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Thursday, 26 July 1906

Mr WEBSTER (Gwydir) .- I move -

That the following words be added : - " And this House is of the opinion that the steamers should be acquired by the Government in the event of the company joining or becoming a part of any shipping ring or combine, or otherwise constituting itself a monopoly, detrimental to the trade and commerce of the Commonwealth."

I expect that I shall be met with the argument, on behalf of the Government, that the provisions already embodied in the contract cover the right to acquire the steamers under certain conditions. While I agree that, to some extent, there are powers of that kind, and while I take this opportunity to compliment the Government upon the able contract which has been drawn up, and upon the manner in which they have safeguarded the interests of the Commonwealth, still, I cannot agree that the document is altogether satisfactory in this respect. It is true that there is embodied in it a clause 'giving the right to acquire the steamers in the event of certain conditions not being complied1 with. That provision constitutes an advance upon any contract that has hitherto been made for the carriage df mails in Australia. There have been provisions providing for the hiring of mail vessels in case of war. But in the past there has been no provision for acquiring steamers in the event of the Government desiring to run them in the interests of the country. The contract sets out that -

If the contract or any part thereof is assigned, underlet, or otherwise disposed of without the consent of the Postmaster-General, and, or if any breach on the part of the contractor, his officers, agents, or servants of the contract, or of any condition, shall be committed, it shall be lawful for the Postmaster-General, if he shall think fit, and notwithstanding there may or may not have been any former breach of the contract or of any condition by an instrument, in writing, to determine the contract without any previous notice to the contactor, and the contractor shall not be entitled to any compensation in respect of such determination, and such determination shall not deprive the Postmaster-General of any right or remedy to which he would otherwise be entitled by reason of such breach or of any prior breach of the contract.

That clause imposes conditions under which the Postmaster-General may acquire the steamers to be run by the contracting company. The contract also contains the following clause : -

The Postmaster-General may at any time during the continuance of the contract purchase any or all of the mail ships at a valuation - or may charter the same at a rate of hire to be agreed upon with the contractor, or failing any such agreement as to a valuation or rate to be decided by arbitration, and the contractor shall not sell any mail ship to any person other than the Postmaster-General without first giving the Postmaster-General a reasonable opportunity of purchasing the same, either at a valuation to be agreed upon or to be decided by arbitration or at the price he is willing to sell it at to such other person. Provided always that if the PostmasterGeneral exercises the right to purchase or charter all the mail ships employed under the contract, the contract shall thereupon be determined, and such determination shall not give the contractor any claim to compensation.

It may be held that that clause covers the ground of the amendment which I am now submitting. I cannot agree that it does. It simply gives the Government the right to acquire the ships at a valuation in the event of the company desiring to sell or let them. In other words, it means that the PostmasterGeneral practically controls the disposal df the vessels. It may be that the Postmaster-General has power to acquire the line in the event of there being a disposition on the part of the contractors to sell their steamers, or in the event of the company being disposed to become absorbed in a ring or combine. I can readily understand that if the Postmaster-General of the day held that a shipping combine or ring was detrimental to the interests of the Commonwealth he might, under the terms of this contract, be able to prevent the company being absorbed. But the point is that if we happen to have in office, during the tenure of this contract, a PostmasterGeneral having no sympathy with the objects of mv amendment, he, having the power in his hands, or the Government of which he was a member being antagonistic to the ideas which my amendment embodies, might acquiesce in the absorption of the company by a shipping ring or combine. To obviate such an event, and to prevent any Minister who mav be in power during the ten years from exercising his own predilections in this respect, we should have in the contract a definite and binding condition that, no matter what may be the opinion of the Cabinet, we expect it to perform the task of acquiring these steamers in the event of the occurrence of the emergency provided for. The provisions of the contract would, it seems to me, meet the case if we could be certain of always having a sympathetic Government in power. But they are not sufficient to meet the possibility of the advent to office of an unsympathetic Government. The company which is to carry our mails may not sell its vessels to another company, or join a shipping ring or combine ; but its trade may grow to such an extent, and it may become so wealthy, that it may ultimately buy out its competitors, and, becoming a monopoly, raise its freights and fares, to the detriment of our producers, and of the people of Australia generally. Now, the honorable member for North Sydney last night admitted that, in the event of a monopoly arising, and working prejudicially to the welfare of Australia, it might be justifiable for the Commonwealth to take over the service. .

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I said that such a thing might be proposed if there were a monopoly whose operations were seriously injuring Australia. But it will be time enough to deal with the matter when that happens.

