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Wednesday, 9 November 1938

Mr JOHN LAWSON (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) . - Different honorable members who have addressed themselves to this matter have criticized the Government on the score, first that it has failed to provide for a home-consumption price for wheat produced within the Commonwealth, and secondly, that it has failed to make available a Treasury advance to distressed wheat-growers throughout the Commonwealth who are suffering greatly ab the result of drought losses.

In the brief time at my disposal I propose to discuss first the second criticism. 1. combat unequivocally and very strongly the principle enunciated in the proposal that the Commonwealth should accept any responsibility in respect of drought losses incurred by wheat-farmers, or any other farmers, or by graziers, wherever they may operate in this country. I suggest that there is considerable support for my attitude in the fact that no Commonwealth Government of any political complexion has ever accepted such responsibility.

Mr Paterson - That is not quite correct.

Mr JOHN LAWSON (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I make that statement subject to correction, but I believe that generally speaking it is substantially correct. In the first place, it is argued that the Commonwealth should accept responsibility in respect of drought losses incurred by wheat-farmers. The acceptance of that proposition would inevitably involve the more general acceptance of responsibility for drought losses incurred not only by wheat-farmers but also by other farmers and graziers.

Sir Frederick Stewart - Even by bus proprietors.

Mr JOHN LAWSON (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - One could continue ad libitum. One cannot enunciate a principle, and claim its acceptance, in respect of the wheat industry, unless one is also prepared to advocate its acceptance in respect of the grazing industry, the fruit-growing industry, or any other industry. The Commonwealth Government dare not put itself in that position. Every practical farmer knows that drought losses are among the inevitable contingencies associated with the conduct of agriculture or grazing. In every part of Australia, those who buy or lease land for the purpose of carrying on agriculture or stock-raising, know perfectly well that they have to consider the possibility, indeed the inevitability, of drought and its resultant losses, when deciding what price they shall pay for the land. Possible drought losses ars always reflected in the price payable for land. Again, this Government could nol put itself in the position of accepting responsibility for losses attributable more or less directly to drought, which would involve it in treating the man who cultivates his soil well in exactly the same manner as the man who cultivates it badly. As every honorable member knows, in almost every district in a fairly dry year will be found one man who has cultivated wisely, carefully and well, with the result that he has raised quite a good crop, while his next-door neighbour, who has neglected to cultivate his land, has perhaps failed to harvest any sort of a crop.

Mr Wilson - Supposing there is no vain ?

Mr JOHN LAWSON (MACQUARIE, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Government cannot treat those two men on an equal basis. It should not encourage - as it would if it accepted responsibility for losses incurred by drought in respect of wheat-growing - the production of wheat on land which, because of climatic conditions or other causes, is unsuited to its production. It is generally recognized that to-day many persons are growing wheat under unsuitable conditions, climatic and other, which make its production unprofitable. If the Government accepts responsibility for drought losses in such circumstances, it will encourage a class of agriculture and a type of settler which should not be encouraged. I there- fore submit that it cannot accept responsibility for losses incurred by wheatgrowers by reason of drought. It has a certain responsibility towards wheatgrowers and has observed that responsibility in recent years. Year by year, it Lias made grants to the weaker States,' which very largely engage in the cultivation of wheat; it is probably their main agricultural industry. It accepts certain responsibility for the effect of drought on the revenues of those States. Consequent upon the recent calamitous depression, provision was made in respect of farmers of all classes in the different States. As the Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page) has stated, up to date the Commonwealth Government has made available to the various State governments for the assistance of those farmers no less a sum than £6,317,000, and for this year it proposes to make available for debt adjustment the sum of £2,000,000. Whilst it may be possible to criticize with some modicum of justification what the Government has done in that respect, there is no denying the fact that it has made available a larger sum for debt adjustment than any other Ministry has done at any time in the history of the Commonwealth. That is something for which this Government can take considerable credit.

The Government, finally, takes responsibility in respect of a home-consumption price for wheat, because it accepts the principle that the man who grows wheat, as rauch as the man who conducts a dairy farm, or makes boots, or engages in any other form of secondary industry, is entitled to a price for his commodity that is in keeping with Australian standards of living. The Government accepts responsibility in respect of the price of wheat, because it realizes, also, that it cannot afford to let the wheat industry languish entirely, on account of the fact that it makes a substantial contribution each year to the overseas funds which this country, through its exports, is able to accumulate.

Mr SPEAKER - The honorable member has exhausted his time.

