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Thursday, 7 August 1930

Senator MCLACHLAN (South Australia) . - On the statements made by the Minister, from the documentary evidence that is available, and from the very pointed speech that was made by Senator Colebatch, it would appear that the Government has made a blunder of the first magnitude. Honorable senators are aware that, in response to a request of the Minister for Trade and Customs, of the 10th of April last, a conference was convened between the Tariff Board and representatives of the timber interests in Australia. The following organizations were represented: -

Associated Country Saw-millers of New South Wales; Victorian Hardwood Saw-millers Association; Tasmanian Timber Organization Proprietary Limited; Timber Merchants Association of Melbourne and Suburbs; James Moore and Sons Limited, Melbourne; John Sharp and Sons Limited, Melbourne; Gunnersen, Nosworthy Proprietary Limited; Hillas and Company Proprietary Limited; Alstergren Proprietary Limited, Melbourne; Rennke and Company, Melbourne; Gunnerson, Le Mesurier Limited, Adelaide; Andrew Jamieson Limited, Sydney; Victorian Box and Case Makers Association; Queensland Box and Case Manufacturers Association; Timber Workers Union.

As a result of that conference, at which a settlement of very conflicting opinions was effected among the timber interests, the Tariff Board formulated a recommendation. Its report sets out the proposals that came before the conference for discussion, and upon which the Minister had asked the board to report. The whole subject-matter of the controversy surrounding our timber problems was debated, and as the outcome of compromise on both sides the tariff schedule of June was. ultimately decided upon by the Government. While it may be perfectly accurate, as the Minister claims, that representations were made regarding further duties, they must have been made behind the backs of the people who were called to that conference. Having regard to the fact that the Minister specifically requested the Tariff Board to confer with those representative people, and in face of the recommendations of the Tariff Board, the Government was illadvised and committed a colossal blunder when it failed to give those people an opportunity again to confer with the board. The additional duties were imposed purely on the Minister's own ipse dixit, without his having sought advice from one single unit among those representatives, and with a, total disregard of the recommendations of the 'Tariff Board and the compromise that had been arrived at.

Senator Dalyclaims that this is all a matter of policy; but I submit that the policy of the Government should be administered in a regular way, in the light of day. Do not let us' have conferences arranged to produce a certain result, and their action then disregarded. The Government of the day is entitled to administer its policy, but not in such a manner as to bring ruin upon a large section of the .timber interests of Australia. Many men in my own State, who have spent a life-time in the timber business, are now brought to the verge of ruin by the action of the Government. Their businesses have practically been taken away from them, as they are unable to compete with those who have been protected, and who possess large stocks of oregon.

I am aware that Senator Colebatch had this matter in hand before any one approached me on the subject. It was at my solicitation that the honorable senator withheld his hand in order to give the Minister an opportunity to collaborate with his colleague the Minister for Trade and Customs, in an endeavour to have extended that sympathetic consideration about which we have heard so much. We are asking for relief, not sympathy. I. think that, even at this late hour, while Parliament is sitting, the Government should", without violating the law, defer the time from which these duties should operate. If we examine the matter closely, we realize that there has been a reckless disregard of the interests of all classes of the community. Representations have been made to me by the Associated Timber Merchants Association of South Australia, indicating that the levying of these duties will increase the cost of the timber necessary for the construction of a workman's cottage by £16 10s. per cottage. This is not a small matter. We need not be concerned with what men engaged in bush mills would like to have done. They had their opportunity, when the conference was called, to present their case. The same may be said of the timber- workers, because they were represented at the conference when this . bargain was made. Broadly speaking, the action of the Minister in convening the conference and asking the Tariff Board to adjudicate upon a conflicting issue, was in the nature of a bargain. But the Minister constituted himself a court of appeal. He listened to one side only and decided to make these alterations in the duties to the detriment of important timber interests. The Minister's action was unjust in the extreme. It is ruinous in its effects upon a large section of the timber merchants and dealers in timber. During the last week several honorable senators on this side, as well as a number of Government supporters, have been active in attempting to right the wrong that has been done. I believe this matter has been brought under the notice of the Government in another place. Unfortunately, up to the present, we have had to be content with an assurance that the representations will receive sympathetic consideration. The Government should act. It should do the right thing by postponing the operation of these later timber duties. This would be a simple act of justice to those merchants who, in the full belief that the June schedule was the Government's last word, had placed orders overseas. I concede to the Government the right to administer its policy as it deems fit; but I do not concede to it the right to so administer its policy as to affect seriously the in- terests of an important section of the people engaged in a particular industry.

We are not unaware of what happened in Canberra between the presentation of the June and the July schedules. Members of the Ministry could not have been blind to certain incidents. I heard one distinguished member of this chamber say that, at about that time, it was almost possible to hear the logs rolling across the wooden floors at the Hotel Canberra. Every one knew what was happening. It is true that lately there has been a change-over in the administration of the Customs Department. One schedule was laid on the table by the Acting Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Forde) and the other by the Minister (Mr. Fenton) upon his return from Great Britain. But the Government should be strong enough to now do the right thing. All this trouble may have been due to some official blundering. It is possible that the official who advised the Minister had forgotten all about the arrangement that the Tariff Board should adjudicate in this matter. But, whatever may be the explanation, we should see that British justice is meted out to all the parties. We should conform to one of the first principles of British jurisprudence concerning which the Leader of the Senate and myself have many thoughts in common. I should have no objection if a tariff of even £1 per 100 super, feet were imposed if this course were taken, after inquiry by the constituted authority, because I recognize that the Government must accept responsibility for its policy. What I object to is the imposition of duties in such a way as to lend colour to the belief that pressure may have been brought to bear in responsible quarters. I was glad to hear the Minister immediately refute any such suggestion for I should be loth to believe that a member of this or any other Government would act in such a way as to give ground for an impression that the Government was not dealing out evenhanded justice to all sections of the community.

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