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Friday, 2 December 1938

Mr CURTIN (Fremantle) .- The Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Pago) has just given us a demonstration of flexibility of mind which I can only regard as indicative of utter recklessness in dealing with this subject. We were informed that the original proposals of this bill were in strict accordance with an agreement made by Commonwealth and State Ministers. The Labour party favoured certain clauses of the bill but resisted the provision that the money required for the fixing of a homeconsumption price for wheat should be raised by a flour tax. Wo did not contest the principle that the wheat-farmers were entitled to a reasonable price for their wheat, and we accepted the figure that was suggested. We said, however, that the debt structure of the farming community, and also the problems associated with uneconomic areas and seasonal adversity, should be detached from the proposal to fix a homeconsumption price for wheat. The bill originally provided that for the next four years after the first year an amount of £500,000 should be withdrawn from the proceeds of the flour tax and used to transfer certain farmers from uneconomic areas. It seems to me. as I said in the course of the general debate on the measure, that the decisions of the final conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers to bring in seasonal adversity were the result of afterthoughts. Apparently, the amendment which was inserted in the bill last night in the Senate, with the co-operation of the Government, was also an afterthought. Consequently a duty rests upon this committee to do its utmost to ensure that the amount of £500,000 to be withdrawn from the proceeds of the tax shall be justly used as between the several States. If the amendment of the Senate is accepted the settlement of the problem will rest with the Commonwealth and State Ministers who administer the scheme during the next four years. Personally I shall be staggered if this legislation is not amended before the expiry of the four-year period. I sincerely hope that it will be amended. The Senate proposal means that this year some States will contribute more to one State in respect of seasonal relief than they will themselves receive, and one State will make a contribution to this object knowing full well that it is never likely to receive anything itself in respect of the transference of farmers from uneconomic areas, and probably very little in respect of seasonal adversity. I think that in the earlier discussion this morning we said it would be unfair if, in two years' time, a State which now has no seasonal adversities should experience seasonal adversity and be unable to get relief out of the £500,000, which is the limit set out in the bill at present, even though it had contributed to an allocation which provided £200,000 for one State and £100,000 for each of three other States. I feel that, having regard to the inevitable seasonal character of this industry, if the provision is applicable this year, it should be repeated for each of the five years contemplated by the bill in regard to this £500,000. I am convinced that in each of the wheat-growing States that have not suffered seasonal adversity this year, there will be areas which will suffer adversity in each of the next four years. I know Western Australia fairly well - I do not think anybody can speak of Australia in terms of complete confidence - and so large is the area -cultivated for wheat in that State that it is almost inevitable that some patches of it will experience seasonal adversity each year. The same, I think, is true in respect of South Australia and some danger spots in Victoria, particularly in the Mallee and portions of the Western Riverina, which cannot be described as uneconomic areas, but which, because of periodical unreliability of rainfall in the growing period, having regard to the wide stretch of land cultivated for wheat, are certain to experience seasons of adversity.

Mr Holt - The honorable member advocates a perpetual handout in each State?

Mr CURTIN - The reference to a perpetual handout seems to he a jibe to cover up the failure to display a rational and fair contemplation of the needs of the industry. The whole thing could be described as the honorable member describes it, but I refuse to do so. I think that seasonal adversity is an inherent probability for the wheat industry in Australia.

Mr Blain - Where wheat is grown droughts are experienced.

Mr CURTIN - That is so, and not. always in the same area. If droughts occurred always in the same area, it would come within the category of an uneconomic area. I do not like the use of this £500,000 for either seasonal adversity or treatment of uneconomic areas, but the Howe has accepted the principle. As I have said, it is far fairer to leave the allocation of the whole of the £500,000 to agreement between the State and Federal Ministers, having regard to the circumstances of the year, as is contemplated in the Senate's amendment, than to restrict, their discussion to onethird of that limit. I feel that, even during the next five years at any rate, the restriction to one-third would leave a sum inadequate to deal with seasonal adversity, and would mean that we were doing a stupid thing. We would be using the money to deal with uneconomic areas which can never be properly dealt with, while we should de at the same time jeopardizing the capacity of the good farmer to continue the farming of good areas.

Mr Hutchinson - Is not drought relief a State problem?

Mr CURTIN - Yes, and so. also' is removal from uneconomic areas.

Mr Hutchinson - That is a national problem.

Mr CURTIN - The honorable member now asks me to go back to my original objection to the whole provision of this £500,000. I hope I am not so narrow-minded as to fight vainly for things which have already been determined. The House has agreed that £500,000 shall be used this year for seasonal adversity and in the four following years for the treatment of farmers on uneconomical areas. The Senate, however, has said that that decision may be unfair, in that a State with no seasonal adversity this year may experience seasonal adversity two years from now, and that having contributed to the alleviation of seasonal adversity in another State this year, it should not be debarred from receiving assistance if it so happens that it suffers seasonal adversity two years from now. I agree with the Senate.

Mr Holt - Why limit the time to five years ?

Mr CURTIN - Because I believe that five years is long enough for any legislation to remain on the statute-book. This is by no means the last bill which will come before this chamber to deal with the wheat industry.

I object to the Minister for Commerce changing his mind so frequently in connexion with this matter. Earlier to-day he indicated that he had accepted the amendment made by the Senate last night. He regarded it, as a fair one and he justified it in this chamber only two or three hours ago. Now, however because there is a certain amount of disputation from his own side of the chamber, as well as from this side, he is not concerned about the merits of the amendment; all he wants is to get it through. I am equally anxious to get it through and I shall vote for its acceptance; but I shall vote against the proposed addition.

SirEarle Page. - I am trying to get something fair for Queensland.

Mr CURTIN - And I want something fair for the other States. This year it is proposed to provide £200,000 for Victoria and only £100,000 for New South Wales. Next year, New South Wales may have a much wider area of seasonal adversity and Victoria may experience no seasonal adversity at all.

Sir Earle Page - The other States are satisfied with the treatment of Victoria which has so many farmers affected by seasonal adversity. Queensland, this year, fortunately has enjoyed a good season.

Mr.CURTIN.- That may be so, but I am not satisfied. I believe that when the August conference dispersed there was no intention to use the money from excise for seasonal adversity. It was because of the recognition of the widespread character of the adverse season that the Premiers realized the problem was more than a problem of price, and they were concerned about the problem of the farmer who had no wheat at all. It was obvious that something would have to be done to enable some farmers to cultivate next year's crop. If that discovery was made this year betweenAugust, and November, is it not conceivable that a similar discovery may be made next year, or the year after that. I put it to the farmers' representatives in this committee that the treatment of the uneconomic areas is a treatment of a problem which began years ago and will continue for some years in Australia, whereas seasonal adversity, particularly when it overtakes good farmers farming good land, is a problem which has no relation toprice. There is a certain unfairness in giving a farmer who is fortunate enough to have a crop a bounty and not to make provision for the farmer cultivating good land who has no crop. I believe that the best way to deal with this problem is in accordance with the provision made by the Senate, which leaves the matter to be determined as between the State Ministers and the Commonwealth Minister administering this legislation. For that reason, I shall vote for the Senate's amendment and against any proposal to alter it.

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