Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 25 October 1956

Mr EDMONDS (Herbert) .- The bill seeks the approval of Parliament for an agreement, relating to sugar, which has been made between the Commonwealth Government and the Queensland Government. The Opposition supports the bill because it always has, and always will, do its utmost to assist every industry, and to see that it receives justice.

Having said that, it might be suggested that I could take my seat and leave the matter there, but, because I have spent my lifetime in the sugar industry, and have more than an ordinary interest in it, I deem it an honour and a pleasure to be able to lead the debate on behalf of the Opposition.

I have but one complaint against the measure. That is, that the Parliament is being asked, to-day, to make legal a price increase that has been applied since 14th May. The purpose of the bill we are now debating is to authorize an increase of Id. per lb. in the price of sugar, which has been in operation for five months. I suggest to the Minister for Primary Industry that action to legalize the increase is rather belated, and that it would be very difficult now if the Parliament were not to pass this legislation, to restore amounts overpaid for sugar to people who had paid them. 1 think that on future similar occasions legislation to authorize increases should be brought before the Parliament more quickly than in the present case.

Not enough people in the southern States realize the great importance of the sugar industry to the nation's economy. That industry is unlike other industries in Australia, in that it is subject to the strictest form of price control. That control is not purely a matter for this Commonwealth Parliament. A great deal of proof is required by the Commonwealth Government before any increase in the price of sugar is granted, and that proof is supplied to it by other authorities which must themselves be convinced of the necessity for an increase before they even approach the Commonwalth on the matter. It will be recalled that after the increase granted in 1952 a committee, known as the McCarthy Committee, was appointed to investigate all the ramifications of the sugar industry and report on procedure relating to future applications for increases of price. Mr. McCarthy, the chairman of that committee, was very ably assisted by Mr. Wolfensberger, and both of these gentlemen did a magnicent job in assessing all the costs associated not only with the growing, harvesting and production of cane generally, but also milling, transport and other features associated with the industry. The McCarthy Committee submitted a report of its findings which dealt, inter alia, with the percentage of profit to be allowed on assets employed. It was agreed by the committee that the growers should receive 5 per cent, profit on their investment in land, 10 per cent, on other elements of growers' investments, and 10 per cent, on funds employed by milling companies, as determined by their balance-sheets. Thereafter, any attempt to get an increase in the price of sugar was considered on the basis set by the McCarthy Committee in 1952.

I realize that when this House handles the appropriation of thousands of millions of pounds during the life of a Parliament an increase of Id. per lb. in the price of sugar may seem an insignificant matter; but it is not insignificant to either the persons who will receive the benefit or the consumers who have to pay more for their sugar. Legislation for an increase of the price of sugar is not just something dreamed up by the Government. The starting point of such legislation lies well in the past and far from Canberra. The legislation is the result of a process which starts right back in the industry itself. Before any application may be made for an increase of the price of sugar the sugar industry has to submit its case to the Queensland Sugar

Board, which in turn has to prove to the Queensland Government that an increase is justified, whereupon that government has to convince the Commonwealth that the increase is justified. The McCarthy Committee established the principle that the Australian Sugar Producers Association and the United Cane Growers Association had to get their experts to work to prove a case to the board for submission to the State government, for further submission to the Commonwealth. So if ever there was an industry whose product was price controlled, it is the sugar industry.

Mr George Lawson - Tt is the most highly organized industry in Australia.

Mr EDMONDS - That is correct. J have outlined that process so that honorable members, and anybody who may be listening in to this debate over the radio, who are not aware of it, will realize exactly what must be done before such a measure as this can be brought before us. In this instance, of course, the growers were able to prove to the board that an increase was warranted, and the board was able to convince the Queensland Government of the need for the increase. In turn, the Queensland Government was able to convince the Commonwealth, thank goodness, of the need for the increase. So, we come to the stage where the public is called upon to pay lOd. per lb. for sugar, which is Id. per lb. more than it was paying before 14th May, when the increase became operative.

I should like to explain, in passing, that it was only after efforts made over many years that the sugar industry in Queensland became a white man's industry. For a long time the conditions in that industry were such that no white man could hope to make a living in it. It was a Labour government in Queensland which removed kanakas from the sugar industry and replaced them with white men.

