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Thursday, 19 September 1974
Page: 1273

Senator PRIMMER (Victoria) -I move:

That the Senate take note of the report to the Prime Minister by a working group, dated May 1974, relating to rural policy in Australia.

At the outset I indicate that I believe that the document which the working group produced will set down the guidelines and broad philosophy for agriculture in Australia for a long time to come. The paper, which is the result of the initiative taken by the Labor Government since it came to power in 1972, is something of an historic document. It is the first paper on agriculture which has been drawn up by a government for more than 20 years. It sets out some of the problems- to a large extent, probably all of the problems- confronting the rural sector and, whilst not drawing any conclusions, presents many thoughts on ways and means by which these problems can be overcome. In drawing up the document the working party considered more than 100 submissions from primary producers, academics, and one would believe, people from a vast cross-section of the Australian scene. However, it must be stressed that the document is by no means the policy of the Labor Government. As I said earlier, it should be a guide to this Government and, one would assume, to any government that governs Australia during the next few years.

The great overriding problem that one sees in agriculture- it is perhaps being pointed up at the present time- is the instability in income for the primary producer. This is not new; it never has been new in the Australian agricultural scene. Prices of various products have fluctuated due to problems across the world and across Australia. They fluctuate because of the economic policies of importing countries and the quirks of nature in Australia itself. One only has to think of the price trends in wool and beef for as short a period as the last 12 months to have some realisation why some farmers in the community are presently expressing some anger. At the present time a prime bullock sells for about $140, whereas earlier this year a beast of exactly the same quality and type was selling for almost $400. The price of wool fluctuates not quite as severely as the price of beef, but almost at the same rate.

The Australian Labor Party realises that in these circumstances there is bound to be some frustration, anger and qualms expressed about the future of agriculture in Australia as farmers see it. However, I say to those farmers who are talking about taking militant action, such as driving their tractors on to the roads, cutting off the supply of produce to their counterparts in the cities and doing all sorts of things short of engaging in civil war, that in my opinion they should go back, sit on the slip rail and rethink or reanalyse the case, and not come out, as many of them are tending to do, and blame the Government. Quite frankly, I think that if they sit down in a rational way and think the thing through properly, they will realise that to a large extent they are the victims of the free enterprise system which many of them have proclaimed and continue to proclaim as being the be-all and the end-all of society. They also will realise, if they think this matter through, that a good deal of their problem lies in the finance and politics of the European Economic Community, Japan and America. Perhaps, while they are doing this within the framework of the free enterprise system in which so many of them glorify, they will take a cold hard look at the free auction system.

Senator McLaren - And have a look at the profit margins of the stock companies, too.

Senator PRIMMER - And also, as Senator McLaren rightly points out, have a look at Dennys Lascelles Ltd and the various other stock groups that have battened on to them ever since Australia was taken away from Senator Bonner's people. If any move has been made to try to solve the problems that beset primary industries at the present time, surely it is the initiative that was taken by the Minister for Agriculture (Senator Wriedt) when he formed the Rural Advisory Council. This body is chaired by a man whom I know personally- Mr Heffernan of Victoria. He is a man of high calibre and high integrity. If those who sit under his chairmanship are of the same calibre and integrity- I have no doubt that they are- then I believe that this organisation can be a strong link between the growers or the farmers and this Government or any other government. I believe that, once this Council gets to work and sits down with the Minister and his advisers, many of the problems now confronting the primary industries will diminish.

The Green Paper, as it has become known, touches on most, if not all, of the facets of agriculture in Australia which are too numerous to enumerate in total. Apart from a basic background of agriculture, it goes right through Government assistance, stabilisation and efficiency, land and rural credit policies, agricultural research and extension services and marketing policies including market information and communication. Let me say here that, if there is an area in which governments and primary producers in the past have been remiss, it is this very vital area of market information and communication. One has only to be aware of the situation that applies in the meat market of New Zealand to be fully aware that in Australia we have not even started to think about doing our homework as it relates to market information and communication. It has been a dead area and it is one of the areas that will have to be moved on very quickly in order to help the meat section of our market to which it specifically applies to cope with the problems of today. Primary producers take their stock to the market. No one who takes them there can give a guarantee of quality. At the other end of the line no one ever lets the farmer know what type of meat the market actually requires. So we have farmers continuing to produce animals that may or may not be, by some fluke chance, the type of meat that the consumer requires.

The Green Paper also goes into the field of rural reconstruction, the welfare of rural people, land utilisation, environment and conservation, decentralisation and so on. As I said earlier, the list goes on ad infinitum. One area which it does not touch and which is giving and has given a great deal of concern throughout rural Australia in recent years- perhaps the concern has always been there but lately it has been highlighted- is the question of rural towns. The working party may have felt that this matter was outside the scope of the brief which it was given. But I believe that it is time that some other working group was put to work to study rural towns. It may well be that an offshoot of the Department of Urban and Regional Development could carry out this task. The interim report of the Henderson Committee, which was presented earlier this year, pointed up the fact that the rate of poverty is twice as high in rural towns as in metropolitan areas.

To come back to the Green Paper and more specifically to marketing, there has been a good deal of discussion amongst the primary producer organisations in recent years on this question of marketing and the opinion has been expressed consistently that if marketing can be improved from the farmer's point of view there is bound to be a higher return for the goods which they produce. The farmers have felt that better marketing through the introduction of better techniques would increase their pay packets. It was rather disconcerting to read that section of the Green Paper and to be informed by the people who compiled it- I believe that they had sufficient information on which to base their case- that the costs of better marketing as they currently apply and will apply in the future will mean that despite better marketing by the farmer he will not receive any higher price for his produce. This is a rather alarming situation. It continues the situation that has always prevailed with primary produce in that the farmer, of course, only receives what is left after all the other people involved have taken their share out of the final price. If it is the case that improved marketing techniques by primary producers will not give them an increase in income, then one wonders where primary producers will go for an increase in their income. The overwhelming majority of primary producers in this country are hard working and, within the restrictions of their total environment, very efficient. Yet we are told in the Green Paper that no more than 4 per cent of our farmers have received a post-school education. In fact, of the developed nations Australia has the lowest percentage of farmers with a post-school education. I believe that this must be a cause for some concern on the part of the Government because, as I read the agricultural scene, having lived in it all my life, and as I see it projected into the future, it is very obvious to me that over the next decade or so people with no post-school education will not be able to cope with the intricacies and the techniques which are constantly evolving in agriculture. I believe that here is a task for some governments to give serious thought to, and frankly I do not know how one gives farmers a post-school education over any extended period if they are to continue to look after their farms. Farming has always seemed to me to be rather a 24-hour job, but perhaps we can evolve some system whereby these farmers can be relieved of their duties over a period of time to allow them to engage in further academic studies. I believe that the authors of this paper deserve the thanks of all of us.

As I have already said, it is a very comprehensive document. I guess that it has been studied by hundreds if not by thousands of people across rural Australia and by not only farmers but also academics, agricultural extension officers and people in departments of agriculture. The call for the paper- people have contacted me- has virtually utilised every copy which has come to print at this stage. In fact, it has been a very hard document to obtain. For that reason it might not be distributed as widely as it could well be but I believe that the great bulk of people who are interested in the matter by some means or other will have access to a copy. I think that covers all I wish to say about the matter. I repeat that I believe it is a first class document, put together by a hardworking group of people and that, to a very large extent, it will be the bible for agriculture in Australia for the future.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Milliner)- Is the motion seconded?

Senator Devitt - Yes, I second the motion.

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