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Friday, 20 July 1917

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE (Flinders) . - I am a little reluctant to rush in where even angels fear to tread, but I must say, in justification of venturing to take part in this debate, that I represented a purely wheat-growing district for eleven or twelve years, and I gave some little time to the study of the bulk-handling question in Canada. It would be of considerable advantage to the House in dealing with a Bill of such a highly technical nature if we had some one in charge of the House who really knew something about the matter. The PostmasterGeneral looks as if he understood it; he looks as if he had been born and bred in a silo.

Mr Webster - What .is the matter with the honorable member?

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - Nothing whatever, except that there are one or two observations I wish to make, and I would like the Minister in charge of the House to understand the subject with which we are dealing.

Mr Webster - I undertake that I would lose the honorable member in a silo any day.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - I take the interjection of the Postmaster-General as an intimation that he is thoroughly ' equipped with all the knowledge necessary to inform the House upon this matter. The Bill has been placed before us by the Prime Minister as a measure for the preservation of wheat, and as one which did not involve the adoption of the bulkhandling system in Australia, but I am afraid we cannot accept it in that light. I cannot help coming to the conclusion that the Government have swallowed with too great avidity the Commission's report that has been placed before us. If we look into the facts and figures placed before us by that report, the whole thing appears to bear the marks of undue haste in dealing with such an important matter. I desire to draw attention to one or two important points that should be considered before the Government proceed to conclude this business. We cannot accept the Bill as a mere proposition for the preservation of wheat. To do so, we would need to leave out of account altogether all aspects of the permanent bulk-handling proposition. During the whole time that I was a representative of wheat-growers, and so far as such interests have been concerned since, I have been strongly in favour of the bulk-handling of wheat. But I believe that there are difficulties in the way of its adoption, in Australia which are not met with in Canada. The fact that our wheat is not mostly carried along the same railways is a great, though I do not think an insuperable, difficulty. The Prime Minister, however, has asked us to put aside in the consideration of this proposition the bulk handling question; to view the proposition merely as one for the preservation of a large quantity of wheat which, unfortunately, we are at present unable to ship away. I agree .with every word that the right honorable gentleman uttered regarding our moral, if not legal, responsibility for the preservation of this wheat. Now, if we are to deal with the proposition as one for preservation only, we must ask what is the best and most effective, as well as the most economical method of preservation. So viewed, the proposition seems to me uneconomical and unpractical. Although of late years we have become accustomed to the spending of millions of pounds as if they were shillings, this proposal to spend £3,000,000 is one which should not be agreed to without the careful consideration of the House. There are now in Australia 165,000,000 bushels of wheat of which we cannot get rid, and at the end of the present harvest we shall have approximately another 100,000,000 bushels on band, making in all ' 265,000,000 bushels. When we shall get any or all of this wheat away, and how much of it we shall get away, is a matter of the greatest uncertainty, and of the gravest anxiety to others besides ourselves. The capacity of the concrete silos, for the erection of which by the States the Commonwealth is to advance money, will be 49,000,000 bushels, or a little less than one-fifth of the total quantity of wheat that we shall have to preserve, the remaining four-fifths being left without special provision, other than that now existing. I do not say that that fact condemns the proposal; it may be that we cannot do more ; but it must be remembered that we are considering a measure for the preservation of only one-fifth of the total quantity of wheat that "will have to be preserved. The Commission has estimated the cost of erecting the silos at ls. 2d. per bushel of their capacity, or, in other words, at about £2,850,000. The value of the wheat that is to be stored in the silos is estimated by the Commissioners at the price which the Government is now paying the farmers, namely, 4s. per bushel, that is, at £10,000,000, though it may be a little more. The Bill, then, is a proposal to spend £2,850,000 in preserving for a time £10,000,000 worth of wheat. But the method to be adopted will not protect the stored wheat from devastation by mice. All the experts agree that wheat can be protected from mice without the erection of silos; this method of silo storage is to be adopted to save the stored wheat from possible destruction by .weevil -r-that is, we are being asked to spend £2,850,000, or an insurance premium of more than 28 per cent., to save £10,000,000l worth of wheat from one particular danger only.

Mr Riley - The silos will last for many years.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - When that fact is taken into consideration, you make the proposal part of a scheme for the bulkhandling of wheat, and we were asked by the Prime Minister to put aside the consideration of that matter. In addition to the cost of constructing the silos, there will be the cost of working them, which is not estimated by the Commission. We have the estimate that the cost of turning over , the wheat would be id. a bushel, to be subsequently reduced to %d. per bushel, but we are not told how many turnings over would be required. The proposition, then, viewed solely as one for the preservation of one-fifth of the total amount of wheat to be stored, must be regarded as utterly unbusinesslike, and one of which not even the Postmaster-General could approve.

