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Thursday, 25 October 1956

Mr COUTTS (Griffith) .- This bill provides for the ratification of an agreement between the Commonwealth and the Queensland Government to maintain the stability of the sugar industry for another five years. We are dealing with the matter in retrospect because the increase in price was granted on 14th May last and has been charged since that date. In the closing stages of this sessional period we are asked to ratify the agreement. The Government would be very embarrassed if, by some means, the will of some Tasmanian members prevailed and the bill was rejected. But I think the common sense of most members will predominate and the bill will be passed.

The agreement was first entered into in 1915 between two Labour governments. They were the Labour Government led by Mr. Fisher, the Prime Minister, who represented the electorate of Wide Bay, a Queensland constituency, and the Labour government in Queensland led by Mr. Ryan. The agreement was the basis for the stabilizing of this most important industry in Australia. It is the most important industry in Queensland and as an export commodity it is a great dollar-earner. I do not propose to follow the lead of other members who have spoken about the basis on which the price is determined, because I feel that so much has been said on that point that all members are completely convinced that the sugar industry is compelled to submit a watertight case before the Commonwealth will agree to increase the price of sugar.

This great Australian industry is responsible for the settlement of large areas in tropical northern Queensland, lt is the principal industry in northern Queensland and the production is valued at £60,000,000 in a year. It is a most efficient industry and takes advantage of all modern scientific developments in the growing and processing of sugar. Without this industry, northern Queensland would not have been developed to the same degree as it has been in recent years. The honorable member for Leichhardt (Mr. Bruce), who represents a sugar-producing constituency, has informed us - and he is competent to do so because of his long experience in the industry - of the role that the Queensland Labour Government has played in the development of this industry.

In the early days of this century prior to 1915, sugar was grown on large estates. We had a kind of peasantry or sharefarming system in the industry at that time. The Queensland Labour Government decided to apply its socialistic ideas to the industry, as far as possible, and resolved that the industry must be placed completely in the hands of the producers. That is to say those who produced the wealth in the industry must control it. That government was responsible for breaking up the large estates on which sugarcane was grown under the share-farming system and to-day many thousands of sugar-growers operate their own farms - either freehold farms or farms leased from the Crown.

The development of the industry was undertaken, first by Australians and British immigrants. At the conclusion of World War I. a large number of Italians entered the industry. They have been most successful as producers of cane and as cutters and workers in the cane-fields. The operation of the industry has been most successfully carried out by Australian, British and Europeans in the cane-fields.

I have said that the industry is an efficient one. It is also - and this is something of which Australian can boast - a completely white industry. The kanakas have been taken out of the industry. In the closing days of the last century, it was a black industry, and blackbirding was a common and profitable undertaking by many Queensland master mariners. The record of blackbirding is a very grave blot on Queensland's history. Blackbirding was the recruiting of black labour in the Pacific islands by force. The native labourers were brought to Queensland and treated as slaves. They were given only a miserable pittance as a reward for their labour. This practice ceased at the close of the nineteenth century, and although some of the descendants of these labourers still live in Queensland the sugar industry is conducted most efficiently, even in the tropics, wholly by white labour.

The Queensland sugar industry is controlled by the cane-growers, and all those engaged in it, whether producers or workers, receive a reasonable reward for their efforts. It is to the credit of the trade unions in Queensland, particularly the Australian Workers Union, that the interests of the workers have at all times been completely safeguarded. The unions take a very keen interest in all phases of the industry, as we learned from the remarks of the honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Edmonds), who, prior to becoming a member of the Parliament, had considerable experience in the sugar industry as an Australian Workers Union official in the

Townsville area. Doubtless he is better informed about the sugar industry than is any other honorable member present today. It is something to be proud of that the unions in Queensland have adopted such a reasonable approach to this most important Queensland industry and have shown so much concern for its welfare.

The growers themselves own many of the mills at which the sugar cane is crushed. I suppose the best example of the cooperative system is to be found in the Queensland sugar industry. It is true that several mills are owned by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company Limited, and another by the Millaquin Sugar Company Limited at Bundaberg. But the processing of sugar from the .crushing of the cane to the brown sugar stage is undertaken largely in co-operative mills owned by the growers. I hope that this system will be extended. If the Labour Government continues to hold office in Queensland grower control and the co-operative system will be extended as the industry expands. Although processing up to the brown sugar stage is conducted largely in co-operative mills owned by the growers, the refining and marketing of sugar unfortunately is completely in the hands of private enterprise. I have mentioned the Millaquin Sugar Company Limited at Bundaberg and the Colonial Sugar Refining Company Limited, which operates throughout Australia and acts as agent for the Queensland Government in disposing of the refined product in various parts of the country.

