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Friday, 22 June 1906

Mr WEBSTER (Gwydir) . - I have listened with much interest to the remarks which honorable members have addressed to the House on this very important subject. Whilst I can heartily congratulate the honorable member for Mernda upon the information 'which he has placed before us as the result of his investigations, I feel that he. would have concluded a wellthoughtout speech with very much more credit to himself if he had not attempted a criticism of certain parties in this House and had not condemned honorable members for absence from the chamber during the consideration of importantpublic business.

Mr Henry Willis - How does the honorable member excuse his own absences ?

Mr WEBSTER - I was going to say that the honorable member for Mernda should be the last to find fault with other honorable members on this score, because he is very rarely in his place in this chamber to listen to any discussion. With all due respect to the honorable member, it very ill becomes him to set himself up as a critic of the attendance of other honorable members. I may be pardoned for a reference to the honorable member's complaint that the Governments he has supported have not been in the habit of consulting members of their party before submitting important legislation.' The honorable member's statement is. an indication that he thinks that the old system of party government might be improved by the adoption of the methods followedby a party which in this House is not in office nor yet in Opposition. The honorable member's complaint of the neglect of the Government to confer with himself and others on matters of which they have special knowledge is a testimonial in support of the methods of the Labour Party. In saying that the Labour Party meet, not for the purpose of consulting as to their action with regard to the business before Parliament, but in connexion with their duty to some outside irresponsible bodies, the honorable member spoke of what he did not understand, because the members of the Labour Party do what he has said they do not do. They confer upon every matter of legislation submitted to Parliament, with a view to threshing out the details of each proposal, and coming to a conclusion upon them in the interests, not of any section, but of the whole of the people. I have been interested, amused, and amazed at the varying attitudes assumed by honorable members in different parts of the Chamber in dealing with this measure. Whilst the deputy leader of the Opposition, and other honorable members who have followed him on the same side, have led the outside public to believe that they would spurn a Government that would bring in legislation of this character, and have declared that the provisions of this measure must end in disaster to the trading community, they have concluded their speeches by. assertin that it is their intention to support the second reading of the Bill. During the recess the leader of the Opposition and those' who support him have from many public platforms denounced anti-trust legislation. The newspapers supporting them have been equally strong in their denunciations of it.

Yet when honorable members of the Opposition enter this Chamber, and an antitrust Bill is submitted for their consideration, the bulk of them sink the principles to which they have given expression on the public platform, and declare that they in-, tend to vote for the measure. Really the attitude of honorable members who profess to represent the interests of the commercial! community is indescribable. During the debate I have heard with great regret accusations made by honorable members opposite which do not reflect credit upon them or upon this Parliament. In discussing a measure of this kind, it is not unusual for honorable members opposite to charge the Minister of Trade and Customs with being ' corrupt, and to leave it to be inferred by the public that he is untrustworthy, and is capable of acting a dishonorable part. There is little wonder that newspapers and people outside should be so ready to besmirch the characters of Members of Parliament when we find honorable members, without any evidence, and without being prepared to make a direct charge, making observations which are calculated to lead the public to infer that the Minister in charge of the Customs Department of the Commonwealth is open to conduct which would disgrace his position. It is easy for honorable members who have no regard for the dignity of Parliament and the honour which should attach to the possession of a seat in this House, to smile at the methods which from time to time are adopted to score off a political opponent. The honorable and Learned member for Werriwa the other night made a statement which would justify the inference that the Minister of Trade and Customs had done something absolutely dishonorable. He inferred that the honorable gentleman was prepared to use his position in such a way that those interested in a mew iron and steel manufacturing company to be established in Melbourne might be led to believe that the company would be enabled to make greater profits as the result of some subsequent action to be taken by the Government, and that as a consequence the shares of the company had gone up to the tune of 100 per cent. If the honorable and teamed member knew anything at all about company flotation, he would have known that it is the history of nearly all public companies that in their embryonic stage various methods are adopted for booming their shares before anything practical has been given to the public as a result of their operations. I am complaining because it Kas been suggested in this Chamber time and again by members of the Opposition that the Minister of Trade and Customs has not acted, and is not acting, honorably. That charge should not be made unless it can be proved, and the man who makes such a charge without substantiating it is a worse enemy than he who would deliberately strike his foe. These suggestions of corruption are discreditable to those who have made them, and who cannot substantiate corrupt charges.

