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Wednesday, 25 June 1941

Senator AYLETT (Tasmania) . - I move -

1.   That a joint committee of the Parliament he appointed to inquire into and report upon all matters relating to -

(b)   the composition, functions and operations of theFlax Board.

2.   That three members of the Senate and four members of the House of Representatives be appointed to serve on such committee.

3.   That the committee be empowered to send for persons, papers and records, to move from place to place, and to sit during the adjournment of Parliament.

4.   That a message be sentto the House of Representatives requesting its concurrence and asking that four members be appointed to serve on such committee.

My purpose in moving this motion is to endeavour to assist the Minister, the Government, the Flax Production Committee, or whoever maybe administering this industryby having a select committee appointed to investigate and report upon the production of flax in Australia. My object is to have the flax industry placed upon a sound footing, so that it will be of some real value in post-war reconstruction. From investigations which I have made, I believe that if this industry continues along existing lines it lias no prospect whatever of being established as a post-war industry. That is what I am vitally concerned with at present. I am not unmindful of how flax production in this country was rushed upon the Commonwealth Government by the British Government, nor am I unmindful of the haste with which the mills had to be erected to get the industry established. The State governments have co-operated in an endeavour to make theproject a success, and now that the industry is in operation,those who have taken an interest in its development can see quite clearly that great improvements could be effected in certain directions. We can also see that although it is hoped to increase the output by 100 per cent. next year, unless some drastic alterations are made, the whole industry will be thrown into a state of chaos. It is to avoid such an eventuality that I suggest the appointment of a select committee. I shall cite some of tlie deficiencies at present manifesting themselves in the production of flax - deficiencies which in due course will prevent the undertaking from becoming a successful post-war industry. I shall start by describing the layout of the mills. I realize that the Government had to' depend on outside advice, or in other words, upon whatever , so-called experts could be obtained. The. laying-out of a flax-producing plant' is a task for an engineer who has a. full knowledge of the industry. He should know all the processes in the .production of fibre .from flax, and without that knowledge he would not be an. experienced engineer in that sphere of industry. The various component buildings of the present" mills have been laid out in such a way that thu cost of production is excessive owing to unnecessary handling. I shall outline for the information of honorable senators some of the processes through which the flax has to pass, and the set-up of the plant generally. The. Government purchases the flax as it comes from the field. It is then stacked in paddocks either adjacent to the mills or in suitable locations nearby. It has to be loaded on lorries and carted from the stacks to the deseeding shed, and after it leaves the de-seeding shed it is dew-retted or pitretted. At present, the Flax Board is experimenting with a more modern process which will dispense with much of this work, but at present we are depending on dew-retting and pit-retting. After it has been pit-retted, it is taken from the pits on lorries to another shed called the drying shed, and when it has been dried, it is again loaded on lorries and taken to the skutching shed. From .there it is carted to the store shed. The existing plants are so laid out that constant handling and carting pf the product at its various stages is involved. In fact, the handling and carting is so extensive that the flax is very nearly retted before it goes to the retting pits. The haphazard location of the various .buildings suggests that the plan for them was prepared by throwing a handful of chips into the air and marking the places where they landed as the sites for sheds. -Had the designing engineer known the .various processes involved in the production of flax ' fibre, 'he would have laid out the buildings in such a way as to involve the minimum of handling and transport, and enough money would have been saved to build Dutch barns at the end of the mills to house practically the whole of the flax instead of stacking it in the paddocks. The flax then could have been, conveyed right through the mill without ever going ou to a lorry except, perhaps, for carting to the paddocks for dew-retting, and an enormous saving in production cost3 could have been effected. Although the mills are now established, I claim that it would be most beneficial to the industry if the various sheds were moved to their proper locations, thus facilitating more economic operation. Then we come to the de-seeding of the straw. Some of the mills have their own winnowers supplied to them by the Government, but they are not finishing and grading a perfectly clear article. After the material comes from the winnowers, it has to he graded by some private firm at so much a bushel. Some mills have not had big winnowers supplied by the Government, and are operating small hand machines. One could say that that system of processing and cleaning seed went down with the Titanic many years ago. I have given only a few examples of avenues in which savings could be effected. Then we come to the temporary mills which had to be erected rapidly to aid ns for the time being. Some of these are handling as large a quantity of flax as is being handled at the permanent mills, in the face of difficulties which, to my mind, are appalling. To illustrate my point, I mention in particular the mill at Lilydale, about IS miles from Launceston. Many hundreds of tons of flax were brought to that mill, and after it was de-seeded it was taken out into the paddocks to be dew retted. Some of the paddocks are so steep that nobody could stand on a lorry to throw the sheaves off, and therefore they had to be poked off. From my experience it would be impossible for any lorry to be driven along, the sides of, and up and down, those hills in damp weather in order to load the flax. Much of the flax would have to be gathered and sledged to level ground to enable it to be loaded on the lorries and taken to the mill. When it is carried back to the mill most of it is placed in another stack at the same mill-, side. It stays there for a considerable time, after which it is loaded on a lorry and taken another 37 miles on a hush road to Scotsdale to be scutched. But even the Scotsdale mill is only a temporary one, and there is the same loading and unloading across a paddock to and from the- showground sheds where the machinery has been- set up. The seed which was separated at Lilydale has to be loaded on a lorry and' carried to a winnower at Scotsdale, and' then carted the same distance back to Launceston to be cleaned, whereas it could have been taken to Launceston in the first place. It may be necessary to establish further mill's, although on a small scale, in order to save the wastage due to carriage over such a long .distance.

