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Friday, 12 July 1946

Mr SMITH (Wakefield) . - I support the bill, and I agree with the Minister (Mr. Scully) that the wheat industry, over the "years, has been a troubled one. I also agree that, a few years ago, prices for wheat were so low that growers could not obtain a reasonable return for their labour. I am pleased that it was not necessary for the growers to bring pressure upon the Government to introduce this stabilization measure. It was introduced willingly and expeditiously by the Government, whose attitude in this respectwas in marked contrast with that of previous governments. The representatives of the wheat-growers have practically beaten a track to Parliament in the course of their unsuccessful attempts to induce previous governments to sponsor legislation which would ensure them justice. In fact, the growers had practically to threaten to use artillery in order to get even the smallest consideration from antiLabour governments.

I am pleased that the stabilization plan is to remain in force for five years, and that provision is to be made to extend it for a further period if desired. The bill was introduced by the Government at the request of the wheat-growers, expressed through the Australian Wheat Growers Federation. Similar requests have been made repeatedly in the past, and there can be no doubt that the growers wish their industry, to be released from the clutches of .the wheat merchants and speculators who have always controlled it, except for brief periods during the two wars. The growers have a deep-seated fear of returning to the haphazard methods which obtained under the open-market system. The wheat speculators bought when prices were low, as they usually are at the beginning of the harvest, and sold later in the year when prices rose temporarily. The speculators were known as. men who farmed the farmers. For years their political tactics were to divide the farmers by suggesting to them that under organized marketing they would lose their freedom. It is only necessary to compare the fine homes ' and luxurious business premises of the wheat merchants in the capital cities with the living conditions of the farmers in order to see who has bad the better of the deal under the system of open marketing. Through their organizations, the farmers learned that the freedom with which the merchants were concerned was not the freedom of the farmers, but freedom for themselves to gamble in the people's food. The farmers are now organized, and have for some years been anxious for the institution of a system of orderly marketing on a Commonwealth-wide basis. This bill gives effect to their wishes, and the industry is to be stabilized for a period of five years. In this way the Government is giving to the growers that to which they are justly entitled. The Government, by this arrangement, is seeking to put a floor into the wheat market. Ministers know that it is easier to arrest the fall of wheat prices than to wait until they .have fallen, and then try to raise them again.

The plan, as I have said, operates for five years, and not for one year. The minimum guarantee is 5s. 2d. a bushel, f.o.r. ports, for every bushel of wheat which the grower markets. In this respect there is a marked contrast between what the present 'Government has done and what has been done by previous ministries. It will be remembered that, in the war-time plan introduced by the last Government, provision was made for its guaranteed minimum price to apply only to 140,000,000 bushels of marketable wheat. Of the 1941-42 crop, the wheat marketed exceeded that figure by 13,000,000 bushels, and growers, on delivery of their wheat, did not receive one penny in the form of an advance. This happening, I understand, gave rise to the idea that the party led by the -Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Menzies) should call itself a "Liberal party". It is a striking commentary on the hypocrisy of those who sponsored and supported that action that they are now critical of what, by comparison, might be called the liberal provisions of this measure. It ' is also striking that members of the Opposition, who were responsible for confining the representation of wheat-growers on the first Australian Wheat Board to two members, should now question the undoubted goodwill which the present Government has shown to the wheat industry. Its goodwill is proved by the fact that seven out of nine of the members of the Australian Wheat Board are the elected representatives of growers, and that the chairman, in addition, is a wheat-grower, one of the foundation members of the wheat-growers' organization, and the first president of the Australian Wheat Growers Federation.

The present Government was responsible, shortly after it came to office, for suspending from operation those clauses of the war-time wheat stabilization scheme which provided _ that growers should contribute to an equalization fund 50 per cent, of the price by which export returns exceeded 3s. lOd. a bushel f.o.b. In that action the Government made it possible for wheat-growers to obtain added returns from the Nos. 6, 7 and 8 wheat pools, from which the returns to growers exceeded 3s. lOd. a bushel f.o.b. These are not the things, of course, which we expect to learn from honorable members on the Opposition benches. They are the things which indicate where the real friends of the wheat-grower in this House are located. The real test . of sincerity, so far as the attitude of the Opposition on this measure is concerned, lies in what it did when it had power iri this Parliament, and not in what it proposes should be done now that it has been relegated to the cold shades of Opposition.

