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Thursday, 14 December 1905

Mr ROBINSON (Wannon) -It is a pity that a very important proposal of this kind should be brought before us at this stage of the session. The AttorneyGeneral has stated that the ideas embodied in it have been before the public for months, and that the people have been demanding a. measure of this character for some time. If honorable members will cast their minds back to the first occasion upon which an Anti-Trust Bill was promised in this Parliament, and if they will examine the measure before us, they will at once realize that a complete change has taken place in the ideas of those who asked for it. An Anti-Trust Bill was promised in the first instance by the right honorable member for Adelaide, and it was intended to prevent the formation of local combines and trusts. It was admitted that the Tariff would probably foster the creation of those bodies. The Government of the day, which comprised the present Minister of Trade and Customs and the Prime Minister, promised that the Bill would be introduced at an early date. Their pledge in that connexion was not fulfilled, and no attempt would have been made to deal with this question but for the fierce controversy that has arisen over the. importation of harvesters. It is an unfortunate fact that the largest manufacturer of harvesters in Victoria has been able to exercise so much political influence. He has been able to exert sufficient influence to get the valuation of harvesters raised at the Customs House, and also to precipitate the introduction of this particular measure. I am not one of those who object to the passing of a Bill which will deal rationally with trusts and monopolies. When Henry Demerest Lloyd, the well-known American writer upon this subject, was in Australia some years ago, I had the pleasure of many conversations with him, and I was in possession of his books when there were only two or three of them in the Commonwealth. I have taken great interest in the literature bearing on American trusts, and have paid particular attention to the question.' It has agitated the public mind for some time. I venture to say that the means adopted in this Bill are not such as will adequately control local industries ; on the contrary, they will increase their power. They will lead to local trusts springing up in many branches of industry in which they are at present unknown, and will press most injuriously upon the producers of Australia. The measure with which we are now dealing owes its origin to the harvester incident, and it is my intention to devote a few minutes to a re-statement of that matter, in order to show that many unjustifiable aspersions have been cast upon the importers of the machines. I wish to show that they have been subjected to a great many misrepresentations. Only a few days ago a well-known Victorian senator journeyed to the Mallee and the Wimmera, and delivered an address at Warracknabeal, and also two lectures at Horsham, which is within my electorate, in support of theimposition of an exceptionally heavy duty on harvesters. On the following Saturday the farmers of the Horsham district held a meeting to con sider the question, and only seven were in favour of his policy. That does not lead one to believe that the Canadian exporters of harvesters have driven terror into the hearts of our farmers. Notwithstanding an exposition of the situation by a keen debater and an experienced orator, resolutions were passed against the imposition of an additional duty. I have been inundated with resolutions passed by many of my constituents, urging me to oppose any measure likely to restrict the importation of harvesters, or to increase the duty upon them.

Mr McWilliams - And these are the men who use them.

Mr ROBINSON - That is so. I am one of those who believe that? the opinions of those who use these machines should have far more weight with us than the opinions of the individuals who are brought together by the ringing of a bell in one of the suburbs, and who would probably not be able to distinguish between a harvester and a hay rake. I have received the following letter from the Natimuk Farmers' Association: -

Dear Sir, - I have been instructed by my association to write you as their valued representative - " That this association is vigorously opposed to any additional duty being levied on harvesters, and that they thoroughly appreciate your splendid work in safeguarding the farming interests, and sincerely assure you of their continued support."

I have referred to this communication to show that the farmers of one of our important wheat-growing centres are strongly opposed to the imposition of an increased duty on harvesters. I have also received the following letter from the secretary of the Vectis East Farmers' Association, which comprises many of the men who settled on the Walmer Estate, purchased by the State Government when the honorable member for Echuca held office as Minister of Lands, and I have no hesitation in saying that they are all of a fine type: -

Dear Sir, - At the meeting of our association on the 7th inst., a motion was passed to the effect that this association was opposed to any increase of duty on imported harvesters, and that you be asked to use your influence in trying to prevent the duty from being increased.

I have also received the following letter from Lower Norton, another wheat-growing centre, near Horsham : -

Dear Sir, - I have the honour to inform you that at a representative meeting of farmers in this district, the following resolution was carried unanimously : - " That this meeting strenuously protests against any increase of duty being placed on harvesters and harvesting machinery, and that the resolution be forwarded to Mr. Robinson, our member."

