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Wednesday, 16 March 1904

Mr CROUCH (Corio) - The truth of the statement of the Prime Minister during the early days of the first Parliament, that th'e Commonwealth was a living organization, and that as such it would grow and extend its powers is well demonstrated in the speech now before us. Certainly, if we were to attempt to deal with half the measures therein mentioned, this session would extend so far that we should have to make arrangements for a Christmas' adjournment. It would have been far better if the Government had confined themselves to two or three main measures, important for their national character or urgency, without bothering about other proposals which are mentioned in the speech, I take it, merely in order that they may play the part of "window, dressing." I desire to address myself specially to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. That is the only proposed legislation to which I shall refer ; my other remarks will' be confined to matters of administration. I am almost compelled to declare my position in regard to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, because my name was included in a list published in one of the daily newspapers which purported to indicate those honorable members who were prepared to vote against railway servants being brought' within the scope of the measure. I propose to take up the same position that I adopted when the measure was before us last year. I then said that I was in favour of bringing railway servants within the scope of the Bill, because I held that if a Government entered into trading enterprises, it should be subject to the same limitations as other employers, and that it would be most unfair for a Government to expect to trade if it were unwilling to submit to the same legislation that applied to rival employers. During the last electoral campaign I stated that if my opposition to the Government upon this matter would have the effect of bringing the free-trade party into power, I should have to choose the lesser of two evils, and that, in order to save the Government, I should not, so far as I was concerned, insist upon bringing railway servants within the scope of the BilL In view, however, of the declarations made by the leader of the Opposition and a number of his followers that they intend to support the Government, the question loses its party complexion, and I 'feel that I shall be free to -vote according to the dictates of my conscience.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Why should not the members of the Opposition choose the lesser- of two evils?

Mr CROUCH - I have no doubt they will choose what they regard as the lesser of two evils. This question is entirely robbed of its party aspect when we find the leader of the Opposition and members of what may be called the Conservative corner on the 'Opposition side coming to the support of the 'Government. During this debate another announcement has been made, -which is of very .great importance, because, in my opinion, it means a definite re-arrangement of parties in this House. Hitherto' the chief subject of difference between members of the Opposition and Ministerial supporters has been the fiscal . question. Now, however, that issue is to be sunk. Honorable members will recollect that, before the CobdenBright crusade in England, a similar condition of affairs obtained. There protectionists had a majority for many years, though there was a decreasing minority of free-traders. In the Victorian Parliament the fiscal question was never raised, because nearly all its members were protectionists. Further, that has been the position of parties in England from 1856 onwards, as most of the members of the Imperial Parliament were free-traders. Neither in the Victorian nor the English Parliaments, therefore, has the fiscal question been one which determined upon which side of the House a member -should sit. The declaration of the leader of the Opposition, that he is prepared to accept the verdict of the people of the Commonwealth upon this question, necessarily involves the formation of new parties. These will be based, not upon the fiscal issue, but upon other considerations and new principles. The other day I was looking up a biography of Lord Beaconsfield, which shows very clearly how, in 1847, a similar state of flux existed in England as . now obtains in Australia, and I may be pardoned for reading from it a very short extract. The position was that Disraeli had severed himself from his party, and with Lord George Bentinck had formed a protectionist party. He had refused to follow Sir Robert Peel, who was a freetrader, with the result that the latter was defeated. The extract to which I have referred, which fairly accurately describes the present position of free-traders in Australia, is as follows: -

But the really important point in this election is the attitude of Mr. Disraeli to protection. Whether he ever really believed in that doctrine or not, he may be credited with sufficient sense to see that, if once abolished, it could never be restored. He knew, of course, that the people having once got the taste :of cheap bread, would rise in rebellion .rather than again allow its price to be artifically raised by protective laws. The difficult problem which Mr. Disraeli had, therefore, to solve was, to keep up his appearance of a belief 'in the possibility of a -return to protection, and at the same time gradually pave the way for abandoning protection. This is the game which he plays for the next few years, and I think the reader will not be wholly unamused in watching the skill, the audacity, and the unscrupulousness with which he played it. ... This thesis, that an immediate return to protection was impossible, he enlarged on during his many election addresses ,- taking care, however, be it remarked, to hold out at the same time the hope that what .was impossible .for the moment would bc possible by-and-by. It is this that constitutes the dishonesty of Mr. Disraeli's action. The harm he did by keeping alive these hopes, which he knew to be false, is incalculable. It induced lethargy in both the landlord and the tenant, and throughout the entire community it kept up a dangerous feeling of uncertainty.

