Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 21 March 1968

Mr MAISEY (Moore) - In speaking to the motion for the adoption of the Address-in-Reply to the Speech by His Excellency the Governor-General, I join with the honourable member for Henty (Mr Fox), who moved the motion, and the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Calder), who seconded it, and other speakers, in offering my congratulations to the new Prime Minister (Mr Gorton). I express the wish that his term of office will give him all the satisfaction he desires and that it will bring to Australia a continuation of the stable and progressive government it must experience if it is to continue to develop and grow stronger. As I am a Western Australian it is only to be expected that I should take the opportunity to speak about my own State, and particularly that large part of it embraced by the boundaries of the Moore division. In doing so I make the point that within these boundaries can be found examples of almost every industry in the State, examples of almost every problem confronting the State and, most important of all, examples of almost every stratum of social life in the community.

I would like during my speech to touch on some of these matters, at the same time recognising that the time at my disposal will of necessity mean, in some instances, a very light touch on what is in fact a very great and very real problem. In this category will certainly come the very wide field of social welfare, and it is most gratifying to note that the Government will review the field of social welfare with the object of assisting the people in most need, while at the same time not discouraging thrift, self-help and self-reliance. Surely the first group to receive consideration in the bracket of the most needy must be the civilian widow and her children, followed closely by the age pensioner. Only the most generous revision of the help presently being extended to these groups can bring to them the sort of social justice which can be considered to be consistent with an affluent society and a country which is always claiming that it is marching towards a greater civilisation. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that it is intended not to discourage thrift, self-help and selfreliance.

This must surely relate to the incidence of the means test and the penalty it places on those people who during their lifetime have made sacrifices in order to provide for their old age. Surely it must also relate to a widow who is left with a home and a small income accumulated at some sacrifice during the lifetime of her husband as some provision in the event of his death. I do not believe that it necessarily refers to the complete abolition of the means test, nor do I believe in the present circumstances that such a drastic step could be taken without serious repercussions on the whole economy. In fact, it could well be said that it could create more injustices than it cured at this particular time. I experience some difficulty in persuading myself that a person whose family has grown up and is self-supporting and who has retired on an annual income of, say, $5,000 or more has a claim for a pension. This is particularly so if this pension has to be provided by increasing taxation and, indirectly, living costs against a person with a young family to provide for.

Surely a country that has made possible the sort of opportunity which enables a man to maintain a wife, a home and to rear a family, and then to retire on an income of this order, has provided a reward for the industry that he undoubtedly exercised during his working life. The complete abolition of the means test is a very worthy objective to strive for, and it is worthwhile noting that today we are approaching double the percentage of people of pensionable age receiving pensions as compared with that percentage that obtained 20 years ago. But, of course, greater effort in the direction of further relaxation is called for. But the complete abolition of the means test does not sound to me like practical politics at this time.

The Speech delivered by His Excellency made the usual references to the development of our natural resources and the expansion of the mineral industry. He stated that mineral exports in 1967-68 are estimated at $485m and could reach $ 1,000m in the early 1970's while our dependence on imports is being reduced, or will be reduced in the future, by new discoveries such as rock phosphates in Queensland, nickel in Western Australia and oil fields discovered in Western Australia, Queensland and off Victoria in the Bass Strait The spectacular growth in mineral development and exports has rightly caught the imagination of most people. But it would be unwise to allow the high pressure publicity that has surrounded these developments to mask the fact that Australia's trading deficit over the past 10 years was $4,700m. Nor can it be ignored that authoritative estimates show that total exports will need to be running at about $5,000m a year by 1974-75 to maintain reasonable import and reserve levels. This means that with last year's exports at just over $3,000m there is a growth gap of about $2,000m to fill in about 9 years, which would require an annual rate of increase in total exports of 5.3% a year. This position has been aggravated further by the devaluation of the English pound and the change in the other currencies which have followed the pound down.

Nothing but the greatest admiration should be accorded the Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr McEwen), his Department and the Australian Government Trade Commissioners' services abroad, for the magnificent job that they are doing in promoting Australian manufactured goods in the export market. Fitting tribute also must be paid to manufacturing industries themselves for their efforts, notwithstanding the high standard of living in Australia and our resultant high cost structure and shortage of skilled labour, to develop and expand the sale of Australian manufactured goods in overseas markets. But I believe that there are very definite limits to what we reasonably expect in the way of net additions to our export income from the sale of manufactured goods abroad, particularly when the import requirements of these industries run at a very high level.

If the manufacturing industries are able to maintain their existing rate of growth, provide high wages and good working conditions as a background for a vigorous migration programme, I believe that they are making a contribution to national growth and development which should not be underestimated nor lightly appreciated. If overseas balances are to be maintained at a safe level in the face of our expanding defence commitment and development requirements, I believe that it is still our primary industries to which we must look for the maintenance of a safe working reserve and the maintenance of our development programme.

