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Tuesday, 7 December 1971
Page: 4227

Mr STEWART (Lang) (12:52 PM) - Under the present Government the intention behind this Bill is a good one. Something had to be done about the steady slowing down of the Tariff Board. The Bill will be of some assistance towards reducing this slow-down if the inquiries on dumping, by-laws, tariff classification and the New Zealand-Australia Free Trade Agreement are dealt with separately from the complex time-consuming inquiries associated with whether an industry should be protected and, if so, at what level. But the changes contemplated will do little or nothing to reduce the rate of slow-down in the Board's handling of these complex and particularly important inquiries. What the Bill can do is to enable the dumping and other inquiries to be disentangled from the slow grinding machinery of the Board and handled in a separate channel. This should mean that the time from the reference of one of these issues to the Board until the delivery of the Board's report should take no longer than 3 months. This will be a tremendous improvement. In recent years such cases have taken anything from 8 months to 2 years.

Non-tariff revision cases are not greatly involved issues. Although they do call for sound judgment they do not entail the gathering and analysis of masses of evidence, investigation of costs, prices and profits or involved judgments on whether an industry is economic and efficient. Indeed the Tariff Board, in its 1964-65 annual report, suggested that the Board's role in dealing with dumping cases was very much a routine endorsement of the findings of an investigation by the Department of Customs and Excise. The Board said that it would be better to relieve the Board of them altogether and to let the Minister make the judgment. However, it is possibly a good thing to retain the public inquiry procedures in connection with both dumping and other cases. The best solution is to make special provision for handling them quickly. A look at some of the reports on these issues suggests that they took the time they did simply because they had to take their turn among the other inquiries. Put simply, for the greater part of the time they just lay around waiting for attention.

It would have been better had the Bill provided that the additional member of the Tariff Board was to be engaged solely on these particular cases. This would have ensured that non-tariff revision cases would be handled separately and quickly, away from the other inquiries. If it is a good thing to handle these references separately and quickly - I think the Minister suggested it in his second reading speech and I am certain that industry considers that it is essential that they be handled quickly - the Government should have laid down in the Bill that this bc done. Instead it has thrown itself on the mercy of the chairman of the Tariff Board, as it has done consistently in the past few years. It is to be the Chairman's decision whether the new member or any other member of the Tariff Board will be used entirely on non-tariff revision cases as a single particular division of the Board. I certainly would like to have seen this written into the Bill as I cannot be certain that the present staff of the Tariff Board is being used economically and efficiently.

About 4 weeks ago, during the debate on the estimates for the Department of Trade and Industry, I quoted figures which showed that in 1950-51, with a staff of approximately 15, the Board produced 38 reports. In 1962-63 the Board produced 58 reports with a staff of approximately 60. Last year with a staff of abour 160, augmented by part-time assistance of academics from the Monash University, the Board could produce only 25 reports. This looks like a clear example of Parkinson's law in operation. I should like the Minister to say why it is that in 1950-51, with a staff of 14 or 15, the Board could deliver 38 reports but with a staff 12 or 13 times greater in 1970-71 it could produce only 25 reports. The answer cannot be that inquiries these days are more difficult, more involved, more detailed and more time consuming. The answer is not, as the Tariff Board tries to suggest, that industry is slow in giving it information. A look at the time lag between the close of a public inquiry and the delivery of a report makes that suggestion a lot of nonsense. The answer seems to be that the now tremendous staff resources of the Tariff Board are being employed in pursuing pet theories instead of getting on with the inquiry and report work of the Board.

Last year the Tariff Board started with a backlog of 54 references. During the year it increased its staff steadily and finished with a backlog of 63 cases. That must make nonsense of the Government's talk about a systematic review of the tariffs. At the rate of progress indicated by the Board's recent history, the review will take about 50 years during which the Board's staff will increase to about 5,000. I suggest that the Minister should call in the investigation services of the Public Service Board to overhaul the use of the Tariff Board's staff. One of the interesting spectacles we have witnessed since the present Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) took office has been his readiness to spring to the defence of the Tariff Board at the slightest provocation and virtually to defend it tooth and nail come what. may. This is a remarkable phenomenon which warrants close study, lt might, at first, be thought that he believes in the infallibility of the Tariff Board just as much as the Tariff Board itself does, but this does not hold against his involvement in the recent decision to reject the Tariff Board's recommendations on knitted and woven shirts, and a rejection it was, even though the decision was dressed up to make it seem the opposite. The Prime Minister obviously was on side with that decision because he mentioned it with some pride on a couple of occasions. In fact, he drew attention to it with pride in answering a question on the Tariff Board a few weeks ago. Of course, it was not easy to see at the time he was answering the question that he was mentioning the shirt decision with pride, because he was almost trembling with rage against the honourable member who bad had the temerity to criticise the Tariff Board. The Prime Minister seemed to forget that the recent controversy about the actions of the Tariff Board had arisen from the dissenting opinions of 3 members of the Tariff Board itself. These members of the Board had been critical of the Chairman of the Board for allowing consultants hired from universities to have access to confidential information given to the Board by companies appearing before the Board. The same members were critical also of the likely reflection on the reports and recommendations of the Board when it became known that views and recom medations had been sought from anonymouse specialists outside the Board and, of all places, Monash University.

