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Tuesday, 23 July 1946


Mr MENZIES (Kooyong) (Leader of the Opposition) . - It is in the nature of schemes of this kind that the Parliament should have presented to it two bills, and that arises from certain technical reasons with which the Minister for Commerce and Agriculture (Mr. Scully) is familiar. We have had two wheat bills before us. The first dealt primarily with the constitution of the Australian Wheat Board and the acquisition of wheat by it. That bill has been passed. The measure now before us relates to the financial aspects of the scheme, insofar as they involve the imposition of a charge upon wheat for the purpose of constituting the stabilization fund.- I want to make it clear that I, for one, have no desire to discuss the matter which was before the House last week. 1 expressed myself at some length on that bill, and I have no desire to raise or discuss problems on validity which may arise in connexion with that legislation. I. have assumed throughout, as have other honorable 'members, and as the Government apparently has, that the main proposals of .the scheme are legally competent ; but certain other questions arise wilh regard to the measure now before us, and I shall say something fairly carefully about two of them.

The first point I shall discuss relates to clause 6, which provides that the act shall continue in operation until a date, not being earlier than the 30th September, 1950, to be fixed by proclamation as the date upon which the act shall cease to be in operation. The honorable member for Indi (Mr. McEwen) referred to this as a provision for a five-year plan, and, no doubt, in substance that is true, but it may be -a plan for more than five years. The bill is designed to enable the act to terminate by proclamation, which, after all, may be issued at any time after the expiration of five years. That seems to me to increase the confusion, because it means that the plan is certainly for five years, and that its duration thereafter will be outside the control of the Parliament, and will depend upon the executive decision of the Government as to whether a proclamation should be issued. So I make that simple qualification upon what the honorable member for Indi said; but in substance he is no doubt right in saying that, insofar as this is a plan for a certain period, it is a plan for five years. What does that involve? As far as we can judge, there is a strong probability that at the end of five years the stabilization fund, which is to be established out of the charge to be made under this bill, will be in credit. It may be very substantially in credit.


Mr Scully - It may not be.


Mr MENZIES - Quite so. If prices have a disastrous downward move in the next few- years, the fund may need to be replenished from Consolidated Revenue; but, so far as we can judge from probabilities, it seems that at the end of five years the fund will be in credit, and that the credit will consist of a charge levied upon the growers in respect of wheat What is to happen at the end of that time? Let us assume for this purpose, as the honorable member for Indi wisely did, that at the end of that time there will be a large credit balance in the stabilization fund. What is to be done with it is not being settled.


Mr Scully - Why .should there be a large credit balance?


Mr MENZIES - I did not say there should' be; I said there well might be. The Minister will agree with me that. if the world parity price of wheat remained high for the next few years-


Mr Scully - That would be all the more reason why there should not be a large credit balance.


Mr MENZIES - That would be a very good reason why there should be. If the world price remained high, the levy made upon the growers would have built up the stabilization fund to the amount, maybe, of a good many millions of pounds.


Mr Scully - Why apply the levy, if the price remains high ?


Mr MENZIES - I, speak subject to correction, but I thought that the whole essence of the idea was that when the world price was good there was to be a levy, so that the fund might be put in credit, and when the world price- was low those credits might be used to stabilize the. price at its guaranteed level.


Mr McEwen - If that is not intended;what is ?


Mr MENZIES - If the Government does not intend that, I give the matter up. I ask the Minister to assume - and I am surprised that he is not willing to assume it - that over the period of five years the credits will exceed the disbursements from this fund. What is to be done with the credits at the end of five years? That is a point upon which the House would have appreciated some information, but there is nothing in the bill to enlighten us upon it. There will simply be a fund which can be dealt with at the end of five years by the Parliament, according to the then constitution of the Parliament, and according to the views of the then majority of the Parliament as to how such funds should be treated. That seems to me, as it seemed to the honorable member for Indi, a most powerful argument for extending the term of this scheme to ten years. Over that period we are much more likely to have those fluctuations of world prices that will give effect to this fund as a stabilization fund, so that there will be payments out as well as payments in: The honorable member for Hume (Mr. Fuller) makes some remark not entirely audible to me. I wonder whether, in his heart, he would prefer a ten-year scheme. I think he would.


Mr Scully - This is a continuous scheme.


Mr MENZIES - Yes, but how long is it to continue? Will-it continue for five years, and then exist on sufferance, as under this bill? No remark has been made even by interjection, which would afford the slightest justification for this limitation to five years. I admit that everything one says on the bill must be said subject to correction.


