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Wednesday, 20 July 1921

Senator FAIRBAIRN (Victoria) . - The chief argument advanced by the Vice-President of the Executive' Council (Senator Russell), in moving the second reading of this Bill, was that,under existing conditions, Ministers are overworked, and I. think that we can help them by offering them some advice upon this particular measure.. But the first question which presents itself to my mind is, ' ' What is the cause of the extraordinary amount of work which has now to be performed by Ministers?" I think that it is to be found in the continual increase in the number of Departments. Senator Pratten has enumerated a large number of Departments which have been created during the , life-time of the. present Parliament. Yet I recollect that, prior to the last election, the strong point made by the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes), in his policy speech at Bendigo, was that the Government intended, as far as possible, to amalgamate Departments. That desire was echoed by Ministerial supporters in both branches of the Legislature. But what Departments have been amalgamated 1 Within the next eighteen months we shall have again to face the electors, and I doubt not that we shall be asked, "*What about your promises to amalgamate Departments ?"

Senator Pearce - The reply to that question is that the Commonwealth has opened the door, and some of the States have fallen into line with it, whilst others, including Victoria, have refused to do 'so.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - I. do not think that that reply will hold good. "If the Government had devoted as much time to closing Departments as they have to opening them, the result would have been very different.

Senator Earle - What Departments would the honorable senator amalgamate ?

Senator FAIRBAIRN - The Taxation Departments, Federal and State.

Senator Earle - Every effort has been made in that direction.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - I will guaran-tee that, if the honorable senator were interested in a private concern, he would insist upon its directors meeting every' week, in order to insure that something should be done. About a year ago- 1 suggested that this matter should be referred to the Public Accounts Committee, and that that body, should keep on badgering the States until an amalgamation of . -certain Departments was effected. A meeting of State Premiers once in twelve months will not accomplish anything. A great deal more energy ought to have been infused into this matter. Instead of that, a meeting was called of Premiers, who indulged in a lot of junketing, and then an epidemic of influenza came along, with the result that a special train had to be hastily requisitioned to convey the Premier of New South Wales back to his own State.

Senator Pearce - We have been continually bombarding the States in regard to the amalgamation, not only of the Taxation Departments, but also the Electoral Departments.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - I dread to think what will happen to us all when we meet the electors- at the end of next year.

Senator de Largie - Why cannot the honorable senator move his own State Government ?

Senator FAIRBAIRN - Senator de Largie represents a distant State, otherwise he would know that one of the first measures upon the programme of the Victorian Government is a Bill to amalgamate some of these Departments. I repeat that it is the creation of new Departments which is causing Ministers such an extraordinary amount of additional work. I fail to see why the administrative work of the Customs Department cannot be carried on as it has been carried on by the Department itself. I know that the Minister in charge of that Department (Mr.

Greene) has been overworked; but, under this Bill, instead of being relieved, his position will be rendered still more intolerable. I admire the heads of our Departments very much indeed. . Every one of them is so enthusiastic about his own Department that he could expend the whole of the Commonwealth revenue upon it with the greatest possible ease. Instead of the Minister finding relief from the creation of the proposed Tariff Board, he will be pushed by an enthusiastic officer into doing this thing and that, with the result that, in the' very near future we shall be faced, with? an additional expenditure of thousands of pounds annually. To my mind, it would be far better if officers in the Customs Department itself were appointed to carefully' watch the various matters which are dealt with in this Bill. When I was a new member of the Commonwealth Parliament, and the first Tariff was submitted for its consideration, I was of opinion- that there should have been an inquiry into the matter beforehand. To-day I know that that inquiry has been made, and that very few amendments are ordinarily made in the Tariff proposals of any Government. How many changes were effected in the present Tariff by another place? Very few indeed.

Senator GUTHRIE (VICTORIA) - The Tariff- is full ' of anomalies.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - Doubtless, w» shall hear of them as we proceed to conaider its various items ; and the honorable senator will be surprised to discover how few of those anomalies he will be able to remedy. We shall not rectify 5 per cent, of them.

Senator Pearce - The honorable senator may be interested to know that in 429 items of the Tariff 129 changes were effected in another place.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is not a very great compliment to the Minister for Trade and Customs and his staff.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - I am afraid that the Minister for Defence (Senator Pearce) has fallen out of the frying-pan into the fire. Many of the alterations that were made in the Tariff by another place were of the most, trivial character. Tho Tariff, I repeat, had been thoroughly inquired into by the Customs Department before it was presented to Parliament. Early in the Federation, a Royal Commission, of which Sir John Quick was the chairman, submitted the first Tariff to the most careful scrutiny- Since then the Inter-State Commission has exhaustively examined it. But how much attention has been, given to the recommendations of that body? Very few honorable senators have ever read those recommendations.

Senator Crawford - The industrial situation has undergone a complete change since then.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - The honorable senator, I am sure, shares, my opinion that when the Government bring down a Tariff they usually carry nearly the whole of their proposals. A few small anomalies are adjusted, but generally there is very little difference. The idea that the new Board, which will be the third body of inquiry, is going to solve the unsolvable, and do away with all difficulties, is absurd. We are told that it is going to bring the most splendid information before members, but this will be put in such a voluminous form that it will be impossible for any member to read it. In practice, reports of this sort do not affect any member's opinion. Members form their own opinions, mostly on party lines, and vote accordingly. I do not think the country is going to get any help at all, in the direction of having a scientific Tariff, from the appointment of a Board of this sort. In any case a. Board could act perfectly well in the Department itself. The duties to be performed by the Tariff Board are set out, but I cannot see what relief the Minister is likely to get from its appointment. He will have another head of a Department to deal with, with his spending capacity, and will really have far more work to do. I cannot see how the reference by him to the Board of any of the matters enumerated here is going to relieve him of any responsibility. He will still be responsible for acting or not acting, and the matter will have to be brought before Parliament. The Minister in charge of the Bill (Senator Russell) said that he once tried to have an anomaly rectified, and that it took three days to settle whether or not the Standing

Orders ^permitted of one item being brought forward. Like Senator Pratten, I do not thoroughly understand whether it is possible to bring forward one item without opening the whole Tariff. If an anomaly was reported to the Minister by the Board, the Minister, might well bring it before Parliament as a single item. I do not see why that could not be done.

