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Friday, 19 April 1985
Page: 1253

Senator COLLARD(12.17) —I say at the outset that the Opposition will not oppose the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill 1985 although we have some concern about one or two aspects of it. Soil, I guess, in a nation such as Australia is one of our greatest assets. Australia, whether it likes it or not, or whether most people know it or not, relies greatly on its rural industries. We rely on them tremendously for employment alone. Of course, when we look at our balance of trade figures, even though, as I have indicated at times in the Senate, some people are losing money while they are working the soil, it is still providing us with 40 per cent of our export earnings. So the conservation of our soil is of great importance.

It worries me that many people are not really aware of the effect of the rural community on our great nation. This was particularly brought to my attention by a letter to the editor in yesterday's Australian from a B. Watts of Ashgrove Avenue, Ashgrove. I will quote only two parts of the letter which do not detract from what he is saying in the rest of the letter. With regard to farmers, he stated:

For years they lived literally off the fat of the land. Now, when times are tough, they look to governments for assistance and handouts.

. . .

. . . we have known good and bad times in business, but we never approached any government for assistance and we never whinged.

Unfortunately, that is probably indicative of the thinking of many people who live in cities. To my knowledge there has never been any fat of the land on which rural producers could live. They have got what they worked for, and they have worked damn hard. Rural producers have never asked too much of the Government. They have asked the Government to get off their backs, but if it is not going to do that it should at least recognise that rural producers are doing a lot for other sections of industry.

Quite often the business community of Australia is providing to captive markets, that is, the domestic market, whereas the rural industries are providing to world markets and in very different circumstances. Many times in the last few weeks we have tried to get over to the people of Australia and to the Government that when we are dealing on world markets we are competing against subsidised surpluses, so market forces do not apply. It is a whole new ball game. The rural industry has had its problems. In the Queensland dairy industry alone 20,000 farmers have gone out of business over the last 10 or 15 years. Therefore, we are well aware of the travails and the ups and downs that prevail in the market-place. I reiterate that most of our businesses are dealing with captive markets. On top of that they are able to pass on their costs. They also work under the protection of tariff barriers and quotas. As I have said, rural producers are not so much after government assistance as for getting the Government off their backs.

The dairy industry and the sugar industry at this point are in a great state but they still employ a lot of people. The sugar industry employs people who directly grow the sugar, people who mill it and people who sell it. The same applies to the dairy industry. It is interesting to note that in one way or another the dairy industry employs 53,400 people. The motor vehicle manufacturing industry employs only 36,593 people; yet those 36,593 people are sheltering behind tariffs and quotas. Why are they any different from the people in rural industry? I use that argument to try to counter the sort of thinking behind some letters to the editor. Thus I mention the contribution that the rural industry is still making to Australia and to our balance of trade, which is in all sorts of problems.

When one looks more closely at the problem of soil erosion one recognises that in times past it has been caused by overgrazing and greed. We all acknowledge that. Quite often soil erosion is caused by overgrazing because a grazier is just trying to make a living in spite of all that prevails against him, as at this time. If he gets a good season he builds up his flocks. Often when there is a drought he cannot unload his stock quickly enough, hence the overgrazing.

In earlier times in particular, soil erosion has been caused by a lack of knowledge. I notice that the Bill mentions the salinity problem, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria. We now know that this was brought about by felling of the trees. This enabled the water table to creep up, and as it crept up it came through a salt layer that was put down thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of years ago when that part of the country was an inland sea. This brought the salt to the surface and the salt has laid waste hundreds or thousands of hectares of what was once good grazing property. We now know the facts. Nobody is blaming anybody for what has happened in the past. Farmers in the area are now seeking to redress the situation by once again planting trees. It is interesting to note that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation estimates that it will cost $1 billion to $2 billion to overcome the salinity problem alone. Of course droughts and fires take away all the cover so that the soil is immediately open to wind erosion or, if there is a heavy storm straight afterwards, to soil erosion. Quite often after a long drought very little root structure is left to bind the soil together.

I stress that our soil is a national asset. The rural industry does not have the financial capabilities of coming to grips with the problem; that must be understood. This year rural incomes are set to decline by 17 per cent. It is expected that this year the return on invested capital will be 1.5 per cent across the board in the rural industry. I think the bond rate is currently running at around 13 per cent; I have not looked at it recently. Real interest rates in Australia are about 6 per cent, the highest we can remember, certainly since the Depression. This gives an idea of the state that the rural industries are in and of the inability within their own financial resources to come to grips with what is a national problem.

Soil is a national resource and, as I have said, farmers husband it for the national benefit. Thus it is right and fair that the nation bear some of the financial burden of conserving our soil. Both sides of this chamber recognise that fact. Prior to the 1983 election the Australian Labor Party promised to spend $4m that year on soil conservation; in fact it spent only $1m. Fortuitously, after the Government's second election to office, this Bill makes allowances for an appropriation of $4m for 1984-85. The Opposition puts a higher priority on soil conservation. Prior to the 1983 election we promised to spend $5m in 1983-84, building up to $15m in 1987-88.

I have said that there is one aspect of the Bill with which the Opposition is not too happy and that is that it will set up another statutory authority-the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee. I do not think it is necessary. It will duplicate State functions already in place. There will be another bureaucracy, and honourable senators know what that means. The expenses of that Committee will be $180,000 per annum for the first two years and $120,000 per annum for subsequent years. Quite a few farmers in this chamber and in the other place could well do with that $180,000 for soil conservation on their own properties. If I had that money I could certainly handle the problems of soil erosion and the dispersal lanes on my farm. I do not like, and the Opposition is not happy with, the idea of setting up another statutory authority. It will unnecessarily cost money and, in particular, it will duplicate work which is already being done by the States. However, the Opposition will not oppose this Bill.