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Wednesday, 27 June 1906

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) . - I wish to give a few reasons in support of the amendment of the honorable member for Dalley, postponing the further consideration of the Bill until the reports of the Tariff Commission are before us. That Commission was appointed to inquire into the allegations that Australian industries are being injured by foreign competition, and, up to the present time, its inquiry has cost the country something like £12,000. Does the Government intend that that money shall be wasted, as it will be wasted if we deal with a measure whose raison d'etre is the allegations to which I have referred, before the evidence of the Commission is available to us ? It is only by perusing the reports of the Commission that we can ascertain the actual conditions of the industries which we have been informed are languishing, particularly in Victoria. At the present time we have only the interested statements of the manufacturers and their political representatives in this Chamber. But the object of the Commission was to obtain evidence from every available source, so that Parliament might be placed in . possession of reliable data upon which to form an opinion as to whether or not legislation was necessary to improve our industrial conditions. No facts have been adduced to show that the proposed legislation is urgent, or to substantiate the statements which have been made as to the existence of dumping. We have heard a great deal about the injury inflicted upon Australian industries by the practice of dumping imported goods on to this 'market, and selling them at prices lower than those charged for Australianmade goods, and Ave are asked to believe that one of the reasons actuating the Minister in bringing forward legislation of this kind was the necessity for putting an end to what he terms unfair competition. But, although he and other honorable members have alleged that dumping is largely resorted to in Australian markets, no instance of dumping has been brought forward to support their statements. They have been challenged to bring forward such instances, but, up to the present time, we have not had before us a tittle of evidence as to the existence of dumping. We are asked to deal with the Bill as an urgent matter, whose consideration cannot be delayed for a week, or even for a day, because Australian industries are being destroyed by dumping, and yet, although the Minister has at his command all the sources of information possessed by the Customs Department, he has not been able to produce a tittle of evidence in support of the allegation that dumping exists. Therefore we are justified in believing that it does not exist. Even if it did exist, who would be injured by it? Certainly not those who would thereby be able to obtain goods more cheaply than they could otherwise obtain them. _ Dumping would certainly not injure the consumer of goods, whose interests the Bill professes to protect. If shiploads of goods were brought in and dumped upon our wharfs, and afterwards sold at ridiculously low prices, what harm would be done to those who purchased the goods? Foreign manufacturers will not send their goods to this country unless by doing so they can make a profit. ,

Mr Ronald - Is it not desirable to employ our own people?

Mr JOHNSON - Our own people must be employed in some way or another in order to obtain the money necessary to pay for the goods which are imported, which would not be sent here if they could not be paid for. The goods which we import are paid for with the goods which we export. That, however, is an aspect of the subject with which I do not propose to deal further at the present time. lest I should be drawn into discussing the main question, and not the amendment. But in my opinion, and in that of anybody who will take the trouble to think for a moment, the practice of dumping - even if it did exist - would confer, at any rate upon the poorer sections of the community, a very decided advantage. If it is to be prevented under a Bill of this kind, a very great amount of hardship will be imposed upon this class of people, who will thus be deprived of the opportunity of obtaining a great many things which, under the conditions that are alleged to exist at present, they will be able to secure. But, so far, no evidence of the existence of dumping has been furnished to this Chamber. The third reason why I object to proceeding with the discussion of the Bil! at the present juncture is that popular opinion, so far as it has been ascertained by resolutions at meetings, and in other ways, is almost universally opposed .to the legislation which is contemplated.

Mr Mauger - Where were the public meetings held?

