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Tuesday, 19 September 1972
Page: 1591

Mr GRASSBY (Riverina) - The honourable member for Angas (Mr Giles) said that at this stage he did not see that any further development in settlement was warranted in our country. I think that his negative note marks the difference between the approach of the Government and that of the Opposition. We foresee a future for the countryside and an orderly expansion of development. We support the Bill before the House which provides for the raising of loan moneys amounting to $6.5m for war service land settlement in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania during 1972-73, but I most enthusiastically endorse the amendment put forward for the second time in this Parliament by the honourable member for Dawson (Dr Patterson). I seconded the original amendment. I again enthusiastically second and support the amendment moved by the honourable member for Dawson. It states:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to inserting the following words in place thereof: whilst not opposing the provisions of the Bill, the House is of opinion that a select committee of the House should be appointed to inquire into all aspects of war service land settlement in Australia in order to formulate guidelines for any future land settlement scheme.'

There are some urgencies about this matter and about the inquiry. We have heard from the honourable member for Braddon (Mr Davies) some very cogent reasons. 1 submit that the existence of about 4,000 settlers in New South Wales who are rebelling against current conditions and edicts reinforces the need for urgency. About 600 members of the Closer Settlement Association and their families have been settled on the land by the Government. They have put forward very clearly details of their position in relation to rentals which they submit are too high. They have decided to withhold all rentals until reductions are effected. There is some morality on their side because they well remember that the present New South Wales Minister for Lands and the present New South Wales Minister for Agriculture on 2 occasions, in 1960 and 1963, attacked the then government for raising rents from 2i per cent to 5 per cent and they pointed out that this would make the whole scheme inoperable. In fact they spoke very strongly in favour of that adjustment. Now they are in a position to put their words into action. They have not done so. Those 600 families have said: 'Well, we will stay by the words of those members as members and not as Ministers.' So you have got that situation.

One of the greatest soldier settlement schemes in the whole continent of Australia was the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It came into being as a crucible for experimentation in both the agriculture and the social spheres. There is no doubt that a great many mistakes were made. There were mistakes - and this may sound strange in this place - that were not political mistakes as such. They were basically mistakes of lack of knowledge, lack of know-how, and a lack of understanding of soil and water relationships. It was a great experiment. It was the first time in the history of Australia that a vast tract of country in the semi-arid zone had been put under intensive irrigation and irrigation culture. It was a great experiment and that experiment is continuing. From time to time there have been attempts to close it down, once in the days of the depression when an overseas mission brought out by the then Federal Government headed by Mr Bruce came and examined it and said: It would be a very good thing to phase it out - to finish it.' There was a Premier by the name of Mr J. T. Lang who heeded the request of the area and the settlers at the time and said: 'No, I do not think we will yield to that particular request from the overseas mission.' He used his authority together with the then Minister for Agriculture, Captain Billy Dunne, to put the irrigation areas and the land settlement scheme on a proper and sound basis.

Incidentally, there was also at that time a royal commission which was the last major effort I know of to tackle these problems. It was the Pike royal commission which was held 3 decades ago or more. Mr Justice Pike came up with recommendations that were accepted by the Commonwealth and by the States at that time. I might say that the Pike royal commission addressed itself to the duty and the responsibility of settlers in relation to capital works. One of the findings of that royal commission was that the settlers should not be liable to pay either the principal or the interest for State capital works such as dams, canals and other major works of that nature. The commission said this was not the responsibility of the settlers as such because water was a multipurpose commodity and it could not be divided up like a sausage and the costs apportioned to one section of the community alone.

The Pike royal commission was a very valuable exercise. 1 repeat that the Commonwealth and the States accepted the findings of that commission at the time, but it seems to me that over the years the results of that inquiry have been set to one side and this has led to a second revolt in the State of New South Wales by soldier settlers and people in closer settlement situations, particularly in the Murrumbidgee Valley and in the Murray Valley where water charges have been made by the State authority which have not been directly and specifically related to the operation of the areas but in fact were pitched at a level which meant and has meant that the settlers have been requested to make contributions to capital works and to interest on them. This was in direct conflict with the last rate inquiry that was carried out, but it has been done. The revolt has gone ahead because it has been said: 'No, we will not pay the increase. It is unjust and uncalled for.' Settlers in all their organisations have joined together in a remarkable display of unity to say that these things should be more properly examined. They have appealed for an examination of the operations in the Murrumbidgee Valley and in the Murray Valley. They said that this should be the subject of an inquiry.

This proposal which we advance to the Parliament tonight could be just 3u:h an inquiry. I am not attempting to sheet home to the Minister for Primary Industry responsibility for the matters I have just touched on except that the Commonwealth has made the funds available and therefore if there is no direct legal responsibility - I accept that there is not-

Mr Sinclair - Not for Coleambally.

Mr GRASSBY - Not for Coleambally?

Mr Sinclair - You included Coleambally.

