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Thursday, 8 October 1936

Senator E B JOHNSTON (Western A'ustralia) . - When this debate was adjourned last week I was referring to the very great relief that the budgetary position has received from the fact that the Government has been able to discontinue the assistance given to the wheat industry, which, in 1934-35, amounted to £4,050,000. That amount was distributed amongst the wheat-growers at the rate of 3s. an acre, and 3d. a bushel of wheat produced. In 1935-36 the assistance given by the Commonwealth Government to this industry was greatly reduced, and was distributed on a basis which, at any tate, did not suit the wheat-growers of Western Australia, who, in that year, were unfortunate in having a very much lighter crop than usual. Consequently, the amount distributed totalled only £1,916,000 which is much less than half of the amount distributed in the previous year. The farmers in Western Australia received ls. 10£d. an acre, as compared with 3s. an acre and 3d. a bushel in the previous twelve months.

Senator Badman - Was that all that was distributed?

Senator E B JOHNSTON - In addition, the small amount of £161,000 was distributed for drought relief, the sufferers receiving assistance by way of sustenance. All of the other States received much larger amounts per acre than the rate of ls. lOd. paid in Western Australia, and considerable dissatisfaction was felt in that State at the method of distribution then adopted. This year the position, from the viewpoint of those suffering from drought in Western Australia and possibly some other portions of Australia, is much more unfortunate. The Treasurer (Mr. Casey), in the budget speech, said - fu view of the fortunate and substantial improvement in the price of wheat, it is unnecessary for the Commonwealth to contemplate further assistance to wheat-growers during the present financial year.

We all rejoice that the price of wheat has so substantially improved. But that fact is of little benefit to the farmer who is suffering from severe drought conditions and has little or no wheat to sell. He is placed iti further difficulty because the increase of the price of wheat has brought about an increase of the cost of seed wheat. It is a matter for regret that the Government did not make any provision for wheat relief this year. Following on the visit of the Assistant Minister for Commerce (Mr. Thorby) to certain wheat districts of that State in which the farmers had suffered severely during hist season, it was thought that a sum of at least £150,000 would have been provided for in the budget for drought relief, particularly in view of the fact that though in the preceding year a sum of £161,000 was provided for that purpose, it proved inadequate to meet the needs of the farmers. It was estimated by the deputations which waited on Mr. Thorby that the amount required to carry those settlers through to the next harvest was £150,000 in addition to the £161,000 already granted. That amount should have been provided for in this budget. In view of the sympathetic manner in which Mr. Thorby received the farmers in the drought-stricken areas, even at this late hour I urge the Government to provide £150,000 in the budget for drought relief. If that were done, it would relieve in the wheat-growing districts the intense disappointment that followed the publication of the budget speech.

The outlook for the coming harvest in the northern and north-eastern districts of Western. Australia is, I am afraid, quite as alarming as, if not more serious than, it was last year. It is true that in those areas quite good rain fell last week, but press reports and telegrams which I have received point out that the rain fell too late to be of much benefit in many districts. The crops in some of the eastern and northern districts which were planted on heavy soil had already dried up. Even now in the northern and north-eastern districts the position is very uncertain in regard to the crops that have survived, but those planted on light lands will give some return if adequate rain subsequently falls. [Extension of time granted.] The following telegram received from Perth and published in the Age and other metropolitan newspapers of the eastern States shows the position in those outlying districts: -

Western Australia is facing the probability that iu the large wheat-growing area of the north there will be no harvest this year. The Wialki ( north-cast ) district of the Wheatgrowers Union has sent a telegram to Mr. T. H. Powell, president of the union, who is in Canberra, as follows: - "Ask you to bring matter before Federal Government. Northeast district still 400.000 short account last season's drought. Crop prospects little better this season. Water shortage worse. Urge Federal Government re-impose Hour tax for four months. £1,000,000 assistance required. Crops dying; farmers becoming desperate". The Primary Producers Association is endeavouring to arrange a deputation to the Acting Premier, Mr. Troy, to discuss thu situation, with the object of co-operating in an application to the Federal Government for assistance. Even if rain comes within a few days it will be too late to save the crops.

Rain did come a week later -

The crops on heavy land have gone beyond recovery and are being fed off.

At that stage it seemed that the Government would have to face a request for £1,000,000 for drought relief. I notice that the new Premier of "Western Australia, Mr. Willcock, has asked the Treasurer for £500,000 to enable him to carry on. It is suggested that the Federal Government will probably meet the position by making £500,000 of loan moneys available to the Government of Western Australia. That, however, does not conform to my idea of how the difficulty should he overcome. It appears to me that if the Government borrows an extra £500,000 from the Loan Council for this purpose, it will probably be compelled to lend it to the drought-stricken farmers, who would be obliged to pay interest on the loans granted. That is a burden which, in their present position, the wheat-farmers of Western Australia could not afford to carry, nor should the State Government, in its present financial position, be expected to meet the heavy interest payments on that sum. It is the duty of the Federal Government to make provision in this budget for whatever extra drought relief is required for Western Australia this year. At least £500,000 should be made available, but I am inclined to fear that not less Ulan £1,000,000 will be required in Western Australia alone. Drought relief is certainly a federal responsi- bility. I read in the press within the last few months that Mr. Roosevelt. President of the United States of America, has accepted losses incurred by primary producers owing to seasonal conditions as a proper responsibility of the Federal Government. I hope that in this respect the Commonwealth Government will follow the lead given by Mi-. Roosevelt. The fact that last year the Government* provided a sum of £161,000 for drought relief in Western Australia and in previous years provided sums of money for that purpose, shows 'that the provision of sums of money for drought relief has already been accepted as a federal responsibility. I have received from Mr. H. Leslie, secretary of tho Wheat-growers Union, Wyalkatchem, the following telegram : -

Representative meetings of wheat-growers Wyalkatchem to Westonia and northern areas held Kununoppin to-day gravely concerned at critical position. Following message as under received from combined meeting o< traders in these areas. Message reads -

In view of disastrous failure of present crops and unsympathetic treatment of country traders in past by government, traders reluctantly decide discontinue all credit. Your immediate action ensure future supplies imperative.