Senator Crawford - If that is the position, this Bill does not seem to alter it.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - It does not seem to alter it in any way. So far as I can read the Bill, there is no alteration in the responsibility of the Minister and Parliament to have the final say. It only shifts the responsibility of the Department on to the new Board, and with my experience of Boards I do not think we are going, to gain anything by that. All we shall do is to. increase the expediture and swell the number of public servants. I should like to put the matter from the point of view of the public servants themselves. In my opinion, we are getting very nearly top-heavy so far as the Government of this country is concerned. We are getting so many Boards and so many public servants that in the interests of the public servants themselves it will be the greatest cruelty to appoint many more of them. I have seen two debacles in that direction, and do not want to see any more. I notice that there is one going on in Queensland now. That is what happens when we continuously appoint fresh public servants to fill positions. We have to get rid of the old ones, who have given their lives to the service of their country. We have to penalize them by suddenly telling them that there is no money to employ them further. Then they are "shot" out into the cold world to seek for a living. No man over the age of forty, as many of them would be, is competent to make a fresh start in life. It is therefore in the interests of the public servants themselves that I always take up the attitude of opposition to increasing the number of Boards and increasing the amount of employment in the Government Service. In my opinion, we have bitten off as much as we can chew in that direction. All the matters dealt with in this- Bill can be managed perfectly well by such a Board, as I suggest, in the Department itself. The Minister, in his second-reading speech, asked for suggestions, and I make that honest recommendation to the Government for their adoption, instead of creating a fresh Department, with all its paraphernalia, with fresh offices to be rented, and messengers, typewriters, and goodness knows what else to be paid fox.

Senator Reid - Do you think that the Customs Department has any one capable of dealing with many of the business questions that will arise?

Senator FAIRBAIRN - I should think so. There must be many men of very great experience in the Customs Department. I have met some of them, and look upon them as quite competent to do any work in connexion with their Department. I think they are excellent officers, who, on the whole, are doing their duty very well. They are always perfectly reasonable when I go to see them. They treat me courteously, and explain the Department's point of view. I cannot see why the Minister for Trade and Customs could not let it be known that to Mr. So-and-so had been assigned the special" duties of dealing with these various points, and that people must not bring such details before the Minister. I believe that already a good deal of business is taken direct to the departmental heads. The Minister in charge of the Bill said that some mistakes had been made in the Department. All human beings are liable to err. Is the new Board going to make no mistakes? I think it is liable to make even more than the Department. It is wonderful how few mistakes are made in many of our Government Departments - except the Income Tax Department, which is always making mistakes so far as I am concerned.

Another reason why I object to the Bill is that it perpetuates price-fixing.

Senator GUTHRIE (VICTORIA) - Is not the object to stop profiteering?

Senator FAIRBAIRN - That is the object, and it is a very fine one, but the Board will have to do something. They will probably say, "This man is reported to be making an undue profit. Let us have a look into his business." Then they will call evidence and conduct an inquiry. Cannot that be done perfectly well by the Department? Is the work being done by

Mr. Beeby,in New South Wales, so satisfactory to the Nationalists? It seems to suit the Labour party; but I noticed lately that his decison on one matter deprived Sydney of milk altogether. He held that the dairymen, who conduct one of the primary industries, were making too big profits, and directed them to charge less, whereupon the dairymen said, "Very well, we will send our milk to the butter factories," with the result that Sydney had to go without milk for a time.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Then he lowered the price of butter.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - Not being personally interested, I did not quite follow what the end of it was, but . there was a terrible turmoil, and I do not think anybody get milk cheaper in the end. We had a Price-fixing Commission iu Victoria, with Sir James McCay at the head of it. It looked into a great many industries, and then the Government, thinking that it "had gone far enough to placate the public, and that the public were tired of it, dropped it. Here we are going to have a fresh Board placed over every industry. I think it will meet with exactly the same fate as the other price-fixing ventures.- It will be always there to harass people. There is hardly a single man in trade who is not called a profiteer, and accused of making far more than a fair profit.

Another reason why I am very much afraid of this Bill is that it will be a continual restraint on trade. -People are having quite enough to do now to carry on and pay wages, and if they are continually harassed, and their attention taken off their everyday business and switched on to having to appear before the new Tariff Board, they will not be able to give to their businesses the time and attention which they ought to give, and employment will decrease. We ought to do everything we can at present to increase employment. The Board will be continually, harassing people, looking into their affairs, and finding, as the Victorian Price Fixing Commission found, nothing but mares' nests. The total amount of money which the Government obtained from the war-time profits tax was only £2,000,000. Therefore, only £2,000,000 more was made by people during the war than had been made before, which shows that there was not a great deal of profiteering going on.

Senator Payne - The receipts from the tax wore £2,000,000; but that sum does not represent the extra profits made.

Senator FAIRBAIRN - It represented 75 per cent, of them, so that the total extra profits would not be £3,000,000.

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