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Wednesday, 8 November 1967

Mr ROBINSON (Cowper) - I rise to support strongly the measure before the House, which is for the purpose of providing S15m to assist the Australian sugar industry. This, of course, follows previous action by the Government to provide the industry with $19m in the past season. The assistance that we are now considering is in respect of the current sugarcane crushing season in Australia. It is timely assistance which is welcomed by the industry and is in accordance with proposals put to the Government by the industry. I want to say very briefly that not only is this proposal recognised by the industry as a practical and positive means of assistance in a time of crisis but also it is regarded as something that breaks completely new ground in assistance for the sugar industry in Australia. Substantial benefits will flow from it directly to the industry.

We have just heard criticism from the honourable member for Dawson (Dr Patterson). That is nothing now in this House; the honourable member criticises every measure on which he speaks. He does his best to write down the status of any industry or development that is debated. We have seen a typical example this afternoon. He said the industry was getting nothing from the Government. To begin with, this very legislation gives the industry a straight-out financial concession of about $5m. This is the interest that has been waived on the two loans, the first one of $19m and the second loan of $15m now proposed, for a period of three years. This is regarded by the industry as a very sizeable contribution towards the boosting of the economy of the industry. Of course there is a further contribution by this Government in the form of the fertiliser subsidy, which is calculated by the cane industry to be worth about $2m a year. So we see that over a period of some 3 years - although 1 suppose portion of the benefit will flow for 4 years - there is a direct benefit to the industry of something approaching Slim or $12m. Yet the honourable member for Dawson says that this Government has given no help to the sugar industry.

Mr Adermann - He is a knocker.

Mr ROBINSON - Yes, he always wants to mislead and knock and confuse, and we see again today evidence of this tendency on his part. In a debate recently about, sugar prices the House was given a full exposition of the problems of the industry, and there is no occasion for me to repeat the details today. But I do want to refer briefly to some fundamental points. First, the honourable member for Dawson has charged that what the industry asked for is not in fact what is being provided. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The honourable member knows this perfectly well. He plays with words when he refers to comparisons between the amount of assistance being given and the level of productivity. He refers to the mill peaks and then he says the assistance is in respect of the No. 1 sugar pool. He completely overlooks the fact that what this Government has done has been to provide a guarantee for the sugar industry of a return of about $86 a ton, and the cost of production quoted by the honourable member himself a couple of weeks ago in this House was of the order of $80 a ton. These are the matters that are traditionally taken into account when arriving at a decision as to the measure of assistance to be given an industry.

The fundamentals to which I referred are these: The sugar industry is one of Australia's great industries. It has been highly developed and is most efficient, lt has been a most prosperous industry. But for a reason that is well known, the fall in the world price of sugar, a great disability now confronts the industry. But this has not meant that the industry has come crashing down overnight, and the assistance that is being given is of a kind designed to meet the existing situation, to sustain the industry while market conditions are given a chance to even themselves out and while the Government plays its part in the international scene in endeavouring to re-negotiate a world sugar agreement.

The honourable member for Dawson has passed some very disparaging remarks about the Government's efforts in this regard. He said that some months ago the present Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Anthony) bad said that the agreement might be renegotiated within a matter of a few months. This was not what the Minister said at all. His words were clear and precise. He said that certain conferences were being held at which it was hoped that progress would be made. There would be a foundation for re-negotiation within a reasonable time. Since that time there have been positive statements in this House - heard by the honourable member for Dawson - which have indicated precisely the dates upon which conferences were to take place at an international level and the operation of the machinery in respect of the lead-up to these negotiations. The honourable member for Dawson fails to have regard to these statements or even to acknowledge the fact that they have been made and made quite positively.

It is the responsibility of this Government to make every endeavour to bring about an improvement in the realisations for sugar on the world market. This can be achieved only by successful negotiations through the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. This has been clearly indicated as a result of the negotiations by the Commonwealth and the Queensland Government represented by senior Ministers of both governments at conferences at London and Geneva. This is the fundamental upon which the present action of giving further assistance of $15m to the industry is based. This provision of $15m interest free for 3 years follows the previous provision of $19m interest free for 3 years. If we take into account that the commencement time of the first loan of $19m in respect of interest in fact gives a 4-year period - this was raised firstly by the Rural Credits Department, a section of the Commonwealth Bank, and was later taken over as a financial responsibility of the Commonwealth as an ordinary loan - in both of these categories we see a direct and positive benefit being given to the sugar industry.

