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Wednesday, 20 July 1921

Senator EARLE (Tasmania) .- 1 welcome the introduction of this measure, because I believe it is an earnest attempt on. the part of the Government to make Protection thoroughly effective. I believe I suggested in a previous speech on a similar subject that the difference between Free Trade and Protection that does not protect the people was as great as the difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. At present there is no control over the prices charged for goods after they have left the manufacturer, and, consequently, consumers have to pay exorbitant prices, particularly when there is absence of competition from the outside world. Although under a Protective policy some people may handle more money, the purchasing power has become so depreciated that they would be just as well off under a policy of F«ree Trade. I agree with Senator Fairbairn in his desire to see economy exercised in connexion with governmental functions, but at the same time it is false economy to neglect the interests, of the people of Australia in an endeavour to reduce expenditure. I admit that a great deal might be done to reduce expenditure by amalgamating certain Commonwealth and State activities; but the honorable senator must not lose sight of the fact that up to the present efforts to bring about that amalgamation have failed. In Tasmania the Federal and State Electoral Departments 'have amalgamated, and the Commonwealth electoral roll is now used for State elections, thereby ' effecting economy and increasing the efficiency of the Department. Senator Pratten delivered a characteristic speech; and if one were to take up Hansard and read his utterances, it would appear that the honorable senator is in favour of everything under the blue sky, because -he applauded the statement that the profiteer should be hanged to the nearest- lamp-post, and then criticised this Bill - which is the first effort of the Government to prevent profiteering - by saying that it was absolutely anathema, to him. The Government have made an earnest effort to prevent profiteering, and I feel sure that any suggestions submitted will be carefully considered by the Minister (SenatorRus- sell).

It has been contended that the Customs Department already possesses the power necessary to carry out the functions to be exercised by the proposed Board; but I am not of that opinion. The Board, when constituted, will possess, all the powers of a Royal Commission, and may investigate the questions specified in the measure in connexion with overcharges on manufactured goods, matters relating to errors in invoices, and questions generally affecting our industrial and commercial activities. The Board will have power to summon and fully protect witnesses, and do everything necessary to secure the fullest information to place before the Minister for Trade and Customs in order that he may invoke the intervention of Parliament. That is very important, and 1 say most emphatically that unless we do something to prevent the consumer being exploited by those who are benefiting by the imposition of high Customs duties, our Protective policy will be valueless. If it protects only a few while the great multitude have to pay, it will fail.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - It has failed.

Senator EARLE - If we are not going to protect the consumer, the honorable senator's theory is correct. If we are to have unrestricted Protection, without any qualifying effort to guard the interests of the consumer, we may as well operate under a policy of Free Trade. '

Senator Drake-Brockman - When an inquiry is made, who can take action, and what action?

Senator EARLE - It will be the duty of the Government to take the necessary action by invoking Parliament.

Senator Drake-Brockman - To do what?

Senator EARLE - To rescind duties. If that can be done, manufacturers charging excessive . prices will know that the time in which they can exploit the people is limited.

I do not wish to speak at length upon this measure, but desire to direct attention to one or two amendments which I shall move when the Bill is in Committee. Clause 8 provides that the chairman of the Board shall be an officer of the Cus toms Department, and shall receivea salary, inclusive of his present salary, hot exceeding £1,400. I think that provision islikely to retard the selection, and it would be better to fix the sum to be payable to the chairman. There may be a highly-paid officer in. the Department who may not have the judicial knowledge to enable himto prosecute these inquiries. A suitable officer may not be receiving more than £600 a year, and it would be necessary- to increase his salary to £1,400.

Senator Payne - The Bill provides for a salary not exceeding £1,400.

Senator EARLE - As the Bill provides for a maximum of £1,400, it is more than likely that that will be the salary the chairman will receive. Although an officer in that Department may be receiving a fairly highsalary, he may not, possess the judicial knowledge necessary for obtaining and sifting the evidence which will be presented to the Board.

I shall also move that the casting vote of the. chairman be dispensed with, as I consider it unnecessary.

