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Friday, 7 May 1920

Mr SPEAKER (Hon W Elliot Johnson (LANG, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I must ask the honorable member for Wannon (Mr. Rodgers) to continue his speech without any personal reference to other honorable members.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - I shall put the matter in another way. Throughout his election campaign, the honorable member for Echuca, whenever he addressed a body of farmers, let fall not one generous word with regard to the attitude of the Prime Minister so far as the wheat-growers or other producers in the country are concerned.

Mr JAMES PAGE (MARANOA, QUEENSLAND) - What generous words fell from any members of the Country party about the Prime Minister?

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - I claim to be personally quite as much interested in the wheat-growers as is the honorable member for Echuca, and I hope that I can present a case to counteract views that have been laid before the House this morning. The honorable member for Echuca charges the Prime Minister with being personally responsible for a loss of millions of money to the wheat-growers; but we are all wise after the event. The honorable member for Echuca, himself, is party to an agreement under which to-day Australian growers are losing 4s. a bushel.

Mr Hill - Prove it.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - The honorable member is a member of the Board--

Mr Hill - The sale was made without the approval of the Board; it was a fortnight or more before we knew the conditions of sale.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - The honorable member and I are talking of two totally different matters. I am referring to the sale approved by the Board of wheat for home consumption at 7s. 8d., when the world's parity is at least 12s. 6d.

Mr Hill - Ask the Prime Minister what it would have been sold at if he had had his way.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Here is a contract for a specific quantity of 500,000 tons, and then for another 500,000 tons, made by the Prime Minister at a time when it was almost impossible to sell wheat. But when the world requires wheat, the honorable member for Echuca takes part in selling it at 7s. 8d. per bushel, although the world's parity is at least 12s. 6d. at any port.

The honorable member himself isin exactly the same position as that into which he is trying to put the Prime Minister in regard to the previous sale.

Mr Hill - I am not; one contract is for the sale in Australia, and the other for sale to the world.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - I am told that the Prime Minister did no such thing as block the sale referred to.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - I propose to leave the Prime Minister to deal with the statements made by the honorable member for Echuca.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Navy) - There is no truth in the statement that the Prime Minister blocked that sale.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - However that may be, it is for the Prime Minister to deal with the matter. But it shows the unwisdom of criticising, in the light of present prices, a contract made many months ago. Honorable members will recall the negotiations and the pressure brought to bear to sell Australian wheat prior to that stage, and they will remember that no market could be secured. Then came the announcement of the sale at 5s. 6d. per bushel. In the light of the information afforded to me as a wheat-grower, I, personally, considered it at the time an excellent sale; it was a tremendous relief to the country. What are the proposals in connexion with the handling and sale of our coming harvest? There was one for the compulsory establishment of a wheat pool among the farmers themselves. Every grower was to be compelled to place his wheat into a pool, and the commodity was to be controlled and sold under a compulsory pooling system.

Mr Hill - We asked that the farmers should be given a chance to voluntarily place their wheat into a pool.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - It was to be "voluntarily" put into a compulsory pool. To-day's debate should convince the hard-headed farmer that the sooner he gets rid of all pools, so far as his wheat is concerned, the better.

Honorable members continually interjecting,

Mr SPEAKER (Hon W Elliot Johnson - Will the honorable member please resume his seat? I ask honorable members to observe the Standing Orders. It is almost impossible for an honorable member to make a speech, at present, without being continually interrupted, even to the extent of several speeches being conducted simultaneously. Ordinary debate is impossible under those conditions, and I ask honorable members, therefore, to observe the rules governing procedure in this Chamber, and to allow honorable members who may be addressing the Chair the opportunity to do so without such constant and persistent interruption.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - I was hopeful this morning that the discussion would have been concentrated upon the best methods for handling our wheat in future. The debate has degenerated, however, into a rancorous attack upon the Prime Minister.

Mr Gabb - The honorable member's speech itself began in that strain.

