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Friday, 23 April 1915

Mr SHARPE (Oxley) .- I wish to bring before the Committee a matter relating to the meat works that are being erected in the Northern Territory by Messrs. Vestey 'Brothers. The honorable member for Wannon complained bitterly this morning of cattle being driven back to the more sparsely settled portions of Australia. We admit that they are being rapidly driven back, but Australian consumers of meat are not likely to benefit much by the cattle we have there at present. I was very anxious that the Federal Government should retain large areas in the Northern Territory for the breeding of cattle in sufficient numbers to supply the people of Australia with meat. We have been warned against the Australian Beef Trust, which is buying meat from every available meat works in the Commonwealth. We also have Vestey Brothers carrying on operations here. That firm is an extensive one, with its headquarters in London, and we cannot say whether or not it is associated with the American Beef Trust. It is financially very strong, and is building extensive works in the Northern Territory. I hope that the Commonwealth Government will take over those works in the near future if it has the power to do so. Messrs. Vestey Brothers have purchased four of the best stations in the Northern Territory, together with about 240,000 head of cattle. We know that these people are practically going to control the whole of the output of meat and cattle from the Northern Territory. Australia at present, with the exception of the State of Queensland, is not raising sufficient cattle to feed her own people. As a matter of fact, the beef now being raised in Queensland is of very little use to the people of Australia. Many of us are of opinion that action should be taken to control these large concerns. The Constitution is very weak in many respects, but we are sufficiently powerful to bring forward legislation that will effectively control the Meat Trust as we know it in Australia. Mr. Justice Street, who was appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into the operations of the Beef Trust, reported that it is operating, in Australia as well as in America and in England : that Swift and Company, Armour and Company, and Morris and Company were acting in combination in the United States of America and England, with the object of fixing the prices of live-stock, and that they were also operating in conjunctionin the retail markets of those countries. I put certain questions in the House this morning with the object of showing honorable members what these firms exercise in other parts of the world, and what they will exercise in Australia if the opportunity is afforded them. The Commonwealth Government would be acting in the best interests of the people if it imposed an export duty on all meat over and above a certain quantity slaughtered at any works. In that way alone can we hope to control the operations of these people.

The Government, I understand, are prepared to give reasonable consideration to this question, recognising that the price of stock is very high, and will be much higher in the near future. The retail price of meat is steadily rising all over the Commonwealth, and more particularly in the State in which the largest number of beasts is slaughtered. In the northern parts of Queensland meat is probably dearer than in any other part of Australia. Nothing has been done, and, pending an amendment of the Constitution, probably nothing can be done, save in the direction I have mentioned, to prevent a still further increase in prices. Until quite recently the Northern Territory supplied the Queensland market with many head of cattle, but that source of supply has now ceased. Stock raised in the Territory is being sent to the new works. With the arrival of the Beef Trust in Australia, cattle were slaughtered on a most extensive scale, and the price of cattle increased to such an extent that, prior to the outbreak of the war, many of the meat works were fast approaching a point at which they would have been Forced to suspend operations. During the last six or eight months, the meat works in Queensland have been slaughtering on a scale more extensive than was ever known before.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Is that not owing to the enormous demand from Great Britain?

Mr SHARPE - From America.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But since the outbreak of war we have not been exporting meat to America. .

Mr SHARPE - Very little meat has gone to America since the outbreak of the war.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does the honorable member suggest that we should not have the benefit of the American market?

Mr SHARPE - We should have the benefit of every market, but, at the same time, we should take care that the big firms operating here do not secure control of our local market. We have no desire to prevent these big firms coming here from oversea. They might be regarded as welcome guests; but we certainly do not desire that they shall obtain complete control of the local trade. Mr. Justice Street has distinctly stated in his report that there is strong evidence that these people will assume control of the trade before very long.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is not what he said. He said that there was a danger that they might do so. That is quite a different matter.