Mr Scully - It is a guarantee of a definite price for five years.


Mr MENZIES - My genial friend, the Minister, unfortunately, was in an uncommonly taciturn mood on the day that he brought down this bill. He merely produced it. There was a slight pause, and I was waiting for his speech, but the speech did not come. Therefore, I had to rise and move that the debate be adjourned - which was one of the few humorous touches . of the day, because how it was possible to adjourn a debate that had not begun I do not know. However, the Minister will, no doubt, enlighten us when he replies.

The second point is in relation to the inclusion 'of the 1945-46 harvest, and this arises in the express terms of clause 4 of the bill, which provides -

A charge is imposed and shall be levied and paid on all wheat harvested on or after the first day of October, 1945, and exported from the Commonwealth . . .

Thus, the bill itself expressly provides that the charge is to be levied in the first instance on the wheat of the last harvest. E have already had an opportunity, when addressing myself to the Wheat Stabilization Bill, to offer my general observations on that point, and I do not want to engage in tedious repetition.


Mr Scully - I wish the right honorable gentleman's colleagues were equally as considerate!


Mr MENZIES - At any rate, so far as this bill i3 concerned, my friend the Minister cannot be accused of engaging in repetition. So far, he has said practically nothing at all. There are some matters which deserve to be made particularly clear regarding the 1945-46 harvest. Reference has been made to the problem of .acquiring property on general terms. The honorable member for Warringah. (Mr. Spender) dealt with a point similar to the one which I discussed in my second-reading speech on the other bill. Under the Wheat Acquisition Regulations, the 1945-46 harvest has already been acquired, and rights have already come into existence in relation to it. If "those rights came into existence merely because of the .Wheat Acquisition Regulations, the position might have been different, but they came into existence under the Constitution. They were, in fact, created by the Constitution, and are not to be taken away by the Parliament. The Parliament is the servant of the people, and the creation of the Constitution. The Constitution gives power to this Parliament to make laws for the acquisition of property, on just terms, from any State or person, for any purpose in respect to which the Parliament has power to make laws. It must be made clear that, when we discuss the rights of the wheat-farmer in relation to the 1945-46 harvest, it is. not a matter of how he fits into some future legislative scheme, but of whether it is right for the Parliament, in July of 1946, to seek to take away from the farmer rights in respect of the past which were given him by the Constitution itself. If there is an answer to that point - as there may be for all I know - then it is an answer that we have not yet heard. The charge imposed by the bill is a charge in relation to the wheat harvest, and, therefore, in practical effect, it is a charge on the grower. If the calculation that has been made is correct, and the charge this year will amount to 2s. 2d. a bushel, then the effect of what will be done is to take away from the grower of the 1945-46 crop 2s. 2d. a bushel of the amount which would represent just terms under the Constitution for the acquisition of his wheat. If we assume a price of x shillings as the price that could have been realized for the wheat, then x shillings represents just terms of acquisition, and x shillings, minus 2s. 2d., cannot be a just price.


Mr Scully - Would that not also apply to subsequent crops?


Mr MENZIES - The Minister has accepted on behalf of the Government responsibility for the view that this scheme will be legally valid. I have no doubt that if I could see into the minds of his legal advisers I should find, them arguing that whatever may be the position regarding the acquisition of property, taken by itself, there is a power to establish some kind of pooling system for .the future, and that if this power is exercised to provide for the stabilization of prices, then you may escape from the terms of section 31 of the Constitution. I do not want to go into that, because it would lead to an extraordinarily complex, difficult and recondite legal argument.


Mr Scully - I was hoping that the right honorable gentleman would elucidate the point.


Mr MENZIES - I am merely making . a guess at what has probably been going on in the minds of the Government's legal advisers. I point out, however, that there is a world of difference between legislating in respect of future crops, and attempting to say to a man, whose rights are not in the future but have already accrued - rights given to him by the Constitution - that you propose retrospectively to modify his rights.


Mr Lazzarini - The right honorable gentleman will get a brief for the case all right.


Mr MENZIES - Eoi- years past I have been so busy watching this Government that I have almost forgotten what a brief looks like, but I am happy to 3ay that I retain a few general notions regarding the subject with which I once had a fairly close acquaintance.

Thus I question the Government's scheme on two grounds: first, the duration of the scheme; and, secondly, the proposal to go back on the past and take away rights which the supreme organic law has given. Both proposals are indefensible, and certainly have not been defended at any stage of the debate.

Sitting suspended from 6 to 8 p.m.







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