10th Parliament · 1st Session
The President (Senator the Hon. Sir John Newlands) took the chair at . 11.30 a.m., and read prayers.
Report ofpublic Accounts Committee.
Debate resumed from 10th November (vide page 1190) on motion by Senator Kingsmill -
That the report of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts on the Commonwealth Government shipping activities, including Cockatoo Island Dockyard, presented to the Senate on 28th September, 1927, be printed.
SenatorREID (Queensland) [11.31] - I approach the discussion of this motion with a feeling of deep regret because, contrary to my anticipations when the Line was founded, its operations have been most disastrous. I was strongly in favour of the establishment of the fleet not only as a war measure, but as a phase of governmental activity which I believed would be of immensebenefit to the people of Australia. All honorable senators are aware that an efficient shipbuilding industry plays a most important part in the development of a nation. I fondly imagined when the Line was established that it would be the nucleus of an important shipbuilding industry in Australia. Like myself, the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Needham) knows to what extent the shipbuilding yards on the Clyde have been responsible for the prosperity of the people in that portion of Great Britain. Those of us who favoured the establishment of the
Line fondly imagined that it would do for Australia what the shipbuilding industry has done for other countries. I was chairman of a royal commission appointed a few years ago to inquire into the affairs of the Cockatoo Island dockyard. Those investigations convinced me that the Australian artisan was second to none in the world, and I was satisfied then that under reasonably favourable circumstances the shipbuilding industry could be established in Australia. Unfortunately all my hopes were dashed to the ground. It is of no use for us to shut our eyes to the fact that the affairs of the Australian Commonwealth Shipping Line have been a complete failure. None of the advocates for the retention of the fleet has advanced cogent reasons why it should be continued. J know all that can be said in favour of the course, but the position of the Line, from an economic stand-point, is so unsound that it is impossible, under Australian conditions, to carry on the business successfully. I was accusedlast night of having changed my opinion concerning the proposal to dispose of the Line. It is with extreme regret that I admit the allegation.
– I do not say that. In my view any advantages that it has conferred upon the people of Australia have been outweighed by the extent of the financial loss which has been incurred. During the last three years it has cost the taxpayers of Australia about £600,000 a year. We cannot continue with it at that rate.
-It is a pity that we were not of that opinion a few years ago. Wo might have saved the country a considerable expenditure.
– That isso, but we had not then information which is now in our possession. All honorable senators are entitled to change their opinions if they feel that they have good reason to do so. At all events, I am not cast in a concrete mould. I am not concerned so much about consistency of political beliefs as I am about the need to bring common sense to bear when considering questions of public importance. I feel quite justified now in voting for the disposal of the Line.
– We admit that the position is bad, but we believe it will be worse when the Government ships are disposed of.
– The honorable senator and others who think with him on this subject have dealt only in generalities. They have not brought forward conclusive arguments to show that the Conference Linus would bleed Australia in a matter of freights when they had the field to themselves. We have had a particularly unfortunate experience in connexion with our shipping and ship-building activities. When tenders were invited for the construction of the two cruisers authorized by Parliament a year or two ago, it was hoped that the difference between the Australian and British prices would not be so great as to prevent the Government from placing the contract in Australia. If the artisans employed at Cockatoo Island had come together and had given” evidence of a sincere desire to co-operate with the Commonwealth Shipping Board, it would have been possible to build the cruisers in this country. The Senate, I believe, was willing to indorse the principle of Australian preference to the extent of 60 per cent over British prices. Had that contract been let in Australia it would have been of immense advantage to the ship-building industry in this country. We were hoping, also, that as the result of the building up of a mercantile marine, we should be able to find employment for naval reservists. Under present conditions, it is difficult to persuade Australians to adopt a seafearing life. The majority of the employees on the vessels of the Line are domiciled in Great Britain. This is a regrettable state of affairs.
– It was an astonishing revelation to most people.
– An Australian mercantile marine would be a most valuable aid in the defence of. Australia. It is significant that other countries have had an experience similar to that of Australia. No State-owned shipping Line in the world has been operated successfully. Even in the United States of America, where efficiency and orgnization are worshipped as a fetish, the Government has lost an immense sum of money and it is unable, owing to the slump in shipping values, to dispose of its surplus tonnage. It was reported some time ago that Henry Ford purchased
A very large number of Governmentowned . vessels for which freight could not be found, and after taking from them material which was of value to him, he threw them on the scrap heap. It is probable, also, that the Commonwealth Government will experience some difficulty in disposing of its vessels because shipping is in a state of transition all over the world. The Orient Company now has on the Australian run several magnificent steamers of 20,000 tons. How can we expect the limited number of comparatively small passenger liners belonging to the Government fleet to compete on anything like equal terms with those vessels? The purchase of several additional modern ships would involve the Commonwealth Shipping Board in the expenditure of millions.. I do not think that any shipping company ever commenced under such favourable conditions as the board did when these vessels were transferred to it at prices so much below their capital cost.
– The dice were loaded in its favour.
– Yes, the ships were written down to such an extent that they could almost be regarded as .a gift. If the board were to increase its fleet, in order to efficiently carry on the trade, it would have to purchase several oil burners, and if it cannot show a profit in the present favorable circumstances, how could it possibly show a satisfactory return on new ships the value of which would not be written down for some years.
– The honorable senator is thinking only of the profits.
– If the Australian taxpayers have to contribute millions of pounds towards the cost of new ships, those ships should show some profit.
– The sum of £2,000,000 could be saved in other directions which could be used to meet the loss which these vessels are at present making.
– I shall deal with that point later. Prior to the war there was a big slump in the shipping business just as there is to-day, and freights ruling between Australia and Great Britain were reasonable. During the war period, however, enormous profits were made by the shipping companies, and after the termination of hostilities, those engaged in the shipping business seemed to think that the same rate of profits should be maintained. A paragraph in the report of the Public Accounts Committee is to the effect that the Line has been instrumental in keeping down freights; but although shipping is now normal the freights between Australia and Great Britain are not quite so low as those on other routes, notwithstanding the Commonwealth Line. It is, therefore, unreasonable to say that it has been tlie means of reducing freights.
– Does the honorable senator not think that the presence of a shipping combine is a menace to Australian shippers?
– I shall deal with that point later.
– The report of the Public Account Committee is full of it.
– I have read the report.
– Then why does not the honorable senator admit it.
– I shall answer the honorable senator in my own way. I have studied the interim report and the majority and the minority reports, and have still my own opinion concerning the way Australian shippers will be served by the vessels of the Conference Lines. The keen competition between British and the French, German and Italian shipping companies will always ensure fair rates being charged. , Even if the Line is disposed of, I do not think there is any likelihood of primary producers getting into the grip of a shipping monopoly as Senator Lynch suggests.
– The honorable senator should read carefully page 19 of the committee’s report.
– I have done so.
– Has the honorable senator noticed the words “ either guard against such victimization “ and so on ?
– I know all that is in the report; but that document, is not necessarily correct in every particular.
– It is piffle.
– It is not. I do not think it likely that any British shipping company will rush to acquire the vessels of the Australian Commonwealth Shipping Line under the conditions which the Government seek to impose.
– Has the honorable senator read the evidence?
– It is not available. The evidence is not of great importance.
– Then why was the inquiry held?
– To obtain information. The evidence of an individual witness is not of much value. The committee had to obtain opinions from different authorities, and then, come to a decision on all the evidence tendered. The Orient Company could not profitably conduct its service to Australia without the mail subsidy. The Commonwealth Government is in as good a position to make a bargain with that company as is the British Government with the Peninsula and Oriental Company. The subsidy paid by the Government to the Orient Company is largely for the refrigerated space which is used almost exclusively by the exporters of primary products. As the number of producers increase and our exports become larger, the shipping companies will have to compete with each other for the freight that is offering. The boards and pools which have been established will doubtless negotiate in the best interests of the producers.
– Would the honorable senator like to be condemned by a jury which had no evidence before it?
– I should like to ask Senator Lynch-
The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon. Sir John Newlands). - The honorable senator must address his remarks to the chair.
– For the information of the Senate I quote the following from Brassey’s Naval and Shipping Annual for 1927:-
The reductions in the Australian trade were followed a month later by a lowering of the rates on produce from New Zealand. In the past rather higher rates had been quoted from New Zealand and from Australia, owing to, among other factors, the large number of calls which the liners make on the coast of New Zealand to collect cargo. In August, 1026, the New Zealand rates were brought practically to parity with those from Aus. tralia, the reductions amounting to 7J per cent, on the previous’ rates for the first three years and to 12) per cent, for the fourth year.
This is the portion of the article I should like Senator Lynch to follow : -
An important feature of the New Zealand trade is that the control of meat, dairy produce and fruit, is now in the hands of boards which makes contracts for the whole of the shipment. The new rates are about 50 per cent, above the pre-war level, while working costs are declared to be still fully 100 per cent, above the pre-war standard. Shipping managers in both the Australian and New Zealand trades have hope that there might be some compensation for the lower rates in larger shipments, but that there can be very little profit, if any, in such terms is now generally agreed by managers, including those who have experience of the cost of carrying produce in other routes. It is to be feared that the. granting of the minimum rates of freight must cause owners to look with extreme care on working expenses. Their natural inclination would be towards even better services than have been provided in the past, but with sailings maintained on the basis of at best a very narrow margin of earnings over outgoing the cost of construction and maintenance will have to be considered very closely.