Senator Reid - What would be the position if only two members are present ?

Senator EARLE - Nothing ' could be accomplished unless we give the chairman two votes, and if we did that, there would be no necessity for the second member to be present. When three members are present, there would not be a dead-lock, and the casting vote of the chairman would not be required. In the event of two members failing to agree, the question should be resolved in the negative; because if we were to give the chairman two votes when only two were present, it would be ridiculous for the chairman to sit with another member. When the clause is under consideration, I shall move that certain words after " vote " be left out.

I shall also move to insert in paragraph h of clause 15 the words " failing to prevent unnecessarily high prices being charged to the consumer for goods manufactured by him or".

Senator Duncan - That will have the effect of increasing manufacturer's costs.

Senator EARLE - It will not. At present the manufacturer's direct interest ends with the departure of goods from his factory, and although he may be willing to dispose of his product at a reasonable price, he has no control over the retailer. I intend to move an amendment which will compel him to see that his distributers also charge reasonable prices, as it would be unreasonable to allow an unscrupulous retailer to defeat the objects of the Bill. I want to make it incumbent on the manufacturer in selecting his distributers to see that the goods are retailed at a reasonable price.

Senator Russell - Does the honorable senator not think that sub-paragraph i of paragraph h meets that difficulty?

Senator EARLE - The sub-paragraph to which the Minister refers reads -

Charging unnecessarily high prices for his goods.

But I remind the honorable senator that that applies to the manufacturer and not to Flinders-lane distributers of his goods.

Senator Russell - We have no general industrial power. The power embodied in this Bill is contained in our Customs power, but, outside that power, I do not think we have authority to deal with these matters.

Senator EARLE - I am open to conviction, but it appears to me that it is as easy, under our Constitution, to insist upon a condition being entered into by a manufacturer that his agent, the distributer of his goods, shall sell the goods at a reasonable price, as it is to provide that the manufacturer must himself sell his goods at a reasonable price under penalty of a withdrawal of the protection afforded him by the Tariff. I mention these proposed amendments in order that the Minister and honorable senators may give them some consideration before they are submitted. Unless we include in this Bill some such provision as that to which I have last referred, I feel convinced that, although we compel the manufacturer to sell his goods at a reasonable price, our effort to protect the consumer will be frustrated by some distributer of the manufactured goods charging exorbitant prices for them. I do not think that the constitutional difficulty arises, because it is not a question of a direct penalty being inflicted. The penalty proposed is the withdrawal of protection which the manufacturer is given under the Tariff.

Senator Reid - The retailer has nothing to do with the Protective Tariff.

Senator EARLE - I "am referring not to the retailer, but to the Flinders-lane merchant, who obtains the goods from the manufacturer at a reasonable price and then charges an exorbitant price for them. If the manufacturer charges the Flinders-lane merchant a reasonable price for his goods, then, so far as this Bill is concerned, that ends the matter. The difficulty is that the Flinders-lane merchant may charge the persons to whom he sells the goods 100 per cent, more than he has been charged by the manufacturer.

Senator Payne - The honorable senator must follow up the matter to the retailer of the goods.

Senator EARLE - We can be practical, and it is not necessary, in my opinion, to follow woollen goods, for instance, to the extent of considering the prices charged by the tailor for making them into garments. There will be sufficient competition among the little men to insure to the consumer a fair deal. But, where it is a question of the handling of goods in bulk by two or three Flinders-lane merchants, there might easily be an honorable understanding between them to avoid competition with each other, and to charge extortionate prices for the goods of the manufacturer which they distribute.

I am whole-heartedly in favour of this effort on the part of the Government. I hope that no attempt to make it more effective will be rejected on the plea of novelty, or that amendements proposed are not wholly relevant to the principles of the measure. I hope that the Government will be prepared to do all that is necessary to convince the people of Australia that this Parliament, while assisting local industries in order to make Australia a self-contained and manufacturing country, will, at the same time, take effective means to prevent- the exploitation of the people.

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