It was a Labour government in Queensland that initiated the approach to the Commonwealth to impose the embargo on the importation of black-grown sugar. From that day to this, there has been a ban on the import of " black " sugar into this country, and anybody who stops to consider it for a moment can realize exactly what that means. For example, we could compare the living standards and the working standards of the employees in the sugar industry with the standards of employees n the industry in South Africa. If we did not have the embargo as part and parcel of (he Commonwealth sugar agreement, we would not have a sugar industry in Australia. If we did not have a sugar industry in Australia, Queensland would not be the strong and virile State that it is - strong and virile, I may add, despite the fact that it is starved financially by this Government.

If it were not for the sugar industry and other associated industries, Queensland would be a very minor State indeed.

When the occasion has presented itself

I have never failed proudly to boast that I

Mr McMahon - Nonsense!

Mr EDMONDS - If the Minister will wait a minute, I shall tell him why it is socialized. I say that it is socialized because one cannot grow a stick of sugarcane for sale without a permit from the Government or an instrument of the Government. One cannot get an assignment. That is to say, if one wants to grow sugar on a block of land, one can grow sugar to the heart's content, but it will not be sold unless it is assigned to a certain mill.

Mr Anderson - That is not true, is it?

Mr EDMONDS - If the honorable member who hates socialism so deeply will wait. I shall answer his question. In Queensland, sugar is grown under State government control. When the cane is harvested and crushed, the sugar is taken over by an instrumentality of the Government. The government can issue a permit or refuse to issue a permit to grow sugar cane. The Government acquires for sale and distribution purposes the sugar that is made from the farmer's crop.

The Government is responsible for the price that the farmer receives for his cane, not only for domestic use but also, in the main, for the exported product. Whether honorable members opposite like it or not the fac remains that it is a completely socialized industry. If the sugar industry were not as successful as it is, they would be delighted to claim that it was a socialized industry It is completely socialized and it is one of the most successful industries in Australia

Now that I have finished the provocative part of my speech, I may be able to get somebody to listen to me for a change We will consider how sugar actually corney into being. The McCarthy committee of 1952 issued a majority report on this subject, which was subsequently adopted. The report stated that the committee took a production rate of 3 tons of sugar an acre for costing purposes. The industry has increased its efficiency since 1952 and I shall now state the case presented by the industry in connexion with this matter. Since 1952. and in the calculation of present price requirements, a yield of 3.2 tons of sugar an acre has been adopted as normal. The yield of 3.2 tons of sugar an acre has been taken as equivalent to 23§ tons of cane. So it takes slightly over 7i tons of cane to produce 1 ton of sugar.

When people talk about an increase of Id. per lb. in the price of sugar they should remember that the increase in the price during this period of inflation, when the price of ordinary household commodities has rocketed sky high, according to the C series index, is much less than all other increases in the price of items included in the regimen, or basket of goods, or the C series index. So if the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr. McMahon) will forgive me for talking about socialization and the fact that the matter has come up rather belatedly, 1 can assure him that if he wants any assistance to answer the critics in connexion with this matter, he can rely on me for m\ whole-hearted support.

I have already mentioned the great efficiency in the sugar industry. That brings us to the question, not only of farming, but also of milling sugar cane. In a moment I shall say something about the very contentious subject of the Fruit Industry Sugar Concession Committee. I know that quite a lot of comment is made in connexion with the influence - if that is the suitable term - that the Colonial Sugar Refining Company has on the sugar industry. I want to make it quite clear that I do not purport to come out in defence of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. I am quite sure that the company is quite capable of defending itself. I know that the company has a great monopoly, but if anybody has the idea in his head that the great wealth accumulated by that company has been gained from sugar, he should examine the history of the matter.

He will find that sugar pays no more to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company than it pays to any other body that operates the sugar mills. I was an employee of the company for many years. I worked in one of its mills in the Ingham area for eleven years and I know something about its activities.

It has been suggested that the Colonial Sugar Refining Company will be the principal beneficiary from this increase just as it was suggested that the company would be the beneficiary when other increases were discussed in this House. I put it to the Parliament that that is a complete and utter fallacy. I will say, regardless of whoever I please or offend, that the sugar industry in Queensland has a tremendous lot to thank the Colonial Sugar Refining Company for, because that company operates as agent for the Queensland Government. It does all the initiating. It is a wealthy company. It arranges the sale and purchase of stocks. From all of those activities it derives small commissions, in addition to the income from its milling activities. It is true, of course, that the company owns seven mills, but I suggest that it receives no greater return from sugar than would any other organization which owned seven mills. I am not making these comments in defence of the company, because Heavens knows, it needs no defence by me. I am merely pointing out that those people who claim that they are to pay more for sugar so that the company may increase its profits are on the wrong track.