That is a complete answer to Senator Lynch.
– Are the freights from New Zealand to Great Britain cheaper than the freights from Australia to Great Britain?
– On some lines they are; but, generally speaking, they are about the same. It would be better to spend an amount equivalent to the loss which the board is now incurring in increasing the subsidies. Senator Thomas said that it was unfair that a rebate of 10 per cent, should be allowed to consignees who shipped all their goods by the one line. There is nothing unusual in that; it is only a business transaction. Some firms allow their customers 10 per cent, if their accounts are paid within a month, and perhaps 2£ per cent, if paid within three months.
Shipping companies are out to protect their own interests and it pays them to give a discount of 10 per cent, to firms that will ship goods by their vessels only. It enables them to get full cargoes. I see no need to make a fuss about what is an ordinary business arrangement. A great deal has been said during this debate about the losses sustained by government railways and it has been contended that if it pays a country to build railways and run them at a loss, it should also pay the country to run a shipping line at a loss. When we started to develop Australia we could not induceany one to sink capital in building developmental railways. As a consequence, the people themselves through their governments had to build them and once governments started to build these lines they had to keep on with the work. In the case of shipping, however, we have always had ships coming to Australia. We had not to build Commonwealth steamers because there were no existing shipping services.We built them for the express purpose of reducing freights. Therefore, the argument that losses on railways are comparable with losses on shipping lines doesnot appeal to me. It is a marvellous thing that scarcely anywhere in the world to-day are lines of transport, whether on land or sea, making a profit.Weare not restricted by lack of competition on our ocean trade routes. There is no lack of shipping coming to Australia. Vessels even come here from Germany.
– They are subsidized.
– Germany built up its shipping by subsidies and so did Japan Mussolini has followed their example. He has subsidized ships and Italian vessels are now coming to Australia. We know that to-day our country is the one land in need of population. Ships will bring us the people we need and will compete keenly for our trade. No State in Australia has had more experience of State enterprises than Queensland.
– Queensland has had a bitter experience of State enterprises.
SenatorREID. - The only State enterprise in Queensland that has been a success is the State insurance scheme, but it did not require any particular ability to make that a success because it was a monopoly - everybody had to insure under it. Of all the other State enterprises, of Queensland, some of them are just about paying expenses. Recently I read in a Queensland paper some remarks addressed to a meeting of public servants by a State minister, a gentleman who was formerly a member of the Senate. I congratulate him on the courage he has displayed intelling the public servants a few truths on the subject of a fair day’s work. He said : -
I am not going to say that we get it from all by a long way. If you want any evidence of this, take the State enterprises. I have no hesitation in stating that the partial failure of some of our State enterprises is due to a lack of faithful service, perhaps more than anything else.
And he added: -
Socialism can never succeed unless social service is as efficient as the service given in private enterprise.
There is not a State minister in Queensland to-day in favour of existing State enterprises. In the last two years not one minister has established a new enterprise. These government activities got into such a mess and have sustained such heavy losses, that if you ask a State minister to tell you how they are progressing he will immediately say “ Say nothing about it.” In my opinion, the people of Queensland are equal in intelligence to people elsewhere, and it seems to me that if State enterprises have failed in Queensland they are bound to fail elsewhere. No private shipping company has been treated more disgracefully than the Australian Commonwealth Line has been treated by the sailors employed by it. The men have the best conditions in the world, but they have done everything they could to hold up the Commonwealth vessels while the ships of other lines were left free to make money for their owners. It seems to me that all that they have sought to do in return for all that has been done for them has been to take advantage of the fact that the vessels are owned by the Commonwealth. We have heard some talk about grumbling on the part of the members of the Australian Shipping Board and that they have fallen out with one another. In the absence of evidence on the point we must take it for granted that this has happened because we are told by the committee that it has. I do not think that any honorable senator, whether he be in favour of nationalization or not, would not rejoice if this line had proved a success, but it has proved a failure, and I have heard nothing to convince me thatit should be kept going. I shall, therefore, give my vote for the sale of the Line under the conditions mentioned by the Government, namely, that it shall be retained on a British register.
-What if we cannot get any one to purchase the Line on those conditions?
– We must proceed in a business-like way. If no company will buy the vessels and put them on a British register the Government must sell them singly and make the best bargain it can.
– In rising to speak at this stage of the debate one feels that one is, to a great extent, flogging a dead horse ; but I cannot allow the motion to go without placing on record the opinions I hold regarding the proposed disposal of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers. It is the duty, I think of every honorable senator on an issue of this sort to justify the vote he intends to give and the action he proposes to take. It is an old saying that there are two sides to every question, and we have never had a better example of the truth of that statement than we have on the present occasion. Even the Joint Committee of Public Accounts seems to have realized it. I have before me the marvellous document it has issued concerning the Commonwealth Government shipping activities. I do not think we have ever had presented to us a report which surpasses it, inasmuch as a case can be made out from it with success on either side of the question at issue. The nervous attitude that has been adopted by the committee towards the Australian Commonwealth Line is apparent almost throughout. It is true that at the end, after a great deal of hesitation, fear and trembling, the committee in its majority report, has made a certain recommendation. It says very many nice things about the Australian Commonwealth Line. It points out quite a number of good things it has done and in many respects justifies its failure to do better in the circumstances. It has not condemned the Line in the whole-hearted fashion Senator Reid would have us believe it has done. On the contrary it has com mended very many things that the Line has done. In my opinion it has only advanced one real reason why thn vessels should be sold, but that reason, I am afraid, is an insuperable obstacle to their retention. I shall refer to it later. The chief reason for disposing of the Line urged during this debate, although it is referred toin extenso in the Public Accouncts Committee’s report is that certain losses have been incurred. But those losses are not a sufficient justification, even if they have been heavy, for getting rid of the Line. If it had made considerable losses and the business of its competitors had been conducted at a profit there would be some justification for saying that there is virtue in private ownership, but the private shipping companies also have made huge losses.
– The Orient and the P. and O. companies paid dividends last year.
– Those dividends were paid out of the subsidy granted by the Commonwealth Government.
– £130,000 would not go far towards the amount paid by them as dividends.
– During the period that the Commonwealth Line was operating at a loss many of the long established shipping lines of the world also made losses. Honorable senators who claim that Government enterprise has failed and are demanding that the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers should be disposed of because it has incurred losses, have not urged that private ownership has failed and should be abolished because privately owned shipping lines have also incurred losses. In this matter we cannot lay down any general principle because both Government ownership and private enterprise have failed. There is as much justification for dispensing with private ownership of shipping lines as there is for disposing of government controlled lines. On page seven of the Committee’s report there appears the following statement -
To show that the Commonwealth was not alone with regard to the position of its shipping activities, the Prime Minister pointed out that many shipping companies which had been formed in Great Britain when abnormal freights were being earned had not only lost their capital, but, when wound up, had ov,cd to their banks two, three or even four times as much as the value of the asset upon which the banks had advanced the money. All the old-established shipping lines, notwithstanding their strong reserves, had had to refrain from paying dividends or had paid them by drawing on reserves “accumulated over many years.
In the face of the statement, will honorable senators say that the Line has only to be transferred to private enterprise for it to be a huge success ? Private enterprise has failed as dismally as has the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers. That the Prime Minister knows.
– Does the honorable senator consider that the Government would be justified in continuing the Line?
– I have said nothing of the kind. I “was pointing out how absurd had been some of the arguments used during this debate. The committee’s report makes it clear that the losses which have been incurred have not been i>i respect of freights on goods brought, to Britain from Australia, but, on Australian produce exported to the old country. Seeing’ that the goods on which those losses were made, comprised for the most part. Australian primary produce, the benefit of those low freights was reaped by Australian primary producers.
– They had to make up the losses by increased taxation.
– Not altogether. Primary producers are not the only persons who pay taxes. Every taxpayer of the Commonwealth has had to bear his burden of the losses, whereas the advantage of the low freights was reaped only by the primary producers.
– Vessels belonging to other companies carried goods at the same rates as those charged by the Commonwealth Line.
– It has also been stated that because the Line carried only 2.7 per cent, of the wool and wheat exported from Australia, the removal of its vessels from the trade would not make much difference to the shipping position generally. I remind honorable senators that all the evidence brought forward shows that the Line has been instrumental in keeping down freights.
– Senator Chapman made it clear that that was not so.
– Had freights been increased, the increase would have affected not only the 2.7 per cent, of our wheat and wool carried by vessels belonging to the Line, but also the whole of the cargoes carried by all the lines.
– Not necessarily so, because much of the wheat was carried in chartered vessels.
