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Thursday, 21 March 1968

Mr BEATON (Bendigo) - The opening of this Parliament and the Governor-General's Speech followed a remarkable period of Australian political history. We saw the tragic loss of a Prime Minister. Whatever our political differences, we of the Opposition respected the former Prime Minister, the late Mr Harold Holt, as a man and as a parliamentarian. We were sorry to see him go. Subsequently we saw an astonishing campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party - a campaign unheard of in the history of the party, a public campaign in which Liberal Party members publicly supported or opposed candidates. We saw, for instance, the young pretender, the Minister for Immigration (Mr Snedden) - on the wave length of the era, as we were told; but apparently he got on the wrong wave length, or perhaps he was short circuited - receive four votes in the ballot for the leadership. We know three of those supporters and the fourth supporter will not reveal himself. Quite frankly I do not blame him because when we think about it, ironically enough, two of the Ministers who supported the Minister for Immigration are now on the back benches. This is a clear indication that in the Liberal Party it does not pay to lose.

We saw the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr McEwen) openly and publicly disown the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) in a statement which made headlines around Australia. In my view the Deputy Prime Minister, as leader of the Country Party, was entitled to state the conditions under which his Party would join the coalition. That is fair enough. The reasons must have been important - reasons which he seriously considered before he made the statement. The question is - and it is an important one: If the Treasurer, in the eyes of the Deputy Prime Minister, is not fit to be Prime Minister, how are we to know whether he is fit to continue as Treasurer? What are the reasons? The people of Australia are entitled to know and I think the Treasurer is entitled to know in order to be able to defend himself. The Opposition is aware, of course, of the policy differences between the two Ministers in relation to foreign capital inflow, banking, tariffs and the like. It is common knowledge that there is a state of armed neutrality existing between them and between their departments. This is not a good thing in government. It is not a good thing for our country. Indeed, it is incredible that in these circumstances they can continue in the Cabinet together.

Then we saw the promotion of our new Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth). We on this side of .the House all agree that he has some capacity. No one will deny that. But he has been languishing unrecognised on the back benches for some 18 years and, like the new Minister for Works (Senator Wright) who sits in another place, in that time he has crossed the floor and voted with the Opposition on a number of occasions, lt must appear lo the hopefuls on the back bench of the Liberal Party that there is no reward for loyalty and indeed that promotion is a rather effective and novel way of silencing rebels. The Prime Minister has been elected. He was from the Senate. It does not say much for his opponents in the House of Representatives in the election for leadership. I point out that the Prime Minister was not elected with the full support of his Party as two ballots were held before the result was known. Now, of course, the Prime Minister becomes heaven sent as the messiah of the Liberal Party. In off the cuff remarks in Press conferences and in speeches he has endeavoured to give Australia the impression that he is a new broom bringing an upheaval and renewal of energies - the winds of change - through the corridors of power. Instead of an upheaval we have had a mere ripple. Instead of winds of change there has been a mere zephyr. Where indeed was renewed energy apparent in the Governor-General's Speech? We have a new government but which way it is going is anyone's guess.

The Prime Minister is already qualifying the statements he made after his succession to leadership. He said that no more troops would be sent to Vietnam, and this was a permanent statement. It was permanent until a few days ago when he was questioned in this House. Since then, of course, the establishment has been at him. He is trying to give the impression that the Government is a very happy family, but let us look at its members. The Treasurer disagrees with the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Bury) about the state of the economy. There can be no question about that fact. The Minister for Trade and Industry disagrees with the Government's action over the devaluation of the British currency. The Prime Minister and the Postmaster-General (Mr Hulme) disagree about the future of the Post Office. The Deputy Prime Minister, who is also Minister for Trade and Industry, disagrees, too, with the Government's attitude on foreign investment. Of course, he and the Treasurer have never agreed on anything.