I venture to say that, if the free-trade members of this House - who appear to be in a state of revolt against their leader upon the" fiscal question - attempt to raise that issue, after the pronounced way in which the people have declared in favour of protection, their action will be prompted by a desire to induce hopes which they know to be impossible of realization. I need scarcely point out that Western Australia returned to the first Parliament only two protectionists. The leader of the Opposition subsequently visited that State, and conducted a freetrade crusade there, with the result that five protectionists have been elected to this Parliament.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Were they returned as protectionists? I am sure that not one of them will say so.

Mr Frazer - But they all defeated free-traders.

Mr CROUCH - Similarly, in the first Parliament, four protectionists werereturned by Tasmania. Then the leader of the Opposition visited that State, and embarked upon another free-trade campaign, as the result of which it has since returned six protectionists. Indeed, every State of the Union, save New South Wales, has returned a majority of protectionists. I venture to say that the free-trade policy is maintained in New South Wales only because the Sydney newspapers suppress proper information. I am glad to note the attitude which has been adopted by the Ministry in connexion with the pro1 posed introduction of Chinese into South Africa. I would remind the House that on the 26th September, 1902, I brought this matter forward, and urged the Government to make representations to the Imperial authorities against the proposed admission of Chinese into the Transvaal and other South African States. I was exceedingly pleased to hear the criticism in which the leader of the Opposition indulged, because the Government have been content to follow the lead of Mr. Seddon upon this question, when the opportunity was clearly offered, and the occasion certainly demanded, that the Australian Ministry should take definite action. I remember that on the occasion to which I refer the present Prime Minister, the honorable member for Bland, the honorable member for Parramatta, and the honorable member for Darwin objected to any such representations being made. Consequently, none were made, and we have had to wait for eighteen months to discover that we ought to follow the example of New Zealand in this matter. I then reminded honorable members that Australians fought and shed their blood to preserve the South African Colonies to the Empire. Therefore, I claim that we have a right to exercise a voice in the terms of peace which were agreed upon. Indeed, Mr. Chamberlain promised that the Colonies would be consulted in the terms of peace - a promise whichwas never carried out. I am very pleased to know that the opinion is rapidly gaining ground that Australia will not consent to its own flesh and blood being denied an opportunity to obtain employment in those States. Some criticism has been indulged in with reference to the new regulations of the Defence Department. In my opinion the Minister has acted in a very proper manner by offering to forward to every honorable member who desires it, a copy of the new defence regulations, and by inserting in the Government Gazette an intimation that any suggested amendments in them shall receive fair consideration. Consequently, if, in the future, honorable members complain of feathers and gold lace, unless- they make proper representations to the Minister, they will have only themselves to blame. I understand that the Minister for Home Affairs has asked for a specific instance of incompetence on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer. From my own experience I am able, to supply him with one of several, because there is no honorable member in this House who does not thank his stars that the electoral arrangements did. not completely collapse. The statement of the Prime Minister that he feared there would have been an entire breakdown in those arrangements is a sufficient indication of the weakness of the Department. I wish, however, to state one case, in which incompetence was displayed, so that it may be placed upon record in Hansard. At Queenscliff, eighty-one soldiers discovered that their names were not upon the electoral roll. Accordingly they forwarded a list to the Chief Returning Officer, but received no reply to their communication. Their commanding officer then wrote on their behalf, and he. also failed to elicit any reply. Subsequently the men communicated with me. I interviewed Mr. Lewis, who rang up Mr. Newman to inquire into the matter. The latter admitted that he had received the list in question, that he had not replied to the letters, and had promised that all the names of the men would be placed upon the rolls, adding that they had already been forwarded to the Government Printer. I need scarcely inform honorable members that none of these men's names appeared upon the roll. I think that is a specific instance of incompetence on the part of some officer, into which the