– I admit that there is no fixed charter rate; but, generally, an increase in freights means an increase in charter rates. Senator Thompson denies that the Line was instrumental in keeping down freights. I remind him that in 1923 the Line held out for, and secured, a 10 per cent, reduction in freights; that in 1925 it refused to agree to a 10 per cent, increase in freights suggested by the other shipping companies, which all the time had been agitating for higher rates. Again, in 1926, it refused to sanction a 15 per cent, increase in. freight rates. The value of the cargoes taken from Australian ports during 1924 and 1925 was valued at over £160,000,000. An increase of 15 per cent, would have meant that Australian shippers would have had to pay on all shipments more than an additional £20,000,000 as freight during that period. Even on the cargo shipped by the vessels belonging to the Line the saving in freight represented about £3,000,000 per annum. That considerable sum was saved to the producers of Australia because the Line held out against increased freights. . That is the only conclusion to which we can come in the light of the evidence in our possession. If the position is otherwise, it must be shown in documents which, although made available to the members of the committee, have not been placed before the Senate. It is unfair to place before honorable senators mere statements, not supported by evidence, and to ask them on those statements to give a decision on a matter so important as the retention of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers. I have no desire in any way to belittle the members of the Public Accounts Committee. For them I have the greatest respect and admiration. I should be prepared to trust to their judgment in many matters; but, notwithstanding all the information made available to them - much of which has not been placed before us - they were unable to come to a unanimous decision regarding the Line. There was, in fact, a sharp division of opinion between them. One section of the committee has said one . thing, and another section something entirely different.
– We all know the reason for that.
– That is the trouble. It is probable that before any evidence was taken the case had been prejudged and the verdict decided upon. I do not wish to make a reflection against any individual senator, but Senator Thompson has suggested -
– My suggestion is that as the Labour party’s programme is the socialization of industry, the Labour members of the committee were bound to favour the retention of the Line.
- Senator Thompson is prepared to make that charge against one section of the committee. We know that the policy of the Labour party favours the extension of Government activities, and no representative of that party would be justified, perhaps, in doing anything contrary to the declared policy of the party. It was clear before any evidence was called that the Labour members of this committee would not be able to recommend that the Line should be sold. There are other honorable senators in this chamber who have declared time after time their unswerving opposition to government enterprises of any kind whatever. Senator Kingsmill has frequently said in this Senate that the Government should get out of the shipping business as soon as it could, and cut its losses. I do not say that he is wrong in that attitude. There is much to say for “ his point of view, and I am not singling him out more than any one else. I do say, however, that the members of the committee drawn from the Government side of the chamber commenced the inquiry with minds prejudiced almost as much against the Shipping Line as those who signed the minority report were prejudiced in its favour. It is almost impossible for men who are already committed to a definite line of policy to give an impartial judgment on questions of this kind. This has been a political issue for many years, and it will remain one for many years to come. Under these circumstances it would have been far better had the question of the retention or disposal of the Line been referred to an impartial and independent tribunal. Such tribunals are appointed for other purposes, and judges of the Supreme Court are selected to conduct inquiries into matters of much less importance than this.
– Then the honorable senator does not believe in parliamentary committees?
– I do, but in this case the manner in which the committee was constituted precluded the possibility of its arriving at an impartial finding.
– Did either side of the Senate show any prejudice against this Line «when the question of the appointment of a board was under consideration three and a half years ago ?
– I distinctly remember honorable senators, and members of another place, unhesitatingly giving their opinion that the Government should get out of the shipping business at once, and cut its losses. It would be easy for me to produce proof of this from the pages of Hansard. When this matter was last under consideration we were assured that all the non-paying ships were to be sold, and only those vessels retained which could show a profit.
– Suppose the Line had been successful, does the honorable senator mean to say that the Nationalists would have voted-, in favour of its abolition ?
– I think we would be driven to it in the end on account of the problem of replacement. This country is not in a financial position to undertake the heavy burden of replacing these ships. It would require millions of pounds almost at once to make the Lineof real value to the community.
– If the honorable senator’s point of view is correct, it would justify an enormous expenditureon new ships.
– That is a debatable point, but what I am emphasizingnow is that the financial commitments of the country are so great, and have in the past been so childishly disregarded,. that X do not believe that the Commonwealth would be warranted in undertaking the expense of adding two, three, or more ships to the fleet at the price which we would have to pay for them.
– It would be a rotten proposition to do anything of the kind.
– Does not the honorable senator think that that aspect of the affair was considered by the committee ?
– I am quite prepared to believe that it was. The other justifications, apologies,- and explanations for the disposal of the Line are all beside the point.
Sen tor Needham. - The hon. senator had his opportunity to show his desire to retain the ships when the vote was taken in the Senate yesterday.
– I had nothing of the kind. I would not permit myself to be trapped in the manner in which the Opposition so obviously set out to do it. The action of the Opposition at that time was not taken out of any love of the Shipping. Line, but to see what they could catch in the net they spread. “ In vain is the net spread in the sight of the bird.” A very important aspect of this matter is the service which this Line has rendered to Australia in catering for the passenger traffic. The committee points out in its report that this is one reason in favour of its retention.
– There also have been certain disabilities to the passengers.
– Let us see what the report has to say on that subject. On page 18 it states -
Notwithstanding much criticism at times, especially in the press, concerning the passenger treatment ‘and accommodation of the “ Bay “ steamers, it was shown in evidence that the popularity of the vessels as passengercarriers was steadily increasing; and the line now carried over 20 per cent, of the passenger traffic between Australia and the United Kingdom. Naturally, some complaints were received. but it was stated that the management of the Line took early steps to remedy any matter in respect of which complaints were well founded. On the subject of passengers’ complaints reference might be made to a case brought directly under the notice of the committee, wherein a well-known business man made derogatory statements concerning the management of the Commonwealth Line, the food supplied, and the treatment accorded passengers. Alter the issue of writs by the Shipping Board and the master of the steamer, the allegations were unreservedly withdrawn, and apologies tendered for “ Having rushed into print upon such incorrect information to the serious detriment to one of Australia’s most important assets.” The employment by the line of a travelling inspector, who reports direct to the board on any matters requiring attention in the internal running of the steamers, was found to have a beneficial effect.
That section of the committee’s report deals only with one instance which came under its notice, and mention was also made of the deliberate policy of “ knocking” the Line that was indulged in by a certain section of the press of this country, and by interested individuals all over Australia. It was to the advantage of those people that the Line should be disposed of, and they did not hesitate to stoop even to lying in order to give the Line a bad name.
– The seamen helped the detractors all they could.
– Quite so. I agree that good ships were butchered-
– To m.ike a seamen’s holiday.
– I think Johannsen must have been working for the Conference.
– I do not say that. I do not profess to be a personal . friend of Mr. Johannsen, and, therefore, cannot speak with authority. The committee is evidently not of the same opinion as Senator Reid when he says that there is no need to fear the Shipping Combine in the future. The committee, with a fuller knowledge of the facts than Senator Reid can have, declares in its report that there is a real manace in the future from the depredations of the Shipping Combine, and certain recommendations are made with a view to evading this danger, and to retaining the Line in the Australian trade. The Government itself is evidently afraid of what might happen.
– Does not the honorable senator think that competition is a safeguard?
– It might be, and I shall deal with that matter later. As I was saying, however, the Government itself is evidently afraid of what may happen if this Line falls into the hands of the Shipping Combine, and it proposes to take certain steps to prevent it. Those steps may seem sufficient to the Government, but they do not appear sufficient to me. I do not think that there is any reasonable hope of laying down a set of conditions which will be observed for any length of time.
– That is another matter.
– It is another matter; but it is one to which we shall have to give consideration.
Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2.15 p.m.
– Once the Line is sold it will be gone practically for ever. It will be exceedingly difficult for any future government or political party to re-establish a shipping line, because itwill be almost impossible to give the higher officers the necessary guarantees as to security of employment. The seamen never have such securities offered to them. Officers in the higher ranks - I refer to masters, chief officers, engineers and others - usually regard employment in any reputable shipping company as permanent. As it will not be possible to offer reasonable guarantees in future, difficulty will be experienced in securing the right type of men to man the vessels if Parliament, at some future time, decides again to place government ships on the trade routes of the world. I regret that this great experiment in the sea carriage of goods by a government-owned Line is about to end. I also stress that the Senate is being asked to register its opinion without being in full possession of all the facts. This is not fair or reasonable. Therefore I move as an amendment -
That all words after “ That “ be left out with a view to insert in lieu thereof the words “ further consideration of the motion be deferred until the whole of the evidence given before the Public Accounts Committee have been placed before the Senate.”
If my amendment is carried the Senate will not register its opinion until it has had an opportunity to weigh carefully the evidence upon which the commitee based its recommendations.
– On a point of order I submit that if Senator Duncan’s amendment is to be regarded as a motion for the adjournment of the debate, it is not in order.
The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon. Sir John Newlands). - I take it that the object of the honorable senator’s amendment is to obtain an extension of time for the consideration of the report and recommendations made by the Public Accounts Committee.
– If, as I understand from the mover of the amendment, the intention is to secure an adjournment of the debate, is it not true that it cannot be debated? I ask for your ruling on the point, Mr. President.
– I do not consider the amendment as a motion for the adjournment of the debate, but if it is carried, the debate on the motion will be closed.
– I submit, Mr. President, that if the carrying of the amendment will close the debate, it is not in order.
– It appears to me, Mr. President, that, inadvertently, you have wrongly interpreted the purpose of the amendment. All that it asks is that the Senate shall not register its decision on the motion until the whole of the evidence given before the Public Accounts Committee has been placed before this chamber. I suggest, therefore, that it may be debated and dealt with.
– Senator Kingsmill’s motion asks that the report be printed. The amendment seeks an extension of time for the consideration of the evidence given before the committee. It asks further, that the evidence be placed in the hands of honorable senators before they are called, upon to make a decision. Senator Duncan has not any other means of giving effect to his desire unless the motion is amended in the way he suggests. He is anxious to cbtain more information than is available at present.