Mr Webster - The silos will not decay.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - Certainly not. The expenditure may be a wise one, regarding the proposal as one for the initiation of the bulk handling system; but if it is to be regarded as a mere temporary measure for the preservation of a portion of our wheat - which is how the Prime Minister asked us to regard it - it should not receive the sanction of the House. As the initiation of the bulk handling system, I do not condemn it. If the States are willing to take the responsibility of constructing the silos with money advanced to them by the Commonwealth, I do not oppose the' introduction of the bulk handing, system, because it may be a wise and extremely beneficial measure.

Mr Sampson - But the proposal only applies to one-fifth of the wheat.

Mr Watt - One-fifth at any given time.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - If we are asked to sanction the proposed expenditure as a mere temporary provision to get over an immediate shipping difficulty that will sooner or later be removed, leaving us as we were, the measure is unacceptable. Yet it may or may not provide a wise method of starting the bulk handling system, which, to my mind, will ultimately have to be adopted in Australia.. But viewing the proposal as the initiation of the bulk handling system, there are a few questions which one is naturally inclined to ask. The bulk handling system involves the erection of silos into which wheat is delivered by the farmers before being put into the railway trucks - district silos - and the erection of other silos at the ports at which the wheat is to be put on board ship, and the provision of proper appliances for loading it into the ships. The House has not yet received information on several important points. Though I would welcome the adoption of the bulk handling system, before authorizing it we should have information on several matters of moment. It was stated by the Prime Minister - and his statement seems to be borne out by the report of the Commissioners - that bulk is to be broken at the points where the wheat is put on the rail. The Commissioners refer to the necessity for immediately altering trucks and waggons to enable them to carry the wheat. Therefore I assume that if the Commissioners had in mind a definite scheme - as to which I feel some doubt - that scheme involves the breaking of bulk, that is, the taking of the wheat out of the bags at the points where its railway transit is to begin. That seems to be borne out by this significant passage in their report -

Your Commissioners find that no State has at present sufficient waggons available which would be suitable for the carriage of wheat in bulk without minor alterations, or any special provision, for cleaning the waggons after their use for ordinary business.

They are satisfied, however, that a quick and cheap method of overcoming these points can be found, and are of the opinion that immediate steps should be taken in that direction by the individual States.

I have nothing to say for or against those who drew up the report. I do not know their capacity, nor how far they investigated the matters referred to them; but it is clear that they acted hurriedly.

Mr Richard Foster - The Governments of New South Wales and Victoria had already had the matter under consideration for months.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - I am merely concerned now in pointing out that the scheme which the Government ask us to adopt is one under which wheat will be taken out of the bags at the initial, not at the terminal, point of railway transit. It must be then removed in bulk from the trucks to the silos erected at the ports. This involves at least twothirds of a bulk handling scheme. We are asked to authorize a change in the maimer of dealing with the wheat during its railway transit to the sea-board. The States concerned would, no doubt, make the alterations which these changes involved, but before that scheme was presented to us for adoption we should have been told whether negotiations had taken place with them concerning these matters.

Mr Sampson - The Railways Commissioners have reported on the change of system so far as they are concerned.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - I wish to know -whether the States concerned are prepared not only to make the necessary alterations in their rolling-stock, but also to bear the expense of the whole change of system. Probably they are prepared to do this, but the subject is one on which the House should have information. I come now Ito what, in my opinion, is a somewhat greater difficulty. Although I am entirely in favour of the bulk handling system, believing that its ultimate adoption in Australia is inevitable, the question of whether this is the most suitable time for its introduction, having regard to the war and to our circumstances, depends upon certain facts concerning which we have no information.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Including the position of shipping.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - That is the point that I have in mind. We shall have in a few months 265,000,000 bushels of wheat which we must send Home. The people of the Old Country must have it if they can possibly secure it, and we must preserve it for them.

Mr Hughes - The honorable gentleman says that we must preserve it for them, and yet he holds that as a temporary measure our proposal is not justifiable.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - I cannot repeat to the Prime Minister, without being guilty of improper reiteration, what I have said in his absence. I have already conveyed to his colleague, the PostmasterGeneral, my views on this phase of the subject.

Mr Hughes - I have the PostmasterGeneral's notes of the honorable member's speech.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - Those notes will show the right honorable gentleman that I have pointed out that as a purely preservation scheme this will provide for only one-fifth of the wheat, and at a cost of .about 30 per cent, insurance premium on the value of that wheat. I am prepared to consider this proposal, and I think the House will consider it, on its real basis, and that is as the initiation of the bulk handling system, enabling the States that are prepared to do so to introduce that system in which I, for one, believe. But let me state the practical difficulty that I fear. It may be no difficulty at all, or it may be a very serious one. It was to some extent referred to by the honorable member for Hindmarsh a few minutes ago, and it is as to whether we may not be hampering, rather than helping, the Imperial authorities at this moment oy adopting a scheme for which they may not be able to make, or may not have made, the necessary shipping arrangements. I take it that at some time not later than the beginning of next year the Imperial authorities must, if possible, obtain shipping to carry from Australia to Great Britain as -much as possible of our supply of 265,000,000 bushels of wheat. I do not know - and this is one of the points on which we should like to have some information from the Prime Minister, if he can supply it to us - to what extent the, Imperial authorities may be able to divert to Australia the fleets of slum which hitherto have been engaged in the direct transit of grain in bulk from Canada, the Argentine, and other places in America, to England. Those fleets are equipped for the bulk handling of grain. I should think it very probable that when the Imperial authorities desire suddenly to remove, under convoy or otherwise, the bulk of this wheat, they may have to do so by concentrating in Australian waters all the shipping that they can secure from the seas around.