Mr GRASSBY - I have not dealt with Coleambally but I will refer to it in a moment.

Mr Sinclair - It has nothing to do with the Bill.

Mr GRASSBY - It has a great deal to do with the amendment which we have moved. The Minister may have forgotten about the amendment. He might remember that we have asked for the appointment of a select committee to review all aspects of war service land settlement in Australia.

Mr Sinclair - It is not a war service land settlement scheme.

Mr GRASSBY - Coleambally happens to have some veterans from Vietnam who incidentally were national servicemen. So there is a commitment there. There is a commitment wherever there are exservicemen. Surely this can be accepted in the terms of our amendment. I hope that the Minister will not run away from that. I am not trying to say - I come back to my point - that he has a legal responsibility in this regard but surely there is a moral responsibility inasmuch as Commonwealth funds were involved and have been involved over the years. I am not, as I said very clearly at the beginning, attempting to suggest that errors of omission and commission have been political errors in every instance. Of course they have not been. The Minister in his second reading speech has, I think, given the greatest possible support to our contention that there should be an inquiry. If I may recall the words of the Minister in his second reading speech, he said:

The problems of the Kangaroo Island settlers arise from a combination of physical and biological problems.

He went on to refer to the incidence of clover disease. This was something that obviously had not been provided for in the original planning, either financially or physically. I accept that this was an error made in good faith. There were such errors that had to be corrected in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. As the Minister has mentioned Coleambally, there were errors there which were quite unrelated to political considerations but were related to technical considerations. I hope that the Minister accepts that that is the position.

Mr Sinclair - The errors to which you refer are quite unrelated to the war service land settlement scheme.

Mr GRASSBY - I am not suggesting that the war service land settlement scheme should be looked at tonight in isolation. T am suggesting, in the terms of our amendment which is properly before the House, that the inquiry should look at all aspects of land settlement. Wherever exservicemen are settled surely that is where we should be looking. I hope that the Minister is not suggesting that, if the Parliament in its wisdom accepts the amendment and an inquiry is carried out, he would debar from that inquiry exservicemen who are settled in the areas to which T have referred. Surely it is only fair, just and right for them to be heard. Surely we do not want to be bound or imprisoned by dead legalism.

I want to draw attention to the fact that the Minister himself in his second reading speech referred to the technical problems that have arisen. I understand only too well how they can arise because in areas such as Coleambally technical problems have arisen in relation to horticulture. They have arisen in relation to the rice areas where there are problems associated with soil and prior streams which have created difficulties for permanent intensive culture in some locations. That is a very nice technical statement, but it does mean that there are families and settlers in those locations who are in trouble. Again I draw attention to the fact that in 1956 we had a disaster of considerable magnitude in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area as a result of the wettest season in 100 years. A rehabilitation scheme which placed people on new farms was undertaken in an area called Kooba and in an area called Cudgel. In both of those locations there were high hopes that rehabilitation would be effective. In fact, because of technical considerations that were not identified at the time, a critical situation has arisen whereby people who have put 7 years of their life and have sunk their savings into the scheme are not getting their return. This situation has arisen simply because of lack of hoped for reaction by the soil to the cultivations which were recommended and which were followed.

I appeal to the Parliament to support the Opposition's concept of an inquiry. From my own point of view, I think such an inquiry would review existing closer settlement schemes throughout Australia. It would embrace war service land settlement md all of the closer settlement experience we have had in this country. It would give an opportunity to review the management and operation of irrigation areas and districts and to assess, for example, the need for government charges at present levels. This is very germane to what the honourable member for Braddon said. He referred to the position caused by high rentals. I have referred to that position also. So there is no point in dealing with these areas and these problems in isolation. I would hope that the inquiry would review the experience that has been gained in the Coleambally irrigation area and enable consideration to be given to a reassessment of the settlers needs in that area. I would hope, too, that it would review the technical problems not only of Coleambally but also of Cudgel and Kooba to which 1 have referred. All of these farms were created by the State and all have failed to measure up to the hopes and aspirations of the settlers and to the blueprint of government.

There is no, doubt at all of the need for this national review. The Opposition has moved for it repeatedly. I hope that the proposal will be accepted on this occasion. I hope that it will be accepted for another reason, and that is that the whole matter of closer settlement in our country - the whole matter of irrigation for that matter - is under question. Suggestions have been made that this should be phased out, that there are too many settlers and too much production. I would hope that an inquiry would be able to attend to some of the criticisms that have been made, particularly by the suburban lobbyists who seem to feel that all development should cease on the outskirts of the metropolitan areas. This is a unique opportunity for us to complete some of the great works that were put in hand, such as the great investigation work that was carried out by Mr Justice Pike. I commend the Opposition's amendment. I have had the pleasure of seconding it for the second time. I have indicated the range of the problems before the country and before the Parliament. This is one constructive way of tackling these problems, and I commend the amendment to the Parliament.

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