Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Friday, 23 February 1917

Senator BAKHAP (Tasmania) . - I crave the indulgence of honorable senators for a few moments while I make some brief references to a matter vitally affecting the State of Tasmania, and which has been occupying the' attention of members of the Tasmanian Government, as well as those connected with the milling trade, and a large number of men affected by the situation in that State. Tasmania, although a wheat-producing State, does not grow a very large quantity, and it is not readily saleable on the mainland, because it approximates too closely to the products of the wheat fields of the United Kingdom. In normal years Tasmania does not produce enough wheat for the bread consumption of her own people. A very singular situation has arisen, I suppose primarily out of the war position, because many things which, if attempted in time of peace would meet with considerable opposition, are now being attempted and being done. I have no hesitation in saying I am cardinally opposed to price fixing. One of the lamentable results of this fixing of prices is that the Tasmanian milling trade is now in danger of being extinguished.

Senator Russell - There is no pricefixing for wheat; that is determined by the f.o.b.' price.

Senator BAKHAP - But the price of flour is fixed, and by an authority different from that fixing the Australian price of wheat. Only this morning I received from the president of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce in Hobart a letter, which, perhaps, far more succinctly furnishes honorable senators with, an idea of the state of affairs than would any lengthy utterances of mine. Honorable senators would have been addressed on this subject by Senator Keating had he been present, but he had to catch the boat for Tasmania, and I want it to be understood that he has been handling this question for some time, because the Tasmanian Government and public men of that State have seen the present state of affairs approaching, and have been making representations -to the Commonwealth Government in the matter. The letter to which I refer is written by Mr. T.- Murdoch, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Hobart, under date 20th February, and is as follows: -

Confirming my cable of the 19th inst., copy of which is attached, and I trust that the Tasmanian representatives in the Federal Parliament have been fully seized of the importance of the situation.

I am informed that there is less than a fortnight's supply of flour in Tasmania. The mills have practically ceased grinding for lack of wheat, and the flour cannot be. profitably imported and made into bread at the prices as fixed by proclamation.

Pollard, bran, and sharps are unobtainable, and this is having, and will have, a serious effect on the dairying, butter, and poultry industries.

From the latest Tasmanian statistics, the milling industry is one of the most important in the island, there being seventeen mills, with a capital of £80,000, employing 130 hands, paying £17,000 odd per annum in wages, and having an output of £464,502 per annum. I trust that ere this reaches you I will have received some assurance that the Honorable the Prime Minister will, at the representation of yourself and your fellow members, have taken steps to alter the anomalous and serious position in which not only the flour millers, but the whole population of Tasmania, is at present placed with respect to so important a matter as the production of their daily bread.

The wheat supplies of the Commonwealth at present are controlled by what is known as the Wheat Pool, and although the Commonwealth has been frequently appealed "to by the Tasmanian Government, they have disclaimed any power in the matter, and have referred the State Government to the Wheat Pool. The Wheat Pool, however, will not do anything to furnish the Tasmanian millers with wheat at a price that will enable them to carry on their industry, which is one of the oldest in the Commonwealth. If this price-fixing and pooling of one of Australia's primary products brings us to a kind of commercial impasse of this description, there must be something wrong with the whole business. The correspondence shows -that the Tasmanian Government are absolutely at a loss to knowhow to approach this question. The Commonwealth Government, as I have said, disclaims any responsibility, and the Wheat Board sits down in a practically legislatively fortified position, and says to the Tasmanian miller, " You must pay this price or we cannot supply the wheat. " What is the position in regard to the Wheat Pool? If the Commonwealth Government have no power over that Pool, it cannot be denied that through this Legislature they have strongly buttressed its operations. The Assistant Minister has been most courteous to me since I took up the handling of this question, and from an interview which he granted to representatives of Tasmania the other day I gathered that a vast benefit has been conferred on the wheat-growers of Australia by reason of the collective action of the Commonwealth, particularly in regard to freight arrangements. I learn that Australia had exported 2,000,000 tons of wheat, and that it was estimated that the Commonwealth freight arrangements had benefited the producers of that wheat to the extent of not less than 40s. per ton. I suppose that this circumstance is due to the superior freight arrangement concluded by the Commonwealth before the shipping question became so acute. That arrangement was a pretty fortunate one. It was made at an auspicious moment, when conditions permitted the Commonwealth to obtain terms which would not have been possible of attainment at a later stage in the history of the war. At any rate, the fact remains that by its action the. Commonwealth benefited the wheat-producing industry to the extent of 40s. per ton on 2,000,000 tons of wheat. Now. Tasmania is an integral part of the Commonwealth, and if the collective action of the Commonwealth - as exhibited through its Government: - has enabled the Wheat Pool to benefit to the extent of £4,000,000. Tasmania has contributed to that benefit most materially, seeing that she is a nonwheatexporting State. The Wheat Pool has sold a large quantity of wheat to the Imperial Government, and has fixed the price at which wheat will be sold to millers in Australia at 4s. 9d. per bushel. Now. this arrangement discriminates against Tasmanian millers by making them pay the freight charges to Tasmania in addition to the 4s. 9d. per bushel, with the result that they cannot produce flour and sell it profitably at the price which has been arbitrarily fixed by a Commonwealth authority acting independently of the Wheat Board.

