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Tuesday, 8 March 1932

Mr SPEAKER (Hon G H Mackay - I warn honorable members not to interject incessantly. More than ordinary latitude has been allowed in this debate, because of the importance of the subject, but the Chair will not have its calls to order ignored. I ask the honorable member for New England (Mr. Thompson) not to take notice of interjections.

Mr THOMPSON - There are 4,000 registered growers; every man who registers must be a grower, even if only in a small way. Tobacco cannot be grown without labour, and if there are 4,000 growers, there must be two or three times as many employees. In my own electorate where twelve months ago. not more than 30 or 40 men were growing tobacco, there are to-day between 700 and 800 growers. Farmers who went out of this industry have returned to it, and are employing a large number of men. One employs 40 hands. In the final stages of the crop when the labour has to be increased, and curing undertaken, a man cultivating five or ten acres will employ four or five men. Queensland representatives have assured the House that thousands of men are growing tobacco in the Mareeba district, which previously was almost uninhabited. At Ashford, near Texas, in my own electorate - which was a district practically without population two years ago - 400 men are employed in growing tobacco. There are no unemployed in the district; all the men who previously were on the dole have been absorbed. During the recent election campaign I met men who had been dismissed from the Sydney bus services, and were engaged in tobaccogrowing, in the hope of making a few pounds to give them a new start in life. Honorable members need not doubt the reliability of our evidence regarding the amount of employment which this industry affords. It is the only new industry that can furnish definite proofs that it is absorbing the unemployed; it is a rural industry, yet it is selected by the Government for its first smashing blow. The Prime Minister gave to himself a lot of kudos for the introduction of an amending tariff schedule, and indulged in the usual gibes about the Country party wanting duties reduced on all commodities that did not affect their constituents. Can the Government justify reducing by 40 per cent, the protection given to a new industry? Can he point to a similar cut iu respect of any other industry? If he believes that it is just, I invite him to apply it to the highly-protected secondary industries. I do not pretend to be a " know-all " on this' subject, as the Prime Minister suggested, but I remind the House that I was chairman of the Select Committee on the Tobacco Industry; that I have lived in a tobacco-growing district for many years ; that I have been the recognized advocate of the growers ever since I have been in this Parliament, and that for years I was president of the Australian Tobacco-Growers Association. Having had that experience I am entitled to claim some knowledge of the industry. We are told that the industry is given protection equal to 300 per cent. That is not true. If honorable members will consult the report of the select committee - not the foolish report of the Tariff Board - they will find that the manufacturers gave sworn evidence that they could pay a duty of 3s. 6d. per lb. on American tobacco and still market it at a margin of -Jd. per lb. below the Australian article. They said that the local tobacco leaf is heavier, and has a higher moisture content, and that by the time it is ready for manufac'ture, so much wastage has occurred, that they find the imported article more profitable, notwithstanding the duty. The select committee probed that astounding statement and ascertained that the wastage was due entirely to the manufacturers, for whereas American tobacco is matured for four years, the Australian article is bought from the farms and rushed into the factories. Witnesses admitted that until Australian production can be so increased that manufacturers can purchase a surplus for storage, maturing in the American manner will be impossible. A consideration of the facts disposes of the contention that the industry receives a protection of 300 per cent.

Mr Maxwell - What protection did it get under the Forde tariff?

Mr THOMPSON - When the 'duty was 3s. 6d. per lb. the manufacturers paid for the leaf only an average of ls. 6d. or ls. 9d. per lb. The growers have had no chance to test the Forde duties. This is the first season in which they have had an opportunity of marketing their product at a decent price. The action taken by the present Government has destroyed the market, and the growers are faced with a reversion to the days when manufacturers could reject a big proportion of the crops and offer" ls. 6d. or ls. 9d. per lb. for the balance.

The House has been told exaggerated stories of the profits earned in the industry. . Many growers get a crop only once in three years. More risks are associated with this industry than with any other of which I have knowledge. I am moved almost to tears when I see young Australians, not Chinamen, crawling on hands and knees about the plants to remove cut-worms, grubs, and other pests. One man had to replant twelve times- before he was able to beat the pest and obtain a crop. Growers pay £1 a thousand for tobacco plants, and they need 5,000 to the acre, so that a man might spend £20 or £30 on a farm before his plants struck, and were clear of pests. The tobacco plant is subject to attack by blue mould, the deadliest enemy of the Australian tobacco-grower. I assure honorable members that the idea of growers making tremendous profits is altogether wrong. A man may make £100 an acre this year, but for the next two or three years his earnings might not be 2s. an acre. It is because tlie average profit is so small, and the present conditions of the industry are so precarious, that our growers require a considerable margin of security. I do not accept the report of the Tariff Board in any particular, because I am satisfied that it3 procedure is wrong in principle. I have appeared before the board on three occasions, and I know that much of the sworn evidence that is given before it is untested by crossexamination, and, therefore, has little value. Many of the recommendations of the Tariff Board are based. an foundations too insecure to justify a National Parliament in forming determinations upon them which may vitally affect the interests of tens of thousands of people. 1 sincerely trust that the Government will reconsider the constitution of the board, or possibly, appoint a body that will at least make reliable and ac- curate recommendations upon which this Parliament may act.

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