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Thursday, 18 August 1960

Mr CREAN (Melbourne Ports) .- I wish to address myself briefly to this clause. I think the Minister indicated in his second-reading speech that he would explain some of the clauses in more detail when we came to the committee stage.

Clause 5 highlights some of the difficulties of tariff-making in Australia. Before 1953, the Tariff Board sat as a single body only. Amendments were introduced in that year, with a view, it was said, to streamlining the procedure and facilitating the disposal of the board's business. These amendments provided that the chairman could divide the board into two parts, so that each part could consider separate problems. Each part, however, could operate only under the chairmanship of the chairman himself. It was suggested at the time that, physically speaking, the same amount of work would have to be done by the chairman as had previously been the case, and that perhaps provision should have been made for a number of boards, each with its own autonomy. To some extent this seems to be the intention of the clause now before the committee. In the event of certain emergencies, such as the illness, suspension or absence of the chairman, or during any vacancy in the office of the chairman, apparently a deputy chairman may operate with the full authority that is exercised by the chairman himself. If it is felt that a deputy chairman is competent to act in this way in an emergency, why is he not given authority to operate in this way at other times?

There have been two main matters dealt with during the debate on this bill. The first had regard to the fact that the volume of work which will come before the Tariff Board is now increasing, because the board is asked to act as the adjudicator or the assessor of the effects of relaxing the import controls which previously applied over the whole structure of the Australian economy. This is a large task, because Australia has a higher proportion of external trade to total national income than most other countries do. When we consider that with a gross national product of some £6,000,000,000 we have imports every year of the order of £1,000,000,000, we can realize the size of the board's task.

Part of the difficulty now confronting us arises from the fact that it is realized that some pressing problems will present themselves during times when the Parliament is not in session. The Government evidently feels that some emergency powers should be granted to cover such periods. I am not debating that aspect of the matter at the moment, but I am saying that it seems that at all times there is far more work coming to the Tariff Board than the existing machinery of the board can cope with efficiently. In order to ensure greater efficiency the Government has felt impelled to remove one of the normal protections of parliamentary government, which is embodied in the principle that no duty or tax shall be imposed without the consent of Parliament. The Government apparently takes the view that the gains to be derived from this departure outweigh the disadvantages. This is, to say the least, a debatable point, but what is not in dispute is the fact that a great volume of work has to be done by the Tariff Board.

All that the Government seeks to do by this legislation is to alter the machinery with relation only to abnormal conditions. No alteration is made so far as the normal workings of tariff machinery are concerned. This is one reason why we feel we are entitled to chide the Government. It has been pointed out, particularly in the last two annual reports of the Tariff Board, that the existing machinery is creaking and in need of overhaul. It seems to me that the overhaul now being contemplated does not reach down to the root of the problem, which is a physical one, involving the question whether we should ask six, seven, eight or ten men to do the work. It is a difficult problem in any event, and it is made more difficult by the fact that the final authority, except in future in certain emergencies, must be exercised by the board sitting as one body under one chairman.

In clause 5 the Government concedes that in certain circumstances a gentleman designated as deputy chairman is just as competent as the chairman himself to exercise full power. Ought not the chance have been taken of, perhaps, dividing the functions of the board so that the chairman would not have to adjudicate upon every major issue as he now does? I should like the Minister to say whether he thinks that the existing machinery except for these abnormalities is satisfactory or whether, perhaps, in future, he will consider further amendments of the normal operations of the Tariff Board.

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