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Tuesday, 21 August 1906

Mr POYNTON (Grey) .- I am afraid that at this period of the debate very little interest is being taken in the Budget proposals. Whilst we are basking in the sunshine of temporary prosperity, honorable members are inclined to lose sight of the possibilities of the future, and it seems to me that we shall have to safeguard ourselves against anything in the nature of rash or- improvident financing. I have been very much sur.prised at the want of interest in the Budget statement displayed by the States Treasurers. It is true that there has been a considerable expansion of our trade, and that the community as a whole is apparently prosperous, but I am afraid that that is all the consolation that the States Governments are likely to derive from a study of the Treasurer's proposals. Our boasted surplus .of revenue has practically reached vanishing point. If we paid to the States all that is due to them by us, we should no longer have any money to spare. Our expenditure is increasing out of all proportion to our income. I do not know who is to blame for this, but it seems to me that our present outlook is a particularly dismal one. Of course, I know that some honorable members argue that we should not be called upon to pay the States for the transferred properties - that a mere bookkeeping entry would meet all the necessities of the case. It would be of distinct advantage to the States if they were relieved of the necessity of paying the interest on the loan moneys expended on transferred properties.

Mr Wilks - We have not yet taken over all the services that should be carried on by us.

Mr POYNTON - No ; and I realize that we shall have to incur additional outlay, although we shall receive very little additional revenue when the new Departments are transferred to us. I understand that the penny postage proposal will, if adopted, involve us in an annual loss of from £200,000 to £300,000 per annum. To the aged poor who, 'ever since the issue of the manifesto of the first Prime Minister, have been led to believe that a system of old-age pensions was to be instituted, it must be a great consolation to learn that, instead of effect being given to such a scheme, their letters are to be carried for a penny less than they have been carried for hitherto. The question of providing oldage pensions was that upon which the Barton Ministry gained a majority at the first election. But, though five years have since elapsed, no serious attempt has teen made to establish any such system. Now, because an agitation has been promoted by business persons in favour of the adoption of penny postage, the Government propose to sacrifice a revenue of from £200,000 lo £300,000 annually. The business section of a community are naturally very eager to secure the advantage which would be conferred upon them by the adoption of penny postage. In some establishments, it would mean a saving of hundreds of pounds yearly.

Sir John Forrest - Perhaps, as the re' suit of its introduction, they will sell their goods cheaper.

Mr POYNTON - There is not much likelihood of that. What will be the result? Very soon we shall have proposals submitted by the Treasurer - who does not believe in direct taxation - to raise an increased sum by means of indirect taxation - proposals under which the working man will be called upon to contribute to the deficiency in our revenue equally with the individual who has derived from penny postage an advantage of hundreds of pounds annually. The Budget offers very little consolation to the States Treasurers or to the aged poor of the community.

Sir John Forrest - Anybody would think that penny postage was not in operation in any State in Australia.

Mr POYNTON - It is not in operation in South Australia.

Sir John Forrest - In Western Australia, it has been adopted in every municipality for the past thirty years Mr. POYNTON.- It will confer very little advantage upon the great majority of the people. In South Australia, the employes of the Postal Department have sufferred more from their transfer to Commonwealth control than have the employes of that Department in any other State. Some officials there have been deprived of many privileges which they enjoyed under State law. Prior to Federation, they were assured that upon the transfer of the Department to the Commonwealth, all their existing and accruing rights would be preserved to them. But what has been the result? Officers who were entitled' to increments in a class in which the maximum salary was £200 a year, have been placed in a division in which the maximum salary is £180 yearly. Postmasters who - as an addition to their salaries - received a percentage upon the postage stamps which they sold, have had to sacrifice that percentage. Similarly, the amount which they formerly received for acting as agents for the South Australian Savings Banks, has been, taken from them. Further, their duties have been increased. They are frequently called upon to discharge the functions of returning officers in connexion with Commonwealth elections, and for their services they receive practically nothing. They are sometimes required to act as Customs officers, but any money to which they might otherwise be entitled for this service must be paid into the State Treasury. They are called upon to pay rent for residences for which no charge was previously made, notwithstanding that the salaries of some of these officers have been reduced to the extent of £150 annually. Despite all the disabilities under which they now labour, the Government propose to sacrifice a revenue from this Department of £200,000 or £300,000 annually to establish penny postage. Whether Ministers believe it or not, it is a fact that throughout the whole of the postal service in South Australia, very marked discontent exists owing to the injustice to which the officials have been subjected by the Commonwealth. It is true that they discharge their duties faithfully enough, but there is a very wide distinction between a hearty and a reluctant service. One would think that the Government would have seen that these men, upon whom they have to rely to make the Department a success1, received fair treatment at their hands before proposing to sacrifice its revenue. During the course of this debate a good deal has been said in reference to our want of population. I venture to say that the period during which we shall suffer a loss of revenue in consequence of the introduction of penny postage will largely depend upon the increase which fakes place in our population. What encouragement have we to hope for improvement in that direction? After all, we do not want population in the cities. The curse of Australia is that people have been driven off the land, with the result that to-day the cities are congested, to the detriment of rural industries. What proposals contained in the Budget are calculated to bring about a better state of things ?

Sir John Forrest - From the honorable member's point of view, there would appear to be nothing in the Budget.

