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Wednesday, 12 October 1921

Senator VARDON (South Australia) . - I do not intend to take up very much of the time of the Senate. My remarks in regard to the Budget will be more in the nature of questions. I am aware that it is customary to allow a good deal of latitude in debate on this motion, which deals with the raising and spending of £65,000,000, but it appears to me that the introduction of irrelevant matters such as have been mentioned this afternoon has the effect of bringing our parliamentary procedure very near the borderline of farce.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - It is the customary procedure to give opportunity for the redress of grievances before Supply is granted.

Senator VARDON - I shovild like to express my gratification at the fact that Australia is to be represented at the Washington Disarmament Conference. I am quite sure that had a vote of the people been taken, it would have been overwhelmingly in favour of representation. I approve of the selection of Senator Pearce. Like many other honorable senators, I would have been pleased if the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) could have seen his way clear to represent the Commonwealth, but he could not leave Australia. Therefore, I join with other honorable senators in supporting Senator Pearce's appointment. Any one who belittles, or attempts tp belittle, our representative, is indeed a " little Australian."

There are one or two matters upon which I desire information. I defy any honorable senator to speak at short notice comprehensively on the Budget. In my opinion, weeks of study are needed to comprehend it thoroughly. There are many items which we could not possibly expect to understand unless we had at our elbow some of the heads of Departments to enlighten us. The other day, in the South Australian Parliament, the Premier, referring to the proposed Convention for the amendment of the Constitution, had something to say about the cost of running Commonwealth, as compared with State, Departments. He said -

They knew from their own experience in Australia that control by State Governments was more efficient and more economical than control by the Federal Government. Taxation collecting was one example out of many that might be quoted. The Commonwealth employ a staff twice as large as the State to collect incomes and land tax from the taxpayers of this State, and the cost was very considerably more than twice as large, although the Federal authorities dealt with a considerably smaller number of taxpayers than the State authorities, because of the £5,000 exemption in the Federal land tax.

That is an extraordinary statement , to make, and I feel that we should be enlightened upon the matter. If it is true that the Federal authorities have nearly twice as many people to do the work of tax collecting some explanation should be forthcoming.

There is a number of items in the Budget figures which require some explanation. I notice, for instance, that in the General Division of the South Australian Taxation Office, nine as sistants were employed during the last financial year and that eighteen are to be engaged during the current year. The amount spent last year was £1,093, and the expenditure this year is estimated at £1,791. In the Clerical Division of the Western Australian Taxation Department the number of clerks is to be increased from nineteen to thirty-seven.

Senator DRAKE-BROCKMAN (WESTERN AUSTRALIA) -brockman. - There has been an amalgamation of the State and Federal Departments in Western Australia.

Senator VARDON - That may account for the increase. As compared with the number employed in the Tasmanian Department in 1920-21 there is a slight reduction. In perusing the Budget figures I notice that allowance has been made for a cost-of-living bonus based on Arbitration Court awards. I know, of course, that some time previously there was a strong agitation for increased wages, which were not granted; but to meet the difficulties confronting' employees at the time the Government agreed to pay certain bonuses. This year there is a considerable increase over the amount voted in 1920-21, but I have learned since looking into the figures that the probable explanation is that the amount in the previous Estimates was to cover only a portion of the last financial year, whereas the present estimate is for a full year. That may or may not be the case; but it must be remembered that the cost of living is coming down. According to Knibbs, the cost of living in August this year was 20 per cent. lower than it was in August of last year. It is patent to every one that the cost of living is decreasing, and I am wondering why an amount should be placed in the Estimates for this purpose.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I think the honorable senator will admit that although the cost of living is decreasing nearly every award given by the Arbitration Courts increases wages.

Senator VARDON - That may be so ; but it does not affect my contention. Right through the various Departments special amounts are included to meet the high cost of living, the payment of which should engage the attention of the authorities. The Treasurer (Sir Joseph Cook) in another place said that he had a fine Budget to present; but the fact remains that while wehad a surplus last year of between £6,000,000 and £7,000,000, it is expected that at the end of this financial year that surplus will be reduced to an amount in the vicinity of £3,800,000, showing conclusively that we are going to spend £2,800,000 more this year than we shall receive in revenue. The Government would be wise if they went through the Estimates - we have had their assurance that they have been compiled most carefully - and pared them down so that we could balance the ledger.

Senator Crawford - A less conscientious Treasurer might have done that.

Senator Wilson - Would the honorable senator support such a proposal ?

Senator VARDON - If the Government are prepared to do it they will have my support.

Senator Wilson - The honorable senator can assist them by voting for a reduction.

Senator VARDON - I shall do so when the time arrives. The Treasurer has said that, approximately, £7,500,000 in the form of income tax payments has not been collected, and the explanation is that certain taxpayers are at present unable to meet their liabilities. A business man in presenting his balance-sheet, or the chairman of a company in submitting his statements of accounts to the shareholders, would look upon such an amount as an asset. The Treasurer, however, says that he expects during the coming year to collect £690,000 of the amount outstanding; but a larger sum should be available. If I did not pay my income tax the Commissioner would distrain, and I would have to find the money. When there is such a tremendous amount outstanding a genuine effort should be made to collect it in justice to the other taxpayers.

Senator Crawford - The Taxation Department does not distrain if satisfactory reasons can be given for nonpayment.

Senator VARDON - I know an effort is made to meet taxpayers who are in difficulties.

In reading the Budget Speech I was very surprised to find that practically no mention had been made of the shipbuilding policy, and the intention of the Government in connexion with the running of Commonwealth steamers. During the war we did many things that would not have been done in ordinary times, one of which was to purchase ships. It was recognised at the time that a good " deal " had been made, but conditions have altered, and to-day, instead of ships costing between £30 and £40 per ton to build, they are being constructed for about £7 10s. per ton. In reading an American publication a few days ago, I noticed that the Government of the United States of America are about to cuttheir losses in regard to shipping and turn the whole business over to private enterprise. I believe that the Government would be well advised if they adopted a similar course, because they will not be able to compete with private ship-owners unless they are prepared to write down the capital cost of the ships to about £7 10s. per ton, and thus show a profit on the transaction.

In regard to our financial position generally I am sure we are all anxious to do the best that is possible in the circumstances. We know there has been a general outcry throughout the Commonwealth in regard to wasteful expenditure; but when such statements have been made to me concerning alleged extravagance, I have asked those making them to mention a particular item on which expenditure can be reduced, and it is seldom that they have been able to do so. We should, if possible, endeavour to square our accounts this year.

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