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Wednesday, 2 July 1941

Senator LECKIE (Victoria) (Minister for Aircraft Production) .- The Government is opposed to the motion. SenatorFraser proposes that a joint committee of the Parliament be appointed to inquire into all matters relating to the manufacture and sale of superphosphate. I cannot understand what facts the honorable senator desires to discover which would necessitate the holding of such an inquiry. I realize his anxiety concerning the price of superphosphate. Every one knows that it has been increased.For that reason the honorable senator is genuinely anxious to protect the interests of the primary producers, particularly in Western Australia, who regard the high price of superphosphate as a very heavy tax. However, the honorable senator simply proposes that an inquiry be held into the sale and manufacture of superphosphate. No facts could be disclosed by . such an inquiry which are not already known to all honorable senators. In addition, investigations into the industry have been made by the Tariff Board and by the Prices Commissioner. Indeed, the latter is conducting daily an audit of the price of superphosphate. Therefore, all of the facts which enter into the matter are now known. In the language of the famous country from whose stock both he and I are descended, I remind the honorable senator that " Facts are chiels that winna ding and downa be disputed ". That is something which probably only Senator Fraser and I understand. I shall endeavour to give all of the facts, or at least the most important relating to superphosphate. In the past,' the average quantity of superphosphate manufactured in Australia annually has been approximately 1,000,000 tons. This year, owing to depleted supplies of rock phosphate, it is expected that the tonnage used will not exceed 600,000, or a reduction of 40 per cent. The pre-war price of superphosphate was about £3 10s. a ton. For various reasons there was a variation of a shilling or two in the different States. Since then the price has increased by 24s. a ton in the eastern States and by 26s. a ton in Western Australia and the Eyre Peninsula. That has been due to reasons which already have been plainly stated. First, it has been due to the increase of 13s. a ton in the price of rock phosphate.

Senator Gibson - Is the honorable senator referring to the landed cost?

Senator LECKIE - Yes, the cost of phosphate rock landed from Nauru and Ocean Island.

Senator Fraser - Has the f.o.b. price of rock phosphate increased in recent years ?

Senator LECKIE - The phosphate rock supplied by the British Phosphate Commission, on which Australia is represented, is supplied to each State of the Commonwealth at the same price. As I have said, the landed cost has increased by 13s. ' since the outbreak of war. Sulphur costs have risen by 3s. 6d. a ton, the price of bags by 4s. a dozen, and the manufacturing costs have advanced about 5s. a ton. Those increases make a total of 25s. 6d. a ton. Some explanation of the various items may be necessary, but I point out to honorable senators that this matter has been fully investigated and is always under review by the Commonwealth Prices Commissioner with a view to ensuring not only that profit is kept to the standard existing before the war, but also that that standard should, if possible, be reduced.

Senator Fraser - Has an increase of price occurred since the outbreak of war?

Senator LECKIE - The price of rock phosphate landed in Australia has risen from 29s. 6d. a ton to 52s. a ton. Fiveeighths of a ton of rock phosphate will produce one ton of superphosphate, the balance being made up of sulphuric acid and other chemicals.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - The increase of the price of rock phosphate has been due to the higher handling charges and also to the destruction caused at Nauru by enemy action?

Senator LECKIE - That is so. Enemy action considerably damaged loading facilities at Nauru, but the increase has been due mainly to higher shipping freights and war risk insurance premiums.

The pre-war price of hags was 6s. a dozen and they are now 10s. a dozen. The pre-war price of sulphur in Australia was £6 a ton, but it is now £14 a ton. Honorable senators will recall that a bounty has been paid on the production of sulphur from pyrites and zinc concentrates. That bounty was to cease so soon as the price of imported sulphur increased to £7 7s. a ton. As the price is now £14 a ton, the bounty is no longer payable. In all the eastern States, with the exception of factories at Geelong, in Victoria, and in one' small place in South Australia, Australian pyrites and zinc concentrates are used to produce sulphur, but Western Australia and Eyre Peninsula have always had to depend on imported sulphur. Owing to the large increase that has taken place in the price of imported sulphur, the Government has under consideration a bounty system which will stabilize the price in such a way that all States will receive superphosphate at the same figure. In view of that fact alone, Senator Fraser should be satisfied with the Government's action, and the same should apply to Senator Johnston, who is equally interested in the position that has arisen because of the marked increase of the price of superphosphate. Under the bounty scheme formerly in operation, the Government paid out approximately £87,000 in one year. It will be appreciated that I have given the only facts which could be obtained by a committee such as that proposed by Senator Fraser. We might just as well set up a committee to find out how many letters there are in the alphabet. The facts which I have related are plain enough for every body to understand.

Senator Cameron - The Minister has not supplied all of the facts.

Senator LECKIE - Yes. The Tariff Board conducted an exhaustive inquiry into the superphosphate industry, and the Customs Department, with its price-fixing machinery, has also fully investigated the matter. It seems to me and to the Government that an inquiry by a Parliamentary Select Committee would be quite useless, because it could not reveal anything that every body does not already know. What will be the future of this industry, which is of vital importance to Australia, no one can say, but it is generally believed that owing to the disruption caused to shipping facilities at Nauru, increased war risks, higher shipping freights, and the scarcity of shipping space, the price will probably be higher in the future. I can only assure the Senate that the Government will make every endeavour to see that superphosphate is supplied to the primary producers of Australia at the lowest possible price, thus enabling them to keep production at the highest level. Although I sympathize with Senator Fraser and other honorable senators in their desire to see that the price of superphosphate is kept as low as possible, I cannot understand of what use such a committee a3 that asked for would be. Anybody' not interested in this matter would say that, from a business point of view, the facts are plain to every body, and that no useful result could be obtained from such an inquiry while another body is actively carrying on an investigation. For that reason alone the Government opposes the motion, and asks the Senate to reject it.

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