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Thursday, 30 September 1971
Page: 1779

Mr GRASSBY (Riverina) - I welcome the decision to continue to pay a bounty on phosphate fertilisers until 31st December 1974. I do so because of the importance to the Australian farmer of maintaining and indeed increasing his efficiency and his output per man and per acre. Associated with this is the judicious use of fertilisers. We have been able to cope with the most expensive and archaic handling of marketing systems in the world only because of the efficiency within the farm gate. Therefore, we must continue to maintain and improve that efficiency.

At the same time I have reservations about whether the farmer is receiving the full value of the bounty. It has been estimated that he receives less than half of the $12 per ton. It may well be that a major effect of the bounty - I do not say the major effect - has been to help the manufacturer, the British Phosphate Commission and the Republic of Nauru. There may be excellent reasons why they should benefit from the support which the Government is giving. However, this is not the proclaimed intention of the legislation.

The Minister for Customs and Excise (Mr Chipp) claimed that the bounty had been the major factor in keeping selling prices stable and it was desirable to maintain this in view of the cost situation and the marketing difficulties facing primary producers. This is the proclaimed intention of the legislation. It is all the more reason then to ensure that the farmer is getting the benefit because this is the intention of the legislation before the House.

The Government has claimed that the bounty was instrumental in spreading the use of superphosphate for pastures and grain production. I think it is interesting to recall that when the bounty was first introduced the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Malcolm Fraser), who was at that time the honourable member for Wannon, said that he looked forward to the building up of our sheep numbers from 160 million to 250 million by using more superphosphate. It has also been claimed by Ministers and Government supporters, not in this debate but during previous debates associated with similar measures, that the 41 million acres of improved pasture in 1962-63 had been increased as a result of the bounty to 54 million in 1967- 68, the fatal eve of the rural recession. It has also been claimed that we have increased cattle numbers by 3 million as a result of the bounty.

These are claims and I will not attempt to examine them. But the one fact that we can hold to is that the amount of superphosphate used as a result of the bounty increased to a peak of 4.3 million tons in 1967. Why did that happen? It has been suggested that the expanded use of superphosphate was brought about by the bounty itself. I submit that the expansion was due in part because of the very active encouragement given by the Federal Government right up to the eve of the rural depression in 1969. Encouragement was given by the Government to farmers to expand all phases of primary production.

As I said, this encouragement continued right up to the latter part of 1969 when it will be remembered the Government forced the introduction of wheat rationing in the middle of a season. In the early part of that year farmers still were being encouraged by Ministers and by supporters of the Government to expand. I believe the expansion carried upwards the use of superphosphate. We find that the use of superphosphate is dropping. I do not think that this is associated directly, exclusively or even in a major way with the drop in cattle or even sheep numbers. However, as the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd) has observed, possibly with the introduction of wheat quotas this drop has had the major effect.

There are questions which I would like to pose' to the Minister. I do not anticipate that he will be able to answer them in his reply to this debate because he may not have taken them into account. But I hope that he will examine and take into account what I intend to ask. I hope that on another occasion he will give the House the benefit of his investigations. I would like the Minister to examine the ramifications of the bounty and its application to ensure that the farmer has received the full value. This means an examination of the effect of the bounty during the time that it has been paid. According to some interpretations the value to the farmer has been less than 50 per cent. Can we improve that benefit to the farmer now and in the future?

Mr Chipp - Can the honourable gentleman tell me who said that the farmer gets only 50 per cent? I would like to track that down.

Mr GRASSBY - If we take the benefit of the bounty-

Mr Chipp - Are you saying that?

Mr GRASSBY - I am putting it to the Minister, yes. I think that my colleague the honourable member for Dawson (Dr Patterson) has done considerable research into this and I believe he would be able to give the Minister from the voluminous references that he always has on hand, chapter and verse of the breakdown of the $12 as it relates to the farmer, the manufacturer, the British Phosphate Commission and the Republic of Nauru.

Mr Lloyd - They get it in Victoria.

Mr GRASSBY - I say again that I think it is terribly important that these things are dealt with because this has been asked as a question. Now is the time to pose the question. There is no point in our letting this debate go by and the Minister saying later that we did not query or raise this question. If this percentage is not correct, let us have the rebuttal.

Also, it has been suggested - and I am putting this forward - that there is a major stockpileof superphosphate at present wh ich could mean that there is room for a reduction in price even within the operations of the bounty. Again, I think probably it would be interesting to know whether the Minister and the Government have examined whether there are stockpiles at present and whether there is a possibility of price adjustment because of that situation.

Finally, I would like to make the point - and I think this is a unanimous view - that we want to see stability of prices maintained. In addition we want to see whether there is room for a reduction in the price. Also, we want to see the optimum use made of phosphatic fertilisers; and, incidentally, the optimum use does not always mean the maximum use. Now is probably the time when we should review the level of application of fertilisers to many crops to ensure that we are not perhaps a little too generous. I believe that this is another factor that could be looked at. I have posed these questions to the Minister in a helpful way because they are being asked across the countryside and I think it is right that they should be raised in this debate. Like my colleague the honourable member for Dawson who has spoken for the Opposition, we are happy to see the bounty continued for the reasons I have indicated.

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