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Thursday, 18 October 1956

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - The declaration had not been made when the honorable member for Lalor rose. The honorable member may proceed.

Mr POLLARD - This measure, to provide for the acceptance by Australia of the International Wheat Agreement 1956, and for other purposes, gives me a good deal of gratification. As 1 looked around this chamber prior to rising, I thought to myself, " What a different atmosphere surrounds the discussion of this bill from that which prevailed on the occasion in 1949 when I, as Minister, introduced into thi: Parliament, not the first measure to ratify an international wheat agreement, but the first for many years, and faced opposition and criticism of a most destructive character ". The opposition and criticism to which I was subjected were in every way destructive of every attempt made by the government of the time to have this House ratify, for the first time in at least fifteen or twenty years, an international agreement signed by four exporting nations and, I think, 39 importing nations. The executive of the Australian Wheat-Growers Federation had given its blessing to the ratification of the agreement, which indicated that the agreement was acceptable to its members, but from the Australian Country party corner of this House I met the most vicious opposition, and the most destructive critic of the government and the measure I introduced was the present Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen). Other members of his party were almost equally vociferous in their condemnation of the bill and all that it contained. They comprised the greatest assemblage of Jeremiahs whom I ever heard talk on any good measure that has come before this Parliament. Fortunately, it is now demonstrated that they have been fully converted.

Mr Turnbull - Oh, no.

Mr Leslie - No, we deny that.

Mr POLLARD - They say, " No ", but I am quite sure they will not now be as critical or unfair as they were in 1949.

Mr Turnbull - We were quite fair then.

Mr POLLARD - The honorable member for Mallee should not get excited.

Mr Turnbull - Fancy the honorable member saying that!

Mr POLLARD - It has been demonstrated over a number of years not only that the 1949 International Wheat Agreement worked," but also that the subsequent agreement worked. The first, of course, was for a period of four years, and the second for three years. Both agreements worked admirably. None of the prophecies that were made at the time those measures were introduced was fulfilled. The fears simply faded away. It is quite true that international agreements have not solved the problem of exporting the gigantic surpluses which have been produced in all. or most, of the wheat-growing countries of the world, but I think it is true to say that they have proved of inestimable value, and these sentiments were expressed to some extent in the second-reading speech of the Minister when this bill was introduced. Although these agreements are inadequate in relation to the quantities with which they deal and, indeed, the number of signatory nations, the hope is expressed that as time goes on it will continue to be demonstrate that agreements of this sort, successfullyoperated by countries of the most diverse political views, confer a distinct advantage nationally on the signatory nations and their people, and incidentally, but most importantly, give a substantial measure of protection to the. wheat-growers here and overseas.

This industry is a most important one in this country. In Australia there are, in round figures, 50.000 wheat-growers. The year 1953-54 is the last completed wheat year for which I have figures, and in that year payments by the Australian Wheat Board to Australian growers for wheat produced amounted to £112,000,000. Indirectly, of course, immense benefits accrue to the machinery manufacturers and the suppliers of all sorts of goods and chattels to the wheat-growers. Whilst ii is true that these agreements have operated satisfactorily, it is unfortunate to have to record that when the first four years' agreement expired, the Minister for Trade, who was then Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, dug his toes in, with the approval of his government and the blessing of many members of the Australian Wheat Board, and the Australian Wheat Growers Federation. The attitude of the Minister and of members of the delegation that went to Washington was such thai the United Kingdom, which had signed up the first agreement for the purchase of about 177,000,000 bushels, did not become a signatory to the 1953 international wheat agreement, which had a currency of three years.

Mr Turnbull - It was not Australia's fault.

Mr POLLARD - Yes, it was, all for the sake of 5 cents which, converted to Australian currency, meant about 4d. in those days. Because there has been a change, I am not SUre on what date, ii would now amount to about 5d. It is beyond dispute that at the 1953 convention on this matter Australia's attitude, no doubt supporting the attitude of the United States of America and Canada, was such as to price our very best customer for very many years out of participation in the international agreement.

Mr Turnbull - The result would have been the same without Australia's adoption of that attitude. You know that, too.

Mr POLLARD - The honorable member can have a go later. As the honorable member for Mallee knows, despite his assertion that the position would have been the same in regard to that 5d. if Australia had not adopted that attitude, it is unlikely that the United States and Canada would have proceeded to ratify the agreement without Australia as a signatory nation. At least, if the Minister or his delegation had decided not to press for an additional 5d. a bushel, it is more than likely that the United States and Canada, which are infinitely more wealthy than Australia, would have conceded the point, and we should have had the United Kingdom in the 1953 three-year agreement. But probably the worst feature of the matter is that the United Kingdom is again absent from the agreement. We see in that a continuing process, because from 1949 to the present time, there has been a gradual deterioration in the trade relations between the United Kingdom and Australia which, in my opinion, has been due, in large part, to the manoeuvres and the attitude of the present Australian Government.

