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Tuesday, 2 April 1957

Mr PEARCE (Capricornia) .- The purpose of the bill before the House is to amend the Cotton Bounty Act, which was introduced by this Government to encourage the growing of cotton in Australia. It seeks to clarify several of the matters which were introduced by the Government to assist the cotton-growers to obtain early returns from their crops, to make early plans for the planting season, and to proceed with their harvesting.

Although the cotton industry is confined to Queensland, it should engage the attention of the people of Australia as a whole, because it is one of our few primary industries for which, considering the acreage that has to be planted, there is an unlimited market. In the past, Queensland has produced only 5 per cent, of Australia's needs of raw cotton, and last year we imported approximately 80,000 bales for the use of Australian spinners. It will be noted, therefore, that there is a boundless market for cotton in Australia. The greater the amount of cotton that can be planted and harvested, and the more economically it can be harvested, the greater will be the saving in the dollars that must be expended for the purchase of cotton from abroad. So I believe that the time that will be occupied during this debate in looking at this as an Australian problem which affects not only primary industry, but also our balance of trade, will be justified.

This Government entered upon its attempt to establish the cotton industry following the failure of the Labour government to do so, and in 1948-49, when the industry was languishing following the Chifley regime, it provided needed incentives. As the honorable member for Lalor (Mr. Pollard) mentioned, at that time the Tariff Board presented a report on the industry. The honorable member said that the Labour government slavishly carried out the recommendations of the board. It did so, but only to a certain point, because the board, in the course of its findings, pointed out that the proper establishment of the industry would need more mechanization, greater irrigated areas, more intensive planning, better ginning methods, and a better approach to the marketing problems. Rather than face up to the challenge presented by the Tariff Board, Labour chose the easy way out and, as I said by way of interjection to the honorable, member for Lalor, decided to give the cotton industry a decent burial and write it off as an Australian industry. Immediately this Government assumed office, the Ministry, realizing the seriousness of the situation that could arise if we were dependent upon overseas supplies of cotton and there was trouble abroad, directed its attention to providing an incentive to maintain and increase cotton production in Australia. The review that is expressed in this bill shows that the Government's attitude and faith in the industry have been well justified.

Of course, from the very early days, even prior to the turn of this century, when we grew a lot more cotton than we have produced during the last twenty years, there have been failures in the industry; but they have always centred around the price factor. In the 1930's the policy of the government of the day was to decrease the guaranteed price from year to year, so that growers who were planning to plant ahead or people who were planning to enter the industry were forced to say to themselves, " We are getting 4id. this year. Next year we will probably get only 4d., and the farm next door has not been doing very well on the higher guaranteed price ". The result was that production dwindled. However, following the introduction by this Government of a guaranteed price of 9d. per lb., there was an increase of the number of acres planted, and the yield per acre rose.

Mr Wheeler - Where is the cotton grown mostly?

Mr PEARCE - It is grown mostly in :>n area that used to form part of the electorate that i represent. That area has now been transferred to the electorate of Dawson, which is represented by our able colleague, the Postmaster-General (Mr. Davidson). Following the 1953 crop, which was a good one, there was a series of floods which badly affected the irrigated areas and reduced production. But, even taking into account those floods and looking at the number of acres that have been planted from year to year, we can see the justification of the Government's view that there could and should be a cotton industry in this country.

Apart from the measure now before us, the Government has adopted other methods of providing an incentive to cotton-growers. lt has assisted the Cotton Marketing Board in its search overseas for a suitable cotton harvester. It provided the necessary dollars for that machinery and has helped in every possible way in the introduction of mechanical harvesting, which the Tariff Board had recommended but which the honorable member for Lalor, then the responsible Minister, did not sponsor. The Queensland Cotton Marketing Board has twelve pickers, and they are now going into the fields to harvest this season's crop. Attention has been given also to the spraying of crops to destroy the various bugs and pests that attack them.

In addition to the harvesters of the Cotton Marketing Board, there are several privately owned cotton pickers operating in the cotton belt. These machines are rather different from those that are owned by the board. The privately owned harvesters are all of the John Deere type. They are demountable, and the picking machine sits on top of a tractor. When the cotton harvesting is finished, the tractor is run up on to' a suitable ramp, the harvester is lifted and the tractor is then moved from under it and can be used for the various other purposes for which tractors are used round a farm. The pickers owned by the Cotton Marketing Board may be used only as cotton harvesters. They have several disadvantages as compared with the John Deere machines, but, nevertheless, the use of them has overcome the difficulty that has arisen because of the shortage of labour for the hand-picking of cotton. As honorable members are well aware, since this Government came into office we have been able to maintain over-full employment, and so there is no labour available for the seasonal work of hand-picking, which is probably the best method of harvesting the crop. However, machines of these two types are able to handle 80 per cent, to 90 per cent, of suitable bolls and so give us a reasonably good harvest.

