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Wednesday, 20 July 1921

Senator RUSSELL (Victoria) (VicePresident of the Executive Council) . - I move -

That this Bill be now read a second time.

Judging from statements made in the Senate yesterday, it is probable that there may be differences of opinion about this matter. Let me say. that in most public Departments to-day there are matters which do not receive the attention which their importance deserves, merely because it is impossible for a Minister to work continuously without sleeping. There are many matters ' of administration to which less importance is attached thanis their due. But if I have learned anything from my experi- ente of Ministerial work, it is the necessity for the division of duties, and some delegation of administrative powers, in order that Ministers, who should be giving their best service to the country, should not be overwhelmed by details that are not of sufficient importance to occupy the time of members of the Cabinet. A few years ago the Trade and Customs Department was a comparatively small Department, but to-day it is too big for one human being to attempt to administer, unless he is given assistance in the delegation of duties of a purely administrative character. I do not suggest that any deputy should have the power to deal with matters of policy, but that he should deal with only purely administrative work in order that the Minister in charge of a Department can give his time to the consideration of matters of importance to the State. We propose an oversight of the Tariff. What has been the experience of members of this Chamber and of another place in regard to Tariffs? Nothing affects a country so much as its Customs Tariff, and yet I know of nothing that receives less consideration on the floor of Parliament. I do not suggest, of course, that members do not give of their best to such matters, but it is hardly possible for any individual member of this Parliament to know all the details in connexion with the 600 or 700 items comprised in our Tariff schedule. The Tariff requires to be studied in close detail by some authority specially charged with this duty, which will report to Parliament from time to time through the Minister. It should not be necessary, in a progressive community, to hold up any amendment of a Tariff for an indefinite period. At present, if any amendment is required to any particular item, the whole of the Customs Tariff schedule has to be thrown on the table, and thus a wide field for discussion is opened up. I well remember what happened in connexion with a matter in which I was interested some years ago. We wanted a duty on strawboard, which we can very well manufacture in Australia, but the question of competency to bring that matter before Parliament was raised. The Chairman of Committees ruled in my favour. I mention this because it seems advisable that it should be possible to secure ari amendment, of any half-dozen items in a Tariff without bringing the whole of the Act before Parliament for review.

Senator Senior - But correlated items are affected by any alteration of duty.

Senator RUSSELL - That may be so. The point I wish to emphasize is that as the law stands it is impossible for Parliament to deal promptly with minor altera-_ tions.

Through my association with the Board of Trade, I have had some experience of Boards. I know that members of Boards devote a great deal of attention to' the matters which come under review by" them. A great deal of detailed work is required in connexion with Tariff administration. It will be impossible for the Minister for Trade and Customs to' carry out all this work, and therefore the proposal in the Bill is to appoint a Board' with well-defined powers to relieve and advise the Minister. The Board will, consist of three members, one of whom - who will be its Chairman - will be an administrative officer of the Customs De,partment. That will be a distinct advantage, because in the Department we' have very many excellent officers, menwho have had a lifelong experience in Customs administration and are well qualified for the position.

Senator Wilson - Why not appoint' three members of the Board from the Department ?

Senator RUSSELL - Because, in the opinion of the Government, it is advisable to have a blending of departmental ' and outside business experience.

Senator Fairbairn - Will the chairman of the Board continue in the employ of the Customs Department?

Senator RUSSELL - Yes. He will. probably have leave of absence for the time during which he may be associated with the Board.

Senator Wilson - Will not the outside business men also become public servants ?

Senator RUSSELL - No.

Senator Wilson - Not if they are drawing £5 5s. per sitting 1

Senator RUSSELL - A sitting fee of . £5 5s. will not be necessarily an attraction. I do not believe that every man is actuated merely by the amount of money that can be extracted from any particu- lar position. I could get 200 men in

Melbourne to do this work for nothing, and I may point out that members of the Board, of Trade, who have given a couple of years' service to this country, frequently go to Sydney and other capital cities, and do not even receive their train fares.

Senator Keating - Would these 200 men referred to by the Minister enjoy the confidence of the people of Australia ?