– Yesterday the Senate rejected an. amendment, moved by Senator Grant, providing that all the words after “ That “ be left out with a view to the insertion of other words. The Senate therefore decided that the words which Senator Duncan now pro- poses to omit should stand. As a way out of the difficulty, I suggest to Senator Duncan that he should move that after the words “ printed “ the following words be added “but the Senate is of opinion that further consideration should be given to the question prior to the disposal of the shipping Line.”
– That does not provide for the production of the evidence. The Senate should have all the information before it comes to a decision.
– Perhaps it would meet the wishes of the honorable senator if these words were added “but that further consideration of the motion be deferred until the whole of the evidence given before the Public Accounts Committee has been placed before the Senate.”
– As there still appears to be some doubt concerning the exact position, perhaps it would meet the case if the words “ be printed “ were omitted.
– Mr. President has pointed out that when Senator Grant’s amendment was defeated yesterday, the Senate decided that those words “be printed “ should stand.
– The substance of the amendment is not, in my opinion, relevant to the motion. You, sir, have suggested that the words “but that further consideration of the motion be deferred…… “ What motion? Senator Duncan means that the Senate shall not reach a decision until the evidence taken by the Public Accounts Committee is placed before the Senate.
– If the amendment is carried the Government will understand what is intended.
– All that Senator Duncan desires is that the Senate shall be supplied with additional information which we understand is available.
– The Government has already announced that it is taking a test vote on this motion. If it is carried, it will be regarded as an endorsement of the Government’s intention to dispose of the Line under certain conditions. If the amendment is agreed to; the Government will understand that the Senate is of the opinion that the Line should not be disposed of until further information is available.
– I suggest that after “ 1927” the words “and all evidence taken in. connexion therewith “ be added.
– Perhaps the best way out of the difficulty is to put the amendment moved by Senator Duncan, in this form “ That after the word printed ‘ the following words be added, but that further consideration of the question be deferred until after the whole of the evidence given before the Public Accounts Committee has been placed before the Senate “.
– I agree to that.
Amendment amended accordingly.
– The Government cannot accept the amendment, which, if carried, would mean that the Senate had registered a decision against the Government’s proposal. When speaking to the main question I announced that the Government intended to take a vote in each House.
Senat or Greene. - If the motion is agreed to, will the Government proceed with the disposal of the Line without any futher authority from Parliament?
– No. There will have to be further reference to Parliament. If a suitable offer were received it would have to be submitted to Parliament, but I do not know if the introduction of a bill would be necessary.
– Parliament would be consulted?
– Yes; in some way.
– Will the Minister give the Senate that assurance?
– Yes. If the amendment is agreed to it will mean that the decision of the Senate on this question cannot be reached until further information is placed before the chamber. The Public Accounts Committee was appointed by Parliament, and hears evidence, the substance of which is embodied in the recommendations which are brought before Parliament. If the whole of the evidence were printed I do not think there is one honorable senator who would read it. The members of the committee have studied the evidence, made their deductions and extracted certain facts. No one can challenge the facts. although the committee’s deductions may be challenged.,, The committee’s recommendations are based on figures submitted to it. I ask Senator Duncan not to press his amendment.- If it were carried it would not get us any further. When we came again to make up our minds we should be no further forward than we are to-day, and wc should have to go through the whole business all over again.
Senator KINGSMILL (Western Australia [2.46]. - Gentlemen not connected with the Australian Commonwealth Line appeared before the Public Accounts Committee and gave evidence of a particularly full nature, involving,- very often, business matters which had to be confidential. This evidence which was of the greatest value to the committee, would never have been obtained if the guarantee of confidence had not been forthcoming. The report of the committee is divided into two parts. The first gives an historical record of the Line, the various stages through which it has passed, and u summary of the evidence furnished to the committee. The second contains the observations and recommendations of the committee. If Parliament agreed to the amendment submitted by Senator Duncan, it would not only stultify its own committee, but also commit a grave breach of confidence against gentlemen who understood that their evidence was not to be revealed.
– Were not the cablegrams which have been published’ confidential ?
– They were, but the committee did not give them to the gentleman who revealed them. I am at a loss to know who gave them to him. The only persons who were in a position to do so were the directors of the Australian Commonwealth Line, who had them in their possession.
– And they deny responsibility for the disclosure.
– In no circumstances would any one be justified in revealing highly confidential cablegrams which had a very important bearing on the findings of the Public Accounts Committee They were not the property of the committee; they were the property of the directors of the Line, who produced them and to> whom, after their contents had been noted by the committee, they were returned. Apart from the fact that thesecablegrams had a very decided effect on. the findings of the committee, and apart from the fact that a government activity is involved, importers and exporters, representatives of chambers of commerce, who had not so much to conceal, and other gentlemen who came before the committee - commercial men of high standing who made plain what their dealings were on the pledge of confidence - would, I think, be justly horrified if their confidential evidence were laid on the table of the Senate. If it be thought desirable that future inquiries should be held in public, well and good, but the committee that conducts an inquiry, so> to speak, in open court, does not get a true realization of affairs to the extent that it would if its investigantions were m camera. Some witnessescome before a committee with axes togrind and when the sittings are in public stress before it, so that it may appear in the daily press, some aspect that is likely to do them good. They, soto speak, wave- flags, but in many casesdo not express their individual opinions. I have had actual experience of this sort of committee work, not only here but in. other places, and my experience is tha? you only get the true inwardness of the evidence of a witness when he knows that it is not going beyond the committee. If a witness has been given that pledge of confidence it would be not only ungrateful, but treacherous on the part of thisParliament, to violate that pledge.
– The Leader of the Senate has indicated plainly that if the motion submitted by Senator Kingsmill is carried, it will be regarded as an authorization for the. sale of the AustralianCommonwealth Line of Steamers, and asan endorsement of the attitude of the Government towards that Line, but that on. the other hand, if the amendment is carried, it will be an indication to the Government that the Senate does not want the Commonwealth ships to be sold. While I think that the amendment should be carried, I believe that the Senate should have before it the evidence taken by the Public Accounts Committee, so that it may come to a decision on the question under consideration in the full possession of all the information relating to it. We are not in full possession of all the information. I should like the amendment to go a little further than it does. I should like the Government to table all the communications that have passed between it and the Commonwealth Shipping Board during the last six months since the Public Accounts Committee ceased to take evidence relating to the Government’s shipping activities. They would give us much/ more information than has been disclosed by the evidence taken by the committee. There is a good deal in what Senator Kingsmill has said in regard to certain evidence that should not be revealed. It is true that certain witnesses stipulated that their evidence should be taken in camera because they did not want their business secrets revealed. I am aware that the committee did pay heed to the requests of these witnesses and that their evidence was taken in camera. But with all due deference to that particular aspect of the case, I claim that when Parliament is discussing & question of supreme importance to the people of Australia, it should be in possession of every tittle of evidence before coming to a decision upon it, even though it might involve the revelation of business secrets of persons giving evidence before the committee. The business of the nation is of the first importance, and the feelings of individuals must, for the time being, take second place. It: has been said during the course of the main debate that the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers is a losing proposition. I admit that that is so, but I am aware that there is evidence in the possession of the Cabinet to show that during the last four or five months those losses have been considerably reduced by an alteration to the schedule of the ships. Loss was being incurred by the vessels having to call at different porta in the United Kingdom. These ports of call have now been cut out, and certain documents have passed between the Shipping Board and the Government, proving that a. saving of about 15 per cent, has been made by cutting out these calls.
– Nothwithstanding that saving the year finished with the biggest loss the Line has incurred.
– I am speaking of recent events and showing that by an alteration to the time table and running schedule of the Line, its position has been considerably improved. I know that even if the amendment is carried it will not compel the Government to furnish the Senate with the evidence taken before the. Public Accounts Committee, and that is why I should like the scope of the amendment to be widened. Senator Pearce said, on the main debate, that the Senate was filling the position of shareholders of the Line. As a matter of fact, we are the directors of the Line, and the managing directors will not furnish the other directors with certain information which they would like to make known to the public through the press so that they may learn the exact position of the Line.
– The honorable senator was one of the members of th.” committee that assured witnesses that their evidence would not be made public.
– I take my full share of the responsibility in that regard. I agreed, when I was a member of the committee, that the evidence on this inquiry should be taken in camera, but in the light of subsequent developments - I could not be expected to anticipate that a debate would take place in Parliament regarding the sale, of the ships - I say now that if we could trust the members of a committee whom we appoint surely we can also trust honorable senators to treat as confidential the evidence that comes under their notice. But in any case, even if the information thus made available might affect the business transactions of certain people if it leaked out, that fact should not stand in our way if we have to give a decision on a matter of paramount importance. When it comes to a question of whether Parliament should decide to sell these ships - to dispose of vessels which rendered such good to the nation - every bit of information should be placed before Parliament.
– The honorable senator can move for the papers.
