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Thursday, 4 April 1957

Mr BARNARD (Bass) .- I join this debate far from satisfied that the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) has said anything that would convince me or any other honorable member on this side of the House that the party to which he belongs has not substantially endorsed the recent freight increases imposed by the overseas shipping combines. The Minister himself, it should be said in fairness to him, indicated that he believed that the freight increases were too high. The honorable member for Petrie (Mr. Hulme) indicated that he believed the freight increases were completely justified. In the final analysis the Minister told us exactly nothing. He did not refute the statement of the honorable member for Lalor (Mr. Pollard) that in recent years the overseas shipping combines had held the commercial and industrial life of this community to ransom.

I recall previous statements that have been issued in this House in this connexion. On the last occasion on which the matter was discussed, during a debate on a matter of urgency when the overseas shipping combines had announced that they would impose a further increase of 10 per cent, on freights to and from Australia and New Zealand, intervention by the Government led to the imposition of an increase of 71 per cent, instead of 10 per cent. Now, 60 per cent, of our imports and approxi mately 90 per cent, of our bulk exports arc carried by the overseas shipping companies, which belong to both British and continental owners. Of our total imports bill o: approximately £800,000,000 no less than £80,000,000 is charged by overseas companies for freight. I want to say, too, that in the last four years there have been four substantial freight increases. In 1951. freights were increased by 15 per cent.; in 1953, by li per cent.; in 1955, by 10 per cent., which was subsequently reduced to 7i per cent.; and in 1956, the increase was Ti per cent. To indicate to the House that during the whole of that period substantial profits were made by the overseas shipping companies I merely have to point out that the total profit for the year ended 30th September, 1952, was £6,900,000; for the year ended September, 1953, it was £5,500,003; for 1954, it was £5,600,000; and for 1955, it was £5,600,000. I suggest to the House that it is quite obvious not only that there has been an increase in each year of freight charges for cargoes carried to and from this country, but also that the overseas shipping combines have made up their minds that their profit will average out at approximately £6,000,000 each year, and they are determined to maintain it at that figure. I want to say, too. that the profits they have made in the last seven years have resulted in a net rake-off of £stg.34,974,367. Actually this is a yearly rake-off of several times the group's paidup capital.

I believe that the shipowners have been generously treated by this Government. Under legislation enacted only last year the stevedoring industry levy was reduced from lid. a man-hour to 6d. a man-hour, which saved the shipowners £850,000 in the first year, a saving which has risen to £1,028,700. Of course, one of the arguments advanced by the shipping companies for the increase of freights is the increase of wharfage dues in this country. I now read from a statement prepared by the president of the Australian Overseas Transport Association. He said that criticism of its members overlooks the obvious fact that the formula will obligate the Conference lines to pass on, by way of reduced rates, savings in cost, including those which may be brought about legislatively, whether or not they are directly or indirectly within

Australian control. He said that there is a large field for the reduction of costs, as the accountants quoted have often pointed out. The shipping interests make that statement. They suggest that if there was another reduction in wharfage dues in this country that reduction would be reflected in their freight charges, but there was no attempt on the part of the overseas shipping combines to hand back to Australian importers and exporters by means of reduced freights, portion of the large amount which they obtained last year from a reduction in stevedoring levies. The truth is that shipowners have contributed towards pricing Australian producers out of the world's markets.

The Minister for Primary Industry, who is now at the table, will, I am sure, be interested in figures on the export of wheat from this country, which I shall now quote. In August, 1954, the charter freight rate to the United Kingdom was 67s. 6d. sterling a ton, or in terms of Australian currency, 2s. 3d. a bushel. Since then, however, there has been a very substantial increase in freight rates, caused in the main by the growing trade in coal across the North Atlantic and the consequent demand for shipping. By December last the rate had reached 1 82s. 6d. sterling a ton or 6s. 2d. a bushel in Australian currency. Recently the rate was quoted at 187s. sterling a ton. The significance of this is that Australia usually sells her wheat on a c.i.f. basis. That is the price landed, say, in the United Kingdom, and in the last two years c.i.f. prices have been fairly steady. Because of the freight changes the f.o.b. price has fallen considerably. For example, in December the c:i.f. return of the United Kingdom market was 17s. Id. a bushel but the return to the Australian Wheat Board was only 1 0s. 11 d. Two years ago, the return would have been 3s. or 4s. higher. In other words, relative stability in wheat prices has been negated to a considerable extent by the upward movement in freights.

I say to the Minister for Primary Industry, who must be interested in these matters, that the main unfavorable factors in t!\e wheat situation are the competition of subsidized soft wheat exports, particularly from France, and secondly, and more importantly, the high freight rates.

I want to say something about the old Australian Commonwealth Line of steamers, because that matter has been referred to by the Minister for Trade. We know that in 1926 the operations of this line were considered adequately by the Public Accounts Committee of those days. Because there was a suggestion in this Parliament that the then Commonwealth-owned line of overseas steamers would be sold to private interests, the Public Accounts Committee introduced into this Parliament an interim report in which it said that the line must be retained. Subsequently the Prime Minister of the day, at a conference with the Public Accounts Committee, persuaded it to state in its final report that in its opinion the line should have been sold. But many factors weighed by the Minister for Trade in regard to this matter, particularly in regard to costs-

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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