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Friday, 8 February 1929

Mr GULLETT (Henty) (Minister for Trade and Customs) . - (By leave.) - I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

When the original Tariff Board Bill was submitted to this House in 1921, the Minister in charge admitted that it was largely of an experimental nature. The board which was. created under the act has done good work although as was to be expected in the course of seven years' operations certain defects in the machinery of the act have been disclosed. The purpose of the bill is to make good those defects. It is generally agreed that it would be unthinkable to abolish the board and revert to the old method of tariff-making by ministerial or departmental initiative with unlimited log rolling. Experience has shown that the capacity of the board to hear and deal with applications was over estimated. I should like, at the outset, to pay a tribute of respect to the pioneer members ' of the board and particularly to the departmental chairmen upon whom has fallen the greater part of the work. The thanks of the Government are also due to the lay members of the board who have served this country so well in the discharge of their important duties. I do not suggest that the board's recommendations have been always acceptable to either the government of the day or the interested parties; but the reports presented have disclosed sound knowledge of the particular subjects dealt with, and have given evidence of the most careful consideration for all the interests involved, direct and indirect. The main criticism of the board - and I think it is admitted that the complaint is not unfounded - has been because of the delay in hearing applications, many of which have been of first importance. Honorable members will recognize that undue delay in matters of this nature not infrequently means heavy loss to the interested parties. The amendments in the bill fall into two classes. The first group aims at altering the machinery of the board to make it more adaptable, and to increase the board's capacity to consider applications. The second group of amendments is designed to relieve the board of a good deal of work in connexion with minor matters, so that members may give more of their time and energy to the hearing of the more important tariff, issues.

When the board was first constituted it consisted of three members - a departmental officer, who was chairman, and two laymen. Subsequently, the number of the laymen was increased to three, giving a membership of four. Up to the present the board has always sat as a single body. The first change proposed in the bill is that at the discretion of the chairman the board may be divided into two boards or sub-boards of two members each. The question whether there shall be a division will be left with4 the chairman; although the Minister may at his discretion at any time instruct the board to sit as a whole on a particular case.

Each sub-board of two members will have all the powers of the full board in regard to the taking of evidence and the conduct of hearings generally, but the reports of the sub-boards must be signed by the members of the full board. There will be a deputy chairman presiding over the sub-boards, but, unlike the chairman of the full board, he will have no casting vote. In the event of unanimity between the two members of the sub-boards, their report will be forwarded as a single report to the full board. The evidence will be briefly surveyed by the full board, and the report eventually signed if an agreement is reached. In the event of a disagreement between the two members of the sub-board, two reports containing their dissenting views will be presented to the full board, which body will come to an ultimate decision. In this way the usefulness of the board will be considerably increased. The working speed of the board will not be actually doubled, because at times its members will be sitting as a single board on cases of special importance, and they will be together for the consideration of reports from the sub-boards. It is proposed to make some slight increase in the remuneration of members of the board. Up to the present the chairman has been receiving an annual salary of £1,400, which, I am sure, all honorable members will agree, is not a very large remuneration for that position. It is now proposed to pay the chairman £1,600 a year. The lay members have been in receipt of a fee of five guineas a sitting. They have been sitting practically six days a week all the year round, and have averaged about 300 sitting days a year.

Mr West - They have better jobs than members of Parliament.

Mr GULLETT - And a little more work. Up to date the amount paid to each layman has been about £1,500 a year. It is now proposed to increase the fees from five guineas to six guineas a day, and to limit the days of sitting from six to five a week, and thus cut out meetings on Saturday mornings. These, I understand, do not permit of much work. It is also proposed to grant the members of the board on fees an annual recreation leave of three weeks, or fifteen days, on full pay. Whereas the average earning of the lay members in the past has been a little more than £1,500, under this arrangement they will sit some 248 days a year, and receive an annual remuneration of £1,560. It is considered desirable to increase the fees so as to make the positions more attractive- withoutimposing a further burden upon the taxpayers. We have had great difficulty in the past in obtaining suitable men for these positions, the reason advanced being that we have not paid enough for this class of work. Consideration has again been given to the question of paying fees or salaries to the members of the board, and the Government has come definitely to the conclusion that whatever chance we may have of getting first-class men under the arrangement of paying fees, we have none whatever of. getting well-known business men to give up all their time to the work of the board at a salary of £1,500 a year.

Mr Stewart - Where is the difference ?

Mr GULLETT - There is a difference, as we have ascertained from business men. I come now to the question of reducing the work of the board. As honorable members are aware the board, as originally constituted, was given, by the Minister of the day, all manner of things to consider. It was given not only all requests for tariff revision, including requests for new, decreased and increased tariffs, but, in addition, a lot of what may be termed small work, and that work has occupied a great deal of the board's time. This minor work included what are known as by-law cases valuations under section 160 of the Customs Act, interpretations, and cases arising out of the Industries Preservation Act.

Mr Scullin - Who will deal with them now?

Mr GULLETT - The last two will remain with the board. It is now proposed to withhold from the board all applications for admission under the by-laws and cases arising out of section 160. In case some honorable members are not familiar with the by-law cases, let me explain that there appear in the Australian tariff, as in all tariffs, a number of articles classed as dutiable which may not be actually manufactured in this country, but which it was hoped by Parliament would be manufactured here at some future date. At the discretion of the Minister, however, these articles may under certain circumstances be admitted free or at a nominal rate of duty, provided that the Minister is satisfied that they cannot be commercially manufactured in this country. Under the act as it stands, however, all such applications for admission under the bylaws must be sent to the Tariff Board, except where the department has a complete precedent for their admission or rejection. When an application has been forwarded to the department, it is, before it is given to the Tariff Board, passed to the various investigation officers, in the States concerned and reported upon by them. It is then returned to the department and before being submitted to the board the department in all cases makes a recommendation. It has been found from experience that in almost every case the recommendation of the department has been acted upon by the board. Obviously, however, the board does not merely sign and endorse these recommendations. It is obliged to review the evidence and to spend a considerable time on this more or less futile endorsement work. It is, therefore, proposed, under the amending bill, to withhold those cases from the board, except at the discretion of the Minister, and also cases arising out of section 160 of the Customs Act dealing with valuations. Under that section valuations must, under certain conditions, be made arbitrarily by the Minister ; as, for example, when there is no clear guidance as to the cost of production or the value of the article in the country of origin. These cases, however, are not numerous. In future it is not proposed to send them to the board unless the Minister so decides.

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