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Tuesday, 3 June 1902

Mr THOMSON (North Sydney) - Iri any criticism that I have to offer upon the administration of the Customs department, I feel a certain amount of sympathy with the Minister, who has had to perform the great task of bringing into existence a Tariff for all Australia, and to administer it equally and promptly in all parts of the Commonwealth. I also agree that the fact that the Minister was so long bound to the table of this House during the consideration of the Tariff affords some excuse for imperfections in the arrangements for administration during that period. But we ought now to see some order emerging from the chaos which has prevailed throughout Australia. We ought to have some indication from the Minister of when and how he proposes to remedy the state of affairs which has been rightly complained of. It is a mistake to suppose that these are merely difficulties in the way of merchant traders and importers. They are difficulties in the way of conducting the trade of Australia, and they impose an extra charge upon the people, making the burdens of conducting business under federation heavier instead of lighter. One of the first necessities in the Custom-house - a necessity which will always exist - is that of prompt decisions. Even if wrong, decisions ought to be prompt, so long as they apply equally to all. A wrong may be remedied later, but trade cannot go on unless decisions be made at once. This promptitude is essential in the Customs department more than in any other department of the Commonwealth. Some provision must be made by which, from one end of Australia to the other, the provisions of the Act, and the decisions under it, shall be made known to all concerned, so that not merely the man in Melbourne or Sydney, but the man in Port Darwin or Fremantle may know how to quote his goods and give accurate returns. It is useless to contend that such a means of spreading information has not been necessary in the past. Before federation a State had only two or three ports within close hail to deal with, but now the Customs department have under their control the enormous free board of all Australia. To recognise the difficulties is easy, but these difficulties must be remedied if we are to be equal to the taskwe undertook with federation. A body of officers must be established who will decide, subject to the Minister's veto ; officers who, in the light of their experience, will be able to decide even better than can a Minister. Some plan must be found by a collection of samples at each port, with a number, code, or other means of promptly arriving at these decisions, and having these made known at

Once throughout Australia. I am not going to give examples, in addition to those furnished by the honorable member for Wentworth, showing how unnecessary have been the actions in court in connexion with errors in entries. I resisted several of the drastic clauses in the Customs Bill, but these were passed on the assurance of the Minister that discretion would be used in administration. But how can there be any discretion when officers are told that errors, however slight, are sufficient to justify law proceedings? The Government has been accused of being a lawyer's Government, and it certainly is so in its composition.

Mr Macdonald-Paterson - That is not an accusation ; it is a wholesome fact.

Mr THOMSON - But we have yet to learn that the Government is going to administer Acts for the benefit of lawyers. If the present administration continues, cases will pour into court, though, after all, the Customs officers, in proportion to their number, are committing more errors than are all the merchants and the traders put together. I do not say that the officers are inefficient; but they are administering an entirely new Act, and naturally make as many mistakes as do employe's of merchants. These officers are not, however, to be punished. They may take a higher duty than the law provides, but all that happens is that the Minister practically says, as illustrated in a case mentioned by the honorable member for Wentworth - " Good man ! I shall keep the money now I have got it." Did honorable members, when the Customs Bill was passing, think that the Minister would be so indiscreet or so unfair? The right honorable gentleman now says that he cannot distinguish between cases, and that the omission to cross a " t " justifies an appeal to the law court. As a matter of fact, a case of that kind did occur in Melbourne, where a firm, in connexion with two cases of kerosene, were prosecuted for putting, or omitting to put, a little stroke on the customs entry, though no one was affected by the act. The Minister says that he cannot discriminate, and in that I agree with him to some extent. A Minister is particularly exposed to political influence. However that may be, there is nothing to prevent the appointment at the principal centres of two or three leading officers to recommend whether or not prosecutions shall ensue ; and, unless for very good reasons, these constant appeals to the law courts should not be allowed. If all the departments of the State were administered as the Customs department now is, the Commonwealth would involve nothing but a series of law cases day after day I do not know whether the Minister prosecutes firms who make an error of1s. in favour of the Customs.

Mr Kingston - I do not ; I do not find many cases.

