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Wednesday, 26 October 1904

Mr CHANTER (Riverina) - I shall not detain the Committee very long, because there is not much to be gained by prolonging the debate, seeing that we on this side have gained nearly all that we wish for. When the discussion started, there was a broad difference betwen the members of the Opposition and the supporters of the Government ; but the Ministry have given way so much that now the difference is a very narrow one. From this time onwards we shall undoubtedly hear a great' deal about fiscal, peace, or, to use the newer term, fiscal truce. The cry for fiscal peace was forced upon the protectionists at the last election by the declaration of the Prime Minister that if he obtained a sufficient following he would rip the Tariff, to use his own words, from end to end. and make it as nearly as possible a revenue Tariff. Thereupon the honorable and learned member for Ballarat stated that in the interests of Australia as a whole, the electors should pronounce for fiscal peace. I am proud to think that, notwithstanding the great ability of the Prime Minister, he is beginning to see the error of his ways, and is rapidly becoming a protectionist. It is 1 now agreed by honorable members on both sides that a Commission should be appointed to inquire into the operation of the Tariff,, though all that the programme of the alliance asked for was an inquiry into the condition of those industries upon which the operation of the Tariff is detrimental.

Mr Reid - What alliance?

Mr CHANTER - The alliance of members of the Protectionist Party with the members of the Labour Party for the protection of the manufacturers of Australia, so that our own people may obtain the work which is now given to foreigners, and for the protection of our workers, so that they may have plenty of employment at a fair wage. I have always given the right honorable gentleman crpdit for a sincere desire for the welfare of the people of Australia ; but while he thinks that it can be secured only in one way, I believe that it is to be gained only in quite another way. Personally, I see no need for a Commission. When the Tariff was framed, the Ministers of the day obtained all the information that they could get, and laid it before honorable members, and Parliament then determined what rates should be fixed. Why that course cannot be followed again now I am at a loss to know. A majority of honorable members favour the idea of appointing a Commission to inquire into the working of the Tariff, and the difference of opinion seems to be chiefly as to whether this Commission should be composed of members of Parliament or of private citizens. The Prime Minister spoke of appointing impartial men to the Commission, but every man in the mercantile life of Australia, who is worth his salt, holds strong convictions on the fiscal question. I do not suppose any honorable member will be anxious to serve on the Commission, though honorable members whose services are sought may be patriotic enough to give them to the country without payment. It would, however, be impossible to obtain private citizens possessing the knowledge which honorable members necessarily have, who would accept seats on the Commission without payment. In referring to the qualifications of members of Parliament for this work, I speak without egotism, because one who sat in Parliament for over twelve months, while the Tariffs of the world were being discussed, without learning more about Tariff matters than is known bv persons outside who have not enjoyed similar opportunities, would be a perfect dullard. A Commission constituted of six or seven experts would involve an outlay of at least £200 per week for salaries. It would probably have to sit for a considerable time, and the community would object to the heavy cost. They would also accuse us of shirking our responsibilities, and of neglecting our duty to frame a Tariff in the interests of the people. No one on this side of the House has asked that the whole Tariff question should be re-opened. All that is desired is that an investigation shall be made as to the extent to which injury is being inflicted by the Tariff upon certain industries, in regard to which we hear day after day that machinery is lying idle, and that workmen are being dispensed with. , It was suggested that certain specific industries should be reported upon, in the first instance, so that Parliament might have an opportunity to apply the remedy in the most pressing cases. When the Prime Minister was speaking last night, I felt that, without any loss of self-respect, he might have gone the length of promising that if the Commission reported that the'Tariff was inflicting injury upon certain industries, he would afford honorable members an opportunity to immediately give -relief. There was no adequate reason for his refusal to answer the question put to him by the honorable and learned member for Indi upon the point. I should like to know when the fiscal truce, which has been entered into, is to terminate. We are told that it is to extend for the life of this Parliament ; but I am at a loss to understand the position which the Government will occupy when they go to the country after the truce has expired. Will they propose an extension of the term of fiscal peace? It will be impossible for them to put forth either a protectionist or a freetrade policy, and it seems to me to be desirable that we should do our best - irrespective of party - to amend the Tariff in she interests of our languishing industries. It is our duty, whether we be free-traders or protectionists, to put a stop to the present ruinous waste of some of our best material ? Men are being driven out of employment, and are proceeding in large numbers vo Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere. Surely we should act as speedily as possible upon the information which is being afforded to us day by day, and if necessary increase some of the duties under the Tariff. The honorable and learned member for Indi asked, on behalf of those associated with him, that the inquiry - whether by Commission or otherwise - should take place during the coming recess and that a report should be laid before Parliament, so that action might be taken, if considered desirable, during the next session. Why cannot the Government agree to that? The Prime Minister said last night that he would not promise to take any course until the report of the Commission had been placed before him. No one asked that he should do so. All that is requested is that he shall facilitate an inquiry, and immediately the report is placed in his hands afford Parliament an opportunity to deal with it. He might have agreed to this the more readily because he would be speaking only on behalf of the free-trade section of the community, many of whom make large profits out of importations from abroad. The protectionist members of the Government appear to have their tongues tied. They have made no announcement as to what they are prepared to do. There has, however, been no hesitation on the part of protectionists on this side of the House in stating their intentions. Whilst, in common with other honorable members, I declared to my constituents that I was prepared to follow the honorable and learned member for Ballarat when he stated that he would endeavour to maintain fiscal peace, I felt that I could1 no longer support him when it was afterwards made clear by the evidence forthcoming from day to day that some of our industries were in a perilous condition. It would be a national calamity if we were to hold ourselves bound by an undertaking to preserve fiscal peace, whilst our industries were perishing. Should we excuse the Government of Great Britain if it failed, owing to considerations of neutrality, to d'en.and reparation from Russia for the outrage recently perpetrated by the Baltic Fleet of that power upon English fishing vessels? When the honorable and' learned member for Ballarat first spoke of fiscal peace, there was not the slightest evidence, so far as I was aware, that many of our industries were suffering seriously through the operation of the Tariff. A few months afterwards, however, we heard of numbers of employes being discharged on account of the increase of imports under the Tariff, and we felt that immediate action was called for. The Government now say that they are prepared to appoint a Commission, which shall consist half of Members of Parliament and half of impartial business men. If the Prime Minister felt that he could find six Members of Parliament qualified to act on the Commission, surely he might have found another six equally well equipped for the work. I believe that a Commission composed wholly of Members of Parliament would be able to deal with the matter more effectively and rapidly than a body otherwise constituted. The right honorable gentleman has made some concession in regard to the fiscal peace issue, and he has also conceded that half the Commission shall consist of Members of Parliament. He might reasonably go still further, and permit those industries which are crying out for assistance, to become the first subjects for investigation, leaving others to be dealt with as occasion may arise. The closing down of industries day by day represents a loss to the community. In order that a few individuals may wax fat upon importations, we should not be deterred from affording relief to the large number who are dependent upon the industrial life of Australia. It is our duty to build up that industrial life as rapidly as we possibly can. Almost from one end of Australia to the other people are crying out for the Legislature to do something to provide them with work. At present the lands of the States art* locked up by a variety of means, so that the people cannot gain access to them. Those who own the. land will not hold out the hand of relief to their fellows. Even if they did so, it would merely mean the removal of workmen from one part of Australia to another. We cannot fail to recognise that our citizens are being driven out of the Commonwealth, because they cannot find employment j,i the trades to which they were apprenticed. Although a great deal of adverse criticism of the press, in another direction, has been uttered to-day, we have to thank one section of it particularly, for hawing laid bare this phase of the question during the past few months. It has clearly shown the loss which is being occasioned in Australia by the paralysis of its industrial life. The honorable member for Hume mentioned one industry last night, which is concerned in the manufacture of a particular class cf agricultural machinery, and which is suffering acutely. Is not every honorable member aware that there are scores of industries - especially those connected with the iron industry - which are being seriously injured by the anomalies which exist under our Tariff? The argument that one item in the Tariff cannot be touched without interfering with twenty or thirty others is a mere bogy. If iron and steel works existed in Australia such an argument might have some force-