Senator RUSSELL - I think they would. I have a high opinion of public- spirited citizens of this country. I do not think that, speaking generally, their motives would be governed by a sitting fee of £5 5s. The duties of the Board will be largely advisory.' At present the Minister is the final court of appeal in matters which, following the appointment of this Board, will be decided by that body. The Board, therefore, will occupy a semi-judicial position, and will be substituted for the Minister in the determination of cases involving the interpretation, of the Customs Act in relation to any particular industry. The remuneration of the chairman will be the difference between the amount of his salary at present and £1,400 per annum during, hisoccupancy of the position. If we remember that millions of pounds in Customs duties will be dealt with by the Board, nobody will say that £1,400 is too large a salary for such a responsible position. The other members of the Board, as I have already said,will receive a sitting fee of £5 5s. The Board is not likely to meet more than once a week at the outset. Probably the Board will not need to meet so frequently later on.

Senator Wilson - Then its members will not know their game.

Senator RUSSELL - Its members will be required practically to determine questions of high administrative policy.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Why abrogate the authority of the Minister?

Senator RUSSELL - Because the Minister is only a human being, and cannot possibly attend to all these matters. How would the honorable senator like to be immersed all day in Customs disputes ?

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - There are officers in the Department to attend to them.

Senator RUSSELL - But the Minister is the final arbiter in such matters. The members of the proposed Board will really do the " digging " for him, but the decision will still remain with the Minister. Instead of having to conduct the inquiry himself, the Board will conduct it for him. Thus the authority of the Minister will not be abrogated in any way.

Senator Wilson - Does the VicePresident of the Executive Council hold that the Department is not competent to deal with these matters now ?

Senator RUSSELL - I do not. As a fact, it does deal with them. But, under existing conditions, the Minister is required to go into the details of cases himself, with the result that to-day he is absent on account of illness, I have no hesitation in saying that Mr. Massy Greene has been doing the work of three or four men. He has been tied to his office practically from daylight till dark. This fact alone evidences the need for extending and decentralizingour present organization.

Senator Elliott - What will the Minister do when he gets the report of the Board ? The Bill provides that he " shall act according to law." But that does not mean very much.

Senator RUSSELL - Upon the receipt of any report, by the Board, the Minister will take any action that may be necessary to correct the breaking, of the law. We do not want the Minister to make laws - that is the function of Parliament - but. we do desire that he shall administer those laws. Some of our administrative officers have very big responsibilities. Fortunately, most of them are very capable men. The chairman of the proposed Board, with the assistance of a couple of outside business men, would, I think, effect a wonderful improvement in our Customs' administration.

Every member of the Board will be required to take an oath or affirmation of allegiance, and will be sworn to secrecy. Another clause of the Bill provides that, no witness shall be compelled to disclose in evidence any trade secret. That provision indicates the desire of the Government to protect those who have obtained patent rights.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - There is no virtue in that clause.

Senator RUSSELL - It shows that we are attempting to protect the interests of everybody. The Bill further provides that a member of the Board, may be suspended in the ordinary way. In cases where men occupy high and independent positions, the Governor-General has power to suspend an officer for misbehaviour or incapacity, but the Minister has to report the matter to Parliament, which is thus afforded' an opportunity of deciding whether that officer's appointment should be cancelled. The meetings of the Board will be convened as required by the chairman. That provision effectually disposes of the idea that, because two of the members of the Board are to receive fees at the rate of £5 5s. per' sitting, meetings will be held with unnecessary frequency.For the purpose of transacting business, the Bill provides that two members of the Board shall form a quorum, and that the chairman shall possess a casting as well as a deliberative vote. That is necessary, because we must have finality in these matters.

Senator Duncan - Then, if the chairman and a member of the Board have a row the chairman must win?

Senator RUSSELL - The chairman will be the " boss " of the Board.

Senator Wilson - Then, if a difficulty arises between the chairman and the other members of the Board, the former need not call any meeting of the Board.

Senator RUSSELL - Does the honorable senator think that a chairman would act in that way?

Senator Wilson - I have been upon Boards where that course has been adopted.

Senator RUSSELL - I have been upon Government Boards for a number of years, and I have never known of such an occurrence.

Senator Wilson - I suppose that it is not likely to happen in the case of a Board two of whose members will receive fees at the rate of five guineas per meeting.

