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Wednesday, 3 June 1942

Mr ABBOTT (New England) . - I support the motion submitted by the honorable member for Swan (Mr. Marwick), and I shall direct my remarks particularly to the No. 5 wheat pool. The disagreement about payments for the surplus of 13,000,000 bushels over the estimated crop of 140,000,000 bushels revolves around the real intention of the Wheat Industry (War-time Control) Bill 1940, and the interpretation of a speech made by the then Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page). When Sir Earle Page introduced that bill, he made the following statement: -

There will be a guaranteed price of 3s. lOd. a bushel f.o.b. ports, for bagged wheat, in respect of an acquired crop of 140,000,000 bushels. AH costs of receiving, handling, railage, storage and placing on board will be found out of this price. ... It must be realized that any wheat grown in excess of the 140,000,000 bushels basis will not participate in the guarantee. The same must, of course, apply to surplus hay, but facilities for its disposal will be provided.

I agree with the honorable member for Swan that the Minister intended that the Government should pay a price of 3s. lOd. a bushel f.o.b. ports for 140,000,000 bushels of bagged wheat, which would amount in the aggregate to a commitment of about £27,000,000. Any surplus wheat grown on licensed areas was intended to be sold to the best advantage, the net proceeds of such sales to be distributed to the farmers as a bonus over and above the payment for the 140,000,000 bushels. There should be no argument about that, but I propose to bring forward additional evidence that this was the intention of the Minister for Commerce of the day, as expressed in the act. Recently I solicited information from the present Minister for Commerce with regard to his statement that the Government would pay approximately £27,000,000 for the 153,000,000 bushels of wheat in the No. 5 pool, representing approximately 3s. 6.1d. a bushel, and that this would be the only payment made to the farmers for the entire crop. The statement meant that the guarantee of a price of 3s. lOd. a bushel for the first 140,000,000 bushels of the crop was not to be honoured, and that the Government was to acquire the excess of 13,000,000 bushels practically free. The Minister made the following statement in reply to my representations : -

Some officers of my department were present at a meeting between Sir Earle Page and representatives of wheat-growing organizations at which it was agreed that the guaranteed price should be in respect of a crop of 140,000,000 bushels, and that if the yield exceeded that quantity the estimated amount of the guarantee, approximately £27,000,000, would be spread over the total crop from registered areas. Actually, 153,000,000 bushels has been received into the pool. . . The arrangement made by my predecessor was a definite agreement; this Government takes no responsibility for the terms of the agreement, but on assuming office I gave an undertaking to different organizations and to the country that the agreement would be honoured and not interfered with.

That is all that the honorable member for Swan asks - that the agreement should be honoured. The chief difference of opinion seems to be in relation to what took place at the meeting of wheatgrowers in Melbourne subsequent to the passing of the Wheat Industry (Wartime Control) Bill 1940. The Minister maintains that the conference agreed that the amount of £27,000,000 should be spread over the whole crop. Various farming organizations throughout Australia maintain that such an agreement was never made. That is where officers of the Department of Commerce, the present Minister, and the farming organizations disagree. The only person who can give a neutral decision as to what actually took place at the conference is the then Minister for Commerce (Sir Earle Page). He is not in Australia, and it is impossible at the present time to communicate with him in order to find out exactly what happened. However, he wrote a letter to the Farmers and Settlers Association of New South Wales, an extract from which has been forwarded to me. The association's letter states -

We are aware that a joint meeting, over a year ago, carried a certain resolution, but the matter was taken up straight away with Sir Earle Page and a definite assurance was given " that up to the full quota would be paid for at the guaranteed price, and if a surplus was produced on the licensed area it would be sold when possible and proceeds paid to the farmers ".

That is the only fair thing to do. If the agreement, which is implicit in the act, and which was confirmed by the statement of the then Minister for Commerce, be not carried out by this Government, and if any surplus realized on the crop over and above the guaranteed price of £27,000,000 be not paid to the farmers, the Government will not be carrying out the undertakings of the previous Government. I believe that the Government does not propose to repudiate what it has already undertaken to do for the farmers in assuming the liabilities of the previous Government in respect of the No. 5 Wheat Pool. I therefore ask the Government to carry out its undertaking to the farmers. It should not allow itself to be misled by the views expressed by the honorable member for Calare (Mr. Breen) and others concerning vested interests and attempts to attack the Government. This motion has not been moved for the purpose of attacking the Government. Its object is to secure justice for the wheatgrowers of Australia, and to ensure the carrying out of an honorable undertaking given by the previous Government, under which this Government, through the Minister for Commerce, accepted certain liabilities.

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