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Thursday, 16 May 1957

Mr ROBERTON (Riverina) (Minister for Social Services) . - It is a pleasure to follow the honorable member for Lalor (Mr. Pollard) when he is in his present frame of mind. In the past, I have both followed and preceded him, but this is the first occasion on which we have agreed absolutely, and I congratulate him upon the quality and quantity of his speech, if upon nothing else. Might I be permitted to preface what I have to say by remarking that every Australian Country party member wishes to speak to this bill, largely for the purpose of congratulating the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr. McMahon) and the Government. Similarly, a great many members of the Liberal party, including the Minister for External Affairs (Mr. Casey), are most anxious to address themselves to this bill. Therefore, what I have to say must be confined to covering as rapidly as I can what I consider to be its salient features.

Agriculturally speaking, these two bills can be described as the most hopeful signs of the century. Modesty compelled the Minister to play down the drama of his unique position. Here is a Minister who introduces a bill for an act to impose retrospective taxation on an exclusive section of the Australian people for an exclusive purpose, at the will and pleasure of the people whom he proposes to tax. Only a Minister who has the absolute confidence of the people whom he is appointed to serve would be requested to introduce measures of this description, and only a government with a record of, and reputation for, absolute integrity would ever be requested to pass such measures.

There are, as the Minister explained in his second-reading speech, two bills. There is the Wheat Industry Research Bill, which is designed to provide the way for the intensification and expansion of investigations into the agricultural, scientific and economic problems associated with the wheat industry, and there is a bill designed to provide the means to accomplish that task. [Quorum formed.]

The honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward), who called for a quorum, pays too much attention to me. I have done without his attention up to this point, and I can assure him that I could do without it to the end of the road. Both bills have been introduced by my colleague at the request of the accredited growers' representatives - at the request of the people engaged in this most important of our agricultural industries. Strangely enough, these extraordinary procedures are not without precedent. The people engaged in the great wool industry, and the people engaged in the increasingly important tobacco industry, have taken precisely the same course and we have cause to be grateful to them for setting a splendid example, lt is not surprising that wool-growers, who have always been resolute in their determination, manage their own affairs and reach their own decisions as to what should be done to advance their great industry should agree to tax themselves and set up a research organization. Nor is it surprising that the tobacco-growers, who are engaged in a comparatively new industry, beset by problems that are inseparable from the production and processing of tobacco leaf, should adopt a similar course. But it is surprising that the wheat-growers, who are experiencing the only period of permanent stability that they have known, should take this first opportunity to request the Minister and the Government to bring down legislation of a like nature. So I say that, agriculturally speaking, it is the most hopeful sign of the century, and I speak as a farmer.

It is an understatement to say that the Australian standard of life and living is largely founded on agriculture. All human progress has followed in the wake of the plough. If there are countries that are exclusively pastoral, they are countries of no great importance. If there are countries that are predominantly industrial they are utterly dependent on other parts of the world, not only for their markets but for their food - for the stark necessities of life. It was the Australian farmer who went out into the arable areas of our vast country, brought them to production in the first place and kept them in production, regardless of the social, economic and agricultural consequences, until urban society as we know it to-day could establish itself in the concentration points of population and engage in the secondary and tertiary industries. Without wheat there would have been no effective occupation and development of our country, and without the effective occupation and development of our country it is very questionable whether we could have survived. It is unreasonable to suppose that, with a population of 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 people, we could have held this continent during the troublesome years that followed World War I. It was the wheat-grower, belting out millions of bushels of wheat year after year, who brought communities and commercial enterprise to our countryside. It was the wheat-grower who brought roadways, railways, villages, towns, cities, shires and even States to our country. Unless one has made a farm from virgin land, unless one has survived the hazards of climate and seasons, unless one has weathered the economic blizzards that have blown from time to time, one can have no conception of the magnitude of the task undertaken in this country by the Australian wheat-grower.

