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Wednesday, 3 October 1956

Mr WARD (East Sydney) .- In a debate of this description, the Minister has the great advantage of unlimited time, whereas a speaker from the Opposition side who is replying to him is limited to fifteen minutes. The Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) promised the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) that he would make a statement dealing with the many allegations coming from many honorable members and from outside of trafficking in import licences. What we have had from the Minister is not a prepared statement, but a long, wordy speech and nothing else. He has not dealt specifically with the allegations that have been made against the administration of the Department of Trade.

The Minister has made some amazing statements. What he said, in effect, was that if any honorable member had any matter at all containing evidence of trafficking in import licences, he should take at to the Minister, and it would be attended :to. Of course, it will be attended to - in the way that an anti-Labour government always attends to matters of this description.

One would imagine that nobody had ever throught to notice evidence of trafficking in import licences. I well recollect when import .licensing was first introduced by this Government around 1952 and 1953. Specific evidence was placed before this Parliament of a form of malpractice about which this Government did nothing because one of the bigger business concerns happened to be involved. Anybody who cares to peruse the " Hansard " reports will find that it was made evident that David Jones Limited had been given a tip-off by somebody in the know. I do not know whether it was a member or a supporter of the Government, somebody associated with the Parliament or with the department concerned, but David Jones Limited had been tipped off that import restrictions were to be imposed. Honorable members will recollect clearly that one of the conditions laid down by the Government at the time was that it would recognize any transactions into which importers had entered, provided those transactions had taken place prior to a certain date. It is rather strange that David Jones Limited was able - according to the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) it was only a display of business acumen on the part of the firm - to arrange for letters of credit for the importation of goods into Australia valued at an amount running into seven figures. Other people in the same line of business who did not display, according to the Prime Minister, the same business acumen, had not been able to make such arrangements.

I remember clearly when we charged the Prime Minister in this Parliament with knowing something about this transaction. After considerable discussion, we were able to get from the Prime Minister an admission that, only a day or so previously, David Jones Limited had written him a letter which he had not disclosed in earlier discussion in this chamber. The letter showed definitely that the Government had been endeavouring to cover up the prior information which had been passed on to David Jones Limited.

Evidently that firm is still in the know. It has the inside running, because I am able to tell the Minister for Trade, if he wants to examine some of the things that are being said in various cities, and particularly in Sydney, that David Jones Limited has been canvassing some of the bigger importing houses and offering them a premium of 25 per cent, if they will import exclusively for David Jones Limited. One of the big importers approached by David Jones Limited is W. Brash MacArthur Limited. That organization was offered 25 per cent, above the import licences value if it would import exclusively for David Jones Limited. Yet the Minister for Trade has said that he wants some evidence.

Let us consider the statement that has been made by the Minister. Evidently, he does not think that 25 per cent, is too much to charge for a piece of paper that was issued to somebody else, because he said there might be some cases where 100 per cent, above the value of the permit was being asked. He does not regard that as being anything more than normal business practice.

Mr McEwen - That is false. I did not say anything of the sort.

Mr WARD - That is what the Minister said. Let us examine what that means to the people. The Minister has been speaking about our overseas trade difficulties, and they are serious. One of the greatest difficulties confronting our export industries is inflation in Australia. Does the Minister know who pays for the additional charge that is paid to some persons, merely upon the issue of a piece of paper by a government department? Does the Minister imagine that it is not passed on, in the form of prices, to the purchasers of goods? Does the Minister believe that this trafficking, and the additional profit that is available to some persons merely because they had the good fortune to obtain a licence, is legitimate business? We all know that it is adding to the inflationary spiral and increasing prices in Australia. I should like the Minister to give the committee a little more information about what he believes to be trafficking. He said that if we could produce evidence of a case in which somebody had been issued with a licence and was trading it, or selling it for profit, he would take action. I ask the Minister to have a look at the columns of the daily press. If he does so, he will find advertisement after advertisement for import licences. Does he regard that as legitimate business practice? 1 am quite certain that it would not be so regarded by any reasonable member of the Australian community.

