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Friday, 15 June 1906

Mr WEBSTER (Gwydir) . - I did not intend to speak on this question, but, representing a district which is probably affected by the rabbit pest to a greater extent than is any other district in New South Wales, I. think, after what I have heard from other honorable members, that it might be judicious on my part to make a few observations. There can be no doubt of the serious nature of the proposal now being made for the introduction of a disease for the purpose of destroying rabbits, nor can there be any doubt as to the extent of the ravages caused by the rabbit pest in the different States.

Mr Bamford - I think that when an important question, such as this, is being discussed, there should be a quorum of honorable members present. - [Quorum formed.]

Mr WEBSTER - It is a remarkable feature of Australian history that nearly every pest that at present troubles the man on the land was introduced at one time or another bv .some faddist who had no conception of the disaster likely to follow its introduction. The prickly pear, which has become almost as great an evil as the rabbit nest, was introduced in the first in- - stance bv a certain person with the object, of adorning the garden in front of his house, and so jealous was the care with which he guarded it that when one of his children was discovered removing a leaf from the plant the child was severely punished. When, one realizes that to-day many thousands of acres- in New South Wales alone have been rendered absolutely useless Y>- the spread of this terrible pest it is clear that the man who introduced it could have had no idea of what the consequences of its introduction would be.

Mr Bamford - There are other pests which could be mentioned.

Mr WEBSTER - Yes ; we have the rabbit, the sparrow, the starling, the fox, the prickly pear, and a number of other noxious weeds, introduced bv men who might reasonably be described as the un conscious enemies of the future prosperity of Australia. Whilst we may be thoroughly alive to the extent of the injury done to Australia, and to New South Wales in particular, bv the spread of the rabbit pest, we must study minutely what is likely to be the effect of the disease now sought to be introduced for its extermination. While we consider the injury done to the pastoral industry bv the existence of rabbits, we must not fail to consider the injury which may be done by the .introduction of a disease for their destruction, which may be communicable to other forms of animal life. Although it has .not been unusual for me to meet many men in mv electorate seeking work, it was a pleasant experience on my last visit, extending over many weeks, to find not more than ten men who were really in search of employment. The reason for that was that men who could not find other employment in the electorate found wellpaid occupation in the destruction of rabbits. There are not less than 1,000 men in my electorate earning a very good living in this way. We have to consider whether' the remedy proposed to 'be introduced to cope with the rabbit pest is going to be effective. So far we have no guarantee that it will achieve the object for which it is being introduced, and there are very grave doubts whether the good which is likely to follow from its introduction will warrant us in incurring the risks attendant upon it. We must be very cautious indeed in permitting the introduction of a. disease of this kind, which may be communicable to human beings. I ask honorable members to consider the results which have followed the practice of destroying rabbits by poison. We are to-day poisoning the feathered tribes of the bush by thousands.

Mr Wilson - Surely the honorable member does not propose to do away with the poisoning of rabbits.

Mr WEBSTER - We must consider the comparative benefits and disadvantages of the adoption of any particular course. I am not sure that by poisoning we are doing a great deal of good in the way of rabbit destruction.

Mr Wilson - I can assure the honorable member, from practical experience, that we are.

Mr WEBSTER - I can understand that poisoning may be effective in the case of small holdings, securely fenced with wire netting, but it is not nearly so effective on large holdings.

Mr Wilson - Will the honorable member read Mr. Lascelles' evidence on the question ?

Mr WEBSTER - I have evidence of my own. I am talking of what I know, and it is not clear that poisoning is decreasing the numbers of rabbits in an appreciable degree. There can be no doubt, however, that it is destroying the bird life of the bush, and by the destruction of the feathered tribes we are removing the natural enemies of the larvae of various pests which are an evil to the man on the land. That is an aspect of this question which requires serious consideration. I think that nothing can be more depressing than to travel for many miles through the bush without hearing the welcome call of the various Australian birds. To my mind, nothing can be more melancholy than a birdless bush. The honorable member who interjected a moment or two ago will admit that the decimation of the feathered tribes will remove the natural enemies of pests which are less controllable than the rabbit pest. In my recent travels I found that, in those districts where the birds have been destroyed, if the herbage begins to spring after a shower of rain, a plague of caterpillars and grasshoppers descends upon it, and eats bare the whole face of the country. Not only is the bird life of the bush being destroyed by the phosphorous poisoning which is now laid for rabbits, but animals sometimes eat the baits, and are killed by them. In one of my trips I met a man who was making a good living by rearing pigs, who told me that in the course of two weeks he lost 100 valuable pigs through phosphorous poisoning.

