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Tuesday, 1 July 1941

Senator GIBSON (Victoria) .- I understood that this matter was to be referred to a committee which will deal with rural disabilities. If so, it may be that that procedure would be satisfactory to Senator Aylett. If, however, it is proposed to discuss the motion and take a vote on it, I desire to say that Senator Aylett has not stated the position accurately. As the growing and processing of flax is an entirely new industry in Tasmania, it is not unlikely that anomalies exist in that State. The honorable senator pointed out that some of the buildings which are being used to treat the flax are not satisfactory. In the short time which has elapsed since the industry was inaugurated in Tasmania the Government could hardly be expected to erect mills and other buildings for storing, retting and drying flax. Like many other primary products, flax is a seasonal crop. Flax ripens as do other crops, and it is then dealt with according to the methods thought to be most suitable. Senator Aylett said that in wet seasons the flax might be destroyed, but that is not so.

Our trouble in Australia is that the rainfall is generally not sufficient to ret the flax. There is no danger of the flax grown in this country being destroyed by too much moisture. In outlining some of the processes through which the flax has to pass, Senator Aylett said that it is carted from the field to the mills, stacked at or near the mills, carted from the mills to the thresher for de-seeding and then back to the field for retting. What other procedure does the honorable senator- suggest should bc adopted? A farmer will not stack his flax on his own farm and then cart it to the mill and thresh it.. After the seed has been extracted it has to be sent to the retting fields to ret. In Victoria the flax is carted from, the field to the mill, stacked alt the mill and then threshed at the stack. When the seed has been removed the flax is carted to the field and retted by the dew process.

Senator Aylett - Is it threshed at the stack or at the mill?

Senator GIBSON - At the stack. The straw is then spread out in the field and retted. I do not know what other procedure could be adopted. Senator Aylett has suggested that the flax should be pit-retted and treated in drying sheds. I point out that in Ireland, Belgium and other countries where flax is grown in large quantities the flax is all dried in thefields. Drying plants to process the flax would cost about £10,000 each. The flax industry is merely an experiment as far as Tasmania is concerned. F]ax production. was rushed upon the Commonwealth Government by the British Government, which has offered to buy the whole of our production at a fair price - £5 15s. for standard and a premium for that above standard - just as' it did during. the last war. Private enterprise has not developed the flax industry in Australia to the degree that one would expect because of the serious competition offered by Italian hemp. During the last war, flax was sold to the British Government at £5 a ton, but it could not meet the competition of Italian hemp, and, as the result, the production of flax in this country waned. To Tasmania, flax-growing is a new industry, but in Victoria flax has been- grown, milled and treated successfully for over 30 years. Senator Aylett has proposed that a joint committee of the Parliament be appointed to inquire into the whole of the ramifications of the industry. From whom, is it proposed, that the committee should take evidence? I point out to the. honorable senator that the only people in Australia competent to advise the Government in connexion with this industry are the eight experts of the Victorian Department of Agriculture, all of whom learned their business in Belgium, Ireland and other large flax-producing countries as well as Victoria.

Senator Aylett - Their' advice is available to the Tasmanian Government. The honorable senator casts a. slur on the officers of the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture.

Senator GIBSON - Not at all. In justification of the appointment of the proposed committee, the honorable senator himself said that the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture is not capable of developing the flax industry in Tasmania.

Senator Aylett - I referred, not to the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture but to the Flax Production Committee.

