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Thursday, 4 May 1939

Sir FREDERICK STEWART (Parramatta) (Minister for Health and Social Services) . - It cannot be denied that the issue raised in the motion moved by the honorable member for Wakefield (Mr. McHugh) is one of the most pressing economic problems confronting Australia to-day. I for one would be loath to deny the importance of the wheatgrowing industry, because during two harvests in recent years I had the responsibility of handling measures taken to deal with difficulties similar to those which existtoday. The gravity of the situation requires no exaggeration. To' suggest that this Government or any other government has been apathetic and insincere in proposals brought forward to help the growers does not help. Neither is this problem confined to Australia. At this very moment an international conference is discussing world aspects of tha very serious situation that has arisen in all countries.

Mr Paterson - It is a world problem.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - It is very definitely a world problem. Whereas the wheat importing countries require only 560,000,000 bushels of wheat, there is in wheat-growing countries a surplus of approximately twice that amount, namely, 1,100,000,000 bushels. The problem which these figures indicate is not one to be corrected by party rhetoric in this House or anywhere else. Surely no one can suggest that, by reason of apathy or insincerity, this Government, or that which immediately preceded it, is in any way responsible for the present condition of the overseas wheat market. It is true that in most' wheat-growing countries, various methods have been adopted to assist growers. It cannot fairly be said that Australian governments of recent years have been any less active in alleviating the condition of wheat-farmers in this country.

The mover of the resolution said he would like to see something done. It is my pleasure to tell the House 'what has been done during the last seven or eight years. And need I say .that I was rather surprised that the honorable member for Wakefield purported to survey the condition of the wheat industry since 1931 without referring to some of the things that had been done in the interests of the wheat-growers ? I was also surprised that he mentioned only some promises made in this or that policy speech and did not tell the House, as he might well have done in all fairness, of the action taken to make good those promises.

Mr McHugh - I did refer to some of the measures taken to help the growers.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - I submit that a good deal of assistance has been given to the wheat industry during the last seven or eight years, and I was pleased to hear the honorable member say that some State governments had collaborated with the Commonwealth Government in this connexion. In 1931-32 the Commonwealth Treasurer made available £3,300,000 for distribution to wheatgrowers by way of bounty. Since I endeavour always to be quite fair I admit that the legislation for the distribution of this money was passed by the Scullin Administration ; but I should add that the responsibility for raising and distributing it fell upon the first Lyons' Government.

In 1932-33 a similar provision was made, the amount on that occasion being £2,100,000.

Mr Scullin -.- The £3,300,000 referred to was provided for in the budget which I presented as Treasurer.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - That is so, but the Lyons Government had the responsibility and privilege of distributing it.

Mr Scullin - The Government of which the honorable gentleman was a member, enjoyed the surplus provided in our budget.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - In 1933-34 a further £3,000,000 was provided, and handed over to the States for distribution. In 1934-35 £4,000,000 was made available and distributed in three different ways - first, as a bounty of 3d. a bushel; then as a payment of 3s. an acre; and finally, as a grant, under which more than £500,000 was reserved and distributed to distressed wheat-farmers who had had unsatisfactory crop experience. In 1935 provision was made for £12,000,000 to be used for farmers' debt adjustment. The honorable member for Wakefield referred to the action taken in that regard. It is true that, so far, only £6,000,000 has been expended for debt adjustment, but the remainder of the amount is in reserve waiting to be used as required. In 1935-36 a further grant of almost £2,000,000 was made to the States for the assistance of the wheat-growers. I want the House to note the fact that in not one year since 1931, except in 1936-37 and 1937-38, when there was a flush of prosperity and high prices for wheat, has there not been substantial assistance for the wheat-growers of Australia. In 1938 the homeconsumption price was fixed; that is the basis of the treatment of wheat-growers to-day. There is no need for me to elaborate the details of that plan. They are well known to all honorable members of this House, because it is not so long ago that we had the responsibility of passing the plan into law. It is estimated that the collection of an excise on flour enables the distribution of between £3,000,000 and £4,000,000 a year in bounty to Australian wheat-growers to raise the price they receive for their wheat on the open market by something like 5d. a bushel.

My narrative, I suggest, indicates that the governments of the immediate past not only have been appreciative of the difficulties of the farmers, but also have indicated their readiness to provide genuine and appropriate amelioration for those who, by reason of conditions for which neither they nor we could be held responsible, found themselves in so much difficulty.

So much for the past. I should imagine that the wheat-growers of Australia are more concerned about the future than the past. But I was impelled to tell that history because of the omission of my honorable friend to include it in his speech. Honorable members of this House and the farmers have the right to ask what is the attitude of the new Government, and what are its intentions? I should hope that there is no honorable member so unfair or unreasonable as to expect a government which has been in control of affairs for only seven or eight days to have a complete scheme of wheat relief available for release to this House. Nevertheless, honorable members have the right to know, through the official mouthpieces of the Ministry, what its intentions are. The honorable member for Wakefield was good enough to quote the remarks of a number of Prime Ministers on the subject of 'the wheat industry; but there is one Prime Minister whom he did not quote. Perhaps he left that to me. In any case, I take the opportunity to supplement his references to the promises and undertakings of the past .by giving to the House - I take it that it is most relevant - the undertakings of the present Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) on behalf of the new Administration. Speaking within 24 hours of his acceptance of the commission from the Governor-General to form a Ministry, the right honorable gentleman declared "his adherence to existing principles of help for primary industries. He said -

I was a member qf the Ministry in which Sir Earle Page, as Minister for Commerce, prepared legislation relating to the dairying industry, the wheat industry and other primary industries. I took part in the formulation of this policy and the measures had my support.

He spoke again on this subject a few days later. I want the House not to forget that he has been in occupancy of his high office for little more than a week. He said -

Great and urgent as the specialized defence problem is, I realize that one of the best defences for Australia is to be found in prosperous industry, widespread employment, and just conditions of life. This leads to various results, one of which will be the investigation, as early as possible, of the possibility of stabilizing the wheat industry on a basis equitable to producers and consumers. This kind of thing has, on previous occasions, been considered on the eve of the harvest. I propose to have it considered in ample time for Government decision by the end of the winter.

No reasonable person in Australia, whether he be a wheat-grower or a wheat consumer, could find fault with that utterance or expect at this early stage anything more from the Government of which the right honorable member has control. Therefore, in conformity with those undertakings, the Government is prepared to consider any proposals to meet the peculiar problems of the wheatgrower or any other primary producer, and, indeed, to assist to meet the intimate problems of any section of the Australian community.

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