Mr. FORDE(Capricornia) [4.26"|.The object of the motion submitted by the honorable member for Wimmera (Mr.

Wilson) is to enable him to discuss a very important subject, and I compliment him upon his speech. H° has formally moved for the adjournment of the House to enable him to refer to the perilous condition of the wheat industry and of wheat-growers, and the consequent imminent danger to all sections of the Australian community, aud the necessity for a vigorous well-directed and immediate government policy of relief. The reasons (advanced for the motion are sound, and the Opposition can wholeheartedly support it. It is gravely concerned regarding the distress amongst workers through unemployment, and it is equally concerned about the distress amongst struggling primary producers throughout Australia, resulting from droughts and low prices of their commodities. The proposal of the honorable member for Wimmera is in accordance with the platform of the Australian Labour party, which provides for -

The extension of the function of the Commonwealth Bank to provide for a Rural Credit Branch for the purpose of assisting land settlement and development; the granting of relief to necessitous primary producers against the ravages of drought, fire, flood, and pests, and the establishment of a grain and fodden reserve against periods of drought.

The honorable member for Wimmera and the wheat-growers of Australia have some good ground, I think, for complaint that the present Commonwealth Government has failed to bring to fruition any concrete .plan to place the wheat industry on a sound economic basis. At the elections in 1931 and 1934, both the Country party and the United Australia party assured the farmers that they would be able to effect the desired economic stability by legislation, if returned to office; but it is quite clear from the speeches delivered this afternoon that the Government has failed to bring about these reforms, as it has failed in other instances.

We have heard from the honorable member for Macquarie (Mr. John Lawson) about the debt adjustment scheme, which, he said, was a great boon to the primary producers. At the 1934 elections, the Lyons-Page Government promised £20,000,000 to assist distressed farmers. After the elections, that sum waa reduced to £12,000,000, and, in introducing the bill in March, 1935, the Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page), who was Acting Prime Minister, said -

It is anticipated that the total amount of £12,000,000 will be disbursed within three or four years. ... It is estimated that the disbursement will amount to from £1,500,000 to £2,000,000 in the first year and probably £4,000,000 in the second year.

What has happened with regard to that money? Up to the 20th June, 1938, which is over three years since the bill was passed, only £4,000,000 had been made available to assist distressed farmers. When the wheat problem was being discussed in the House on the 21st June, 1938, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Curtin) referred to these promises, and the Treasurer (Mr. Casey) interjected and asked " Is the Leader of the Country .party the Leader of the Government?"; but I emphasize the point that the Minister for Commerce was Acting Prime Minister when he introduced the bil], and was, undoubtedly, speaking on behalf of the Government. He set out to convince us of that fact. The honorable member for Riverina (Mr. Nock) also interjected with the remark " The farmers could have had £3,S00,000 last year, but preferred only £2,000,000." I found, on investigation, that that statement was not only absurd, but also incorrect. Communications were sent to the Premiers of Victoria and Western Australia drawing attention to the statement, and I now quote extracts from the replies which have been received from them. The Premier of Victoria, who is associated with the Country party, wrote as follows: -

I cannot understand the statement of Mr. Nock that " the farmers could have had £3,800.000 last year but preferred only £2,000,000." As a matter of fact, Victoria at the last meeting of the Loan Council applied to the Commonwealth Government for £1,200,000 and only received £500,000. The settlement of a large number of cases is being held up on account of the Commonwealth Government not meeting its obligations and creditors' and farmers' interests are both being adversely affected. So far as Victoria is concerned, it has always been understood that an allocation of £3,000*000 over a period of three years was to be made. The amounts subse quently applied for by Victoria and those granted are shown hereunder: -

That, I think, clearly shows the position as far as Victoria is concerned. The responsibility must rest with the Commonwealth Government for not carrying out its pledges in regard to finding £12,000,000 under the debt adjustment scheme within the period of three or four years. The Premier of Western Australia was also asked for his comment on the statement of the honorable member for Riverina, and he replied as follows: -

I received your letter of the 22nd June regarding the farmers' debt adjustment scheme. The interjection that " the farmers could have had £3,800,000 last year but preferred only £2,000,000" ls very far from correct. The position for the last three years is as follows: -

This indicates that each year the States have desired to employ a far greater sum for this purpose than has been available.

He pointed out the difficulties that confronted him and the other State Premiers in giving the relief which they would like to give. I thought it wise to put these facts on record.

Mr Thompson - But they are not facts.

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