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Wednesday, 1 October 1902

Mr KINGSTON (South AustraliaMinister for Trade and Customs) - If I did not hear complaints of the character of those which have been made by honorable members opposite, no doubt the occupants of the Treasury benches would be the subjects of adverse criticism of another sort. I am only too glad to know that those complaints are not founded upon fact. I have no fault to find with the general tone of the debate. I thank those honorable members who have testified to the difficulties which have beset me, and who have expressed a good opinion of the mode in which I have attempted to discharge an onerous and somewhat unpleasant task. That the difficulties have been great I frankly acknowledge, but that I have shirked their discharge no one can truthfully declare. In my own conscience, I know that I have done what I could to faithfully perform my duties, and I am satisfied that parliamentary and public opinion support my action. It has been put that I am an enemy of the importer, and would like to do him an injury. All that is idle talk, and honorable members know it. As they are well aware in accepting my present position, I recognised what were my duties, and I have not spared myself in my endeavour to fulfil them. One of those duties is to cultivate the best relations possible with the importers and the mercantile community. My duty is to the community as a whole, and to the majority of the mercantile community who are honest and careful. It is also my duty to enforce the law against those who are either dishonest or negligent where such dishonesty or negligence is to the injury of the community. As regards the revenue, I would point out that to-day we are deriving from moderate duties of Customs an amount which I venture to consider is considerably in excess of all expectations. There are many elements which conduce to that condition of affairs. One of those elements undoubtedly is that the law is now being more strictly enforced than it was formerly. Dishonest traders are being called upon to pay their dues to the exoneration of the people generally from further taxation and to the maintenance in the public departments of those whose services we could not retain if we did not continue to collect our dues as we ought. Let honor-, able members compare the collections of revenue to-day with those which obtained under the old State Tariffs. What do I recollect as regards Queensland - that grand State which has before it as brilliant a future as any in the Union ? The Government had hardly assumed office when complaints were made of a leakage in the Queensland Customs revenue. Accordingly we placed ourselves in communication with, commercial men. As the result of our inquiries, we found that considerable leakages were taking place. We, therefore, decided to send an officer to the northern State to inquire into the matter. The result was a more stringent enforcement of the Customs laws in Queensland, and the punishment of those who did wrong, without any detriment to those who did well. It is difficult indeed to estimate how much we lose by lax Customs administration. Let honorable members look at the figures before them. Even in Queensland, we .got an amount of £120 from one man for "conscience" money. What must have been the character of its administration there when that steal was executed by one individual ? Dishonest persons were under the impression that after the establishment of the Federation they would be able to continue their corrupt practices with immunity from punishment. To-day no such sense of immunity exists. It has been properly abolished, and I look to the House to sustain an administration which insists upon the law being observed, and will not sit silent while the public are defrauded. Ninety per cent, of our traders are, I believe, honest. But there are dishonest traders. Not only has the revenue been robbed, but the mercantile community have been robbed. How can business men be expected to successfully carry on operations against dishonest competitors 1 Of course, an importer may make an error which is unavoidable. Let that fact be established before a court, and the Executive can then deal with it.

Mr Conroy - It cannot.

Mr KINGSTON - The Executive can do as it chooses in regard to the cancellation of any fine. It is idle for importers to plead - " We made a mistake." It is their duty to avoid mistakes. When they have established the fact that an. error has been innocently made, it is time enough to apply the remedy. But negligence I hold is no excuse, particularly when it is exercised to the advantage of the person who is guilty of it, and to the disadvantage not only of the revenue but of his competitors in business. Time and again I have been assured by particular individuals that formerly they were subjected to dishonest and careless competition from which they they are now free. I do not require importers to be infallible, but I do ask them to be accurate upon two matters of importance. The department says to them - "Tell us the nature of the goods contained in that box which you are importing. You know all about them. If you have any doubt as to its contents open the box, and ascertain exactly what the goods consist of. Tell us their value. When you have done that you will have nothing to fear." No prosecution has been undertaken consequent upon an error _ of judgment as to whether goods ought to be classed under one particular line of the Tariff or under another. All such proceedings have been founded on facts, which were well within the knowledge of the importer. Not a single case to the contrary has been cited. I came down to the House armed with full particulars relating to the last dozen prosecutions which have taken place in Victoria. I could tell the committee the class and character of each of them. In some cases I might refer to aggravating circumstances. As regards prosecutions in other places the same remark is equally applicable.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - What about the last nine or ten prosecutions in Sydnev 1

Mr KINGSTON - I had intended not to refer to them, but when I am challenged - as I am now - I will deal with the last eight or nine.