– The Standing Orders would not permit me to move for the ‘ papers at this stage, because this business takes precedence over all other matters. By the time I could move for the papers, a vote would have been taken, and the right honorable senator has told us that if this resolution is carried it will be taken as a direction from the Senate to the Government to sell the ships. By the time I could get the papers the vital issue with which we are concerned would have been disposed of. I should like to have a further assurance from the Minister before this debate is closed, and before a division is taken either on the motion or the amendment, that if the Senate does give a direction to the Government to proceed with the selling of the ships, Parliament will be consulted before any tender is accepted. I do not think it would be right, or in accord with the public interest, if the Government called for tenders, accepted one of them, and signed the contract of sale, without consulting Parliament.
– Was Parliament consulted before the ships were bought ?
– When the ships were bought there was no board or any such institution in existence. Action was taken under the War Precautions Act, and plenary power was given under that to do anything that was thought fit. Thank God there is no War Precautions Act now. If the ships are sold it will be a bad day for Australia. There are many reasons why the evidence taken by the committee should be placed before Parliament, even at the risk of revealing certain information that should not be made public. A precedent has already been established for such action. There is another committee of this Parliament, the Public Works Committee, before which evidence is sometimes given by gentlemen engaged in big business pursuits, and yet the evidence given is made public. The Senate should not be deterred from carrying the amendment by the objection that if the evidence is tabled certain information might get abroad. That is not the objection which determines the attitude of the Leader of the Senate. I think he is afraid that the Senate might obtain too much information, and that the minds of honorable senators might be changed. As regards the cablegrams, they are pretty well public property already. I was present at the meeting when they were read.
– When they were read to you, did you regard them as confidential ?
– I did.
– And did you disclose any of them?
– No ; but when the Government brings down a proposal that the ships should be sold, I believe that the information contained in those cablegrams should be made available to Parliament. The members of this Parliament are to be trusted just as much as are the members of the committee, and the position is so acute now that all possible information should be in the hands of honorable members. If the evidence is tabled, it might be the means of causing honorable senators to change their minds, and to determine not to give Parliament authority to sell the ships.
. - I do not intend to traverse all the arguments put forward, as the Senate will have another opportunity of making up its mind finally on the subject. One aspect of the matter in regard to Senator Duncan’s amendment has been made perfectly clear as a result of the statement made this afternoon by the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. That honorable gentleman said that a great deal of the evidence given before the committee was of a confidential character, and that the committee had given to some of the witnesses a definite undertaking that their evidence would not be made public.
SenatorKingsmill. - Every witness was given that assurance.
– I agree that it is often necessary, in the public interest, that evidence of this character should be given in camera, but I think there is a great distinction between giving evidence in camera and the committee giving a definite assurance to the witnesses that under no circumstances will their evidence be made public. I think that under no circumstances whatever should an undertaking of that kind be given. The committee has every right to say to a witness that it will hear his evidence in camera, but that he must leave it to the good sense of the committee to determine whether or not it shall afterwards be revealed, in the public interest. It is possible that a witness might, under a pledge of secrecy from the chairman of the committee, give evidence which it was of the highest importance should he given the widest publicity. I have noticed on several occasions that very wide undertakings have been given not to reveal information. All our committees and commissions taking evidence should hesitate long before they give a definite pledge of that kind.
– Does not the honorable senator think that the course he suggests might tend to mislead a witness ?
– There is no clanger of that if the position is clearly explained to the witness. I know, as a matter of fact, that that has been the procedure in the past in many instances.
– We have heard a good deal about the need for respecting confidences in regard to public inquiries. Let us see, however, where it will lead to. In my view, such inquiries cannot be called public if witnesses are given an assurance that any information that they give will be treated as confidential. The obvious reason for seeking evidence is that it shall influence the decision of the inquiring body. When evidence is given on the condition that it shall not be made public, that stipulation is made only because the evidence constitutes an infringement of somebody else’s rights. If somebody else’s rights are infringed, that person should have the right to come before the committee to controvert the evidence given.
– The evidence might relate to balance-sheets of companies, or similar matters.
– No witness should come before an inquiring body and ask that the mantle of secrecy be thrown over his evidence when that mantle may conceal infringements of other people’s rights. This was a public inquiry at which all citizens were invited to give evidence; yet some witnesses were given an assurance that they might give evidence and make statements secure in the knowledge that they would not be made public. That does not seem to me to be fair play. The respect for private opinion should always be subservient to the consideration of public interest. Honorable senators who are learned in jurisprudence can inform us that the public interest should always be paramount. We are now asked to record a decision on one of the most vital questions that has. ever come before this Parliament, without even being supplied with the evidence on which the recommendations of the committee are based. Apparently secrecy is of greater importance than the public interest. Certain wit4nesses gave evidence on the operations of the shipping line on the understanding that it would not be disclosed. Had I been a member of the committee when such witnesses had appeared, I should have said, “ We know the value of such evidence. If you are not prepared to allow it to be combated you had better get out.” The legal luminaries in this chamber know that, unless a witness is willing to allow his evidence to be combated, he is not permitted to give it. I ask Senator Barwell if that is not so.
– That is so.
– I think that Senator Lynch is wrong.
– If any one wished to give evidence against Senator Ogden which he was not allowed to combat, he would immediately refer to “star chamber “ methods, or something of that sort. I. do not think we are asking too much in saying that the whole of the evidence should be submitted to the Senate. The committee was appointed to conduct certain inquiries in the public interest, and, in the course of its investigations, it obtained confidential evidence.
– Perhaps it is being withheld in the public interest.
– I do not think so. I find on page 11 of the report the following:
Confidential details placed before the committee indicated that efforts of the board had led to substantial reduction in freights. . .
The head is now appearing, and probably we shall soon see the shoulders and the body. Who gave that evidence? The quotation I have just read refers to the “ efforts of the board,” which suggests that the evidence concerning substantial reductions in freights was tendered by a representative of the board. The quotation continues - and on ‘several other occasions its refusal to agree…..
The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon. Sir John Newlands). - In discussing the amendment the honorable senator is not -entitled to refer in detail to the report of the committee.
– I am referring to the confidential evidence submitted to the -committee. The paragraph continues - to increases proposed - in one instance by both British and foreign ship-owners - had been -successful.
That is an important portion of the committee’s report ; but the evidence on which it is based has not been placed before the Senate. Apparently the board has been responsible for keeping down freights and fares between Australia and Great Britain. I do not know of any politician who has had longer experience than Senator Kingsmill, who was a Minister of the Crown, showering favours to all and sundry, as is his habit, when E was a mere boy, politically. I do not think that he, with a long and honorable parliamentary career, can mention one instance in which a report has been submitted to Parliament without being accompanied by the evidence.
– I have known many reports to be presented without the evidence.
– Only in connexion with minor inquiries, when, perhaps, a boiler may have exploded and injured some one and things of that sort. All reports on important questions are accompanied by the evidence on which they are based. In this case we are asked to accept this flimsy report i.-. the absence of evidence.
– What is the practice of the Public Works Committee?
– The Honorary Minister should know. What would Senator McLachlan say if he were asked to defend a criminal in the absence of evidence. Parliament, which is the highest court in the land, is expected, in this case to record a decision before being supplied with the details that should be in its possession. I do not think that such a course has been followed before. It would be interesting to know the nature of the evidence tendered by Mr. Angliss concern- * ing this Line. I ask Senator Kingsmill what that gentleman said.
– It was confidential.
– I know the brusque character of that gentleman, and it is not likely that his lips would be sealed. What did the Melbourne farmer, Mr. Tilt, have to say? I was elected to this chamber to represent the people. I belong to the State which depends solely upon its export trade. The Minister (Senator Pearce) was returned to this Parliament when I was, and unless the Government of which he is a member supplies the Senate with the fullest information before it is asked to record its decision, he will betray the trust imposed in him by the electors. Senator McLachlan, a legal luminary, who has spent many years of his life in perusing evidence, should express his opinions. Honorable members opposite are now assisting to dispose of an undertaking which in the past they have lauded to the skies. The only evidence which we have before us to enable us to come to a decision on this vitally important subject is contained in four and a half lines of printed matter in the report which the members of the Public Accounts Committee have presented to us. We are told that the Committee’s report is based upon confidential information. This information, we have ascertained, was responsible some time ago for a substantial reduction being effected in freight charges which has meant a saving of millions of pounds to our people. The Honorary Minister (Senator McLachlan) laughs, but this is no laughing matter for thousands of our people who depend upon the most economical means of shipping their products to the markets of the world.
– They do not use this Line for that purpose.
– Even at this eleventh hour I trust that honorable members will indicate to the Government that they are not prepared to discontinue this Line until they are furnished with evidence which completely justifies them in doing so. It is amazing to me that the Public Accounts Committee should have been content to take evidence only from persons who live in the big centres of population, seeing that those who are winning their livelihood in the interior are most concerned in the matter.
– The honorable senator is again discussing the report. I ask him to confine his -remarks to the amendment before the Chair.
– I am sure that Senator McLachlan would not willingly allow any judge to determine an issue submitted to him in the absence of adequate evidence. It appears to me that some members of this Parliament are quite prepared to rush heedlessly along the road that leads to destruction. They appear to have lost all desire to see where they are going or what the end of the journey will be. Some of them seem to be bereft of their senses. Whoever heard of determining an issue of this ^ character in the absence of a tittle of evidence? A vital complement to every judicial decision is evidence, and that is what we entirely lack in this case. Would Senator Barwell ever dream of allowing a judge to give his decision before he had heard the evidence?
– The facts in this case are so well known that only one decision is possible for reasonable men.