There was no easy way to clear land and make a farm and there was no known way to bring it to production. By trial and error, the Australian farmer had to discover when to plough and when to sow. He had to unravel the mystery of the Australian cereal year and devise methods suitable to vagaries of our seasons, our soils, sub-soils and substrata. So most of his work was literally, in deed and in fact, experimental in character. For the first 50 years he did it alone. 'Later, he was assisted, of course, by the departments of agriculture in the various States. A great industry was founded. But if the problem of production was difficult, the problem of marketing became even more difficult and the Australian farmer was ill-equipped to attempt a solution to that vexed question. There was no problem of marketing when our production was confined at or below the rate of local consumption. The Australian people, because of their geographic position, were required to pay an Australian price for wheat equal to or greater than the landed cost of imported wheat and they did it willingly. The problem was created by the intuitive skill of the Australian farmer and the virgin fertility of our soil. When a great export industry was established the local price of wheat was related, not to import parity as it had been, but to export parity for the first and fateful time.

It was at that point in our political and agricultural history that a grievous and tragic blunder was made. The Australian price for Australian wheat was superseded by a demand that the Austraiian wheatgrower should make his wheat available for local consumption at the lowest export parity price and not a fraction of a penny more. It was I who, in a moment of desperation at that time, coined the phrase, " the coolie price for Australian wheat ". Whatever the coolie, wherever he was to be found, was prepared to pay for Australian wheat became the maximum price paid by the Australian consumer to the Australian wheat farmer and not one-eighth of a penny more. The coolie determined the price that the Australian farmer got for his production. With Australian agriculture chained to the chariot of this export parity price structure, the Australian farmer was dragged through the labyrinth of international trade as a natural consequence.

If the export parity price of wheat was high, the Australian wheat-farmer and the nation was prosperous. But if the export parity price fell - and it fell so frequently that it brought disaster to land utilization as we knew it in the arable sense of the term - the entire nation was driven to despair and the Australian wheat-farmer was brought close to ruin and was urged, in the national interest, to grow more wheat. Do honorable members remember the desperation of those " grow more wheat " campaigns? May I be permitted to warn honorable members of the " grow less wheat " campaigns that are so prevalent to-day? In my opinion, the " grow more wheat " campaign was the sole cause of our land disaster. As the export parity price of wheat fell, so did the Australian farmer increase the area under production. As he increased the area under production, so did he reduce the chemical and physical properties of out soils and go down to -his ultimate ruin. That is the explanation of our land disaster when we lost a generation of Australian farmers, and there is no other acceptable explanation.

If I may be permitted to say so, I have , been closely associated with the wheat industry for 35 years. During the whole of that time I have done whatever 'lay within my power to make .governments, State and Federal, see the utter folly of an agricultural policy that was visiting ruin on our farms and farmers alike -and reducing arable land usage in our -country to what can only be described as an agricultural reproach. I have been coming -to -this place at regular intervals since 1927 in order to fay to find the solution to this agricultural problem. I -have an intimate knowledge of the struggle that went -on, year after year, in this place to establish the principle, if I may use -another phrase of my own making, that the produce of the land belongs in its entirety to the producers, subject only to the discharge of their lawful obligations. That principle has been established by this Government.

The accredited growers' representatives ;and organizations have been officially recognized by this Government for -the first time in our agricultural or political history. They have been taken into the confidence of this Government in all its deliberations affecting the industries associated with primary production. An orderly system of marketing which preserves the producers' equity in their own production has been devised and -adopted, although I think that it will still have -to stand the acid test when the export parity price falls below the cost of production and the stabilization fund created by the growers has 'been exhausted. The fell !hand of depression, largely because of 'the application of members of the Government to the problem that confronted us, has been lifted from the industry for the -first time in our agricultural history.

As a direct consequence of these reforms, a great transformation has taken place. The traditional wheat-farmer, who was forced by economic circumstances to savage his land in order to live and to create national income, has entirely disappeared from the Australian agricultural scene. Mis place has been taken by men "who are in a position to farm, in the highest sense of 'the .term, for 'the first time in .our history; 'by men who are conscious -of their obligations to the land and who for the first time, are in a position to discharge these obligations; by men who recognizethe -need .and the urgency for .research intoevery -aspect of their industry, and who,, because the 'field of investigation is limited' by the resources that up to this point have been available, are willing to pay an exclusive tax to expedite .research and to expand it.