Mr JOHNSON - I am speaking chiefly of organizations, and not of public meetings in the ordinary sense of the term. The opinion which has. been expressed by bodies representing those who are specially interested in the trade, industry, and commerce of the country is decidedly adverse to this measure. Indeed among the mercantile community generally, little short of consternation prevails in regard to it. . The only consolation, which these persons can find is based upon their profound belief that this Legislature could never do such a dastardly thing as to pass a measure of this character. They hold that it is impossible that an intelligent Legislature could carry it. That is the feeling which exists to-day - a feeling which has found expression in various resolutions by Chambers of Commerce, by Employers' Federations, and by other bodies both in this State and others. In this connexion I pro-' pose to quote a resolution which was adopted by the Victorian Employers' Federation at a meeting which was held only a few nights ago. I propose to read the resolution which was passed by the Employers' Federation - a body which represents not only the employers, but the manufacturing, trading, transport, producing, and financial interests of Victoria. Honorable members must recognise that this organization is a thoroughly representative one, consisting as it does of persons who are engaged! in manufacture, and in financial operations. The resolution reads -

That this Federation of Employers, representing the manufacturing, trading, and transport, producing, and financial interests of Victoria, protests against the passage of the Bill known as the Australian Preservation of Industries and Repression of Destructive Monopolies, on the ground that it mixes up two different questions, the preservation of Australian industries and the repression of destructive monopolies. In respect to the first title, we are as much interested in the maintenance of Australian industries - in fact more so - than any other organization in this community, and believe this is already provided for by the protectionist policy adopted by the Commonwealth.

I should like to know what the honorable member for Melbourne Ports has to say concerning that declaration by a body which is admittedly in a better position to express an opinion upon this subject, because of its own financial interests which are involved, than is any other body in Australia. The resolution continues -

In respect to the second title, the repression of destructive monopolies, we are as much earnestly opposed to the introduction of destructive monopolies, either from outside or in out midst, as any other portion of the community, and even more so, as our interests lie against such combinations. We will strongly support any equitable measure brought in by Government - State or Federal - which has their repression in view, but as business men we believe in the principle of " live and let live," and are not prepared to unfairly handicap men in business, nor the producer or consumer, by supporting the clauses in the present Bill under the heading of " prevention of dumping," for they are selfish and prejudicial to the best interests of the body politic, and appear to have been drawn by persons unacquainted wilh the details of business, and therefore unable to form a correct opinion of the outcome of such legislation.

I am sorry that the Minister of Trade and Customs is not present to hear the opinion of this body regarding his fitness to deal with legislation of this character - an opinion which, applies equally to the honorable member for Melbourne Ports, and other advocates of this pernicious measure. The resolution continues -

We, therefore, consider that the Bill should be placed in the hands of a Select Committee of the House, such committee to take the most exhaustive evidence on the whole matter, with a view to the Bill being dealt with on its merits as a non-party measure.

That is the suggestion which emanates from a body of men in whose special interests this Bill is supposed to have been drawn. They affirm that it is a destructive measure, that it is not necessary, and that, instead of benefiting them, it will inflict serious injury upon their trade. They even go so far as to say that those who are responsible for its drafting cannot be conversant with the ordinary principles which govern trade and manufacture. They practically tell the Minister and those who support him that they are attempting to do something the nature Of which they do not understand, and with which they are not competent to deal. I thoroughly indorse that expression of opinion. I say that the less we as a

Legislature interfere with the trading and manufacturing concerns of the community the better it will be for everybody. That is another reason why we should defer the consideration of this Bill. When we see an important and influential body like the Victorian Employers' Federation denouncing the measure, affirming that its pro-' visions are tyrannical and unjust, and that its operations will be productive only of disaster to the commercial and manufacturing interests, as well as to those of the community generally, I think we have a right to attach some weight to their expressions of opinion.

Mr Page - To what body is the honorable member alluding?

Mr JOHNSON - I am speaking of the Victorian Employers' Federation, in whose special interests this Bill is supposed to be brought forward.

Mr Page - They howl about every bit of progressive legislation that is introduced.

Mr JOHNSON - I quite agree with the honorable member that there are occasions when bodies of employers howl without just cause. But there are other occasions when they have just reason to complain, and this is one of them.

Mr Page - Has the honorable member ever read the fable of the boy and the wolf ?

