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Thursday, 2 March 1950

Senator GORTON (Victoria) .- When I obtained leave to continue my remarks last night I was about to say that the Governor-General's Speech could be divided into three main sections or sets of proposals. The first set of proposals is aimed at the greater development and expansion of this country in respect of its population, of the area under production, and of production in that area. The second main theme of the Speech concerns proposals to safeguard and buttress that political liberty that we on this side of the Senate believe tobe fundamental. On that belief we recently fought a general election. The third set of proposals concerns efforts to ameliorate some of the anomalies that inevitably arose in the administration of social services legislation. I shall touch briefly upon two of these three points. The problem of housing is inherent in any problem of developing and expanding this country. I believe that the housing problem is the crux of all plans to develop Australia because we cannot go ahead building and enlarging projects like the Hume, the Eildon and the Burdekin Dams unless we canbuild homes for the workers who are engaged on these projects. We cannot decentralize industry, involving the removal of factories from the metropolitan areas to country districts, unless houses can he assured at the new sites for the workers in those industries.. Housing is the bottleneck which is holding up and, I believe, will continue to hold up, all the plans for development and decentralization that we are putting before the people to-day, unless the present position can be remedied.

In addition to its effect on such plans i he present lack of housing is having an incalculable effect upon the future population of this country. Recently in the town of Shepparton, in Victoria, I saw a plan that had been prepared by the municipal authorities on which appeared a small red dot marking every house in which there was a child under the age of five years. The part of the plan covering the older section of the town was marked here and there with a few red dots, but the part covering the new housing commission settlement in the town was practically a completely red blotch. That colouring indicated that young Australians, who had obtained homes in the new housing settlement were raising families which many other young Australians are denied because they cannot find accommodation in which to rear children. Moreover, some means must be found not only of providing houses but of providing them under a scheme that will relieve the drain caused by housing on the carrying out of other public works, such as urgently needed hospitals, homes for the aged and infirm, and other governmental building that is now being held up by lack of material. The Department of Works and Housing has stated that the progress already made in providing housing in this country has been made, so far as it has gone, by restricting the building of other urgently needed works. For these reasons it seems to me that the housing problem is most important.

The Governor-General's Speech naturally does not contain any details of how the problem will be attacked, but, on a cursory examination, the main lines of attack present themselves. The first is an endeavour to increase the production of basic building materials from sources within this country. It is true that the supply of timber in Australia has increased by 35 per cent., and that the production of cement has increased by 25 per cent. It is also true, however, that the number of bricks produced is now lower than it was before the last war, and of course, due to the lack of coal, it is true that all iron and steel components of houses are in desperately short supply. Therefore, the first line of attack should be to endea vour to increase the output of' basicmaterials .produced in this country. The second line of attack has already been mentioned to-day by the Attorney-General (Senator Spicer). It is to increase and facilitate the importation of building materials from overseas. I understand that building materials may now be imported free of tax and excise, provided' that they come from Great Britain, and are charged only 12J per cent., a rate which the Empire trade agreement demands, if they come from sources other than Britain. That is a good policy which was introduced by the previousGovernment and which is being continued and improved upon by the present Government. I believe that the method of obtaining permits to import these materials has recently been streamlined and made much less cumbersome.

The third line of attack is the most important, and is the only one that offers a chance of really catching up on the lack of housing. I refer to the importation of prefabricated houses which was mentioned in the Governor-General's Speech. It will hot be easy to import such houses. It is not simply a question of decidingto import 5,000* or 10,000 of them. That is not the end of the problem, but only the beginning of it. It is useless to expect that this or any other Government could: build 5,000 or 10,000 houses by next Christmas. I mention that point only because I have noticed in certain quarters a tendency to criticize the Government for not having, in its two and a half months of office, checked the upward trend of prices that has been obvious for a number of years, or overcome the coed shortage, which has been increasing over a long period. Criticism of that sort ignores the truth of Shakespeare's familiar line - " The evil that men do lives after them," and takes some time to overcome. After those houses have been imported we shall experience many difficulties in erecting them, and it is as well, first, to tabulate those difficulties in order to find out which will be the hardest to overcome a.nd how to go about overcoming them. The first difficulty will be the preparation of sites.. It will be extremely difficult to effect sewerage and water connexions, supply electricity and build roads and pavements for all the settlements that will be envisaged in a largescale importation plan. Therefore, if the programme is to be carried out expeditiously, it is inevitable that people must be prepared, at least for a time, to occupy houses of this type before they are sewered and to depend upon tanks for their supply of water. Those who are prepared to do that will not be worse off than 90 per cent, of the farmers in this country are at present. The next difficulty will be to get master' builders' organizations to erect these houses. Master builders cannot be said to be enthusiastic about erecting prefabricated structures, because when they build a house of the old style they make a profit upon the materials as well as from the erection of the structure, whereas they will not supply the materials for prefabricated houses. It will be necessary to bring pressure to bear in the right quarters to persuade those who have the requisite organization to erect these houses rather than carry on in accordance with the old style of construction.