I shall now refer to some of the other temporary mills, because I consider that honorable senators should bc made aware of what is taking place. There is unnecessary handling' in carrying the flax out of the stacks and into the mills, and it is being transferred into sheds that are unsuitable for the purpose. There are three or four handlings in getting the flax to the de-seeding plant, and three or four more in. conveying it from that plant to the lorries. Then it has to go through the same process as I have mentioned for dew retting. It is brought back, in the majority of cases, and stacked in the mill where it is left lying for some time. Then it is loaded on another lorry and taken to another mill- to be scutched. If we have to dew ret the flax, I do not see why it should not be loaded on the lorry in level paddocks and carried direct to the scutching mill. I shall now describe the process of cleaning the seed in one .of the temporary mills. One is an old brewery which. is totally unsuitable for such work. After the flax is deseeded, the seed is carried to another floor by means of a block and . rope operated by hand.. It is then cleaned by means of a small hand .winnower, after ..which it is lowered down by . means of a block and tackle to the bottom floor, and has to be sent another 30 miles along the coast to be graded. I claim that adequate machinery could be installed to not only roughly clean the .seed, but also grade it at the same time. An electric- power line runs past the mill, and, by means of a dynamo, a few cog wheels and a belt, an up-to-date winnower could be installed. This would enable the cleaning to be done on a more economic basis than' at present. Another permanent mill is situated at Wynyard, and, in ordinary seasons, it would be located in a swamp. The shed being used is totally unsuitable for a flax mill. The- has to he handled- three- or four times to be taken into the shed to be de-seeded, and it has to be handled two or three times more to be put back into the same shed to be scutched. After scutching it has- still to be handled two or three times again before it is got rid of. If this industry is to survive, it will be necessary to lay out the mills on proper lines. There is another mill at Smithton. I was so disgusted with what I had seen at the other mills that I did- not visit the Smithton mill when I was told: that the flax was handled to and f-rom the mill at Smithton by means of a team of bullocks and a wagon. That is the archaic means of transport adopted at one' of the mills that has been passed as a permanent establishment. If the lay-out of the mills were right in the first place, there would- be no need for lorries, horse-wagons, or bullock- drays to handle the flax into, the mills- and to the different sheds.-

I should like a committee appointed to investigate the various phases of processing fibre from flax. At present, it is being processed in Tasmania, and in most 6f the-mainland mills by a system. of dew-retting. I understand that in England and. Ireland and elsewhere, pitretting ' is used extensively. Pits have recently been constructed at the Hagley mill for the purpose of pit-retting flax. If. this method be necessary - and' I claim that it would be of great advantage - it is time steps were taken to install" pits at the other permanent mills while suitable labour is available for that class of work. I contend that pit-retting offers a tremendous saving as compared with dewretting, and would not be so risky. If we had experienced normal weather conditions in Tasmania this year, instead of a phenomenally dry season, it is quite on the cards that we should have lost one half of the flax that was lying out to be dew-retted. If we get a break in the weather during the next few weeks, we shall lose practically the whole of the flax which is bring dew-retted.

