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Thursday, 25 October 1956

Mr BRUCE (Leichhardt) .- To speak on the merits of this measure is somewhat like gilding the lily. So far, the measure has not called forth much opposition from honorable members. In fact, the two members from Tasmania who have spoken in the debate have made it clear that the Tasmanian fruit industry has had the benefit of very generous rebates from the sugar industry. Nobody could have made the position regarding rebates clearer than those honorable members did. Their only real contention - and it is a very natural contention - is that Tasmanian fruit interests should have the benefit of even larger rebates. But, obviously, if larger rebates were given the cost of production of sugar would increase, the retail price of sugar would have to be also increased and, presumably, the increase would be followed by another request for greater rebates - and so on.

I do not think that there is another case in Australia - there may be elsewhere - of one industry subsidizing another industry to the extent to which the sugar industry subsidize the fruit-processing industry and the fruit-drinks industry. Nevertheless, when an industry asks for an increased price for its product it should have to show justification for the requested increase. That applies to both primary and secondary industry. Naturally, an increase in the price of any commodity produces an increase in the general cost of living and, in the light of that fact, the case in favour of the granting of such an increase, with the case against it, should established before the increase is granted. The honorable member for Herbert (Mr. Edmonds) explained the careful method whereby, when a request for an increase in the price of sugar is made, a check of the costs of production in the industry is carried out.

The sugar industry did not suddenly spring to affluence. The early sugar-growers in Queensland endured very trying conditions in an uncharitable' tropical country when they were establishing this industry. Anybody who saw in its virgin state the land that they had to conquer in establishing the industry would wonder how that land was ever opened up at all. There is still some of that virgin country to be seen in Queensland. Like many primary industries in the pioneering days, the sugar industry was developed in a haphazard fashion, progress in it resulting from individual and collective experiments. Later, it became apparent that the central and north Queensland areas, and the northern rivers area of New South Wales, were the most suitable places in Australia for the growing of cane sugar. We know that sugar beet has been grown in Victoria but only cane sugar produced in areas suitable for the cultivation of that crop, such as the areas I have mentioned, can meet the requirements for sugar in a large country like Australia. Those three areas where sugar is grown are ideal in that they meet the requirements for sugar-growing in respect of type of soil, climate and water supply. For successful cultivation, sugar cane requires plenty of heat and plenty of water, and those prerequisites to the successful growing of sugar are present in central and north Queensland and in the northern rivers area of New South Wales.

The first sugar cane plantations in Australia were run by private companies, and the sugar was farmed on their behalf by men who were more or less share-farmers. These men were paid on weight of cane and not on sugar content, which was an unfair system that made it difficult for a man to make his living in that industry. Nevertheless, in spite of the difficulties that they faced, these men helped to open up the country, and some of them - but very few - prospered in the industry. 1 do not think it is necessary for me to say too much about labour conditions in the early days of the industry, because they were merely a reflex of the conditions of the workers in all industries at that time. Needless to say, they were deplorable. The bigger companies in the industry wanted to open up the country, and introduced kanaka labour into the industry to work under conditions that were worse than those obtaining in United States of America during the days of the slave trade. I have met a few of the old-time blackbirders who provided native labour for the industry. They told me that if the boat trip from the island home of the kanakas to the mainland was not too long, the kanakas received no water to drink during the trip. They were battened down under the hatches and thirsted until they reached the mainland. In addition to kanakas, large numbers of Japanese were employed on these plantations. The good sense of the Australian people led to the removal of the kanakas, and most of them were returned to their homes. Japanese remained on the sugar fields for a long time, but their numbers gradually dwindled, and there are not many left there now. That is some of the history of how this industry was developed.

