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Wednesday, 1 October 1902

Mr MACDONALD-PATERSON (Brisbane) - It would be a lack of duty on my part if I allowed the discussion which has taken place during the last half-hour to be concluded without making a few observations on the general question of the administration of the Customs department since the initiation of the Commonwealth and the introduction of the Tariff. I have no wish to promote the feeling of discontent and acerbity that has permeated the whole of the Australian cities in which Customhouses exist. On the contrary, I have endeavoured to assuage the feeling in the city I have the honour to represent, and other representatives of Queensland have done the same. I regret very much that private representations made from time to time have not had the effect I expected, and which I think those representations deserved on their merits. I recognise the value of the speech made by the leader of the Opposition, and I compliment the right honorable gentleman upon having dealt with the subject with a suavity, diplomacy, and experience, that will, I trust, bring about a better spirit in the administration of the Customs department throughout Australia.

The right honorable gentleman in his speech has mentioned several of the arguments which I know have been put before the Minister. I was very glad to hear him say determinedly that he would not prosecute where the matter -was one on which there might honestly be a difference of opinion. Customs officers assume a virtue which they have not, and never possibly could have. I have always regarded with disapproval the adoption of legal remedies for the evils alleged, instead of a resort to the common-sense business avenues, by which a settlement of these questions might be arrived at. Even 'this afternoon two or three technical matters came up which had my disapproval. I was very glad to hear the leader of the Opposition say that he did not approve of resorting to the court foi1 the punishment of simple mistakes which were jumped at as positive attempts to defraud the revenue - as if some of the best firms in the Commonwealth would in such a way besmirch their reputation, not only in Australia, but in the manufacturing and monetary centres of the old world. Some of the paltriest mistakes made by clerks have been made the grounds of prosecutions. I am not blaming the right honorable gentleman at the head of the Customs department for that, but I blame the system by which he is advised, and the officers in the different centres who are, doubtless, in constant communication with him. I am sorry to say that several of them have not had the pluck to telegraph to the head of the department that the persons involved had hitherto been considered honest and reputable men in the great business communities of Australia. As a young man engaged in other business relating to commerce and shipping, I was often amused at the mistakes and errors of judgment made by Customs officers in Brisbane and elsewhere. I desire to say, in the most respectful way, that in their " Jack-in-office " position, with a fixed salary of about £600 per year and a free house, sub-collectors of Customs have looked upon themselves, as it is alleged the Minister has looked upon himself, as "little Gods Almighty " in the community. A. revolution took place in one day when there was a change from the separate administration of the Customs for a population of 1,000,000 in Victoria, of' 1,125,000 in New South Wales, 500,000 in Queensland, and proportionately less in the other States, to the joint administration of Customs for 4,0.00,000 of people under a new and complex Tariff containing thousands of items that were never heard of before. Hundreds of new interpretations have been given, the Customs officials have been governed by an inflexible cast-iron rule, and have been required to keep their eyes open, so that every scintilla of error may be discovered and punished. They have been prevented from acting in accordance with their previous experience, and, as a consequence, the administration of the department has for the last six or twelve months proved a curse to the mercantile community. It would be impossible to get any one man, or any 50 men, who would be capable of determining exactly the nature of many of the articles which are imported, or of judging correctly of the quality of the texture of many others. In the old country there are experts in cotton, who know all about it and its price from the time it is landed in the bale until it is cleaned, warped, wefted, loomed, dyed, and turned into the finished article ; while others know exactly the value of such delicate material as muslin, and would be able to say whether a certain line of goods should be invoiced at 6d. or 4£d. a yard. But our officials do not possess this expert knowledge; and, under the present administration, they are also wanting in pluck. It is not a wholesome thing that the general belief of Australia should be that they hold their office by the skin of their teeth unless they are able to catch defaulters, instead of rising to the occasion, and exercising kindliness of speech and diplomacy of manner, the department has failed in its duty to the Commonwealth. I have heard it said that there are times when even Ministerial departments should have a blind eye.

Mr Watson - There has been too much of the blind eye about the Customs administration of the past.

Mr MACDONALD-PATERSON - One of the greatest philosophers has said that one must sometimes be blind, even in his own household. It is in that sense that I use the expression. I have not acted after consultation with the honorable member for Oxley, but I am sure that my remarks will be thoroughly concurred in by him, and he and I together represent the greater busi-ness portion of southern Queensland. I have no fault to find with the Minister individually, but if a less technical interpretation had been placed upon the Tariff, and there had been more flexibility in the administration of the department, it would have been better for all concerned. The leader of the Opposition interpreted my views in this respect to a nicety, and I am sure that he has voiced the opinions of the mercantile community from the humblest storekeeper to the largest merchant. I trust that the discord, irritation, and unhappiness which the administration of the Customs has created will now cease, and that peace and contentment may reign throughout the Com mon weal th .

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