Senator GIBSON - The State Governments are responsible for growing the flax, and the Commonwealth Government, through the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and its experts, undertakes responsibility for processing it. The quota allotted to Victoria is 28,000 acres, and it is all taken up. Very good crops a>re grown in the southern districts of the State. For 30 years the flax produced in the southern districts of Victoria has been retted, scutched and prepared so successfully that it has brought £1S0 a ton on the London market. Senator Aylett says that the decorticating process is a new one. That process which was evolved by a gentleman whom I happen to know simply involves the crushing of the dry, flax straw. When the dry flax straw i3 crushed, only the fibre is left. The fibre, which is not scutched or bleached, is sold on the London market at one-half the price of retted, scutched and bleached flax. The only advantage in the decorticating process is that probably it enables the flax to be dealt with speedily. Senator Aylett says that the flax-growing areas of Victoria and Tasmania are too damp, and that a lot of the flax is wasted, when spread out in the fields to ret. If that be so, how does the honorable senator account for the fact that in Belgium and Ireland, where the climate is not so favorable as the Tasmanian climate, practically the whole of the flax produced is retted in the field? As a matter of fact the heavier the dew the better the retting. .Flax- can be grown remarkably well in irrigation areas where the proper quantity of water can be applied. Unfortunately, however, our irrigation areas are not sufficiently moist to ret it. Flax grown in irrigation areas has therefore to be transported to more moist districts or, failing that, to be watered by hand, or pit retted, which is too expensive. In Victoria the Flax Fibres Limited operated two rope cordage mills until last year, when they were taken over and operated by the Government. Senator Aylett has said that these mills are inefficient. I point- out that the whole of the industry in Tasmania is in its infancy. It received a tremendous impetus when, almost at a moment's notice, the British Government asked us to endeavour to supply its requirements of fibre. Until recently the authorities administering the scheme for the growing of flax have not "had time to arrange proper supervisors. They have now done so. Had the officers of the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture done what the experts of the Victorian Government have advised, the flax industry in Tasmania would be in a much better position to-day. .

Senator Aylett - Is it necessary that the Victorian experts should be kept in Victoria ?

Senator GIBSON - They are all fully employed in advising on seeding and land preparation and sowing .the 2S,000 acres allotted to Victoria. Flax of an average length of about 27 inches produced in Victoria is sold at £5 15s. a ton.

Senator Sampson - Does that include seed ?

Senator GIBSON - Yos. Many growers in the Gippsland and Colac districts who are growing fibre in excess of 27 inches are obtaining from £G to £7 a tcn for their product. Honorable senators will recall that some time ago the Government imported about 400 tons of seed from abroad but it arrived too late for planting in most of the districts in Victoria. A good deal of that seed was subsequently planted in Tasmania. There are two classes of flax seed. Sisal Crown, which - produces a lot of fibre and very little seed - and that iswhat the Govern ment is seeking to-day - and Blue Riga, which produces a lot of seed and very little fibre. The farmers in the old country sought to grow flax which yielded heavy crops of seed because of its value in the manufacture of linseed meal and linseed cake, which are used for feeding cattle. I venture to say that if, in a normal season, flax seed is planted at tlie right time, no difficulty will be experienced in growing good average length fibre, .particularly in Victoria. Last year thousands of acres of seed were sown .too late, with the result that the crop had to be harvested for seed as the fibre was of practically no value.

I suggest to Senator Aylett that this matter should be referred to the committee investigating rural disabilities. Only experts can advise the Government on the manufacturing side of the industry. They comprise the manufacturers, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the eight advisors of the Victorian Government to whom I have referred.

Senator Sampson - Is no flax retted in pits in Australia?

Senator GIBSON - It is, in some instances. Generally, however, it is spread out and retted in the fields. Pit retting is too costly and it is almost- impossible to obtain the necessary labour to carry on the work. When flax is retted in the field, it is simply spread over acres of country. The retting is done automatically by the dew and exposure to rain.

Senator Arthur - Is any flax being grown in New Zealand?

Senator GIBSON - The New Zealand producers grow sisal, which reaches to a height of from S to 10 feet, and is treated by an entirely different process. . It is a coarse fibre used in the manufacture of rope and binder twine. I should say that flax could be grown in New Zealand as well as it is grown in any State of the Commonwealth. I am satisfied that, through its system of inspection, the Commonwealth is doing everything possible to assist the flax-growers. The matters referred to by Senator Aylett will be referred to. the inspectors who, I understand, have now been appointed by the Government. .If it be found that wastage is taking place, remedial measures will be taken by those Government appointees. I. trust that the Senate will reject the motion.

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