doubt the question will be fought out at the next elections. The indignation displayed over these matters seems to be extreme. It reminds me of the occasion when Tam O'Shanter called out, "Weel done, Cuttysark ! " and " out the hellish legion sallied." But in discussing such questions as these, we are rather getting away from the large questions that ought to be discussed in connexion with these works. We are now asked to foot a bill for the largest amount for public works that has been laid before Parliament in Australia. Yet we received no adequate information from the Vice-President of the Executive Council when he moved the second reading of the Bill. I hope that when we get into Committee details will be furnished in regard to a number of items. Much has been said about the prosperity of the country, and that has been suggested as a reason why such large works should be projected. But we cannot be too sure of that. I do not think that the present outlook of Australia is as good as it was a while ago. In some respects it is alarming. We are By no means sure of our seasons. We have not had one, half the normal quantity of rain, and the sub-soil is not at all wet. Unless we have fine rains next month we shall not have anything like a good season. Money is tighter now than it has been for many years. Very high interest is charged and has been obtained on loans. I do not see that we can at present say that we are justified in rushing into an abnormal amount of expenditure, based upon the supposition that we are enjoying good times, and are likely to have them for some time to come. Of course, the Government have been favoured in many respects. The incidence of politics has enabled them to obtain com mand of a very large amount of money. The money has been made available very opportunely when it was wanted for defence and other purposes. But there was no statesmanship about obtaining the money, and no credit is due to the Government. The expiration of the Braddon section of the Constitution has given them £3,500,000 per annum extra to spend, and they have had revenue from other sources. No credit is due to them for raising this money, though they will derive great credit from spending it. They are doing that up to the very limit. They are not attempting to save anything for a rainy day - or, rather, for a dry day. As the money comes in they are spending it. In fact, we may say that this is a bribery Budget - to give it an appropriate term. It applies large amounts of money to various sorts of people without giving a thought to the bad times that may possibly be before us. This Bill is not only important in regard to what it specifically authorizes, but also in respect of the expenditure to which it commits us. One of the most dangerous features of it is that over and over again amounts are set down " towards cost," and we do not know the full expenditure which the votes will entail. I consider that we are here as trustees for the people. We are charged with the exercise of supervision over the public revenue, and with the duty of seeing that the expenditure is carried out just as carefully as if it were our own money. We should have a clear idea, not only of the amount actually spent, but of the large sums to which we are committed. But there are in this Bill items to the amount of £1,553,000, against which the words " towards cost " appear. The actual expenditure is £1,153,000, but there is no indication as to what the works on which the money is to be spent will actually cost.

Senator O'Keefe - On what services would the honorable senator save?

Senator McCOLL - I am not speaking of saving. I am speaking of what we are committing the country to by this Bill. We ought to have the fullest and frankest information on that point. But we do not know what expenditure the works against which " towards cost " appear will involve when they are completed.

Senator O'Keefe - What would the honorable senator cut out?

Senator McCOLL - I am not speaking of cutting out. I am contending that we ought to know what the ultimate cost of these works will be.

Senator Long - Give us one instance, and the Government will, no doubt, furnish the information.

Senator McCOLL - Instances can best be mentioned in Committee.

Senator Millen - There used to be a practice of giving footnotes to show the total cost of works.

