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Wednesday, 1 October 1902

Mr SALMON (Laanecoorie) - I have listened to what has been said this afternoon, and have read all that I could of the actions of the Minister since the Customs departments of the States were transferred to the Commonwealth. Undoubtedly there has been, and still is, a certain amount of friction between those who do business with the department, and those who administer it, but I feel that that is owing rather to the lax manner in which the department was administered in some of the States anterior to federation than to undue severity or to tyrannical procedure on the part of the Minister. The leader of the Opposition asked if it was fair that the head of a large importing house should be held responsible for the action of his subordinates. I interjected that he should. Honorable members who were present know what then followed. I do not wish to allude further to the matter, except to say that if a merchant cannot obtain accuracy in the work of those whom he employs, he should avail himself of the services of others who will not make mistakes.

Sir Malcolm McEacharn - It is impos_sible to avoid mistakes. The officers of the Customs department sometimes make mistakes.

Mr SALMON - I do not say that a clerk's position should be imperilled for the smallest error, but, speaking generally, if a merchant finds that his clerk cannot perform the duties, allotted to him without making mistakes, he should employ some one else. My experience as a Minister was not a long one, but it was long enough to enable rae to know how often merchants employ incompetent clerks. In many cases important duties are being performed by mere youths, who do not realize the serious nature of their work.

Sir Malcolm McEacharn - I was a Custom-house clerk in London when I was seventeen.

Mr SALMON - And no doubt a very competent one.

Sir Malcolm McEacharn - At any rate I never made mistakes. I began my business career at the age of fourteen.

Mr SALMON - In my opinion, sufficient care is often not exercised in the selection of those who are called upon to undertake the responsible duty of passing entries, and doing other Customs work. Numbers of young men find themselves detailed for these duties after an extremely small amount of instruction from those who employ them. In the wretched private investigations which used to be held in Victoria, I have had- lads before me who were prepared to accept almost any penalty rather than have their employer punished, because they feared to lose their situations ; and it was repeatedly' pointed out to me that the mistakes which had been made were due to inexperience and want of knowledge.

Mr Kingston - That excuse was made within the last week.

Mr SALMON - I am glad that the Minister has not adopted this system of private investigation. There is no more tyrannical exercise of authority than these secret settlements. The Minister is to behonoured for the stand which he has taken against the strong representations which I am sure have been made to him for the perpetuation of this star-chamber system. I ask honorable members if they think it consistent with the principles of freedomand justice that a Minister should come tosecret determinations and settlements in this way. In Victoria a gentleman whois now a member of the Senate was Commissioner of Customs for over five years,, and only the other day he told us what hisexperience was.

Sir Malcolm McEacharn - He alwayspublished his decisions.

Mr SALMON - I do not think that thedecisions were always published. The system which was followed, under my direction wasfar more open - although not so open as I should have liked - than the previous one,, and all the decisions were not published. I know that instructions were given that they should be published, but it was not done, owing to influence which was brought to bear upon those who were responsible. The action of the Minister' will press hardly upon some persons who do not altogether deserve it. The punishment of being- dragged into a police court, and having fines recorded, will be a hardship in some instances. But for the sake of the honest trader, and the man who spares no expense to secure efficiency, I am bound to support the Minister in his attitude. We cannot too strongly inveigh against the system of secret settlements. In France it is " the custom for a prisoner to be brought up and interrogated. Is that the sort of system to be adopted in the Commonwealth ? In Victoria the Minister was urged by his officers to accomplish secret settlements. Why 1 Because of the great difficulty there was in securing a conviction. The Act was so impotent, inefficient, and unsatisfactory, that the officers were compelled to urge upon the Minister, in order to secure that there should be some punishment, the adoption- of the pernicious practice of considering questions in camera. We have an Act that gives to the Minister and his officers all the power which is necessary to punish those who from neglect or wilfulness infringe its provisions. I earnestly hope that we shall never revert to the old system of leaving it to the Minister to say what punishment shall be meted out to violators of the law. If we once enable the Minister to sit as a court and remit, or refuse to inflict penalties, we shall do an act not consonant with that freedom, liberty, and justice which we hope to make the principal bulwark of our grand Constitution. We have not had cited -a single case to bear out the very unfair and unpatriotic statements which have been made regarding the action of the Minister. We have been told to-day that his action was tyrannical and abominable, and, of course, that no personal reference was intended by those remarks. In my opinion, his action has been that of a high-minded administrator of a most important department, and in that position he is a bright and shining example to those who take upon themselves Ministerial responsibility.