Minister will deem it to be his duty to inquire. I am very glad that the right honorable member for Adelaide has referred to the recent Conference of Treasurers upon the question of the -transfer of the States debts, because it gives an opportunity for" that matter to be discussed in the House, and so gives the Treasurer indications of the opinions of members. I must confess that I do not like the Federal Treasurer's proposal to accept part of the gross revenue of the States railways without taking Over the administration of those railways. The Federal Convention was very careful to guard against the Commonwealth being made dependent upon the States for any portion of its revenue. That gathering distinctly declared that there should not be a direct contribution by the States towards the expenses of the Commonwealth, as it would make - the. Federation depend on the States. Therefore, I do not like the proposal of the' Federal Treasurer.

Sir George Turner - We should not be dependent upon the States; because we should receive the money direct.

Mr CROUCH - The Commonwealth would receive, the money, if it were available. But we should be dependent upon the disposition of the States to act generously to the Commonwealth by providing certain revenue. The Minister would also be employing States- officers for his own services, because all the railway men would be States officers in the employ of the Commonwealth. That is really the meaning of the Treasurer's interjection.

Sir George Turner - No.

Mr CROUCH - The Treasurer would have States officers whom he would not pay-

Sir George Turner - They would be Commonwealth officers.

Mr CROUCH - In relation to only one of their functions: In all other respects they would be States officers. As the Treasurer contends that they would be Commonwealth officers, I desire to know whether the Government would extend to them the provision in the Commonwealth Public Service Act that officers who have been three years in the service shall receive not less than £110 per annum?

Sir George Turner - I should have nothing to do with them except through, the Commissioner.

Mr CROUCH - Then the Government would simply take over one State officer, whilst many States officers would receive Federal moneys. I certainly agree with the Treasurer that the States loans should not be taken over for some time to come. In view of the fact that at present the average price of States' bonds is ^85 for every £100 that has been borrowed, I consider that the Treasurer is very wise in holding aloof from the London . money market in anticipation of a good time to come. He has to remember that in spite of the difficulties at present associated with the London money market, with its glut of undigested securities, the Russo-Japanese . war will mean, perhaps, that another ^300,000,000 will have to be raised by those countries. If the Commonwealth goes into the English money market within the next five or six years, it will not be able to obtain anything but poor prices, I am glad to know that the Treasurer does not propose that the Commonwealth shall go into the London money market at the present time, and that he objects to take over any States bonds until he can obtain ^100 for every £100 which we have to pay. It is impossible for him to know what will be the conditions that will obtain when the whole of these conversion loans are required. In the proposal submitted by him to the Conference of Treasurers, he shows that if he simply took over the threefourths of the total Customs revenue now payable to the States, and did not touch the gross railway revenue of the States, the Customs revenue now going to New South Wales and Western Australia would meet the whole of their interest charges, while Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia would be at most only about ^100,000 behind. The proper course for the Government to pursue would be to take over these loans as they become due. That, indeed, is the only course which is open to the Treasurer. Even if it were necessary for him to take over more bonds of one State than of another, he should take them over as they fall due, and he would find by the time that the last loans became payable that our population, and consequently our prosperity, had increased to such an extent that the three-fourths of the Customs revenue, now payable to the States, would be sufficient to meet interest on the loans, and that it would be unnecessary for him to touch the gross railway revenue of the States. In my opinion, it would be disastrous for the Commonwealth to trench upon the railway revenue of the States until we can take over the railways completely. Although the .Treasurer cannot at present take over these loans - and it is my desire that he should not approach the London money market until he can obtain £100 for £100 - I think he might very well set to work, immediately to establish a sinking fund. When the Tariff was before this House the leader of the Labour Party submitted a motion for the abolition of the tea duty, but stated that he would not object to such a duty if the money so raised were applied to a sinking fund for the extinction of our enormous indebtedness. By means of tea duties we should be able to raise ,£300,000 or ,£400,000 per annum. I do not think it would be wise for the Government to take over all the functions of a State bank ; matters relating to private borrowing are much better left in the hands of private institutions. But one of the functions of banking that we might properly take over would be the issue of notes equal to the bank notes now in circulation in the Commonwealth, and which represent about £10,000,000. The money so derived, together with the amount raised bv means of a duty on tea, could be devoted to a sinking fund for the purchase of State securities - regardless of the State which had issued them - at the lowest price at which they were available. In that way we should improve the credit of the State, and be able to buy at times when it would be most profitable for the Commonwealth to do so.