Mr Hughes - If the honorable member will allow me to say so, that is a theoretical, but not a practical difficulty. Such a massing of ships is impossible.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - Very well. I assure the Prime Minister that I am not criticising this Bill in an adverse spirit.

Mr Hughes - I recognise that.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - The point I wish to raise is whether the initiation of the bulk handling system - a system which will force us from time to time to put all our wheat into bulk - may not hamper the shipping facilities for getting our wheat away from here.

Mr Sampson - Four-fifths of our wheat will still remain in bags.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - That may be.

Mr Hughes - I am unable, of course, to disclose to the House and the country what are the arrangements, but I can assure the honorable member that, they are such that these silos will not interfere with, but, onthe contrary, will materially assist them.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - I am very glad to have that statement. I shall not press the Prime Minister for further information in this regard, because I recognise that matters relating to shipping cannot be too closely inquired into at the present time. We dare not inquire too closely into them. As long as the right honorable gentleman can give the House his assurance that the taking of a considerable portion of our wheat out of bags, and the placing of it in silos, will not in any way hamper the transport of that wheat to Great Britain, without the operation of re-bagging, when the time comes, I shall be satisfied.

Mr Hughes - I do give that assurance. In the course of my speech I mentioned the question of flour. That has a material bearing on this point. It is vital to the question of shipping, and it may yet happen that for a long time the silos at the sea-board will have in them bagged flour. That, of course, is only a temporary expedient. We cannot do it in years to come.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - In years to come the silos will be used in connexion with the ordinary bulk handling of wheat ?

Mr Hughes - Yes.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - I entirely accept the Prime Minister's statement. I appreciate the fact that we cannot ask him to go further, and to give us the grounds for his assurance. If he tells us that he has looked into this, question, and has assured himself that the putting of the wheat in bulk in considerable quantities will not in any way hamper the shipping or transport of the wheat to the Old Country, I shall have nothing more to say.

Mr Hughes - That is so.

Mr Richard Foster - As to the further point that has been raised, would the honorable member for Flinders force upon the States the adopton of the bulk handling system?

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - I do not know that I altogether follow the honorable member's criticism of the Bill from that stand-point. As I read the Bill I do not think South Australia is obliged to avail herself of this scheme.

Mr Richard Foster - The Prime Minister saidshe must, or she could not have the benefit of the Pool. We are just as anxious to protect our wheat as the people of Victoria and New South Wales are.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE -Surely it will be possible to make some arrangement under which South Australia, of any State that cannot see its way at present to adopt this system, may yet provide effective facilities, although not necessarily in this form, for the protection of its wheat. The difficulty in regard to South Australia is, I understand, that there are quite a number of ports in that State to which the locally-grown wheat goes in the natural course, and that difficulties would arise if we were to compel the State Government to adopt a system under which it would be necessary to concentrate in certain directions. That is a matter concerning which the State should have a considerable voice, unless it be necessary for the purpose of preserving the wheat-

Mr Hughes - I think that the position might be set out in this way : That a State like South Australia, with a dry climate and very many ports, will obviously require a far less number of silos, if any, than will the other States; but that some terminal silos will be necessary.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - It ought not to be impossible to make a satisfactory arrangement with South Australia. It may be that a good deal of their wheat will be preserved, more, perhaps, than in the other States, and that a much smaller expenditure on silos might comply with the Government, requirements. The matters which I have ventured to bring before the House are matters which throughout the debate, have pressed themselves strongly on my mind; and I am glad to have the assurance that the main difficulty is removed. But I urge the Prime Minister to realize that this is a measure which does really involve the adoption of the principle of bulk handling. It is on that basis that the whole report has been drawn up.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Without any basis of cost and so forth, we have this Bill as a first instalment of the policy of bulk handling.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - Personally I am not prepared to take such a responsibility; but we are throwing the responsibility on the State Governments.

Mr Richard Foster - They have to find the money.

Sir WILLIAM IRVINE - They have to find the money, and if they, after mature consideration, say they are prepared to adopt this system, I shall not be at all disposed to resist the Bill, which merely affords them facilities to do so; it is their business, not ours.

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