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Thursday, 18 August 1960

Mr CLAY (St. George) .- At the outset I desire to enter a protest against the manner in which this bill has been brought down at very short notice. As everybody is aware, it is a most important bill, and may well affect the livelihood and fortunes of a very large number of persons. We believe that it is of such great importance that the House was entitled to much earlier notice of it. Accordingly I, together with many other honorable members on this side of the House, wish to enter a protest at the short time allowed for consideration of the very important provisions of the measure.

Some time ago, I suggested in this Parliament that the time had arrived when we should provide for a number of tariff boards, each presided over by a deputy chairman, and each having special skills and special knowledge of particular groups of industries. This could be arranged in the same way as individual conciliation commissioners are appointed under our arbitration legislation to preside over specific groups of industries. I still believe that a system providing for a number of such tariff boards would offer a greater hope of justice and security to the industries of Australia.

The bill before us goes a certain distance, but not, in my view, quite far enough, towards the correction of the dangerous situation created by the almost total removal of import restrictions and import licensing. We can all recall what happened in 1951 and 1952. During that period a great deal of unemployment occurred as a result of a disastrous flood of imports into this country. I see the possibility of something like that being repeated as a result of the Government's policy. I forecast that import controls will be reimposed within twelve months. I trust, therefore, that the Government will take the precautionary step of retaining ready access to the services of those public servants who have the experience necessary to deal with the crisis which may arise despite the steps to be taken under this bill.

There are many manufacturers and trade unionists who feel that in this rapidly changing world in which the accent is on speed, great harm could be done to Australian industry before action could be taken. For example, a message can be transmitted from one part of the world to another in a fraction of a second and, as a result, goods could be moved from a factory or warehouse in another country to a ship bound for this country in a matter of hours, where previously it would have taken days to arrange this. Ships to-day can be loaded much more rapidly than they used to be. There are ships on the drawing boards which will be able to move at speeds which will rival those of the freight aeroplanes of to-day. But even without the transport marvels of to-morrow, the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) may find that the existing speeds are such that he would be wise to retain the services of public servants who are possessed of the necessary know-how.

Quite recently, we had an example of the need for high speed in the tariff problem facing the rayon weavers of Australia. Ministerial intervention became necessary in order to facilitate an early and rapid Tariff Board inquiry. This resulted in the presentation of a report to this Parliament in record time. As a consequence, the looms in Australia's rayon weaving mills are working at full speed and full capacity, supplying Australia's needs. These mills are owned by. Australians and managed by Australians and the machines therein are operated by Australians. The profits from the mills are reinvested in Australia. This is in sharp contrast to the practice followed in another industry in which as we all know one company exported £8,000,000 of its revealed £15,000,000 profit in its most recent financial year. The Government, no doubt, bore the value of the Australian rayon industry in mind when it moved so rapidly to give protection where it was needed. I take this opportunity to give due praise to the Minister for his action in regard to the rayon weavers. I also give praise to the Tariff Board for the manner in which it treated a most perilous situation for several thousand highly skilled operatives and executives, not forgetting the investors whose capital was at stake.

The bill now before the House sets out to accelerate action by the Tariff Board whenever such action is sought and is deemed to be necessary, and I have no quarrel with that intention. The Australian Labour Party has always stood four-square upon its policy of protection for Australian industries but, at the same time, we proclaim and re-affirm our belief that the powers of the Parliament should in no way be whittled down.

The parliamentary institution is one of which the English-speaking peoples of the world are very proud. When Sir Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister of England, was asked his opinion of parliamentary government he said that it was the worst form of government except for every other form of government that had ever been tried. Yet I see provisions in this bill which reveal a lack of confidence in the parliamentary institution. This is our point of difference with the Government.

Under this bill a public servant has a great and grave responsibility thrust upon him. A deputy chairman of the Tariff Board must make a decision which, for good or ill, will affect the livelihood and fortunes of many thousands of Australians. The Minister for Trade said quite plainly in his second-reading speech that as industries in Australia developed and consolidated they would require less protection. I do not know whether that means that the Tariff Board will receive a ministerial hint that, where required by this Government, there should be a substantial reduction of protection to small industries.

I have little doubt that the big and powerful industries of Australia are not particularly afraid of what the Government can do but I am bearing in mind the existence of a number of small industries. I doubt whether they could obtain ministerial intervention if they needed it. I know that some of them have not been able to obtain such intervention when they have badly needed -it in the past. I refer once again to the cane furniture manufacturers of Australia. The Government is abrogating its powers and delegating them to an individual who is not responsible to the people.

In defence of this action, it is not good enough to plead that this provision of the bill is necessary because the House is sometimes in recess when speedy action is required. The nations which signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade conceded a power to the Government which it now seeks to abrogate and delegate. On this side of the House, we deprecate and condemn this particular provision of the bill. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade concedes the right to the Government, if it feels that an Australian industry is in danger, to impose forthwith quantitative restrictions or even a prohibition, on imports, pending a Tariff Board inquiry. This quite plainly means that even if the House is in recess, provided that the Minister has the courage to act, no Australian industry of merit need fear for its safety when faced by unfair overseas competition.

It may be necessary for me to remind the House that there are countries which are highly industrialized and not very far away from Australia in which wages are only one-sixth of those paid in Australia. As a consequence, it is fundamentally necessary that Australian industry should have the right to secure rapid and proper protection from the goods produced in those countries. Accordingly, we of the Australian Labour Party say that we oppose bitterly the clause in which the Government sheds responsibility like an unwanted garment and throws it upon the willing but perhaps narrow shoulders of one of our loyal public servants.

We oppose this clause because, as students of parliamentary history, we recall the struggle of the English people to wrest despotic powers from the hands of monarchs, many of whom they otherwise loved and revered. It is not quite 300 years since the English Parliament achieved victory in this struggle.

We are informed by the Minister that the Parliament of the United Kingdom has taken this step which he now proposes. He does not tell us why. He gives no account of the reasons which prompted this step. We do not know the circumstances and, until we do, we cannot weigh the factors which were involved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker,we are painfully aware that the Government is made up of a pot-pourri of free traders and semiprotectionists. In fact, it is not long since one of its members proclaimed in this House that they were all free traders. Like the wise counsellor within the walls of Troy when it was beseiged by the Greeks, and when I contemplate the Government's proposal, I say that I fear the Greeks most when they bring gifts.

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