– This is a door of escape for timid men.
– Timid men are not likely to stand up against an overwhelming majority on an issue of this character as we are doing. Again I should like to know what evidence the Hon. W. C. Angliss, meat exporter, of Melbourne, gave to. the committee, and what evidence did William Keith Yuill, sharebroker, of Sydney, submit? I could understand a gentleman of that profession being consulted if the merits of some mining prospectus had been under discussion, but what does he know about the Commonwealth shipping activities?
– He was formerly chief clerk of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers.
– Whatever he was, I should like to know the nature of the evidence that he gave. What had Robert Coates Tilt, solicitor, and William Tomalin, store superintendent of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers, Sydney, to say?
– The honorable senator is again discussing the report. I ask him to observe my ruling, and to confine his remarks to the amendment.
– 1 shall endeavour to do so, sir. According to the report of the joint committee, nearly 50 witnesses were examined, and we are entirely ignorant of what they said. Consequently, from the point of view of the value of their evidence to us, they might just as well have been Hottentots in Central Africa. The confidential information upon which the committee appears to have based its recommendation is disposed of in four and a half lines’ of printed matter. Seeing that millions of the people’s money are involved in those few lines, that is not a fair thing to Parliament or the country. However, I have made my protest, and I trust that later saner counsels and riper judgments will prevail, and that a higher tribunal than even this Parliament will deal appropriately with those who have lent themselves to these methods of muffling opinion and judgment in this Parliament.
. -Day by day and in every way our case against the Government is becoming stronger. Honorable senators are under an obligation to discharge their duty to the people of this country to the best of their ability, and it can hardly be suggested that they are acting fairly in even contemplating the disposal of our shipping Line in the absence of a tittle of evidence to justify it. If it had not been for the vigilance of certain journalists, the members of this Parliament and the country generally might still have been ignorant of the Government’s intention to sell the Line. The Public Accounts Committee, upon the report of which it is said that the Government is acting, is composed of members of Parliament. They are our representatives, and I assert that the information which is available to them should not be denied to us. The people of Australia, including the members of this Parliament and the members of the joint committee, are shareholders in this Line, and have paid their proportion of the cost of establishing and operating it. Surely the nine members of the committee do not suggest that they, to the exclusion of every other citizen, are entitled to keep to themselves the information which their inquiries elicited. Is it a business proposition that nine members of a committee appointed by this Parliament should take evidence , in, camera, and that no matter what their verdict may be we must accept it? We are told by Senator Kingsmill, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, that the evidence, upon which the committee has recommended the sale of the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers, was taken in camera. In fairness to the people of Australia the committee should have been instructed to hold its investigations in public. If business is to be conducted in that way in the future, goodness knows where Parliament will land itself.
– By legislation we can alter the conditions under which the Public Accounts Committee takes its evidence.
– When the investigation of the Commonwealth Government’s shipping activities commenced, did honorable senators understand that the evidence would be taken in camera, that the witnesses would be given a guarantee of absolute protection, and that none of their evidence would be printed?
– There is nothing new in that.
SenatorFINDLEY. - The Public Accounts Committee has never previously had a matter of such importance to investigate. Even in regard to works involving no considerable expenditure, the evidence given before the Public Works Committee is printed, and can be perused by any one. Do honorable senators agree without a protest to the Public Accounts Committee acting as it has done in this case? If this precedent Ave are now setting up is established in regard to matters of Government policy we may have in future a committee taking evidence in camera, which evidence may later be considered at a party meeting held in camera. A decision may be come to on information which may be of importance to the people, but which may not be made known to them. Lastnight I had occasion to visit another place. I heard the honorable member for Batman (Mr. Brennan) reading startling and sen sational cablegrams, which I am sure no honorable senator, with the exception of those privileged few who were entitled to get what we are denied - special and confidential information - knew had passed between the Prime Minister and Mr. Larkin, and between Mr. Larkin and the Prime Minister. To me it seems that the longer this matter is delayed, the better for the majority of the people of Australia. We want to be supplied with the most complete information, not merely the evidence given before the Public Accounts Committee, but more uptodate evidence. With that information at our disposal we could come to a decision and give a considered vote on the matter before us to-day. Although honorable senators opposite do not believe in the Labour policy, I know that some of them would hesitate before doing that which they conscientiously believe to be wrong. If they give serious thought to this matter they must come to the conclusion that no harm can be done to the people by agreeing to Senator Duncan’s amendment.
– Whether it be right or wrong that a committee should be empowered, as committees appointed by this Parliament are empowered by statute, to grant to witnesses that protection which apparently has been granted to the full by the Public Accounts Committee, I ask honorable senators to pause before they commit themselves to a step which would not only stultify the word of honour of every member of the committee, but also greatly stultify the honour of this Parliament. The Leader of the Opposition (Senator Needham) assured us this afternoon thai he regarded as confidential the information on this issue that had been brought before him as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. To agree to Senator Duncan’s amendment would react to the dishonour of the name of the highest tribunal in the land.
– The Public Accounts Committee could not pledge Parliament.
– No, but a committee having acted in pursuance of the powers conferred upon it by statute, it would be a disgrace to this Parliament, and to each individual member of Parliament, were we not to uphold it in what it has done. Senator Greene has referred to the practice adopted in extending this protection to witnesses tendering evidence. It is not a new thing. Section 23 of the Public Works Committee Act empowers the Public Works Committee to take evidence in private, and proceeds to lay down the following : -
Any person who discloses or publishes any evidence in contravention of this section shall be guilty of an offence. Penalty, £500 or three months’ imprisonment.
The PRESIDENT (Senator the Hon. Sir John Newlands). - The time now being 4 o’clock, I must, under the sessional order, put the question -
That the Senate do now adjourn.
Question put. The Senate divided.
Majority . . . . 12
Question so resolved in the negative.
– While I do not support the amendment moved by Senator Duncan, I draw attention to an aspect of the whole question which we have considered on the motion that the report of the Committee of Public Accountsbe printed. Most honorable senators were under the impression that except where it was the expressed wish of a witness to have his evidence taken in camera, all evidence was taken in open committee.
– Was this evidence secret, or was it given publicly?
– I speak subject to correction; but I understand from the chairman of the committee that it was made known to each witness who was invited to give his evidence that it would be taken in camera. On no occasion was any witness given to understand that the evidence he gave before the committee was to be taken in public. The committee has the power to subpoena witnesses, and then it is granted the extraordinary power of being permitted to determine whether proceedings shall be held in camera or otherwise, although the act stipulates that nothing heard before the committee shall be divulged. That creates an anomalous position. Although it was recommended to Parliament that a certain action should be taken, a doubt remains in the minds of a great many people as to whether justice has been done to the question upon which Parliament is asked to give a decision. The remarks that were made this afternoon regarding the inquiry have aroused suspcion as to the manner in which evidence was taken by the committee.
– What does the honorable senator mean?
– The debate this afternoon has indicated that people were asked to give evidence before the committee which, if it were made public, would convey a wrong impression. It should be for the committee to say whether certain evidence should be treated as confidential or otherwise. Does the Minister consider that an inquiry into a matter in which the public is deeply interested should be conducted wholly in camera?
– I refer’ the honorable senator to Scott v. Scott, in the House of Lords. There it was held that that should be so in divorce proceedings.
– I contend that it is a wrong practice to follow in inquiries such as these. I admit that there may be occasions when evidence taken before a committee should be confidential.
.- In my long political life, I have never heard of such a preposterous thing as that which we are asked to do this afternoon by the amendment moved by Senator Duncan. We have it on the authority of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts that they take certain evidence m camera. Witnesses giving that evidence receive an assurance that it will not be divulged, and yet we have honorable senators advocating that the committee which We have appointed should be dishonored in the eyes of the public by this evidence being made public. Perhaps we made a mistake in empowering the committee to take evidence in camera. Personally T think it would have been much wiser if all the evidence had been taken in public. I do not think any evidence taken in camera carries the same weight as does that given in public. You may get explanations of how a man runs his business, and so forth, but I do not think anything taken in secret has the same value as if it were taken publicly. In this case a very important matter is being inquired into, one which concerns the whole country. I do not think the Public Accounts Committee would, for one moment, try to mislead the Senate in regard to the evidence taken, nor do I think that the Government would lend itself to any such action. The amendment amounts to an inference that information is being suppressed, information which, if brought to light, would alter the whole aspect of the matter. The honorable senator says that unless this information is made available he cannot make up his mind. That is always a difficult thing for him to do at any time, I admit, but there is one thing that I have always regarded aa inviolate, and that is my word of honour given to other people. The mover of the amendment wants members of the committee to divulge secrets confided to them by witnesses, and to dishonour themselves before the public, because one member, for window-dressing purposes, has given out information which he received in confidence. The amendment implies that we should dishonour the members of the committee, and even dishonour our own officials, by asking them to divulge secret information. I will never give my vote in favour of divulging anything given iii private, but I certainly do say that in future the Public Accounts Committee should take all evidence publicly, and put it on the table. I think it would be better for the committee, and better for this Parliament.
– We are asking for the main body of evidence, that is all.
– The honorable senator is asking that evidence be divulged in this chamber, when such evidence would not have been tendered except under a pledge of secrecy.
– That is the honorable senator’s own construction.