I turn now to the complaints about the part that the cost of sugar plays in the price of canned fruits. Let me say at once that these complaints are neither real nor honest, because the canned-fruits industry is the one industry that is subsidized in respect of the sugar it uses. I say " subsidized " because, in the final analysis, that is what it amounts to. The industry is subsidized by the sugar industry in respect of the sugar content of the products it prepares for export. That situation has applied for a long period of years. 1 notice that honorable members who have spoken on this matter on previous occasions are in the House at the moment, and I assume that they also will have something to say on this occasion. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, although my remarks may incite argument, if you will permit me to do so I shall get in first and answer their criticisms before they are made.

Naturally, the fruit-canners and jammakers use a great deal of sugar. They export a considerable proportion of the products they produce. By special arrangement, under the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement Act, they are able to purchase the sugar used in the products they export at a price equal to the lowest possible price at which sugar could be landed in Australia, duty-free, from any other country of the world. That means, obviously, that they are able to use, in their manufacturing and processing, sugar which they obtain at a price equal to that which they would have to pay if we had no sugar industry in Australia, or if there were no embargo on the importation of sugar. Human nature, I suppose, is the same the world over, whether the people concerned are engaged in making jam, canning fruit or in any other pursuit. They are never satisfied, and they never have been satisfied. It might well be asked: To what degree should this canned fruit industry be subsidized? The Fruit Industry Sugar Concession Committee is composed of a representative of the Commonwealth as chairman; a representative of the sugar industry, nominated by the Queensland Sugar Board; and a representative of the manufacturers of exported products containing sugar, nominated by the manufacturers. From month to month, the committee examines the position of the industry, taking into account all costs associated with canning, including freight and other charges. It must be remembered that this is the only industry in Australia that receives a subsidy in respect of the sugar content of its products. I know that honorable members opposite like to argue with me when I am on my feet, but I do not think that they will dispute that there are many industries which rely, to v. great degree, on the use of sugar in manufacture. It has never been considered that they should have the benefit of a rebate, or of assistance from the sugar industry. Yet, the canners of fruit and the jam-makers show their gratitude to the sugar industry by relentless and everlasting attacks on it. Whenever the question of increasing the price of sugar is raised in this place, we hear attacks on the sugar industry on the ground that the canners and jam-makers are not getting justice. I remind the House that there was a time when payments into the fund were suspended because the reserves had reached almost astronomical proportions. The sugar industry said, in effect, "Why should we continue to put money into the fund, when the money in it already cannot be used? " From memory, the sum in hand at that stage was approximately £1,000,000. The sugar industry decided, therefore, that no further contributions would be made until such time as the reserves had been halved. When that had been done, these subsidies, as I choose to call them, were resumed. This year, the amount has been increased from £216,000 to £370,000.

The amount of subsidy is £2 4s. a ton. Yesterday, I heard some one say, "The total funds increase, but the rebate is still only *£2 4s. a ton, whereas at one time it was £6 ".

Mr McMahon - That is the basic sugar rebate.

Mr EDMONDS - Yes, that is right. The canners and jam-makers argue that the rebate should be greater because more sugar is being produced. More sugar is being produced because Australia recently was committed to supply 600,000 tons of sugar to Great Britain, 300,000 tons to be supplied at the stabilized price and the remainder to be sold on the open market. The millers have spent great sums of money on improving and modernizing their mills, and new land has been opened up. Those who know anything about sugar know that new land grows a great deal more cane than does old land.

The fruit industry has said to the sugar industry, in effect, " You have nothing to brag about because the amount of the rebate has been increased from £216,000 to £370,000. You are able to do that because you have produced more sugar ". I submit that all the fruit industry should be concerned about is the amount of subsidy that it needs. There is no evidence that the canners and jam-makers are finding it difficult to meet the cost of the sugar content of their products. They claim, of course, that it is difficult for them to compete on world markets and that the cost of the sugar content of their products is responsible for that. I point out that South African canners produce much the same kind of products as do the canners in Australia. Incidentally, Australia has no reason to be ashamed of the price at which sugar is sold in this country, because I understand that South Africa is the only country where sugar is sold at a lower price than it is in Australia. That brings me, of course, to the history of the embargo, or the ban, on the importation of sugar. South Africa, with its cheap labour, which is reflected in the cost of freight, transport and other services, is able to produce sugar relatively cheaply. The processors of canned goods obtain sugar much more cheaply than do the Australian canners. But that does not mean that the sugar content in these canned goods caused the disadvantage which Australian canners suffer in selling their commodities on the world market.