It is unfortunate in these circumstances to find a situation where the primary producer is being plagued by unfavourable seasonal conditions, rising costs due to the need to protect manufacturing industries from imports, and a rising wage structure necessary to project an image abroad of an attractive country to the suitable potential migrant. To this burden being borne by the primary producer must be added now what in effect has amounted to an appreciation of the Australian dollar. In these circumstances, it is not surprising to find a rising tide of bitterness in the ranks of the primary producers, particularly when it is remembered that this Government came to power in 1949 on a policy of putting value back into the £1, at a time of record intake of migrants, and at a time when primary industry costs were at a level which provided a handsome margin between the cost of production and export realisation.

It must surely be apparent to any impartial observer that what has happened in the intervening years is that the financial policy of Australia has been consciously managed in such a way as to take this big margin between internal costs and export values and to spread it through the whole of the community. This has been in order to promote the affluent society necessary to attract migrants as the supply of suitable migrants from overseas countries dwindled. The Primary producing industries have been called on in the final result to bear the cost of the national development and population growth. This statement, Mr Speaker, is not made in any critical sense. This, after all, has been the historic role of these industries for generations. The point that I want to make, Sir, is that if these industries are to continue to carry the burden - and I believe that they will do so willingly - of earning our overseas funds, some fresh thinking must be applied to the problems presently confronting these industries.

I do not want to sound trite, but I do say that we cannot afford to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; nor can we even afford to allow it to remain in its present unhealthy state. It is not sufficient to stand back and from the serenity of some harbourside home tell the primary producer, in a lordly fashion, that he must be more efficient. The record of the primary producer on the score of increasing efficiency is a most impressive one. It is unequalled by any other section of the community. Subject only to seasonal conditions, production records per man engaged in primary industry are seen to be broken every time fresh figures are released.

Since 1948-49, the Australian farmer has increased bis output by 65% while his workforce has declined slightly. He has fully utilised and applied mechanisation as illustrated by the fact that whereas 19 years ago he used less than 90,000 tractors, today he has more than trebled that figure and now uses over 300,000 tractors. The wheat industry provides a classic example of increased farm productivity and today, because of its modern and realistic approach to export marketing, is leading the field in the race for export outlet. In this industry, average yields per acre over the last 10 years have increased by over 30%. This increased yield has taken place against a background of extension of acreage into areas where it was believed that wheat could never be grown. But the strong pressure of increasing efficiency in overseas countries which reduces his competitive advantage in export markets, plus the ever increasing costs of his on-farm requirements relentlessly drives the wheatgrower to attain even greater degrees of efficiency. He must not only use better equipment but also he must make the best use of that better equipment. He must apply to his industry not only all the technological advances as they become available to him but also the know-how and intuition which comes to him only after years of education in the school of practical experience, and for which in the final analysis there is no real substitute.

In an examination of the unequal struggle by the primary industries to maintain Australia's export income, it is interesting to note that counsel for the Commonwealth submitted to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission that whereas in 1958-59 farm income had reached $941 m on the basis of a gross value of rural production of $2,523m, in 1965-66 it reached only $902m on the basis of a level of rural production S678m higher. Therefore costs between these years had risen by $689m. The relentless pressure for greater efficiency calling for more and more modern equipment and the increased demands for capital associated with farm development have resulted in a substantial - almost alarming - rise in rural borrowing from the main institutional lenders, notwithstanding that farmers have provided substantial amounts of capital requirements from their own resources.

Both broad acre and intensive farming in this highly competitive situation call for greater and greater inputs of capital, and if the present trends in demand for capital and narrowing profit margins continue, then surely the point must be close at hand where the ability of the industry to service even its existing financial commitments must be seriously prejudiced. It has been authoritatively stated that there has been an increase of more than 75% recorded in farm indebtedness to the main institutional lenders during the past 10 years. Further, it was estimated that the amount of rural indebtedness to main institutional lenders stood at $1,4 10m at 30 June 1966. There is still ample room for export development within the boundaries of existing farms as well as in the vast areas of virgin land being released each year. If export income is to continue to grow, as it must, then this development must proceed. But surely more thought should be given to the extent and ability of those engaged in primary industry to service this ever-increasing debt structure.