Mr Wilson - They must have been straying on another man's land.

Mr WEBSTER - In New South Wales a land-holder often leases the stock route or reserve adjoining his property, and turns his animals on to it. but if the fences of a neighbour are not in good order, these animals occasionally stray on to the neighbour's ground. We should move cautiously in regard to this proposal to introduce a plague which may be much more injurious than the pest which it is desired to destroy. As was remarked yesterday, any person who, when it was unwisely proposed to introduce the rabbit or any of the other pests which now threaten the welfare of our industries, had urged the strictest supervision, would now be hailed as a public benefactor, and in the light of our experience no one can be blamed for trying to protect the country from further possible injury of a like kind. Diseases such as Dr. Danysz is experimenting with may affect, not only the lower animal life, but even human life, and if human life were affected I should not. like to be one who in this Parliament had advocated the introduction of the disease. I admit that ruin is now threatening the staple industry of New South Wales, and that the rabbit pest is changing the whole aspect of land settlement there. Formerly the man who rented land from the Crown fed his sheep on the herbage which it produced, and got a return for his enterprise by selling their wool and mutton. But to-day the herbage which should feed sheep goes to feed rabbits, and pastoralists who, at one time, would have brought any rabbiter before the Court who took one of their sheep, are now, in many instances, providing these men with rations, and even with wire netting for their yards, and allowing the station hands to assist in the drives. Indeed, the present position is altogether regrettable ; but it would be far worse if, in trying to give relief to those who are suffering, we introduced a disease which would bring only trouble and misery in its train. My travels convince me that the only remedy for the rabbit pest is closer settlement. Nothing else will remove the rabbits, and restore the produce of the land to the man who rents it. The other remedy is wire netting, which is very expensive and troublesome, and, in many cases, can be undertaken only where there is closer settlement, though I have known men who have wire netted who have been repaid one thousand-fold for their trouble.

Mr Kelly - Is it possible to wire-net the lands in the western division of New South Wales ? I understand that the whole country shifts.

Mr WEBSTER - The companies which manipulate the properties in the western division of New South Wales are in a position to wire-net against the rabbits. The method of poisoning, so much in vogue, is an extremely expensive, one. I have been upon runs on which fifteen poison carts, employing twenty men, are in use, each poison cart costing £2 a week, having regard to the cost of wages, materials, and the value of the horses and vehicles.

Mr Wilson - Are not the rabbits in the western division of New South Wales practically valueless?

Mr WEBSTER - The price of rabbit skins to-day is so high that it has become profitable to kill the rabbits there for their skins, which fetch nearly 2d. each in the back blocks, or1s. 2d. per lb. in Sydney.

Mr Wilson - That is the winter skin.

Mr WEBSTER - The winter skin of a full-grown rabbit. We are now in the winter months. I do not think that the rabbit can be entirely eradicated, nor would his eradication be necessary if we could control the pest. Besides, there are to-day thousands of persons who would hardly be able to obtain flesh to eat if it were not for the price at which they can procure rabbits. At one time a butcher would consider it a degradation to hang a rabbit in his shop, but to-day there are butchers who practically deal entirely in rabbits, and rabbitflesh is becoming one of the foods of the poorer classes. If we introduce the disease which Dr. Danysz has brought with him, we may not only injure our own people directly, but will assuredly destroy the rabbit export industry, which has now assumed such large dimensions. We should not run the risk of repeating the experience of the Chicago meat packers, by permitting the impression to get abroad that our preserved rabbits are unsuitable for human consumption.If disease were introduced among the rabbits, we should certainly destroy an important industry, whilst it is very questionable whether we should get rid of the pest. I am glad that honorable members seem to take the view that the greatest care should be observed, and that it is proposed that before any disease is disseminated, the whole matter shall be dealt with by this Parliament, which is directly responsible to the people. During my travels through New South Wales I obtained conclusive evidence that closer settlement is the true remedy for the evil with which it is sought to cope by the introduction of disease. Three or four years ago I visited the Wellington district, upon the occasion of the opening of a new flour mill. I then had an opportunity of meeting a large number of farmers who were perplexed by the question. " What are wet going to do with the rabbits?" The rodents then threatened to ruin them. A few weeks ago two young men went up to Wellington in the hope that they would be able to enjoy some sport in the shape of rabbit shooting. After spending nine days vainly looking for rabbits, they had to leave for another district where rabbits were more plentiful. The farmers of Wellington have, by means of wire-netting their holdings, brought the rabbits under control, and now scarcely a rodent can be found in country which, two or three years ago, was overrun by the pest. I can mention another case which has occurred in Victoria. The Woodlands Estate, near Ararat, which is a very large holding, is infested with rabbits. A number of small farmers, whose holdings adjoin this large property, were obliged, owing to bad times, to mortgage their farms, and were in distress until they sent their sons on to the Woodlands Estate to trap rabbits. With the money which these young men have earned the farmers have been able to clear off the mortgages and place themselves once more upon a sound financial footing. Thus, the rabbits, have, in some cases, proved of the greatest advantage to the poorer class of settlers. In my opinion, there is no effective remedy for the rabbit pest other than closer settlement. This will not bring ruin in its train, but will prove of immense benefit to a large section of our population.

