Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Tuesday, 12 August 1902

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN (Wentworth) - The Minister for Trade and Customs will credit those on this side of the Chamber with not desiring to work up a fiscal struggle upon a matter affecting the food of the people. But the present position is a very serious one. The price of wheat in Victoria to-day is is. 6d., and in Sydney4s. 9d. per bushel, and no relief will be given to the wheat market for the next six months. Even Victoria is now suffering to some extent from the want of rain, and no matter what relief may be given by importations from oversea or in any other way, we must look forward to twelve months of almost unprecedented distress and difficulty.

Mr Watson - We should get wheat within six months.

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - Yes ; but not until six months have passed. We might reasonably defer the operation of the duty upon wheat for the next six, nine, or twelve months, during whichwe can scarcely hope to supply our own needs, or reduce the duty from1s. 6d. to 9d. per cental. We should deal with this matter in the light of the history of events since the duty was fixed by this Chamber. The present duty is just sufficient to prevent importations of wheat except at considerable risk. In a matter of such national importance, affecting the majority of the people of Australia, we should be guided by purely democratic principles. If the duty were reduced, so as to afford importers a better margin - and this is the only way in which relief can be obtained - the desired purpose might be effected. I wish the Government to distinctly understand that the price is now so fixed that importations cannot sensibly reduce it, and that the result of the continuance of the present condition of affairs will probably be a considerable rise. Importations cannot take place at the present rate of duty until the price of the commodity becomes almost prohibitive. I have advices from Sydney stating that wheat is now quoted at 4s. 9d. per bushel, and that it cannot be obtained even at that price. In the face of this fact is it right for us to retain the duty at1s. 6d. per cental, in order to shut out importations and keep up prices? The great bulk of the wheat now in Australia is held by merchants - I will not say speculators - and is not in first hands. The honorable member for Bland will agree with me that some of the finest wheat-growing districts of New South Wales are now in such a critical condition that if rain does not fall almost immediately, the whole of the crops will be destroyed. In the Wellington district, in which wheat has been grown successfully for years past, there will be practically no crop this season unless rain falls within the next few weeks. No matter what rain comes, there must be an enormous shrinkage in the wheat production of New South Wales, and we shall certainly have no surplus for export. Therefore I ask the Government to consider this matter from the point of view, not of the Opposition nor of the Senate, but of the general public, and to be guided by the experience of the last five or six months. If the price of wheat advances beyond a certain figure, the cost of bread must be increased.

Sir George Turner - What price does the honorable member think wheat should reach before it will pay to import it? I should have thought that it would pay handsomely to import wheat at 4s. 9d.

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - Wheat has just now reached that price at which it might pay to import, but the price must be retained at about that figure to permit of continued importations. Whilst the duty stands as at present, importations cannot be made without incurringconsiderable risk. I desire to see a larger margin offered for the importation of wheat, so that it may not be necessary to retain the price of the article at so high a figure. We might very well reduce the duty to 9d. per cental, even though the operation of the reduced rate were restricted to, say, six months, after which time the present duty might be reverted to. The present state of affairs is absolutely unprecedented in Australia, and there is no prospect of immediate relief. The Treasurer seems to think that it would pay to import wheat when it is quoted at 4s. 9d. per bushel.

Sir George Turner - I should think it would pay to import at a much lower price.

Sir WILLIAM McMILLAN - I do not think it would, because importations cannot be made upon a very fine margin of profit. With the present rate of duty we cannot expect that the price of wheat will be reduced below 4s. 9d. per bushel, which is a very high rate. I move -

That the motion be amended by the addition of the following words : - " Butthat the rate of duty upon wheat be fixed at 9d. per cental."

Suggest corrections