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Tuesday, 16 July 1946

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON (Barker) . - This bill represents another step in the long and chequered history of the wheat industry in Australia. This afternoon we heard a statement delivered with great clarity and some force by the honorable member for Ballarat (Mr. Pollard) ; but nowhere in the whole of his speech did he offer either praise or criticism of the bill. Within the lifetime of almost every member of this House, and certainly within the recollection of all those connected with the wheat industry, great changes have taken place in its organization, in marketing methods and in the degree and nature of government interference with the industry.

Let us go back to the period immediately before the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. At that time, there was no talk of pools or of government interference. The grower could select his land anywhere he liked, and on it he sowed whatever area of wheat he liked. The only market was the open market. During the first world war the farmers, for the first time, found themselves * obliged by law to surrender to the Government all the wheat they grew. The wheat was put into pools, which Were managed indifferently. Not so much was known then as now about the control of weevils and mice, with the result that losses of wheat were very heavy, and the resulting political bitterness had its repercussions in the Commonwealth Parliament. Immediately after the conclusion of the first world war, a great battle' took place as to whether the system of compulsory pooling should continue, whether there should be a voluntary pool, or whether the system of open marketing should be restored. Those engaged in the industry were still debating these propositions up to the time of the disastrous drought of 1927-29. Then,' in 1930, when the season was good and crops were abundant, there came the price crash due to the depression. It was then that the industry entered a new phase of political development, a phase through which we are still passing, and of which this bill is the culmination. The growers, through no fault of their own, but because of low prices, were not able to meet their commitments. Many became insolvent and had to go off their farms. The Chief Secretary in the Hill Labour Government in South Australia, who was in office at the same time as the honorable member for Ballarat was a Minister in Victoria, visited Jamestown, in the north of the State, and told the farmers that the only remedy for them was to go through the bankruptcy court.

Mr Pollard - He had a Tory Legislative Council to contend with.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - He was himself a member of the Legislative Council, and the Government had a large majority. When the price of wheat fell, a royal commission was appointed by the Lyons Government, and it brought in a voluminous report and made numerous recommendations; but, as often happens in such cases, nothing much was done about' it. The fortunes of the wheat industry change from year to year, and what might be a good remedy in 1935 might have no application at all in, 1936 or 1937 by the time the Government applies the remedy. As the honorable member for Ballarat remarked, the year 1930 was notable for an attempt by the Scullin Government to do something for the benefit of the wheat industry, but the honorable member did not tell the whole story. He told only that part which was of use for the purpose of Labour propaganda. The, fly in the ointment was that the proposal of the Scullin Government to guarantee a price of 4s. a bushel for wheat, a proposal which the Senate rejected on the deciding vote of the late Senator E. B. Johnston, provided that each State government should bear half the cost of putting the scheme into effect. The Commonwealth Government was itself virtually insolvent at that time, so it imagined that the various State governments were in an even worse position. In particular, the Governments of South Australia and Western Australia, with their small populations and large wheat production, were in a worse position than New South Wales and Victoria. The honorable member for Ballarat referred to an interview with the late Sir Robert Gibson, and to the fact that Sir Robert declared that he would not lend money to the Government of New South Wales led by Mr. Lang. If the honorable member had been a director of the Commonwealth Bank at that time, would he have lent money to Mr. Lang?

Mr Pollard - On a sound proposition, yes.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - I should like the honorable member to say whether he would regard any of the propositions which Mr. Lang put forward at that time as sound. It was also proposed to stabilize the industry, to provide for debt adjustment, and to fix a home-consumption price for wheat. To listen to some honorable members opposite one might be excused for believing that no government other than the present one, had ever attempted to do anything for the wheat industry. When the flour tax legislation was first before Parliament, the Labour party voted solidly against it. Later, indeed, a Labour government abolished the tax. Then the war came, and a government of which I was not a member found it necessary to adopt measures to control the agricultural assets of Australia, in our own interests, and in those of the United Kingdom. It was stated this afternoon that a very "low price was paid for wheat stocks then on hand in Australia, and it has been suggested that the reason for not paying more, in accordance with the recommendations of Judge Payne, was that the wheat was held by merchants and speculators, and not by the farmers. I put it to honorable members opposite that "they cannot stand on two different grounds. Either the wheat was owned by the growers and the Menzies Government did an injustice to them, or the present Government did an injustice to them when it refused to carry into effect the recommendations of Judge Payne who investigated this important matter. The honorable member for Forrest (Mr. Lemmon) had something to say about the position of the wheat industry in this country in .1940. From March until October of that year, I was a member of the Menzies Ministry, and also, at that time, a member of the Australian Country party. The honorable member for Forrest referred to certain statements that I made atKatanning in Western Australia. His recollection is quite correct and is borne out by the fact that after the elections of 1940, my last ministerial act was to preside at a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers in Melbourne, at which the State Premiers and representatives of the Australian Wheat Growers Federation agreed that my offer of 3s. 4d. a bushel at sidings for a crop of 140,000,000 bushels was good.

