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Wednesday, 3 October 1956

Mr DALY (Grayndler) .- I wish to say a few words in relation to the Department of Trade, particularly in regard to the import restrictions that have been imposed in recent times. Various reasons have been given by the Government for the imposition of these drastic restrictions. I think it should be pointed out that we quite agree that, at the present time, there is need for a form of import restriction, in order to prevent a further fall in our overseas balances, but this Government cannot escape its full responsibility for having to impose such drastic restrictions, which are causing trouble and hardship to both employers and employees throughout this country to-day. The Tariff Board's report recently presented stated that, in 1951-52, £803,000,000 of overseas reserves were held by Australia. Under this Government, which has been in office for six years, our overseas balances have dwindled to £350,000,000. In real value, £350,000,000 is worth about 50 per cent, less than it would have been in 1951-52. Why have these restrictions to be imposed now, although when the Chifley Government left office our overseas balances totalled £803,000,000? This Government saw fit to lift restrictions. It made no selection whatever, and all sorts of goods came in. Goods that were of no use to the economy of the country came in by the million.

In making this comment, let me say that this is one of the responsibilities that the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) must face. He will also have to face this charge: The policy of this Government, on every aspect of the economy, but particularly in respect of trade, has always been to let the balances run down to a minimum and then to impose the most drastic restrictions, which do cause great hardship. Why does not the Government make a practical approach to this matter? What has it done to increase production? What has been done to obtain additional markets for our products abroad? What has been done with the machinery that was brought here from abroad? What has this Government done in a practical way, first, towards increasing production in order to bolster the export trade, and, secondly, to find additional markets abroad?

I come now to wheat. It was not until we found that there was a glut here that Sir John Teasdale went overseas to all kinds of places trying to obtain markets. There was no thought of doing that in the early stages. I think that it is time the Government shouldered its responsibilities in this respect. There must be great markets abroad for many of Australia's products. The Tariff Board criticized this Government's policy on this particular issue. It said that the Government is imposing tariff barriers and restricting imports, when it should really he tackling the problem at its base. That is to say, it should be building up production and finding export markets for our exportable surplus. Only to-day. a leading American industrialist told the people of Australia that they could not expect markets to come to them; they must chase the markets that they wanted. It is nearly time that the Government considered constructive proposals towards that end.

It is all very well for members of the Australian Country party in this chamber to smile. It is obvious that they are not very concerned with the problems of the people whom they are supposed to represent. The fault for the existence of the problem that I have mentioned lies with the present Government. It is of no use for honorable members opposite to tell us that it was necessary to impose drastic import restrictions, without explaining their own incompetence at the outset.

There is an air of mystery surrounding the granting of permits for the importation of goods. I am not unduly critical of the staff concerned. They are probably burdened with thousands of genuine applications from people seeking quotas for goods they need in order to carry on their businesses, but I am concerned at the methods that are being adopted. Delays take place for a considerable time. Industry is inconvenienced unless the Government gives decisive answers at a very early date. Countless advertisements have appeared in the press from time to time offering quotas for sale at a certain percentage. Surely it was never meant that quotas issued for what are considered to be goods genuinely required by industry could be sold to other people, and surely it was never intended that the people to whom licences are issued, and who do not really need them, should be able to exploit other members of the community by selling them, and so gaining profit without doing anything to earn it. The Minister should explain to the committee and to the people of this country what he is doing to stop trafficking in import licences. I was speaking to a leading industrialist the other day, who told me that people, without the knowledge of the Minister or the department, are obtaining import licences to bring in the kind of goods that he is manufacturing. That matter must be looked into, lt is known that there have been false accounting methods used in respect of import licences over a period. I do not mean false in the sense that they are crooked, but they are not accurate; they do not indicate what is coming in or going out. All these things must undoubtedly cause great concern to the Minister, the employers, and men and women in the community generally.