The next trouble will arise in respect of labour. Just as the master builders for reasons that seem good to them are not keen to build prefabricated houses, so the trade unions for reasons that seem good to them will not be keen to co-operate in such a scheme. In fact, the training of building tradesmen under the Commonwealth reconstruction training scheme was hampered to such a degree by the building trades unions in Victoria that, whilst it was hoped to train 30,000 building labourers, only 19,000 men completed their courses under that scheme. If we are to carry out the plan envisaged we shall require to reintroduce that scheme on a much wider basis and push forward with it expeditiously. Then, there is the problem which builders and engineers regard as the greatest difficulty. I refer to the provision of trained foremen on building sites who know how to fit the houses together and are capable of taking charge of small teams of men engaged in that operation. That involves the training of such foremen. At present, it is difficult to determine the price of pre-fabricated houses because estimates vary to a great degree, but it is probably true to say that a pre-fabricated timber house of a type comparable with a ten-square timber house constructed in the old style could be erected at present at a cost approximately £300 more than that of the old style of house. If that be so, it is almost certain that when sufficient labour in this country has been trained to fit the parts of pre-fabricated houses together and to do the job at an increasingly greater rate, and when greater numbers of these houses have been erected and the organization generally has been more or less perfected, the price of pre-fabricated houses will come down. In any event, the price factor should not be allowed to stand in the way. I know that the Government is cognisant of all these difficulties and that it is moving already in an endeavour to bring to fruition the proposal outlined in the Governor-General's Speech. Because I believe that the Government will eventually bring about an amelioration of the housing position, I am certain that the people will welcome the proposal with very great pleasure.

I turn now to the proposal mentioned in the Governor-General's Speech to buttress that political liberty which many of us felt we were in danger of losing. T refer to the Government's intention to amend the Constitution by providing that in future any 'attempt by any government to monopolize completely any field of industry and to use its power to prevent all competition in that industry, must first be approved at a referendum of the people. There has always been great difficulty in preventing governments from becoming too powerful. That is why, of course, the functions of government have been divided between those who make the laws, those who interpret them and those who execute them. In the past there has always been a. tendency on the part of governments of every kind to gain more and more power because, I suppose, members of a government believe that they are good men and will not abuse it. But that danger always exists. A future government which may not be so good may abuse such power. Furthermore, until recently, there has been a real danger inherent in the Constitution. It has always been possible for a government to carry out a policy diametrically opposed to that which its candidates put before -the electors or to bring forward propositions of the most far-reaching importance that have never been submitted to the electors. Previously, that danger has not been considered to be very great. The people have always felt that any party would naturally put >an important proposal to the electorate when its candidates were seeking to be entrusted with the responsibility of government. However, the passage of the Banking Act of 1947 proved to the majority of Australians that that is now a real danger that should be guarded against so that it shall never recur in the future.

At this juncture I do not propose to speak about the Government's proposed legislation in this respect. I believe that it will come before the Senate in duecourse. There are many rumours in the bazaars as to what might happen when it comes before the Senate, but all I shall 6aV now is that the kites that are being flown on that subject practically constitute a menace to civil aviation. Because we believe that that danger is great and real, it is essential to write into the Constitution the provision that in future the people must be consulted directly by way of a referendum before any government can take a step of such vital importance that it will affect the welfare of every citizen. We believe that it is only right to do that because it is in line with the whole of the political philosophy that we professed at the last general election and still profess. We do not believe that it is the function of government to work out the destiny of the individual. It is the function of the people themselves to work out their own destiny and in respect of matters of great importance to retain control of any government they elect. That is thi' conception of popular government that has been fought for down the years with much bloodshed and suffering. That philosophy has illumined all people of liberal minds throughout the ages; and among liberal minds I include trade unionists who, in the past, -fought exactly the same fight as we are fighting to-day on this issue. I believe also that this proposal will be received with joy by the people and that it will take a great weight off their minds. Because of the_ Government's determination to cherish that political philosophy that I have described briefly and, perhaps inadequately, and because of its realistic approach to finite problems as evidenced by its housing policy, I agree with the remark made in this chamber yesterday by Senator Katz - I am sure that a majority of the Australian people share the view also - that we can look forward with confidence to the next three years.

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