Mr Carpenter - How would such a system improve the credit of the States?

Mr CROUCH - If the Commonwealth were able to constantly buy up States bonds at £&3 or ;£85> it: would thus force up the value of the stocks in the London market. It was a system of this kind that was really responsible for the fact that, until the South African war, English Consols were always above £^100. The National Debt Commissioners were always in the market buying up English Consols, as opportunity offered. In the same way, if the Commonwealth purchased, from time to time, States bonds which were the lowest in the market, we should increase the price of the debentures, while at the same time our credit would be improved when we as a Commonwealth come into the market. We should, likewise, pave the way for a more profitable notation of Commonwealth loans. This is a matter which should be carefully considered, because it would be most unwise for the Commonwealth to go into the market, even for conversion purposes purely, unless it could obtain a full price for its bonds. Proposals were put before the Conference that .the Commonwealth should pay .£96 or ,£98 to convert State loans, but I do not believe in such conversions; they would mean a loss either to ourselves, or to the State. I think that, in each case, we should wait until the next State loan becomes due, leaving the State to float its own loan if the time is still inopportune for Australia to borrow, and then take over-

Mr Conroy - Does the honorable and learned member think that the Commonwealth should borrow money to enable it to take over States bonds?

Mr CROUCH - The Constitution permits it, and I have already proposed that a sinking fund should be established for the purposes of States bonds, and if my suggestion were adopted, it would only be necessary for the Commonwealth to obtain the consent of' the States to the diversion of their three-fourths of the tea duty to the object I have named. There is one other matter which I think should be brought under the notice of this House.' I refer to the great falling off in our Customs revenue. I largely account for this decrease by the fact that the change of Ministers has led to the removal of that strict and honest administration which was carried on by the right honorable member for Adelaide when he was in office, and to the substitution of a system of interviews such as those which are now occurring in the Customs Department. The Customs revenue for the year 1901-2 was ,£8,692,750, while that for 1902-3 was £9,451,686. I find that the figures relating to the Customs returns from June to December, 1902-3, and June to December, 1903-4, show that an absolute loss has occurred - that the collections for the last named period decreased by £200,096.

Mr Johnson - That is a reflection on the Minister for Trade and Customs.

Mr CROUCH - I brought this matter forward shortly after the present Minister for Trade and Customs took office. At that time he made a statement in the press that he was going to change what he regarded as the offensive methods adopted by his predecessor in bringing persons before the courts, and requiring them to be dealt with openly and fearlessly by . properlyconstituted tribunals consisting of persons trained to undertake such duties. What is the system that . the present Minister has substituted ? It is one that ' is absolutely illegal: The Act provides that . the Minister shall hear cases of the kind to which I refer and shall himself decide them. Instead of complying with that provision, the Minister allows these cases to be heard before officers appointed for the purpose in the various States. He does not see the witnesses, and save for the written statements put before him does not know the nature of the offences committed by the defendants. He does not know how the witnesses have conducted themselves, or whether they have spoken truly or not, and he does not always accept the recommendations of the officers who have examined these persons. I wish to put before the House some extraordinary decisions given by the Minister. I can point to various cases in which persons residing apparently in Sydney have been treated differently from .those charged with similar offences but living in other parts of the Commonwealth. Several cases are set forth in the Government Gazette of the 30th December, 1903. I find, for instance, that Ruttys Limited, of Sydney, for an offence alleged to have been committed on the 11th August, 1903, and consisting of misdescription of goods, were subjected to a penalty of £1 ; and that Joseph Pickles and Son, also of Sydney, for misdescription of goods on 4th August, 1903, had no penalty imposed on them, their post entry being accepted. Then, again, F. H. Allison, of Svdney, for misdescription of .goods was treated in the same way ; but W. L. 'Daniel, of Maffra, Victoria, for the same offence, committed on 4th December, 1902, was fined ^3. Again I find that in the Government Gazette of 6th February, 1904, it is set forth that Messrs. 'Davis and Fehon of Svdney, were dealt with for an offence which, if heard in the Criminal Court, would be described as obtaining money by false pretences. They were found guilty of claiming drawback which was not properly payable, and were fined £5. According to the same issue a Melbourne firm who, I am told, were brought before the Minister on two previous occasions, were dealt with for a similar offence on the 16th January, 1904, and the Minister decided that their post entry should be accepted. In a previous case this firm had made a mistake of £1,000. That mistake occurred when the right honorable member for Adelaide held Office as Minister for Trade and Customs, and they were then brought before a Court of Justice and fined. Let me now point to another case. The Gazette shows that Messrs. Colebrook and Knight,' of Melbourne, were :dealt with for a misdescription of goods on the 4th December, 1902, and that it was decided that a post entry should be accepted, but W. L. Daniel, of Maffra, for a like offence, on 4th December, 1902, was fined ^3.

