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Wednesday, 27 August 1902

Mr THOMSON (North Sydney) - I should like to know whether the honorable member for Bland, who applies such a rigid codeto the Customs Act, would also be willing to apply it to every department of the Commonwealth, or the State - say, for instance, to the administration of the income tax or the land tax ?

Mr Watson - I would.

Mr THOMSON - Then we should never have our law courts empty. They would flourish, and the development of the country would be arrested.

Mr Watson - I could mention a good many cases of fraud in connexion with the land tax.

Mr THOMSON - I am quite aware that frauds are committed under the land tax, and also under the Customs Act, and I should be the last to excuse such offences against the law, or to prevent the most drastic steps being taken regarding them. If, however, every case of error, even though manifestly free from fraudulent intent, is to be taken into court, we shall work untold injury to our great trading and industrial institutions. I know nothing about the cases mentioned by the honorable member for Melbourne, and I shall not express any opinion regarding them. I know from experience that it is very dangerous to take proceedings upon the extract strength of tea analyses. If, however, tea is not according to standard, proceedings should . be taken against the importers unless there are some circumstances, such as have been mentioned by the honorable member for Melbourne, which ought to relieve them from responsibility at this early stage of the administration of the new regulations. I wish to confine my remarks to the administration of the Customs department. To me that administration appears to be defective from several causes. First, it is defective because of the provisions contained in our Constitution relating to the bookkeeping system between the different States - for which the Minister is not responsible - and the necessity which consequently exists for the supply of the most trivial particulars in connexion with Inter-State transactions. Those provisions must create difficulty and leave a great opening for error. Then we have the Tariff itself, for the framing of which the Minister is, to some extent, blameworthy. Time after time it was pointed out to him that the line of demarcation between the scheduled items was not sufficiently distinct, and that difficulties would 'therefore be created in interpretation and administration. Further, we have enacted such peculiar provisions in regard to the collection of duties, that, in particular instances, I defy any honorable member, even after the most elaborate research, to determine what duty should be paid. In some cases - as was pointed out by the acting leader of the Opposition - the duty chargeable upon certain articles depends upon the use to which they are to be put. Let us take wheels for trucks as an example. A man may import 100 of these. If they are used in connexion with coal skips they are not dutiable, but if they are used for other mining purposes they are dutiable. How can an importer determine the use to which they are to be put ? He imports them for sale. Can anyone decide under what duty those goods should be entered? Who can say what is the ultimate use to which they will be put f The importer may sell some which will be used for one purpose, and others which will be used for another. That is merely an illustration of the difficulty which exists, and which is equally applicable to a good many items on the Tariff. In every instance I objected to the duty chargeable upon any article being made dependent upon the use to which it was to be put.

Mr SPEAKER - I must ask the honorable member not to discuss the Tariff.

Mr THOMSON - I am merely pointing out that the peculiar way in which the Tariff has been framed is responsible for some of the difficulties which are experienced in its administration. I have a great deal of sympathy with the Minister. He has told us that he accepted his present office without having had the benefit of any previous experience.

Mr Kingston - I do not hestitate to say that the honorable member has always shown his sympathy.

Mr THOMSON - I have tried to do so, and the Minister ' has extended every courtesy to me, so much so that if this matter had not been brought up, and I had not felt in duty bound to voice the numerous representations which have been made to me, I should not have raised it at the present time. I should have been content to remain silent in the hope that the Customs administration would improve, and that complaints would be prevented. But at the present time it appears to me there is infinitely too much delay in obtaining decisions. If the business of Australia is to be effectively carried on - and it is to the interest of every one that it should be - prompt decisions must be given. But we cannot have promptitude in decisions if matters have to be referred from the uttermost ends of Australia to Melbourne, and although the Minister hopes that some day these references will cease, they have not ceased up to the present, and have been the means of creating enormous dissatisfaction. Then again the right honorable gentleman takes so much work upon himself that he cannot possibly deal with it. I might mention one case in which only a decision was asked for. The importer was ready to pay the duty immediately that decision was given, but it took five or six months to obtain it. I say that the Minister cannot successfully undertake all the work which he attempts to perform. Moreover his action involves the degradation of his high officers in the other States, who with their large experience, ought to be prepared to give decisions upon matters which are brought under their notice. It is highly desirable - even if in some cases errors may at first be committed - that prompt decisions should be available rather than that trade should be dislocated, and goods detained whilst a reference is beingmade to the central authority in Melbourne. Regarding the prosecutions which have taken place, I am sure that no one desires any back-door settlement of fraudulent cases. When the drastic provisions in the Customs Act were under consideration, objection was taken to them. What was the reply given ? It was stated that it was necessary to have very drastic provisions in a Customs Act. So it is; but it was intended that the powers conferred by those provisions should be exercised with discretion. My complaint is that no discretion is being exercised. The Minister regards everybody with a strong suspicion. He even regards himself with suspicion, fearing that he may be led away by some chance circumstance, some friendship, some belief in honesty to do wrong when he ought to do right. Consequently he says to the importers, " Go to the courts." What does that mean? It means the reverse of what is involved in any ordinary appeal to the courts, because under the English law a man is presumed to be innocent until he has been proved guilty ; but under the law that the right honorable gentleman administers, he is presumed to be guilty until he has established his innocence. Even after he has proved his innocence he is liable to a fine, and to the reflection upon his good name which the fine involves, because very often people do not distinguish between a penalty imposed for guilt or merely on account of error. The prosecution of a man in South Australia the other day in connexion with the importation of a small quantity of mustard oil seems to me a most astounding one. Why should such a case go into court? The value' of the whole of the goods was only 2s. Sd. In that case the goods were declared on the package to have been manufactured by prison labour. The person who imported them for his own use knew nothing about that. The goods, of course, should be forfeited, but why should he be dragged into court, and his good name affected, because of such a simple error? In conclusion, I desire to point out the complaint of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce in connexion with Customs administration, as expressed by the president. I think that honorable members will consider that the address of the president of that chamber, in alluding to these matters, is essentially well balanced. He speaks in most kindly tones of the Minister, which is evidence that credit is given where it is due. He says-

