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Tuesday, 2 April 1957

Mr BARNARD (Bass) .- I submit this matter for discussion because it is, I believe, one of very great importance in view of the serious consequences which must develop if action is not taken by this Government, and particularly by the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen), to overcome the many difficulties that now confront the Australian timber industry. I- hasten to point out, too, that in raising this matter on behalf of the Opposition, I am speaking for the Australian timber industry as a whole. All of the States are affected, admittedly some more than others, but I want it to be understood that this is a national matter. Many of the problems involved are of a complex nature, and concern not only the timber millers and exporters, but also, what is more important, the thousands of young men who depend on this industry for their livelihood. I do not believe for a moment that it is beyond the power of this Government to take immediate practical measures to assist this most important industry. For my own part, 1 am not prepared merely to observe a furl tier deterioration in this essential Australian industry, without making some attempt to initiate a largescale debate, in the hope that an assurance will be given by the Minister that the Government, of which he himself is a senior Minister, will at least face this issue if it is dissatisfied, as indeed 1 am sure it must be, with the present situation seeing that in recent months, in every State of the Commonwealth, limber mills have been compelled to cease production. This has resulted in a loss of employment to many thousands of young Australians who, in the main, are not able to find alternative employment because, not infrequently, they reside with their families in remote areas. They believed that the industry would be engaged to capacity for many years to come, in order to produce in sufficient quantities the timber that we require to overtake the serious housing shortage that has plagued this country for many years."

I invite the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr. McMahon) to reflect on the warnings that have been given in the press to both the department that he administers and the Department of Trade by responsible people within this industry during the past eighteen months. There are several causes of the present stagnation in the industry. Some are attributable to the Government, and others are not. In my opinion, the most serious ones are the responsibility of the Government, particularly the Department of Trade. Therefore, I shall endeavour to confine my remarks to those matters.

During a period in which the demand for homes has never been greater, when far more people are living in slums and in semislum areas than ever before in our history, ons would have expected that the timber industry would continue in full production for the next twenty years or so. But just how wrong can one be in making an assumption of that nature becomes evident from a study of the record of this Government over the last two or three years. lt would, of course, be an understatement of fact to say that this Government merely believes in a policy of occasional restrictions. It actually revels in restrictions and every honorable member in this House knows how difficult it is to-day for any section of the business community to secure a licence to import even goods that are in short supply. But, during the corresponding period, there has been an almost unrestricted flow of imported timber. I refer particularly to the importation of lowpriced timber from Malaya and Borneo.

The second factor, which is of equal importance, has been the Government's unrealistic approach to our housing problem. It was the subject of an urgency debate during the last session of this Parliament when it was pointed out to the responsible Minister that the housing position had never been worse. 1, personally, am far from convinced that any material improvement has been effected in this position during the months in which the Parliament was in recess. But according to a statement issued a few weeks ago by the responsible Minister, the number of homes to be constructed in Australia during the next two years will be substantially reduced. The statement was subsequently endorsed by the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies), who has said that any easing of the restrictions governing the availability of finance for home construction purposes in this country would have an inflationary tendency. 1 do not hesitate to say that there is a feeling abroad that the Government is so preoccupied in devising ways and means of curbing progress by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, an institution that could materially assist in this matter, that it is not in the least concerned with homeless families or the problems which are facing the great Australian timber industry.

Despite our increase in population - the natural increase and that from immigration - there has been a reduction of almost 10,000 in the number of homes constructed during 1955-56, compared with construction in the two previous years. I would like to point out that when the Government reduces the number of homes constructed in any one year by 10,000, it reduces the timber requirements of this country by approximately 200,000.000 super, feet, and that is slightly in excess of Tasmania's timber production. I do not hesitate to say. too, that some of the saw-millers may have contributed, either directly or indirectly, to some of the difficulties which are apparent to-day. In the immediate post-war years, a percentage of timber milled for export purposes was below the required standard and it could be argued that, not infrequently, the standard was inferior to that of timber imported from Malaya and Borneo. For that reason, I believe that the Government is entitled to an assurance that any protection accorded to the timber industry would be on the basis of an improved standard in Australianmilled timber. I personally believe that a great deal of improvement has been effected during the last eighteen months.