That information covers large district? in Western Australia. Wyalkatchem is only 140 miles from Perth, and the districts covered extend to Westonia and the Southern Cross goldfields, and includes the northern areas as well. This telegram gives further support to my statement that from £500,000. to £1,000,000 will he required for drought relief in Western Australia this year. I again urge the Government to make the necessary provision in this budget. Compared with the budget brought down two years ago, this budget has been relieved of £4,000,000, which was the amount granted for the assistance of the wheat industry in Australia. The Treasurer, I am sorry to say, airily dismisses the whole subject in a small paragraph, saying that "In view of the fortunate and substantial improvement in the price of wheat, it is unnecessary for the Commonwealth to contemplate further assistance to wheat-growers during the present financial year ". No wonder the Federal Government has found itself able to make so many remis- sions in every direction. Relief lias been handed out in all directions except to the governments of Western Australia and South Australia and the grants of these States have been reduced by £470,000. Though I commend the Government for its decision to grant relief from taxation as much as possible, I deprecate the fact that it is being done partly at the expense of the droughtstricken wheat-farmers of Western Australia and the wheat industry generally.

Senator Dein - It is surely not done at the expense of the wheat-farmers!

Senator E B JOHNSTON - Relief to the extent of £470,000 has been granted at the direct expense of the State Treasuries of Western Australia and South Australia, because the annual grants to those States, which should have been put on a more stable basis, have been reduced by that amount. The fact that this budget is relieved of the former provision for assistance to the wheat industry, which in 1934-35 amounted to £4,000,000, and in 1935-36 to £2,000,000, undoubtedly makes it a lot easier for the Government to grant concessions, desirable as they may be, in every direction. I maintain, however, that concessions should not have been given to the community as a whole at the expense of the drought-stricken farmers of Western Australia,. The two States whose grants have been reduced by the Commonwealth Grants Commission this year suffered very severely from drought last year. Yet in 1935, when similar conditions prevailed over a comparatively limited area in Western Australia,the Federal Government made available £161,000. It is essential that provision should be made for a greater amount this year, because of the unfavorable seasonal conditions over a wider area in that State, as indicated in the telegrams which I have read. I protest against the exclusion of the wheat industry from the budget provisions for the payment of the fertilizer subsidy, because this year wheat-growers are not receiving other forms of assistance. Two years ago, they were given 3s. an acre on the area cropped for wheat, and 3d. a bushel on the production. That was a reasonable proposal, and no objection was raised at that time in either House of the Commonwealth Parliament to the exclusion of the wheat industry from the fertilizer subsidy because growers were then receiving other assistance. Now that that assistance has been entirely withdrawn, there is no logical reason why the wheat industry should not participate in the subsidypayable on fertilizers. I protest also against the reduction of the subsidy from 15s. a ton to 10s. a ton.

Senator ALLAN MACDONALD (WESTERN AUSTRALIA) - The honorable senator is a bit late. That bill has been passed.

Senator E B JOHNSTON - It is not too late -for the Government to deal justly with wheat-growers who harvest their crops for grain. If it wishes to assist them, the Government can bring in a supplementary bill. The exclusion of wheat-growers who harvest for grain from the provisions relating to the payment of fertilizer subsidy, whilst every other form of primary production is included, 13 an injustice which cannot be defended. I therefore, urge the Government to do the light thing by making provision in a supplementary measure for the payment of the fertilizer subsidy to the wheat-growers other than those who cut for hay. This unjust discrimination is strongly, resented by wheat-growers in Western Australia and South Australia, which depend more than any other State for their financial stability on the prosperity of the wheat industry. This year growers in those States are suffering from adverse seasonal conditions.

Last week the Premier of Western Australia (Mr. Willcock) sent a telegram to the Commonwealth Treasurer urging that a much greater measure of assistance should be made available for drought relief to Western Australia either by way of a grant or by provision from loan funds. I repeat that the right course is to continue the policy which has been followed from the time of the Scullin Government, namely to make a definite grant to the industry. The unjust reduction of the grant for Western Australia this year from £S00,000 to £500,000 has seriously interfered with the ability of the State to meet claims for drought relief. It would seem that Western Australia this year has been chastized not with whips but with scorpions, because in its time of greatest need for financial assistance to meet claims for drought relief, the Commonwealth Government has, on the recommendation of a biased Commonwealth Grants Commission, reduced the grant to "Western Australia by £300,000. I hope that the Government will do the right thing without delay, and restore the grant to £800,000, the amount paid last year. "When the budget reaches us from the House of Representative's 1 hope to be able to deal with other national problems.

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