– It is the only construction that can be placed on the words of Senator Duncan. He wants this Parliament to dishonour its own committee by divulging secret information. It is a disgrace that a committee should be asked to do such a thing.
– I must admit that I have always understood that the evidence taken before royal commissions and other bodies of a similar nature would be forthcoming with the report. In some unaccountable way, . however, this report is presented without the evidence. I do not say that any one would read the evidence as light literature - I do not think they would, but I do say that the general practice is for the evidence to accompany the report so that honorable members who feel inclined may study it. In the present case, I would certainly not suggest that the committee, after giving its word that it would treat as confidential the evidence of certain men, should now make that evidence public. I would not be one to hold up my hand and vote that the confidence placed in the committee should be broken. I have seen many slippery amendments like that of Senator Duncan placed before Parliament. There are some people who see light through a small hole. Senator Duncan has always reminded me, firstly of a cheer-up society, and in the second place of a man who would slip in with a dirty thing in a nice way. There is about this amendment something of the subtlety that was in the devil when he entered the Garden of Eden to confront Adam and Eve. It is unwise for a committee to give an express undertaking to anybody that it will treat information confidentially. I do not accuse the members of the committee of any bad motive ; they wanted to get the strongest and best evidence they could. We all make mistakes ; my friend Senator Duncan, nearly perfect as he is, will only become more perfect through his mistakes, or through his suffering, but I hope that in the future no such undertaking of secrecy will be given. I do not want to give a vote without saying that I cannot, for one moment, support the amendment. As soon as Senator Duncan moved the amendment I saw that we had entered into the realms of a mighty discussion designed simply to keep back the motion. I am sure my friend will not for a moment deny that that was his motive. I have seen many things of this kind during the past eighteen years, and will cast my vote against the amendment.
– To overcome the difficulty of dealing with the motion for the printing of the report, should the amendment be agreed to, Senator Duncan has consented to alter his amendment to read as follows: -
That the following words he added to the motion “but that further consideration of the question be deferred until after the whole of the evidence given before the Public Accounts Committee has been placed before the Senate.”
.- Mr. President-
– The honorable senator has already spoken.
– I have not spoken to my amendment at all.
– The honorable gentleman spoke for over half an hour, and concluded by moving his amendment.
– I spoke to the original motion.
– Had the honorable gentleman done wisely, he would have moved his amendment at the outset of his remarks, and have spoken to it. As he did not do that, he cannot speak now.
– If the words “the whole of the evidence “ cover the evidence taken confidentially, I shall not vote for Senator Duncan’s amendment. The honorable senator did not make his meaning clear to me.
– I wish to address myself to the motion.
– The honorable senator has spoken to both the amendment and the motion.
– I refrained from speaking to the motion, because I was instructed that I could speak only to the amendment.
– When an honorable senator speaks after an amendment has been moved he is taken as speaking also to the motion.
– There are certain general matters in connexion with the report, and the remarks of honorable senators thereon, to which I shall first direct my attention. Those honorable senators particularly who have spoken in opposition to the underlying principle of the report have referred to a change of policy - a change of heart, perhaps - on the part of the committee, since the interim report was presented in August of last year. That was stated in express terms to be an interim report, and it mentioned the fact that the committee had not had an opportunity to take evidence from one of the most important figures in the Line, namely, the Chairman of the Board of Directors. The committee sat again in September of last year to hear the evidence of that gentleman. It has been said - I understand by Senator Hoare - that he was the only witness examined subsequent to the presentation of the interim report. I give that a most emphatic denial.Four other witnesses were examined.
– Did not the committee also obtain later figures?
– Yes ; and the evidence which was disclosed when the four principal officials of the Line were re-examined, put quite a different complexion upon the matter. A great deal of attention was paid to the witnesses who appeared before the committee at this juncture. The evidence taken filled 94 pages, and, strangely enough, 47 of those pages are taken up by the officers of the Line to whom I have alluded, whilst the remaining 47 are devoted to the evidence of the Chairman of Directors. I assure honorable senators that the most vital evidence was given after the presentation of the interim report. The committee believed that it had every reason to come to the conclusion which was embodied in the principal report.
Reference has been made to the fact that the evidence was heard in camera. I should like to explain, to Senator Verran particularly, that it has never been a custom of the Public Accounts Committee to present any evidence to Parliament. It is taken merely in order that members of the committee may refresh their memory when they are conferring upon the nature of their report. It is necessary that they should have that opportunity, because they deal with fairly complex subjects embracing a variety of matters, and their deliberations must of necessity be . somewhat lengthy. Furthermore, as I have already pointed out, the best evidence can , be obtained only by having it taken in camera.
I should like to correct certain impressions in relation to the constitution of the Conference. Apparently it is one of the most loosely-bound-together bodies in the. world. One company comes into it, another goes out of it, exactly as each pleases. Invariably they have dissensions, and hold widely divergent opinions. Occasionally the policies of its constituent parts differ greatly. I shall now deal with what, after all, has been the piece de resistance of this debate. I refer to the marvellous speech which was delivered the other night by Senator Lynch.
– “ Marvellous “ is a good description to apply to it.
– It fails to express adequately all that was in my mind whilst I was listening to the speech ; but I doubt whether any word could be found which would express the feelings that surged through the minds of honorable senators as they viewed the spectacle of Senator Lynch in eruption. It was a lesson well worth learning, even though some of the scorching lava should happen to fall on one’s own unprotected head. Senator Lynch has a big moral effect on people, for a little while. During the course of his speech, disturbing doubts careered through my mind, as to whether I was not really that frightful person, who, he suggested, was kicking a sick child to death; the sick child in this case being the Australian Commonwealth Line of Steamers; or whether I was not a sort of involuntary Faust, who was under the domination of Mephistopheles Inchcape. It was only when I shook myself, after he had concluded his remarks, that I found that my doubts were the result of an imagination which he had conjured up, and of the moral effect which he had had upon me. There are one or two other matters to which I wish to allude. The first relates to the weak child. Its weakness is increasing to so great an extent that it appears absolutely evident that it cannot be kept in its present location; and the best thing to do is, not to kill it, but to board it out with people who will look kindly upon it, and perhaps save its life, for the benefit of both itself and Australia. That that can be done under the present system I gravely doubt ; and that doubt has been expressed in the report.
– It is to be sent to a baby farm.
– Both the committee and the Commonwealth Government may claim to have treated this Line with a very great deal of consideration. Every kindness has been shown to it, every opportunity to make good has been given to it. Even the public, who have dealt with it, have treated it kindly. The admissions in the report are very great. I consider that the committee has over-admitted the benefit of the Line to Australia. It certainly has been of great benefit in the past, but I very much doubt its capacity to continue those benefits in the future. I may say that it has outlived its usefulness. Furthermore, the entire position in the shipping world has altered considerably since the establishment of the Line. Since its’ inauguration in 1923, a new factor, a new class of ship, and a new class of owner has arisen in the shipping world. I shall take the Swedish vessels as the most advanced type of modern cargo-cum-passenger ships. Their wages cost is something less than one-quarter of what it is in Australia. There is thus very little hope of the Commonwealth Line exercising’ an influence in the controlling and policing of freights, because that can be done so much more effectively by the Swedish line.
– Does the honorable senator wish to encourage foreign shipping?
– No ; but I want to encourage shipping that will benefit the producers and the people of Australia. If that can be done for us by people who are in a position to do it efficiently and without loss, why should avc continue to lose more money by attempting to carry on the work ourselves?
– The honorable senator would take the matter out of British hands, and have cheap foreign transport.
– Adopting the figure 100 as the basis of Australian wages, the committee Avas informed on good authority that in respect of vessels of 6,000 tons gross - the handiest size for comparative purposes - the British wages would be 32.41, the American 42.21, the Swedish 24.51, and the Danish 15.44. But since those figures were prepared the Australian rates have been increased by 5s. per month per rating. I am not saying that the Swedish line should be encouraged. I do not Avant my friend, Senator Lynch, to misunderstand me to that extent. But it must be admitted that the presence o;i the seas of these Swedish lines means that all other lines must materially reduce their freights if they are to compete with them.
– They are modern ships.
– Yes, and if additional ships were acquired the board would have to consider the construction of vessels Avith internal combustion engines, on which the number of the crew is decreased and the storage capacity increased. That interesting position has to be faced, and it is one of which the committee took cognizance. There are several things which have militated against the success of the Australian Commonwealth Shipping Lino. I do not WiSh to be misunderstood, but so long as the Line remains in the possession of the Government, it is impossible for the ships to be manned under other than Australian conditions, which are largely imposed by the Navigation Act and supplemented by the decisions of the Arbitration Court. The provisions of the Navigation Act are to govern the coastal traffic of Australia, arid if the coastal steamers, are run at a greater cost than those of any other nation, it is due to an Australian characteristic, and is an Australian privilege. I should, however, like to point out that if this policy is continued, A’e shall be building around Australia a wall of isolation which will render it impossible for industries - such as thu sugar and other industries - to compete in the world’s markets Avith any degree of success when once the local demand has been met.
– It is bringing’ about an impossible state of affairs.
-Absolutely impossible. Of course, I know that certain people do not like these statements, and when one makes them one is likely to be misunderstood, and certainly misrepresented. Any one who expresses an opinion must, however, take a risk. The Australian conditions as enjoyed on coastal ships have been extended to Australian ships trading overseas. When Australian ships leave the Australian coast I think we might very well expectthem to observe thesame conditions as prevail on other ships of the Empire.
