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Wednesday, 20 July 1921

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN (Western Australia) . - It will be remembered that I took an active part in persuading the Government to bring this Bill on to-day instead of waiting until we had dealt with the Tariff schedule. The wisdom of this course has been pretty clearly indicated by the expressions of opinion this afternoon. I shall be surprised, after what we have heard, if the Bill survives the second-reading stage. It certainly will not survive if my vote can assist to reject it, because it is my intention to vote against the Bill in its present form. I entirely agree with Senator John D. Millen that we shall simply be recreating the old, useless, and expensive Inter-State Commission. The Tariff Board will be that body under another name. It may be very desirable to make inquiries concerning the effect of the various Tariff items on trade and commerce generally, but I am satisfied that if some small amendments were made to the Customs Act all that we desire could be accomplished. There is no need whatever to create a new Department and incur additional expenditure. If this unfortunate Bill ever gets into Committee - I trust it will not - it will be the duty of honorable senators to make it a more effective instrument than it is in its present form. It is proposed to create a Board, endow it with certain authority, but at the same time to leave it perfectly powerless. All that the Board can do is to report to the Minister, who, in his discretion, may send the report on to Parliament. In the original draft of the Bill it was proposed to delegate entirely to the Board powers in relation to the Tariff which should be exercised only by Parliament, but it did not get through another place in that form. It now comes to us useless and emasculated, and is not worth the paper it is printed on. ' All it effects is additional expenditure. We cannot ignore the fact that the people of Australia are insistent in their demand for economy. Are we going to ignore that demand by incurring this stupid and wasteful expenditure? I strongly appeal to honorable senators to reject the Bill. If the Government still think it is necessary to have some sort of authority to inquire into the operation of the Tariff, and, perhaps, it is necessary, departmental officials should be able to do all that is necessary.

Senator Bakhap - What about Senator Benny's idea? Does that appeal to the honorable senator?

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN - I am not prepared to give it my blessing without further thought. At the first blush it appears to have something to recommend it. But I would like to consider it a good deal more before pledging my support to it. In the meantime, I am strongly opposed to the creation of the proposed Board, and indeed to the entire Bill.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - What small amendment in the Tariff schedule does the honorable senator suggest, in lieu of this Bill?

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN - The insertion of about three clauses would be necessary, not in the Customs Tariff Bill, but in the Customs Act 1901-20, which governs the Customs Department and under which that Department was brought into existence. The Bill which is now before us states that the Minister, upon receipt, of the reports and recommendations of the proposed Board, may take action "according to law." When I first read those words I wondered where their sting was to be found. I searched for it, and discovered that under the Customs Act 1901-20, the Minister possesses a very wide power of interpretation in Tariff matters - a power which can be used for almost any purpose. Then I turned to the last clause of this Bill, and found that it contains provision for the making of regulations. I was then satisfied that I had discovered the sting which is contained in those few simple words. I dislike government by regulation, and in view of my wholesale condemnation of the Bill, I have not thought it necessary to touch upon those smaller matters which can be better dealt with in Committee should the measure ever reach that stage. But as Senator Pratten has put a question to me, my reply is that if it be necessary to create a Board for the purpose of conducting inquiries into Customs matters, the Board can be very easily constituted by an amendment of the Customs Act. "Und,er that Act, the machinery already exists whereby the Minister or persons to whom he may delegate power, may summon witnesses, call evidence, defray expenses, and practically discharge all the functions of a Court of law in certain cases. That machinery needs only to be extended a little, to enable the Minister to delegate that power to the head of the Customs Department, or say to throe of his officers who are capable of dealing with the matters mentioned in this Bill and whom he can trust. Thus the position can be overcome by a simple amendment of the existing law.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - What would the Minister do then ?

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN - He would receive expert advice, and he would also have the power to make an inquiry where inquiry was necessary just as is contemplated under this, Bill.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - With power to reduce a duty?

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN - No. He would have power to come to Parliament' and ask it to reduce a duty.

Senator THOMAS (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does the honorable senator think that any Minister would be strong enough to do that?

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN - Yes. The Government have submitted to Parliament the existing Tariff schedule, and Heaven knows they had to be pretty game to bring down some of the duties contained in it. I admire the courage of the Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Greene) in that connexion. 'Seeing that he has been courageous enough to bring down the present Tariff schedule, he is certainly courageous enough to bring down a proposal to amend the existing law - a proposal backed up by sworn information, if necessary, as to the undue burden which has been imposed upon any portion of the community. I do not like the proposed Board, and shall certainly vote against the Bill.

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