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Wednesday, 30 November 1938

Mr CURTIN (Fremantle) (1:40 AM) . - I move -

That the clause as amended be further amended by adding after the word " assent " the words " and shall cease to operate on the thirtieth day of September, 1939".

The purpose of my amendment is to give effect to the view expressed by myself in the second-reading debate that we do not regard this measure as containing in itself the requirements essentialfor the proper stabilization of the wheat industry. All that this bill does is to levy an excise in order to deal with prices. A portion of the fund so created, £500,000, by consent of the Premiers, is to be allocated for seasonal adversity. I said earlier that a much more comprehensive treatment of this industry was required; indeed, that an examination of the question of how far the seasonal problem should be met by levies upon consumers was a matter which required further investigation. I direct attention to the fact that, at the conference of Premiers, resolutions were carried which call for action of the type that I have in mind, but which I venture to say will not be taken unless a date is fixed for the termination of this particular bill. If the committee will look at resolutions as agreed to by the Premiers, it will find the following: -

(5)   That conference is unanimously of opinion that it is impossible to devise any practicable plan based on voluntary cooperation of growers, millers and merchants.

That is to say, the Premiers negated the practicability of voluntary co-operation. They carried this resolution -

(6)   This conference has received several proposals from farmers' organizations for the institution of a permanent price-equalization fundbuilt up by contributions fromthe Commonwealth and the wheat-growers. The conference is of opinion that they are worthy of detailed examination, and, as they involve federal finance, this conference submits them to the Federal Government for consideration.

We were told all day that the Premiers had agreed upon this particular plan, and I acknowledge that Resolution No. 2 would suggest that they did agree on the method of providing a bounty, but subsequently, they also asked that the excise fund be drawn upon in order to make provision for seasonal adversity. It must be patent that seasonal adversity cannot be regarded as a permanent aspect of the problem of the wheat industry, and I hope that it will never again be so widespread in its effect upon the industry as appears to be the case this year. I direct attention particularly to Resolution No. 6, which calls upon the Commonwealth Government to examine the question of a permanent priceequalization fund created by contributions from the Commonwealth Government and from the wheat-growers. The conference said, of course, that this was a matter which involved Commonwealth finances. There was no reference to it in the speech of the Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page), and there was little reference to the comprehensive recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Wheat Industry. The Government is willing to regard this legislation as a complete and at the same time final treatment of the problems of the wheat industry. I reject that, and I ask the committee to reject it. There should be a full review by this Parliament of the conditions of the wheat industry. Without wishing to reflect personally on the conference which formulated these resolutions, I point out that that conference assembled in Canberra and took little more than one day to arrive at its decisions. I venture to say that the State Premiers came to Canberra hurriedly because of the very low price of wheat, and also because of their knowledge of the financial difficulties which would be reflected in the budgets of the various States if something were not done for wheat producers in the present season.

Mr Archie Cameron - Three conferences were held.

Mr CURTIN - I know that. The third conference was held almost immediately after the second, and it effected a very considerable variation of the original proposals.

Mr Archie Cameron - There is nothing very new in that.

Mr CURTIN - Does it not suggest that there were after-thoughts in connexion with what was done at the second conference ?

Mr Archie Cameron - That would still .be nothing new.

Mr CURTIN - Is it not palpable to . everybody that the pressure brought to bear by the wheat-growers upon the State governments, and by members of the Country party on the Commonwealth Government resulted in the whole matter being disposed of by the third conference in one day? I submit that, although other parliaments have already taken action in this matter, the Commonwealth Parliament is the one which alone has the responsibility of taxing the consumers of bread. A periodic review of taxation is most certainly an obligation resting upon this Parliament. Once this measure is placed upon the statute-book it is unlikely that Parliament will again be consulted in regard to it for a period of years if this Government remains in power, because the Country party will not allow the scheme to be brought up for review.