It cannot be said with truth that excessive profits are being made by the sugar refining companies. Their profits are considerable, but they are no greater than those being made by other manufacturing companies. Every one acknowledges that profits are increasing, and that it is the policy of this Government not to discourage higher profits. That is one of the reasons for the present inflationary spiral. The sugar refining companies are making profits at the same rate at which other industrial concerns are making them. I hope 1 shall see the day when control by the growers will have extended so much in the sugar industry that the complete processing of sugar, including refining, will be undertaken either by co-operative establishments or by plants owned by the Queensland

Sugar Board or the Queensland Government. The growers have demonstrated their ability to control the industry in the initial Stages of production. As improved methods and scientific developments are applied to the growing and crushing of cane and the processing of sugar a great step forward in the interests of the industry and the consumers of Australia could be taken if refining were placed completely in the hands of the sugar producers. That proposition is not unreasonable, and I hope it will be put into effect as the industry grows and develops.

In north Queensland, particularly at the port of Mackay, bulk-handling equipment is being installed to load sugar into ships. As the honorable member for Leichhardt has said, this is an important development which will be a major contributing factor in the reduction of costs. Bulk handling can cushion the increased costs which are common in all industries to-day.

As I have said, the sugar industry produces £60,000,000 worth of sugar annually. This production is not only for home congumption, but also for export, and the industry is a major earner of dollars for Australia. The " Monthly Bulletin of Oversea Trade Statistics ", issued by the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in June last, shows that during the year ended 30th June, 1956, a total of £24,641,000 worth of sugar was exported from Australia. The United Kingdom bought £13,827,000 worth, and Canada, £3,491,000 worth. New Zealand also was a good customer, and bought £3,456,000 worth. Japan apparently wished to keep on side with us, and bought £2,051,000 worth.

Mr Duthie - What about Hong Kong?

Mr COUTTS - There was a small trade with Hong Kong, amounting to £1,039.000. Singapore purchased sugar worth £105,000. When we are considering an export industry that sells goods overseas worth almost £25,000,000, we should realize the importance of that industry to Australia.

I shall now cite some figures from a booklet issued by the Queensland Government Statistician, in order to substantiate my claim that the industry is most efficient. The industry has grown rapidly in Queensland in recent years. In 1950-51, the area of land on which cane was grown for crushing amounted to 263,666 acres. By 1954-55, this area had increased to 367,640 acres. The increase in the amount of sugar sold has been really phenomenal.. In 1951-52, a total of 921,000 tons of sugar was sold. This had increased by 1954-55 to 1,327.000 tons. It is very pleasing to note that 44 per cent, of the sugar produced in 1950-51 was exported, while in 1954-55, the proportion had increased to 59 per cent. It can be seen, therefore, that production in the industry is sufficient not only ro supply the Australian market, but also to satisfy a considerable export demand.

Other speakers in this debate have pointed out that the price paid by consumers in this country for Australian sugar is less than the price for which sugar produced anywhere overseas could be sold in Australia. It is true that South- Africa, by employing black labour under sorry conditions, is producing sugar at a cost less than that for which it is being produced in Australia. South African sugar, however, could not be brought to Australia and sold at a lower price than that for which Australian sugar is sold, even if it were duty free. That is because of the high freight charges that would be involved. The Australian consumer, therefore, is buying the cheapest sugar that it is possible for him to buy, even if the import of sugar into Australia were allowed. This reflects great credit on all those associated with the production of this most important commodity. It is true that the industry enjoys many advantages, and that the importation of sugar is prohibited. However, the industry has risen to the occasion and has done all that the Australian people expected it to do. It has demonstrated its appreciation of what has been done for it over the years by the Australian Government and the Queensland Government.

The sugar industry is most efficient. It is closely supervised by the Queensland Agricultural Department. Every modern scientific device that can be used in the industry is being used. The finest canes are grown. The cane grown in the north Queensland fields has a higher sugar content than cane grown in any other part of the world. The industry will maintain this very high rate of efficiency, and so long as it continues to enjoy the goodwill of the Australian and Queensland governments it will go from success to success.

It would be wrong for me, as an Opposition member, not to conclude by criticizing the Federal Government for certain action that it has taken which has had a harmful effect upon the production of a by-product of this important sugar industry. As honorable members know, rum is a major by-product of Queensland sugar. I am reliably informed, although I can speak with no authority on the matter, that the rum produced in Queensland is of very high quality. The consumption of rum in Queensland and, I take it, in other parts of Australia, has declined considerably.

Mr Duthie - Hear, hear!

Mr COUTTS - Let not the temperance men cheer until I finish my statement. The consumption of rum has fallen because of the action of this Government in reducing the excise on brandy produced by South Australian grape-growers, while maintaining the high excise on rum. 1 understand, although again I cannot speak with authority and must be guided by those who can, that rum is a less harmful drink than brandy.

Mr Chaney - Don't you believe it!

Mr COUTTS - It would bs a generous gesture on the part of this Government to place rum, a by-product of the sugar industry, in the same position with regard to excise charges as it has placed brandy produced by the South Australian winegrowers. I make that plea, and I hope that the Government will do something about it.

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