The first sugar agreement, on which the whole organization of the sugar industry is based, was signed in 1915 by Mr. Andrew Fisher, Labour Prime Minister of Australia, and Mr. T. J. Ryan, Labour Premier of Queensland. It has been said, and it is worth repeating, that the sugar industry has the finest organization of any primary industry in Australia. Often when I hear members of the Australian Country party in this place arguing about conditions in the production of the various crops in which they are naturally interested, I wonder why the production of some of those crops has not been organized along the lines on which the sugar industry has been organized. The splendid organization of the sugar industry could well be applied to other industries, both primary and secondary. I am sure that any honorable member who had the benefit of seeing the sugar industry in operation would admit that it is splendidly organized.

The honorable member for Herbert said, and it is worth emphasizing, that there is no product in the community whose price is so strictly controlled as the price of sugar, no product whose cost of production is so carefully checked as is the cost of production of sugar, before any increase of price is granted. As the honorable member explained, the growers' organizations have to make out a clear case to the Queensland Sugar Board for an increase in the price of their product. If the board is convinced of the justification for an increase, a recommendation to that effect is made to the Queensland Premier, who refers it to the State Auditor-General, whose officers then make an exhaustive check on costs of production. If the State Government gives its blessing to the increase, the request is then forwarded to the Prime Minister, and presumably the Commonwealth Auditor-General also checks on the justification for the increase. The sugar producers must prove their case to the hilt before it is accepted that they require an increased price for their commodity.

The sugar industry has been responsible for a large amount of employment in other States, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, and, to some extent, in South Australia. As far as I know, Western Australia is the only State which has not benefited in this respect. The production of sugar is worth £60,000,000 a year and of that amount millions of pounds are paid to the people who supply the machinery for the mills. Millions of pounds are paid to New South Wales and Victoria for farm machinery. All the cane is conveyed from the fields to the mills by trucks for which rails have to be purchased. Over the years, the millions of pounds which have been paid by the sugar industry, particularly to Victoria and New South Wales, have provided more employment in those States than would otherwise have been the case.

This may be termed a very heavy industry, from a farming point of view. The sugar mills are very big and require very heavy rollers and machinery. Those industries which use electrical equipment benefit from generous allowances for obsolescence because it is recognized that that type of machinery can go out of date very quickly. Very often, the machinery in the sugar mills becomes outdated because of the manufacture of new machinery but the mills do not benefit from an allowance of obsolescence equivalent to that which is applicable to electrical equipment. That is another ground on which these people could make an application for an increased price if they were hungry or greedy.

A very large staff is employed in the sugar mills. Very often, there are three or four engineers in these places. During the slack season, the average number of men on the job it at least 100. They carry out repair work to the machinery and field equipment. These are all activities that have to be taken into consideration, not only from the growers' point of view, because sugar is their only crop, but from the point of view of the millers. The cost of milling forms part of the selling price of sugar. The mill constantly employs men and constantly repairs and replaces its machinery. When war broke out, Queensland, largely because of the sugar mills, was able to provide more ground staff for the Air Force than all the other States put together for the first twelve months of the war. Thereafter, Queensland supplied the same number of men per head of population as other States because of the number of engineers and apprentices that were engaged in the sugar mills. That fact was well known to those who were engaged in recruiting ground staff for the Air Force at the time.

The old puffing-billies that were once used to bring the cane into the mills have been done away with. They have been replaced by modern diesel engines, bringing the transport section of the industry up to date. Many factors are concerned in the increase of costs. One of the greatest factors has been the introduction of what is known as gammexane. The sugar-growers used to lose a third of their crops through the inroads of the cane beetle. The introduction of gammexane practically wiped out the cane beetle, with the result that the rate of production has increased tremendously. I believe that the introduction of gammexane has been the greatest factor in increasing the rate of production in the sugar cane area.