The Minister -made -reference in 'his second-reading -speech 'to the part played in the negotiations which preceded the introduction df .these measures :by the Australian Wheat Growers Federation. If I may foe 'permittee! to do so, 'I mention briefly 'as a matter of great importance that (the traditional .agricultural history of our organizations in this country, naturally enough, followed the .political pattern. We began with .State organizations. As they grew in importance and as their responsibilities spilled .ov,er from one State into another, it .became accessary to form federations. Because the federations themselves assumed national responsibilities, they .had to form a national body, and, because the National Farmers Union undertook international responsibility, agricultural organizations generally became international in character. Of necessity, a federal Minister can do business only with federal organizations, so far as primary industries are concerned, and the federal organizations are exclusively commodity in character. When a Minister introduces a wheat bill, it is his .manifest duty to do his negotiations with the accredited representatives of the Australian Wheat Growers Federation. If he introduces a wool bill, as -he has done within the last few hours., it is his -manifest duty, if he wants to take the growers into his confidence, to negotiate with the Graziers Federal Council or the Meat and Wool Growers Federation. All our federal organizations are commodity in character and commodity in kind. It was appropriate that the Minister should negotiate with the Australian Wheat Growers Federation when he intended to introduce this bill.

Limitless fields exist in primary industries for research, both in the laboratory and on the farm, more particularly related to our arable land. There is the problem of production, and everything that has happened in the utilization of our arable land has happened because of trial and error by the farmers, assisted latterly by the Departments of Agriculture in all the States and subsequently by that magnificent organization, the ministerial head of which is the Minister for External Affairs (Mr. Casey), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. There are unlimited fields for investigation into the question of production, as the honorable member for Lalor said when he spoke for the Opposition. He mentioned certain very important figures and I might be permitted to use them again for another purpose. For example, the area under wheat production fell during the last quarter of a century from 18,000,000 acres, a vast area of land, to 8,000,000 acres. But, as the area under production fell, because of the experimental work done by the farmers, by the State Departments of Agriculture and by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the yield of wheat grew during that quarter of a cen- tury from 11 bushels to almost 20 bushels, or 19.75 bushels to be precise. With all our mechanical equipment, our technical knowledge and information gathered over the years, if the Australian cereal farmer in a moment of emergency wanted, in the national interest, to expand his production back to the 18,000,000 acres that obtained more than 30 years ago, he could, on the average yield of to-day, produce a crop that would approximate 400,000,000 bushels. That, of course, is gigantic business by any standards.

There are also limitless opportunities for investigation into our soils and our soil deficiencies. When the first wheat was grown, no one knew anything about the soil, the sub-soil or the sub-strata. Yet, those valiant men and women went out, put a plough into our arable land after it was cleared, and met with disaster because no one knew the natural sequence of agricultural events in our country - when to plough, when to sow, when a germination of cereals was possible and when a crop might be harvested. They did the experimental work and they got so close to perfection that the results of the preliminary trials have stood the acid test of time. A great deal has still to be told about our soils and our sub-soils. Because much of it is beyond the sphere of the average farmer, it is necessary that those who have dedicated their lives to scientific investigation should assist in this great work and, because the assistance up to this point has not been adequate, the growers have agreed to tax themselves and have asked the Minister to bring down measures for that splendid purpose.

There are limitless opportunities for scientific investigation into land utilization. At one time, we did not know anything about rotational crops or a careful use of our arable lands. The traditional custom was that, when a farmer cleared an area of land, he brought it under production and held it there through a system of repetitive cropping until the chemical properties were reduced and the physical properties destroyed. Gradually, rotational systems were devised. Lea farming has been introduced for the first time in our history and we are making great agricultural progress, which needs only the stimulus of bills of this description.

I have only a minute left, and I want to use it by referring to what the honorable member for Lalor failed to understand in the Minister's second-reading speech. It is perfectly clear that provision is made in the bill for a Commonwealth grant at any time up to and including a maximum equal to the amount levied and collected under the wheat tax. Surely, that is simple enough for any one to understand. If the wheat tax amounts to a sum of £100,000,000, it is competent for the council or the committees to appropriate from the federal budget an equal amount from time to time. I end as I began, by saying that this is the greatest event in our agricultural history during this century, and the Minister is to be warmly congratulated.

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