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Tuesday, 19 May 1936

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) (Postmaster-General) . - I regret that I cannot give any such assurance. The matter was remitted to the Tariff Board for its consideration, and I assure honorable senators that in its memorandum the board concurred with the opinion expressed by the ComptrollerGeneral of Customs regarding the administrative difficulties, which will arise if the weight limit be reduced below 6 oz.

Senator Brown - Has the board's memorandum been published?

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - No. The board's report is received by the Comptroller-General of Customs, and if he notes in it anything which may give rise to administrative difficulties, he refers such points to the board, which is then asked to express its views thereon. Frequently proposals are framed by the board in such a way that the department knows from previous experience that they cannot be operated. This item was such an instance, and I explained the circumstances in the remarks I made a few moments ago. This point was taken up with the Tariff Board which after further consideration concurred in the Government's proposal. The only assurance I can give to honorable senators is that if the transposition of trade,at which Senator Foll hinted, is found to be taking place - and we have some departmental evidence that it is - steps will be taken to rectify the position. I ask honorable senators not to press me to promise more than that. The Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. White) expressly wishes that the weight shall remain as set out in the schedule.

SenatorCOLLINGS (Queensland) given me the assurance for which I asked. I am afraid that his decision means danger to an industry in which we. are all vitally interested both from the primary and secondary aspects. Whatever may be the virtues or shortcomings of members of the Opposition, we are continually saving the Government from defeat on this bill when its proposals are in line with our own policy of protection. In the last division taken in this committee, the Government would have been defeated but for the fact that the Opposition stood to its faith in the declared fiscal policy of this Commonwealth. Speaking on a previous item, the Minister put up the bugbear of administrative difficulties as he has done this afternoon. On both occasions he gave no inkling whatever of what those administrative difficulties are. Obviously they are difficulties experienced by Customs House officials. I am not suggesting that these officials are overpaid; as a matter of fact, we can take it for granted that generally the public servants of this country are not being paid salaries commensurate with the work they do. I contend, however, that this Parliament should not be asked to modify its protectionist policy merely because certain Customs House officers find themselves up against some administrative difficulties; their job is to overcome those difficulties. As I intimated previously, I know something of the nature of such problems, because, for many years, I was a clerk in the Customs House. I know something of the tricks which are put over officials, who very often fall victims to administrative difficulties, and allow things to happen which in the opinion of outsiders should not happen. One administrative difficulty under which they are labouring to-day is that the people to whom Senator Leckie and Senator Dein referred are defeating the real purpose of the duties by importing materials that the Tariff Board intended should be made in Australia. Honorable senators supporting an amendment of the item are not wedded to any definite weight limit. Senator Foll suggested 3 oz., and Senator Leckie is prepared to compromise on 4^ oz., whilst Senator Dein suggests a limit of 5 oz. This is an occasion, I submit, on which the Government cannot afford to be adamant; it ought to meet those who are helping it to pilot this schedule through the Senate. However, let us consider the statements of the Minister on the matter of weight limit. On the 30th November last, this item was fully debated in the House of Representatives. The Tariff Board recommended the imposition of duties on all dyed cloth weighing 3 oz. and over, but the Government, in this schedule, does not propose to impose duties on drills and dungarees unless they weigh more than 6 oz. This is a departure from the recommendation of the board. It would be useless for me to suggest that we should worship at the feet of the board; on several occasions I have objected to the fact that the Government created the board, and finally endowed it with powers which made it superior to its creator. The Government cannot have it both ways; it cannot, on one occasion, command our support because the Tariff Board recommended its proposal, and, on another occasion, command our support on the ground that its proposal has not been recommended by the board. Had I- the opportunity, I could very easily find in the pages of Ilansard instances to show that in these matters the Government, and even the Minister, has not always been consistent. On one point to-day the Minister in charge of the bill was consistent in his adherence to the board's recommendations, because he explained that the change by the Government in this instance, because of some administrative difficulty, had been endorsed by the board. It is obviously unfair, however, that all sections of the cotton industry - growers, spinners and manufacturers - should be endangered by the importations that are at present taking place because of administrative difficulties. I urge honorable senators to -visualize what this industry embraces; first in Queensland, where, with the assistance of Commonwealth and State Governments, cotton-growing is now an established and vital industry. Let honorable senators think of the numbers of men and women and their families who are engaged in the planting, tilling and picking of cotton, and then transfer their thoughts to the great cotton-spinning and weaving mills in the manufacturing centres of Australia. I am assured by the manager of one of these mills that if this weight limit be not reduced, the trade in these goods will continue to goin increasing quantity to Japan. There is no hearsay about this. The business is going to Japan because the weight specified in the item is too high. This firm states that it expects to use 8,000 bales of Queensland cotton this year, and that it could use a great deal more were it not for the fact that much of the trade, which Parliament obviously intended Australia should have, is now going to Japan. Actually, the Government, in persisting in its present course, is largely destroying its own protectionist policy. We do not press this request out of obstinacy; we have no desire to secure a victory over the Government; our only desire is to do the best thing possible f or this great national industry in both its primary and secondary branches. The Minister seems to be under a misapprehension. He said that had the weight of cotton drills been fixed at 3 oz. for dyed material, and 6 oz. for undyed material, it would have been possible for merchants to import 6 oz. bleached or unbleached material, and have the dying done locally, thus defeating the object of the tariff. As a matter of fact, that is still possible; it is, in fact, being done now. What, I ask, is the Government doing to overcome that menace? The Minister stated that if we submitted definite examples, instead of offering flimsy evidence, action would be taken, but I should like to know what he would consider satisfactory evidence. We have placed before him the evidence of one of the largest manufacturers in the Commonwealth to the effect that this item in its present form is operating detrimentally to the industry; that this firm would use thousands of bales more of Queensland cotton were this restriction removed. It is most unreasonable of the Minister to stand so fixedly by his decision, and refuse to consider the representations of the Opposition, or of those members of his own party who agree with us on this subject. The industry is prepared to face overseas competition if it is given a chance, but this the Government refuses to give it. I know this industry, and what it means to Queensland, but I am not concerned solely with the interests of my own State; and I am prepared to help the industry because it means a great deal also to the manufacturers of New South Wales and Victoria. I trust that the request moved by Senator Foll will be agreed to. I was most surprised to find the Minister taking up so firm an attitude, and was particularly surprised that he declined absolutely to consider even a reasonable compromise.

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