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Thursday, 16 May 1957

Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) . - I wish to take up a matter which was brought before the House last night by the honorable member for Chisholm (Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes) and to which the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) replied - that is, the import of tea. One of my constituents, a Mr. Hoy, who has been in the tea trade all his life except for the time he was absent in the Army during the war, and who is a man of considerable substance in the trade, has been unable to obtain a primary licence to import tea. He approached me, and I put the facts before the Minister about the middle of last year. Having set out the circumstances, I attached a letter from Mr. Hoy, which said -

Dear Mr. Wentworth,

During interview with an officer of Department

I have supplied the name to the Minister, and I do not intend to read it out to the House - in response to his question, "Where were you in 1942 ",-

That, of course, is the date on which tea licences were based - my answer was " In the Army ", after which I was rudely advised to " stop waving the flag "; " Stop marching on Anzac Day ", and I said I would put matter through local member and his answer was " If you do I shall see you never ever receive a licence although you have a good case ". A written complaint was made to Department in Canberra and although insults were not denied, no apology was tendered.

That went before the Minister, and some time later I received a reply from the parliamentary under-secretary to the Minister, which set out the principles upon which tea licences were issued. One paragraph of the letter was as follows: -

When, in June, 1955, the Tea Importation Board was abolished, it became necessary to determine a basis for the issue of licences to private importers. It was originally decided to restrict the issue of import licences to those firms who were known as primary wholesalers. Later in 1955 it was considered desirable to extend the eligibility for importation and those firms which imported tea prior to 1942 but had not been recognized as primary wholesalers by the Board were permitted to participate in the quarterly allocations.

The position at the present time, therefore, is that the issue of licences to import tea is confined to the primary wholesalers and others who imported tea prior to 1942. The quarterly allocation of funds for this purpose is distributed amongst these eligible firms in proportion to their imports prior to 1942.

It does seem to be ridiculous that quotas are allocated in that way. It is especially ridiculous that a man who was absent in 1942, for the reason that he was serving in the forces in a war, should ever since then have been denied a licence, although he was engaged in the tea trade. It seems to me that, in this case, the import controls have been administered rather more tightly and with less flexibility than in other cases. What seems to me to be extraordinary is that these controls are unnecessary, for the reason that the honorable member for

Chisholm advanced to the House last night, and which was admitted by the Minister in his reply. The Minister said -

We allow into the country as much tea as is consumed here.

So the imposition of these controls does nothing to decrease the amount of tea consumed here and, as honorable members know, there is no local supply of tea. So, the controls do nothing to diminish imports. They are, therefore, unnecessary.

The Minister said last night that there was one other reason for them - to prevent undue stockpiling. I want to read to the House some figures extracted from the official reports on imports of tea into Australia. They show that, from all sources, 58,800,000 lb. were imported in 1952-53. In 1953-54, 58,500,000 lb. were imported. In 1954-55, the imports climbed to 65,000,000 lb., and in 1955-56 - immediately after the subsidy was taken off- they fell to 46,200,000 lb. So, it is quite obvious that although the so-called control has been used, as the Minister says, to prevent stockpiling, stockpiling has, in fact, taken place on a fairly large, perhaps gigantic, scale - probably to an amount in excess of 30 per cent, or 40 per cent, of the annual consumption. So, whatever the purpose of the regulations, they have not been administered to prevent stockpiling. This stockpiling, or the major part of it, took place immediately before the subsidy was removed.

I return to the point made by the honorable member for Chisholm. These regulations are unnecessary. It is not reasonable to expect that importers will stockpile to a greater extent than they did under the Government's control. So why have these regulations? After all, surely the Government is out to abolish this kind of control whenever that can be done without imperilling or jeopardizing the stability of the economy.

I would say, sir, that there is some evidence now that there has been an undesirable element of monopoly in the tea trade. I would not say that the evidence is conclusive. I would say that there is evidence which requires rigorous investigation. I am not prepared on the evidence that is before me to say there has been anything improper. What I am saying is that the evidence before the House does justify quite stringent investigation into what has occurred. If it be true that an officer of the department behaved in the manner which my constituent has alleged in writing, giving his name, I think that would indicate that there is something very wrong in the state of Denmark.

I now come to the other aspect of the matter, and that is the possibility of importing more tea from Formosa. The figures indicate that Formosan tea can be brought in at approximately 3s. 4d. per lb. - these are f.o.b. prices - as against 5s. per lb. for Ceylon tea. That would be a considerable saving. I do not suggest for one moment that anybody should be compelled to drink Formosan tea, nor do I suggest that they should be forbidden to do so. It is, surely, a case where the consumer should be allowed to have his choice. I have had some Formosan tea. I regard it as of good quality. I like it, but other people may not. Let the consumer have a free choice. I read in Thursday's press that some ladies in Sydney had made tests and thought that it was an excellent tea. I have been able to obtain, through the courtesy of Dr. Chen, the Chinese Ambassador, some of this tea, which, I understand, will be available to honorable members on request as from next week. We will see what it is like. I am not going to suggest that anybody should be compelled to drink tea he does not like. All I say is that he should have a free choice in regard to this tea. If it can be put on the market at a cheaper price, that is something which I think everybody will welcome, because tea is one of the main components of the cost of living and is something that all sections of the community consume to a fairly considerable extent. I do not want to press the matter further. I simply say that this is something that should be investigated. I say, further, that if the Government is out to improve our foreign balances, it will be looking for ways and means of obtaining tea at the most reasonable prices.

There is some evidence of a deliberate campaign to write down the quality of Formosan tea in the mind of the public. I say there is some evidence - not conclusive evidence - of that. It is something that the public can look after for itself, and that the trade can look after for itself, but I think that it should be not entirely ignored by the Government in looking at this question.

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