Mr THOMSON - There have been cases in which higher duties than necessary have been paid.

Mr Kingston - And refunds have been claimed immediately.

Mr THOMSON - But the Minister says he will not give refunds.

Mr Kingston - I do not say that.

Mr THOMSON - The honorable member for Wentworth cited a case in which no refund was made under such circumstances. There ought to be some reasonable common-sense distinction between cases of fraud and cases of trifling error. If a board of officers can be influenced as regards their recommendations, they have no right to be there, as they can be influenced in the daily transactions of the Customhouse to the far greater advantage of dishonest importers.

Sir William McMillan - The Collector of Customs in each State is a very highclass officer.

Mr THOMSON - Yes ; and possesses a far bigger experience than any Ministerial head of the department can possibly possess. I hope that the Minister will indicate some proposal to get rid of the centralization which at present exists. I presume that gristing in bond is being done in Melbourne. Yet in Sydney the other day, when ship's stores were required, which it was to our advantage should be supplied by Australia, and an application was made to grist in bond for that purpose the Collector of Customs declared that he had no power to give the necessary permission. Reference had to be made to the Minister in Melbourne.

Mr Mauger - Gristing in bond was refused in Victoria, and we fought against it.

Mr THOMSON - How can Victoria export manufactured goodsthen ? The fact is that in Victoria gristing in bond was allowed.

Mr McCay - Only in regard to oats, I think.

Mr THOMSON - I know preparation and manufacture in bond were allowed upon a great many articles.

Mr Kingston - It has been a much vexed question in the various States.

Mr THOMSON - Does the Minister mean to say that packing or manufacturing is not allowed in bond in Victoria under the supervision of an officer?

Sir George Turner - We do not allow gristing in wheat.

Mr THOMSON - But manufacturing in bond is allowed.

Mr Watson - Why should there not be gristing in bond ?

Mr THOMSON - Exactly. In the case to which I refer trade was waiting which New South Wales could do, and yet it could not be touched until the Minister was referred to in Melbourne. I will venture to say that manufacturing in bond for export under the supervision of an officer is being carried on in Melbourne.

Mr Kingston - If there is one instruction more than another which has gone out, it is that whatever is permitted in one State is to be permitted in another.

Mr THOMSON -We should be mad if we did not allow our own people to do an export trade which would otherwise go to other places. I admit the Minister's difficulty, but I do not think he recognises sufficiently that there will have to be some means for prompt decisions circulating throughout the Commonwealth.

Mr Kingston - If we do not have centralization under the one head, we must have want of uniformity.

Mr THOMSON - That is where the Minister must show his capacity. He must adopt a system which will produce uniformity. He will have to leave things to some extent to his officers. I am afraid that in the strength of his own self-confidence he does not lean sufficiently upon the large experience of his officers. Regarding the matter alluded toby the honorable member for Bland, I wish to point out a rather extraordinary piece of administration. I quite agree that it is very undesirable to permanently increase the Customs staff. As the Inter-State duties disappear, and the fearful Inter-State certificates vanish, the Minister ought to have available a staff more than sufficient to cope with the Custom-house work of Australia. . It would be unjust to permanent officers who have been a long time in the service if he were to appoint new officers permanently, and if as a result at some future date, when reductions became necessary, some of the older officers had to go. But where there is congestion and it continues, as it has continued in New South Wales, an effort should be made in the interests of the department, of the community, and of the employes of the Custom-house, to end it by the only means possible, namely, by employing temporary hands to any degree that is necessary to overtake the arrears of work, and to enable the department to deal day by day with the work of the day.. I think that the Minister ought to give his. attention to this. It is quite evident from the returns of imports and exports that a great deal more work is done in Sydney with the same staff than is done in Melbourne.

Sir George Turner - There are more permanent officers in Sydney.