Mr Pearce - They have cheap labour in the factories, too.

Mr EDMONDS - They have cheap labour in every section of production and manufacture. As it is the mickles that make the muckles, they can produce cheaper canned goods, because anything manufactured with the use of cheap labour may be sold cheaply. It is of no use to attack the sugar industry, which has played a magnificent part in assisting these manufacturers of canned goods. They are unique in being the only section which obtains assistance from the sugar industry.

Mr Falkinder - What about the protection which the sugar industry gets by way of embargo?

Mr EDMONDS - The sugar industry has one protection only, namely, this Parliament's refusal to allow the importation of sugar grown cheaply with black labour, and its control of the price of the commodity.

Mr Haworth - That is everything.

Mr EDMONDS - Would either of the honorable members who suggest that that protection is too great, be prepared, during the remarks that I hope they will make, to say that he does not believe protection should be afforded to the sugar industry?

Mr Falkinder - Of course we believe there should be protection, if it is not onesided,

Mr EDMONDS - In this argument 1 am one-sided. I confess that I am biased, but it is not a question of being one-sided. This matter is non-political; it has nothing to do with politics. On every occasion on which the price of sugar is discussed in this House, we hear honorable members ask whether the sugar industry is pouring enough money into the coffers of the Fruit Industry Sugar Concession Committee for assistance to the canning industry. We are asked what amount is adequate. The sugar industry should be commended for the part that it has played. I know that the matter is tied up by agreement and that the industry has no choice, but let us not forget that these discussions would never take place were it not for the fact that the price of sugar is determined by agreement between the Commonwealth and the State, and that this Parliament must pass legislation to validate an increase in the price of sugar by even Id. In 1920, sugar cost 6d. per lb. Of all the commodities in daily use in the household kitchen, from bread to potatoes or onions, not one has increased in price by a smaller percentage than has sugar, yet we face a barrage of attack about the rise in the price of sugar. I do not mind criticism, but we have to face more than criticism.

Mr Falkinder - It has not happened yet.

Mr EDMONDS - The honorable member asked what protection the sugar industry is afforded. I- infer that he believes that the sugar industry should not have that protection.

Mr Falkinder - I do not.

Mr EDMONDS - I said that that is the inference to be drawn from his words. I did not say* that that is what the honorable member said. It is for me, not for him, to say what inference I draw from his words. The sugar industry has a magnificent history. Not one industry in this country has worked more smoothly and efficiently. Honorable members opposite cannot criticize production in this industry.

Whether one is a farmer, miller, cane cutter, or cane hauler, his work in the sugar industry is very arduous. Whenever there is talk about the high income of men engaged in the industry, one can be absolutely certain that they earn whatever they receive, irrespective of the capacity in which they are engaged. There is no easy work in the industry. These men work under extraordinarily difficult conditions, but there has been virtually no industrial trouble. It is true that this year there was a little disturbance, but it was smoothed over in a matter of days. I pay a tribute to all those persons, past and present, who have engaged in the industry, whether they have belonged to the Queensland Cane Growers Association, the Australian Sugar Producers Association, or the Proprietary Sugar Millers Association, for the magnificent manner in which they have conducted themselves. Not least of all, I pay a tribute to the Australian Workers Union for its part in achieving industrial stability in the sugar industry in Queensland. The work of the union is not fully acknowledged. I was an official of the Australian Workers Union for a long time. The easiest job that a union official can have is not one which obliges him to tell the men that the executive has made a decision, that they will obey it, and that they will not strike; that is a hard job, but it is the way of the Australian Workers Union. I have no compunction in asserting that the easiest way is the way of officials of many other unions who, when a dispute occurs, go along to a job and say to the men, " If you do not like it, down tools ". That is a simple task. The Australian Workers Union did not find the battle easy in the sugar industry, because conditions in that industry have never been easy. All improvements in its working conditions have been gained by long, arduous, and determined effort by the Australian Workers Union, which is entitled to equal credit with every other section of the industry.

The sugar industry in Queensland to-day has reached a stage where it takes its place as one of the great industries of Australia, and it must not be prevented from obtaining a reasonable and just price for its product. Everything that can be done by public men and others should be done to ensure that the prospects of the industry are not adversely affected, in the interests both of the economy of the nation and of those persons who are associated with the industry or obtain employment in activities which are related to it. We support the bill, and we hope that honorable members from Tasmania and Victoria will be fair and just if they criticize the bill, as they are entitled to do.

Suggest corrections