Mr Pollard - Mr. Dunstan was Premier of Victoria at that time.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - Yes, and both Mr. Dunstan and Mr. Hogan were present at the conference. I have never been able to find out why that proposal was never given effect. Shortly afterwards I left the Government, and an entirely different scheme was introduced. The honorable member for Forrest said that we went to the country without a wheat policy.

Mr Lemmon - No. I said that the honorable member had promised that he would endeavour to have his scheme introduced, but that was not done and he left the ministry shortly afterwards.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - That is quite true. We did go to the country without a wheat policy and as a result the honorable member for Wannon (Mr. McLeod), the honorable member for Calare (Mr. Breen) and the honorable member for Riverina (Mr. Langtry) were elected to this Parliament. A booklet written by Mr. Allan Holt, published recently in Victoria with the assistance of the Ministry of Post-war Reconstruction includes an interesting quotation from Socrates that should be taken to heart by my friends opposite, and by every man who aspires to Commonwealth politics - " Nobody is qualified to become a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the problems of wheat." The problems of this industry cannot be solved by political discussions. They can be solved only by long-range action and I hope that the bill now before the House will be amended to give effect to some of the ambitions and aspirations that the Opposition parties have in common on this matter, and I hope, will have in common for some time to come.

The honorable member for Ballarat also criticized the method of administering the 1941 wheat crop of 153,000,000 bushels. He was referring to the extra 13,000,000 bushels above the quota of 140,000,000 bushels. If his criticism be well-founded, I ask him what must be his position in respect of crops handled under the Scully plan, where 30 per cent. of the growers produced 70 per cent. of the wheat, and received half the price that was guaranteed to 70 per cent. of the growers who produced 30 per cent. of the wheat? If ever an unjust plan was introduced into this Parliament, it was that one. I take the minds of honorable members opposite back to what they themselves advocated in 1940. In his policy speech, the late Prime Minister, Mr. Curtin, stated- .

Reconstitution of the Australian Wheat Board, so as to provide for the growers electing their own representatives, will be our first major act in dealing with the wheat industry.

Our policy provides for -

(1)   3s. 101/2d. f.o.r. at ports for the first 1,000 bags (3,000 bushels).

(2)   When there is an increase in the price of wheat above 3s.101/2d., half of the increase in regard to the guaranteed wheat to be set aside to enable the pool to repay the advances made to it and to build up a reserve fund, and the other half to be paid to the growers.

This would mean that should the world price for wheat reach, say, 4s. 101/2d. a bushel, 6d. would go to the grower and the other6d. would be retained by the pool for the purposes enumerated.

In order to protect the consumer, millers would pay a special price of 4s. a bushel, irrespective of any increase or decrease in world price, thus ensuring that the public will be able to get bread at a reasonable price. This plan makes the flour tax unnecessary and it will, therefore, disappear.

Mr Pollard - Our achievements are more important than our statements.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - I would be interested to know of the achievements. I was interested also to learn of the criticism by a high official of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture of

Labour's plan as propounded by its then leader. His comments were these -

(i)   3s. 10M. f.o.r. ports for first 3,000 bushels. - This is the principle of the Robertson Plan.

(   ii ) 50 per cent of increased price to grower and 50 per cent, to a reserve. - This is copied from the Commonwealth Government's plan of August 1939. It is also a principle of the Wilson-Uppill Plan.

(iii)   Home-consumption price 4s. - This is presumably a means of raising part of the fund to meet the guarantee under (i). It is apparently a home-consumption price to the consumer.

(iv)   Flour tax unnecessary. - This is so only while the National Security Act makes it possible to have a pool. In peace-time, the Hour tax is necessary for the above scheme unless the Constitution is amended.

On the question of a home-consumption price of 4s. a bushel, I point out that normally two-thirds of our wheat is exported, so that, in effect, what the homeconsumption price would have done, would have been to have increased the over-all price by one halfpenny a bushel from the delectable figure of 3s. 10½d. a bushel to a retail trader's price of 3s. lida bushel. That was the Labour party's method of dealing with the wheat industry in 1940. Its members tried to offer something to the grower - certainly they offered a bribe to the consumer. . They were angling for the consumers' vote, but they also wanted the growers vote. It is equally true that we asked the growers to make a sacrifice. The Labour party offered a bribe and in these circumstances it is not difficult to understand who is likely to come off best. I believe that there was no necessity for either a sacrifice or a bribe. The proper thing to do was to pay the grower in time of war a reasonable price for his product, because after all, military operations cannot be carried on for very long by any country unless it has adequate food supplies.

