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Thursday, 16 June 1904

Mr SPEAKER - Order. Will the honorable member resume his seat. I would point out that there are quite a dozen conversations, proceeding in different parts of the Chamber; it is almost impossible for the honorable member to proceed. I must ask honorable members to refrain from conversing aloud.

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - I hold that no matter should be remitted to a Committee for inquiry, unless the Government honestly intend to deal with it subsequently in a practical way. Otherwise a waste of time is involved on the part of members of the Committees, as well as a waste of public money. The practice to which I have referred ought not to be countenanced. The Committee appointed by Parliament in this instance spent a good deal of time in investigating this matter, which, in my opinion, is worthy of much more serious consideration than appears likely to be extended to it by the Government. I do not propose to speak at any length upon this proposal, because the honorable member for South Sydney traversed the ground so thoroughly and capably that there is really very little more to be urged in support of it. I merely purpose answering one or two of the objections which have been urged against its adoption. Before doing so. however, I would point out that since the preparation and adoption of the Committee's report several bodies have discussed the question most exhaustively, notably, the Australian Natives Association, which, at its annual conference, representing as it did some 20,000 members in Victoria, unanimously adopted the proposal of the Committee in favour of a decimal coinage system. Moreover, several articles have appeared upon the question in the more influential newspapers of this and other States. One or two exceedingly able articles were published in the Age. Whilst I do not regard that journal as an authority upon every subject, I hold that upon financial questions it is probably as well edited as is any newspaper in the British Dominions. On that ground alone I hold that its opinion is entitled to respect. One of the objections which have been urged against the adoption of a decimal system of coinage is that it should be accompanied by a reform of our weights and measures system. I admit that some force attaches to that objection.. Personally, I am of Opinion that there should be a decimalisation of our weights and measures system, just as there should be a decimalization of our coinage system. At the same time I do not hold that until we can secure both reforms we ought to refuse one. I am prepared to accept the first now, and to afterwards endeavour to obtain, the second as quickly as possible. I hold that the two questions are intimately related. I admit that there is strong reason why they should be dealt with jointly, but that is no excuse for- advocating delay in the matter of altering our coinage. Whilst it is important that we should deal with our system of weights and measures, it is still more important that we should place our money system upon a simple and rational basis. Others again urge that until something like a universal system of coinage has been established, which would be the result of some international Conference, it is idle for a small community to attempt reforms of this character. It is rather singular, however, that those who urge this objection fail to recognise that several international Conferences have already dealt with the matter, and . that the reform is, nevertheless, as far off as ever. Those , who entertain the view which I am now combating seem to imagine that there is some special necessity to place the coinage system of the world upon a uniform basis. They forget that the principal use to which money is put is of a domestic character. It is used by the masses more than by the merchants. So far as merchants and traders generally are concerned, at the present time they have to conduct their businesses in a way which compels them to adopt practically a decimal system throughout the world. Probably they would find their task rendered a little easier if we adopted a similar system in Australia. It is not the merchant and trader who are most concerned in securing a simple system of money; but the persons who daily have small transactions with the butcher, the grocer, the baker, and other tradespeople. If by means of this system Ave succeeded - as 1 am sure we should - in simplifying that branch of trade, and the accountancy work relating to it, we should do much for the people of Australia. Another objection levelled against the Committee's proposition is that we ought in any case to wait until Great Britain takes action in this direction. It is urged that it would be idle for a portion of the Empire to decimalize its system of currency while the remaining parts failed to do so. As I have said on previous occasions, if we are to delay what we conceive to be desirable reforms until some other part of the world has taken action, we shall always be in the back-wash of legislation. I do not quite understand that attitude of mind which considers no proposition worthy of consideration unless it has been dealt with by some other part of the Empire. If we are to maintain the character of a progressive people it will be necessary for us, occasionally, at all events, to step out for ourselves, and to say that, although the reform which we contemplate ,has not been carried