Mr JOHNSON - I do not hold a brief for the Employers' Federation, and, as a rule, I have very little sympathy with organizations of that character, because I know that, under ordinary circumstances, they are very well able to take care of themselves, and that, if there were not some Members of Parliament, at any

Tate, who keep a close watch upon their operations, their tendency would often be in-the direction of tyranny and oppression. I freely recognise that, and I do not think that anybody will accuse me of holding a brief for an organization of that kind. In fact, my sympathies are all in the other direction, and my natural instincts are in favour of equal justice to all classes of. the community. But when legislation of this character is brought forward, ostensibly to afford relief to the very people who are said to be suffering from unjust competition, whose capital is alleged to be endangered, and whose profits, it is asserted, are being unduly interfered with, and when their1 organization repudiates such statements by practically declaring that there is no foundation whatever for them, that its members do not want this legislation, I hold that the 'main ground upon which the Minister has rested his case for the introduction of the Bill has been absolutely cut from under his feet. That is my only reason for making the quotation which I have made. Another reason that I would urge in support of the amendment is that only the most pressing necessity should induce Parliament to confer upon the Minister the powers which it is proposed to vest in him under this Bill. Honorable members who have read its provisions know very well the drastic powers which it will confer upon him. They must recognise that, in its present form, it would give him absolute control over the whole of the trading, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the Commonwealth. That portion of the measure which relates to' dumping would practically .confer upon him absolute power to prohibit the importation of any goods if it could be shown that their importation in any way prejudiced the sale of the locally-manufactured article. This could be done on the plea that such goods were entering into unfair competition with locally-manufactured goods. Everything then would depend on what the Minister would consider to be unfair competition. The qualities of the respective goods would not weigh in the determination of the matter. We know perfectly well that all successful competition by imported goods would probably be deemed to be unfair competition, because it would naturally prejudice the sale of locallymanufactured goods. That is to say, that people would purchase imported goods when they could get a better class of goods at the same or a lower price than they would have to pay for locally-manufactured goods. There would then be successful competition by the imported good's, and the Minister, seeing the effect that that must have upon local production, could declare it to be unfair competition, and at once proceed' to prohibit the importation of those goods. The immense power of prohibition conferred under this Bill upon the Minister of Trade and Customs is a very dangerous power to relegate to any man, and affords another reason why Parliament should hesitate to pass it. A further reason why I support the amendment is, that it is notorious that the people at whose instigation the Bill has been intro'duced are making immense profits from their operations under the existing Tariff. When speaking on the motion for the second reading of the Bill a few days ago, 1 showed that various trades which I enumerated, and which have been specially mentioned in this Chamber as included in the category of languishing industries, are really in a most flourishing condition at the present time. In support of that I quoted the figures of the Chief Statistician here, and also the opinions given in newspaper interviews by representatives of leading manufacturing firms in Victoria. This went to show that, so far from legislation of this character being needed1 to preserve the local industries from destruction', and to protect them from alleged dumping, those industries) as a matter of fact, are in a better condition at the present time under the existing Tariff than they ever were under the' old Victorian Tariff. They, moreover, now get a wider market as a result of InterState free-trade. The honorable member for Melbourne Ports interjected just now to the effect that industries in the iron trade were suffering, lt is quite true that for a certain period those industries did suffer in Victoria under the old Victorian Tariff. They went down in the period between 1890 and 1894, with each suc-, ceeding year a greater falling off, but since the Federal Tariff has been in operation those industries have wonderfully revived, and. according to Mr. Harrison Ord, a steadv improvement has taken place in all of them. To refresh the memories of honorable members on this point, I may perhaps be permitted to repeat a quotation given in a former speech, whjch will show that legislation of this character is not necessary, and that, at any rate, it ought to be delayed until we have the report of the Tariff Commission before us, and are able to judge whether they have secured evidence which will substantiate the claims as to the necessity for, and urgency of, this legislation. I find the following statements made in connexion with the operations of Thompson and Company, a large engineering firm, whose works are at Castlemaine: -

One of the marked features of the trade since the financial crisis of 1893, which sealed the doom of the over-capitalized and badly managed concerns, has been the increase in number, both in Melbourne and country centres, of small, well-managed undertakings, and the remarkable rise of two or three of the larger enterprises in vh: provinces, notably Messrs. Thompson and Co.'s engineering works at Castlemaine.

