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Thursday, 16 May 1957

Mr CREAN (Melbourne Ports) . - The Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) has shifted the argument from the comparatively narrow ground on which it was based. It should be borne in mind that this is not an argument about whether import controls are necessary. The dispute is whether, having established a scheme of import controls, the controls are being efficiently and justly applied. For the benefit of the House, the text of the honorable member's proposal ought to be read again. It is as follows: -

The gross inefficiency of accounting and clerical procedures in the Government's administration of imports especially in the recording of import quotas, import licence applications and import entry records resulting in confusion in assessment of total imports and in measuring individual import quotas to the damage of thousands of individual firms and the economy as a whole.

The matter before us concerns the techniques of import licensing, rather than Government policy. I should have thought that the Minister would at least have intimated - if he knew - what accounting and clerical procedures were followed in administering this vast network of " 600,000 individual import licences ". This does not, of course, mean that 600,000 individual firms are operating. There is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty in the minds of members of the business community, first, as to whether they are being fairly treated as compared with those who have already received import licences and, secondly, because, in the opinion of many, goods are being imported to the detriment of existing Australian industry. The problem must be evaluated in the light of this broad " push and pull " between the two interests. I invite the Minister for Air (Mr. Osborne), who is to speak next, to give any indication that he can of the accounting and clerical procedures that are followed in the administration of import quotas. If he is unable to do so this morning, I suggest that he arrange for a full and adequate description of the machinery of the department to be given to honorable members before the House rises.

Mr Osborne - I will need more time than the three minutes or so that you gave to the Minister for Trade.

Mr CREAN - Criticism in this matter has come, not only from this side, but from the Government side of the House also. One Government back-bencher has referred to tea, and the honorable member for Sturt (Mr. Wilson) thinks that there ought not to be import licensing at all. The Government cannot deny that there is a sincere concern about this great matter. Every one admits that the licensing of imports, which this year will have a total value of about £775,000,000, is a very complex problem.

If it is complex, is it being attacked by the single-entry bookkeeping methods that my colleague has so ably described, in an age of electronic computers? What techniques are being employed? If the problem is so much more complicated than anything encountered previously, has the Government sought the best accounting device available? Is there any difference of opinion among administrative officers on the machinery that should be employed in handling it? How many individual firms have applied for import licences? What is the method of recording applications? Is it by classes of goods, or by the names of firms making application? Is the administration centralized in one State, or dispersed throughout the Commonwealth as I believe it to be? Certainly there are officers in Sydney and Melbourne who handle individual applications.

What is the machinery for co-ordinating the import licensing in Victoria and New South Wales of certain categories of goods, and establishing the ceilings which surely must be set? These are the questions to which we are seeking an answer. We are not asking for glittering generalities of the kind that we have had from the Minister for Trade. We want to allay the fear in the minds of a great many people, particularly the small business man who is so dependent upon turn-over and who imports a fairly restricted class of goods. He cannot switch readily to alternatives as can some of the great importing firms. He must import only one or two lines. If his quota is restricted to, say, half, his overhead continues and he is very often driven to the wall. That is the kind of person who approaches honorable members on this side of the House. We are not approached by Myers or David Jones, but by the man who is endeavouring to fill some specialized niche in this great economy of ours. In attempting to get an increased quota he is met with frustration. Often he must wait five or ten weeks before he can obtain a definite reply and then, for the most part, it amounts to a refusal. Some importers have suggested that the department often does not seem to know what proportion of their quotas has been taken up. That is a technical problem that ought to be considered at once. As the honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns) suggested, it is almost like a bank manager ringing up a client and saying, "What is your overdraft? We have lost track of two or three of your cheques ". Unfortunately, that kind of thing is going on in respect of import licences. As I have said, in some cases, which I shall not particularize, the department has actually asked a client whether he can indicate how much of his quota has so far been taken up. That would seem to be to be absurd, because to the extent to which one person is overgranted, another may very well be undergranted, and so suffer grave injustice.

I wish to refer now to another matter that is associated with the co-ordination side of this great problem. Every honorable member would do well to read the Australian Industries Development Association's " Survey of Stocks for 1956 ". The association makes this comment -

The high stocks indicated by this survey is a reflection of the mis-judgment applied in the framing of licensing levels eighteen months ago.

It says that in the last eighteen months there has been an accumulation of stocks to the value of £300,000,000. This means that firms are already finding it difficult to sell either what has been imported or what is already being produced in this country. What machinery is there to evaluate this problem in terms of aggregate import licences?


Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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