Mr SHARPE - According to the evidence given before the Commissioner, Messrs. Armour and Company have been buying the whole of Messrs. Birt and Company's output from their' works on the Burdekin River, and also the output of the Ocean Beach works, in New Zealand. Evidence to that effect was given by the manager of Birt and Company. It was also stated that they had been purchasing the whole of the output of Mr. Rosewarne's works at Brisbane, John Cooke and Company, Baynes Brothers, the Queensland Meat Export Company's works at Brisbane, at Ross River, and at Lakes Creek. Swift and Company are also slaughtering on an extensive scale at Brisbane. They have completed their Alligator Creek works, which they purchased for £40,000, and on which they have expended from £200,000 to £250,000. Mr. Sims, of Messrs. Sims and Cooper, gave evidence that practically the whole of the output of the Geelong Meatworks passed into the hands of Messrs. Swift and Company through their London agency. Mr. Justice Street found that these firms were practically controlling the whole of the meat trade in Australia, and it is reasonable, therefore, to ask the Government to take whatever action is open to them, in order to cope with the difficulty. Messrs. Morris and Company have, so far, not done very much business in Australia, but they intend in the very near future to operate upon an extensive scale. They have purchased land on the Brisbane River, and are about to enter upon the erection of works. As soon as those works have been erected, I am confident that very few of the opponents of these people will be able to withstand the operations of such a combination. Mr. Justice Street has reported that the three firms to whom I have referred are working in conjunction in America and England, and it is hard not to believe that they will fail to act in conjunction in Australia.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Will the honorable member quote the paragraph in the Commissioner's report?

Mr SHARPE - I do not think that I have that part marked, but this is what the Commissioner says in regard to a report of the Board of Trade Committee in 1909 -

In the year 1908, a Committee was appointed by the Board of Trade in England to inquire how far and in what manner the general supply, distribution, and price of meat in the United Kingdom were controlled or affected by any combination of firms or companies. It was alleged that, though the American firms engaged in the trade in England were apparently competitors, they were in fact acting in combination with one another, and that the object of that combination was to obtain control of the market for beef in the United Kingdom. In dealing with those allegations, the Committee said in the course of its report -

And then follows what took place at that inquiry. This is sufficient evidence to prove that these people who are acting in combination in other parts of the world must also do so in Australia. Another paragraph of the Commissioner's report which is of material value to those people in Australia who hold the opinion that the American Beef Trust is not operating here, appears on page 23, and- says -

It does not seem to have been without reason that the writer of the Review for 1912, commenting on the situation, remarks - " South America is undoubtedly the key to the situation as regards Britain's supply of imported meats, and for better or for worse, the key is already largely in foreigners' hands."

Another paragraph deals with the sums of money expended by these people on works. I quote these extracts in order that honorable members may be satisfied as to the presence of these people in Australia. On page 27 of the Commissioner's report we have a few lines dealing with the negotiations between Armour and Company and Birt and Company, and it is advisable to read them. They are -

And it may be that, in establishing relations with Birt and Company, it is aiming ultimately at some sort of control not only over Birt and Company's output, but also over that of the Burdekin River works, of which Mr. Cox is the managing director, and over that of the Ocean Beach works in New Zealand, which are the property of the Federal Company, a company associated with Birt and Company, and represented by Birt and Company in Australia. The acquisition by an American company - especially if acting in combination with other companies - of a control over supplies by acquiring the output of an Australian works is. as Mr. Cherry points out in his report, a matter requiring serious consideration.

A paragraph on page 30 of the Commissioner's report establishes the fact that some people in Australia did attempt to secure an option over unborn stock in Australia. When some twelve months ago in this Chamber, I said that some people were trying to secure an option over unborn stock for several years ahead honorable members who were then sitting on the Government benches, were rather inclined to ridicule the idea.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But the honorable member then said that it had been done, and that people had paid £1 a head for unborn stock.

Mr SHARPE - What- the American people ?


Mr SHARPE - I am still of opinion that the American people were associated with the transaction.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Was there an actual transaction ?

Mr SHARPE - Yes. This paragraph on page 30 of the Commissioner's report deals with the purchase of unborn stock by the Beak Pastoral Company, and says -

The rumours as to the purchase of unborn stock had their origin, I have no doubt, in the following facts. In June, 1913, the Rockhampton branch of the Australian Estates and Mortgage Company, acting on behalf of the Beak Pastoral Company, sent out a circular in the following terms to a number of pastoralists : -

We have a buyer prepared to purchase now No. 3 steers for delivery between June and December next year at £3 per head, and so on for two or throe years ahead. If you will therefore give us by return mail a firm offer of the whole drop of your No. 3, 4, 5, and 6 steers for delivery between June and December following the year they are calved, we expect to be able to do business for you without our buyer even inspecting.


Mr SHARPE - One gentleman, a large buyer of stock who had made purchases under these conditions, avoided coming forward to give evidence.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - What was the finding of the Commissioner on the point?

Mr SHARPE - At any rate, there was an attempt to engage in this class of business, and only after these American people had come to Australia.