Mr POYNTON - I venture to say that the Treasurer is right.

Sir John Forrest - The honorable member appears to think that he is in the State Parliament.

Mr POYNTON - I know that the Treasurer holds a very strong opinion that we ought not to attempt to deal with the land question. But I maintain that that question is at the very root of the problem of how to attract population to Australia. Until we deal with it, we shall not receive that increase which the States require.

Sir John Forrest - Then we had better wipe them out altogether.

Mr POYNTON - The Treasurer is altogether too sensitive to criticism. I say that there is plenty of scope for a Treasurer who has the courage to tackle the land question. The other night the honorable member for Grampians outlined a scheme, which he has since elaborated, for the purchase of some 5,000,000 acres of land at a cost of £25,000,000. There is a good deal to be said in favour of that scheme if any system could be applied to the purchase of the land which would prevent it from being rushed up to boom prices owing to the large demand for it. What a farce it is to plead to people in other parts of the world to settle in Australia if we have not the necessary land to offer them? Of course, we have abundance of land in Australia, but, unfortunately, it is held by very large holders. It would be cruel to tempt immigrants to \ come here upon the mere chance that they would be able to secure land, when we know that at every meeting of the Land Boards there is an average of from thirty to fifty applicants for a single block.

Sir John Forrest - What does the honorable member want to do?

Mr POYNTON - Accompanying any such scheme as that which has been suggested by the honorable member for Grampians, there should be a system of compulsory purchase, which would enable applicants to obtain land at a fair value. Every common-sense land-holder will admit that the sheep at present upon our large holdings must give place to men. The large holdings must give way to smaller ones, for we must have closer settlement if we are to have a population worthy of Australia.

Sir John Forrest - That is a matter within the control of the States Parliaments.

Mr POYNTON - Quite so, but the right honorable member knows full well that several of the States are cursed with Constitutions under which only two out of seven have a voice in the election of members to the Upper House. In the State which I represent, legislation dealing with vested interests is blocked from time to time by eighteen gentlemen in the Legislative Council who do not really represent the wishes of the people in this regard. As long as this state of affairs continues Australia will not make much progress, and it is with a view to secure a remedy that the Labour Party has suggested the imposition of a land tax on lines similar to those of the tax prevailing in New Zealand, which has done much to burst up large estates there. I wish now to say a word or two about the consolidation of our debts. I see no particular virtue in the proposal that we should at once take over the whole of the indebtedness of the States, nor do I see any special virtue in the contention that if we do not take over the whole of the debts we must at least take over an equivalent portion from each of the States, irrespective of whether they desire us to do so or do not.

Sir John Forrest - That is the position under the Constitution.

Mr POYNTON - I am aware of that, and I agree with the Treasurer that we should seek an amendment of the Constitution! which will enable the Commonwealth Government to take over the States debts as they approach maturity. When this is done, an understanding must also be . arrived at that the States shall borrow only through the Commonwealth. We must have control over their borrowings. Unless we do so, the moment we relieve them of responsibility in respect of their present indebtedness they will evince a strong tendency to indulge in further borrowing. The Commonwealth is entitled to take special credit for the fact that, although it has been in existence for nearly six years, it has not yet borrowed one penny. We have constructed out of revenue a great many works for which prior to Federation provision was made out of loan moneys. Whilst I admit that our expenditure in this direction is deducted from the surplus returnable to the States, I am satisfied that the effect of this system has been most beneficial. It has caused us to hasten slowly in increasing our expenditure, and it has had also a wholesome effect in another direction, since a State Treasurer is not so ready to urge the construction of various works when he knows that they must be provided for, not out of loan funds, but out of revenue. I am somewhat disappointed that the Treasurer has not yet indicated an intention on the part of the Government to bring in a. Bill relating to, banking. It seems to me that a Federal banking law is even more urgently required than is the adoption of a uniform system of penny postage. It is monstrous that if one draws a cheque for I on a South Australian branch of a banking institution, it costs him is. to cash it in Melbourne.

Sir John Forrest - The charge would be the same if the cheque were for £10.

Mr POYNTON - Certainly ; but surely an arrangement could be made to obviate the necessity for such a monstrous impost. A reform is also necessary in regard to the issue of postal notes and post-cards.

Mr Austin Chapman - Hear, hear; uniformity is desirable.

Mr POYNTON - But these reforms could be carried out before the adoption of the honorable gentleman's extravagant scheme of penny postage for Australia.

Mr Austin Chapman - They all must come together.

Mr POYNTON - At one time we heard a great deal about decimal coinage, but I am afraid that in the absence of the honorable member for South Sydney the work of the Committee appointed to deal with that question has fallen flat. Evidence was given before the Committee that great savings could be effected in connexion with the coinage of silver and copper. The Treasurer was deputed to deal with this question when in England, but we have heard very little from him.

Sir John Forrest - I referred to the matter in my Budget statement.

Mr POYNTON - The right honorable gentleman had very little to say about it. I do not propose to further detain the Committee ; at this stage of the session long speeches should be avoided. We have still much work to do. In a very short time honorable members will be anxious to look after those who are seeking to poach on their preserves ; the Ministry will find it very difficult, a few weeks hence, to maintain a quorum. I suggest; therefore, that we should push on with the work before us.

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