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Monday, 22 October 1973
Page: 2411

Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) (Prime Minister) - by leave - In answer to a question without notice earlier today I made a brief statement which I had, as I told the Opposition, intended to make at the end of question time. It was a statement which I am obliged by statute to make. The companies affected by findings of the Prices Justification Tribunal are obliged within a certain time to notify me, as the responsible Minister, of what action they propose to take. This is the first sitting day since that notification was received. I accordingly promptly tabled it. I rise merely to speak about Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd and the Tribunal. The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) has made remarks which are offensive to the Tribunal and gratuitous to Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd. I am certain that that company had no respect for the right honourable gentleman's conduct when he was Treasurer and when it discussed prices with him. It will not thank him for this advocacy of its cause.

Furthermore there should be no need to defend the Tribunal for the way it has conducted its affairs. Mr Justice Williams is the Chairman of the Tribunal; Mr Deputy President Chambers is the new Deputy Chairman whose appointment I announced today in the

House, although his appointment was gazetted last week; the full time members are Mr J. K. Lawrence and Mr T. A. Pettigrew; and the part time members are Dr Allan Fels and Mr R. N. R. Johnston. I would believe that the people of Australia should be grateful that men of the experience of those I have named are prepared to serve in this key office. There should be no dispute in the minds of anyone that the Government undertook at the last elections to appoint a prices justification tribunal. The Parliament established that tribunal by statute. Many statements have been made about it which I believe are quite unwarranted. Although it is not necessary it may be appropriate to say that the Government appreciates the way the Tribunal carries out its statutory obligations. Somebody in the Parliament should say on behalf of the public that the general public does appreciate the existence and the operations of this Tribunal. Nobody has been able to specify or even infer any respect in which any members of the Tribunal have failed to carry out their statutory responsibilities.

The right honourable gentleman, in passing, made a few snide remarks about exemptions. To say that this is a prices exemptions tribunal is unworthy of most people holding office in this Parliament. I am still surprised that the right honourable gentleman should volunteer such a reflection on the Tribunal. The Tribunal has a very large task indeed to perform. It is inevitable that there should be some exemptions at this time. The exemptions look considerable if one sees the whole list of exemptions, but if one considers the particular aspects of the operations of the various companies which have been exempted I for one can find no ground on which to cavil at the way the Tribunal has discharged its responsibilities. Indeed there are many indications that price rises that would have taken place have not taken place because the Tribunal is now in operation.

I conclude by asking honourable members and the public to recall the supine attitude that the right honourable gentleman took when be was Treasurer because Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd had, 12 months before it ever discussed these matters with me, discussed them with him and the Prime Minister of the day. Honourable gentlemen will remember that there was a debate in the Parliament early last year about the correspondence between Mr McNeill of BHP and my predecessor as Prime Minister.

Honourable gentlemen do not need phenomenal memories to recall the debate which took place on that occasion. It can all be read in Hansard. Let me recall what the Leader of the Opposition had to say at a National Press Club luncheon on 16 February last year. In explaining away his inaction in this matter he is reported in the 'Age' as saying:

Later on I saw Mr McNeill, a director of BHP. He came to see me for the purposes of telling me in depth what they saw as their problems. He told them to me. I then told him my problems. I told him of the anxiety of the Government to restrain wage increases, the anxiety of the Government to be successful in our attack on inflation.

This was in February last year. Apparently there was inflation last year as early as February. He continued:

So, there was a mutual disclosure of problems. I made it clear to him that those problems were very difficult but we as a government are not a wage fixing authority, nor for that matter can we take commercial judgments. But I was anxious that any commercial judgment taken would be taken against the background of full knowledge of the Government's intention and policy and of the difficulties of economic management as we saw them. It was then and it must be their commercial decision.

It was a good statement in showing how inept and supine Australian governments were before 2 December last year. As early as February last year there was inflation. As early as Feb.rurary last year BHP and Australian Iron and Steel Pty Ltd were proposing to put up steel prices. In fact when BHP stated to me last January that it was proposing to increase its steel prices and it was willing to have an inquiry before which the prices could be justified 1 very promptly acted. Mr Justice Moore, now the President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, agreed to undertake this pioneering role. BHP's claim was not justified before Mr Justice Moore. BHP did it voluntarily and I acknowledged for the second time today and certainly not for the first time in Parliament or in public that BHP, the largest and in many ways the greatest of Australian companies, acted in a proper way. It knew what the public had expected after the election and it was prepared to act responsibly. True, there was no statutory requirement at that time, there was only a moral obligation. There was no machinery for justifying price increases, nor was there in February last year. At that time the then Treasurer, now the Leader of the Opposition, could have done what I succeeded in my discussions with BHP last January in bringing about. That is, that BHP is susceptible to reason. It may be that

I am a better advocate than the Leader of the Opposition and that I am more persuasive when talking with people who have great powers to make economic decisions in this community. In February last year the right honourable gentleman discussed the problems mutually with Mr McNeill and the result is that the Federal Government does nothing and BHP does what it wants. This year look at the contrast. Before there was any statutory obligation or machinery and still no greater constitutional jurisdiction in the Commonwealth we accepted the offer of BHP to justify its planned increases at that time. Now there is machinery BHP has made the first claim to the Tribunal. The Tribunal did not find the full claim justified. The result is that BHP's increases in prices are not as great this year as they would have been and they are not as great as they were last year. There was inflation last year. There is inflation this year, but BHP is contributing to that inflation less this year than it did last year. I am grateful to the right honourable gentleman for raising this matter and for reminding us of his ineptitude and his supineness last year. I am looking forward to the motion of no confidence which at last he will summon up his courage to move tomorrow.

Mr SNEDDEN(Bruce- Leader of the Opposition) - I wish to make a personal explanation.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! Does the right honourable gentleman claim to have been misrepresented?

Mr SNEDDEN - Yes. The Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) said, among other things, that I had cast reflections upon the personnel of the Tribunal. That is not the fact.

Mr Whitlam - The prices exemption tribunal, is as you described it.

Mr SNEDDEN - Yes, I called it the prices exemption tribunal because that is the way it turned out to be.

Mr Whitlam - And that is not a reflection?

Mr SNEDDEN - The great advocate cannot distinguish between principle and persons. That is bis great difficulty. As a matter of fact his choice of persons is pretty bad. Clyde Cameron looks as though he has a knife in his back now. The honourable gentleman had no right to allege that I had made any reflection on the personnel. It so happens that Mr Justice Lindsay Williams has been a friend of mine for very many years and I have very great respect for him. The same applies to Mr Justice Chambers. Any suggestion that I made a personal reflection on them is a travesty of the truth, which only the Prime Minister could engage in so regularly. The second point I wish to raise concerns the honourable gentleman's quoting what I said in February last year. I thought it was a good statement and on hearing it again I thought it a very accurate statement. I spoke about inflation. What the honourable gentleman is unwilling to acknowledge, to the great lack of complimentary replies from this side of the House - I chose my words carefully because I did not wish to say what the Government deserves - is that inflation in February last year was running at an annual rate of about 4 or 5 per cent and today it is running at 14 per cent. There is no way out of it for the Prime Minister. Unless he does something about it he will get the wrath of the people of Australia.

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