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Thursday, 11 June 1970

Mr BARNARD (Bass) - I welcome the opportunity to support the amendment moved by the honourable member for Dawson (Dr Patterson) to have established a select committee to review the operation of soldier settlement in Australia. I believe the committee should be established for many reasons. I listened with much interest to the honourable member for Angas (Mr Giles) who, T believe, in the concluding part of his speech made out a very good case for a committee of the kind suggested in the amendment to be set up to investigate war service land settlement in Australia. The member for Angas spoke about equity and about how important it was for the Government to look at this one problem area that is common to the war service land settlement scheme in. most of the States where it has been instituted. The honourable member said quite properly and correctly that many ex-servicemen whose applications for a property under the War Service Land Settlement Agreements Act have been accepted, and who have devoted their career and interest to the property and have worked hard, have failed to obtain any equity in the property. Obviously, as the Act stands at present, they will never be able to get any equity in their property. This is one area in which problems arise. As the war service land settlement scheme is constituted at present, many other areas that need to be investigated can be referred to.

I appreciate the fact that we are very close to the end of a session. Normally I would hesitate to enter into a debate about war service land settlement, but in recent years I have found that there are now so many problems afflicting young people who have accepted a property under the war service land settlement scheme that the Government will obviously have to face up to this situation in the only way in which I believe it can be dealt with. The Government must set up a select committee of this House with sufficient power to investigate the problem areas that have been referred to not only by the honourable member for Angas but also by honourable members on this side of the House such as the member for Dawson, who moved the amendment for the Opposition, the member for Braddon (Mr Davies) and others.

I believe most honourable members can appreciate the problems that have existed in recent years in relation to the war service land settlement scheme. Of course, there have been cases where the scheme has proved to be an unqualified success. But that matter also has been referred to already by other members and I do not want to canvass it at this stage. Currently a select committee of the upper House in Tasmania is investigating the war service land settlement scheme as it operates in that State. Having fully investigated the question of war service land settlement in Tasmania, that committee will obviously be able to report to the Tasmanian Government on the situation that now exists in that State. But it will be limited to that State. As the member for Angas said, we all acknowledge that there are problems in relation to war service land settlement, but they are not confined to Tasmania: They are common wherever the war service land settlement scheme has been established under the Act. Therefore, this committee's report will have limited use. For these reasons, the Opposition points out that a committee of this kind should have the opportunity to investigate war service land settlement on a much wider basis than in one State.

This Bill provides for loan raising of $4,500,000 for soldier settler projects in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania. The bulk of this loan raising is earmarked for working expenses, replacement of plant, and new stock and plant. The remainder is for development of irrigation holdings in South Australia. Therefore the Bill is mainly a machinery measure, lt will provide necessary funds and is not opposed by the Opposition. In his second reading speech, the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Anthony) made the crucial point that many settlers bad been unable to improve their financial position to the stage where they could operate without borrowing. Lacking security to obtain conventional credit, they needed access to credit from within the scheme. This, disability applied particularly to settlers offered farms in recent years, and unquestionably this is one of the main problems afflicting those who have been allotted properties under the Act.

The Minister acknowledges that a problem exists in relation to the additional finance needed to improve and expand properties. Again, this is another area for investigation by a select committee of the type proposed by the Opposition. The war service land settlement scheme has operated since 1945, when it was formulated by a conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers. In subsequent years. Commonwealth funds have been allocated to the scheme by annual appropriations. The Commonwealth has been responsible for the policy direction of the scheme and its general supervision. It has financed a major share of the cost, with the State governments paying the cost of the administration of their side of the scheme and meeting a contribution to the capital cost. In many ways, the scheme has been successful. After World War 1 the planners of the scheme learnt the lessons from soldier settlement scheme that caused considerable economic hardship. Settlers who were fortunate enough to get their land in the years immediately after the war and to establish themselves before the rises in commodity prices of the 1950s were particularly successful. In the main, these settlers were more skilled in the techniques of agriculture than their predecessors of World War I. They were given better holdings and, because the scheme was administered with extreme care - some might even say caution in some States - there were fewer failures.

