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Friday, 25 September 1942

Dr PRICE (BOOTHBY, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) .- I approve of the general principles of this hill, though I agree with the honorable member for Melbourne (Mr. Calwell) that the title leaves something to be desired. Such a title as " Commodities and Services Exploitation Bill" would be more dignified. I regret that the Government has been so slow to mee certain requests that were made many months ago. The much neglected report of the Joint. Committee on Profits which was presented in October, 1941, contained the following paragraph : -

Schedule " 1) " to this report contains a list nf prosecutions instituted against traders, and the result of the prosecution in each case, ft has been represented to us that the penalties imposed are on the whole lighter than the offences justify. We do not feel it would be proper for us to criticize decisions reached by judicial authorities in relation to matters us to which they are the ultimate judges, but we think that where deliberate breaches of the regulations and orders are proved, it is in the public interest that such should bc regarded as grave breaches of the law, and treated accordingly.

Seven months ago, in March, 1942, the committee, in its second report, made the following observations: -

In schedule " D " to this report we set out details of prosecutions between August, 1941, mid the third day of March, 1942. A perusal of this schedule indicates that the penalties imposed in many eases have not been heavy. Without detailed information of the evidence placed before the tribunal in each case, which is not within our knowledge, we are not competent to express any opinion as to the adequacy of the penalties imposed in such cases.

We entertain- some doubts whether the serious nature of offences against the regulations is fully appreciated throughout the community, and we think that this is reflected in the comparatively small penalties which at times are imposed. We again stress the view expressed in our first report that deliberate breaches of the regulations should not be regarded lightly, and we think heavy penalties are necessary to ensure that unscrupulous traders do not benefit at the expense of their rivals and the community by evading the obligations imposed on them by the regulations.

I turn now to the .second-reading speech of the Attorney-General, which may give rise to the impression that business firms in Victoria have been the chief offenders in profiteering. We all have heard a' great deal about the case of the Myer Emporium Limited. Of the thirteen cases cited by the Attorney-General five concerned Victorian firms.

Dr Evatt - They were not selected on that account.

Dr PRICE (BOOTHBY, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - The -second report of the Joint Committee on Profits included a list of the first 45 prosecutions in Australia. Of these 32 concerned firms in NewSouth Wales and thirteen firms in the other five States. Possibly that proportion has been altered since the report was made, but my figures will correct any false impression that may have been left in the minds of honorable members by the Attorney-General.

Mr HARRISON - It would be interesting to know the number of firms declared in New South Wales and Victoria respectively.

Dr PRICE (BOOTHBY, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Two or three provisions of the bill are disturbing. The honorable member for Melbourne referred to the retrospective character of the legislation. Retrospectivity is a dangerous principle to apply in such .a measure as this. I am glad that the Attorney-General has intimated that he will accept the suggestion made by the Leader of the Opposition for the appointment of an independent committee to report upon cases. The placarding of guilty firms introduces a very old principle of punishment. It is a return to the medieval practice of branding criminals on their forehead with a red-hot iron. If placarding should prove successful in preventing war-time offences m relation to marketing it could possibly be applied in some other ways.

Mr Prowse - What about obliging non-unionists to wear a button?

Mr Abbott - Or stringing an aluminium tag through their ears.

Dr PRICE (BOOTHBY, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - I intended to suggest that employers and employees found guilty of participating in war-time lockouts and strikes might be forced to wear a button depicting the Japanese flag. The fixed penalties prescribed for offences are rather savage. A fine of £1,000 on conviction by a magistrate and £10,000 on conviction after indictment are extremely severe. The evidence submitted to the Joint Committee on Profits indicated that some business people, including proprietors of small country stores, had considerable difficulty in understanding the Prices Commissioner's averaging system. The whole capital of such firms might not be £10,0,00, jet .such a fine would have to be imposed on conviction after indictment. The case of the Myer Emporium Limited shows that extremely complicated questions arise in relation to big firms. I have been told, at second-hand, that officers of the Prices Commissioner are now entering the departments of big business firms with the object of obliging the firms to make restitution of excess profits.

Some cases of real hardship have occurred. I have in mind .an Adelaide firm which was convicted of an offence. Its directors aTe a most honorable body of men. That firm has not made excess profits. In fact, it has been so jealous of its reputation for fair trading that it has not been able to pay an ordinary dividend to its shareholders for a number of years. The Prices Commissioner involved that firm in the loss of hundreds of pounds by his arbitrary action in relation to the price of tea, of which commodity the firm had large stocks. Later the firm was prosecuted and severely fined because it slightly increased the price of matches. My last information about it was that it was facing a world-shaking problem in relation to the price of carraway seed. The recent history of meat prices in Adelaide gives food for thought. A few weeks ago the Prices Commissioner pegged the retail prices of meat in the metropolitan area of Adelaide, but took no action in respect of the price of meat in country districts. Owing to the shortage of stock, the country butchers advanced their prices, and city butchers were required to pay lOd. per lb. for lamb which had to be sold at the pegged price of 8d. The result was that the public had to be satisfied with low-grade meat, although city butchering firms were losing from £20 to £25 a week. Ill-considered action may give grave inducement to so-called profiteering. Finally, a meeting of 350 butchers was convened to consider a proposal to discontinue operations. At the last moment the Prices Commissioner agreed to increase .the price of meat by Id. per lb., and the firms were able to continue trading.

Although I agree with the general principles of the bill, I wish to make reasonably sure that their application will not create a bureaucratic tyranny backed by savage penalties. I am glad that the legislation will deal with coupon frauds. There is a strong opinion in the clothing trade that frauds are being perpetrated in respect of clothes coupons. It is being said openly that clothes coupons may be purchased in Sydney for 12s. 6d. a sheet. I hope that the Government will investigate these statements. If they were proved to be true action should be taken against offenders.

Because of its importance I wish to say a few words about the future - a subject referred to by the honorable member for Robertson (Mr. Spooner). The Prices Commissioner, the Joint Committee on Profits,, and many business firms, are much, more concerned about the future, than about the present. The post-war period will probably be one of falling prices. The Prices Commissioner has intimated that in such circumstances he intends to apply his averaging system with a downward tendency. That will lead to more danger of fraud than exists at present. To help firms through this dangerous period, when ruin may face many of them, the Joint Committee on Profits, after receiving a great deal of evidence from business people, advised the Government to take: steps to apply a proportion of current business profits to the accumulation of post-war credits, instead of taking the money in a straight-out tax. Labour members on the committee were so impressed with the strong case that was made out for postwar business credits that they signed the report on the subject I hope that the committee's recommendation will receive the careful consideration of the Government.

Whilst I agree with the bill generally, I hope that some of its provisions will be amended. It is particularly desirable that the danger of a bureaucratic regimentation of business supported by a complicated system of control involving severe penalties shall be countered by wise parliamentary action. Hitherto the great majority of the trading community has co-operated splendidly with the Prices Commissioner. This point was dealt with as follows in the last report of the Joint Committee on Profits : -

We think it fair to say that the trading community in general' has displayed a readiness; to co-operate with the Commissioner and his staff which is commendable and. has contributed in no small measure to the smooth working of an extremely difficult undertaking.

In view of that statement the Government would be most unwise to sacrifice the goodwill of traders by harsh injustices. If business people are assured that they will be fairly treated their present co-operation will doubtless be continued.

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