Mr MASSY-GREENE (RICHMOND, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member will see that the Commissioner gave no finding on the point.

Mr SHARPE - Tracing these transactions is a very difficult matter ; but I hold the opinion that those who originated the idea were the people who have lately come to Australia. On page 31 of the report of the Commissioner, we have the evidence of Mr. Sims, whose association with Swift and Company sufficiently convinces me that Swift and Company and Sims and Cooper, of Geelong, are financially connected in some way. The rapid growth of the business of Sims and Cooper during the last couple of years, and the fact that they could not have made such a profit out of their business as would enable them to extend their works as they have done, give additional proof. The Royal Commissioner says -

The fact that, as Mr. Sims says, a great proportion of the output of his firm has gone to Swift and Company may have led to a misconstruction of the business relations between the two firms, and may have led to an inference being drawn of a closer relationship than in fact exists.

Sims and Cooper are selling their output to these people. Some influence must be behind them, assisting them in some way, and enabling them to compete in the market to a greater extent than can older established big financial firms in Victoria. They will soon get control of the trade here by paying a price for stock no other meat works in Victoria can pay, and thus drive other people out. They are large buyers of stock in New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria; and when we know that they are able to operate so successfully, and that their London office is merely a branch office, we can only conclude that their works are influenced in some way - I do not say exactly controlled - by Swift and Company. At any rate the influence of Swift and Company over Sims and Cooper ia sufficient to prove that they are associated with the business of the firm in every way. A paragraph on page 32 of the Commissioner's report dealing with the advantage of control over Australian supplies says : -

The suppression of competition and the control over supplies is not only a matter of serious concern to Australia, but it is also a matter of Imperial concern. It is improbable that the American companies have any intention of engaging in the distributing trade in Australia. Their object in coming here is to obtain supplies for their trade in the United Kingdom, and in the United States, and, assuming the existence of a desire to exercise a determining influence on prices in the markets of the United Kingdom, the advantage of a control over Australian supplies is obvious.

Then further on, on the next page, the Commissioner says: -

If facilities and opportunities for effective combination exist it is not improbable that they may be made use of. In his recent report Mr. Cherry says that in the United States it is fairly evident that the representatives of Armour and Company, Swift and Company, and Morris and Company, have at least a mutual understanding as to prices. Mr. Cabburn is of opinion that the American companies already fix the price of meat in all the markets of the United Kingdom.

When we know that, and when in . his summary the Royal Commissioner, after collecting evidence in four States of the Commonwealth, shows that he is absolutely satisfied that Armour and Company, Swift and Company, and Morris and Company constitute the American Beef Trust, and are operating in America both in live stock and dead meat as regards prices, and are in a position to arrange and fix prices on the London market, we must have some fear that the same thing will occur in Australia in the very near future. This morning I was not permitted to conclude a paragraph on which I wished to base a question to the Minister of Trade and Customs. I take this opportunity of doing so for the information of honorable members who are not prepared to believe that! the American Beef Trust is in our midst at the present time. This is what the Royal Commissioner says in his summary : -

The three English companies representing the three American firms most prominently identified in recent years with the so-called Beef Trust are extending their activities toAustral i a -

(a)   The Swift Beef Company of London, under the guise of the Australian Meat Export Company, a company registered in Queensland, has established works in that State, and has begun exporting.

(b)   The Morris Beef Company of London has purchased a site on the Brisbane River, in Queensland, with . a view to the establishment of the meat works.

(c)   Armour and Company, of London, is purchasing frozen and canned meat through the agency of Birt and Company and otherwise. It has also been in negotiation for the acquisition of an interest in the output of more than one meat works, and it has purchased 5,000 cattle on the hoof, which are being treated and shipped on its behalf by the Government Produce Department of South Australia.

Thus the Judge finds that the people who constitute the Beef Trust in other parts of the world are here; and, seeing that they are raising the price of meat to the consumer, making the price almost prohibitive, I hope the Commonwealth Government will take immediate action to deal with them in whatever way is at their disposal.

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15 p.m.

Mr SHARPE - The American Beef Trust, and also Vestey Brothers and the Union Cold Storage Company , have attempted not only to capture the meat trade of Australia, but also to control the industrial movements in that industry. Vestey Brothers have already had a series of labour troubles in the Northern Territory, and the people who are trading in the name of the Australian Meat Export Company, more familiarly known as Swift and Company, issued this circular to all applicants for a position in their employ; at least these are the questions which applicants would have had to answer had it not been for the recent inquiry -

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