I say unhesitatingly that if the electors throughout the Commonwealth had had the faintest suspicion that intercolonial free-trade could possibly involve business in such utter chaos, federation would have been rejected by every State. We find but little fault with the Customs Act itself. It is clear, concise, and comprehensive, and reflects great credit on the draughtsman. It is recognised that laws relating to taxation should include stringent provisions and penalties for the prevention and punishment of fraud, and the commercial community are equally interested with the Government in the prompt detection and punishment of any fraudulent practices on the revenue. It is not the law.. but its administration, that is agitating the minds of the people in this State, and I am sure if the Minister were only aware of the strained feeling of disappointment with the administration he would more fully appreciate the continued appeal of a commercial community for more reasonable treatment, not in their interests only, but also in the interests of the good name and reputation of the Government. A continuance of the present policy cannot possibly bc attended with any beneficial results, and can only tend to alienate the sympathies of an important section of the community, to whose enterprise and industry Australia owes no small share of its prosperity. Whilst fully appreciating and recognising the high motives which appear to be guiding the Minister for Trade and Customs in his strict interpretation and severe administration of the law, it is felt that had he been familiar with the practical side of the question, less friction and misunderstanding would have resulted, and less necessity for legal procedure. Whilst the law affords the administration wide and arbitrary powers, which are wise and necessary when special occasion arises, it was never contemplated by the Legislature that they were intended to comprehend by punishments and penalties the pardonable errors and omissions which, in spite of all human care and provision, are inevitable. Hitherto, in British communities at least, an absolute interpretation of the law, according to its strict letter, has been reserved to the courts, whilst the principles of equity have guided the practice in administration. It is obvious that the law cannot provide for every possible contingency, any more than it can be said, that its provisions are each capable of literal interpretation and enforcement. To presume so, suggests a perfection in law-makers which has no existence in fact. It is surely therefore not unreasonable to ask and expect that equity should guide the hand of administration, so that the law may be construed, not according to the strict letter, but rather in a reasonable and just spirit, with due regardto the individual, us well us to the Commonwealth. The constant prosecutions for isolated, and very often trifling, errors and omissions in entries and declarations ; the discredit attaching to firms whose names have never previously been before the court ; the anxieties and fears of importers, agents, and employés, have reached such a pitch of tension as almost to provoke the errors which the means adopted are supposed to remedy. The trading community generally desire to observeall the proper demands of the department which the law provides, and they also desire that when there is evidence of gross carelessness or intentional evasion, due punishment should follow, but they earnestly and strongly protest against the present unnecessary severity in administration for which, so far as they are aware, there is no justification or precedent. It is with a sincere desire to aid the Minister that I thus publicly refer to the true cause of much of the present discontent, and I venture to hope that my remarks may be accepted in the spirit that prompts them, and be the means of inducing the Minister to somewhat relax his present harsh and cruel system of administration, and so relieve us of a position which has become utterly intolerable.

It is in that spirit, and that spirit only, that I approach this matter, and I say that if the Minister will allow that common sense which he usually exercises to guide him in the administration of our customs law, he will benefit not only the people of Australia, but the whole of the mercantile community.

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