Mr Johnson - Upon the score of equity, how can the honorable member justify the exclusion of any industry from consideration by the proposed Commission ?

Mr CHANTER - I do not attempt to do so. I have not uttered one word which would justify any such conclusion. But whilst I would not exclude any industry from consideration, we know that specific industries are being practically mined. Let us deal with them first. If evidence of a similar character were subsequently forthcoming in regard to other industries, we should then be at liberty to deal with them. There is nothing to prevent a Commission composed of members of this House, who would diligently face the task before them, from submitting a progress report to Parliament almost immediately after its re-assembling next session. If, on the other hand, we appoint a Commission and allow it to withhold its report until it has inquired into the industrial conditions obtaining all over Australia, we shall require 'to wait five or six years for that document. That is not the kind of relief for which Australia asks. Whilst the electors of the Commonwealth declared at the recent elections that they did not desire any more Tariff turmoil of a general character, no constituency affirmed that we should not remedy existing anomalies in the case of specific industries' when those anomalies were" disclosed. The sole difference between the Government and the Opposition is as to whether the proposed Commission shall be appointed for the purpose of affording immediate relief to certain industries, or whether it shall deal with the effect of the Tariff - upon the industries of all the States, and submit its report when it has completed the task of taking evidence. How is this difference to be reconciled ? I desire the Prime Minister' to inspire me with confidence by his acts. He can do that most effectively by showing that he is anxious to relieve Australian workmen, notwithstanding that by doing so he is compelled to discard his own pet fiscal theory. That is what I hope for. In my opinion there is no necessity whatever for the appointment of a Commission to afford immediate relief to certain industries. When the right honorable member for Adelaide and the present Treasurer framed the existing Tariff, they undertook a gigantic work. They had, as far as possible, to harmonize six conflicting Tariffs. That undertaking was one of much greater magnitude than is the task which we at present have to face. I cannot understand why party differences should allow us to remain inactive while certain industries are being ruined. Although this matter may not be one of importance to the Government, it is of very great moment to the individual who cannot obtain work and who, under the operation of the Victorian or South Australian Tariff, has been accustomed to find employment in industrial enterprises. It is not for the Ministry to say, " Except it suits us we shall not give the House an opportunity of correcting certain legislation which it has enacted." I am glad that we have progressed some distance upon the road to a compromise. It is our duty to put forward our best efforts to bring about an understanding which will conduce to the benefit of the people of Australia. Before this debate closes I hope that some honorable member opposite will indicate whether he is in favour of appointing a Commission to immediately deal with specific industries, or whether he supports the proposal to allow it to inquire into every item of the Tariff before any relief is afforded. If we adopt the latter course the report of the Commission will not be forthcoming for years. I have been waiting for some honorable members opposite to indicate how far the Government supporters are prepared to act in conjunction with us, in order that a more cordial agreement may be arrived at between the two parties as to the best means of affording immediate relief to the people. So far no honorable member has given us any information on the subject, but I trust that action will be taken without any further loss of tin.e.

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