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Friday, 25 September 1942

Mr CLARK (Darling) . - I congratulate the Attorney-General (Dr. Evatt) on the introduction of this measure, which is long overdue. Only by such means may profiteering and black marketing be prevented. A? previous speakers have pointed out, persons convicted in the past have been treated far too lightly. Evidence placed before the Joint Committee on Profits disclosed a large number of cases of not only overcharging but also fraudulent practice with the object of covering up overcharges that had been made. The fines imposed were unquestionably too light. The Attorney-General has cited one of the worst cases, that of R. Donaldson and Company, jute merchants, of Melbourne. This firm had two convictions recorded against it in respect of jute prices, and one conviction in respect of false returns. In each case, a fine of £5 was imposed, with costs amounting to £3 3s. I understand that the officials were engaged on their investigations for five months, checking the practices of the firm in order to obtain details that would enable them to launch a prosecution. The cost to the Government amounted to hundreds of pounds. Yet the total amount of the fines was only £15. That was entirely inadequate. Goods had been purchased prior to the war, and in an endeavour to mislead the Government inspectorsthe books were falsified in certain respects. Other cases of a similar nature were brought to the notice of the Joint Committee on Profits. The maximum penalty of a fine and imprisonment would be the just desert of a firm acting in that manner. I hope that if a firm is found guilty of such practices it will be dealt with severely under this measure. In this way, its punishment will act as a deterrent to others who might be tempted to offend. If the act be fearlessly administered from the start, I do not think that there is any danger that the AttorneyGeneral and his staff will be called upon to investigate a large number of cases. Indeed, it will probably be found that one will be able to count the number of offenders on the fingers of one hand. Thepractice of " declaring " a firm which has overcharged the public was never of much use because, although the firm was ordered to reduce its prices so as to return to the public an amount equivalent to that by which the purchasers had been overcharged, the trouble was that the money did not go back, to those from whom it had been taken. Unscrupulous firms were disposed to take the risk of detection and punishment, because the profits derived from overcharging were usually greater than the fine that was imposed. This matter was investigated by the Joint Committeeon Profits, which recommended that the amount by which a firm overcharged the public should be confiscated to the Treasury. That is now provided for under this measure, and thus one of the strongest inducements to profiteeringwill be removed. Indeed, it has been argued that it was no punishment to " declare " a firm, and to compel it to reduce its prices. For instance, a wholesale house which was compelled to reduce prices would probably secure increased business from those who were on the lookout for cheaper goods. Iri any case, I do not think that those firms which have been " declared " have suffered much as a result.

I do not agree with the honorable member for Melbourne that clause 8 of the bill should be omitted. The clause was inserted to deal with such firms as Donaldson and Company, which tried to falsify their books so as to be able to sell at a higher price. In my opinion, the falsifying of books may be a more grievous offence than that of overcharging. There can be no doubt of guilty intention when books are falsified, whereas overcharging may be an honest mistake.

Dr Evatt - Cases of the kind to which the honorable member refers could be dealt with under the Crimes Act, apart altogether from clause 8.

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