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Wednesday, 27 March 1985
Page: 886

Senator JESSOP —I ask whether the Minister representing the Minister for Primary Industry is aware of an article that appeared early this week in the Australian dealing with the abject failure of the farm summit meeting to achieve any concrete, positive action in the farming sector, with the only commitment being the decision to set up a committee to look at the disputed figure for the amount paid by the agricultural sector as a direct result of tariff protection. Does the Minister agree that Australian farmers need some immediate action to be taken if many of them are to ward off financial ruin? Will the Minister outline what immediate action the Government has in mind to reduce the rising costs faced by farmers in order to ease the crippling cost-price squeeze which is exemplified by the fact that average farm costs have escalated by 41 per cent since 1980-81?

Senator WALSH —The source of Senator Jessop's question is the Australian. I have not seen the article. However, it would be unusual if it were accurate, given the calibre of the reporting in that newspaper in recent times. The farm summit meeting, which I think Senator Jessop called it-I have not heard that term before-refers, I suppose, to a meeting which the Prime Minister, the Minister for Primary Industry, the Treasurer and I had with farm leaders on 5 March. That meeting honoured a commitment that had been given by the Government prior to the election and provides an opportunity for Ministers and industry leaders to exchange views. Senator Jessop is correct regarding the imprecise business, if you like, of measuring the effects on the farm sector of the protection of other industries, some of which are agricultural industries, of course, which Senator Bjelke-Petersen approves of. There is a wide divergence in the analysis of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the National Farmers Federation in this regard. I do not know the degree, if any, to which that wide divergence has been closed by subsequent consultation. I will ask the Minister for Primary Industry.

On the more general question, agriculture is in one of its recurring slumps; that is true. It had one in 1975 and one in 1969, as I remember. There is a long history of cyclical slumps in Australian agriculture. Every time the slumps occur, of course, there are fairly hysterical claims that farmers will be forced off their land and that sort of thing. We are going through it all again. I suggest that Senator Jessop look at the claims and assertions that were being published around 1970 in the agricultural and other Press. He will be surprised how similar, indeed near identical, they are.

The farm sector is in a period of slump; that is true. Senator Jessop asked what this Government has done about it. I can tell him one of the things this Government has done about it: It has got our inflation rate down to less than half what it was when his Government was in power. That is what we have done to the inflation rate. I was a farmer for 25 years. The thing that farmers complained about most-indeed, complained about incessantly-was the rate of inflation. Of course, they had had the unhappy experience of the Menzies Government when in the 12 months ending December 1951 the consumer price index increased by 25 per cent. That was the highest rate of inflation we have ever had. It beat even the record of the Fraser Government which got inflation up to, I think, just under 11 per cent in its last year. We have taken that down to less than half that rate.

Another change which has occurred and which will help the agricultural sector is the devaluation of the dollar. I notice that Senator Jessop's former leader, person Y down in the country, wrote an article for the Age about a month ago in which he said what a dreadful thing it was that the dollar had been devalued. I do not know whether he agrees with his former leader and, if he does, whether he wants to punish the agricultural sector more than in fact it is being punished. Indeed the whole tone of his former leader's article on this subject was that the objective of all economic policy should be to maintain the value of the currency. That is called mercantilism. It was an idea popular in Tudor England and popular with the sort of archaic--

The PRESIDENT —Order! The Minister is clearly debating the matter. It is nearing the end of Question Time and I ask him to bring his remarks to a conclusion.

Senator WALSH —The coincidence of the spectacular decline in inflation since this Government came into office and the recent devaluation of the dollar will help to ease significantly the problems facing the agricultural sector which are caused by the recurring cyclical downturns which seem to be a feature of this industry.