Let me pass to the position in Tasmania. The figures that I shall cite reflect, I believe, the general position in most States. In recent months, 21 saw-mills have been compelled to cease production. Another seventeen are on reduced production, and I have every reason to believe that a percentage of these will be forced to close down in the near future. More than 700 men have been dismissed from employment, and Tasmania's total production has been reduced by 3 1 ,000,000 super, feet annually. Because of the State's inability to dispose of its full production, due to the importation of cheap timbers, particularly from Malaya and Borneo, as well as other factors to which I have already referred, there was a reduction of almost 8,000,000 super, feet from July to November of 1956 compared with production during the corresponding period of the previous year. In Tasmania, as elsewhere, stockpiling can no longer be regarded as economically sound because, at the end of December, 1956, almost 80,000,000 super, feet of timber was held at grass in that State alone. I say frankly to the Minister that few, if any, saw-millers in Australia can hope to meet the competition from Borneo and Malaya while the present disparity in wage levels and standards of living exists. In North Borneo, the daily rate of pay is 15s. In Malaya, it is 26s. and it is based on a 48- hour working week. The Tasmanian rate is 62s. a day, and it is based on a 40-hour working week.

I believe I have said sufficient to indicate that the saw-milling industry is in a serious position. Its importance need not be stressed. It can be accepted as a fact, particularly if we are prepared to measure it by the standard that it provides employment for more than 30,000 Australians and has an annual value that exceeds £80,000,000. Once again, I stress the fact that this industry has, in the past, provided employment for people who have been prepared to live in remote communities. There are two points to which I believe the Minister should direct his attention as long-term measures. The first of them is the provision of more finance and practical encouragement to the average Australian home-builder. I shall not enlarge on that at this moment because it has been adequately covered by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) as well as other speakers from this side of the House during a recent debate.

The second point concerns the need for a Tariff Board inquiry, but I emphasize that such action can be regarded only as a longterm measure, because the Minister himself knows from practical experience that it would be unlikely that the Tariff Board's conclusions would be made available to this Parliament, in less than twelve months. By that time any recommendations made by the board on behalf of the Australian timber industry would quite conceivably be too late. The last Tariff Board report was made available to this Parliament on 17th February, 1955. The board had received instructions from the then Minister for Trade and Customs on 30th June, 1953, almost two years before. So I say again that it would be unlikely that a Tariff Board report would be available to Parliament in less than twelve months. Therefore, emergency measures are necessary, and the first of them should be the imposition of an emergency duty on timber importations which, last year, reached the staggering figure of 331,900,000 super, feet. Those imports were largely from countries with which our trade balance is unfavorable.

Only a few days ago, the Minister for Trade, in reply to a question that I directed to him, said that our imports of timber are very nearly the same as they were pre-war. I suggest that his statement was misleading because, in actual fact, while imports from Malaya and Borneo reached only 4,700,000 super, feet in 1939-40, they had risen to almost 50,000,000 super, feet by the end of December, 1956. I say to the Minister that, in order to meet this position immediately, section 2a of the Customs Tariff (Industries Preservation) Act ought to be invoked for the purpose of providing an emergency tariff. Under this section, amended in 1956, the Minister has the power to impose an emergency tariff on goods imported under conditions which threaten serious injury to producers in Australia. Meanwhile, we must face the fact that, as a result of inaction on the part of this Government, thousands of men have lost their employment, and scores of sawmills have been closed down, primarily in districts in which little or no other avenue of employment exists.

Although the immediate problem is in the timber industry, we all know that housing and the industries associated with it have proved to be accurate and reliable barometers of prosperity in this country, and I suggest that it is only a very short step indeed from unemployment in the timber industry to unemployment in the hardware and electrical industries, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the textile industry. If the Minister for Trade is willing to allow this problem to become more acute, he will take no action, but if he is genuinely concerned about it, it lies within his power to take practical measures, which, if correctly applied, would prevent the problem from becoming more acute, as well as restore confidence and a measure of stability to a most important industry.

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