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Wednesday, 15 August 1906

Mr FISHER (Wide Bay) .- Last evening I took occasion to draw the attention of honorable members to the wording of the commission under which the proposals which we are now discussing have been recommended. I then expressed the opinion that the scope of the commission was an exceedingly confined one, and the more I consider the matter, the more am I convinced that that is so. In my opinion, the Commissioners, in recommending an actual schedule of duties, have exceeded their powers.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - How does the honorable member prove that?

Mr FISHER - -71he commission contains no words conveying the power to make such a recommendation. This is a point with which the Committee should not deal lightly. I presume that the powers of Commissioners are strictly limited to those specifically delegated to them in their commission, and in the commission issued to the Tariff Commissioners I can find no terms empowering them to recommend a schedule of duties. The Commissioners were appointed " to inquire into the effect upon Australian industries of the said Tariff."

Sir John' Quick - And into the working of the Tariff generally.

Mr FISHER - That is so.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - For what purpose, if not to make recommendations ?

Mr FISHER - I have n0 objection to their making recommendations j but they had no power to bring down a schedule of duties. The Commissioners were appointed by the Crown to report to the GovernorGeneral, and are not responsible to Parliament. They have prescribed certain rates of duties, which mav or may not be sufficient for carrying on the services of the Government.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They have only suggested to the Governor-General the adoption of such rates.

Mr FISHER - The Government have laid their proposals on the table, and these proposals are now in the possession of the Committee. Although the members of the Commission displayed great ability and assiduity in the performance of their duties, thev have not complied with their instructions. It is clear that they should have reported upon the good as well as the bad effects of the Tariff, but I cannot find that any evidence was taken regarding its good effects. Therefore, the Commissioners have only partly carried out the task allotted to them, although thev have exceeded their powers by submitting a schedule of duties.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - To do what the honorable member suggests would probably take them twenty years.

Mr FISHER - I should have no objection to the appointment of a permanent Commission, to take evidence and make recommendations in regard to the working of the Tariff, but I should not allow such a Commission to submit schedules of duties. The Government have a double responsibility. They are the responsible advisers of the Crown, and are also responsible to Parliament for the proper administration of the Public Service, for which they have to provide sufficient funds. In my opinion, the Tariff Commissioners were not empowered to recommend a schedule of duties. Moreover, they have had regard, in considering these questions, only to the effect, of the Tariff on certain industries, and, while they may desire the imposition of higher duties for the protection of certain industries, the effect of alterations of the Tariff can be dealt with properly only by responsible advisers of the Crown, whose duty it is to provide funds for the administration of the public sendees of the country.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - There is no reason why any one should not make recommendations or suggestions.

Mr FISHER - I do not object to any member of the community making recommendations to the Government; my point is that a body appointed by, and responsible only to, the Crown, should not say what are the proper duties to impose.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They were appointed specifically to do so.

Mr FISHER - I contend that they were not. They should have avoided recommending specific duties, because the responsibility of administering the government of the country rests, not upon them, but upon the Executive.

Mr Skene - Their recommendations would have lacked definiteness if they had not done something of this kind.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They would have been valueless.

Mr FISHER -The more indefinite they were, the better it would have been. They would have been able to say, " We have carried out our instructions, and have inquired into the effect of the Tariff upon Australian industries. We find that one industry has suffered, and that another has prospered greatly under the present duties." In making such a report, they would have been carrying out the whole of their allotted task, whereas, as I have pointed' out, .they- have left part of it undone. I make no complaint about that, because I agree with the honorable member for Parramatta that they have not had time to do more than they have done. The Commissioners were appointed also, as the Chairman has reminded me, to inquire into the working of the Tariff generally. -Prior to their appointment many complaints were made regarding the administration of the Tariff, but, in my opinion, the power to inquire into the working of the Tariff generally did not give the Commissioners the right to bring down 'proposals for specific rates of duty. Nothing could be more mischievous in the public interest than to have questions such as those involved' in the arrangement of a Tariff decided by a Royal Commission.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Tariff Commissioners can decide nothing; they can only recommend.

Mr FISHER - The leader of the Opposition has declared that he will support the Government in reference to any recommendations as to duties upon which the Tariff Commissioners are unanimous, so that the result is that a body not responsible to Parliament is actually determining what shall be the rates of duty imposed on certain articles, and is interfering in a most important part of the government of the country, namely, its financial part. It has been said' by a high authority that finance is government, and government is finance, and we are having a Tariff settled., by a number of persons who, however able and desirous of doing their duty, to the Commonwealth, went beyond their powers in this matter.