It has been said quite clearly by responsible Ministers that this is in the form of an interim arrangement. When the time comes, if there has not been a worthwhile recovery of the world sugar market and if realisations for Australian sugar have not reached the point where there is a return to a sound economy for the industry, the matter will be reviewed. There could be nothing fairer or more positive than this proposal. I repeat that the contribution of some $5m in the meanwhile represents a direct provision by this Government. Interest has to be paid on a loan that has been raised. The people paying the interest are the taxpayers of this country. It is fair that the Parliament should be clear and informed in this regard and know that this benefit is given directly to the sugar growers.

These are facts that should be understood by every member of this House. Yet the honourable member for Dawson says that no contribution has been made by the Government to this industry. What complete folly. How hypocritical this is. Undoubtedly the sugar industry in Queensland would not want a member of this Parliament to come here and attempt deliberately to mislead the House. The honourable member for Dawson went on to say that the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) had skirted around the truth and had been inaccurate in his speech on this measure. Again, this is an attempt to mislead and to delude. The whole position is one that deserves not the kind of poor approach in debate that we see on the part of the honourable member for Dawson. It is the kind of situation where every effort should be made by the Government and the Opposition in the interests of the sugar industry. It is not a matter for political argument; it is a matter in which the welfare of a great Australian industry is at stake; it is a matter to which we should apply ourselves on a basis of sound common sense, because it affects the welfare of some 30,000 Australians engaged in the sugar industry.

It has been suggested that the assistance is to be limited in respect of some growers who are newcomers lo the industry and who have entered the industry as a result of the increased cane permits that were granted a few years ago. Undoubtedly this Government is very sympathetic towards these farmers. It would like to find a way to give them special assistance; a way to assist them independently of the established growers who have greater economic stability and therefore greater strength to meet the crisis with which they are confronted. But due to constitutional limitations this cannot be done. It is primarily a matter for the Queensland Government and, in the case of farmers in northern New South Wales, for the New South Wales Government. I believe that both State governments have given considerable assistance to farmers in difficulties.

Special assistance was provided in Queensland in 1965 under a scheme to assist cane farmers suffering from drought. The amount of assistance per growers has been considerable. Both States have adopted other measures to assist growers who are new to the industry. In my electorate there are growers who are facing terrible problems because they are new in the industry. They have outlaid capital for land and plant and for the planting of an original crop. These are the people who are to be pitied because of the plight in which they find themselves. The various schemes financed by the State governments to assist settlers in necessitous circumstances are available to these growers. In my State I have found no reluctance on the part of the Rural Reconstruction Board and the government agency department of the Rural Bank of New South Wales to assist any farmer who finds himself in a predicament of the kind to which 1 have referred. The honourable member for Dawson would be well advised to assist growers in his constituency to solve their problems as individuals and through the instrumentalities set up to handle the difficulties that confront the growers. In so doing he would help to overcome the overall problem of the cane industry. If there is recognition of the guarantee of $86 a ton for the current season's production there will be a sound basis upon which to deal with the problems of the individual grower.

Numerous other matters affecting the sugar industry could be dealt with. Many of these were referred to in the debate 2 weeks ago on the price of sugar. From time to time reference- has been made to some form of stabilisation in the industry, but anybody with any knowledge of this industry or of primary industries generally will readily appreciate that at this juncture there is no basis for a stabilisation scheme in the sugar industry of the kind which applies in other industries. In fact, what we are dealing with is a guarantee of price, which is comparable to stabilisation; it is a form of stabilisation. It is recognised by the cane industry that this is a sound and proper approach and the only practical approach that could be entertained at the present time.

Another aspect of the matter is the need to engender confidence in the industry. There must be confidence in the industry if we are to have international negotiations at government level and industry level to try to bring about a better market result. These negotiations can best be undertaken if there is a feeling of confidence within the industry. To promote this confidence is one of the Government's motives in providing the sum of $15m in this legislation. The Government has provided this money to ensure that there is economic stability within the industry. In my opinion this is the only sound way of dealing with the problem at this time. 1 commend the measure to honourable members. I trust that it will receive the support of the House.

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