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Wednesday, 7 December 1960

Mr POLLARD (Lalor) .- To my mind this measure is one of the most important that has been presented to this Parliament for its consideration during this sessional period. I do not suppose many Australians realize the importance of sulphuric acid to the Australian economy or, for that matter, to the economy of any country. It is of particular importance to Australia because we are a great primaryproducing country. It is nearly as important because of our great secondary industries. Sulphuric acid is vital to our primary industries because it is a major element in breaking down phosphatic rock obtained from Nauru, Ocean Island, and other places, into what the Australian primary producer knows as superphosphate. Without sulphuric acid we would be in real difficulties because we would have no means of stimulating our agricultural pursuits. But that is not enough. It is doubtful whether our textile industries could function satisfactorily without sulphuric acid. It is doubtful whether we could make tyres of the quality that we make in Australia without the use of sulphuric acid. In addition, we would be in real difficulties if we did not have sulphuric acid to use in the wide range of chemical products which are essential to every sector of the Australian economy.

Of course, a statement such as that immediately prompts one to ask how we obtain sulphuric acid. Very few people would be able to answer that question unless they needed to find the answer as we need to. The plain fact is that possibly the most efficient method of producing sulphuric acid is by the use of brimstone. Brimstone is the scientific name given to what the ordinary man calls sulphur - the good old sulphur that people of my generation had to take, mixed with treacle, to clear the blood. By the simple process of roasting or burning sulphur one produces sulphuric acid.

In the past Australia has been largely dependent for its supplies of brimstone - that is almost 100 per cent, pure sulphur - upon the southern States of America and upon Mexico where this most valuable material is produced by driving bores into the earth where the sulphur lies in the porous rock. Then, by virtue of the inventive genius of a great Frenchman, the material is brought to the surface in liquid form, is diverted into dams and eventually is gathered in a solidified state. I understand that this Frenchman discovered a process whereby, after putting a casing into the bowels of the earth, vast quantities of steam were released which, in turn, liquefied the solid sulphur in the pores of the rock. So brimstone or sulphur is imported into Australia.

I understand that brimstone is obtainable also from Korea, but I must confess that I am ignorant as to whether it is obtained from bores into the bowels of the earth or whether it is mined in a somewhat similar state from volcanic hills, as it has been for centuries in Sicily. Those are the elementary facts of the production of sulphur - the basic ingredient of sulphuric acid which is so important to our civilization.

We in Australia are in a difficult position. We have no brimstone or sulphur in its natural state and we are, therefore, dependent upon importation of the commodity or, alternatively, faced with the prospect of processing, by a somewhat expensive method, certain raw materials which occur in Australia in two forms. The first is a by-product of our great zinc, lead and silver mining industries, and the second is a form of sulphur found in the rather modified form of iron ore at Norseman in Western Australia and at Nairn in South Australia. This country always has to bear in mind its dependence on overseas supplies of the basic materials for primary and secondary industries and it was thought, particularly by the Chifley Labour Government, that because of our difficulties in obtaining sulphur during World War II., we ought to make some effort to process our indigenous materials, namely, pyrites and sinter gases, and the naturally occurring deposits of sulphur at Norseman and Nairn. Although World War II. had concluded only a couple of years previously, the Chifley Government took steps to con tact those people who were most likely to be interested in installing the expensive plants necessary to treat pyrites and the other indigenous materials. This Government came to office in 1950 and realized also the necessity for ensuring, at whatever the cost, that Australia was independent, at least to some extent, of overseas supplies of this all-important basic material for the manufacture of sulphuric acid. It set to work, and this Parliament agreed to a bounty which would compensate the owners, or alternatively the manufacturers who had been producing sulphuric acid from imported brimstone or sulphur, for installing the plant that was essential to deal with the indigenous products from which sulphuric acid could be obtained. The pyrites and sulphate of iron, as I think the engineers in Nairn and Norseman call it, are subjected to not dissimilar processes which produce pure sulphur or brimstone. These processes are expensive. Although in processing brimstone there is no residue, in processing pyrites and other natural products of Australian origin, there is a residue of 50 per cent. This residue is a produce which has close relationship to iron. It is being cast on the scrap-heap for the time being, but ultimately it may prove to be worthy of processing for the manufacture of pig iron and steel.