What of the Governor-General's Speech that we are now debating? It was drab and dull and a complete anti-climax after the build up the Prime Minister received as a man of action. There is nothing new in it and there is a great deal that is old. The vital question of education - surely our greatest investment - failed to get a mention. Not even the Government's Senate election promise of assistance to school libraries was mentioned. The crisis in education which our Prime Minister, as Minister for Education and Science, stoutly denied existed, still continues. I could talk for an hour - and so could honourable members on both sides of the House - about the deficiencies in education such as lack of classrooms, shortages of qualified teachers, shortages of science equipment, and inadequacies in universities, colleges and so on. I shall take that matter up in another debate. If we really need evidence about the crisis in education, surely there was pictorial evidence on the front page of yesterday's Melbourne 'Age'. I have here a copy of that newspaper which published a photograph of the Western Tyers State School. I show it now to honourable members. The school is nothing more than an old broken down, backwoods shack and the residence occupied by the teacher seems even worse. This is an indication of the crisis in education. Here is pictorial evidence for anyone to sec.

The drought which has devastated a large part of south eastern Australia was dismissed in the Governor-General's Speech in a passing reference of one line. The Speech mentioned the economy and apparently Government supporters are entirely happy with the relief measures taken by the Government. The Opposition is not happy and I shall say something more about that later. Seventy thousand applications for housing authority homes in the States are outstanding, but housing received not a word of mention in the Speech. Soon after his succession to the Prime Ministership, the Prime Minister spoke of 'an underlying malaise in the Post Office'. But not a word was said about removing, nor is any action contemplated, apparently, to remove the causes of unrest in the Post Office, Australia's greatest business undertaking. The discovery of natural gas in economic quantities was of great significance to the nation. What we needed before and need even more now is a national fuel policy; but no, there was not a word in the Governor-General's Speech about it. That Speech, after all, is supposed to be a blueprint of the Government's intended action for this year and, indeed, to the end of this Parliament. The Prime Minister, in remarks made before the parliamentary sitting, indicated interest in urban development. We all agree that the cities of Sydney and Melbourne have congestion problems and are sprawling and over-developed. But the Prime Minister and the GovernorGeneral's Speech were completely silent about the need for concerted action to bring about more balanced development. There was nothing in the Speech to please country people in this respect.

Indeed, the Speech is remarkable not for its content but for the matters of national importance which failed even to rate a mention. What of health and social services? After 18 years in office the LiberalAustralian Country party Government proposes to hold inquiries into aspects of these all embracing subjects. Inquiries: No inquiry is needed to know that hundreds of thousands of pensioners are struggling to survive on pensions which are far below their real needs. For years now the split up of our national financial cake has been out of balance. Clearly the Commonwealth, with its ability to substantially reduce its indebtedness, has had the better of the deal with the States, whose indebtedness has increased remarkably. Nothing was said in the Governor-General's Speech about any new deal; so apparently the old formula will continue. How does the Commonwealth stand in relation to Sir Henry Bolte's stamp tax? We have read something in the newspapers about the Federal Government threatening Sir Henry about that portion of the tax which constitutes an income tax. Why was not the Government's intention in regard to this mentioned in the Speech? Why do we, as parliamentarians, have to rely on newspaper reports to get our information? Will the Government withhold from the tax reimbursement allocation to Victoria later this year an amount equivalent to collections of the Victorian stamp tax so far as it is regarded as an income tax. We ought to know. This socalled new broom has turned out to be a hairy old veteran with the same old tired approach.

The whole tenor of the GovernorGeneral's Speech gave the impression of a town crier of olden days going around the town crying 'All's well', when in fact he did not have a clue what was going on beyond the illumination of his lantern. All is not well. I will take just one important aspect of our economy - primary industry. Indeed, 1968 will be a crisis year for Australian agriculture because drought, devaluation, exorbitant shipping freight increases and the ever-present price squeeze are all putting pressure on primary industries, many of which were facing critical situations before the year started. And then we have the shadow of Great Britain's anxiety to join the European Common Market and the consequent threat of losing further sales of primary products. As the session passes I will take the opportunity to point out some of the specific deficiencies and problems in relation to primary industry.