Mr. L.E. GROOM (Darling Downs).in various States, especially Queensland, the Minister has been seriously attacked in connexion with his administration of the -department. But I am glad to see that the condemnation is by no means universal. A much better feeling is beginning to grow up amongst many of his critics in that State, and it is very well reflected in an article in the Brisbane

Telegraph,in which it is. pointed out that he is having fixed upon him the responsibility for all the friction which is the natural result of securing uniformity of administration in the Commonwealth. In the various States there has been a difference in the definition of goods and in the administration. The officers have had different ways of working the department, and upon the Minister is now thrown the onus of securing absolute uniformity of administration, and definition for the whole Commonwealth. The honorable member for Melbourne has given a very good illustration of the difficulty. The Melbourne merchants found fault with the definition of tea, and the Minister pointed out that it was the one which had been adopted in Queensland. When you try to get uniformity of definition you are bound to irritate persons in different States who have been working under another definition, and will not willingly relinquish old methods and practices. I regret that the Minister has had to bear all this odium. There have also been lax methods of administration in the States. The Minister has been charged with the protection of the interests of the taxpayers. He has been asked by the House to collect honestly all the money which the taxpayers are entitled to have deposited in the Treasury. He has also had to bear the trouble of those very provisions which were inserted in the Constitution for the purpose of protecting the smaller States - I allude to the trouble arising under the Inter-State certificates. He is practically carrying out the very provisions which uniformity of legislation renders essential. He has had to bear all the odium of this administration. As regards the reflections upon his action, I think that all persons will agree that it is his duty to collect the revenue, to take proceedings in the courts where it is justified, and to insist that importers shall employ fit and proper persons to do their business. In Queensland there has been some trouble. Tam not going to say that there have not been some grounds for complaint, but 1 do not think that those grounds, when investigated, have justified .any of the charges which have been made against the "V inister. In that State the charges have been that he has assumed a dictatorial attitude, an unsympathetic attitude, and a tyrannical attitude. I think that all these charges are without foundation. Whenever

I have had to put matters before the Minister, he has, on the whole, listened attentively and given fair and impartial decisions. So far as I can see, he has simply taken up the position that he is bound to administer the law impartially and fairly, and, on the whole, I think I can say that he is doing it mercifully. It is assumed that there are no merchants who uphold the position he has taken up. As regards Brisbane, there appeared in the Courier some time ago an article setting out the views of certain merchants upon the methods of administration of the department. That newspaper sent out a representative with the view of ascertaining both sides of the question - the views of those who complained of the methods of administration, and the views of those who seemed to think that those methods had been fair. It is only right that I should quote the views of a few of the merchants who have looked at the question from a different point of view. For instance, the representative of Messrs. T>. and W. Murray said -

They hud no complaint to make against the administration of the department, and they were inclined to think that some strictness in enforcing the Tariff was desirable.

Another firm took up this position -

They had had no difficulties with the department, and whenever any question of interpretation arose, they referred it to Melbourne, and got it settled without serious delay or inconvenience. They were disposed to favour a more systematic and complete supervision of the goods imported into the State with the object of preventing the evasion of duties.

Mr. Bowcher,the representative of Messrs. "W. and A. Macarthur, said he was in accord with them -

He suggested it would be a wise thing if it were recognised that a fixed percentage of the cases were, examined by way of check. From sources the information went to show that much of the trouble now experienced or complained of is due to laxity of administration when the Custom-house was under State control.