I think we can help considerably with extension services. We could ask the Queensland Government, and we might even consider asking the New South Wales Government, to devote some of the money that is given to it under the extension services plan to assisting the cotton industry, particularly in regard to harvesting. I believe that we could help considerably by introducing some method of defoliation of the plant before the harvesting actually begins. At present the harvester, when it moves through the bushes, takes off a large number of green leaves that are crushed and stain the cotton. All harvesters do this. The cotton is harvested at quite some distance from the ginneries. This is contrary to the practice in the United States of America, where the gins are established within 6 miles of the picking area. We must carry the cotton for large distances in the bales, and by the time it reaches the ginnery a lot of it has been stained by the green leaves that are picked up by the harvester. If defoliation were introduced, the harvester could go through a crop that has no green leaves.

Although we have been able to give quite a good deal of help to the industry, 1 believe that we must devise a long-term plan, a plan that will fire the imagination. It is ludicrous for us even to consider that a plan extending over five years is sufficient. I believe that the experience, experiments and hard work that have gone into the re-establishment of the cotton industry justify the opinion held by so many honorable members on this side of the House that the industry can produce a good proportion of Australia's requirements of raw cotton.

Mr Duthie - What percentage does it supply now?

Mr PEARCE - It supplies less than 5 per cent, of Australia's requirements at the moment. We must produce about 80,000 bales to replace the cotton that we import at present. We must, then, establish the industry on a long-term basis. We can take a lesson from the way in which the late Right Honorable William Morris Hughes went about establishing the sugar industry in the early 1920's. He took a struggling industry and gave it incentives and protection, on the understanding that it would become self-supporting in a short space of time. I believe that this Government should say to those concerned in the cotton industry, " We are right behind you on a long-term basis. For the next five years we will give you a guaranteed price, and the matter will be reviewed well before the end of that time, so that you will be able to plan ahead for your security ". 1 believe that the John Deere tractorharvesters that I spoke of earlier provide the answer to the harvesting problem. We should encourage the planting of larger acreages of cotton, which could be handled by a farmer with his own demountable harvester, the tractor from which could be used for ordinary farming work when harvesting was finished. We should not, however, expect the farmers to go to hire purchase companies to obtain finance to purchase these machines. The money should be made available through the rural section of the Commonwealth Bank, and on reasonably long-term loans, in order to provide an incentive for the cotton-grower to purchase his own machine and to plant a larger acreage, from which he can take the crop quickly.

Mr Wheeler - What do these machines cost?

Mr PEARCE - For the tractor and harvester an amount of about £5,000 is involved. We should also ensure that the Cotton Marketing Board obtains more harvesters. It is a Queensland board, established under a Queensland act, and I would urge the Minister to approach the Queensland Minister for Agriculture, who does not seem to be very interested in this industry at present - and that is fair criticism of him - and ask him whether the Queensland Government will guarantee the Cotton Marketing Board sufficient funds for the purchase of new pickers. The present crop should be harvested between now and the month of June, at the latest. When travelling through the cotton districts, however, one often sees cotton still hanging in the bolls on dried-up old bushes as late as September, simply because there are not sufficient harvesters to go round.

We need, therefore, first to encourage and assist individual farmers to own their own harvesters. We should also persuade the State Government to provide assistance to the Cotton Marketing Board to purchase more pickers. I suggest to the Government that it is necessary also to establish at least two pilot or experimental cotton-growing farms. The first one should be established, perhaps, in the area of the Callide and Dawson valleys, and another in the electorate of the honorable member for Maranoa (Mr. Brimblecombe) at Jandowae or somewhere in that district, where there are good prospects of cotton-growing being established as an industry, and where cotton was grown successfully many years ago. 1 believe that pilot farms in those areas would be of great assistance to the industry. From those pilot stations the prospective cotton-growers in the electorate of the honorable member for Gwydir (Mr. Ian Allan) could obtain the necessary information to establish the industry in New South Wales. Experimental plots have been established in the district of Moura. This area is an irrigation area on a river front in the electorate of the honorable member for Dawson (Mr. Davidson). I have with me a newspaper cutting, dated 27th March, 1957, which states - an excellent crop of New Mexico Acala is being harvested with a locally-owned picker. The first pick is averaging nearly three bales per acre with at least one bale per acre left on (he bush to be picked later.

In fact the crop is yielding so well that it appears as though the picker is having difficulty in handling at the speed it is driven.

This particular crop was grown on an irrigation area, and the man who owns the farm gave it one irrigation of about four inches at about the time when the squares were being formed. He has already taken ofl three bales to the acre and he expects thai he will be able, on his second run through, to pick up at least another bale.