Senator Gibson - That is not so.

Senator AYLETT - I am speaking only from investigations that I have made, and I have found thatwhen the flax has been continuously wet, the fibre rots after it is dried.

Senator Gibson - Is the honorable senator speaking of stacks, or of dewretting in the paddocks?

Senator AYLETT - I am referring to the dew-retting of flax that has been continuously wet. I have known wet weather to continue for 30 days without a break. In view of the phenomenal spell of dry weather, we have been very fortunate in Tasmania this season, but we cannot expect the dry conditions to continue throughout the year. If there is any other way of processing fibre from flax without the danger of losing one-half of the crop, that is what we want to find out.

Senator Gibson - Where is the flax from the pits dried.

Senator AYLETT - In a properly equipped drying shed. I desire to assist the Government to make this industry a success. My object in bringing the matter forward is toendeavour to make this a. post-war industry, and I ask for the co-operation of honorable senators opposite, as well as the assistance that I know I shall have from my colleagues on the Opposition side of the chamber. I do not suggest that dew-retting could be entirely dispensed with, but, if we could build sufficient pits, the whole of the flax could be dealt with by the pit-retting process. Which is the better method is a matter on which there is disagreement. Some claim that dew-retting is the superior process, and others say that pitretting gives equally good results.

Senator Herbert Hays - It depends largely on the climate.

Senator AYLETT - Yes. If the weather is too fine, or too wet, the dewretting process is interfered with, and therefore if pit-retting will produce a fibre equal to that obtained from dewretting, it would be wise to install pits for the purpose. Moreover, other means of treating the flax may be found if an inquiry were instituted. I have been informed that two decorticators have been ordered by theFlax Production Committee. Should the machines be successful, there will be no need for the retting process. I understand also that there is in Australia a gentleman who has carried out fairly extensive experiments in connexion with the decorticating of flax, but that no facilities have been afforded to him to continue his investigations. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that information, but I believe that it is authentic.

Senator Gibson - Does the honorable gentleman refer to a gentleman at Portarlington?

Senator AYLETT - At this stage I do not propose to mention any individual by name. I merely say that a certain gentleman has carried out fairly extensive experiments by which fibre has been obtained from flax without either dewretting or pit-retting. I understand that his experiments proved that after the flax had passed through the decorticator there was much less bulk to handle than when other processes were employed and also that by dew-retting the fibre, for a certain period after leaving the machine, its quality was improved. Unfortunately, that gentleman has not been given charge of one of the machines ordered by the Flax Production Committee. If, as is stated, the process of decorticating flax by means of these machines is still in the experimentalstage, I cannot understand why four of them were ordered. I am amazed that this man, who has devoted so much of his time to experimenting with flax, should not have been given charge of one of the machines. Indeed until I told him that four machines had been manufactured he had no knowledge that they had been ordered. I desire the appointment of a committee in order that various phases of the processing of flax fibre and also the suitability of certain localities for the erection of mills may be investigated.

Senator McLeay - Does the honorable senator suggest that he knows more about this subject than do the people who are already associated with the flax industry ?

Senator AYLETT - I certainly know more about the erection of mills for the processing of fibre from flax than does the engineer who designed the mill to which I have referred. However, I shall not criticize him now, because I want to see this industry established in Australia. The appointment of a committee would enable the layout of mills to be investigated, and would provide an opportunity to obtain valuable information from persona interested in the growing and processing of flax. At the conclusion of its investigations, the committee would be in a position to furnish a report which should be of great value to the Government, members of this Parliament, the Flax Production Committee, and all others associated with the flax industry. I do not know whether the other committees which are to he set up will deal with the flax industry; hut I urge that this investigation should begin at the earliest possible moment, particularly as Australia has been asked: to double 'its production, of flax, -and, also because persons whom the Government regards as authorities on the processing of flax have furnished information which. I know to be incorrect. One of. these supposed authorities gave the cost of producing flax in Tasmania as £4 10s. an acre. That statement, is ridiculous. However, it would appear that it was- regarded as correct 'by the Government, seeing that the guaranteed price for flax was fixed at £4 10s. an acre. I hope {hai the Government will, agree to the appointment of a commitee to investigate this industry, which should prove of great value to Australia.

Debate (on motion by Senator McLEAY) adjourned.

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