In recent years the picture has changed somewhat. Later settlers have not had the good fortune of those who got in early. Some of the land opened was of a marginal character and could not be made to pay, and in other cases holdings were too small to be an economic proposition. The success of the scheme has varied immensely from State to State and from region to region. Even in Victoria, which perhaps provides the most successful example of soldier settlement, there have been remarkable fluctuations in the effectiveness of the scheme from settlement to settlement. Earlier, the honourable member, for. Braddon, the honourable member for Dawson and the honourable member for Riverina gave examples of the operation of the scheme. I should like to refer briefly to the operation of the scheme on Flinders Island, which has one of the largest concentrations of soldier settlement farms in Tasmania. The original plans for soldier settlement on the Island provided for 112 to 120 farms. Eighty-four were occupied. At present 76 are occupied and 2 are unoccupied, so there have been some absorptions. A considerable number of settlers have left for economic reasons; they went bankrupt or their farms were sold. The new farms are from 700 acres to 1,000 acres of pasture compared with the original farms which ranged from 535 acres to 700 acres. It is not surprising that only the new farms have anything like the carrying capacity as assessed originally by the Agricultural Bank of Tasmania.

The area of the Flinders Island holdings compares favourably with those in the rest of Tasmania. However, valuations on Flinders Island are much higher which means that rent and rates are higher. Rents work out at about three times higher than those on mainland Tasmania while rates are about one-and-a-half times as high. Yet the potential sale value of a holding in Tasmania is double that of a Flinders Island holding. In addition, the settlers on Flinders Island face heavy freight costs to Launceston and Hobart and to Tasmania generally. There are also social difficulties arising from lack of educational facilities and little employment for school leavers. This is an example of the wide differences which can exist in the operation of the scheme and how inequities can arise even in the operation of a scheme within one State.

The whole national scheme for soldier settlement represents a massive investment at all levels of government. In the 3 States affected by this legislation - Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania - the Commonwealth has invested about S300m. Much of this has been repaid, but it gives an idea of the scale of investment in the scheme. This scheme has operated for 25 years. We believe it is time for an assessment of what has been achieved, what the problems are and what the potential is for the future. We are entering an era when the concept of closer settlement is looked on with increasing disfavour. This may be one of the cyclical swings which have always dominated rural land policy in this country.

The trend of Government policy is towards the amalgamation of smaller uneconomic holdings into more viable economic units. An example was the marginal dairy farms reconstruction scheme which was debated in this House last week. Undoubtedly there is marginal land in the soldier settlement schemes and there are uneconomic holdings. This has provoked occasional flare-ups in settlements where soldier settlers have got into difficulties. We believe it timely that the scheme be completely reviewed and a blueprint for its future drawn up. For this reason, as I have already pointed out to the House, the honourable member for Dawson has moved on behalf of the Opposition that a select committee of this House should be appointed to investigate the problems that have arisen in relation to the war service land settlement.

Many of the arguments that were put forward by the honourable member for Angas in relation to the problems, as he saw them, in war service land settlement can be applied to all of the States involved under the scheme. Certainly there arc areas for a full and frank investigation by a competent committee which would have the opportunity to investigate fully these matters on the spot - whether it is a question of the size of the property; whether the properties should be enlarged; whether there should be an amalgamation of properties. I know that the Minister must have some understanding of the situation in Tasmania particularly in relation to King Island - the scheme that was referred to earlier this afternoon by the honourable member for Braddon - and in relation to Flinders Island. The schemes on both islands are not succeeding, and they are not succeeding because of some of the problems that have already been referred to in this House this afternoon.

In the opinion of honourable members on this side of the House, if, after a period of 25 years, the problem is to be dealt with effectively it can be dealt with only on the basis of the kind of investigation that is envisaged in the amendment which was moved by the honourable member for Dawson. Surely if it is competent for the Government in Tasmania to appoint a select committee to investigate war service land settlement in that State, because there is an awareness of the problems that afflict those who occupy properties in that State, there must be a general acknowledgment - indeed I believe there is by honourable members and by the Minister - that there are problems in relation to war service land settlement that can be solved only by a general investigation; not by seeking the advice of departmental officers in relation to the properties that have already been developed but by having a full investigation into the areas to which I have referred during the course of this address. It is a question of finance: - whether some of the liability should be written off; whether the expenses now being incurred by farmers of occupied properties under the Act are beyond their resources; whether they are able to meet their commitments including the high rents to which I referred in relation to the properties on Flinders Island; whether they are able to meet their commitments as a result of the general fall in rural prices which has been the subject of debate in this House in recent weeks.

I.   believe that a case has been made out for the Government to give very serious consideration to the appointment of a select committee along the lines suggested by the Opposition which, I believe, would at least be a guide to the Government to look at the war service land settlement scheme as a whole and to consider the problems that now exist , in relation to the scheme. This would give the Government the opportunity to provide the remedies that will be needed to bring back the scheme to an equitable basis or to place those who are now on properties on at least an equitable basis.

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