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Wednesday, 30 November 1938

Mr CURTIN (Fremantle) (3:16 AM) . - I rise just to say one or two things. First, the accusation has been made that the amendment I have moved will wreck the bill. That is not the intention of the amendment, and I am quite confident it cannot possibly be. unless the Government allows it to be so. If the amendment is carried, there will be provided for this year's harvest the same amount of money that will be provided if the amendment is not carried. The industry will get no more and no less for its difficulties, in the present year by either the passage or rejection of the amendment. The next point ie this: The argument is advanced that the farmers need stability in respect of price. I point out that stability in regard to an industry, the greater part of whose product has to be sold in the export market, is something which even this plan, or any other plan, cannot guarantee. Let us presume that after this bill has been in operation, say, for three years, the world parity price rises to 4s. What is the position then? We have still to pay 4s. 8d. for the "wheat which is consumed within Australia. I submit to the Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page) that if, when world parity price is 4s., an additional 8d. has to be paid by the Australian consumer then, obviously, the Australian consumer is being taxed, not only to provide a fair price for wheat, but also to provide an unduly excessive price for wheat. That must be incontestable. Part of this impost, namely £500,000, is not to provide a home-consumption price at all but is to provide for seasonal adversity. If in the year following a year in which there is no seasonal adversity, having regard to the present low price of wheat in the world's market, the price of wheat should jump by another shilling a bushel it would appear to me to be monstrous to continue to collect from the Australian people the same excise levied upon the consumers of wheat' in Australia. Obviously, this legislation is of a kind that should be tested in the light of experience. If, next year, it is argued that the farmers will not sell because they do not know the price they will receive, then I venture the opinion that by June, or certainly by the end of May, when the harvest has been completely garnered, and preparations are made for the following season's cultivation, we shall have learned sufficient of the operation of this legislation to be able to prove a number of things, one of which we think to be important, namely, whether the State governments have carried out faithfully their undertaking to protect the consumers against an unduly excessive price for bread. I say on behalf of the wheat-growers who get no profit out of an unduly high price for bread, that their representatives iu this Parliament should assist us to ensure that there is a guarantee, to the people of Australia against an extortionate price for bread. They will bo in no position to protect the consumer against that .unless this legislation comes up for review. The argument has been advanced that every tariff duty imposed provides in effect a bounty for the manu- facturer. It does, but it is a bounty only on goods consumed in Australia, and not on goods exported to other countries. We are to have the amazing spectacle in this legislation that, because of the national importance of the industry, we are to tax only a section of the people in order to provide the people of other countries with a product at a much cheaper rate than we can provide it for our own people.

Mr Gregory - - Is not that done in connexion with other things?

Mr CURTIN - No, we do not provide the people of other countries with boots at a cheaper price than we provide them for ourselves; nor do we provide them with steel or in fact many other primary commodities at a price cheaper than that obtained for them in Australia..

Mr Scholfield - What about sugar and dried fruits?

Mr CURTIN - Sugar and dried fruits are primary products. Honorable members have argued that the tariff imposed for the protection of our manufactures provides bounties for the manufacturers of secondary products.

Sir Frederick Stewart - We had an experimental period with regard to sugar; that is all we ask for to-day.

Mr CURTIN - That is so. A period was put to the duration of the sugar agreement. I merely ask that a period be put to the duration of this measure.

Mr Gregory - We shall agree if the honorable member makes the period five years, which was the period of the first sugar agreement.

Mr CURTIN - The honorable member knows that the first sugar agreement was not for five years; it was- subject to review just as is bounty legislation passed by this Parliament.

Sir Earle Page - The legislation providing for bounties operates for ten years.

Mr CURTIN - That is not so.

Sir Earle Page - The legislation providing for bounties on iron, steel and sulphur operates for ten years.

Mr CURTIN - The honorable member overlooks the fundamental distinction that all those bounties are paid out of Consolidated Revenue and not out of the proceeds of levies upon consumers. That is the whole essence of our argument. We are in favour of paying this bounty of £4,000,000 out of Consolidated Revenue. The right honorable gentleman quotes as evidence against me the very principle which he rejected only two hours ago in this House. In regard to manufactured goods there is internal competition as between manufacturers, but by this legislation the Government proposes to establish a fixed price below which nobody can go. As the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) has shown, the Government proposes with the assistance of the States to fix the price of flour. There is no undertaking to fix the price of bread. Certainly no proposal that is capable of enforcement has been announced. I put this matter to the committee as fairly and impartially as I can. I am not unmindful of the tremendous economic value of the wheat industry to Australia, nor am I unmindful of its paramount importance to the State from which I come. The Opposition is prepared to vote the £4,000,000 required to assist the wheat industry this year, and if £4,000,000 is required next year to again vote that amount of money; but it believes that the vote should come from sources that are better capable of making the contribution and that it should not be levied exclusively upon the larger families, and more particularly, upon the poorer families of Australia. The methods which the Opposition suggests should be employed to subsidize an export industry are the more fair and equable methods formulated by the Labour Government of New Zealand. The burden of subsidizing exports because they provide the funds which enable the country to maintain its solvency should fall upon the nation as a whole and not upon any particular section. We lay that down as a principle. I resent the argument that we are not prepared to provide stability for this industry insofar as constructive statesmanship can provide it. My amendment is motivated by the one purpose of finding out the merits of this legislation.

Mr Gregory - What is the difference between this proposal and a compulsory pool insofar as its effect upon the price of bread is concerned?

Mr CURTIN - There is a big difference. With a pool, the difference between what the growers will get and what the consumers will pay will be reduced, because the parisitical elements associated with the marketing of wheat at present would be cut out of service by a compulsory pool. The honorable member must know that the operations of the voluntary pool in Western Australia proved that pooling is less costly to the grower.

Mr Gregory - I remind the honorable member that it was a voluntary and not a government pool.

Mr CURTIN - I need not go beyond the fact that the voluntary pool in Western Australia has been supported by the growers themselves without any legal aid whatever. They have done so because .'they discovered that 'over the whole of the operations of the pool they got economic conditions that they did not get by the ordinary system of capitalistic competition. The wheatgrowers in Western Australia are more disposed to support co-operative pools than are perhaps other sections of the industry, only because of the demonstrated advantages which have accrued to them by the voluntary pool which they have sustained and developed into a very successful and efficient organization.

I am surprised that the argument should be advanced that we ought to allow all the elements which are so unsatisfactory to the industry to-day to continue, the brigandage which is a part of it, the forward selling which has marked it, the heavy interest burdens of its debt structure which have been reported against but still continue, and at the same time to put forward as a remedy for the complicated problems of this industry one single proposition which ultimately means, whether we like it or not, an inevitable increase of the price of bread. Because the increasing of the price of bread is not the fairest and soundest method to enable this industry to be put on its feet this year, I propose to limit the application of the bill until the 30th September next with the direction to the Government that early in the new year it should go very comprehensively into the problems of this industry, that it should call the States together in terms of the suggestion made by the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Blackburn) and that it should lay down what it believes to be a comprehensive plan which should be taken into account. The Commonwealth Government has a major interest in this matter in that it is responsible for our overseas trade, and the maintenance of our solvency overseas. This means that it must do everything possible to maintain exports.

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