Sir John Quick - If the honorable member's view is correct, and the Tariff Commissioners had adopted it, our work would have been very light.

Mr FISHER - I put forward my view with the greatest deference to those who differ from me, but I submit that it is not too late to begin again on the right track. We are only at the commencement of the history of Commonwealth government, but, if we start on the wrong track, we do not know what mischief may follow.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - This is a very old Parliament, and the Constitution is now very old. All sorts of evils have grown up in connexion with it.

Mr FISHER - My ideas with regard to age do not coincide with those of the honorable member for Parramatta. At the outset of our career as a Parliament we ought to be exceedingly careful not to tread any path likely to lead us into difficulties, or to result in our establishing precedents that would be dangerous in the future. I think that the Commission would do well to content themselves in the future by indicating that certain industries, for example, had been injured by the operation of the Tariff, and recommending that more protection should be granted in. order to place them- on a footing equal to that which they occupied under State legislation. Any such report would cover the whole of the ground, and would not in any way weaken the recommendations of the Commission. In the same way, if they found that certain industries were prospering under the Federal Tariff to a higher degree than previously, it would be their duty to bring that fact under the notice of Parliament. , I submit that this is an important matter, and that I am not exceeding my public duty when I ask the Government to give it their attention, especially when the Chairman of the Commission indicates that the duties of himself and his colleagues would be very much lightened if an understanding in the direction I have indicated could be arrived at. I believe that good results would follow from the appointment of a permanent body of experts for the purpose of taking evidence, and reporting to Parliament _ with respect to the operation of the Tariff in regard to various industries. No one would suggest that such a Board should recommend the adoption of specific duties in any case. They would merely direct the attention of the Government to the fact that an industry was failing for want of sufficient protection, or for some other reason, and leave it to Parliament to decide whether, and in what manner, relief should be afforded. I do not know of any Commission having recommended the adoption of specific duties. If, however, other Commissions have done so, they have, in my view, taken a wrong course. Only one body of men, namely, the Executive, are responsible to this Parliament for carrying on the services of the Crown. They are in duty bound to shape the financial policy of the country, subject to the review of Parliament, and they should be subject to no undue influence on the part of an outside body such as the Tariff Commission.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member is laving down a very strange doctrine - that a Royal Commission may inquire, but not make recommendations.

Mr FISHER - I do not object to their making recommendations.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is all that the Tariff Commission have done.

Mr FISHER - What I object to is the fact that thev have recommended the adoption of a definite scale of duties. In doing so, I contend that they have exceeded the order of -reference. Even if they have not exceeded the order of reference they have presented their report in the veryworst possible form. I may point to the fact that the first unanimous decision of the Commission with regard to the imposition of new duties was made public before the Government became aware of it, and certain persons were thus enabled to rob the Commonwealth. Even though the Commission mav be acting within the order of reference in recommending the adoption of specific duties, they are certainly not doing that which is best calculated to conserve the interests of the country. They should make general recommendations and allow Parliament to decide what the amount of dutv shall be.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is the honorable member in favour of an import duty on spirits of 14s. or 15s.?

Mr FISHER - That is a trivial matter, compared with the one I am now discussing.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It may be, but it happens to be the question before the Chair.

Mr FISHER - I am discussing the form in which the Commission have presented their recommendations, and am pointing out that if they persist in their1 present line of conduct, they may create a difficulty with the Executive which may exist for all time, and may establish an exceedingly bad precedent.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Commission are following in a well-beaten track.

Mr FISHER - This is the first occasion upon which such a recommendation as that now before us has been made to this Parliament.

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is because this is the first time that a Tariff Commission has reported to us.

Mr FISHER - Does the honorable member think it desirable in the interests ofl the country that a Commission appointed by one Government should recommend the adoption of specific duties by another Government holding views entirely different from those of their predecessors with regard to fiscal matters?

Mr SYDNEY SMITH (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Commission were not appointed in the interests of any particular Government, but were appointed bv the Crown.

Mr FISHER - I am using the term " Government " as applied to responsible Ministers of the Crown. I have no legal acumen to bring to bear upon the discussion of this question, but I am endeavouring to take a common- sense view of it. I think it would be wise for the Tariff Commission to content themselves by stating 'in future reports that certain industries have been injured by the Tariff, and that in their opinion relief should be given by an increase of duty.

Mr JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member has been out of order for twentyfive minutes.

Mr FISHER - I could easily have raised a point of order, but I did not desire to do so. Moreover, I do not wish it to be supposed for a moment that I ana discussing this matter upon party lines. It seems to me that a serious innovation has been made, and that the Tariff Commission should in future reports adopt a line of conduct approaching that which I have suggested

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