out elsewhere, we are satisfied, as the result of reasonable inquiry, that it is right and that we should bring it about. If the reform were right we should stand bv it, and if it proved to be wrong we should be able to amend it or abandon the proposal ; but the suggestion that we should remain idle until the Imperial Government have taken action is one that I cannot accept. There is an excellent answer to those who urge that we should wait until Great Britain takes action, and that we are proposing to make a change in our monetary system so radical that it would materially alter the trading relationships of the Commonwealth with other parts of the Empire. The proposition of the Select Committee is that we should decimalize the sovereign. The sovereign is the standard of value throughout the British dominions, and I am proud to say that it is accepted almost the world over as being at all times worth the value attached to it. That being so. there can be no force in the argument that we should wait for Great Britain to take action in this direction before carrying out the recommendation of the Committee. The great bulk of our business in respect of trade accounts with the rest of the Empire, will be 'based in any case upon the sovereign, and, as we propose to retain that coin, there need be no serious apprehen sion as to the wisdom of the reform. Australian merchants and traders having business relations with firms in Great Britain and other parts of the world, deal with their accounts in such a way that they are simplified at sight. We have large business transactions with the United States of America, but invoices from that country are dealt with in merchants' offices in Australia without any great difficulty. I am informed, on very credible authority, that those who have to dissect these invoices can do so at sight. If that be possible, how much easier would it be for traders in the United States, and other countries where decimal systems are in force, to deal with our accounts on the establishment of a Commonwealth system of decimal coinage? Traders in Great Britain have already to deal with the decimal systems of other countries, and would experience no difficulty from the addition of a Commonwealth system. I feel that the internal benefits to be derived from this proposal would be so great as to far out-weigh any external disadvantages that might possibly be experienced. That being so, we may, without hesitation, adopt this proposal, and give to the people of Australia the advantage of a decimal system of coinage. It would certainly enable them to transact their business in a more rational and economic way than is at present possible. The reform advocated by the Committee would not, in my judgment, disturb trade or prejudicially interfere with the operations of merchants and traders. On the contrary, it would simplify their transactions. Some persons urge that if the Committee had recommended the retention of the penny, or the threepenny piece, they might have been inclined to support their proposition. That is a most remarkable attitude to take up ; because, to decimalize the penny or the shilling, as the case might be. would be to interfere with trade and commerce with the outside world to a far greater extent than the adoption of any other system would in1volve. The scheme recommended by the Committee is the only one that has ever found favour with the British people. It will be within the recollection of honorable members that the honorable member for South Sydney pointed out some time ago that the system which the Committee recommends has actually been approved by resolution of the House of Commons, and that the British Government propose to deal with the matter as soon as they can dispose of more urgent questions. To decimalize the penny, or the shilling, would be to put us out of touch with British thought and opinion on the subject; whereas the proposals of the Committee are in accord with the ideas of the people of the old country, and would eventually fit in with what I think is likely to be the Empire system. We are not oblivious' to the fact that there are other advantages to be gained from the decimalization of our money. I take it that in connexion with this change, we shall mint our own gold, silver, and copper coins and that we shall reap the advantages now secured by the Imperial Treasury from the coinage of the silver used in the Commonwealth. Our importation of silver coinage is so large that it represents at present a profit -of between £30,000 and £40,000 a year to the Imperial Government. That profit ought to be reaped by the Commonwealth, and would be secured by it if we adopted the proposed decimal system and minted our own coins. Another profit which would be gained if we put our decimalized coins into circulation at once would represent something exceeding £1,000,000. The proposition of the Committee is, if my memory serves me rightly, that that profit should be held as a kind of trust fund to meet any depreciation of silver, or to pay off from time to time the national debt. I do not think that we should use it save for some such purpose as I have just mentioned ; but we should in any case reap the advantages of these savings if we had only the courage to deal with the subject. I do not wish to pose as a mere money-grubber, but I think that the proposition that we should secure the profit of over .£30,000 which, at present goes to the Imperial Treasury, is a sound commercial one.