Mr Mauger - What is the honorable member quoting from?

Mr JOHNSON - I am repeating a quotation which I have already given,but which apparently has escaped the attention of the honorable member for Melbourne Ports.

Mr Mauger - At what date was thac statement made ?

Mr JOHNSON - On the 8th November last.

Mr Mauger - To whom?

Mr JOHNSON - To an interviewer representing the Argus newspaper.

Mr Mauger - Let the honorable member interview their men, and hear what thev say.

Mr JOHNSON - We are told that the trades are sinking ; that the men whose capital is invested in these undertakings are suffering injury as the result of unlimited importations, and that it is to preserve to these men the capital they have invested in these industries and prevent their profits from being diminished, that such legislation as that now before us is necessary. When we have these men themselves coming forward and saying that their industries are in a prosperous condition, that their profits are not being diminished, but, on the contrary, are on the increase, we have a right to consider their statements, and to put them forward as evidence in rebuttal of what is said by honorable members who desire to press forward this legislation with such unseemly haste.

Mr Mauger - The statement quoted by the honorable member is that of the head of a free-trade firm, who pay is. per day less than other firms in the same line of business.

Mr JOHNSON - I am not prepared to accept any statement of that character coming from the honorable member as being absolutely correct, but there are other firms who have corroborated what Messrs. Thompson and Company have said. Perhaps the honorable member for Melbourne Ports will say that they are all freetraders. Whether thev are free-traders or not, they are men who are enjoying the benefits of the existing Federal Tariff, and whose industries are admittedly progressing better under that Tariff than they did under the old Victorian Tariff, which imposed higher duties. To proceed with the quotation - ..... and Messrs. A. Roberts and . Sons at Bendigo. It is like a whiff of wholesome country air to learn at first hand what these firms are doing.

Messrs'. Thompson and Company have 300 hands engaged.

Mr Mauger - Not now.

Mr JOHNSON - This statement was made last November, and I should be very much surprised to learn that there is any very serious diminution in the number of hands engaged By Messrs. Thompson and Company, whilst we know there has since been no alteration of the Tariff.

Mr Mauger - Let the honorable member ring them up and ask.

Mr JOHNSON - I ' am not able to leave the Chamber at the present time 'to do what the honorable member suggests. The quotation proceeds -

Messrs. Thompson and Company have 300 hands engaged; they are working night and dav, and orders are coming in just as fast as they can be profitably dealt with.

As affecting the alleged necessity for this measure,- that is a most damaging statement from one of the firms in whose special interest it is supposed to be designed. Mr. Thompson went on to' say -

We specialize on mining machinery and pumps ; but do other work as well. For many years we have secured the tenders for the railway points andplates used 'throughout the State. At present nothing is being done in this line, but it will come again. In the meantime we have plenty of other work to engage our attention. We receive orders from all the other States of the Commonwealth. Even Borneo and other Eastern countries send us orders. The Federal Tariff has not injured us. On the contrary the freeing of Inter-State trade from restrictions has been a gain. We put little faith in Tariff assistance. The point of view we take is that if we cannot compete against all comers there will be no strength or stability in our trade.

I am sorry that the honorable member for Melbourne Ports is not now present to listen to this statement: -

Our enterprise began twenty-eight years ago with eight men in a little shantv. The works now cover five acres, and we still want room. We employ 300 persons, and we are kept fully employed year after year. Our trade is growing all the time. We have kept up to date in methods, tools, and appliances. The railway track runs into the works. We generate the electricity for lighting ; compressed air is used in working cranes, tools, and appliances all over the place. No detail which will cheapen production is overlooked.