In the Australian Country party corner, we. have a body of men who are now considerably fewer in numbers, it is true, than they were in the last and previous parliaments. These men were elected to Parliament because they attacked the members of the renamed United Australia party whom they charged with having neglected the best interests of the wheat-growers and other sections of primary producers. Their parliamentary mission, they claimed, was to assure the emancipation of wheatgrowers and others who were being crushed by food speculators represented by the predecessors of the present Liberal party. In the twenty years in which the Australian Country party has had representation in this Parliament, it has been associated with composite ministries most of the time. After twenty years, it would be compelled, by the known facts, to admit that wheatgrowers and others were in a worse position financially .than they were when Australian Country party members first darkened the doors of the Commonwealth and State parliaments. Wheat-growers in particular know that only too well, and they are not being misled by the fictitious promises and election concoctions of Australian Country party representatives in this House.

When the Government first sponsored this plan, at the request of the Australian Wheat Growers Federation, it named the price of 4s. 8d. a bushel f.o.b. The Wheat Growers Federation met in December last, and asked for 5s. 2d. a bushel f.o.r. ports, equal to 5s. 2 3/4d. a bushel f.o.b., or 6 3/4d. a bushel more than the price the Government had named. The Government immediately agreed to this, but suggested that the contribution to the stabilization fund should be 60 per cent, of the excess price over 5s. 2d. a bushel f.o.r. ports for export wheat. The federation did not agree to the 60 per cent, proposal, and asked the Government to provide for the payment of 50 per cent, to growers and 50 per cent, to the stabilization fund. The Government, after consideration, agreed to this proposal. The federation has asked for an increase of the price of wheat for local consumption fixed in 1938 by joint action of the States and the Commonwealth. Action to alter that agreement, of course, can be taken only by amending existing legislation. The federation apparently considers that 5s. 2d. a bushel for wheat consumed locally is below production costs. It apparently recognized, however, that production costs have yet to be determined, and thai, there are no tabulated data or price index to support the claim.

Mr McEwen - The honorable member for .Forrest said that they could not be obtained.

Mr SMITH - He made a good speech in support of the primary producers, and I am afraid that the Opposition will not be able to present so good a case. His statements were irrefutable, and the farmers will not be misled by any sweet nothings which the Opposition may promise. At a recent conference, the federation asked the Minister for Commerce and Agriculture that a commission of inquiry to investigate costs should be . appointed by the Government. The Minister promised that the request would be the subject of a recommendation that he would make to the Government. In the House this week, he also promised, in reply to a question, that he would recommend that the .Australian Wheat Growers Federation should have direct representation on such a. cornmission, if one were appointed. It is obvious from the facts which I have mentioned that the Government has met over 90 per cent, of the requests which growers' representatives have made.

