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Tuesday, 14 August 1906

Mr FISHER (Wide Bay) .- The advice offered to the members of the Commission by the honorable and learned member for Parkes is no doubt very good, from his point of view ; but it must be remembered that a Commission may do many things that do not come within the scope of its functions. I can find nothing in the shape of an instruction to the Commissioners that they were to take upon themselves the responsibility of the Executive with regard to the probable effect of their recommendations upon the revenue.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Why did not the Government point that out?

Mr FISHER - I am endeavouring to indicate the scope of the functions which devolved upon the Commission. In my opinion, the members of a Royal Commission are no more competent to decide matters of importance than are any body of members in this House.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They hear all the evidence adduced on both sides.

Mr FISHER - I wish to give the members of the Commission every credit for having undertaken to perform an important public duty at great inconvenience, and perhaps some expense, to themselves. It is well, however, toremember that one of the ablest of British Prime Ministers stated that when the Government were in a corner, the proper thing for them to do was to appoint a Commission. It was in such an emergency that the Tariff Commission was appointed. The members of that body have worked hard, and have no doubt done their duty to the country faithfully and well, but that has nothing to do with the point to which I wish to direct attention. The commission reads as follows : -

Whereas it has been represented that the operation of the Customs Tariff of the Commonwealth of Australiahas been injurious to certain industries : Know Ye that we do, by these our Letters Patent, appoint you to be Commissioners to inquire into the effect upon Australian industries of the said Tariff, and into the working of the said Tariff generally.

There is nothing in that to indicate that the Commissioners are to inquire into the effect of their recommendations upon the revenue.

Mr Fowler - The whole commission relates to the revenue incidentally.

Mr FISHER - The honorable member is not quite correct in saying that. The Commissioners were instructed to inquire into the effect of the Tariff upon Australian industries, and into the working of the Tariff generally.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Then the Government should have set the report aside as being ultra vires.

Mr FISHER - I contend that the Commissioners should not take umbrage at the modification of their recommendations by Ministers who have considerations of revenue to bear in mind. I am sure that not a member of this Committee would say that any recommendation of the Commission, even though the result might be to preserve a certain industry, should be agreed to if it would involve a loss of revenue which we could not afford to incur.

Mr McWILLIAMS (FRANKLIN, TASMANIA) - Does not the honorable member think that the Commission should really consider the effect upon the revenue of any alteration proposed by them ?

Mr FISHER - If I had been a member of the Commission, I venture to say that I should have given some attention to that matter; but I contend that the Commissioners have no power to go beyond the powers conferred upon them by the terms of their commission. If it had been intended that the Commission should consider the effect of their proposals upon the revenue, that fact should have been clearly set forth in the reference to the Commission. I am not complaining of the action of the Commissioners, nor can I blame the Government for taking up the position that they cannot afford to lose the amount of revenue that would have to be surrendered if the recommendations of the Commission were adopted. But I agree with the honorable and learned member for Parkes that the Government should have laid before honorable members such facts and figures as would have afforded justification for the action they have taken. On the other hand, I think that if it is demonstrated to the Commissioners that their recommendations, however excellent, would, if carried out, result in a loss of revenue which the Commonwealth could not afford to incur, they should not object to their proposals being modified. The fact that a manis appointed as a member of a Commission does not add to his intelligence or to his ability to conduct public affairs.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It adds to his power and his opportunities ; that is the main point.

Mr FISHER - I do not think that any member of the Commission would set himself up as superior to the heads of the public Departments. After all, Ministers haveto fall back upon the heads of public Departments for expert advice in matters affecting their administration. I have no desire to cast any reflection upon the members of the Commission.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - After belittling them for a quarter of an hour.

Mr FISHER - No such idea occurred to me. The Government have not vouchsafed to honorable members the information which should have been afforded as to their reasons for departing from the recommendations of the Commission, and I trust that they will realize that they cannot deal with important matters such as that now before us, in a haphazard way. They should submit the fullest information, and afford honorable members every opportunity to arrive at a conclusion that would be in the best interests of the country.

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