I want to say something about the need for a national disaster organisation in Australia. The drought has had such an effect upon the nation and its economy - and I will say something about that later - that it seems to me that the Government has a clear responsibility to arrange for the most exhaustive research into the cause and effects of droughts and the action needed to counteract and minimise them. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation notwithstanding, governments are not yet rainmakers. But governments can provide the means for the 1968 scientist to apply his knowledge to solving the problems. At almost any given lime somewhere on this vast continent of ours we have a disaster of some magnitude - fire, flood or drought. I believe that a national organisation designed to research into, propose preparedness for, and work to alleviate consequences of such disasters ought to be established. As I have said, despite the efforts of the CSIRO, we cannot as yet control the weather. But we can be better prepared and more effective in the alleviation of the effects which blight the lives of so many of our citizens almost every year and which regularly set back our national progress. Too often victims of the national disasters that occur in all States have to wait too long for governments to make up their minds about the type of assistance needed, and they then often have to wait too long for the assistance to reach them.

A large part of our continent has an average rainfall that is barely sufficient to maintain agriculture. It is inevitable therefore that normal variations in rainfall will result in drought. The series of droughts since 1964 has stimulated research into their occurrence, effects and amelioration, but I am prepared to bet my bottom dollar - and I am pretty near to that now - that 12 months after the drought breaks it will be forgotten until the next time. When a flood occurs there is an outcry from the public demanding flood mitigation and there is an upsurge of interest in that direction, but when the rain stops falling and the water subsides so does the interest and so does the action to determine the causes and prevent recurrence. Our rarest and most precious resource is water. Thousands of millions of gallons annually run into the sea at times of flood. At other times whole districts covering thousands of square miles are desparate for water. Yet we spend only 0.7% of our gross national product on water research compared to 3.5% by the United States of America, 2.5% by Russia and 2% by Britain.

The unfortunate Tasmanian bushfire disaster last year clearly showed a lack of organisation to prevent these disasters happening and a lack of organisation to deal with relief for those who suffer in such tragedies. It is my belief that the Government should establish a permanent national disaster organisation - with the co-operation of the States - in an attempt to produce answers to many of the questions as yet unresolved in relation to drought, fire and flood. I think that such a national disaster organisation should be financed by the Commonwealth and that it should have two arms - a research arm and a field arm. The research arm should have the task of co-ordinating and stimulating research by the CSIRO, universities, Commonwealth and State departments, conservation authorities, private industry and farmers' organisations. Indeed, it too should undertake research. The field arm should engage in preventive, relief and extension work, giving its results to the Government, to farmers and to the community generally. We must seek to minimise the effects of disasters and cut the huge losses that our country regularly suffers.

I want to say something about what such an organisation could do in research. It could promote research into better methods of statistical analysis and into the why's and wherefore's of rainfall; it could promote research into the water needs of plants and animals and breed more drought resistant plants; and it could make a greater effort in the field of long range forecasting. There are some people in this country who have great faith in the opinions of long range weather forecasters. I suggest that the statistics show they are quite unreliable. There should be much more research into long range weather forecasting. There should be research into the conservation of fodder and perhaps into the necessity for pelletising machinery to be made available in certain rural areas to enable farmers to pelletise their fodder and put it into cube form. There ought to be research into farm water supplies and the use of pumps, dams, storage tanks, pipelines and so on. There should be research into the plannning, designing, siting and financing of farm water supplies. Perhaps there should be some research into the effectiveness of our road and rail transport systems in times of national disaster. At present no transport is available in some areas affected by drought for farmers who want to evacuate their livestock to agistment areas. Transport trucks are booked up months ahead. It could well be that research into farm water supply problems will indicate that a special fund should be set up to advance finance for recommended private water programmes.

A national disaster organisation could lead to research into primary industry insurance. It is apparent to me that, as in other countries, national insurance schemes covering individual industries could provide much needed cushioning relief for farmers who suffer losses from disasters. Let us briefly examine the wheat industry. The 1948 wheat stabilisation plan has served the Australian wheat farmer well. I do not think that honourable members would mind if I pointed out quite proudly that this was created under an Australian Labor Party Government. The only deficiency is that it is a good-time plan. If a farmer cannot produce or deliver his wheat to the Wheat Board because of a national disaster such as fire, flood or drought he misses out on any return at all. In the United States of America and Canada a system of drought insurance lessens the impact on the farming community. Such legislation has been operating in the USA since 1946 and in 1959 the Crop Insurance Act was passed in Canada. I understand that the premiums for coverage are around about 6%. It should be obvious that with such protection a wheat farmer would improve his credit worthiness and certainly he would receive a more stable income. If this occurred the community as a whole - but especially country communities - would benefit from this stability. Such a disaster organisation as I have outlined could collate details of the legislation for and operation of similar schemes in other countries as well as the two that T have mentioned - the USA and Canada. The application of a wheat industry insurance scheme could lead to the spread of such schemes to other cereal crops and ultimately there could be a much wider application.

