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Wednesday, 20 June 1906

Mr KNOX (Kooyong) .- The title of thisBill is "A Bill for an Act for the preservation of Australian Industries, and for the Repression of Destructive Monopolies." I decline to admit that my honorable friends opposite have any greater desire than I personally claim for the preservation of Australian industries, or any greater desire that monopolies, which are against the public interest, and which are destructive monopolies, should be put down. However, when we come to read the provisions of the Bill, we find that Part II. fairly sets out, without any use of the word " destructive," that the measure is one for the repression of monopolies; and in other parts of the Bill there are clauses which are inconsistent with the description supplied in the title. I quite recognise that this is a measure which must be carefully considered in Committee. The objections to it have been well pointed out by honorable members who spoke yesterday afternoon. I should like to protest against a procedure which characterized the close of last session, and which has here again been adopted, of throwing upon the table, without proper, systematic consideration, an important measure, in the hope that the House, sitting as a Committee, may thresh it into some practical shape. In the interests of the consumer, producer, and) manufacturer, who will be affected by a Bill of this importance, I think that the measure should have received greater consideration at the hands of an expert committee, who might have been called in to advise the Minister. The duty will be forced upon honorable members on this side of going through the Bill line by line in Committee, to make it a workable and practicable measure. I resent this, because I consider that such a responsibility is one which the Minister should not have imposed upon the House. I suppose there are few honorable members who do not desire to see Australian industries progress, and who do not desire also to see that monopolies injuriously affecting our workers and manufacturers should be put down with a firm hand. I believe that the Attorney-General had at one time a notice of motion on the business-paper for the appointment of a Committee of Trade and Finance, and such a committee might very well have dealt with a question of this kind. It is impossible, in a House constituted as this is, to seriously consider and deal with the details of this Bill without fuller information, however great our desire may be to make it an effective and workable measure ; and in support of that statement I instance the history of the Commerce Act. I am sure that the Minister has found out in connexion with the framing of regulations under that Act that many of its provisions are utterly unworkable. Why should the commercial community be thrown into confusion, and why should anxiety be created, by the placing before us of an immature and ill-considered measure in regard to which the Minister has not received the advice which he should have sought from capable and expert men, whose life-long experience would have been so serviceable to him? We should not be played with by the introduction of a Bill of this kind. In my opinion, it has been introduced, not for the purposes indicated in its preamble, but merely so that the Government may have a placard with which to go to the country. The Minister should have endeavoured to put before us a workable measure. Practical men, both in the House and. outside, have shown that they are favorable to the principles underlying legislation of this character ; but they cannot support so illconsidered a measure as that which we have now before us. Why should the whole community be disturbed by attempts at class legislation ?

Sir William Lyne - What is there in the Bill to which the honorable member takes objection ?

Mr Kelly - The enormous powers which are proposed to be given to the Minister.

Mr KNOX - - I am desirous of giving legitimate support to the manufacturers of Australia.

Mr Cameron - The Tariff already gives them all necessary support.

Mr KNOX - I shall support, as I have always supported, legislation which I think likely to be of benefit to the whole community, without respect to any one particular class ; but, notwithstanding what the honorable member for Moira has said, the consideration of this Bill cannot be dissociated from the consideration of the fiscal issue, and the measure, if passed, will give the Minister greater powers of interference in commercial matters than he already possesses.

Sir William Lyne - The powers to which the honorable member refers are proposed to be given to a Board or Judge.

Mr Kelly - To a Board whose members may be trade rivals of the parties affected by its decision.

Mr KNOX - My first objection to the measure is that it has been introduced as a placard for the Government to take to the country, to show their interest in labour and their readiness to support protection amounting even to prohibition.

Mr Fowler - The labour aspect is a mere sham, and has been dragged in on that account.

Mr KNOX - I appeal to honorable members and to the Minister if the dominating features of the measure which has been thrown down here for us to wrangle about are not those to which I have just alluded?

Mr Fowler - No employes in Australia are more sweated than those working for a firm which the Bill proposes to protect.

Sir WilliamLyne. - The honorable member is now interjecting as a free-trader before everything else.

Mr Fowler - Will the Minister wait until the evidence is before the House?