Sir John Quick - Have they been heard and decided 1

Mr KINGSTON - Yes. Eight of the defendants pleaded guilty, but one, imagining that he had a complete defence to offer, fought the matter out. The facts in connexion with his case were as follow : - He sent to England an order for bottle-wrapping paper, which, under the Tariff, is dutiable at 15 per cent. When the paper arrived what did he do ? Did he enter it as bottle wrapping paper ? Nothing of the sort. He entered it as printing paper, which, as honorable members are aware, is admitted free. What do honorable members think of a matter of that sort ? Did the defendant know when he was ordering the goods what he was getting? Of course he did. Why then did this merchant not say what was the nature of the goods 1 The result was loss to the revenue and advantage to this defendant over his neighbours. Proceedings were taken, and the defendant swore that this paper was properly entered as printing paper. He occupies a respectable and responsible position, and is just the sort of person who, under such arguments as have been advanced, would never have been proceeded against by State Ministers, who were in the habit of settling matters within the secrecy of their own chambers. Experts were called in the case, and they swore that this was not printing paper, but bottle wrapping paper. Might the defendant not, at least, have given the country the benefit of the doubt 1 Did he think that the person from whom he bought the paper had cheated him by sending another sort?

Sir John Quick - Is there an item of bottle wrapping paper in the Tariff?

Mr KINGSTON - No ; but the defendant had only to tell us that it was bottle wrapping paper, and it would have come under the n.e.i. The court held that the defendant had not stated thefact when hecalled the pa.per printing paper, and he was fined £5 and costs. I had no wish to refer to these cases, and should not have done so but for the reference made by the honorable member for Parramatta. I can tell honorable members of another case which presents a ludicrous aspect. One gentleman imported some toy bagpipes and some kazoos; and, by the way, some of the latter were used last night to light up the darkness of a political meeting and generally make tilings merry. We can well imagine this defendant consulting the Tariff; and yet I suppose we must blame some poor clerk for making a " clerical error." The defendant, on looking at the Tariff, finds amongst the special exemptions, "musical instruments for the orchestra," and he immediately applies that description to the toy bagpipes, which, as fancy goods, are liable to a duty of 25 per cent. The kazoos were treatedin the same way, and the foolishness went so far as the calling of evidence to prove that this instrument had once been used in a performance managed by Mr. J. C. Williamson. If such articles were used in a performance, I am inclined to think it must have been in the gallery.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But only nominal fines were inflicted in all these cases.

Mr KINGSTON -I think that these defendants ought to have been fined more heavily. Amongst the defendants in other cases was one who had previously been fined £250 in the secrecy of the Victorian Customs department, and I hope that no sympathy will be extended to a person who has been compelled to contribute that sum to the revenue in consequence of his eccentricities in the valuation. In another case flannelette, which is subject to 15 per cent., was put down as "cotton piece goods," which are subject to a duty 5 per cent. This, no doubt, was the work of a miscreant clerk, who indulged in the falsity for the advantage of his employer, and to his own everlasting distress. Then, I may mention, as a little incident, the case of a double invoice, sent with the explanation that one invoice, which declared certain finished articles as being in the rough, was furnished " for Customs purposes." I have confined myself simply to the last dozen cases in Melbourne, and the last day's performance in Sydney ; and I feel that if I am to blame it is for not formulating a stronger charge, in some instances, against those who did wrong: But I recognise the seriousness of the charge of fraud. The Act has drawn a broad distinction between fraud and offences in which there is no fraud; and I never care to unnecessarily take the more severe course. I have never suggesteda charge of fraud unless I felt it to be abundantly justified. All that is asked from importers is reasonable information as to the nature of the goods and their value. These particulars can easily be given, and where they are not given either from a desire to defraud or from want of care, it is my duty, as the Minister of the department, to send the case to court. If the court chooses to report any circumstances which justify the exerciseof the Executive prerogative of mercy, the Government can deal with any recommendation made ; but I have not, and will not, deal with cases in the way in which, for one excuse or another, they have been dealt with in the past in Ministerial bureaux, and some of them have been cases involving thousands of pounds, and years of continued fraud. The practice which I have adopted is one which has, at any rate, the merit of throwing the light of publicity on the proceedings. It establishes an example for the benefit of the community; it teaches wrong-doers to do wrong no further; and it declares, above all, that justice cannot be bought and paid for in Australia. Right and justice to their fellow-men, and justice to the revenue requires commercial men to be careful. I hold in ray hand a book, entitled Modem Business Methods : Import and Export Trade, by Frederick Hooper and James Graham. This is one of the best manuals of commerce ; it has been prepared by men whose names command respect ; and it is issued to some extent with the countenance of Chambers of Commerce of the highest class- In this book, on the subject of invoicing, we read -

This is an important matter in connexion with the exportation of goods. Correct invoicing is very necessary, not only to prevent difficulties between the merchant here (England), and his correspondent abroad, but also to prevent friction between the correspondent and the foreign Customs officials. In many cases the invoices have to be submitted to the Customs when the goods are imported, and in case of any discrepancy between the invoice and the goods there is certain -

Mark you - " certain " - to be a fine inflicted on the importer, which he, of course, claims from the merchant on this side.

This book was put into my hands by the Collector of Customs of New South Wales. I need not go further into the subject. This has been a very troublesome time to pass through ; but I feel that the storm of censure which broke on my head, and on head of the Government when the present system was initiated, has practically disappeared". I believe sincerely that the action I have taken is appreciated and' commended by Australia generally. My only object has been the good of the Commonwealth, and this system has been commenced with the sincere desire that it may be 'sanctioned by long usage as the law of the land.

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