So that the merchants in Brisbane were really complaining of the laxity of the administration under State control, and praising the Federal Government for adopting firmer methods of administration. The writer of the article goes on to say -

The determination of the Minister to strictly enforce the Tariff, and to prosecute all who inadvertently or unintentionally appear in the position of evaders has brought things up with a round turn,, and rendered necessary an amount of care and accurracy which previously was not insisted upon. The opinion of the merchants who did not attack the administration was that after 46 g a while the mercantile community will become reconciled to the new era, and will not find it unduly burdensome. One change which will probably be found necessary will be the substitution of careful and experienced Customs clerks for the boys and youths frequently employed to pass entries.

So that there the defence which has been made in the House has been amply verified. Here are Brisbane merchants who say that it was really the fault of the youths and the boys employed on customs work which was responsible for part of the trouble in that city. Another point is raised by the writer of this article in these terms -

A phase of the question which also seems to require investigation, is the practice which is alleged to have grown up in regard to the invoicing of goods. Our representative was informed in one quarter that it is not altogether uncommon for two invoices to be sent to the purchasers of consignments of goods, one showing the actual cost to the buyer and the other, as it is phrased, "the value for Customs purposes. :"

It is further stated in this article -

Another practice is said to be to invoice goods to a number, rather than in the name of the real consignees. How far either of these is carried on it would be difficult to ascertain ; but instances have been known of goods being offered for sale at a much lower rate than they could be sold at if the legitimate duty had been paid upon them. Importers who deal honestly with the Customs naturally find it hard to compete with the rivals who are able to undersell them in that way. This is one of the allegations which can only be proved by the more strict comparison of the goods imported with the description and values given of them in the in voices.

I have quoted this statement to show that, although serious complaints have been made by Brisbane merchants, there are a goodmany traders in that city who are of opinion that the Minister is doing good and patriotic work in enforcing the provisions of the Customs Act. Some complaints seem to have a certain show of reason, but when these are examined it will be found that they ave due to causes which are inevitable. For instance, it is complained that continual references have to be made to the central authorities in Melbourne. In view of the fact, however, that the decisions given in these cases form the basis of a uniform practice which has to extend throughout the Commonwealth, it will be seen that it is necessar)' to refer complicated questions to headquarters. I hope, however, that the Minister will see his way to expedite the publication of his Tariff guide, so that he may put into the hands of his officers at distant centres the means of avoiding the present trouble.

It would also be reasonable, now that the Tariff has come fairly into operation, to permit the officers in the various outlying centres, to assist importers to pass their goods through the Customs. Where difficulties occur in the interpretation of the Tariff in connexion with the importation of new classes of goods, I think it is the duty of the Customs authorities to assist merchants who are really anxious to comply with the conditions of the Tariff. It is stated that the importers of general merchandise do not experience very much difficulty under the Tariff, but that it is amongst the importers of drapery and soft goods that the most fault is found with the administration. If the Minister can see his way to instruct his officers to assist merchants in cases such as I have referred to, he will render a great service to the mercantile community. It has been made to appear that the Minister is entirely without friends in his administration of the Tariff ; but I would point out that the Launceston Daily Telegraph takes a very sympathetic view of the Minister's position. In an article published on 11th September, the following statement occurs : -

The completion of the first Australian Tariff has been appropriately taken as an occasion for some complimentary speeches in the Federal Parliament, where members of all shades of political opinion have joined in an acknowledgment of the great work done by Mr. Kingston in framing and conducting the passage of the most difficult piece of legislation of the session, and in the administration of the most troublesome department of the Commonwealth Government.

Honorable members must agree that the Minister has done a great work in getting the Tariff through. When the Tariff was passed there seemed to be a disposition on the part of a good many members to disown it, but I venture to predict that before very long a large number of those who have expressed dissatisfaction will regard the Tariff as a magnificent achievement, and claim the credit of having assisted to frame it.

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not think they will, although it is very different from the Tariff which was originally introduced. ,

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