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Tuesday, 24 July 1906

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) . - I regret that, owing to the manipulation of the (business-paper, I must address myself to this motion after scarcely any preparation beyond a cursory glance through the conditions of the contract. I had expected to obtain a little time this afternoon for the putting of my thoughts into something like proper order while the motion for the partial suspension of standing order 241 was being discussed, and the second reading of the Bounties Bill was being moved by the Minister of Trade and Customs. With regard to the proposed mail contract, I have arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing for us to do but to criticise its terms, and point out its shortcomings, and leave the Government to bear the ultimate responsibility. In the absence of full information, we do not know whether or not to approve of the contract. In the light of what has been disclosed, however, I say at once that -if the Government can establish the new service under the conditions set out in the contract, they will make an excellent bargain for the Commonwealth. Anything that shortens the distance between London and Adelaide is of the very essence of reform, and if the Government can, for the sum mentioned in the contract, bring us forty-eight hours nearer to London they will accomplish a very good stroke of business. I do not anticipate that the service will be shortened by the further twenty -four hours provided for in the contract, because the agreement is so loosely drafted that apparently it will be entirely optional with the contractor to effect that improvement. The first thing that strikes me is the agencythrough which this business has been conducted in Australia. I find that the contract is signed by "W. H. Croker." I have not the pleasure of that gentleman's acquaintance, and I do not know whether he is identical with the barrister who represented the Victorian Government at the inquiry conducted bv the Butter Commission, and received fees of so respectable a character. If he be the same Mr. Croker. I presume that he is a very able man of business. At any rate, I take it that the Government have satisfied themselves upon that point. I notice that he has signed the contract as the agent of Sir James Laing and Sons, and that he has also attached his name as the representative of the contractors. At page n he has signed " W. H. Croker, for the contractors," whereas on page 4 he has signed "by their agent, W. H. Croker." Although the contract requires that certain' things shall be done by the contractors or their attorney, nothing is said as to thepossession by Mr. Croker of any power of attorney. In clause 41, for instance, it is provided that certain things, shall be' done " by the contractor or his attorney." In that particular case reference is made to arbitration, but apart from that matter altogether, the contract clearly sets forth' that the contractor " or his attorney " shall be one of the parties to the agreement ; whereas there is no mention of the attorney when the contract comes to be finally settled and signed. I do not know whether the Minister has satisfied himself as to the propriety of Mr. Croker signing in two different capacities, and in neither instance in the terms set out in the conditions of contract,

Mr Mahon - Has not the contract been approved of by the Crown Solicitor?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I should think so; because he has signed as one of the witnesses. J hope, however, that my honorable 'friend does not think that 1 am doing anything out of the way in asking for a little information.

Mr Mahon - 1 think that the honorable member is debating a purely legal question.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I think so too, but I do not think that there is anything to prevent me from adopting that course.

Mr Mahon - Nothing at all, except the uselessness of it.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have merely asked for information in a respectful way, and I hope that the honorable member will cease his impertinent interjections.

Mr Mahon - If the honorable member thinks they are impertinent, I shall cease them.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Notwithstanding the fact that the contract has been approved of by the Crown Solicitor, we may well ask why, in executing the contract, a departure has been' made from the conditions set forth. The matter is not of such small concernas the remarks of the honorable member for Coolgardie would seem to indicate, because we know absolutely nothing about the people who are behind, or with, Sir James Laing and Sons in the carrying out of the contract.

Mr Ewing - Sir James Laing and Sons are strong enough to standby themselves.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - So far as I can ascertain, they have never yet built any mail steamers - it is not their line of business. They have confined! their operations to the building of sailing ships and tramp steamers.

Mr Ewing - They have built some vessels for the Royal Navy.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They have not built a single mail-boat of the description indicated in the contract, and, therefore, I think that the Government should have completely satisfied themselves as to their ability to fulfil the agreement. I dare say they have done so, and if so, what harm could have been done by their telling us all about the arrangements entered into by the company for building the steamers.

Mr Watson - Did we ever know who was behind the Orient Steam Navigation Company, excepting Messrs. Anderson,. Anderson and Company ?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The affairs of the Orient Steam Navigation Company as a public company have always been open to the fullest investigation, so far as we know.

Mr Watson - Yes, but in the first instance we knew of them only as a proprietary concern.

Mr.JOSEPH COOK.- I would point out that there is a great distinction between Sir James Laing and Sons and the Orient and Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation companies, which are very old concerns.

Mr Watson - There was a wide difference between the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company and the Orient Company.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - When we made contracts with those companies, we knew that they had fleets of steamers running.

Mr Watson - When we made the first contract with the Orient Steam Navigation Company they had no fleet of steamers in operation - they had to hire vessels.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is the honorable member quite clear about that ?

Mr Watson - I am so informed.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - This firm has not constructed a single vessel which is suitable for a mail steamer. Therefore, we are entitled to ask the Government whether they have satisfied themselves of the capacity of Sir James Laing and Sons to build boats of this description, and, if so, what guarantee they have of their bona fides? I am informed that they have never constructed a vessel of this character - they have not gone into that kind of business at all. Of course this contract may furnish them with the necessary opening.Probably it will. They may have secured this contract at the value of the option mentioned with a view to taking it upon the market and thus obtaining the requisite capital with which to launch out into this new ship-building enterprise. If so, I would not doubt their capacity to carry out the undertaking, but I do think that the Government' should1 have satisfied themselves as to whether the contractors intend to proceed upon those lines. I fail to see why they should not tell the

House all that they know of the bona fides of this, firm, and of their ability to carry out the contract.

Mr Bamford - Assuming that the Government investigation were not satisfactory, what would the honorable member suggest ?

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I would suggest that we 'should adhere to the present contract until we can get a better one. I should think that that would be obvious to the honorable member. If Sir James Laing and Sons can carry out this undertaking and provide us with a forty-eight hours quicker service to London, the Government will have made a very excellent bargain for the Commonwealth. I do not desire to place any obstacle in the way of achieving that result, but I do say that in return we are entitled toknow whether this contract is in the nature of a pure speculation or not, and what proof can be supplied of the bona fides of Sir James Laing and Sons as mail contractors. I find, from the papers which have been placed in the hands of honorable members, that at least eight boats of 11,000 tons register will require to be constructed to give effect to the undertaking. The Prime Minister has declared that this registered tonnage means exactly what it says. But I wish to again ask whether it means net tonnage or gross tonnage, because there is all the difference in the world between the two things.

Mr Watson - Registered tonnage is nearly always interpreted to mean gross tonnage.

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