The Minister said that he was proud of the Government's achievement in regard to import restrictions. Having said that he was proud to have been given the opportunity to impose the restrictions, he went on to assure the Australian public that the restrictions were not to be a permanent feature of our economy. Why, if the Minister is proud of them, does he not want them to be a permanent feature of the Australian economy? As a matter of fact, under this Government they have become a permanent feature of the Australian economy, and far from approaching the point at which they are to be completely eliminated, I venture the opinion that, judging by what David Jones Limited is doing in trying to buy up import licences, import licensing is to become much more drastic in the future than it has to date, and that import restrictions will remain permanently.

Let us examine the situation. The Government has imposed an import licensing system to correct our adverse overseas trading position; but what has been achieved? In July and August, the first two months of this financial year, the trade balance was down to the extent of £10.000,000. That does not take into account the cost of freight and insurance premiums. If we add those invisibles to the £ 1 0,000,000 by which we were on the wrong side of the ledger, it means that, in the first two months of this financial year, we were £25,000,000 on the wrong side. If that is the position, why should the Minister go on pretending to the Australian public that there is some possibility in the near future of a relaxation of the import restrictions imposed by this Government, and that we are approaching the time when they may be completely eliminated? The Minister knows that that is distinctly untrue and that he has no right to make such a statement.

Now let us examine the position of the Australian Country party in relation to this matter. The supporters of that party ought to be interested in this position, because one of the factors which is tending to restrict our opportunities on overseas markets is the internal inflation. Whilst the prices for overseas export commodities are falling in almost every instance, prices in this country are continuing to rise. According to the Minister, the only things that ought to be controlled in Australia are the wages of the workers in industry. But wages are only one element of the price structure. The Minister had a useless trip overseas recently looking for markets for Australian products. It was an absolute waste of time, as well as a waste of Commonwealth money. When he returned to this country what did he bring us? Before he left, he said that he would talk firmly to the British authorities and tell them about the kind of trading agreement that Australia wanted, and that no longer were the trading agreements between Great Britain and Australia to be weighed in favour of the United Kingdom. We can only judge by results. When the Minister returned to this country, all he said was that the British authorities now knew our point of view. Fancy sending a Minister to see people on the other side of the world, at great public cost, only to learn when he comes back is that they now understand our point of view! The British Board of Trade is now considering the argument - if it was an argument - advanced by the Australian authorities.

I suggest, as I have previously, that members of this Government do not need an excuse to go overseas. They seize upon any pretext at all. In my opinion, there are occasions when overseas visits by Ministers are desirable and of great value to this country; but since this Government has been in office its members have grabbed at any pretext to go abroad. They even have a roster. They know whose turn it is to go overseas next at the public expense. They do not arrange these visits because there is a real purpose for going overseas. If the Ministers wanted to let the British Board of Trade know something about our point of view, why did not he write a letter and state our views?

It is true that we have a serious trading problem, but this Government will not correct the position by the methods it is employing. The Minister's colleague, the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden), made it clear in his budget speech recently, that if import restrictions were retained for any length of time at their present intensity they would have a serious effect on the Australian economy; and so they will. The Minister knows that, as supporters of the Australian Labour party have been pointing out, while important Australian industries are languishing and being forced to reduce the number of their employees, a lot of rubbishing goods are being brought into this country. Better quality goods could well be manufactured by Australian industries. Because the Government wants to operate import licensing on a percentage basis, we find that cheaply produced Japanese goods, particularly toys, have been imported and have helped to destroy an industry that was giving employment to many Australian ex-servicemen. Although importers are allowed to bring in cheap junk and toys from Japan, important Australian industries, such as one in Devonshire-street, Surry Hills, which manufactures chemical apparatus required by many government instrumentalities, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, cannot get an import licence for the materials they require. Although government instrumentalities supported, by letter, that manufacturer's request for an import quota, it was turned down because it was argued that if he wanted to import those goods it would have to be done through existing importers. Yet, this responsible manufacturer was unable to obtain his requirements on the Australian market!

It does not matter in which direction we look, we see evidence of how this Government has bungled import restrictions. Not every small businessman or manufacturer has prospered as a result of this Government's policy. Many small concerns have been destroyed by the import restrictions imposed by the Government. The big business concerns, however, to whose advantage it is to destroy the small businesses, do nol worry about import licensing restrictions because, at an enormous profit to themselves, they are able to buy up licences from people who can make no use of them.

The CHAIRMAN - Order! The honorable gentleman's time has expired.

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