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Thursday, 19 November 1936

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - Every time a bill to validate a tariff schedule, which has run almost its full six months, comes before the Senate, honorable senators are told the circumstances are most extraordinary, and it is urged that Parliament should extend the period allowed for the consideration of the schedule, and meanwhile validate the duties already collected. I agree with Senator Hardy that, in this instance, the circumstances are indeed extraordinary - and on this aspect I shall have more to say as I proceed. My main point at the moment is that there have been repeated delays in the passing of tariff schedules. I think that I am right in saying that since the 1934 act to which 1 have referred was passed by Parliament not one tariff schedule has been agreed to within six months of the date of its introduction. In every case an extension of time has been sought. What guarantee have we that what happened a year or two ago will not happen in connexion with this schedule? Honorable senators will remember that on that occasion, a tariff schedule was included in another schedule and because of its incorporation therein, a new term of six months began. Will the Minister in charge of this bill give a guarantee that nothing of that kind will be done on this occasion? The Minister does not reply.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - I shall give a guarantee when I reply to the second reading.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - The Minister has not said that the proposals will be dealt with this year.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - I gave an assurance that they would be dealt with before Parliament adjourned for the Christmas vacation this year.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - The Minister's assurance will save me a certain amount of what I proposed to say. If it is clear that the schedules will not, as on a previous occasion, be incorporated in a new schedule, one danger has passed. But one experience like that to which I have referred makes honorable senators chary of passing these validating measures. The Minister's assurance, however, does not at all affect my main point, namely, that the proposals which the Senate is now asked to validate ought never to have been introduced in the way that they were introduced. I do not say that the Government, in bringing them in, acted in defiance of the law, but I do say that it ignored the law relating to tariff schedules.

Senator Sir George Pearce - Why not leave this discussion until the proposals come before the Senate?

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - I propose to speak now. I am asked to join in ratifying tariff proposals which ought never to have been brought in as they were, and I certainly am not prepared to join in ratifying them without expressing my view. The Tariff Board Act of 1921, which for material purposes has not been altered, provides -

The Minister shall refer to the board for inquiry and report the following matters: -

(d)   the necessity for new, increased or reduced duties and the deferment of existing or proposed deferred duties . . . and shall not take any action in respect of any of those matters until he has received the report of the board.

Notwithstanding that clear and definite provision, action of a most important and drastic kind was taken suddenly, for it will he remembered that the tariff proposals which the Government now seeks to validate were laid on the table of the House of Representatives on the day that it adjourned, which makes the position much worse. It appears extraordinary that the Government should ignore the Tariff Board Act when it thinks fit to do so. And what makes its action more blameworthy is that it was a complete reversal of the announced policy of the Government - a policy that it had previously adheredto and insisted on, namely, that changes of the tariff should not be made without reference to the Tariff Board. It is unnecessary for me to quote all that lias been said by members of the Government on this matter, but I draw attention to two statements, one by the Prime Minister and another by the Leader of the Senate (Senator Pearce). In his policy speech in 1934, the Prime Minister said -

In my policy speech of two and a half years ago, I gave the undertaking that the Government would follow a policy of protection to all soundly economic manufacturing enterprises, and that the Government would follow in broad principle the recommendations of the Tariff Board. I claim that those undertakings have been completely honoured . . . Prohibitions and surcharges have been almost entirely swept away.

For the future we propose to proceed along the same lines, except that there will be further collaboration between the Customs Department and the Commerce Department in the matter of treaty-making . . . The Government . . will also have regard to the necessity for safeguarding our general export trade by treaties with foreign countries that are large purchasers of our primary products.

The Government proposes to ask the new Parliament to give to the Minister power to negotiate such treaties and, in accordance with the practice which has been adopted in many countries, put them into force immediately by [iioclamation, subject to the proviso that they must be ratified within a fixed period by Parliament itself . . . This will not preclude consultations with the Tariff Board in regard to them.

So far as I know that action has not been taken. Passing from the election to the occasion when the Ottawa agreement waa being considered in this Parliament, we find that the Government firmly took the stand that, in view of its undertaking to the general public, it was impossible to make definite changes in the tariff until it had received the Tariff Board's reports on the items involved. What has become of those promises ? In moving the second reading of the United Kingdom and Australia Trade Agreement Bill in the Senate on the 17th November, 1932, the Leader of the Senate said -

The policy of the Government is definitely against changes in protective tariff items without reference to, and consideration by, the Tariff Board. It thus denies to itself the right arbitrarily to raise or lower protective tariff levels. This policy, declared at the general elections in December last, has been closely observed. But what of the policy for Ottawa? Was the Government to have one policy for the domestic Australian consideration, and another for Ottawa? Would the Government, through its delegation, in response to the British requests for reduced duties in her favour, proceed to a special ministerial revision independently of the Tariff Board? After careful deliberation, the Government decided that the policy declared at the elections, and since acted upon in tariff resolutions now before Parliament, might prevail at Ottawa. There can be no question, I submit, as to the wisdom of this decision.

The Government's attitude on this occasion, however, is a complete reversal of its previous attitude. What it could not do for the Empire at Ottawa it is apparently able, and prepared, to do now for the ostensible reason of helping certain Australian industries. If its present action helps any Australian industry it will certainly do a great deal of harm to other industries. I have never agreed with the contention that the Government should be bound irrevocably by the Tariff Board's findings. I have said that the Government ought to have taken action earlier on its own initiative. Immediately after it assumed office duties had been raised by the Scullin Government without reference to the Tariff Board, and I voted for Senator Johnston's amendment that they should be restored to what they were before. That seemed to be fair. I do not place my faith completely in the Tariff Board, and I have made my position clear to my electors. But I suppose that every other honorable senator on our side of politics was elected on the undertaking that the raising of duties could be preceded by an investigation and report by the Tariff Board.

Senator Dein - We did not undertake to follow the Tariff Board's recommendation slavishly.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - No, but can the honorable senator justify radical alterations of the tariff, such as are contained in the schedules now before us, without reference to the Tariff Board ?

Senator Dein - That is different. The honorable senator said that we had undertaken to be bound, without exception, by the Tariff Board's findings.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - I did not say that. I have never held the view that any Minister, or any honorable senator, should be bound by the recommendations of the Tariff Board; but I do say that senators should stand, first, by the law of the land, and, secondly, by the policy enunciated by the Prime Minister and supported by them, that the Government would not make any radical alteration of our protective duties without first referring such proposals to the Tariff Board. The honorable senator will be fully occupied in rebutting those two points.

I regard this schedule as a whole, though not every portion of it, as being in direct opposition to the economic interests of Australia, and, therefore, to the real economic interests of Great Britain.

It may be .asked why I should make a speech of this nature at a time when negotiations with Japan are in progress.

Senator Collings - Why does the honorable senator do so?

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