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Tuesday, 24 July 1906

Mr MAHON - I see that doctors differ. The Minister says that the Government would have that power. I again repeat my regret that the honorable member for Parramatta had not an opportunity to prepare his speech on this question. I was rather amused in following the honorable member's speech, and comparing it with the report of an interview with a Mr. Paxton, which appeared! in the Sydney press a few days ago. I found that the honorable member's speech was largely a reproduction of the arguments used by Mr. Paxton, and almost in the order in which they were used by that gentleman. I might just notice one statement which Mr. Paxton made to the newspaper interviewer. He said -

Although the contract looks genuine enough on the face of it, I must admit that I have a feeling that there is something which has not been disclosed.

This gentleman is evidently possessed of a most lively imagination. When he was in Perth some time ago, attending the conference of Chambers of Commerce, in speaking upon the same matter. Mr. Paxton made another most interesting and important discovery. At that time, he criticised the terms of the service for which tenders were invited by the Government, and, in reply, I pointed out that they were exactly the same as those which had been adopted by previous Governments. He said that no shipping authority would ever approve of such conditions as were sought to be imposed.

Mr Ewing - He said that no one would tender ?

Mr MAHON -No. What he said was that the conditions sought to be imposed by the Government were outrageous, and that no man with any shipping experience would give his approval to them. The clauses to which Mr. Paxton referred on that occasion happened to be clauses which found a place in a previous contract, and I reminded him that when the Watson Government were in office a no less distinguished shipping authority than Sir Malcolm McEacharn had approved of those conditions.

Mr Thomas - But the honorable member would not put Sir Malcolm McEacharn beside Mr. Paxton as a shipping man?

Mr Ewing - Where does Mr. Paxton come from?

Mr MAHON - He is the chairman of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce.

Mr Thomas - The chairman of the shipping section of the Chamber.

Mr MAHON - I believe that is so. I reminded him that so eminent a shipping authority as Sir Malcolm McEacharn had fully approved, and had, in fact, revised the conditions of a previous contract before their publication.

Mr Thomas - At the honorable gentleman's request as Postmaster-General ?

Mr MAHON - At the request of the Watson Government. It will hardly be credited that Mr. Paxton, the gentleman whose arguments have been repeated by the honorable member for Parramatta this afternoon, replied to my statement in this way -

Yes. That has confirmed the strong suspicions we always, entertained that Sir Malcolm McEacharn was in league with the Labour Party.

He did not attempt to show that the conditions were wrong in any way, but to my reminder, as an answer which he regarded as triumphant, he said that it was further evidence in support of the suspicion that Sir Malcolm McEacharn was in league with the Labour Party. That extraordinary invention indicatesthat the gentleman who has furnished the honorable member for Parramatta with the chief arguments which he used to-day possesses a strong imagination. I am not entirely in accord with the contract which has been proposed. I am in favour of the amendment moved by the honorable member for Barrier, who, as chairmanof the Oversea Shipping Service Commission, has placed the Commonwealth under a considerable obligation by the industry, ability and research which he displayed throughout the conduct of the proceedings of that Commission. I think we certainly should pause before tying ourselves up for so many years to the payment of the large subsidy proposed to be paid to this company. Although I admit that the proposed contract is in many respects advantageous to us, there are many points in which I think it could be improved. Take, for instance, clause 10, which deals with the employment of white labour on board the ships. If honorable members will refer to the contract they will see that in every other clause it is provided that the contractor " shall " do this,, or " shall not " do that. Clause 8 says -

Every mail ship shall be a good substantial and efficient steam-ship.

Clause 9 says -

Every mail ship shall be always properly and sufficiently equipped in all respects.

But when we come to clause 10 we find these words -

The contractor binds himself to employ only white labour on vessels used or employed under the contract, but this condition shall not apply to the coaling or unloading of the mail ships at places beyond the limits of the Commonwealth.

Unless a penalty for the employment of black labour on a' ship is provided in another clause, certainly it is not prescribed in any part of clause 10.

Mr Deakin - It will be a breach of the contract.

Mr MAHON - That may be, but it is not apparent on the surface. It is also undesirable that no provision should be made that only Australian and British seamen shall be em p loved. If we go on board a German boat we find nobody but Germans employed. Asahi, if we go on board a French boat. Ave shall find only Frenchmen employed.

Mr Deakin - It is a condition of the subsidy in those cases that the company must employ French or Germans on the vessels.

