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Wednesday, 27 July 1921

Senator DUNCAN (New South Wales) . - In my opinion, the Minister has not met the argument against the clause. I agree that, largely, though not entirely, the making of the proposed amendment would be tantamount to the negativing of the clause; but I am opposed to the Board having such wide powers of initiative in the matter of inquiry as the clause gives it. The Minister says that the Board should not run to the Minister for Trade and Customs about all kinds of minor matters; but the matters into which it may inquire on its own initiative are, many of them,. major matters of extreme importance to the people of Australia.

Senator Russell - The Board can only inquire; it cannot come to any decision.

Senator DUNCAN - An important consideration is the fact that the clause gives the Board the right to determine the priority of its investigations. Subclause 1 of clause 15 specifies a. number of matters which, the Minister shall refer to the Board for inquiry and report, and sub-clause 2 contains a list of other matters, equally important and comprehensive, which the Minister may refer to the Board, or into which the Board may of its own initiative make an inquiry. What has happened in the administration of the War Service Homes Commissioner shows the danger of removing Ministerial control from a Department. The War Service Homes Commissioner was given very wide powers.

Senator Russell - He had power to act ; but the Tariff Board will have power merelytoinquire and report.

Senator DUNCAN - The Minister for Repatriation could not, because of the way in which the War Service Homes Act. was framed, control the Commissioner for War Services Homes. This clause proposes to give to the Tariff Board very wide powers of initiative in regard to inquiries ; and to inquire is to act. The Board is to consist of two business men, and a departmental officer. The business men might care nothing for the authority of the Minister, and. be animated solely by the desire to do what is best for Australia. In these circumstances, the Board, on certain facts being placed before it, might, determine to make inquiry into, say, the general effect of the working of the Customs Tariff in relation to the primary industry of wheat production. The business members of the Board might be interested in this matter, though not pecuniarily.

Senator Russell - The- Bill would not allow them to deal with any matter- in which they were- personally interested.

SenatorDUNCAN.- Their interest might be in no sense personal'; but they might think- that the effect of the Tariff was to give the wheat-growers of Australia a rough spin, causing them, it might be, to pay too much for their agricultural machinery. The Board might, therefore, decide to initiate' an inquiry into the effect of the- Tariff on wheatgrowing: Such an inquiry might engage it for sixmonths, requiring it to travel to the various States to ascertain the conditions oft the farmers, the cost of production, and the like:

Senator Russell - A Minister that would allow the Board to devote itself on itsowninitiative, for six months, solely to any one question, to thedisregard of other business, ought not to continue' in office.

Senator DUNCAN - The. Bill does not give the Minister, power to prevent such an inquiry. The Board might,have every justification for such an inquiry, as I have suggested; but, whilst, engaged in it, important matters of departmental administration might arise . with, which the Minister might wish it to deal, and it might decidethat those matters must await its pleasure.

Senator Russell - How long would' a Minister stand that ?

Senator DUNCAN - The Minister wouldhaveto stand it, unless he was' prepared to go to Parliament, and say that he had determined to get rid of the Board, or of certain of its members.

Senator Russell - The Minister has power to immediately suspend members of that Board.

Senator DUNCAN - Yes; but that would be- a very serious step- to take, and it would be better to- make it clear in the Bill that it is the- Minister, and not the Board, who shall, determine the priority of investigations.. We shall do wrong if we give the Board the right to say what inquiries it may make, whether the Minister likes it or not. In the best interests of the Government it would be wise to agree to the amendment. Acceptance would not harm the Bill, although the objection has been advanced that it would destroy it. The effect would really be to make the Board more workable, and control would be retained in the hands of the Minister.

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