Mr THOMSON - I will not persist in the statement that the Sydney staff is not larger. I was merely looking at the relative cost of the two staffs. At any rate the Sydney staff is not as expensive as is the Melbourne staff, and yet it is doing a much larger quantity of work. It will be remembered that the Minister for Trade and Customs promised that these officers should get consideration, and that they should be given leave of absence. Let us observe the way in which it is proposed to redeem that promise. Documents have been distributed setting out the manner in which leave of absence is to be given -

The Comptroller-General has directed that the Minister's instructions regarding officers who have worked overtime, having leave of absence under certain conditions, are to be complied with. The Minister's instructions are -

(a)   Every officer who is in ill-health, or is suffering from over-work, may have leave as approved ;

(b)   That officers who have worked overtime may also have leave, subject to the approved conditions.

The conditions mentioned in paragraph (b) are that any officer who has worked not less than 50 hours' overtime may, subject to the approval of the Comptroller-General, be allowed one day's leave of absence for every eight hours' overtime, but not exceeding in any case six weeks.

(c)   That extra officers may be employed, not further than the end of May, for the purpose.

Mr Watson - What is the date of the circular ?

Mr THOMSON - The 20th May.

Mr Watson - And it would perhaps not reach the officers concerned until the 2 1st or the 22nd.

Mr THOMSON - Even if it reached them upon the day it was issued, it would not be of much service to them, because all the temporary hands had to go on the 31st.

Mr Kingston - My instructions in regard to leave were issued before the end of March.

Mr THOMSON - Then the Minister should apply to his department the rule that he applies to the mercantile community, and have the officers responsible brought before a court and fined for their mistake. I understand that in consequence of the temporary officers being removed upon the 31st May, leave of absence for overtime has not been given to any officer. If the congestion complained of continues to be as permanent as it has been in the past, relief should be given. It is becoming accepted in Sydney, though it ought not to be, that important entries, or any large number of entries in connexion with one shipment, take 24 hours to be got through. That should not be. I am not blaming the staff, because I believe that they are doing their utmost to meet the new conditions. Of course, theSydney office is put to a more severe test than is the Melbourne office, because the Commonwealth Tariff is somewhat similarto theVictorian Tariff, and the amount of business, done in Melbourne is not so great as the amount done in Sydney. I think that the Minister should provide sufficient temporary assistance to allow the leave of absence, which has been promised, to be taken, and to get the work up-to-date. It is only when it has been got up-to-date that he will be able to determine how many permanent officers are needed to keep it so.

Mr Kingston - I do not hesitate to say that the relief the..honorable member refers to was ordered before the end of March.

Mr THOMSON - The honorable pride of merchants, thatfor a quarter or half a century theyhave been dealing with the Customs withoutonce having their names on the black book, is worth maintaining by the Customs authorities; but it will be destroyed if merchants feel that, do what they will, they cannot escape being dragged before the courts for what are trifling errors.

Sir William McMillan - And while, formerly, merchants were willing to assist the Customs against fradulent importers, they will cease to do so if these prosecutions are continued.

Mr THOMSON - Yes. Much of the success of the Customs officials in collecting revenue and restricting illicit importation has been due to the active assistance given by honest importers. What I suggest is that the Minister should appoint two or. three of his leading officers to form a committee to recommend whether prosecutions should or should not take place, he, of course, overlooking their recommendations. If the feeling of pride in honorable dealing is destroyed, it will do a great deal of injury to the administration of the Customs department. Then, again, I say, do not let important Customs officials feel that because they are away from the centre of administration they can come to no decision, even in regard to the smallest matter, or after consultation with their confreres in other States, until there has been a decision by the Minister. If they feel that, the spirit of the staff is destroyed. I know that, in some of the States, officers are beginning to despair in regard to this matter. They are beginning to feel that they are not being allowed to perform the high duties of which they are capable, and for which they are paid, but must, like mere clerks,wait for the decision of the Minister, even in small matters. The Minister must know that if he keeps so many things in his own hands there must be delay, extending over months. I have drawn his attention to a case in which the goods of a firm were kept in bond for six months, awaiting a decision which those concerned did not wish to, and which they did not, dispute. There have been other cases in which delay has extended over one, two, and even three months. There was some excuse for delay at first, because the department was in a chaotic state, and the Minister was busily engagedupon the Tariff; but that time has passed, and it should now be shown that the right honorable gentleman can administer his department upon lines sufficient for the Commonwealth which must be different from those which were considered sufficient under State administration.

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