– Yes, because they are competitors.
– Exactly. It is useless to endeavour to compete with those who are able to run their ships more cheaply. In fact, it is ridiculous in the extreme, and such a policy should not be adopted in connexion with the Australian Commonwealth Line.
– And these overseas steamers make only a small profit.
– As Senator Barwell pointed out the other night, our shipping position is impossible. The ships cannot obtain more trade unless the freights are lowered, and they cannot lower the freights without losing still more money. I hate to disfigure the symmetry of that magnificent edifice, which Senator Lynch erected last night, by directing attention to the modern appointments which were lacking.
– I do not mind.
SenatorKINGSMILL. - It is always a privilege to listen to the honorable senator, even when he is scarifying my unfortunate self. He was as usual carried away with his enthusiasm, but his arithmetic was somewhat at fault. He was upbraiding Australia because she does not contribute as much as America towards her shipping, even though that country lost money in 1924-25, which were the latest years concerning which the honorable senator had any information. He said that in its desire to keep its ships going, every man, woman and child in America was contributing at the rate of 1s. a head, and that in Australia, for the same cause, we were putting up only 8d. a head.
SenatorLynch. - I meant to say 8d. more a head. The difference is only small.
– The honorable senator said that it was a crying shame that Australia should be paying less than America, whereas she is paying not 8d., as he suggested, but1s. 8d.
– The honorable senator is quite right, but the difference represents only a few pence.
SenatorKINGSMILL.- I accept the honorable senator’s explanation, but when one finds mistakes in the vital part of a speech one is inclined to doubt the accurracy of the remainder.
– We are in perfect harmony there.
– It is a Parliamentary rule that one has to accept the assurance of an honorable member, and I am glad to say that I willingly do so on this occasion. I could not follow the honorable senator in his references to pounds and dollars, which were undoubtedly confusing ; but I do not suppose it matters very much. I regret that his information was not a little more uptodate.
– I said sufficient to show the courage displayed by the American people.
– But we have more courage than the Americans, because we contribute 8d. per head more than they do. The trend of the debate has been in the direction of sympathizing with the primary producers in Australia who ship their products by this Line to the markets of the world. Direct inferences, and in somecases, direct statements have been madethat the wheat and wool growers of Australia are vitally interested in the Commonwealth Line. Honorable senators should know that such is not the case. Wheat at all events is carried almost entirely in whole shiploads under charter, and by vessels which are not bound by the Conference Lines regulations or rates. It is true that 1.2 per cent. of Australian wheat is taken away in these ships ; but the board does not go seeking it.
– The freight is low.
– Yes. Such cargoes are taken by casual steamers and sailing ships, which are willing to carry wheat at lower rates than those at which it could be profitably taken by the Line.
– Didthe committee ascertain what cargo pays best.
– Yes, the outward traffic from the United Kingdom. In this connexion I might refer to the point raised by Senator Thomas concerning the rebate system. The committee was informed that such a system is not in operation; but it does not matter very much whether it is or is not because the ships of the Australian Commonwealth Line coming from the United Kingdom to Australia are practically full every trip. The conditions under which this Line is conducted are practically ideal. Notwithstanding the fact that the conditions were better last year than they have ever bebeen before, we find that for the financial year ended 30th June last the Line lost £595,000. It will indeed be a difficult matter to make it pay unless the conditions are altered. It cannot be done by the Government, and it is therefore fairly obvious that if the Line is to be a success, the ownership must be changed.
-Would the honorable senator reduce the Australian conditions to the British standard?
– I have not the power to do that if I so desired. The committee has made some observations and recommendations, and I should like to ask honorable senators to consider more closely than they seem inclined to do the proposition which the committee has put forward to the effect that an attempt should be made to form an Australian company in Australia, for the purpose of conducting an Australian mercantile marine as is done in other countries. France started out on the same lines as we did. The Messageries Maritime Company was reinforced by the addition of a large number of national ships, which were handed over to and run under its control. Other nations have found it necessary to adopt, so to speak, a line of steamers which they have fostered as national lines. There is the Norddeutscher Lloyd Company in Germany, and also an Italian Line as well as others mentioned in the committee’s report. Patriotic instinct enables these countries to control shipping lines, and Australia can best do this in the manner I have suggested. I think it is the duty of the Government to give these people all the helpthey can in establishing a company and in keeping it going with a modicum of help equivalent to that which is given to the various companies I have named. In that way we shall be able to establish a successful mercantile marine. One thing is certain : The Line when disposed of, will not be able to observe the conditions now imposed, but will have to pay the wages which are ruling in the shipping world. It is impossible for Australia to go into this fight with one hand tied behind its back against competitors who are just as keen as it is, and have advantages in which it can never share.
– Tell us a single good thing the ships have done?
– That is told in the committee’s report.
– The honorable senator has been very quiet about it.
– Not at all. The ships have had some beneficial influence - perhaps not quite so much as is stated in the compromise report of the committee - first, in improving the type of ships, and, secondly, in keeping down freights.
– To what extent?
– It is impossible to say what proportion of the reduction of freights is due to the influence of the Line, and what to the influence of falling freights throughout the world. Furthermore, the alleged saving of £2,000,000 to the Australian producers is problematical.
– Order ! The honorable senator’s time has expired.
Question - That the report be printed - put. The Senate divided.
Majority . . . . 14
Question so resolved in the affirmative.
– On the 3rd November Senator Payne asked -the Minister representing the Minister for Health the following questions: -
I am now in a position to furnish the following answers : -
asked the Minister representing the Minister for Health, upon notice -
– The Minister for Health has supplied the following replies to the honorable senator’s questions -
– On 6th and- 7th October last Senator Needham mentioned the loss of civilian, pay by certain trainees attending a parade at Perth on the occasion of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, and the promise by the
Minister for Defence that if other trainees were similarly situated to Trainee Foley, who was recouped, by the department, the difference between his military pay and the wages he had lost, they would be treated in a like manner. I am now in a position to advise the honorable senator that only one other similar case has been brought to light, and in connexion with it authority has been given for the necessary payment. The Minister for Defence does not intend to authorize pay for all troops attending the parade, because specific instructions were promulgated locally long before th<> event that’ pay would be issuable for mounted escorts and guards of honour only, but not for troops lining the streets, and as far as can be ascertained, the only trainees who suffered monetarily through any misunderstanding that may have arisen, are the two alluded to above, who have been compensated.
– On the 3rd November Senator Herbert Hays asked the following question : -
What is the quantity of timber imported into the Commonwealth as from 30th June, 1926, to the 31st August, 1927?
SenatorNEEDHAM.- Is the Leader of the Senate yet able to furnish answers to the question I asked some weeks ago regarding the total cost of various commissions, boards, and committees appointed by the Government?
– As some time has elapsed since I asked for the information, will the Leader of the Senate say when it will be available ?
– I am unable to mention a definite date.
The following papers were pre sented : -
Papua Act - Infirm and Destitute Natives Account - Statement of Transactions of the Trustees for the year ended 30th June, 1927.
Timber imported into the Commonwealth: Particulars of imports for the period 30th June, 1926, to 31st August, 1927.
[5.11]. - (By leave) - The following will be the arrangements in future for the representation in the Senate of Ministers in another place: - I shall represent the Prime Minister and the Treasurer; Senator Glasgow will represent the Minister for Home and Territories and the Minister for Health; Senator Crawford will represent the Minister for Works and Railways, the Minister for Trade and Customs, the Minister for Markets and Migration, and the Minister for Repatriation, and Senator McLachlan will represent the AttorneyGeneral and the Postmaster-General.
asked the Minister representing the Minister for Home and Territories, upon notice -
– The answers to the honorable senator’s questions are -
asked the Minister representing the Minister for Health, upon notice -
– The answer to the honorable senator’s questions are -
asked the Minister representing the Minister for Health, upon notice -
– The Minister for Health has supplied the following answers to the honorable senator’s questions : -
asked the Minister representing the Prime Minister, upon notice -
Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE.The answers to the honorable senator’s questions are -
asked the Leader of the Government in the Senate -
– Inquiries are being made, and a report will be obtained as soon as possible.
asked the Leader of the Government in the Senate, upon notice -
Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE.The information is being obtained, and will be furnished as early as possible.
asked the Minister representing the Postmaster-General, upon notice -
– The PostmasterGeneral has supplied the following replies to the honorable senator’s questions : -
asked the Minister, representing the Treasurer, upon notice -
Will he make available the recent decisions of the Federal Income Tax Board of Review, with a view to the prevention of a repetition of the disadvantages experienced by taxpayers in connexion with their assessments ?
Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE.The Treasurer has supplied the following answer to the honorable senator’s question : -
The decisions have for some time been with the Government Printer, who is preparing them for publication.
asked the Minister representing the Prime Minister, upon notice -
– The Prime Minister has supplied the following replies to the honorable senator’s questions: -
Motion (by SenatorFindley) agreed to-
That the report from the Printing Committee presented to the Senate on the 9th November. 1927, be adopted.
Senate adjourned at5.19 p.m.
Cite as: Australia, Senate, Debates, 11 November 1927, viewed 22 October 2017, <http://historichansard.net/senate/1927/19271111_senate_10_116/>.