I have merely touched the field in which a national disaster organisation could operate to the benefit of Australia. I think that it could be a practical body which could substantially aid the diminution of the effects of disasters and, indeed, help stave them off in certain circumstances.

In the few minutes available to me I want to say something about the drought, which unfortunately since 1964 has touched firstly northern and central Australia, New South Wales and Queensland and is now in Southern Australia. In 3 years it has reached out to all parts of the continent and the Government has made certain provisions in relation to drought relief. 1 want to say that we believe that they are necessary but I want also to offer the criticism that they do not go far enough. It is quite clear that not enough is being done to alleviate the effects of the drought and to prepare affected areas and affected people for recovery when the drought ends. Some regard the calamity as affecting solely the farmer and his flocks, but this series of droughts, run together as they have been, more than any other national calamity is having an effect on many Australians. Its effect on everyone is both physical and financial. The 1944-45 drought cost this country something like SI, 000m, but this drought could continue and the loss could be even more than that this time.

The wheat harvest is badly hit; so is dairying. Butter production has dropped more than 2,000 tons in the 6 months up to the end of 1967. These things will reverberate through the economy for years to come. To the individual farmer, crop losses and stock losses have meant severe financial loss, but these flow through many other sections of the community - retail trade in country towns, for instance. They cause unemployment in capital cities. Melbourne is now a city changed, by the drought, from green to brown. The only people getting the benefit are the chiropractors, who are curing bucket backaches as they are called. The drought affects the housewife and the family. She finds that the cost of food has risen. The price of meat today is high, but what it will cost when the drought ends and the farmer is restocking hardly bears mentioning. I believe that the Government has a responsibility to bend every effort to diminish the effects of the drought and aid recuperation from it.

It is vital that breeding stock should survive so that the road to recovery will be shortened. We find there comes a situation for every individual farmer when he just cannot afford to buy the fodder needed in a drought, so he sells his sheep for slaughter. This situation has arisen in many cases. I believe the stage has been reached when the Government should pay a subsidy of 50c a bushel on all feed grains used as drought fodder. In today's question time the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) indicated belatedly that he is willing to underwrite Victoria up to Sim in this respect. What happens to southern New South Wales, I do not know. Why should the farmers in that area be left out and others in drought stricken areas be assisted? The price of hay of whatever description has rocketed to unheard heights. Dealers in fodder are making a fortune, although there is not a great deal left to sell. The cost of wheat is $6 a bag retail off f.a.q. and it is an expensive business keeping the stock alive. This is too much for the ordinary and small farmer to pay for drought fodder in order to keep his stock alive.

The Australian Wheat Board last season had a carry over of something like 80 million bushels. The seasons crop will be heavily reduced because of the drought, but the question is: What reserves of wheat do we hold? There is no guarantee that, despite the fact that rain has fallen in Victoria today - and some in Canberra, the drought will break in southern Australia. It is imperative that we hold substantial reserve stock in case the drought goes on. There has been no indication it will break now or in 6 months time, and I believe it is the Government's responsibility to see that sufficient stocks of wheat are held to meet needs in an emergency. We have an emergency. We normally use 60 to 65 million bushels a year. We may need 100 million bushels a year if this drought continues. I ask specifically whether the Government has taken this up with the Australian Wheat Board. The Government, if it has, should offer to pay the storage and handling costs of the Australian Wheat Board. After all, it is the farmer's wheat

However, it is vital that adequate stocks should be held in Australia to meet the emergency that we are facing now, which could continue for years to come.

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