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Wednesday, 1 October 1902

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I wish to say something on behalf of those who are clearly innocent traders. We have- heard a great deal of those who are guilty of fraud, and the chief cases brought forward by the Minister are cases of such unmistakable fraud, that in the prosecution of offenders .he will' undoubtedly have the sympathy of most honorable members. Considering that this extraordinary Tariff has been brought into force in six States that have had different Tariffs in the past, and have pursued different practices, it is wonderful that in 'the altered state of affairs the Minister cannot produce a greater number of cases, and cases of a more flagrant character, than he is able to produce ; and this shows that there is not anything like the amount of fraud existing in the mercantile community that he would have the committee believe.

Mr Kingston - I purposely refrained, and I should not have mentioned any cases unless I had been challenged.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Minister has mentioned some cases, and he would not have mentioned them unless they suited his purpose. But I will go outside the cases he has mentioned, and say that the cases t have seen reported in the public press are not more numerous or of greater seriousness than we had reason to expect under the conditions of the altered Tariff, operating upon the whole of this Commonwealth, and under which £9,000,000 of money is being collected. The Minister has not proved that only 90 per cent, of traders are honest on the facts he has given. The number of prosecutions and convictions point to the fact that we have not got in this community the number of dishonest traders that the right honorable gentleman seems to impute to us. The mistake all through has been that the Minister has taken up this absurd stand. He repudiates the suggestion that he has no sympathy for the honest importer, but his own attitude on more than one occasion has led the mercantile community to believe that he is wanting in that sympathy and is only too eager to seize every occasion that arises in order to obtain convictions against them. But it is not the cases of fraud to which I wish to allude, and with regard to which I would pass any strictures upon the Minister. It is the 999 cases of absolute innocence to which I wish to allude. In those cases a great deal of trouble, annoyance, and expense has been inflicted on account of the severe administration of the Customs department, due to the Minister's quixotic notions of the extraordinary duties demanded from him in order to carry out honestly the Tariff which the Commonmonwealth Parliament has imposed on the. people. Right throughout the whole of these States a very great amount of dissatisfaction does exist - a grave amount of dissatisfaction. It is of no use for the Minister to tell ns that this dissatisfaction has only been caused on the part of dishonest traders. It has been voiced almost unanimously in the various chambers of commerce and meetings of mercantile men throughout the whole-of the States; and I suppose that the Minister will not contend that only 90 out of 100 of the members of these bodies and meetings are honest men ?

Mr Kingston - Who put it in that way?

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Minister himself said that 90 per cent, of the traders were honest men, and that the complaints came from the 10 per cent, of dishonestmen. But the representatives of the mercantile classes in the chambers of commerce must be held to be an honest body of traders. They are just as desirous.. as the Minister himself of seeing anything like nefarious practices put down. They have discussed the various disabilities under which they labour, and the trouble, expense, and annoyance to which they have been put. In some cases they have even been put in the position of paying the duty on imports which they contended were duty free, in order to obtain the goods and carry on their own business, rather than fight the battle out with the Minister. I have known men, with whose position I am thoroughly well acquainted, who have admitted to me that their goods have been detained such a long time owing to some severe interpretation of the sections of the Customs Act, that they have paid the duty rather than be bothered any longer with the disabilities imposed on them. It is this friction, and the irritation to which the great body of traders of the community have had to submit, that has put the administration of the department by the Minister so much out of favour with the whole trading community. We all know, as has been admitted by the honorable member for Parramatta, that the right honorable gentleman is actuated by the very highest motives in this matter. But he does not take a commonsense or reasonable view of things ; he goes on the assumption that honest and perfectly incidental cases of mistake should be punished as though positive fraud had been committed. The Minister seems to impute that there should be no such thing as a mistake. He never seems to understand that the Customs officials themselves have made mistakes. I saw the other day in my own office an entry which had been put through for certain imported invalids' food. That commodity, as almost every one in this committee knows, is free according to the Tariff. The goods were passed through the Customs, and duty was imposed upon them. The duty was paid by my Customs agent, and it was only when it came before me that I saw that a mistake had been made. This was a mistake made by the department, which punishes mistakes made by honest traders.

