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Wednesday, 9 November 1938

Mr WILSON (Wimmera) .- I move -

That the House do now adjourn.

I do so for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, " The perilous condition of the wheat industry and of the wheatgrowers, and of the consequent imminent danger to all sections of the Australian community, and the necessity for a vigorous, well-directed and immediate governmental policy of relief". In availing myself of this democratic privilege I should like to assure honorable members that I have no desire to delay the ordinary business of the House; but I am impelled to do so owing to the tragic position which has developed throughout a great portion of the wheat-growing areas of the Commonwealth owing to the failure of seasonal rains. The position calls for the active interest of this Parliament and of this Government, because it has been authoritatively stated in the last few days that the total Australian yield of wheat is likely to be 40,000,000 bushels less than last year. The greater portion of that decrease will be in Victoria. Notwithstanding optimistic estimates I believe that the yield in that State is more likely to be 10 million bushels than 20 million bushels as has been stated in some quarters. I suggest to the Government that the position can be met by the payment of an acreage bounty to those growers who will get little or no return, and that the money should be made available by the Treasury. The wheat-growers have had to contend not only with drought conditions but also with low prices: and the conditions this year are similar to those which obtained when the Royal Commission on the Wheat Industry conducted its investigations. Owing to the policy of procrastination adopted by the Government rural rehabilitation has been unduly delayed, and debt adjustment payments which were promised have not yet been fully made. This has necessitated State governments having to hold up this important work. I believe that the debt position of the Australian wheat-growers is not much better, if it has improved at all, than it was when the investigation was conducted by the royal commission. The position is serious in the States most affected, and the ability of the State governments to deal with the situation is limited. In my opinion and in the opinion of many others it is imperative that the Commonwealth Government should offer co-operation and financial assistance. Honorable members generally should give serious consideration to the gravity of the situation which I believe is not fully appreciated. Recently I visited wheat-growing areas in my electorate where I saw a state of affairs which can scarcely be envisaged by honorable members who have not had actual experience of the ravages of drought. I saw miles and. miles of wheat lands that have been sown from which not a grain of wheat will be harvested. In some instances a small return will bo obtained, but probably only sufficient to provide seed wheat for next season. These unfortunate growers will not have any grain to sell, and consequently will not have any income to enable them to carry on next season. Owing to the scarcity of feed, stock is being sacrificed, and as time goes on there will be further heavy losses. Barren pastures are expressive of the struggle which stock will have to survive in the grim fight with nature. Men who have painstakingly given their labour in the hope of securing some return for their work will receive little or nothing. A great majority of the settlers have just secured a final adjustment of the contracts entered into with the States closer settlement authorities. They have been given what would be considered a small equity in their properties if the conditions were normal. Many of them, believing that it might enable them to raise small loans to tide them over, have been forced to realize that there is little that is tangible in the assets which they have created. Consultation with the executives of wheat-growers' organizations have revealed that they do not desire in any way to interfere, with the proposal to establish a homeconsumption price for wheat. What is needed is a Treasury grant in the form of a bounty to be paid to those who will not have one bag of wheat to sell. Many men with wives and families to support are in need. Many of these men, with their wives and families, are in need of the barest necessaries of life. Thousands do not know how they are going to live until they may receive some return from the land, perhaps a year hence. There is another large section of wheat-growers who, normally, would be able to finance themselves over a difficult period, but now find it well-nigh impossible to finance themselves because the trading banks so seriously view the position that they are applying the most stringent financial restrictions upon their operations. In some cases, these men, fearing such a contingency, last year contemplated making use of the debt-adjustment scheme; but, heeding the counsel of the financial institutions and their other creditors and on their promise that they would be carried in the event of an emergency, they ignored the opportunity provided by the scheme to safeguard their interests. I am sorry to have to say that the promises given to them are not being honoured and that their future and, to a considerable degree, that of this valuable exporting primary industry is in jeopardy.