Mr Henry Willis - What does the honorable member mean by closer settlement in the district which he represents ?

Mr WEBSTER - If the honorable member does not understand, I do not feel called upon to explain to him. This is not a matter for humorous treatment, but one which should receive our most serious consideration. As I have said, closer settlement is the true remedy, and the only way in which we shall be able to bring about closer settlement is by imposing a progressive land tax. There is no use. in discussing abstract propositions. It would be idle for me to say that closer settlement was the true remedy for the rabbit difficulty unless I indicated the way in which that remedy was to be applied. We shall have to place small settlers upon those large areas in which the pest has got beyond control and we cannot expect to bring this result about unless we adopt a progressive land tax. Such a measure would result in more benefit to the country than would be conferred upon it if we were to go on talking about Dr. Danysz and his proposed cure until the end of theyear. We should go to work in a practical way, and strike at the root of the evil. We should adopt a method of exterminating the rabbits that would be not only effectual, but free from objectionable features, and it seems to me that the subdivision of the large estates into small holdings which can Le kept under effective control offers the true solution of the difficulty.

Mr.kelly (Wentworth) [jj. 55].- The honorable member for Gwydir has made a characteristic proposition. He says that the only way in which we can help the settlers, who are now in danger of having their land taken away from them by the rabbits, is by ourselves taking possession of what little share they still have left to them. He says, in effect, " The rabbit »s nationalizing the land, and why should not the State do so by a graduated land tax"? The honorable member's proposal is so startling that it is hardly worth serious consideration. He dealt with the subject exhaustively, but in a manner scarcely warranted bv the terms of the motion, which is intended to prevent the dissemination of microbes among the rabbits under any conditions whatever ; for the honorable member for Gwydir endeavoured to show that disease should not be spread amongst the rabbits until we were satisfied that such action would not be prejudicial to the people of Australia. There were some curious contradictions in his arguments. In the first place, he preferred sheep to rabbits. I understood the honorable member to say that sheep-farming was a staple industry of New South Wales ; in fact, the greatest of all the staple industries, of that State. He did not want to do any injury to that industry, but at the same time urged that the rabbits should not be destroyed, because the trapping of them afforded employment to a large number of men. I think that that is the most absurd reason that could le advanced in a discussion of this kind. In order to be logical, the honorable member should advocate the dissemination of Bathurst burr and Scotch tthistles, because the more those pests are spread the more employment will he afforded in their eradication. I think that that argument effectively disposes of the Question of employment. The honorable and learned member for West Sydney has told us that we have no justification for believing that these microbes, if introduced, will absolutely exterminate the rabbits. I am. free to confess that J share his opinion. At the same time. I recognise that the more means we employ to keep the rabbits under control, the better it will be for Australia. So far as the central and coastal divisions of New South Wales are concerned, the cure for the rabbit pest is to be found in closer settlement, and in the wire-netting of holdings. The honorable member for Gwydir assured us that that cure could be applied all over Australia. I beg to differ from him. So far as the western district of New South Wales is concerned, my information is that it is not efficacious there.

Mr Webster - Has the honorable member ever been there?

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