The provision of a stabilization plan for . the wheat industry is not a matter which should interest wheat-growers alone. It is indeed a matter of great national importance, in that primary industries are Australia's key industries, and that a rise or fall of the price of primary products has a definite affect upon our economic structure. There, is, undoubtedly, a close relationship between price levels for -primary products and the volume of employment or unemployment which exists throughout the community: When prices for primary products fall, the effects are- first felt by the. farmer, and after him by country business people and country workers. The effects are next felt in our secondary industries. The loss of the farmers' purchasing power results in lessening his demands for secondary goods, and so unemployment follows in considerable volume in capital cities. It is, therefore, as I have stated,, a matter of national urgency that we should prevent, a return to unpayable pre-war prices lor wheat and other primary products. This measure aims to stabilize the wheat industry and the principles embodied in it are of vital concern to every section of the community. In the past, prices for farm products, including wheat, have been so low that farmers have been compelled to rely on unpaid family labour or causal- itinerant labour, for which they were compelled to pay lower wages than they wished. I remember quite well the old bygone days when we frequently met on the road the old -sundowner, renowned in song and story, who carried his swag from one town to another between harvests. We must never witness that spectacle again. The wheat-farmer must be placed on a basis which will enable him to pay reasonable wages to his employees. Since the price of wheat has been stabilized it has been possible to apply an award fixing the wages and conditions of harvest workers, and from my own knowledge, wheat-growers invariably paid award rates with pleasure. Their claim on the community generally and on this Parliament is that they should be assured a minimum reward commensurate with their services to the community. They have to take their chance with the elements over which they have no control. That, surely, is a sufficient hazard. They are entitled to' a return which will enable them to meet their liabilities and at the same time enjoy a reasonable standard of comfort. These statements may not be regarded as original. It is true that they have been uttered previously; and it is also true that they have been uttered by members of the Australian Country party, and at times, by members of the Liberal party, but there is some virtue, however, in their utterance from this side of the House in that immediately this Government assumed office it commenced a programme for the rehabilitation of the wheat industry in the form of increased minimum guarantees. There is no doubt that the days in which a Commonwealth government could offer insult to the wheat-growers of Australia by giving them a first advance of 2s. 6d. a bushel at sidings have ended. It is clear that if the votes of wheat-growers count for anything, future governments which attempt to reduce the price of wheat below 4s. a bushel at country sidings will not remain long in office. It is- also clear, that in the measure now before us the Government is wisely laying down a structure for peace-time marketing of Australia's wheat. Apart from spasmodic action during the two world wars, when wheat merchants were unable to finance the industry, and government assistance had to be provided, wheatgrowers in -the past have been totally unable to make any advance towards obtaining an organized marketing scheme for their product. Now, for the first time in history, apart from those emergency war periods, wheat-growers may hope for organized marketing which will ensure their future prosperity. The Government has not only sponsored the plan; it. has also done everything possible to secure the willing and wholehearted cooperation of the States in its implementation. A great deal of preliminary work has been necessary in order to carry the plan to its present stage, and if the measure is wrecked, as some members opposite appear to hope, all that preliminary work will be lost and will have to be recommenced later. Those who attack the measure therefore place themselves in the position of gambling with the future of a great industry and with the financial stability of every individual engaged in it. I trust that their efforts will not bc successful. If this plan to Stabilize the wheat industry is not placed upon the statute-book it will at least not be because of lack of support on the part of members of the Australian Labour party. Not only do honorable members on this side of the. House fully support the bill, but they are also assured of the support of the representatives of Labour in the State parliaments. Mr. C. T. Chapman, president of the South Australian Wheat Growers Association, a practical farmer and a firm supporter of the Government's stabilization scheme, in. an article in the South Australian Wheatgrower of the 22nd June - gave cogent facts and figures to justify his support of the Government's proposal. I shall not quote the whole of his. statement but I draw the attention of honorable members particularly to this passage -

I say . deliberately as .a genuine wheat grower who has kept proper books over the last 24 years, and costed for a number of those years, that this plan,- even as proposed, is a much better proposition than those of the past years and it definitely gives some measure of security to the industry.

Mr. Chapmancontinued ;

Get your legislation enacted while the oppor.tunity exists. History proves that once measures like this are rejected it is many years before ever the opportunity present? itself again. "

The wheat-growers of Australia can and will build real security as the result of this stabilization plan which, according to Mr. Chapman's calculations, would have saved his firm more than ?14,000 had it been in operation during the period 1922-23 to 1942-43. Knowing the conditions under which so many wheat-growers lost their farms I advise them not to be misled by the carping criticism of those who are not so much opposed to the bill as they are anxious to get Labour out of office at all .costs. I listened with a great deal of interest' to the speech on this subject delivered by the Leader of the Opposition last night. The right honorable gentleman freely interlarded his remarks with the usual platitudes, but offered not one constructive suggestion whereby the lot of the wheat-growers could be improved. As usual, he merely played with words. It was obvious that he was anxious that this plan should be postponed. The theme of his speech from beginning to end was procrastination. I learned in my youth that procrastination is the thief of time. If the wheat-growers and primary producers do not take time by the' forelock and support the Government's scheme embodied in this measure they will seriously retard the industry.' I support the measure.

Debate (on motion by Mr. McEwen) adjourned.

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