Senator Russell - Not at all. The price paid by the Tasmanian millers is fixed by Victorian competition. It is not a price which is arbitrarily fixed by the Commonwealth .

Senator BAKHAP - It is fixed by a Commonwealth authority which has nothing to do with the operations of the Wheat Pool. Of course, it is easy to be wise after the event, but my only concern is to find a practical remedy for this state of things. The Commonwealth authorities did something, and I believe that what they did was satisfactory. The transports going empty to Tasmania for Tasmanian products were availed of, and the Minister for the Navy made an ar- rangement which enabled wheat to be carried there in those vessels. I believe that 750 tons were thus carried. The Tasmanian people, as the result of that action, were in that one instance placed on an equality with those of the mainland, so far as the milling industry was concerned. I understand that a good deal of destructive criticism is likely to be directed against this action. Bub I take the responsibility of saying that it was a most correct act, and one which removed disabilities from which the Tasmanian millers were suffering. Yet, for reasons best known to the Commonwealth Government, that assistance has been withdrawn. Tasmania and the other States have jointly enabled the Wheat Poo] to benefit to the extent of several millions sterling. I venture to say that if the Commonwealth Government have no control over the Wheat Board - and I believe that Ministers have exerted themselves to the best of their ability in this matter-

Senator Russell - We have exhausted all human agencies.

Senator BAKHAP - Then I suggest that the Minister should invite the Wheat Pool to pay the freight on wheat to Tasmania. I respectfully suggest that it should be clearly put to the Pool that as its operations are backed by the Commonwealth, of which Tasmania is an integral portion, and as it has benefited so much from the freight arrangements, it ought not to permit Tasmania to be blockaded in the same way as Germany is attempting to blockade England. Is the result of our action in backing the Wheat Pool to be the destruction of one of our State industries? The present position is a lamentable one, and convinces me more than ever of the inherent failure of all attempts at price fixing, which are so devoid of flexibility even in time of war. I shall take the earliest opportunity of informing the Tasmanian people that the present position is attributable to the vicious policy of price fixing.

Senator Maughan - Is that the only cause of the trouble?

Senator BAKHAP - It is the main cause. In all equity the Wheat Pool is the proper authority to put the Tasmanian milling industry, on the same footing as the milling industry of the mainland.

Senator Maughan - Tasmania deserves all the help that we can give her.

Senator BAKHAP - That State is never behindhand in any matter affecting tlie welfare of the Commonwealth.. It may be territorially small, but its people are just as sound at heart as are those of tlie mainland. I implore the Government to make such representations to the Wheat Pool as will enable something practical to be achieved. The Wheat Pool, which has benefited by millions of money, is the proper authority to make the concessions, and not the Commonwealth which has backed its operations, but has not made a penny out of them. Responsible men of every grade of opinion in Tasmania regard this question as one of supreme moment. The Minister, I hope, will represent to the Wheat Board that Tasmania has stood behind it in immunising it from loss, and should request it to grant this measure of relief to that State, which is urgently required at the present juncture.

Suggest corrections