Mr Liddell - No charges have been made against the Minister. Members of the Opposition have spoken only of what might be done by future Ministers.

Mr WEBSTER - The Minister has been spoken of, time and again, in a manner which no other man would tolerate. I should be the first to vote for an investigation of any direct charge against a man holding a high public office, but I shall be the last to allow such a man to be attacked in a cowardly fashion by others, who have not the courage to make straight-out charges. It has been said that the trusts and combines which the Bill is intended to regulate Gave been the cause of much evil in the public life of the world. The records of America show that trusts have largely corrupted the Parliaments of that country, whose members have from time to time been bought bv them.

Mr Wilks - Only the Senate.

Mr WEBSTER - What does it matter, so long as the corruption has taken place? If trusts are a danger to public morality, why should we not try to avoid that danger here?

Mr Wilks - The honorable member's party says that the State should own everything.

Mr WEBSTER - We have said definitely what we mean; but I do not know that the party to which the honorable member belongs knows what it means. A measure of this kind is necessary, because of the conditions which exist to-day in other parts of the world. It has been asked why should we pass1, legislation of this character, seeing that we have no monopolies in Australia? But we know how injurious are the effects of monopolies, and. therefore, we should not allow them to be established in our midst. The harvester case alone calls for interference by Parliament, in the interests of manufacturers and producers alike. Great injury is now being done to the farmers of New South Wales bv the abnormal prices which they are being charged for the machinery which they have to buy to carry on their industry. It has been said that there is no reason for interfering with the iron industry.; but, only the other day, when the Victorian Government called for tenders for the supply of rails, they were offered rails at $Z7 a ton, landed on the wharf at Williamstown, which were being sold at the works in America for $28 a ton. That is an example of the extent to which a large company will cut down prices in order to get business. Monopoly is the outcome of opportunity, and if we follow the old maxim that prevention is better than cure, we shall destroy this opportunity. The deputy leader of the Opposition spoke of a natural economic law with which we should not interfere.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I said nothing of the kind.

Mr WEBSTER - The honorable member rarely admits that Re has said what other people have heard him say. The honorable member for Mernda made practically the same statement. Do honorable gentlemen term a natural law that which is only commercial law, due to the evolution of commerce and manufacture ? Do they say. that conditions which have become a menace to the welfare of producers and consumers alike should be allowed to intensify, and that the public should noi take legislative action to protect themselves from them? Why should we not interfere with this so-called natural economic law? Those who have studied industrial progress know that the. tendency of the age is towards the concentration of business control, which leads to monopoly, which, in its turn,', allows, the most barefaced and flagrant imposition. It is the duty of the representatives of the people to protect the community from these results of commercial evolution. Honorable members opposite do not show us any remedy for these evils, whose existence they cannot but admit, and they are1, therefore, going to accept the Bill which they have condemned so much, although they say that they will amend it in Committee. That is always said by men who wish to get themselves out of a difficult position. We have been told that time will remedy these evils without Government interference. But in deal ing with these matters, we have to deal, not' with the best, but with the worst side of human nature; with the mercenary spirit which, to gain its own ends, would crush all opponents. The honorable member for Mernda says that no good will come from, this measure; but, while I am not verymuch impressed with it as a means for suppressing monopolies, I do not agree with the leader of my party in not expecting any practical result from it. I think that there are provisions in the Bill which are calculated to remedy some of the evils with which we have to contend, which, if not nipped in the bud, will grow to terrible proportions. The clauses prohibiting the obtaining of unfair profits by importers can, in my opinion, be successfully admdnistere in the interests of the people of Australia. I am not sure that a Judge of the Supreme Court would be the best person to deal with questions arising under the Bill, and fee? inclined to support the creation of a Board" of experts who would thoroughly understand the questions upon which they were, called to adjudicate, and of a jury of experts acquainted with the intricacies of commerce and manufacture. The honorable member for Mernda tried to show1 how it would be possible for the International Harvester Company to defeat the intentions of Parliament. He contended that the trusts would probably take measures to defeat the object of the Bill. He suggested that they would engage men to come to Victoria., and manufacture machines, and that they would then employ agents in the other States to first purchase, and afterwards sell their machinery, and in this* way escape the possibility of beingpenalized under the law. No one can deny that means are very often found for escaping legal liability. In the United States it is complained that no sooner is one hole in the net which has been drawnround the trust stopped up, than another one is made bv the lawyers. President Roosevelt complains that the Sherman Act and the Wilson Act have alike proved ineffective.