Mr KNOX - I am glad of the honorable member's interjections in support of my contention, because they come from one of the ablest and most critical men in the House, who has the respect of every section of its members. I do not mean to imply by what I have said that I consider that the Minister is wittingly acting unrighteously in this matter; but, in my opinion, the longer the discussion lasts the better it will suit the honorable gentleman, because it will direct more attention to the prominent fact to which I have alluded, that the object of the Bill is to show the country that the Government are ready to do anything in the labour interest, and are willing to support protection even to the extent of prohibition. I admit that in his office the Minister is not an unreasonable man, and I ask, therefore, why he should be so unreasonable in regard to proposed legislation. What has taken place inconnexion with the framing of the regulations under the Commerce Act will be repeated in connexion with the administration of this measure. The Minister will, after it is passed, have to seek and accept advice from those from whom he should have sought it before introducing the measure. Many of the public bodies from whom that advice will have to be obtained have declared that some legislation of this kind is necessary, but they will not support a drastic measure such as this. The result of the measure, if it comes into operation, will be that prices will be forced up. and that cannot be in the interests of labour. The whole tendency of the commercial legislation which has been submitted to us has been in the direction of building round Australia a great wall to keep out importations; but the chief result of such legislation must be to force up prices. We .have heard a good deal about the harvester trust, and I do not propose to deal with that complicated question at the present time; but the workers will find that they have made a serious mistake if they insist that the people of the Commonwealth shall forego the advantages which would arise from the legitimate rivalry and competition of the world's merchants. Then, again, the provisions of the Bill are too wholesale in their character. A measure dealing with specific cases of injustice and unfair competition would have had the support of members of all parties. In Committee we must endeavour to substitute for the jury provided for in the Bill a Judge, assisted by competent assessors ; and we should do what we can to lessen the effect of departmental influence and bias, though in saying that I cast no reflection, on our honorable Public Service. In view of the great temptations that would be offered owing to the very extensive powers proposed to be granted under the Bill, provision should be made for a final reference of all questions to some high and independent tribunal. It seems to me that we should have waited until the report of the Tariff Commission was presented. The Bill which was introduced last session, and which was read a second time without much opposition, was allowed to reach, that stage because many honorable members were in favour of its general principles, and were under the belief that we should be in possession of the report of the Tariff Commission before the matter was finally dealt with. I desire that the representations of the Tariff Commission should receive favorable and serious consideration. The action of the Government in introducing this measure has already greatly disturbed the mercantile community, and people are beginning to wonder why the Government should bring forward uncalled-for legislation of this kind. I am authorized to say,' on behalf of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, that they do not in the slightest degree approve of tyrannical trusts and combines such as exist in the United States. I cannot conceive of any man standing here and daring to say that he would oppose legislation that would prevent the growth of such monstrous conditions. The fear enter- tained in regard to this Bill, however, is that the exclusion of foreign goods will lead to the creation of dangerous monopolies within the Commonwealth. It is true that under the Bill power is proposed to be taken to deal with internal monopolies, but unless the States authorities fall into line we may be powerless to restrain large trading combinations which may be brought into existence as the result of the exclusion of foreign goods. I am fully acquainted with the early history of the harvester industry. The action of Canadian manufacturers in pirating the Australian invention is to be resented to the fullest extent, and I have always been an advocate of retaliation so far as that matter is concerned. I. knew the man who invented the harvester which has proved of such advantage to our farmers, and who, unfortunately, did not derive the full fruits of his labours. Honorable members must all agree that we should look after our own people in every legitimate way.

Mr Watson - That is a good protectionist idea.

Mr KNOX - Probably it is. We hang up the banner of protection on one side and the free-trade banner on the other, but, after all, upon some occasions, we find ourselves separated by a very fine line of demarcation. I strongly disapprove of the provisions of the Bill under which, it appears to me, any introduction of foreign goods might be regarded as constituting unfair competition. It is quite conceivable that a small Australian manufacturer, who produced inferior -goods at a high price, might, by his representations, secure the exclusion of first-rate low-priced goods, to the great detriment of the consumers of Australia.

Mr Henry Willis - Hear, hear; that Is the object of the Bill.

Mr KNOX - I can scarcely credit that I decline to believe that any practical men would knowingly introduce legislation that would have any such effect. Still, under the measure as it now stands, there is si danger such as I have indicated. The measure would preclude any persons from entering into an alliance or a combination for their own self-preservation. It would prevent, say, the shareholders in one or more companies from combining to protect their own interests.

Mr Kennedy - Not unless it were shown that the combination was 'detrimental to the public.

Mr KNOX - But who is going to be the judge as to what is detrimental or otherwise ?

Mr Page - Surely the honorable member agrees that detrimental combinations should be prevented?

Mr KNOX - Certainly. But combinations whose operations do not exceed legitimate bounds are sometimes necessary for the protection of those engaged in trade.

Sir William Lyne - Is a shipping combination necessary ?

Mr KNOX - I have no brief from the shipping combination. It has many faults, but it has the great advantage of maintaining uniformity in regard to freight charges and conditions, and it affords first class facilities for the carriage, of passengers and cargo.

Sir William Lyne - And it destroys any one who will not join the ring.

Mr Watson - It also charges exorbitant freights.

Mr KNOX - I am not an advocate of the shipping ring. Do I understand that, apart from the harvester combination, the first object of the Bill is to enable the Minister to deal with the shipping ring?

Sir William Lyne - I do not say that it is the first object, but it is one of them.

Mr KNOX - The Minister has made a candid admission that he will immediately attack the shipping ring.

Sir William Lyne - I did not say that.

Mr KNOX - If the Minister finds that the shipping ring is operating detrimentally to the people of Australia, I hope that he will succeed in his efforts against it. He should, however, take care to obtain the fullest and most reliable evidence. If he depends entirely upon the evidence of some officer, who however competent he may be in his own Department, may arrive at an unwarrantable conclusion, and proceeds to disorganize a great undertaking involving interests valued at hundreds of thousand's of pounds, he will do grave injustice.

Sir William Lyne - The honorable member always speaks upon the one side - the conservative, and the ring side.

Mr KNOX - If the Minister chooses to call me a Conservative, he is perfectly welcome to do so.

Sir William Lyne - I think that the honorable member is an absolute Conservative.

Mr KNOX - The Minister may apply to me any name he likes. He must at least grant that I am absolutely consistent in all I do.

Sir William Lyne - The honorable member is always consistent.

Mr KNOX - Yes, and I wish to place upon our statute-books practical legislation which will be for the general good, and not for the benefit of any particular party.

Sir William Lyne - The honorable member's arguments would support the meat scandals in Chicago.

Mr KNOX - The honorable member has no justification for making any such statement, and I must ask him to withdraw what I regard as a very offensive remark.

Sir William Lyne - I do not know what to withdraw.

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