The Department of Agriculture and Stock is assisting this man in his experiments, but I think that we need to go further than that. Rather than having experimental plots on a particular farm, there should be such a set-up as there is now in the tobacco industry and in the sugar industry. Experimental stations should be established so that the growth of this plant in the various parts of Australia which are suitable for it - and that covers many acres - may be encouraged. I urge the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr. McMahon) to give consideration to that matter and I suggest that the State governments be approached to assist the financing of such a scheme. After all, they have a very direct responsibility in this regard.

In addition, we have to figure out some way in which it will be possible to have a more intensive planting programme in a particular area. Valuable time is lost when the pickers owned by the Cotton Marketing Board travel long distances from farm to farm. In some instances, they travel 30 or 40 miles from one farming area to another, and the waste of time involved is considerable. If we could have intensive planting in a given area, very little time would be lost in transferring the machines from place to place. I am quite sure that in three crops in Queensland and in the Gwydir area we can obtain about 15,000 bales. If we can obtain 8,000 bales per annum, the gins, harvesters, and all the machinery connected with the cotton industry, will be working on an economic basis.

Mr Pollard - How many bales a year are obtained now?

Mr PEARCE - The number has been varying over a period. From 1953-54 the number of growers has risen from 260 to 650, and the yield has gone up considerably. The production of cotton since 1953 has varied from year to year according to the drought and flood conditions.

Mr Pollard - How many bales were there last year?

Mr PEARCE - At the present moment we have just over 3,000 bales from last year's harvest.

Mr Pollard - There were 7,000 in 1954.

Mr PEARCE - We must get the number of bales up to at least 8,000 for handling by the ginnery to be economic. It has been proven that this crop can be grown in Australia and return a good income to the growers. I suggest to the Minister that one of the great problems of the industry, possibly because of the mechanical pickers and the ginning machines, is that there is on hand at the moment about 800 bales of what I would classify as almost unsaleable cotton in the bedding and cordage grades. This is a problem, but not an insurmount able problem, from the selling point of view. I urge the Minister to confer with his colleague, the Minister in charge of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (Mr. Casey) and ask him to put some of his officers on to an investigation of methods of using the bedding and cordage grades in some way which has perhaps not been considered up to the present. It is possible that those officers, by bringing to bear the scientific knowledge and imagination with which they have solved many problems in other industries, could find a use for the 800 bales that are carried over. There will always be a quantity of unsaleable cotton in the bottom grade, and I make that suggestion to the Minister.

I also suggest that the Queensland Government is expecting too much of the members of the Cotton Marketing Board. They receive some pittance for daily attendance, when they travel from their farms to Brisbane to meet as directors or board members, and when they get back to their farming areas they have the life plagued out of them by people seeking advice about when the picker is to arrive and when they can have it, when they should plant, what seed they should use, and all the rest of it. Only highly public-spirited men will come forward for election to the board. I ask the Minister to have his officers consider this matter in conjunction with the Queensland authorities. This problem will arise also in the district of Gwydir in New South Wales. There must be a re-organization of the board so that we do not ask too much of men who, after all, are farmers first and foremost, and who have to carry the full burden of advising, and consulting, as well as directing the affairs of the board.

So I put to the Minister these six points, which I summarize as follows: - First, there should be a long-term guaranteed price for the industry, on the basis that cotton can and should be grown here. Secondly, finance should be made available for the Cotton Marketing Board to provide more harvesters to go from farm to farm.

Mr Pollard - Who do you think ought to provide this?

Mr PEARCE - I think it lies quite within the powers of the Queensland Government.

Mr Pollard - You want a bit of socialism.

Mr PEARCE - It is that Government's responsibility. The Queensland Government is not worried about a little socialism. It will tackle the oil companies and socialize them. It has millions of pounds to put in.

Mr Pollard - You advocate socialism when it suits you. You want the taxpayer to buy cotton-harvesting machines for you.

Mr PEARCE - The government in which the honorable member was a Minister tossed this industry overboard, and now he is a bit annoyed because we have it back on the rails again. I urge him. to show some of the common sense he showed when he was Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, and have a look at the matter properly. Thirdly, I suggest that finance should be made available from the Commonwealth Bank, and not from hirepurchase companies, to enable farmers to purchase their own private pickers. Fourthly, I suggest that, through the extension services supplied by the Government, two pilot farms be established, one in the Dawson or Callide valley, and one near Jandowae, in the electorate of Maranoa. Fifthly, I ask that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization be requested to examine possible alternative usages of cordage and bedding grades of cotton, which at the present time appear to be almost unsalable. Sixthly, I ask that the Minister, in conjunction with the Queensland Minister for Agriculture and Stock, try to re-organize the board so that the board members, who give up so much of their time, will be relieved of a good deal of the arduous responsibility that they carry at present.

I commend the bill to the House. It is another forward step in the Government's policy of bringing justice to the primaryproducers, returning them a good measure of income, and lifting them above Labour's conception of them as a peasant class to provide cheaper food and clothing for the workers in the cities. It is a forward step so that we may have in Australia an industry which will eventually make us selfsupporting in regard to our cotton needs.

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