Mr Watson - The Imperial authorities at present take that profit as a set-off against the cost of maintaining the gold standard in Australia. They have asked us to agree to pay the expense of maintaining the gold Standard if we take the profit on the coinage of our silver currency.

Mr G B EDWARDS (SOUTH SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The expense of maintaining the gold standard in Australia does not amount to more than £2,000 per annum.

Sir John Forrest - Does the honorable member for Bourke say that if we coined our own silver we should save £40,000 a year ?

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - The present profit is about £35,000 or ,£36,000 a year, and the. whole expense of maintaining the gold currency of this country does not amount to £3,000 per annum. There is, therefore, a very wide margin of profit. I take it that we should be prepared to pay the expense of maintaining the gold standard if we secured the profit derived from the coinage of the silver used in the Commonwealth. It is a fair proposition to make, and a responsibility which the Commonwealth ought to accept. The right honorable member for Swan appears rather to doubt the figures I have given, but he can find ample proof of their substantial accuracy in the report of the British Mint Master. If he looks at the reports of the Australian Mints also, I feel sure that he will find that the figures are as I have given them. He will further find, and it will probably be gratifying to the right honorable member, that the Mint iri Western Australia is amongst those which are most profitably conducted at the present time.

Sir John Forrest - I believe that the quantity of silver used in Australia is" npi so great as to give a profit of £40,000 a year on its coinage.

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - The quantity of silver used in Australia is so great that, speaking from memory, the Mint Master of Great Britain is prepared to admit that there is a profit of £36,000. Surely we can have no higher authority ?

Sir John Forrest - There are charges for freight, and other charges to be reckoned.

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - The figures I have given make allowance for every charge in connexion with the matter. There is a collateral profit to be gained by the decimalization of the coinage which ought not to be neglected by rational minds in the community. The time saved in connexion with the education of school children, and in the keeping of accounts, and that kind of work, by the adoption of this system, is valued in round figures, £1,000,000 a year. That is a very large sum, and while I am not prepared to stand sponsor for the statement, I can inform honorable members that experts and others who gave evidence before the Select Committee estimated that there is something like that saving to be made in this connexion. It is contended! that the difficulties of the present system are so great that, in order to master them, a child requires to remain one or two years longer at school than would be necessary if the decimal system were adopted.

Mr Watson - It is estimated, in England, that the saving in the school time of children would amount to about a year, having regard especially to the study of weights and measures.

Mr HUME COOK (BOURKE, VICTORIA) - If the saving amounted only to one year in the education of children, it would be considerable; and, taken in connexion with the saving of time in the keeping of accounts, the advantages stated should be recognised in dealing with this question. I have endeavoured, in a few moments, to answer the objections most prominently stated against the adoption of the system. Such arguments are put forward as, for instance, that if we were to decimalize the' sovereign it would be difficult to deal with purchases that cut into the half-penny and so on. We have the old illustration submitted of so many yards of cloth at i.ijd. per yard, and so manypounds of butter at 11 3/4 d. per lb., and we are asked to find the answer in terms of the decimal system. But the answers to these questions have been given so often that there is no need to repeat them here. I assert that the great reason for decimalizing money in the Commonwealth is the domestic reason. It would facilitate all account keeping in the Commonwealth; it would render calculations more easy for school children and for people who are not well versed in book-keeping. People would be able to carry out everyday transactions with ease, and it would be of very great advantage to the small class of shop-keepers throughout the Commonwealth. In these circumstances, apart from the profit to be derived from the coinage of our own silver, I again assert that the balance of advantage is so much in favour of the decimalization of our system of money, that I think there is ample justification for immediate legislative action upon the adoption of the report of the Select Committee. I feel that we should have some pronouncement from the Government in respect to this matter, and that it should be such as to indicate at once whether there is any possibility of legislation on the subject. If there' is to be no legislation it will be a direct intimation to the members of Select Committees appointed in the future before they go on with their investigations to get an official statement as to whether their labours are likely to be followed bv action. I for one will not consent to become a member of any Select Committee unless I have some definite undertaking that the report and recom mendation of the Committee are likely within a reasonable time to be translated into Commonwealth law. It is of no use to waste Commonwealth time and money, and the services of honorable members, if no action is to be taken upon the report of a Select Committee. Honorable members are aware that the previous Parliament adopted the report of the Select Committee who dealt with this matter ; I have no doubt that the motion now before the House will also be agreed to ; and- in the circumstances I am satisfied that the time is ripe for legislative action translating these proposals into law.

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