The sugar-growers fertilize their land extensively, and have to pay very high prices for fertilizer. They have to replace what is taken out of the soil, because cane is a vigorous grower. The amount of money spent on fertilizer is simply amazing to those who are used to ordinary farming. I told the cane-growers, years ago, " If you have a few pounds to spare, take a few shares in a fertilizer company, and you may break even ". The companies that supply fertilizer are very big, and the price of fertilizer forms a major part of the growers' costs. Thank God they have gammexane, which has saved them from considerable loss. Generally speaking, prospects in the industry are now much better than they were.

Sugar is an essential in the manufacture of soft drinks. The establishment of the sugar industry in north Queensland has enabled the huge factories engaged in the production of soft drinks, in New South Wales and Victoria, to obtain sugar at a reasonable price. That is of vital importance to the manufacturers of soft drinks. During World War I., Australia was unable to supply its own requirements of sugar. After the war, we had to pay up to £80 a ton for black-grown sugar. It will be realized that the establishment of the Australian industry has been an important factor in determining the price that we pay for sugar to-day. The late William Morris Hughes, after World War I., increased the price of sugar and assisted in the establishment of the sugar industry as it is to-day. In the early days, many men, both Labour and anti-Labour, took an active part in helping to establish the sugar industry, lt is now an industry of which Australia can be proud. It contributes more than £60,000,000 a year to the wealth of Australia, and it enables other industries, such as the canned fruits industry, to exist. Naturally, the canned fruits industry seeks greater rebates in respect of the sugar it uses, but I suggest that it probably would not be able to continue to operate if we did not have our own sugar-growing industry, and if it were dependent on the importation of sugar from overseas, as was the case during, and for some time after, World War I.

The honorable member for Wilmot (Mr. Duthie) referred to the position regarding tin plate supplies. In this respect, we have the ridiculous fact that we sell our tin at low prices to other countries, which manufacture it into tin plate and send it back to Australia. I believe that Tasmania really has not a great deal to complain about regarding the sugar industry. The manufacturers of confectionery have established factories in Tasmania because they are sure of being able to obtain sugar readily, and also because of the availability of cheap electricity. 1 remind honorable members that the people of Innisfail, Babinda, Gordonvale and Cairns, where the sugar is grown, pay the same price for sugar as do the people of Perth, so that there is no bias against residents of particular areas. Naturally, those engaged in the sugar industry would like to have a refinery in the northern part of Australia, so that it would no longer be necessary to consign the initial cane products to the south for refining, and then have the refined sugar taken back to the north. But that is an incidental matter that is not possible to deal with at the moment.

In relation to the position of the Tasmanian fruit industry, 1 had an interesting experience many years ago. The Jones company had, stacked in Melbourne, two years' supply of fruit pulp. When the Tasmanian growers asked the price that the company was offering for fruit, it told them so much a ton, and added, " If you do not like it, we can make jam for two years and will not need to buy your fruit at all ". It seems to me that this firm profits most from the Tasmanian fruit industry. Naturally, if a company is established and is functioning efficiently, it is a desirable thing, but the point is that this company seems to have a monopoly of the hop industry, jam making and everything else. As I say, it seems to be getting much more from the canning industry than are either the sugar-growers or the fruit-growers. Unfortunately, Tasmania suffers many handicaps because of its isolation from the mainland, lt may be possible for the sugar industry to do more for the Tasmanian fruit industry, although 1 think that, already, it is doing a very fine job for it. Apparently, apart from the desire for greater rebates, the fruit industry has no real complaint against the sugar industry. I believe that this bill will benefit the sugar industry.

I refer, now to the bulk handling of sugar, which will save a great deal of money. Of course, large sums of money have been spent on the installation of equipment at the various ports in connexion with the bulk loading of sugar. Although 1 am familiar with the industry, 1 still find it remarkable that so much money should be spent in an endeavour to improve the industry, to increase efficiency, and to reduce costs wherever possible. I give the bill my blessing, and I hope that it will be possible to increase the rebate in the future. I believe that the amount of the rebate should be the subject of a special inquiry. If that were so, it might be possible to give satisfaction to a greater number of people.

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