Mr.Lonsdale. - That is wrong.

Mr JOHNSON - Yes. Under the latest proposed legislation they will not be able to import these latest appliances, but will ' have to continue the use of obsolete machines, lest they be mulct under drastic regulations, framed by the Minister of Trade and Customs, under the measure proposed. Mr. Thompson further said -

Our men, too, grow up with the business, and give us no trouble. There is not the unrest and agitation which appear to exist in large centres, and this is a great gain, both to employers and employes, in important enterprises.

It will' be seen from that statement, which is borne out by similar statements made by the representatives of other large engineering firms, that, so far from these industries being in such a condition as to require that special legislation should be passed in a desperate hurry for their relief, to prevent the diminution of the profits of those conducting them, or avert their entire destruction, they are in a most flourishing condition, are growing, and are increasingly prosperous every year. Another reason why I support the amendment is that the indecent haste displayed in trying to force this measure through before the Tariff Commission's reports are presented, indicates that the Minister in charge of the Bill fears that those reports willdisclose the fact that there is no necessity for such legislation. The honorable gentleman's action in trying to force this legislation through with such indecent haste, and on an unwilling country, will give rise to the gravest suspicions that this measure, to further enrich men who are already reaping rich harvests from Tariff barriers that hamper competition, must have some other reason behind it that has not been disclosed, and perhaps will not bear the light of day. The Minister cannot well complain if the public are inclined to take a very suspicious view of his action in the circumstances, because such a view would be justified bv the fact that the honorable gentleman, has not attempted to give any tangible reason for the introduction of such legislation. Still less has he attempted any justification for pushing it forward with undue haste in the face of all the objections urged against it, inside and outside of the House, by representatives of the people, and by those who will be specially interfered with bv the measure. My final objection to dealing with this Bill at the present time is because of the disastrous effects that legislation of this kind will have upon the great masses of the community so far as it affects the purchasing power of their earnings. Anybody who has studied the Bill must realize that regulations framed under it would in the hands of a Minister who was so disposed - and I make no special reference to the present Minister of Trade and Customs in this connexion, but to any Minister who might have very strong leanings in a certain direction - entail immense hardships upon, that very section of the community which those honorable members who profess specially to represent labour should endeavour to protect. When a similar measure was introduced last session many of them opposed it, and did so rightly, because of the damaging effect it would have upon the poorer paid classes. But now we find them making a volte face for no apparent reason, and showing a disposition to swallow this legislation. The Bill will destroy the chance of working people obtaining bargains at the half-yearly sales for the purpose of clothing themselves and their families. Under this Bill, to hold such a periodical clearance sale, may be made an offence punishable by heavyfine or imprisonment. It is well known that at such sales prices are often reduced far below the ordinary market rates, and when they are so reduced the goods must necessarily come into competition! with others which are sold at normal prices. Therefore, I oppose this Bill because its operation will have a most injurious and disastrous effect upon the great wage-earning community, will materially lower the value of their wages, and will lessen their purchasing power by compelling them to pay a higher price for goods. This is one of the most iniquitous proposals that has ever been submitted to this or any other Parliament, and it is marvellous, to my mind, that indignation meetings have not been held from one end of the country to the other in. protest against it. I can but surmise that the reason why, that course has not been taken is that the people have failed to grasp the true significance of the measure. Many of them, unfortunately, are even ignorant that legislation of the kind is being considered by the Federal Parliament. Even when one talks to men in business, and tells them about the provisions of this Bill, they do not believe that such ' a thing can be proposed. They do not believe that any Minister or any Government would dare - that -is the word which many of them use - to introduce such legislation, or that Parliament would carry it into effect. And yet this Parliament is at the very moment asked to pass such legislation by the Government of the day. In the face of the evidence of public condemnation which, so far as we have been able to gather, has been manifested wherever the Bill has' been considered, I contend that it ought not to be proceeded with atthis stage. I, for one, shall therefore heartily support the amendment of the honorable member for Dalley.

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