The bitterness presently obsessing some primary producers, particularly wool growers, is not reduced by the present unseemly wrangle about over award payments and whether the recent generous increases awarded by the Arbitration Commission should be absorbed in over award payments which is presently rife throughout secondary industry. But we may well ask ourselves: What is happening to the soil itself in this relentless drive for greater production and export? We should never forget that although most of us like to imagine that we own, through either leasehold or freehold title, the land that we occupy, the real truth of the situation is that we are really only acting in the role of trustees for posterity, and resting upon our shoulders is the great responsibility to hand this soil on to posterity in a condition at least equal to that in which it was before we first developed it.

I think that this is one of the great things that we must realise as we watch v/hat is happening around us today in this relentless drive for the farmer to become more efficient and to produce more and more goods for export in order to keep this country rolling along as happily as i: has been during the last 20 years. When we look at the soil and the soil structure we find a number of things. We find that soil fertility levels can reasonably be claimed to be being maintained. We can thank for this maintenance of soil fertility the establishment and operation of such organisations as the Wheat Industry Research Council, which was established in 1957, and the State Wheat Industry Research Committees which are co-ordinated on a truly national basis to tackle research not only into the problems of the wheat industry but also into the fertility of the soil itself.

It reflects great credit on these various committees and the research organisations with which they are associated that they have expended vast sums of money in the development of leguminous types of pastures and nitrogen fixing plants, particularly those suitable for growing in the more arid areas of our agricultural land. Through these means we have not only raised the fertility level of the soil in these areas in an effort to increase grain production, but at the same time we have increased stock carrying capacity which has been of immense assistance to the farming community in enabling it to compete with everincreasing costs and to attain greater productivity per acre within existing farms.

An examination indicates that the structure of the soil is holding together reasonably well, although there are many responsible people and many competent and experienced observers throughout rural areas who believe that a strong case can be made for increasing research into the question of whether we are using quite the right type of tillage implements and whether in our effort to get more and more work per man out of the machinery we are using by operating at greater speeds, we are not in fact inflicting some permanent damage on the structure of the soil itself. This is a problem which I believe could be overcome by investment in research.

I make the point quite clearly that in my opinion the greatest menace facing Australian soil today is the problem of soil salinity. The rising salt water table throughout the agricultural areas of Australia, particularly throughout Western Australia, must surely be regarded as a matter of major concern to all those people who are familiar with it. It is quite evident that as we develop more and more land and as we remove more and more trees, the natural process whereby the rainfall which percolates down into the soil and is drawn off during the long dry summer months and dissipated into the atmosphere is destroyed. We have the situation in which we are getting a greater accumulation of water underground which is becoming affected with salt and is rising to the surface during the summer months, there to leave a very dangerous level of salinity. The continuation of this process has provided obvious evidence that each year we are losing thousands and thousands of acres of our most arable soils. There is a definite call for a concentrated and co-ordinated research programme into this problem of soil salinity.

We have the spectacle - and those of us who travel throughout the rural areas see it every time we make a journey to any part of our electorates - of farmers spending literally thousands and thousands of dollars in the provision of contour banks and absorption banks. The object of these banks on the higher land is to stop the run off of water, to bank ft up, to stop gullying and erosion of the surface soil and to allow water time to seep down through the ground and find a lower level. But what no one really knows is where this water goes and what its ultimate effect is. Quite a number of us believe that this water ultimately percolates down through the more permeable strata of soil, picking up salt as it goes and finally breaks the surface at the lower level as very brackish if not just plain salt water. Huge areas of Australia are becoming more and more damaged by the accumulation of salt each year, and whether the farmer spending this money is in fact doing the right thing or the wrong thing is a point on which we need to carry out research in order to tell him whether in fact he is doing the right thing or the wrong thing. I question very strongly the effect of contour and absorption banks. But I believe that there is another and even greater danger looming as a result of indiscriminate development of land and insufficient attention to and research into this problem of soil salinity. There is a huge area east of Dalwallinu which is probably one of the worst areas of salinity in the

Moore division. In my opinion the solution of this problem is not that of putting water underground because this is a vast tract of country with heavy concentrations of salt at depth. The water passes through these concentrations and without doubt comes to the surface at lower levels, carrying the salt with it. So quite obviously the solution of the problem must be one of drainage. But where do we drain the water to? Do we drain it into Moora and flood the town? This town already gets flooded every time an excessively wet winter is experienced. We have the same sort of problem in the Avon Valley. Do we drain the water into the catchments of the Mundaring Weir or the Canning Weir? This . obviously is not the answer. The answer is drainage into the sea. This means that we must start from the sea and work back. These are programmes far beyond the resources of the State of Western Australia. They should be tackled on a national basis.

I want to take the last few seconds of my allotted time in making an appeal to this Government first of all to establish a properly co-ordinated Commonwealth and State organisation to investigate the problem of soil salinity, not only in the interest of present day farmers, but indeed, in the interests of posterity.

Suggest corrections