Senator GUTHRIE (VICTORIA) - The payment is much too small.

Senator RUSSELL - In my opinion, it is. I am quite satisfied that the men whom we can get to fill these positions would be perfectly willing to undertake the duties for nothing. I have a good opinion of the honesty of the people of Australia.

Clause 15 of the Bill provides that -

The Minister shall refer to the Board for inquiry and report the following matters : - (a) The' classification of goods under all Tariff items which provide for classification under by-laws;

(b)   The determination of the value ' of goods for duty under section 160 of the Customs Act 1901-20;

(c)   Any dispute arising out of the interpretation of any. Customs Tariff or Excise Tariff, or the classification of articles in any . Tariff, in whichan appeal is made to the Minister for the decision of the' ComptrollerGeneral.

That is to say, all the ordinary Customs business will be administered by the Comptroller-General. Under existing circumstances, if any dispute arises in connexion with his decision, he has the right to refer it to the Minister. That has been found to impose too heavy a tax upon the latter. The proposed Board will have the power to relieve the Minister of this burden, and the Minister will act upon their reports.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Will this clause take away the right of the appellant tot go before the High Court?

Senator RUSSELL - Certainly, not.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I think that it will.

Senator RUSSELL - There is nothing in the clause which will deprive any person of his right of appeal.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - At present the civil community have a right to appeal to the High Court. Will that right be in any way abrogated by this Bill ?

Senator RUSSELL - No.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I fear that it will.,

Senator RUSSELL - I do not think that such a right could be abrogated by a Bill of this character, because the right to approach the Courts of the country is a constitutional one. The clause also provides that the Minister shall refer to the Board for inquiry and report "the necessity for granting bounties for the encouragement of any primary or secondary industry in Australia", also "the effect of existing bounties or of bounties subsequently granted." We have given a! few bounties in Australia, and it is time that we had some inquiry into whether they have been effective in their operation, and whether we can assist the development of other industries by the payment of bounties. This would be a very suitable body to inquire into any special cases of that sort.

The Board may also inquire into and report on " any proposal for the application of the British preferential Tariff of the intermediate Tariff to any part of the British Dominions." Under the Customs Tariff Bill we shall have power to establish reciprocal relations, not only under the intermediate column, but under the British preferential column, with other Dominions within the Empire, but no such reciprocal arrangement will be entered into until it is laid before and indorsed by both Houses of Parliament. There will, therefore, be no interference in that regard with the privileges of the Parliament. I feel that it is a privilege to any man to be permitted, as a member of this or another place, to join in making such agreements, which, I believe, will have the effect of consolidating the British Empire in matters of trade and commerce.

The Board may inquire also ' into any complaint that a manufacturer is taking undue advantage of the projection afforded him by the Tariff, and in particular in regard to hia charging unnecessarily high prices for his goods." I assume that the taking of unnecessary profits means- the operations of the profiteer, whom every one of us has denounced from time to time. I consider that men whose capital is engaged in industries are entitled to a fair return, but where a number of manufacturers com"bine, not for the good of the community but for the sake of their own pockets, it is the sacred duty of the Parliament and the country to control them. *

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Will this Bill prevent that?

Senator RUSSELL - No; but if the Tariff is helping a man to profiteer it can be reduced under this Bill to a level which will place him in active competition with foreign competitors. That, I think, is the right course to take.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Do you think it will be done with the assistance of this Bill? Senator RUSSELL. - I would not be standing here advocating it if I did not think- it would be done. Senator Thomas. - You have a lot of faith.

Senator RUSSELL - I have no more ' faith than most other men. I know the difficulty of stopping profiteering, but any honest member of the community should try to do his best to help to abolish the profiteer, who has been a curse, not only in this but in every other country, for the last six or seven years. It is all very well to say that the remedy proposed by the Government will not be effective, but we are at least trying to do something, and the only alternative to "doing something is to allow the profiteer to run riot. If any honorable senator can suggest an improved method of dealing with the matter, it will be helpful, but merely to sneer at every effort that is made to stop unfair practices, which affect every man, woman, and child in the community, is not helping the Government or helping Australia. We shall welcome original suggestions to achieve what we desire.