I come now to the measure now before the House. It is a very important bill. It was not conjured out of the air. It has an interesting history, part of which is known to the public, and part is not known. I do not think that the Minister for Commerce and Agriculture (Mr. Scully) will endeavour to deny that he met representatives of the wheat industry in Sydney and elsewhere and discussed this measure with them, or that the bill that he has presented to Parliament is not the proposal that he bad in mind originally. In my opinion the bill has certain serious faults. First, there is the question of the inclusion of the 1945-46 crop. I have been informed by Mr. H. K. Nock, a former Minister in this House, who was present at the deputation to the Prime Minister in April, 1945 - the Prime Minister first having refused to meet the wheat-growers - that the right honorable gentleman gave an undertaking that the full realization price would be paid for the 1945-46 crop. Mr. Nock was present at that deputation, and I have his authority to use that information.

Mr Scully - I was present too, and 1 have not spoken before on that matter. I shall give the true story.

Mr ARCHIE CAMERON - The Minister will have an opportunity to do that later. This matter has a direct bearing on one of the important points in the scheme. Furthermore, . I say that the 1945-46 crop was sown, grown, and practically reaped, under war conditions, and delivered to the Commonwealth, not by the free will of the growers, but under the force of the National Security Regulations.. Therefore the Government has no justification morally, or, I believe, legally, to take from the grower what is his right under the National Security Regulations. There is also the question of a wheat stabilization policy being submitted to a 'poll of growers. I believe that if the words we have heard so often from honorable members on the other side of the House are to bear -any fruit, any practical results whatever, then the Government and its supporters who claim to be concerned about the growers should take their courage - if they have any - in both hand's - if their hands are not already full - and submit this bill, direct to the wheat-growers and obtain their opinion upon it. I would not be surprised if the verdict of the growers would be far from what honorable members opposite would desire it to be. This bill does not provide for a stabilization plan at all ;. it is merely a taxing measure. It proposes to take away from the grower at a time when high prices are ruling - and high prices may rule for some time ahead - a considerable amount of money and place it in the Treasury for use against some future contingency. The

Minister's second-reading speech on this bill contained one of the most serious contradictions I have ever heard in this chamber. In introducing the bill the Minister said - 1

The effect will be to remove the feature which disturbed the industry most in the past: that is, the impact of unduly low prices. It will be replaced by a system under which wheat-farmers will know, for a period of years in advance, that they will receive a definite price for. their wheat. They can plan their farm programme with an assured return, and with the knowledge that they will not be ruined by market .changes which cannot be foreseen or controlled.

Later he made this staggering statement -

It is not proposed, nor intended, that returns shall be permanently out of line with the export price, nor that the industry will be continually subsidized. Two-thirds of our wheat goes on to the export market, and we must compete with other countries for our markets. The plan gives time for adjustments to meet changing world conditions, and it protects growers against a rapid fall on the export market. It cannot relieve them of the need to meet world competition in the export trade. It is hoped, however, that an effective international agreement will protect export markets in future. For the next five years, however, come what may in the export field, growers are guaranteed the effect of a world slump. They will not receive, in any one of the five years less than 5s. 2d.

Those two statements constitute" one of the most amazing contradictions of policy I have ever heard uttered in this chamber. I do not know how many honorable members opposite representing wheat districts can read the Minister's introductory speech and reach any conclusion other than the one I have arrived at. The next point is the question of hidden legislation. The manner in which this bill has been presented to this House is, to say the least, - peculiar. During the Minister's second-reading speech on the bill now before us reference was made to the Wheat Export Charge Bill, but that measure was not brought before us until about a fortnight later. Usually cognate bills of that description would be introduced simultaneously. In this instance, however, we are still further in the dark because we do not know the contents of the legislation which will be submitted to the State parliaments. Whilst it is not competent for us to be supplied with advance copies of measures which may be introduced into the State parliaments it is surely within the competency of Ministers, having had two or three conferences with State Ministers on this subject, to indicate the principles of the legislation . which will be introduced into the State parliaments. Then, having obtained an outline of' those principles, and having the two cognate bills before us, we can determine exactly how the legislation as a whole will work out. At present we are asked to pass two bills in complete ignorance of what is to be done in the State- spheres.- We can guess, and perhaps our guess may be fairly near the mark; but that is not good enough. One of the things about which we have not been given any information is the question. of the future expansion of the wheat industry. That has not been referred to during this debate beyond the general statement that opportunities will be given to farmers'' sons . and ex-soldier settlers to enter the industry. I should like tq be assured on that point. I am not at all sure that that is to be provided for in the legislation to be passed by the States and until that legislation is sighted by us we do' not know whether or not that aspect is satisfactorily covered. I do not wish to raise the ex-soldier settler question unduly; I merely content myself with pointing out that there are thousands of young men being discharged from the forces who will wish and will be entitled to grow wheat in Australia and that they should be given some preference in order to enable them to do so. When I look at the present Government, I often say to myself that, as far as the ex-soldier is concerned, he may or may not " get a go ". And when I look at the front bench on, the Government side, I also say to myself that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a returned soldier to pass through the Cabinet door into a Labour government.

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