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Wednesday, 22 March 1961

Mr WHEELER (Mitchell) .- Mr. Speaker,I wish to make some comment on the present state of the poultry-farming industry in Australia. Poultry-farmers, most of them being small men on family farms, have been left bewildered and dismayed by the impact of unrestricted imports on their industry. American canned chicken is coming into this country in increasing quantities and at prices which inevitably make it a serious competitor of local table poultry. This canned chicken is a surplus product which has been placed on the market as a result of mass production in America, which has a glut to dispose of. Unless something is done to limit the imports, it seems that the local producer must be overborne by their weight.

I directed the attention of the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) to the danger and I received a reply to the effect that he had asked producers for evidence to support the statement that serious damage had been done to the local industry. That is the usual departmental procedure. Where manufacturers who are operating, on a large scale are concerned, it may be all right. But how is the information to be obtained in this case? Poultry-farmers are scattered over the whole of the Commonwealth. There are hundreds of them in my electorate alone. Nearly all of them are working on a comparatively small scale and they are not able to keep complete accounting systems in the same way that big business is able to do. They are not even able to maintain a large-scale professional industry organization such as is maintained by the wheatproducers and the wool-growers. It would take months to assemble enough figures to satisfy a sceptical department. In the meantime, the danger continues to increase. Having recognized this fact, the Minister has gone further and has asked the officers of his department to approach the industry and to offer to help it to establish the facts of its case. That is a sympathetic approach, and it must be of considerable assistance to the industry in preparing its case. But the questions the department may ask provide their own answers.

These imports are coming in, as the figures of the Department of Customs and Excise will show. We can see the products displayed in shops and shop windows. We know the selling price, and th:e department knows the cost of production of the Australian farmers. It is obvious that the imported product is being sold, and this must be at the expense of reduced sales of the local product. When a doctor sees a man knocked down by a motor car, he does not bend over him and ask him to supply documentary proof that he has been injured. He acts on the evidence that is before his own eyes.

The Government has recently very wisely taken to itself powers to deal with situations like this without waiting for the cumbersome and often unsatisfactory and unrealistic Tariff Board procedure to be followed. The present case provides an excellent opportunity for the use of these new powers. It is highly probable that these imports come within the definition of dumping - morally, if not legally. Once again, however, the poultry-farmer has no chance to furnish proof. Evidence can be gathered only by some one who is on the spot in America. We may ask, for example, "What price does the United States producer pay for stock feed? " As far as can be ascertained, stock feed is heavily subsidized by the American Government, and that is one reason why American chicken can undersell our product. The structure of the price support programme and other farm subsidy programmes of the United States is so complex that it would take an economist on the spot months to ascertain how much subsidy, direct and indirect, is being paid for the production of canned chicken.

It should be emphasized that this is not a case of an Australian industry wanting the Tariff Board to protect it because of its inefficiency. On the contrary, the poultry meat industry has made big strides in efficiency in the last few years, and the price of birds on the farm has not risen in spite of greatly increased costs. This is because much more meat is now being produced in much quicker time from every pound of feed. This is the result of scientific breeding programmes, which are still being pursued.

In view of this improvement, it might be asked: How is it that they are not able to meet overseas competition? The answer is that the Americans have been working on similar lines for a longer time and they are still ahead of us. To achieve this, they imported stock from various parts of the world. Normally, we could catch up with them by importing some American stock, but the fear that disease might be brought into this country prevents1 this as well as precluding the importation of American eggs for hatching.

If our farmers are allowed to continue their stock breeding programme, it is estimated that they will reach present American standard's by 1966. However, if prices are brought down by imports, it will just not be worth while to go on with it. I appeal to the Minister not to let that happen. We have something in this development of our poultry industry which is bringing chicken meat - previously a luxury item - within the reach of every one. A few years ago, many saw chicken meat only at Christmas time; soon, if the industry is allowed to continue its plans, chicken can be put on the tables of these same families whenever they like.

Not only poultry meats are affected by the imports. If they are not checked, egg production will be made dearer and will be reduced. Wheat-growers will be other sufferers for it is estimated that the poultry farming industry buys £30,000,000 worth of grain and stock feed each year. Farmers want either restrictions on imports or a tariff on canned chicken imports, and in the circumstances, I believe this is a reasonable request.

I am more and more convinced every day that there must be some form of regulation by the Government of non-essential imports. Our economy just cannot stand up to unrestricted imports, however laudable the idea may be in principle. Further, I am convinced that the matter generally is not one for the Tariff Board. The Government, and no one else, must take the responsibility for maintenance of our currency reserves. The Tariff Board may be useful to ascertain the facts in connexion with a particular industry but unfortunately, even when doing that, its thinking seems to hark back to the old free-trade days. Some form of selective import control must come, and the sooner the better. The rush of luxury imports is doing serious damage to our economy and I submit that the plight of the poultry farmer provides an excellent example of a case in which the principle of not permitting non-essential imports can be applied immediately.

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