The Board can inquire further " into any complaint that a manufacturer is taking undue advantage of the protection afforded him by the Tariff in regard to. his acting in restraint of trade to the detriment of the public." The whole country may be prepared to give protection to a manufacturer, and when he has been built up into a strong position by the backing of the community, he should not be allowed, as some suggest, to do absolutely what he likes, unless he keeps on the straight and honest path. The moment he uses the assistance which has been given to him by Parliament and the community, not to help in the development of Australia but to fill his own pockets, irrespective of the morality of his action, it becomes time for the people to exercise some control over the power which they have given him in building up his industry.

It is provided by the Bill that "upon receipt of a report from the Board in pursuance of the provisions of clause 15, the Minister may; if he thinks fit, take action according to law in respect of any of the matters dealt with by the Board in its report." That means that in any action which the Minister takes against any person who has been trying to defeat the object of the Customs Tariff Act, he must act within the 'law. He is not there to make laws himself. His duty is to administer the laws created by the Parliament. There is, therefore, no likelihood of these powers being abused. Some people may differ from the Minister's interpretation of the law, but I think we ought to give him credit for acting according to good conscience in the administration cf his office. It is provided that'" the Board shall, in the month of June in each year, report to the Minister generally as to the operation of the Tariff and the development of industries, and shall in such report set out the recommendations made by the Board during the preceding twelve months, other than any recommendations whose inclusion the

Minister and the Board agree is not in the public interest." That is to say, an investigation may be going on into some secret processes which we do not want to make public.

Clause 19 provides -

For the purposes of this Act any member of the Board may, by writing under his hand, summon any person to attend the Board nt a time and place named in the summons and then and there to give evidence and to produce any books, documents, or writings in his custody or control which he is required by the summons to produce.

Under that provision the Board has the right to call any one as a witness, and he has no right to refuse to attend.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Will the Board's reports be presented to Parliament?

Senator RUSSELL - Yes, through the Minister. Under the Bill, "any member of the Board may administer an oath to any person appearing as awitness before the Board, . whether the witness has been summoned or appears without being summoned, and may examine the witness upon oath." It is of no use for men to be gathered together to consider these matters unless there is some reasonable guarantee of accuracy in regard to the facts. Heavy penalties are provided for disobeying a summons or refusing to give information. These run up to £500. If this country is good enough to put its full weight behind a manufacturer to help him to develop his industry, I think the people should have full power to control him, in the interests both of himself and of Australia, if he attempts to do anything mean or despicable. According to clause 26, "Nothing in this Act shall make it compulsory for any witness before the Board to disclose to the Board any secret process of manufacture." The Board may inspect any documents, books, or writings, and retain them for such reasonable period as it thinks fit, and may make copies of such matter as is relevant to the inquiry, or take extracts from them. A heavy penalty is provided for any person who, knowing that any book, document, or writing is or may be required in evidence before the Board, wilfully destroys it or renders it illegible. Any person who "uses, causes, inflicts, or procures, any violence, punishment, damage, loss, or disadvantage to any person for, or on account of his having appeared as a witness before the Board, or for or on account of any evidence given by him before the Board," shall be guilty of an indictable offence, punishable by a fine of £500 or imprisonment for one year. The Bill insures that any duress put upon an employee who is called as a witness, or any threat used by any body to cause him to give false evidence, shall be regarded as a very serious offence. The concluding clause provides, in the usual form, that "the Governor-General may make regulations, not inconsistent with this Act, prescribing all matters which, by this Act, are required or permitted to be prescribed, or are necessary or convenient to be prescribed, for giving effect to this Act." I do not think anybody could draft a perfect Customs Act without regulations, as so many matters crop up from time to time.

I hope honorable senators will give serious attention to this Bill. I believe it is essential that the principles embodied in it should be adopted in a Protectionist country like Australia. All we ask for is a fair deal for the people of Australia, and that the power of government shall be exercised for the benefit of the whole of the people of Australia, and not of any particular individuals. I ask honorable senators to give close attention to the various provisions in the Bill, and if some of them do not meet with their approval I ask them to submit reasonable suggestions for carrying out the work of developing the country under a Protective policy, which has been from time to time accepted by the people of the Commonwealth.

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