Added to the expense of these processes is the fact that it is necessary to transfer the material from places like Mount Morgan, where it is estimated the supply of pyrites will last perhaps for another 40 or 50 years. It is also expensive to transfer the raw material to the site of the acid-manufacturing plant. Sometimes it is sited on the coastline or. in other circumstances, not far from the coastline. Owing to the recognition by the Government of the day of the fact that something had to be done to provide us with a measure of independence and security in this regard, we have the Sulphuric Acid Bounty Payment Act. We find to-day that the present Government has discovered after a reference to the Tariff Board that whereas seven or eight years ago to import brimstone and process it for the manufacture of sulphuric acid was rather expensive and the bounty requirement was not extravagant, the importation of brimstone to-day is relatively cheap. Taking its cue from the report of the Tariff Board, if I do not misunderstand that report, there is now a weakening in the Government's desire to assist the indigenous industry of the local acid manufacturers.

In his second-reading speech the Minister informed this House that the manufacture of sulphuric acid from indigenous sulphurbearing materials made a contribution in 1958-59. from the use of pyrites, of about 35 per cent, of the total production of about 1,000,000 tons of sulphuric acid in Australia. If we allow another 5 per cent, from the processing of sinter gas - that is my estimate - we can say without exaggeration, and even being a bit generous, that despite the number of years over which this bounty has operated in Australia we are not producing more than 50 per cent, of our sulphuric acid requirements to-day from indigenous materials. It is unfortunate that our goal has not been set at producing 100 per cent, of our requirements from our local material, whatever the cost. Whatever might be the payment to the local producers in Australian currency, per medium of a bounty, the fact remains that we would not be sending any dollars to the United States of America and thus further depleting our overseas balances by importing brimstone from America, and we are importing from America about 500,000 tons of brimstone a year at the present time. Perhaps some of it comes from Korea, a source from which I believe there have been some shipments. But as I understand the Koreans want payment either in dollars or sterling, our trade balance gets worse and worse every day.

We have in Australia all the raw materials to produce the whole of our sulphuric acid requirements, given sufficient energy and encouragement. For that reason, while the Opposition supports this measure, we are not convinced of the enthusiasm of the Government to rectify what is in reality a rather sad and sorry position.

Mr Mackinnon - Are you considering the price of superphosphate to the user?

Mr POLLARD - Do not wave your finger at me. I do not like it.

Mr Mackinnon - The big point is the price of superphosphate to the consumer.

Mr POLLARD - The honorable gentleman says that the big point is the price of superphosphate to the user. Does he really think that by purchasing 500,000 tons of brimstone from America for the manufacture of sulphuric acid we are doing anything practicable?

Mr Mackinnon - But it is manufactured here.

Mr POLLARD - The honorable member asked a question and I am trying to answer it. Does he think that by importing 500,000 tons of sulphur or brimstone from the United States of America and Korea we are doing anything practicable to keep the price of superphosphate within a reasonable range? Work it out for yourself. The present landed price of brimstone is about £21 a ton. Multiply 500,000 tons by £21, which is the price a ton, and you will see what the wastage in our foreign currency is through importing brimstone. Let me return to the question of the price of superphosphate.

Mr Mackinnon - The honorable member does not know what he is talking about.

Mr POLLARD - You are getting excited. What are you getting annoyed about? The honorable gentleman says that he wants cheaper superphospate. If I had my way I would gladly give the primary producers the superphosphate. That is perhaps something of an elaboration or an exaggeration; but if that were done the resultant increase in primary production would be so great that Commonwealth revenue in taxation, railway freights and other forms of revenue would more than recoup the outlay, and it would not cost one solitary dollar or £1 sterling. The honorable gentleman talks about the price of superphosphate. But has his Government done anything to alleviate the position of the primary producers in regard to the price of superphosphate, other than to pay a bounty on the production of sulphuric acid? The Government, which the honorable member's party defeated, was the last to give a bounty to the primary producers of Australia in order to render the price of superphosphate to them more reasonable. Work that one out for yourself. The problem of the price of superphosphate is easily resolved.

Mr Mackinnon - Not the way you are talking.

Mr POLLARD - Look at this Government's economic policy, with an increase of £80 or £90 on the price of an ordinary motor car, and consider the purchase in Australia of some hundreds of thousands of cars annually and you arrive at a revenue of X million pounds. I am not quick enough, mathematically, to tell the House how many millions of pounds would be involved, but it would be entirely Australian currency which, in turn, could be used to subsidize the supply of superphosphate to Australian farmers. If you are going to get Senator Wright and Senator Wood to agree to the sales tax increase on motor cars, get busy with the Ministers in the Government to secure some bounty on the supply` of superphosphate to the primary producers of this country, and you will then he talking economic sense.

Mr Mackinnon - This is a lot of rubbish.

Mr POLLARD - A statement like that is not argument or logic, but the ravings of a disordered mind.