Senator McCOLL - There ought to be full information before we vote these large items. Unless we largely increase our population we cannot expect that the enormous revenue that has been coming in will continue. I do not know either that it is desirable that it should. We find that our imports are over-balancing our exports. In the first half-year of 1909 we had a balance to credit of imports over exports of £5,820,122. In the first half-year of 1910 the balance to credit was £7,211,530; in 191 1 the credit balance was £1,350,895. But in the first half-year of 1912 we have a debit of £2,888,039. That is a serious position that needs watching. It appears that we are going back at the rate of £6,000,000 a year, the balance of trade having to be made up in gold. Evidently if we are getting in goods to the extent of £6,000.000 more than we are sending out, the balance must be made up somewhere, and the revenue of this country must be depleted to make it up. If we take stock of these imports we find that many of the things are goods which we ought to be making for ourselves. 1 see that the total for the first quarter of 1912 was £37,689,580. The imports to that value included apparel and soft goods, boots and shoes, confectionery, hats and caps, agricultural machinery, metals and machinery, and so forth. Our exports for the quarter were £34,000.000, and they are principally covered by the products of primary industries. That is to say, the products of the soil are going out to this extent. We should be extremely careful of the way in which we commit . the Commonwealth in the near future, because we cannot expect present conditions to continue. We know that we live in a country that is subject to great changes. It is a wonderful country in respect of rapid recovery, but our whole history teaches us to be careful. We may have two or three splendid years followed by two or three years of drought. During the last three months, before the rains came, every one thought that there was a gloomy outlook for Australia. Men were taken off the roads, banks were calling in advances, and, all round, people thought that bad times were coming. It is as sure that we shall have bad times in the future as that we have had them in the past, and we may find ourselves faced with these enormous commitments and without sufficient revenue to carry them out. I was a member of a Government in Victoria that took office when the boom burst, and when there were 8,000 idle men walking the streets of Melbourne. That taught me the lesson that Governments should be careful of the finances in good years, that they may be prepared when bad times come. The large public works which the Government propose to undertake will be the means of attracting an enormous amount of labour to this country, and if we spend our revenue to the last penny, should bad times come disaster must follow to the Commonwealth. 1 claim that we have not been treated with the frankness to which we are entitled as representatives of the people. We should have the fullest information upon these works given to us, and I hope it will be given in Committee. In any case, I trust that honorable senators on this side will not be chary about asking questions, in order that we may obtain necessary information with regard to these proposed votes. I direct attention to the item " Acquisition of sites for, and mobilization of, store buildings and drill halls, Defence Department - towards cost, £80,000," and to the fact that no particulars have been given in connexion with that item.

Senator Pearce - Does the honorable senator wish to cut down the amount?

Senator McCOLL - I do not, but we should be given some particulars concerning it. How is it possible for any one, without the information in the possession of the Government, to say whether the amount should be cut down or not?

Senator Pearce - Honorable senators have not asked for the particulars.

Senator McCOLL - I am asking for them now, and I hope they will be given. Another question which I wish to raise is in connexion with the industrial undertakings we are entering upon in the Commonwealth.

Senator Pearce - This is another echo of the press.

Senator McCOLL - I am not an echo of the press or of any person. The Minister of Defence and his colleagues are but echoes of the Caucus and the Political Labour organizations. They only come here to say what they have heard in those organiza- ' tions. We have established a woollen cloth factory a clothing factory, a harness factory, and have entered upon other industrial undertakings, and I say that, as shareholders in these great concerns of the Commonwealth, we should be supplied with balance-sheets to show whether they are being conducted profitably, and whether the goods turned out by them are made as cheaply as they could be obtained from private concerns. Nothing can injure a Government more than concealment in matters of finance. Sooner or later, the people will become vindictive if they are not given the fullest information on public finance.

Senator Gardiner - Does the honorable senator wish to cut down the vote for the woollen mills?

Senator McCOLL - I am not speaking of cutting down anything. At present the only thing I should like to cut down is the honorable senator's tongue. Nearly all the expenditure proposed by this Bill will involve the employment of a great number of persons outside the Public Service, and we should have some control over that employment. We do not know, under existing conditions, whether in all cases competent persons are employed. Under the Public Service Act, no one can enter the Service without having first passed an examination ; but we have no means of knowing whether labour employed outside the Public Service in connexion with Government undertakings, clerical or otherwise, is competent. The employment of this labour is purely a matter of patronage, which I have no doubt is exercised to the fullest extent in the interests of the party in power. There are many positions in connexion with public works for which public servants should be given an opportunity to compete, but, under the existing system, a man. who may have served the State well for many years may perhaps be set aside for a stranger or a political friend. There is an item on these Estimates to cover expenditure in connexion with the Federal Capital. I asked some questions on this matter which were not very satisfactorily answered. It appears from the answer that I received that a departmental Board has been formed, but we have no means of knowing whether the members of that Board are fitted for the work they will have to perform. According to repute the Government have not secured the best men available for the purpose. Apparently, it is proposed that the designs of leading architects are to be taken in hand by the members of this Board, who may adopt a little from one design, and something else from another. If this course is to be followed without reference to the gentleman whose design is, in the main, accepted, it is probable that a mess will be made of the whole job. It seems to me an extraordinary way to go about the business. I do trust that when a particular design is adopted, it will be placed in the hands of a Board of experts, not merely of departmental officers, who will be able to decide whether it makes for efficiency or economy. I notice that no provision appears in this Bill for the transcontinental railway. I do not know where the money is to come from for the construction of that work. I do not know whether the Government propose to borrow money for the purpose, but the matter is certainly one upon which we should be given some information. We cannot alter any of these votes; we can merely express our views concerning them, but we should at least, in Committee, be fully and frankly informed as to where the money for this purpose is to come from, and as to how it is to be spent.

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