Mr Harper - That is owing to thewicked lawyers.

Mr WEBSTER - They are wicked inmany respects. If it were not for thelawyers in Parliament and outside of it we should not need the same number of laws that we have to-day. Our Statuteswould be more clearly understood a. id effective than they are at present. I do not- think that the measure will prove an absolute remedy for the evils complained of, but it will certainly Le in advance of anything that has been placed upon the statutebooks of other countries. The AttorneyGeneral has taken advantage of the experience gained in the United States with regard to trusts, and if the members of the Opposition exercise the wonderful ingenuity which they are known to possess in assisting to bring the Bill into workable shape, we shall no doubt be able to pass a satisfactory measure. I expect that the Bill will put a stop to some of the operations that are now proving injurious to our industries, and that it will prevent other proceedings of a similar kind. The arguments of the honorable member for Mernda, which were directed to showing that the measure would prove ineffective, seem to me to supply the strongest reasons for adopting the policy advocated by the Labour Party, namely, the nationalization of such monopolies as are beyond control by the Legislature. We are prepared to take that course if the present measure should prove unsatisfactory. The honorable .member for Mernda stated that monopolies did not grow out of the concentration of manufacturing operations, but out of the control of transportation. I admit that there is a great deal of truth in that. No doubt the control of transportation enables monopolies to be largely extended. I do not, however, agree with the honorable member that owing to the fact that our principal means of transportation are in the hands of the States monopolies cannot assume large and harmful proportions in the Commonwealth. I maintain that we have injurious monopolies amongst us to-day. The harvesting combine is operating to the detriment of our local industries. The shipping combine is also proving harmful, and I might point to many other large trading enterprises which should be restricted to some extent. We find that in Melbourne a combination is being formed among the brewers with the object of crushing out a competitor that has recently proved successful. The brewers are making "the fullest use of the control which they exercise over certain tied houses.

Mr Harper - The combine has been formed with a view to getting rid of the tied houses.

Mr WEBSTER - That is a detail with which I am not now concerned. As a matter of fact, the brewers' combination are supplying their tied houses with beer at £3 per hogshead, whilst other houses, which have been taking their beer from the Co-operative Company, are being supplied at the rate of £2 10s. per hogshead. The sole object of this reduction in price is to crush out the Co-operative Company. If the combine succeed, the price of beer will again go up, and the consumer will be penalized. The honorable member for Mernda led us to infer that he could always be depended upon to defend those industries in which he was interested. I do not blame him for taking that course, but I do not think that he has a right to reproach us for not attending to listen to him. The honorable member attempted to show that the sugar industry was not the subject of a monopoly. I do not think that he succeeded, but I shall take another opportunity of refuting his arguments. I shall defer any further remarks I may have to make until the Bill reaches the Committee stage.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Skene) adjourned.

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