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Friday, 25 September 1942

Mr SPOONER (Robertson) .- I agree with the views that have been expressed by the Leader of the Opposi tion (Mr. Fadden) and other speakers regarding the necessity for stamping out black markets. I have no objection to the principles of this bill. No patriot will disagree with legislation which attempts to abolish profiteering and to protect the public against black marketing. Nor have I any objection to the penalties which are prescribed, provided that, in the administration of the bill, the penalties are applied only to people who deserve to be punished. I hope that severe penalties will not be inflicted on people who do not deserve the stigma that will attach to their name as the result of prosecution. I sense that this measure is intended largely as a deterrent and I believe that it will achieve that purpose. But, whilst the bill is intended principally as a deterrent, the machinery for launching prosecutions is always there, and it may happen that at a future date people who do not deserve to be stigmatized as " blacketeers " will suffer. If the bill operates fairly and achieves the purposes for which it is designed, a great service will be done to Australia. I make that statement because I regard the future as more important than the past.

On one matter I disagree with the honorable member for Henty (Mr. Coles). He expressed the view that rationing should be confined to merchandise in short supply. The honorable member and I see this matter differently. He has far more experience in merchandise than I have, whilst I may have a wider financial training than he has. I expect that the Government will be obliged to extend the present system of rationing without delay, not only to ensure that goods in short supply shall be fairly distributed among the public, but also as an adjunct to its financial policy. Unless taxation be extended to the lower ranges of income, or a system of post-war credits be introduced in the near future, the only means by which the Government will prevent the public from spending money so freely will be increased rationing. The more rationing is extended, the greater will be the opportunity for black markets. Ration coupons are a new kind of currency. I do not criticize them, because they are necessary. In my " pin ion, rationing should he extended ; but there is a danger that when the coupon system is more widely applied greater opportunities will be created for black marketing. For that reason, I view the future with concern, and I welcome the bill because it should prevent the exploitation of the public.

The Leader of the Opposition expressed the hope that care will be exercised to ensure that no injustices shall be inflicted upon traders. I have listened carefully to the replies which the Attorney-General (Dr. Evatt) has given from time to time to questions about black marketing, and I am sure that he is alive to the need for circumspection. The Attorney-General declared that at a later stage he will remove the provision to make the operations of the bill retrospective to the 20th February, 1942. It is possible, that in the course of administration people may be penalized for something that they innocently did months ago. T hope that no injustices will be inflicted. Previous speakers mentioned that last February the Treasury announced that profits in excess of 4 per cent, upon capital would be absorbed by taxes. In other words, the trader would be acting as an agent for the Crown. A few weeks ago that plan was abandoned. If the trader honestly believed that the_ excess profits would be absorbed; by taxation, it is difficult to understand how he can now be charged with malicious intent in making profits. We all understand what is meant by " blacketeer ". He is not the honest trader whose books are open to any authorized person to examine. The " blacketeer " works underground. If this bill abolishes black markets, it will be a wonderful addition to the legislative enactments of this Parliament. But itwill not be successful in all cases. I advocate the introduction of another bill which will assess excess profits. I have never agreed that one official, no matter how capable or experienced he may be, should be empowered to determine what constitute excess profits, and that Jones or Brown had been dishonest in earning profits in excess of a certain percentage. That is contrary to my conception of the principles of taxation and justice. Parliament should define excess profits, and the Government knows from my attitude towards its taxation proposals that I shall raise no objection to tie most severe legislation, provided it is specific. 1 submit that suggestion to the AttorneyGeneral for serious consideration. I realize that the proposal cannot be given effect at short notice, but it would be a valuable adjunct to the bill .now under consideration and would give to the trading community a feeling of security. Today, business men are very uneasy. Each fears that unconsciously he may have committed a breach of the -law. But he is not a " crook " who unconsciously overcharges the public. He may have fought his way uphill, and earned the reputation for being an honest businessman. He is anxious to preserve that good name. He will not know, until the close of the half year, whether he has made a few thousand pounds more than he thought he was making, but he does not intentionally defraud the public. He should not be branded as one who had robbed customers in war-time. Specific legislation would allay that uneasiness. Parliament should authorize the Commissioner of Taxation to administer a law which defines excess profits and authorizes the excess to be collected for the Consolidated Revenue. I agree with the statement by the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Blackburn) that it is wrong that the profits of a trader should be determined by any authority other than Parliament. As I do not know the Myer Emporium Limited, I can speak impersonally on the matter. Some time ago, the press reported that this firm had made excess profits totalling £250,000, and had been compelled to refund the money to the public. That imposed no penalty upon the Myer Emporium Limited. Assuming that these were excess profits, the £250,000 should have been paid into Consolidated Revenue for the purpose of helping to finance the war effort.

Mr Calwell - To refund the £250,000 to the public, the Myer Emporium reduced the prices of many goods and was thus able -to undersell its competitors.

Mr SPOONER - That was an extraordinary paradox. Tn addition, the refunding of the money reduced the taxes thar the firm -was liable to pay on its profits, with the result that the Treasury was disadvantaged. I have not been able to understand the system. Perhaps Parliament or some department is at fault. 1 shall not try to assess the blame, or say that the Prices Commissioner did not do his best to cope with this very difficult problem. But it was certainly the responsibility of some one to see that a properly defined method of assessing excess profits was laid down.

Mr MARWICK (SWAN, WESTERN AUSTRALIA) - The Prices Commissioner was hamstrung by the regulations.

Mr SPOONER - His actions are limited by the regulations. If the price of an article is fixed at a certain figure the seller knows his responsibility. I have a great deal of sympathy for the businessman who does not know exactly what is required of him, and who fears that legislation now introduced may describe as an offence an act that he committed months ago. I welcome the bill, and the assurance of the Attorney-General that he will -i p point a committee to assist him to administer it. I do not share the views of the honorable member for Reid (Mr. Morgan). In my opinion the number of prosecutions will not be large. The intention is not to punish a men who charges a few pence more than he should for an article. The Prices Commissioner will deal with him. The purpose of the bill is to hit the man who deliberately creates a black market.

The Prices Commissioner need not think that I am criticizing his work, because I am only desirous of being constructive. The Government should examine the Prices Branch, and increase the strength of the organization. The system of price control is most, important. It involves the industrial structure for the future, and the administrator of this legislation should have at his elbow officers of great experience and training. I do not think that those officials have always been provided, or that their number is sufficient to-day. The matter deserves the urgent attention of the Government.

Sitting suspended from .12.^5 to 2.15 -p.m.

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