Other honorable members interjecting ,

Mr SPEAKER -Order! I have made an appeal to honorable members, and I must now utter the warning that if occasion again arises it may be necessary for me to take more drastic steps to enforce order in debate. I shall be compelled to name honorable members if they continue to disregard' the direction of the Chair.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Every wheat-grower to-day recognises the value of the pooling system during the war period. It was, first of all, an absolute necessity, the benefits derived from which cannot be exaggerated. There is not a more independent body of men in the world than the Australian farmers. Their very environment, the very necessity for carving out their own career, makes them so. Australian farmers are not the men to be forced into a compulsory pool and subjected to a uniform set of conditions. The custom of the wheat-grower in the old-established districts was to sell a section of his grain, to store a section, and, sometimes privately, to ship a section. It was his endeavour to meet the market at different points, and always, of course, most advantageously to himself. In the older-settled areas, where farmers were in better circumstances than in the newer Mallee areas, for example, the practice which I have indicated was common. They built their own barns for storage.

Mr Stewart - The general policy, so far as I have known it, was to sell and pay your debts as quickly as you could.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - The honorable member has spent most of his time as a wheatgrower in the newer provinces. Conditions in the Mallee are not as stable, probably, as in the older districts. The farmer is a type of individual who wants to manage hi3 own affairs. The sooner we can wind up the war organization which controlled our wheat the better. In this chamber to-day a member of the Board himself, the honorable member for Echuca (Mr. Hill), Kas indicted another member of the Board concerning sales and conditions. The honorable member concerned must surely feel some responsibility in the matter of the price which the Australian farmer is getting to-day and will be getting for the whole of this year. I refer to the fact of sales being made at 7s. Sd. for home consumption when wheat to-day is worth 16s. per bushel, and when, at the seaboard, it is worth 12s. 6d. f.o.b. - which is the world's parity. The honorable member must accept a share of responsibility for the basis of sale being fixed at 7s. Sd. per bushel. I do not intend to enter into a political controversy concerning whether what was done was right or wrong ; but I emphasize that the honorable member for Echuca has charged the Prime Minister concerning the circumstances of a sale made under war conditions when, at the same time, he himself is a party to a sale of Australian wheat at 7s. Sd. for home consumption when the world's parity is 12s. 6d. It all clearly shows that it is better to let the farmer manage his own business.

Mr Considine - Tb- honorable member is trying to show that the farmers do not know their own business.

Mr RODGERS (WANNON, VICTORIA) - But they do; and I am not trying to show the contrary. The farmers want to get back to pre-war conditions, and to manage their own affairs. It has been said that the decline in production of wheat is due to failure on the part of the Prime Minister, or of this Government, to make generous provision for wheat-growing. The States are primarily interested in this matter. Policy in regard to stimulation of wheat-growing is a State matter. The Minister for Agriculture in Victoria is taking a lively interest in the project, and is conducting a "gr-w more wheat" campaign. If one enters into conversation with any farmer and asks why he has steadily reduced his area of wheat under cultivation, and has taken on stock-raising, his answer invariably would be, " I saw millions of tons of wheat being piled up in Australia and subjected to the ravages of mice and weevil ; and I saw no ships coming to transport our wheat to the other side of the world. Nobody could say when we were likely to sell our produce. I had no option, therefore, but to go in for more stock and less wheat. It appeared to be the only safe course." It was the uncertainty concerning the future which led the farmer into raising more stock at the expense of wheat-growing. It is unfair to say that the Prime Minister, or this Government, is responsible for the diminunition of our wheat-growing areas; for that is not so. It is ungenerous to try to heap the responsibility on the shoulders of one man. I hope, nevertheless, that the Prime Minister will afford this House a very early opportunity to discuss and settle the whole business. The basis on which we are to handle our coming harvest ought to be known now, and the sooner it is made known the better for everybody. The Commonwealth has joined with State Governments in giving a guarantee covering next harvest; but the farmers can well relieve all the Governments concerned from responsibility in connexion with that guarantee. They can sell the whole of their wheat and get the whole of their money at once. I consider that at the pace at which shipbuilding is now proceeding it would be wise to terminate the Wheat Pool, so that farmers may return to the old methods and manage their own business.

Mr SPEAKER - The honorable member's time has expired.

Honorable Members. - Minister ! Minister !

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