Mr WEBSTER - The time to make our stipulations is when the contract is before us. I am surprised that the honorable member, who is a practical business man, should say that it will be time enough to safeguard our interests when trouble arises.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - A combination may be formed which may be advantageous. It is only harmful combinations which should be dealt with,

Mr WEBSTER - I think that that objection is met by the words " otherwise constituting itself a monopoly, detrimental to the trade and commerce of the Commonwealth." Those words mean that a beneficial monopoly would not be interfered with, while a monopoly injuring the trade and commerce of the Commonwealth could be dealt with.

Mr Thomas - Who will decide that the effects of a monopoly are detrimental ?

Mr WEBSTER - The question would be decided on the merits of the case, by the law officers of the Crown. In passing legislation for the prevention of monopolies generally, we provide for the decision of much more difficult questions.

Mr Wilks - Is the honorable member trying to provide for the nationalization of the fleet, as the honorable member for Barrier did?

Mr WEBSTER - I am seeking to preserve the interests of Australia in a businesslike way.

Mr Wilks - Then, is the honorable member opposed to the views of the honorable member forBarrier?

Mr WEBSTER - The honorable member cannot get me with his " gig," to use a Lancashire word. It is not an unknown thing for companies to be floated in contemplation of the purchase of their interests by others, or of their absorption by competitors. I do not say that thatis intendedby the promoters of the other party to this contract ; but, as it may happen, we should insert a provision to deal with the case, allowing the Government, in the event of thecompany joining a shipping ring, or constituting itself a monopoly, to take over its vessels, and to carry on the service as arranged for. I do not think that a long speech is necessary to put my case before honorable members. My proposal should commend itself as a necessary safeguard. We should not defer dealing with these matters until such time as the evil has come upon us. We know that the Prime Minister maintains that the lesser is contained in the greater. The Attorney-General might contend that the provisions of the contract, as it stands, cover the proposal in my amendment. I am not satisfied that they do.

Mr Isaacs - There is no doubt that the contract gives the Government the power to exercise the right, in the case the honorable member refers to, and in any other case ; but to put it in the form suggested by the honorable member might imperil the contract, while it would not extend its terms.


Mr Isaacs - It might, and it might imperil the contract.

Mr Carpenter - It might also strengthen the hands of the Government.

Mr Isaacs - The House could always give that direction to the Government at any time after the contract was made.

Mr WEBSTER - That is to say, if the House were so constituted as to desire to give such a direction, and if the Government were at the time in sympathy with a proposal of the kind. But if during the tenure of the contract an effort to give effect to a provision of this kind did not meet with the sympathy of the Government or with the support of the House, those who favour it would be left in a hopeless state in their efforts to secure compliance with the condition. In my opinion, it should be included in the contract now, as a definite instruction that in the circumstances indicated the Government' should adopt a certain course.

Mr Isaacs - The honorable member has the full sympathy of the Government in his contention that in the case of a monopoly the interests of the people should be protected.

Mr WEBSTER - I quite understand that, but unfortunately I do not expect the present Government to continue in office for ever, and if the platform professions of those who might succeed them give a true indication of their aspirations in connexion with legislation of this character, it is necessary that there should be some conditions embodied in this contract which will insure justice to the people.

Mr McWilliams -They must have a majority before they can do anything.

Mr WEBSTER - It is not merely a question of a majority because, as the representatives of the people, we are now proposing to enter into a contract for ten years.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is the honorable member going to talk allnight?

Mr WEBSTER -I do not occupy a minute in talk for every hour occupied by the honorable member for Parramatta. It is the duty of this Parliament to see that the provisions of this contract are such as will protect the interests of the people of Australia.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member has told us that ten times.

Mr WEBSTER - The honorable member might understand it if I told him it oftener. For his edification I might saythat if his repetitions were recorded in Hansard or anywhere else, he would find that he is one of the greatest sinners in that respect. '

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I will admit it. Now get on.

Mr WEBSTER - The honorable member would admit anything.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I have a motion to move. That is my trouble ; and the honorable member has neither sympathy nor reason.

Mr WEBSTER - There will be plenty of time to-morrow. I am aware of no understanding that this matter is to be concluded to-night. I heard no statement of the kind from the deputy-leader of the Opposition.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I understand that it is the intention of the Government to go through with the matter to-night.

Mr WEBSTER - It is just as well that these secrets should leak" out,and should become known to humble members of the House like myself. I was not aware that any arrangement had been made for concluding the debate on this matter to-night.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - There is no arrangement. I am simply telling the honorable member that the Government intend to go through with the matter, to-night.

Mr WEBSTER - Has the acting leader of the Opposition agreed to that?


Mr WEBSTER - That is what I desired to know. I think I have said all I need say in support of my amendment, and

I shall now leave it in the hands of honorable members, having done what I believe to be myduty.

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