Mr MAHON - I think that the Prime = Minister might very fairly imitate that example, and say that none but Australian or British seamen shall be empoyed on these mail boats. No other nation could take offence at such a condition being inserted in the contract, because so far as their Australian trade is concerned - I do not know about their North American trade - the steamers belonging to the German or French companies adhere strictly to the provision that only the subjects of their nation shall be employed. However, I do not wish, to emphasize that point any further. I ask the Prime Minister to see whether it is not possible, even now, to insert a similar provision in this contract. There is another little omission from the contract, and possibly the PostmasterGeneral is not to blame, because if I remember aright, it was omitted from all previous contracts. So far as I can see, there is no arrangement requiring the contractors to be punctual in the delivery of InterState mails. Take, for instance, the mails leaving Sydney and Melbourne for Western Australia. Suppose that the steamer left Adelaide on a Thursday, instead of delivering the mails at Fremantle on the following Mond,av, as at present, she might not deliver them until the following Tuesday

Mr Ewing - There is no time-table for intermediate ports?

Mr MAHON - No. I speak now not so much from the postal point of view as in the interests of passengers. The Minister must see that access to Western Australia can be gained at present only by the ocean, and that therefore it is very important to those who travel, and who have business in that State, that an Inter-State time-table should 'be kept. I believe that the Postmaster-General has done very well in altering the clause, stating that no fine shall be inflicted upon the contractor unless twenty-four hours be lost, so as to provide that the fining should start when the shin has lost even an hour. Bv clause 25 a fine of £5 pet hour is prescribed." If the Postmaster-General considers it necessary to offer such a large payment for an accelerated service, this is a very small fine indeed to impose for any delay. For instance, a boat could be twenty-four hours late, and pay a fine of only £120 for the delay. Under certain circumstances it might pay a steamer to lose twentyfourhours, and the company would still be in pocket. Seeing that the rapid delivery of mails is essential, that penal tv is altogether inadequate. The honorable member for Parramatta laboured considerably over clause 15, which, provides briefly that should the legislation of the Commonwealth result in a diminution of the. earnings or an increase of the expenses of the ships, the contract shall be terminated.

I object to the clause - which I believe has found a place in previous contracts - on grounds entirely different from those urged by the honorable member. 1 think that it would give the company power to hold a threat over the Commonwealth. Regarding any proposed legislation, they might say, " You will adopt that legislation atyour peril. We shall lose £10,000 or£1 5,000 or£20,000 a year by the legislation, therefore be careful as to whatyou do about it." That is not a proper position for the Parliament to be placed in.

Mr Ewing - Is the honorable member sure that all legislation would affect shipping ?

Mr MAHON - I am not prepared to argue that point, which formed the subject of a long dialogue between the honorable member for Parramatta and the honorable member for Corinella. I think that the Prime Minister appreciates the position which I am putting - that it is scarcely right that we should have the threat held over us that, if we adopt certain legislation, penal consequences will follow.

Mr Ewing - They are notheavy - £5,000-

Mr MAHON - They are not heavy, but if that condition is accepted I think that we should insist upon a similar condition, giving the Commonwealth a corresponding advantage. There should be in the contract a clause providing that, if the legislation of the Commonwealth cheapens the operations of the company, we shall share in the advantage thus gained. For instance, as the contract stands, if, through the intervention of the Government, the Imperial Government, which holds the bulk of the shares in the Suez Canal, were to reduce the canal rates, the contractors would pocket the difference, and the Commonwealth would get no advantage. That, however, would not be fair, and therefore I suggest that it may be possible even now to insert a clause which will put the Commonwealth in a proper position, and not make the bargain one-sided. The contract is undoubtedly a great improvement upon previous ones, and the Government are to be complimented upon it in many respects. If the House is not prepared to agree to the amendment of the honorable member for Barrier, no doubt the adoption of the contract, subject to the improvements which have been suggested, is the best course that we can follow. The Government should make an attempt to have the terms of the contract modified, with a view to carrying these suggestions into effect. I do not think that we should for all time pay a subsidy exceeding by £80,000 per annum the cost of the service on a poundage basis ; and Parliament will be justified in saying to those who chiefly benefit by the establishment of subsidized mail services, " We propose to readjust the burden, so that you shall bear the greater part of it. The cost of these services promises to be a very heavy burden upon the taxpayers of the Commonwealth, and it is only right that those who chiefly benefit shall bear the greater part of it."

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