In the 1948-49 wheat year, this country sold to the United Kingdom no less than 80,000,000 bushels of wheat. That, of course, was before the International Wheat Agreement. Since the inception of the International Wheat Agreement, I notice from the returns of the Australian Wheat Board that, in the export year from 1st August, 1955, to 31st July, 1956, the United Kingdom took from this country only 23,000,000 bushels of wheat. We have to go further afield - and rightly so, of course - to exploit less dependable markets than was the United Kingdom for the products of Australian wheat farms. That is an unfortunate and, I think, tragic situation. In addition, in recent years we have suffered the grave disadvantage of a catastrophic fall in the price of wheat on overseas markets. That situation has been aggravated by the ever-increasing costs of production within the confines of the Australian continent. In 1949, according to the authorities charged with the responsibility of ascertaining the facts, it cost 7s. Id. to produce a bushel of wheat in this country. I am not sure, to the penny, of the exact figure to-day, but the cost is in the vicinity of 13s. The end result, I have reason to believe, is that at this very moment Australia is selling wheat in the markets of the world at a figure that does not return the cost of production, as ascertained by the Government's own costing tribunal. That is a rather shocking state of affairs.

The situation has been worsened by the very startling fact that, whereas in December, 1954, it was possible to charter ships to send our wheat to the United Kingdom at a cost of 2s. 3d. a bushel in Australian currency, by December of last year the freight rates to the United Kingdom had increased to 6s. 2d. a bushel. In December, 1955, the Australian Wheat Board was selling wheat in the United Kingdom at 17s. lOd. Australian a bushel, but by the time it had paid freight charges and met other incidental costs, such as insurance, the return to the board was as low as 10s. Id. a bushel. That is my understanding of the position. I may be wrong by a penny or two, and if I am, perhaps an honorable member opposite will correct me. We now have the amazing fact that, because of ever-increasing costs and the fall in prices overseas, the Government is confronted with a most serious economic problem because it is exporting our major crop at a price which does not return the cost of production in the previous wheat season. The irony of that, of course - and I know that what I am about to say may not be quite in order - is that the Government is doing nothing to ensure that a government instrumentality, or some other Australian body, will undertake the construction of ships with a view to keeping us out of the claws of the international shipping ring. People blame the wharf labourers for high freight costs and the long periods spent in Australian ports by ships that come here to take our products overseas. But in a publication issued by the Government itself, we read that the phenomenal and outrageous cost of freighting Australian wheat to the United Kingdom is due, not to the pranks of wharf labourers, as somebody has been pleased to say, but to the unprecedented demand for ships to transport coal across the Atlantic.

Whereas, in 1949, the shipping companies were freighting our products to the markets of the world for approximately 112s. a ton, they now change almost double that amount. Of course, that figure has no relationship whatever to increasing costs. The fact that freight costs have almost doubled indicates that the shipowners are still playing their old game. They are not philanthropists. They are in business, and they want to be able to report to their shareholders that they have exploited their customers to the maximum and are thus able to pay handsome dividends. But in the long run, the Australian nation has to pay for the increases. It is about time that this Government told the shipping interests of the world that it proposes to put down slipways and to build ships in the interests of the Australian people. I have no doubt that honorable members opposite will say that the Government might incur losses in building ships and operating them.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Adermann - Order! The honorable member must return to the bill.

Mr POLLARD - Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 1 shall come back to it. I conclude my reference to the matter by saying that, after all, the very presence of the Government in the field would be a deterrent to exploitation by the people who provide ships to transport our wheat to overseas markets.

The new International Wheat Agreement varies slightly from the previous agreement. 1 note that there is to be a reduction of 5 cents a bushel in the maximum and minimum prices, compared with the previous agreement. No doubt, the representatives of this Government at the convention that was held to draw up a new agreement - and I am glad that it was successful in

I am sure that honorable members will -appreciate that not the least important feature of the new agreement is the fact -that more wheat-producing countries have been brought within the ambit of the agreement than was the case with either the previous agreement or the first one. It is disappointing that the quantity that we have contracted to sell under the agreement has been reduced from 45,000,000 bushels to 30,000,000 bushels, but I believe that, eventually, the United Kingdom will come back into the agreement and that even more countries will participate than do so at present. The number of countries that participate in the agreement is important, and if more nations can be converted to appreciation of the soundness of orderly marketing, -through an instrument of this character, the greater will be the hopes of success for the wheat industry in the future. Wheat farmers in the exporting countries will be given a measure of protection, and in addition, the vast number of consumers in the various nations of the world will benefit because they will be able to purchase wheat at a reasonable price.

When we look at the signatories to the agreement, we see that Australia and the other exporting countries have some very important customers. For instance, Belgium has signed up for 16,000,000 bushels, and Egypt for 11,000,000 bushels. In the past, Egypt has been a very valuable customer of Australia, but perhaps it will not be so happy about taking its quota of wheat from us after the performance of this Government in connexion with the Suez Canal issue. Japan, a relative newcomer, has signed up for 36,000,000 bushels, the Netherlands for 25,000,000 bushels, and Norway for 6,000,000 bushels. Altogether, there are 44 signatories.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2.15 p.m.

Mr POLLARD - I have nothing further to add to the remarks I made before the luncheon adjournment.

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