Mr Archie Cameron - Would the honorable members like tariff matters to be brought up for review periodically?

Mr CURTIN - Tariff matters can be brought up for review.

Mr Archie Cameron - By whom?

Mr CURTIN - By any one who desires to bring them up. This matter can be brought up by the Government only. Once this legislation is placed upon the statute-book almost any period of time may elapse before it is again considered by Parliament. There should be an obligation upon the Government to consult Parliament again a year from now so that this legislation may be examined in the light of experience. We should then know whether or not the statements made by honorable members on this side of the House with regard to the effect of this legislation on the price of bread were correct. We should also be able to see whether or not the legislation passed by the States to prevent exploitation of bread consumers was effective.

Mr Thorby - The Commonwealth cannot alter State legislation.

Mr CURTIN - If my amendment were carried, the Commonwealth could affect State legislation in this case by refusing to pass another excise measure a year from now.

Mr Thorby - That would destroy the scheme altogether.

Mr CURTIN - Of course it would. I am in favour of the principles embodied in this measure, except with regard to the imposition of an excise duty. The Opposition could not defeat that proposal, but consumers will be safeguarded if the scheme i3 to be brought up for review within a specified period. The bakers may be able to reap extortionate profits under this legislation by charging unreasonable prices. The only check which this Parliament can put on that is to insist that the measure be brought up for consideration within a specified period. Income tax has to come up for a periodic review.

Mr Archie Cameron - Only in respect of rates.

Mr CURTIN - That is what matters. The rates constitute the tax. We should be given an opportunity to review this excise tax in the light of the requirements of the wheat industry. Is that not a fair thing?

Mr Archie Cameron - The honorable member would do nothing of the sort.

Mr CURTIN - Why not?

Mr Archie Cameron - The honorable member is not doing it now and has never done it.

Mr CURTIN - That is absurd. Before the honorable gentleman came into this Parliament the party which I now lead provided millions of pounds for the relief of wheat-growers, and we did not do it by imposing an excise tax, the burden of which had to be borne by consumers of bread. The honorable gentleman is a sheer political opportunist and is endeavouring to make miserable points, with a total disregard for the fundamental elements of the problem. Instead of endeavouring to justify the legislation he is muck-raking the Opposition. I remind him that abuse is no argument. As one who for several years has held the office of Chairman of Committees, you, Mr. Chairman, know, as do other honorable members, that large sums of money were voted for the relief of wheatgrowers, when honorable gentlemen now sitting behind me were on the treasury bench. These moneys were not raised by the imposition of an excise tax on flour. The Minister for Works (Mr. Thorby) who was formerly Minister for Agriculture in the New South Wales Parliament, should know that, and if he does not it is conclusive proof that he is misinformed with regard to the history of the industry which the Government is now seeking to assist.

Mr Thorby - To what year does the honorable gentleman refer?

Mr CURTIN - 1 refer to the years 1931-32.

Mr Thorby - The Scullin Administration was defeated in 1931.

Mr CURTIN - That is so, but Labour was in office for more than six months of that year.

Mr Thorby - The Scullin Government did. not pay a farthing to the wheatgrowers.

Mr CURTIN - That is not so. Amounts totalling £3,296,000 were paid.

Sir Charles Marr - The' payments were made out of loan moneys.

Mr CURTIN - I said that the payments were not made out of revenue received by the imposition of an excise tax on flour. The honorable gentleman knows very well the circumstances of the country at that time, and I point out that to-day it is proposed to pay for the defence of the country from the loan fund as well as from other sources. If carried, my amendment would safeguard the operation of the scheme for the present year, and also provide that, before the current year had elapsed, the Government would be obliged to give consideration to the other resolutions passed by the State Premiers, and justify to this Parliament the continuance of the scheme during the ensuing year. It is the aim of the Opposition to do justice, not only to the wheatgrowers, but also to the taxpayers who, in this instance, are the working classes of the community.

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