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Thursday, 29 October 1931

Mr LATHAM (Kooyong) .- No honorable member has difficulty in dis- cussing a proposal for assisting the wheat industry, for this is about the sixth measure that we have had before us dealing with this subject. The Government has a long list of failures to its credit, and the Minister has announced another failure this afternoon. There is an old Latin motto, ad astra far ardua, which means, " through hardships to gain the stars ". The Minister, after this long series of failures, has brought down this measure which, apparently, has the support of the Government's followers in this chamber and of the majority in the Senate. That being so, little is to be gained by a prolonged discussion of the bill. The previous wheat bill, which is still on the notice-paper in another place, has been torn to shreds and tatters, and x Parliament House is littered with the basketfuls of fragments that remain. It proved to be a measure that was unworkable, and it was not understood by its authors. They marvelled at the results of their endeavours when they saw what the bill meant. When it was submitted to the House, it was pointed out that it left abundant opportunities for collusion, and a further examination in another place showed that the measure was quite impracticable. The comments and criticisms which the Minister himself has made this afternoon have, demonstrated conclusively how impossible the other measure was. Now we have a much simpler proposal for the payment of a bounty of 4Jd. per bushel on production, without any arrangements, by means of the imposition of wheat charges, to increase the local price of wheat to be consumed locally, whether in the form of flour or otherwise, and that, I think, is a distinct improvement. This measure provides for not only a bounty on production, but a bounty irrespective of the price obtained for the wheat. Many of the difficulties of the last measure arose from the attempt to prescribe a limit to the price, and to provide, in effect, a sort of sliding scale bounty. It is "now proposed to pay 44d. per bushel, whatever may be the price of wheat.

As I have already said, this measure apparently has the support .of both chambers. The Minister has spoken of the need of the farmers. Nobody will deny that need, but it appears to me to be a very doubtful policy to provide for a bounty irrespective of the price obtained by the producers. This has not been done in the case of any other bounty, and, if wheat rose considerably in price - I understand it is now about 3s. per bushel - it might become difficult to justify the payment of 4V£d. per bushel in addition to the increased price. The Minister has said that we ought to give fair play all round. I agree to that, and I recognize that assistance is necessary foi1 the farmers, on the basis of the present price of wheat. It must be remembered, however, that the original demand was for a guarantee of 3s. per bushel, and for a grant of enough money to bring the price up to 3s. I can quite understand the desire of the farmers, and of all who have an interest in them, to obtain more, if possible, but I feel bound to call attention to the doubtful character of the policy of this bill, which is to grant a bounty irrespective of the price obtained, and at a time when, fortunately, the wheat market is rising. The payment of this bounty will add to the national debt. As I said in regard to the previous bill, it is proposed to add £3,000,000 to the national debt for the purpose of providing a bounty in one year. Nobody knows what the price of wheat will bc next year; if anybody did, he could make a fortune for himself and his friends. The price may be high or low. If low, it will be impossible, I fear, to repeat a proposal of this character. This is not a permanent contribution to the solution of the problem of the farmers. In order to cope with the real position, we have to deal with the costs of production. It is impossible to accept, as a permanent policy, any proposal, or series of proposals, which provides for the temporary assistance, in relation to the market price, of the growers of one commodity by adding to the national debt. Any government will be forced to attend to the problem of the costs of production, whether it likes it or not, because, unless it is solved, there must be an economic debacle.

In .ill the circumstances, this bill, I suppose, must be put through, although it is open to the criticisms that I have mentioned. Few of us are able to obtain all we want in. this world, and we have to take what is available. That is my attitude to this bill, for I recognize that it is necessary to assist the farmers. A long-vision, large-scale policy is required; but, having regard to the present difficulties, this proposal of the Government should be adopted. I see no justification, however, for paying a bounty of 4£d. per bushel to the Queensland farmers, who are already guaranteed 4s. per bushel. The additional 4£d. would come from the whole of Australia. Mr. Gibbons. - A great deal of the 4s. is provided by the people of Queensland.

Mr LATHAM - The Queensland farmers would receive a minimum of 4s. 4£d. per bushel; but what would the farmers of the rest of Australia get?

