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Thursday, 16 May 1957

Mr POLLARD (Lalor) .- I am more than ever convinced that the honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns) has rendered a very great public service in raising this matter in the House to-day. One has only to observe the discomfiture of the two Ministers concerned in this problem to realize that, in their own consciences, they are confronted with a problem which they have not taken any satisfactory action to handle over the last few years. Let us see why it is that this problem arises. The plain fact is that, under the managed or planned economy that we have to-day, the Commonwealth Bank is the focal point of the economy, and is charged with the responsibility of maintaining full employment to the extent that it can effectively influence economic and banking policy. Imposed upon that responsibility and in order to maintain full employment, there must necessarily be a co-ordination of banking policy with import and export policy. To the extent that import policy can be determined, some form of control must arbitrarily be imposed from time to time.

It would appear to me, after listening to the two Ministers - and I think this is the real reason we are in trouble - that they have come to the conclusion that import licensing is something of a passing phase in our economy to-day and will not continue into the foreseeable future. The plain fact is that if we are to prevent disasters of a financial or economic character and safeguard the people against the awful effects of a depression such as that of 1929-32, the economy must be controlled in the way found necessary from time to time. At least one Minister realizes that that is so. Last night he conveyed the facts of our balance of payments problem to the House when he said that the price of wool had fallen from 80d. per lb. to 70d. per lb. and then to 60d. per lb. - three substantial variations within a comparatively brief period of a year or two. He said that wool was the factor which could cause a balance or unbalance in our economy. Would any honorable member in this House in a responsible position, ministerial or otherwise, say that in the foreseeable future the price of wool will remain reasonably stable? Is any Minister prepared to say that the price of wool is not likely to rise and fall by 5d., Id., lOd. or ls. per lb.? The very nature of that movement makes it essential to impose restrictions of some sort at some point in the economy, no matter which party may be in office. When it is realized that a movement either way of Id. per lb. in the price of wool means a reduction or an increase in our balance of trade position of £5,000,000, anybody can see how delicate the position is.

This Government, seeming to think that import licensing is just a passing phase, has neglected to equip the respective departments, particularly the Customs and Excise Department, with the essential plant and personnel to handle this problem efficiently and effectively as it may arise from day to day. It is quite true that, at the onset of the emergency caused by this problem, the department was hurriedly re-organized to deal with it, and no doubt the department did the best it could with the existing material. Post-war shortages and matters of that kind caused a similar position to arise during the last period of the Chifley Government's Administration, and we did the best we could in the circumstances. It was not efficient. This Government has been in the saddle for eight years, but what has it done? It is plodding along in the same manner as, understandably, the Government plodded along eight years ago.

To evade their responsibilities, to-day, both Ministers tried to imply that the honorable member for Yarra and the honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Crean) were casting aspersions on the respective departmental specialists. What we say is that, as responsible Ministers, they have not ensured that their departments are equipped with the essential and specialized personnel and machines and all the rest of the apparatus that is necessary to handle this matter expeditiously. One needs only to look from time to time at the reports of the Commonwealth Bank and at reports in the press of the activities of the bank to realize that it is in touch with the most efficient banking practices in other countries. Only recently, I noticed that the Commonwealth Bank had taken steps to train a very substantial portion of its staff in the use and operation of machines that can, in a fraction of a minute, make a calculation arising from a most involved problem. The honorable member for Yarra raised this matter to-day to ginger, not the personnel, but the Ministers in the two departments concerned. I doubt whether the public service of any other country has more efficient members than has the Public Service of the Commonwealth of Australia. The attack is made on the negligence of the two Ministers. The Minister for Air (Mr. Osborne) has been touring the world ordering aircraft. That is necessary; he is Minister for Air and Minister for Customs.

Mr Osborne - I am not.

Mr POLLARD - He is the Minister for Air and Civil Aviation. Call him what you like; he is of little importance to me. He holds a dual portfolio.

Mr Osborne - I do not.

Mr POLLARD - He is trying to carry on another man's job, but he does not know what is happening in the Customs and Excise Department. The Minister for Trade tells the Department of Customs and Excise what should be done, but he does not know whether it has the wherewithal to do it efficiently and with the least pain to the unfortunate sections of the public concerned. Ultimately, of course, all members of the public are affected as a result of the inefficiency and failure of Ministers to cope with this problem satisfactorily.

Last night, the honorable member for Chisholm (Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes) rendered a public service when he pointed out that certain favoured people enjoy privileges under this system. Those privileges are continuing, and something must be done. The Government is operating the war-time system under which, if a man has a quota, in certain circumstances when some control is imposed he becomes a monopolist. No one when he leaves school or has saved a few pounds can say that he will go into the importing business, because when he goes to the department he is told, " We are very sorry, but import restrictions are operating and you cannot enter this field; other people are in it and we will not interfere with them ". I say emphatically that this sort of control will continue so long as Australia is unable to control the selling price of its great export product - wool. In those circumstances, if there is to be free enterprise, there must be some channel through which newcomers can enter the industry. If they cannot, those who have the privilege of holding a monopoly of importing must face up to their responsibility.

I emphasize that the Opposition's attack is made not on the specialists in the departments, the administrative chiefs or their underlings, but on Ministers who seem to think that this is a passing phase and leave their departments ill equipped to deal with the problem, with the result that thousands of people - importers and those closely associated with them, and, ultimately, the public - do not know where they are and are suffering unfair and unjust imposts.

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