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Friday, 25 September 1942

Mr HARRISON (Wentworth) . - I have some knowledge of the circumstances that have led to the introduction of this bill. For some time I was in control of the Prices Commission, and was instrumental in " declaring " a number of profiteers. Whilst this legislation is necessary to strengthen the hand of the Prices Commissioner, we should not blind ourselves to the fact that present-day conditions differ greatly from those of the early days of the war when the Prices Commissioner, by " declaration ", made effective use of his powers. The changed conditions call for legislation of this character. The Government by its failure to withdraw surplus money from the community has created the position which warrants such drastic action being taken as is provided for in this legislation. The introduction of this measure has also been made necessary by the irresponsible statements of Ministers with regard to shortage of certain commodities, thus creating panic buying with people trying to outbid each other for commodities about to be rationed. The fact that the people have more surplus money than ever before has enabled them to anticipate rationing, and the resultant heavy purchasing has had the effect of creating unnatural prices with consequent extra high' profits. Earlier in this war, as Minister for Trade and Customs, I had occasion to declare eighteen butchers. The fixation of the price of meat was foreshadowed, and, immediately, there was an attempt by those butchers to profiteer. The Prices Commissioner took action which resulted in the declaration of those butchers, and they were brought under control. This power of declaration, however, is only half effective, because, sometimes, it confers a lasting benefit on the trader who is declared.

Mr Brennan - What is the' procedure of declaration, and what effect does it have!

Mr HARRISON - The effect of declaration is to put the whole of the prices under the control of the Prices Commissioner. He orders the refund to the public by means of reduced prices of the. extra profits earned by the trader concerned. That procedure confers: a benefit on unscrupulous traders, because reduced prices attract more business. But the reputable trading, firm regards declaration as. a blot upon its escutcheon that can never be erased. Therefore, declaration is only effective on scrupulous traders, whose offence may have been brought about by chance. It is sound business to buy in the lowest market, and to seE in the highest, but the zeal of some departmental managers to do that has sometimes landed their employers in trouble with the Prices Commissioner. With full appreciation of the situation, the Prices Commissioner has often given most sympathetic consideration to cases in which offences have been committed by inadvertence. Another difficulty about the process of declaration is that, whilst it confers benefit upon unscrupulous, traders, it imposes great strain on the Prices Commissioner and his staff. The Prices Commissioner has never had a staff sufficiently strong to be equal to the strain that must be imposed upon it by efforts to keep prices down. Every State branch of the commission and the central office have been working at a great disadvantage. The Prices Commissioner has been required to police the vast commercial interests of this community with an inadequate staff. The members of the branch staff are men of high capacity - the Prices Commissioner himself is a man of outstanding ability - but all the capacity in the world could not stem the tide of rising prices in the absence of sufficient officers to do the work. The Prices Commissioner has always been behind in the race. While I was Minister for Trade and Customs, I discussed with the Prices Commissioner a plan whereby he would be clothed with some additional powers. It had disadvantages, hut I believe that it could have been made effective. The substance of it was that the Prices Commissioner should work hand in glove with the Commissioner of Taxation. I believe that, if the Prices Commissioner had access to taxation assessments, his job could be more effectively done. I believe also that the Prices Commissioner should be empowered to impose fines for breaches of the prices regulations in the same way as the Taxation Commissioner is able to fine delinquent taxpayers. The fines would go into Consolidated Revenue and thereby assist in financing the war. I have always wondered why that power has not been conferred upon the Prices Commissioner. It has been effective in the hands of the Commissioner of Taxation, and I believe that it would be equally effective in prices control.

I agree entirely with the necessity for a bill of this kind. Profiteering cannot be condoned, especially now when we are fighting for our very existence and straining every nerve and sinew for the maximum war effort. That there are among us those who are so devoid of instincts of decency and patriotism as to exploit the nation in its hour of trial is deplorable. Their operations must be stamped out by the use of the most rigorous punishment'. Early in the war it was necessary that traders should be warned rather than punished, except in the most flagrant cases, but' the time for warnings has passed. One mistake made early in the war waa that magistrates were too inclined to treat each case charged before them individually and to impose low fines as a warning. It would have been sufficient for the first few cases dealt with to be treated in that way as a warning to others, but, when the warning was not heeded, the highest penalties should have been exacted. Fines are not sufficient in a great number of cases. History shows that people who have tried to control prices have been treated most unfairly by the community. It is on record that some have been shot for their failure to keep prices down to a reasonable level. I am not suggesting for a moment that such an unseemly fate awaits our own Prices Commission. We are not living in days like that now, but we are living under a heavy strain, and no person should be allowed to intensify that strain by exploiting the earnings of the workers. This legislation which is designed to prevent that exploitation is commendable. I am in agreement with the amendment suggested by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Fadden), and when the bill is in committee I shall direct the attention of the Attorney-General to some aspects of this measure which need further consideration. It is crystal clear that, if the Government will not draw from the community the surplus money in its possession, the people will attempt to spend that money, and the result will be competition amongst them for the reduced quantity of goods available to them, and a consequent rise of prices. This legislation will help to check that rise. There are two ways in which to reach thE mountain crest of surplus money, the short way right to the top and the long way by a winding path. I should have liked the Government to take the short cut and, by means of taxation and deferred pay for the citizens, curtail the spending power of the community, but it has preferred to take the more circuitous route, and I shall do any best to help it on its journey.

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