Mr Conroy - In the one case the action of the defendant might have been wilful, while in the other a mere mistake may have occurred. It is very unfair for the honorable and ;learned member to deal with these cases in this way.

Mr CROUCH - I am ready to accept all that has been said in regard to innocent mistakes, but the suspicion which is rife in commercial circles as to these decisions would not arise were the cases heard, and not only heard, but decided, in open court. I wish, now, to refer to two cases which may be regarded as relating to other States. I find in the Government Gazette of 1 6th January, 1904, a statement showing that Messrs. Warren and Strong, of Sydney, on 31st January, 1903, were charged with' undervaluation of boots and shoes, but that the Minister decided that no fine should be inflicted, and that the post entry should be accepted. In the same issue of the Gazette appears a -.statement showing that J. Howard and Co., of Rockhampton, for omitting goods from entry on 1st October, 1903, were fined £5.

Mr Mauger - Does .the honorable "and learned member mean to say that there has been any collusion or favoritism ?

Mr CROUCH - I contend that the Minister should either accept the recommendations of his responsible officers or send these offenders before the court. There is a straightforward way of dealing with these matters, but, as I pointed out shortly after the present Minister took office, the system adopted by him leaves an opening for backdoor influences. But for the fact that the fines inflicted were very small there would have been a great agitation. A man who is fined only £3 or £5 has no wish to have his case brought prominently before the public. When we look at the evidence, and find that the Minister in his private room arrives at a decision without the slightest knowledge of the influences which have led up to the recommendation of the 'officer, and that, these decisions are absolutely inconsistent and contradictory, it is time to-direct attention to the provisions of the Customs Act, .and to see that a return is made to the .system adopted by the first Minister of

Trade and Customs. Every man is treated fairly by being sent before the court, and having his case dealt with by a justice of the peace Or a police magistrate. That is the course of action which I commended. What was the consequence ? . I prefaced my remarks by stating that the Customs revenue would fall, and in the first month of the administration of the present Minister it did fall. This is a matter of great importance, not merely to the Commonwealth, but to each of the States. I find that the Customs revenue for the period between June and December, 1903, was less by £200,096 than that for the same period of the preceding year.

Mr Conroy - What about the fodder duties ?.

Mr CROUCH - The last Budget contains an estimate of the difference there would be in the fodder duties, and that difference does not account for the fall I speak of.

Mr DUGALD THOMSON (NORTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - What about the falling off of revenue in certain periods during the administration of the right honorable member for Adelaide?

Mr CROUCH - I am not able to compare the figures for the period between January and June, because the present Minister has not been in charge of the Customs Department for the whole of such a period. But I have been able to compare the first six months of his administration with that of the right honorable member for Adelaide during the corresponding period of the previous year.

Mr Mauger - A very unfair comparison.

Mr CROUCH - That interjection is unsupported by facts. I think the comparison I have made is the fairest possible. I am glad to have had an opportunity to bring the matter before the House. I have not touched upon the measures of legislation referred to in the speech, and have confined myself, with the exception of a few remarks upon the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, to matters of administration. I trust that when the various measures referred to in the speech are brought forward, I shall have good reasons to give for the votes I shall cast in regard to them.

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