Mr Kingston - Does the honorable member say that the duty was collected in that case?

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Yes, the duty was paid.

Mr Kingston - I suppose the honorable member knows that it is only special preparations of invalid foods that are dutyfree?

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Many of the. so-called cases of fraud that the Minister has referred to have been created by the mistake we made in imposing duties on substances in accordance with the use to which they are put, and not an the substances per se. In the case which the Minister has mentioned in regard to bottle wrappers, an importer brought them in as printing paper, but it was, proved that they were really bottle wrappers, and that duty should have been paid. But I think it extremely probable that the importer may have been intending to have printing done upon those papers.

Mr Kingston - That would not have made them printing paper.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The matter opens up a discussion which we previously had in the committee.

Mr Kingston - If a lady gets on to a cart horse, does that make it a lady's hack ? If you put printing on ordinary brown paper does that make it printing paper ?

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I say that an honest man might import paper intending to use it for bottle-wrappers, and to print upon it in order that his own name, or the name of the substance in the bottles, might be placed on the outside. He might think that as he intended to print upon the paper he could call it printing paper. The point was raised, as I have said, when we were discussing the schedule to the Tariff.

Mr Kingston - The honorable member is wrong in regard to invalids' food. It is only special preparations of invalids' food that are duty free.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - There again I contend that we made a mistake in framing the Tariff so as to make duty collectable upon any article according to the use to which it wasto be put. The honorable member for North Sydney urged that the duty should be levied on the substance per se. The clear intention of the committee was that invalids' food was to be duty free, but now the Minister says that only special preparations are to be free. If that is the case it appears that Parliament has made a special regulation in favour of particular kinds of invalids' food. Thepoint I am making is that the Tariff is of such an extraordinary character, and so different from the Tariffs to which we have been accustomed in many of the States, that these mistakes are extremely likely to occur, and that the Minister, in dealing with them, although actuated by the highest sense of duty, has gone to such extremes as to make the operation of the Tariff much more difficult and much more creative of friction than it otherwise would have been. There is no doubt that the Minister is responsible for the ill-will that has been displayed towards the Commonwealth on. account of the Tariff and its administration. I hope that he has heard sufficient in the discussion which has taken place to teach him a little more reason and common sense, and a little more knowledge of the fact that there arestill many honest merchants in this community, and that it is of no use trying to punish them in order to put down rogues. In clear cases of roguery and of nefarious practices in endeavouring to get in goods whilst escaping the payment of Customs duties, or to enter into unfair competition with other firms, I sympathize with the Minister in his action. But when it comes to little trumpery casesin which mistakes have been made, I think the Minister is wrong in going to such lengths as to prosecute the parties. To cite only one instance, I would point out the case in which a gentleman, who I understand is one of the Minister's personal friends in South Australia, imported a little bottle of mustard-seed oil. The oil was made in the prisons of Calcutta, but the importer had no knowledge of that fact.

Mr Kingston - The bottle was plastered with statements showing that it was a gaol product.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But it is very probable that the importer did not know that goods made in Indian prisons are contraband. This gentleman imported the bottle of mustard-seed oil quite honestly, and was perfectly willing to pay any duty that might be charged upon it. He was told in effect, however - " This is contraband. You shall not have it. It shall not be thrown into the sea, as you desire, but you shall be prosecuted." He was prosecuted, and prosecuted in respect of an act for which, if it had occurred anywhere outside the administration of the Customs, he would have been allowed to go scot-free, because it was such an innocent mistake.

Vote agreed to.

Division 32 (Expenditure in New South Wales) - £66,883; Division 33 (Expenditure in Victoria) - £59,848: Division 34 (Expenditure in Queensland) - £60,799 ; Division 35 (Expenditure in South Australia) - £24,494, agreed to.

Division 36 (Expenditure in Western A ustral.ia)-£S0,290.

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