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Tuesday, 25 October 1904

Mr DEAKIN (Ballarat) - The misfortune, or good fortune, has befallen me to lose four or five pencil notes which were intended to serve as the basis of any remarks I might offer this afternoon. But, so far as I have listened to the debate, it appears to me that the necessity for the use of those or any other notes has disappeared. So far as I can analyze the arguments which have been addressed to the House by the three honorable members who have preceded me - and they are all leaders - the bulk of their complaint about each other is as to the extent of their agreement. Each appears to resent most bitterly the approximation of the honorable member opposite towards his own ideas. Looking down from a somewhat impartial position, I am perfectly content to allow these arguments to cancel each other, and to admit that in point of compromise both parties have gone as near to throwing themselves into each other's' arms as they possibly could under the circumstances. As a matter of fact, the substance has gone out of the debate, and for that reason I rise for a few moments merely in order to indicate briefly why the discussion appears to have died away. The proposal before us stripped of all its trimmings, is for an inquiry into the Tariff as it affects the industries of Australia. That inquiry is indorsed from both sides of the House. Therefore, no useful purpose can be served, in my opinion, by further discussing the grounds on which it is sought. What arguments we have heard have not been whether an inquiry should be held - they have not even touched the nature of the inquiry - but related simply to the form it should take and the method which should be adopted, in order that we may be familiarized with all those circumstances necessary to enable us to judge if and to what extent we require to revise the Tariff assented to by the last Parliament. The size of the proposed Commission appears to have been agreed upon. The differences, so far as I can determine them, which still remain, are narrow, and only two in number. One is as to the constitution of the Commission; the next as to the method in which the Commission should deal with the subject remitted to it.

Mr Isaacs - There is one more, and that is whether we should deal in this' Parliament with anything the necessity for which is shown.

Mr DEAKIN - I take it that no honorable member can bind any other member in regard to that; and that none of us can say in advance until he has seen the particular report or reports of the Commission, or has studied the evidence, what course he will take. Nothing that we can say now will trammel our liberty then. If there be honorable members who at this moment are disinclined to undertake the task of touching the Tariff in any respect, it is perfectly open for them to be satisfied from evidence hereafter produced that it is wise to alter it in certain directions We cannot bind ourselves, and we cannot bind others in that regard. Where we appear to differ is, first of all, as to the personnel of the Commission. My honorable friends opposite contend that members of this House are best qualified to engage in such an inquiry, and they have offered substantial reasons for that opinion. On the other hand, the Prime Minister has contended that there are indisputable advantages in removing from an inquiry of that nature all party political complexion. Now, we ourselves are perfectly competent to determine the weight of the recommendations of any Commission. No matter what its composition may be, the whole decision will rest with us. Whether the Commission be composed of members of this House or not, we impose no restrictions upon our own freedom. Whatever type of Commission is chosen, we have nothing to fear any more than we have much to hope from that form. It appears to me that the Commission had better tie small in numbers ; and for my own part I doubt if it be small whether it will be wise to place Members of Parliament upon it. I think we gain much by - each 'and all of us: - absolutely free when its findings reach us, and am inclined to suppose that the Commission itself will gain a good deal by the exclusion of all merely political issues andi questions from its proceedings. As I take it, the matter to be submitted to the Commission is practical and industrial, not political.

We do not want any Commission to favouus with its views on our policies, or to suggest a policy. We are perfectly capable of developing policies for ourselves. All that we ask from any Commission is that it shall obtain what we cannot very well obtain for ourselves - trustworthy and complete information as to the condition of our industries now as compared with the condition of those industries when under different duties in the different States previous to the passing of the Fed ral Tariff, and any grounds for supposing that an -increase of duties would benefit those industries.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Or a decrease would benefit the public.