I do not desire to paint too gloomy a picture of the conditions that I have seen and of the difficulties which beset the farm population in my electorate, but I do wish to give honorable members some idea of the seriousness of the position. My electorate, although probably the worst sufferer, is, unfortunately, for Australia, not an isolated example. Recent information received from Western Australia indicates that an equally distressing position exists in the north-eastern wheat belt of that State. According to a statement issued by Mr. G. L. Warner, a member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, anything from 20,000 to 30,000 acres of crops will not be harvested at all-, and, unless assistance is rendered, there must be a further exodus from that portion of the State. Reports received from the wheat areas of Kew South Wales suggest that the position is almost as desperate there as it is in Western Australia. In parts of the Riverina, of course, drought has already levied its toll upon stock, and in some districts sheep have long ago been transferred to better pasture areas. I understand wheat crops have completely failed in many Riverina districts. I am, however, not entirely cognizant of the position in the Riverina, and, probably, some other honorable gentleman will be able to supplement my remarks.

A duty devolves upon this Parliament to take full cognizance of the position and to render effective aid to tide farm people over their difficulties. During the last two years, wheatgrowers, as the result of improved prices for their product and also, in my opinion, as the result of the frequent optimistic statements of the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) and other responsible Ministers to the effect that the depression was past and that the future could be looked to with confidence, launched out in increased areas and bought new modern equipment. The position of these people is indeed desperate.

First and foremost, let me say that there should be an immediate stock-taking of the farmers' debt adjustment. The Government cannot be admired for the manner in which it has handled this matter. Many warnings have been issued in this chamber regarding the Government's evasion and procrastination in dealing with debt adjustment, but those warnings have not been heeded, with the result that there has been most unfortunate delay.

I am not concerned with the arguments that have been adduced in an attempt to shift the blame from the shoulders of the Government and of this Parliament, however ludicrous they may be. What I am concerned with is an immediate acceleration of the process which creditors and debtors thought would be adopted. The failure to honour obligations in regard to debt adjustment moneys has caused many cases to be held in a state of suspense and, at the same time, caused the present position to be aggravated. I urge, therefore, that the Government take immediate steps to provide the necessary moneys to the States for the completion of the work. Even now, if the 'Government would make the promised amounts available to the .States, the State governments, possibly, could again, for a limited period; make available to embarrassed farmers the benefits of the debt adjustment legislation. I suggest that this be done.

I would remind the Prime Minister in dealing with the subject of rural difficulties of a statement which he was recently reported, to have made. If correctly reported, he said : " We as a people now have a lasting peace ". If these words can be accepted as an indication of the Government's genuine belief, it is its duty to divert some of the £43,000.000 which is thought necessary for defence, into channels which will prevent primary and secondary industry from receiving the full impact of the blow which threatens to fall because of drought conditions. Otherwise there will be recession in business with resultant unemployment. There is a disposition on the part of some honorable members to suggest that the present position should "be exclusively handled by the States. That that outlook is incongruous must be realized when it is recalled that the welfare of primary industry affects our whole national structure. lt is not a problem which should be dealt with in piece-meal fashion; otherwise, the more impoverished is a State, the greater will be its difficulty in sotting affairs right. Furthermore, there are no existing State institutions adequately equipped to deal with the situation, whereas the Commonwealth has an authority which it can use with good effect - the Commonwealth Bank. I understand that proposals are being considered at the moment for the establishment of a mortgage bank, and I suggest to the Government and the House that legislation should also be introduced for the broadening of the powers of the rural credits branch of the Commonwealth Bank. At the moment its operations are confined to the provision of moneys for collective marketing. If the powers of that branch were increased, it would be enabled to ease the pressure upon those who have reasonably good security, but who are unable to borrow. It would, by that very operation, check the disastrous policy of deflation which financial institutions are at present introducing. We are told that there are at the moment influences at work which object to the use of free money for the purpose of the establishment of a mortgage bank. It is evident that those influences are concerned not with the greater national aspects, but with the protection of the interests of the private money changers and lending institutions.

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