I propose to read to the House the following extract from a local newspaper: -

At the last meeting of the Murtoa Farmers' Association, the president, Mr. Nowotna, brought forward the matter of the proposed increase of duty on harvesting machinery, and during the discussion which followed he mentioned that some years ago he had been a shareholder in the McKay Company, who used to have their machines built at a cost of about£50 for each machine, and he thought that an extra duty on "the imported article would simply keep up the price of machines without giving them a chance of choosing their own makes. He therefore moved, says the Dunmunkle Standard, " That this association protest against a further increase of duties on such articles." The motion was seconded by Mr. Degenhardt, and carried.

These letters and reports should show honorable members that there is a feeling, at all events in some parts of the country, that the agitation which has been so skilfully conducted, and so ably supported in the press, in favour of the prohibition of the importation of harvesters, should not be encouraged. It is hardly necessary for me to mention that every one of these letters was entirely unsolicited by me. Most of the resolutions were passed without my knowledge, and most of the correspondents to whom I have referred are personally unknown to me. The unfortunate individuals who are responsible for the importation of harvesters have been under a very severe fire from certain quarters since the 20th April last. On that day Mr. Moore, manager for T. Robinson and Company, manufacturers of agricultural implements, carrying on business at Spottiswoode, was examined before the Tariff Commission. Mr. McKay gave evidence a few days later on. Since then a vigorous campaign has been conducted against the importation of harvesters, and it is a singular fact that no opportunity has been afforded the importers to put their case before the public. At the time that the Customs Department took the extraordinary action in connexion with harvesters that is now a matter of history, there was on the file of the Department the draft of a letter to be written to the MasseyHarris Company, asking for an explanation of certain matters. But some zealous individual in the Department wrote across it, in pencil, " Hold over until Mr. Smart has seen Mr. McKay." The letter was to remain in abeyance until the axe-grinder, Mr. McKay, had had another opportunity to speak against the importers. The departmental action in regard to the duty on harvesters was taken without any explanation being demanded from the Massey-Harris Company.

Sir William Lyne - The incident to which the honorable member refers occurred before I took office.

Mr ROBINSON - I do not wish to attribute blame to the Minister. The Department took action without asking for any explanation from the importers, and although charges of unfair competition were made against them as far back as April last, they have not yet been afforded an opportunity to state their case before the Tariff Commission. It is true that the Commission paid them rather a back-handed compliment by suggesting that they should give evidence before it in Adelaide. Not being absolute idiots, they refused to do so. They urged that their evidence, like that of their opponents, should be given in Melbourne. I am now informed that in January next - after a lapse of nine months - they are to be afforded an opportunity to go before the Commission in this city. I do not say that an opportunity to state their case has been wilfully denied them by the Tariff Commission. The trouble has possibly occurred owing to a faulty arrangement of work. But we are now asked to pass legislation very much in the dark, inasmuch as the importers have not had a chance to express their view of the matter. On the other hand, the campaign started by Mr. McKay to protect his business against foreign competition has been conducted for many months with great skill and ability. Accusations have been hurled against the Massey-Harris Company and the International Harvester Company, and at a time when the. public mind has been strongly inflamed by ex forte statements this Bill has been introduced. In the closing hours of the session, we are asked to agree to it, without having had an opportunity to give it reasonable and proper consideration. We have been asked to proceed with its consideration on the day following the Ministerial explanation of its provisions. The Attorney-General, striking one of his heroic attitudes, declared that the Bill was to divide the friends and foes of Australia. That being so, no one can deny its importance. I have been anxious to check it, and to compare it with the legislation of America and other countries, but it was only yesterday that I was able to secure a copy of the Sherman Act, whilst the New Zealand Act reached me only this afternoon. Most of the books and papers dealing with this subject are practically under the control of the Government, and when they desire to use them, it is exceedingly difficult for private members to obtain them. I do not wish to blame the Ministry for this ; they wished, of course, to have the use of these books, to enable them to prepare the Bill. But I hold that honorable members should have been afforded a reasonable opportunity to study similar laws passed by other Legislatures, in order that they might determine in what respect the Bill differs from existing legislation in other parts of the world.

Sir William Lyne - The moment I had finished with the books to which the honorable and learned member refers, I returned them.

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