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Thursday, 9 May 1957

Mr ASTON (Phillip) .- I wish to say in the short time at my disposal this evening something about import restrictions. Most honorable members doubtless appreciate the necessity to conserve our foreign exchange. It not only gives the nation solvency and obtains for us the confidence of our suppliers, but also, whichever method we may use to increase our balances overseas - by exchange control or restriction of imports - must be irksome and unpalatable to the people affected. But the Government's attitude to these restrictions is commendable.

To-night, the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden) stated that our balance of payments had swung sharply in our favour. Yesterday, the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen), in line with what the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) said recently, stated that import restrictions would be abolished as soon as possible. He said that they would not be retained any longer than was absolutely necessary. That is a step in the right direction, and I hope it will not be long before import restrictions can be entirely lifted and the shackles taken off the business community. The recent relaxations of restrictions undoubtedly were most welcome. They have contributed to the removal of anomalies and hardships and enabled the granting of some special licences.

However, the relaxation of restrictions to the extent of £30,000,000 which took place in January, and the relaxation to the extent of £75,000,000, which was made recently, have not benefited traders who have not a quota, that is those who had not, prior to the base year, established a quota for their business, although it may have been established prior to the fixing of the arbitrary base year. Neither has any provision been made for that group of people who have genuinely established a business since the base year was chosen. Those two categories of importers, or retailers, consist mainly of small businessmen, and it is on their behalf that I make this plea to the Government. The tenor of the replies I have received to my representations has been the same as that of replies given prior to this relaxation of restrictions. It is that at the present time no money is available for the establishment of new quotas.

Everybody appreciates the Government's attitude. The restrictions have to be administered within the arithmetic of the ceiling which has been set by the Government. But I hope that this group of businessmen whose businesses have been subject to government restriction for a number of years will not be so affected for a further indefinite period. They have been forced into the buying of licences and the transfer of licences. They have been forced to pay a commission or a percentage of the value of the goods imported in order to continue their businesses. Of course, licences have only been transferred from that section of the business community which was fortunate enough to establish a quota in the base year. Naturally, the holder of something which somebody else wants only transfers his commodities - in this case licences - on his own terms.

I believe it is entirely repugnant that people should be forced into these activities and be restricted by them for years simply because they have not had the good fortune to establish a quota in the base year. These firms and individuals are denied the right to trade correctly and take their correct place in the business community. In many cases, owing to these circumstances, they have found it extremely difficult even to make ends meet. That approach to licensing has retarded the progress of business. It does not tend to allow a trader to give of his best. There is no incentive towards efficiency or production. The additional cost that the importer has to pay for his licence must add to the cost of living and to our inflationary spiral.

It is an extremely depressing thought that business men must be dependent on the goodwill and opinion of Public Service officials who, by the very nature of their profession, are inexperienced and do not know the ramifications and the needs of the various markets in a rapidly changing world of commerce and business. Public servants are called upon to administer licensing under the policy of the Government that they serve, and they are under a severe handicap. I do not doubt the genuineness of the decisions that are made. I do not doubt that they are made in the belief that they are in the best interests of the national economy within the arithmetic of the ceiling set by the Government. But if licensing must be continued, the whole structure should be reviewed. I think it should be taken out of the hands of public servants and entrusted to an independent body composed of business and commercial men from various sections of the business world who have a very wide knowledge of the wants of the business community.

Furthermore, a proportion of the sum of £75,000,000 which has not already been allocated should be made available to the two categories of persons I have mentioned. We have only been told of the allocation of £60,000,000 of that amount of £75,000,000. Whether the other amount of £11,000,000 that has been mentioned as available to the motor industry will come out of it or not, I do not know; but I presume that it will. If so, a certain amount of money will still be left for allocation, and I urge the Government to take into consideration those people who have been unfortunate enough not to have established a quota in the base year and those people who have been endeavouring to establish a business since the introduction of import licensing. I believe that the present state of affairs is not encouraging to the younger men who are learning the intricacies of a business of their own.

If this state of affairs is to continue what will be the future of our business world? If no relaxation can be made on this occasion I ask the Government to take into consideration the hardships suffered by these people. It is unfair to ask any man to continue shackled with import restrictions and without the incentive which is so necessary to enable him to survive in private enterprise in which this Government believes. A person cannot obtain an import licence simply because he did not have the good fortune to have established a quota in the base year. That is a principle which I do not support. I strongly urge the Government to take into consideration the two categories I have mentioned in any future relaxation of restrictions and thus give some hope to those people of continuing the productivity drive and helping not only to reduce the cost of living, but to give the nation a foundation on which our future business community may continue to expand.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

House adjourned at 11.9 p.m.

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