Mr DEAKIN - Or that a decrease would benefit other industries, or the public at large. Any Commission that is appointed must look at both sides of . the shield. The object of appointing such a Commission is to show us the facts, and only the facts. The Commission is asked to furnish this House with material for forming its own judgment, and no more; and if all the members of the Commission are satisfied that the needs of some industry would be best met by an increase of duties, that would not bind any single member of .this House to adopt the suggestion In fact, any recommendations of the Commission will be only useful summaries, ana" indices for the use of honorable members themselves. I take it that the members of the Commission will be simply students of the facts, and collectors of the facts, and that honorable members will go to the facts themselves, when they are found, to form their own judgment from them. For that reason, it appears to me to be quite a secondary question whether Members of Parliament, owing to their representative character, are better qualified than outside men for membership of the Commission. In any case we, as Members of Parliament, must hereafter deal with the whole of the facts. As to the mere collection and collation, the industrious and careful ascertainment of the data upon which we are to form our judgment, we ask the Commission to relieve us of an arduous, elaborate, a'nd careful piece of investigation. But we allow the Commission to do no more.

Mr Isaacs - That is not the view of the Minister of Trade and Customs.

Mr DEAKIN - I am relatively unconcerned whether that is any other person's I view, but I am putting the situation as i; presents itself to me. It has been narrowed down. It has been brought within close limits. We are getting down to the only issue that is left to us, and that is the practical issue ; judged by ihat, it seems to me that in order to get the best evidence, it is not only unnecessary that members of Parliament should sit on the Commission, but that it is better that they should not. Still I hold no strong opinion that members of Parliament, as such, are disqualified, and if a mixed Commission were desired, should feel no compunction. The other question that has been raised is as to the method of the inquiry. It apears to me that a small Commission may well feel that the reasonable demand upon it is first to deal with the cases of apparently greatest necessity and apparently greatest injury. No one, I think - no matter what his opinions may be - would venture to suggest that the duty of such a Commission would be to approach this question in an alphabetical fashion, commencing with the first industry in the Tariff the name of which began with the letter A. On the contrary, what any body of reasonable men would necessarily do would be to sift, as far as they could, the various statements made to them, so as to pick out what were the most serious, the most extensive, and the most important grievances crying for redress. I should prefer - and very much prefer - to leave the selection of the most urgent cases to the Commission rather than attempt to decide them . in advance in this House on what must necessarily be most imperfect and impartial evidence. There are manufacturers- and others who consider themselves to have suffered serious injury in consequence of the duties having been lowered by the last Parliament. It would be almost impossible for us to determine either the order of their precedence, if we were to attempt that difficult task, or to brace ourselves up to the exclusion of any industry in Australia. Such a choice, in my opinion, could only be undertaken after a full and careful examination of the whole of the circumstances of that industry. At the same time it is in the highest degree unwise for us to attempt to close the door against inquiry into the circumstances of any industry in any part of the Commonwealth. I take it that the objections which have been raised to what is called "opening up the whole Tariff" do not obtain. It is not proposed to. open up the Tariff, except where grievances are alleged. There is no other necessity. No

Commission need be asked to enter upon the consideration of duties which are satisfactory,, or the circumstances of industries which are satisfied. The Commission will deal only with dissatisfied industries.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But a large number of consumers challenge the whole Tariff.-

Mr DEAKIN - It is perfectly open for them to do so, either through their representatives in Parliament or by bringing evidence before the Commission where any alteration is being proposed.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - A large section of manufacturers might ask for more.

Mr DEAKIN - No doubt; but the proper method for us' is not to take upon ourselves the ungrateful and arduous task of sifting out the various industries in order to discriminate between those which shall be at liberty to put forward grievances. That can safely be left to the persons directly interested. Then only those who feel themselves aggrieved will put forward protests. I venture to think that any reasonable Commission will naturally select first the cases which appear to present or to threaten the greatest hardships. When that is done, the Commission will doubtless find that, in order to equip itself at the earliest possible time for whatever recommendations it may make, and whatever collation of facts it may wish to present with regard to any industry, it will be essential to group various industries. In this respect I differ from the honorable leader of the Opposition, who believes that there are many ' industries now affected which can be spoken of as single industries, because they can be dealt with absolutely .by themselves. I think we shall find that they will fall naturally into groups. The industry which has been alluded to by interjection more than once, the iron industry, will be found to cover a group of industries, and affect many more.