I should like to say also that I think there may always have to be in this country a selective method of import control because I believe that essential goods should be imported for the use of industries thai are of benefit to this country, that create employment and are worth building up. 1 am opposed to the practice of squandering our hard-earned reserves abroad on luxury goods that this Government allowed to come into Australia in the early part of its regime. I also believe, in accordance with traditional Labour policy, that manufacturers of Australian products, Australian workmen and Australian industry are deserving of protection. Therefore, we must have some form of tariff protection and, possibly, a measure of import control. Nevertheless, because of the harsh restrictions that are imposed at present, and the air of mystery surrounding the whole administration of this section of government activity, the Minister should make a clear statement to the Parliament and the people of what he and the Government intend to do in the immediate future to relieve the situation. The Minister should tell us on what basis the department will decide whether an applicant is suffering hardship. How many applications are to-day cluttering up the department because of the great number of people who desire to obtain some form of assistance to keep their industries going?

I summarize my criticisms in this way: I charge the Government with the full responsibility for bringing about the present state of affairs, because of its incompetence and its squandering of overseas resources in the early stages of its administration. I charge, the Government with inability to increase export markets or to increase production iri this country of exportable goods. I charge the Government with failure to build up, in the various countries that must require Australian goods, a market for oar products, in order to increase our overseas reserves. Together with other members on this side of the chamber, and people outside the Parliament, 1 am not satisfied with the methods employed by the department to administer import licensing. 1 ask the Minister to tell us on what basis the department will determine hardship, how many applications are outstanding, and what the Government intends to do regarding delays that undoubtedly take place, which are due not in any way to incompetence on the part of the departmental staff, but simply to the tremendous number of applications awaiting consideration. I hope that the Minister will give us a clear statement on these matters.

I should like to make some remarks on the subject of social services, which has occupied so much of the attention of the committee. Much has been said about the Government's record in this field. We find from the Estimates that a considerable amount of money is to be- provided for social services and for the administration of the department. Let us face up to the fact that the Government's record in regard to social services is a very shabby one. To-day, for the first time since the Labour Government was defeated, pensioners are subject to a means test in connexion with hospital benefits, the provision of medicines, and other health services. We find that great numbers of citizens are subject to a means test, under the policy of a government which was elected on a pledge to abolish the means test. I heard the honorable member for Henty (Mr. Fox) say tonight that the pensioners' £1 will buy more to-day than it would buy in days gone by. The purchasing power of the Australian £1 is not more than 5s. 4d., and the increases that have been granted in social services payments to pensioners are miserly. On the Minister's own figures, the actual cash value of pensions has increased by 80 per cent., but in the same period the cost of living has increased by 100 per cent. The pensioners are therefore so much worse off.

People in all walks of life are now realizing that pensioners are bearing the full brunt of mounting inflation. People who are dependent on social services are suffering as never before. Increased costs constitute to them a tremendous burden. I admit quite frankly that I have had an increase in salary, and practically every section of industry has benefited financially. I do not see why we should consistently keep pensioners on the minimum, when every other section of society demands - and rightly so - an increased share of the available wealth in order to meet rising costs of living. There is a responsibility on the Minister and the Government to do something towards increasing the rate of pensions. Every honorable member on this side of the committee knows how necessary it is to increase the value of social services payments because of the decline in the purchasing power of our money, which has been brought about by the policy of this Government.

I am pleased to see the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton) in the chamber. It is delightful to have four Ministers here when these matters are being discussed, because very often we find that only one is present. A number of matters concerning the Department of Social Services and the Department of Trade require clear statements from the Ministers concerned. The people will require a statement as to why social services recipients are being kept on minimum rates, while all other sections of society have received substantial financial benefits. For my part, I am opposed to the policy of making pensioners contribute fully towards curbing inflationary trends. I believe that those who have power and influence can well make a greater contribution, if necessary by increased taxes, towards easing the burden of pensioners and other recipients of social services benefits.

I submit these constructive suggestions to the Minister. I am not at all optimistic that my appeal will soften his hard heart. But I say, in all sincerity, that there is an obligation on his Government and its supporters to do justice to the people whom they promised to assist. Instead of repudiating that promise as they have been doing in recent years, they should honour it now, even at this late stage. I have made my appeal, and I ask for answers on the matters that I have raised concerning the Department of Trade and the Department of Social Services. I hope that the Government will realize the mess that it is getting the country into, and that it will do something about it without further delay.

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