Mr Hill - It may be possible for the others to receive 5s. per bushel, whereas the Queenslanders would be limited to the 4s., plus the bounty.

Mr LATHAM - Queensland, or any other State, is not bound to such an arrangement. It is within the control of the Federal Parliament.

Mr Lacey - How can we exclude Queensland from the provisions of thu bill?

Mr LATHAM - I am coming to that point. I recognize that there would certainly be grave doubt as to the validity of the measure, if it excluded Queensland ; but we ought to indicate that the Government of Queensland might well reduce its guaranteed price to 3s. 7½d. per bushel. That would still leave the farmers of Queensland in a better position than other wheat-growers.

Mr Gibbons - Could not Queeusland do that without dictation from this Parli ament ?

Mr LATHAM - Yes; and I am not suggesting dictation. The Government of that State would probably jump at the opportunity of saving money by reducing its guaranteed price, and then one of the objections to this bill would disappear. It is rather a serious objection to the measure that under the joint operation of Federal and State legislation, the Queensland farmer would be guaranteed 4s. 4£d. per bushel, whereas the farmers throughout the rest of Australia would have no such guarantee. I, therefore, urge the Government to communicate directly with the Premier of

Queensland, and suggest that the necessary alteration be made in the legislation of that State.

The bill provides for the making of regulations for carrying out the proposals set forth in the measure, and there are, therefore, a good many blanks in it. Ordinarily I should object to the bill in its present skeleton form, but -I recognize the necessity of getting the scheme into working operation at once, as wheat is already being delivered. In clause 3 wheat is denned as " wheat produced in Australia during the period commencing on tho 1st day of October, 1931 ". I do not understand the meaning of "production of wheat" as a precise term. " Harvested " is. a clear term which has a definite meaning. There may be argument as to when wheat is produced, but there can be no argument as to when it is harvested. There should be no room for argument. I suggest, therefore, that the word " harvested " should be substituted for the word " produced ". The same clause states that the provisions of the act shall apply to wheat -produced during tho period commencing on the 1st day of October, whereas in clause 4, it is stated that the bounty shall bc payable on wheat which has, since the 1st of October, been sold or delivered for sale. Presumably, therefore, any wheat sold or delivered on the 1st day of October would not come within the provisions of the act, and no bounty would be payable in respect of it. The matter might as well be set right by altering clause 3 so as to make the date coincide with that set forth in clause 4.

An effort has been made in sub-clause 2 of clause 4 to overcome the difficulty regarding wheat held for storage. It is now provided that the bounty shall be payable on such wheat, and I believe that such a provision was inadvertently omitted from the last bill. Sub-clause 2 states that, for the purposes of the act wheat shall be deemed to have been delivered for sale if it is delivered by a grower to a. flour-miller, wheat-merchant, or co-operative organization for storage until such time as the grower decides to sell- it. I understand that a great deal of wheat is delivered for storage not " until such time as the grower decides to sell the wheat ", .but on terms which require the person .receiving it for storage to sell a proportion of the wheat after a fixed date if the grower himself has not sold it in the meantime, and to sell the balance at current prices after the lapse of a further period. Therefore, such wheat is not delivered for storage " until such time as the grower decides to sell," but until h.c decides to sell or, if he makes no such decision, for sale in any event. To cover such cases, I suggest that the phrase " pending the sale of tho wheat " should be substituted for " until such time as the grower decides to sell the wheat ".

In clause 9 a very general power is taken for investigation and inquiry into the business of any one dealing with wheat. In committee I propose to move an amendment to limit the power of the Minister, or of the department, to obtain information to cases in which it is necessary, in tho opinion of the Minister or authorized person, to obtain such information for the purpose of securing compliance with the act, or for dealing with any suspected contravention of the act. Such an amendment would allay the apprehensions which have been expressed in some quarters. Even then a good deal would be left to the discretion of the Minister or other authorized person, but I cannot see how that can be avoided, and wo shall have to rely upon the department, in the last resort, for a reasonable administration of the regulations which will be made for the purpose of carrying out the act.

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