Mr Mauger - There are no very conflicting interests.

Mr DEAKIN - I hestitate to make an affirmation of that kind, recollecting that the raw material of one branch of industry may be the manufactured product of another.

Mr Mauger - It is not desired to impose duties on-the raw materials required for our industries.

Mr DEAKIN -While the honorable member for Melbourne Ports may say what he desires, what we wish to know is what the industries desire. I take it that a Commission of reasonable men,' such as would be appointed, would find: themselves naturally grouping the industries relating to those most affected, and would deal with them altogether, so far .as they could. Their progress reports, when, presented to the House, would deal in groups . with those which affected one another, and in regard to which all the circumstances would require to be considered before the duty proposed to be imposed in the interest of a particular branch could be finally determined. I did not desire to be drawn even into the amount of detail into which I find myself drifting. I wished to give reasons for the view I hold, and hold strongly, that the difference which now separates the two sides in this House is a formal, and not a real difference, and that this is above all a practical question which requires to be dealt with in a practical way. What we have to look at is npt the interest of any party iri this House, not even the maintenance of the Government, since we have passed from that question now - both sides having agreed to an inquiry. What we have to consider, the determining factor in the decision of this question, is what is best for the interests pf the industries of Australia. It cannot be disputed that it is best for them that we should have an inquiry as early as possible, and that it should be as impartial as possible, so as to command public confidence. It is to the public we shall have to appeal after the recommendations of the Commission are presented, and we have ranged ourselves fiscally on one side or the other. Above all things we have need pf a Commission which shall not be so unwieldy as to cause delay. It must not be too partisan, as the Prime Minister has very properly said, because that would transfer to the Commission those contests of theory and principle which properly belong to the floor of this House or the political platform outside. These, if introduced before the Commission, can only have the effect of retarding1 its progress, restricting its results, and casting suspicion on its conclusions. What we wish is to get at the data as thoroughly,. as comprehensively, and as fairly as possible, and to group them naturally, that they may be laid before Parliament for its decision as to how they shall be dealt with. It seems to me that in view of that great governing motive, the interests of Australian industries, we require a small Commission, a competent Commission of practical men; that will be able to move from place to place with rapidity ; an impartial Commission, charged simply with the taSk :Ot' t unravelling :the relations of one industry with another, and of exposing the present circumstances of each industry, so as to discover whether any decline is due to a deficiency in the Tariff or to any other cause, to competition within Australia itself or from outside, and whether the competition to which it is subjected is fair or unfair. These facts being collated in respect to each industry, and the industries having been properly grouped, in my opinion the task of the Commission will be completed. It might be asked for recommendations, and, according to the abilities of the members of the Commission, we can give them weight and consideration. But they will bind no one; they will not bind us or the country; we shall remain masters of our own action. In my opinion, the heart and life has really been taken out of this debate, since there is no longer a dispute upon any question of substance. It is agreed that 'the scope of thi inquiry should be widened, and there is an agreement as to the persons of whom it is to be constituted. The way in which the work of the Commission is to be done, and the method to be followed, I have already explained, but no difference in details of procedure should prevent agreement. The persons to constitute the Commission are to be agreed upon by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition, each consulting his own party. In these circumstances), what is there to divide us or to prevent us from giving such an unanimous answer to the question as will prove to Australia that we are sensible of the seriousness of the present position of affairs, and are prepared to take the most immediate and businesslike steps to put am end to present conditions so far as legislative action can ? Having approached each other so closely on this question, it should not be difficult for us to prove that, as a Parliament, we recognise our supreme duty to the public bv proceeding to deal with this and the rest of the business of this session in a direct, practical, and common-sense' fashion.

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