Mr Mackinnon - Get down to the economics of producing sulphuric acid; that is the point.

Mr POLLARD - 1 am telling you that in order to produce sulphuric acid in this coun try it is essential to pay a bounty substantial enough to allow the sulphuric acid producers of Australia to buy their pyrites and supply the superphosphate manufacturers with the acid they require to process the phosphatic rock. The Government is then beholden to determine whether the price to the primary producers is reasonable in view of all the circumstances which surround their activities. If the price is not reasonable, you can then subsidize the price of superphosphate, as the Labour Government did up until 1949. There is no answer to that argument.

Let us now get back to the practical politics of the measure now before the House. Prior to the introduction of this measure - I think it has operated from 1st December, so it is operative now - assistance to this industry came in the form of a bounty only on the production of sulphuric acid. The Government has now seen fit. following the recommendations of the Tariff Board, with which I do not disagree, to make the bounty payments. We have, first, this measure to provide for the payment of a bounty of so much a ton on sulphuric acid production. This bounty is paid to the acid manufacturers, who have installed equipment the cost of which runs into millions of pounds, having been encouraged by the Government to do so. These manufacturers now find, however, that the Government is cooling off. I say that because in the Minister's secondreading speech there is a reference to a duty to the people who had installed this expensive plant. The tenor of the remarks, however, is, if one reads the speech carefully, that this duty is for the time being only. However, provision is made for the payment of this bounty to the producers of this acid.

Then, after this measure, there is another bounty bill to provide for the payment of a bounty to the producers of pyrites. 1 understand that the decision to split the payments so that, instead of a bounty on sulphuric acid only, there will be a bounty on the acid and also on pyrites, was taken because of the difficulties which confronted the Tariff Board when it considered the reference that the Government made to it, and when it became aware of the intention of the Government and what was required by it. The board said, in effect, that it was confronted with a most difficult task. Tn any case, this is the board's decision, and I do not quarrel with it. I understand that the difficulties encountered have relation to the distances of the pyrites production plants, or of the pyrites dumps, from the acid producers, and also to the difficulty of ensuring that the bounty formerly paid only to acid producers was split so that some of it filtered back in a satisfactory manner to the pyrites producers.

We hope that the new measure will be effective, and the Opposition expresses the hope that whatever the cost of the protection, this measure will serve, not only to keep the production of sulphuric acid from indigenous materials at its present level, but also to increase it. I very much doubt, when I read the Minister's second-reading speech and the Tariff Board's report, that it will have this result but, I repeat, I hope that rt will, because it would result in increased employment and increased revenues from rail freights, without any loss whatsoever of currency to overseas countries.

Mr Mackinnon - But it will mean dearer superphosphates. The honorable member for Lalor knows that very well.

Mr POLLARD - The honorable member for Corangamite has a bee in his bonnet. He is so blind to the facts of the situation that he does not realize that if the Government found that the cost of superphosphate was higher than formerly, it would pay the Government to offer a bounty to the superphosphate manufacturers on the production of superphosphate, as was done during the whole period of the war. The practice was discontinued by this Government only in 1950. There is a way out of these difficulties, and honorable members opposite, who appeared to be so concerned about our overseas reserves, should realize that the payment of a bounty to superphosphate manufacturers to keep the cost of their product down would involve the payment of not one single piece of overseas currency. It would obviate the necessity for us to import 500,000 tons of brimstone, almost all of which must be paid for in dollars.

I have said nearly all I wanted to say on this measure. I point to an example of the watchfulness of the Tariff Board. Formerly the bounty was paid on sulphuric acid produced from sinter gas - and I ask the Minister to define " sinter " and " sinter gas " for me - as well as on acid produced from pyrites. I understand that sinter gas is a product of the processes that are carried out at Port Pirie and other refining centres. The Tariff Board discovered that the production of sulphuric acid from sinter gas at Port Pirie and other such places had become so efficient that the acid could be produced by this method as cheaply as from imported brimstone. Of course this is all to the good. The recommendations of the Tariff Board in this connexion have been adopted by the Government, and bounty is no longer paid on acid produced from sinter gas. This shows watchful police work on the part of the Tariff Board, and its recommendation has been wisely adopted by the Government.

I do make a final plea. The Tariff Board, of course, is concerned purely with economics, but having read its report, and having heard the Minister's second-reading speech, I trust that as long as it is necessary to save foreign currency and to render ourselves independent of the imported product, there will be no diminution of the assistance needed by the industry from time to time. It is of vital importance that we maintain local production of this material, which is of such inestimable value to our primary and secondary industries.

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