The Prime Minister obviously wants all of us to reject the opinion of these 3 Tariff Board members. But what they had to say about the actions of the Tariff Board is contained in the formal and official annual report of the Tariff Board made to this Parliament, and their opinions cannot be ignored. The present controversy about the Tariff Board has developed within the Tariff Board itself; it is not something which has been generated by manufacturing industries, by their organisations or by the Opposition in the Parliament as the Prime Minister would have the Parliament and the community believe. I suggest that rather than the Prime Minister getting excited about it, we must look very soberly and quietly at this issue of confidential information. The people defending the action of the Chairman of the Tariff Board are saying that, after all, the university people really were temporary public servants for the purpose of helping out the Board, that they had been duly sworn in and that everything therefore was in order.

The important thing to be noted is that the companies whose confidential information was being handed over knew nothing at all about it. They gave their confidential information believing that the safeguards of. SO years tradition were being continued. That tradition, as the Minister's predecessor Sir John McEwen so often told us, was that confidential information given to the Tariff Board does not go outside the Board and its staff - not even to him when he was Minister for Trade and Industry, not to the Prime Minister and not even to the Cabinet when sitting in judgment on a Tariff Board report. I take it that all Ministers are all duly and properly sworn.

On 30th September this year I asked a question of the Minister for Trade and Industry regarding the use of outside consultants by the Tariff Board and he advised the Parliament that he had referred the matter to the Attorney-General (Senator Greenwood) for opinion. The Minister must have had some doubts about the legality of the use of such personnel or he would not have taken such an action. However, it was not until 3rd November that the Minister made a statement setting out the opinions of the Attorney-General on the matter. The Minister said: . . that it is perfectly proper that the Tariff Board should have a research staff available to it at all stages of its work. I refer to the use both of permanent staff and of consultants.

But he went on:

I add that the discussions that have taken place have shown that, in regard to the engagement of consultants, appropriate procedures were nol followed. Revised procedures for engagement have since been agreed upon with the Public Service Board and wilh the Attorney-General's Department.

Mr Anthony - That is related only to matters of pay.

Mr STEWART - The Minister for Trade and Industry interjects that it has been in relation to the matter of pay only. His remarks do not read that way here. The Minister went to to say -

Mr Anthony - lt does not read that way in the context in which the honourable member is putting it.

Mr STEWART - lt does not read as the Minister has suggested it reads in the context I am putting it. It does not read that way in the context of the speech that the Minister made because he said that appropriate procedures were not followed in the engagement of this staff. I feel that the 3 members of the Tariff Board who presented a dissenting opinion, even if they were right only in that point alone, were entitled to put in their dissenting opinion. Members on this side of the House agree that the report of the dissenting members was not a complete attack upon the Tariff Board. But the Prime Minister certainly has tried to make an out by saying that anybody who criticises the Tariff Board is commiting in his eyes a grave error. I think that the dissenting members of the Tariff Board have been more than upheld in the judgment that they expressed. I do not quibble with the right of the Tariff Board to have research staff available. But I would prefer to see them as permanent members of the staff. In this statement that the Minister made on 3rd November, he mentioned that the Tariff Board was having difficulty in getting this staff. If it is necessary to employ pact time consultants or research officers - call them what you will - I think that the names of the people engaged, their background and their qualifications should be made available to the industry that is being studied by them so that the industry may decide whether it will become part and parcel of that inquiry or whether it will rest entirely on the public inquiry that the Tariff Board will conduct.

I asked a question seeking the names of those so employed. 1 have not received those names. They have not been announced. Who is to know whether some of these consultants are not people like Eccles, the free trader', his mentor the Modest Member', 'Prof the Protectionist', Curly the Com' or even 'Don from the DLP'? Industry is being asked to give confidential information to the Tariff Board. Industry is entitled to know that those people who are being used part time, even if they are sworn in, are people who can be trusted. Industry should know something about their background and about their attitudes to tariff policy. If information is given to industry about .the part time people, the Government may be able to go somewhere along the line .towards having a pieinquiry analysis or a post-inquiry analysis carried out with the concurrence of industry. But until such time as the manufacturing industry knows who these people are, I do not blame it for not giving confidential information to either permanent members or part time members of the Tariff Board.

Industry protects its information. As I said, a matter of weeks ago, for someone to go into another industry and find out something about its costs, its profits or its prices is regarded as industrial espionage. I do not think that the Minister can disregard this matter. The real issue in the use of outside part time consultants, whether sworn or unsworn, is whether manufacturing industry is willing to have its confidential information handed out to academics from Monash or any other university. The answer can be given by the manufacturing industry only. It is up to the Minister to ensure that the trust which industry has placed in the Tariff Board in excess of 50 years is not disturbed.

I come back to the suggestion that I made earlier in my speech. It is time that the activities of the Tariff Board were investi gated to see whether its staff is being economically and efficiently used and whether the attitudes at present adopted by the Board are in keeping with the opinions of the Parliament, the Government, industry and the Australian community.

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