8th Parliament · 2nd Session
Mr. Speaker (Hon. Sir Elliot Johnson) took the chair at 11 a.m., and read prayers:
– Before calling on the . business of the day, I desire to inform the House that I have ‘been informed that recentlyan honorable member represented to the Principal Parliamentary Reporter that he had had to. make several unusual corrections upon his Hansard proofs. In this connexion it must not be forgotten that the proofs originally supplied to honorable members have not been revised by either the Principal Parliamentary Reporter or the reporters concerned,by whom the errors detected by honorable members have generally been corrected before the return of their proofs. In an interview with the Principal Parliamentary Reporter I ascertained - and I readily believe the statement - that the fault in this and similar instances does not lie with the Hansard reporters themselves. I think honorable members will admit that, speaking generally, the reporting of the Hansard staff is of a first class character.
Honorable Members. - Hear, hear !
– This is the first occasion, so far as I am aware, that such a representation as that to which I refer has been made. The cause, I am informed, is due to the extreme difficulty that the Hansard reporters experience in following the debates, owing to the continuous interruption that takes place, and the loud and almost incessant interjections, counter cries, and conversations carried on across, the chamber or across the table. Because of these it is, at times, practically impossible for them to follow the speeches of honorable members. The disorder has, at times, been so great that it has been impossible, as I have frequently pointed out, for me to hear what is- said by the honorable member addressing the Chair.
I specially refer to the matter at this stage because this is Friday morning, and my experience is that disorder in the proceedings of the House on those mornings particularly is a prolific source of trouble to the occupant of the chair. Whether it is a result of the strenuous work of the week I cannot say, but honorable members’ nerves seem to be more susceptible to irritation at the close than they are at the beginning of the week. I mention it, also, for the reason that we are now about to enter upon a discussion the very nature of which is not conducive in the ordinary course to the preservation of a calm, judicial atmosphere.. I appeal to honorable members to have regard to the difficulties under which the work of reporting the proceedings of the House is conducted, and to have regard, also, for the decorum of the House. It. frequently happens that I receive from those who are in charge of schools and other educational institutions applications for permission for parties of their students to occupy seats in the gallery, in order that they may listen to the debates, and observe the way in which the business of the Parliament is conducted. Honorable members must realize that our proceedings at times are not particularly edifying to those who are looking to the Commonwealth Parliament for example in decorous behaviour and guidance in the conduct of the business of a deliberative assembly. Having said so much, I feel that I can confidently appeal to honorable members to place a reasonable amount of restraint upon themselves, and to refrain as far as possible from interjecting.
.- I move -
That the Government be severely censured for referring its sugar transactions to the Public Accounts Committee before disposing of the amendments moved by the honorable members for Swan and Bourke, thereby delaying decision on the question of immediately reducing the retail price of sugar.
The happenings in this. Chamber, more particularly within the last few weeks, compel me to take this action. The Government by a use of the forms of the House have frustrated the latest effort on the part of honorable members to arrive at a decision as to what should be the retail price of sugar. This most important question, affecting as it does, every household in the community, is by the action of the Government, to remain undetermined pending a reference of the whole matter of the Commonwealth sugar control to the Joint Committee on Public Accounts. I desire, at the very inception of my remarks, to state clearly that 1 have nothing whatever against that Committee as a body. It has done valuable work for the Parliament and the country, but I submit that the question of what should be the immediate retail price of sugar should not, at this point of time, bo referred to it. I could well understand the Committee being directed to inquire into the whole ramifications of the sugar industry during the period of seven years covered by the sugar agreement. Such an inquiry would necessarily bo of a lengthy and exhaustive character, and some months would probably elapse before the Committee could submit its report to Parliament. I venture to say that if the question were referred to a body of public accountants, in order to obtain from them a report that would give us a full knowledge of the transactions associated with the sugar control from the inception of the agreement up to the present tune, then, no matter how competent they might be, a very considerable period would elapse before they could bring into harmony the different transactions associated with the Sugar Board. The Government themselves have supplied evidence in support of that contention. From time to time when the question of the Commonwealth sugar control has been brought before the House the Government, who are supposed to have the guidance of all matters appertaining to the welfare of the country, have shown an absolute want of knowledge of the facts relating to it. We have never been able to obtain from them any information worthy of consideration.
I propose briefly to refer to the facts in this regard so that honorable members in recording their votes on this motion may not be in any doubt as to what has actually happened: The demand for information in regard to the question of sugar control is not of recent date. The subject was brought up in this House by my late respected leader (Mr. Tudor) as far back as 1920. At that time no information worthy of consideration could be obtained by honorable members. We had from the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) the statement to which I have referred on two previous occasions, in which, no doubt, he supplied .what information was available to him. His statement at that time was to the effect that, on 1st March, 1921, it was estimated that there would be a deficit of £220,802. The Prime Minister went on to- say - I desire to quote his exact words in order that there may be no misunderstanding -
Against this estimated debit balance of £220,802 must be placed the possible receipts from the operations of the Millaquin Refinery. Should the Millaquin Refinery secure sufficient local sugar to make 20,000 tons of refined sugar, at an estimated cost of £38 per ton, a profit of £7 10s. per ton would accrue to the Government, or £150,000, which will reduce the debit balance to £70,000.
That statement was made on 30th March, 1920, and may be found on pages 948-9 of Hansard. Since then we have been unable to get any information to elucidate the position. The Prime Minister was, I think, making an estimate up to March, 1921, and returns which I am going to quote show that the Millaquin Refinery must have done good business, because the profit for 1920 was £16,034, and in 192.1 it was £31,222, or nearly double; while for this year it was £61,707, again nearly double that of the previous year. These figures show conclusively that the operations of the Millaquin Refinery have been very much more profitable since the Prime Minister made his statement, and therefore the argument in favour of reducing the price of sugar is so much the stronger. The Prime Minister has urged that it ia all a question of the agreement. I 3ay, emphatically that it ought to bo made quite clear to honorable members that the agreement will run into next year, and therefore it should be a matter for consideration later. What we are discussing at the present moment is what should be the retail price of sugar to the Australian public. This debate should hinge upon that point and that point only. It should have nothing whatever to do with the sugar agreement. The statement made by the Prime Minister should have been an indication to the Sugar Board, assuming that that body did not have the necessary information, to set about getting it. There was a warning issued in 1920. What heed has been paid to it? Has anything been done since then? We are in exactly the same position as v.c were two years ago; we are unable to get any further information.
This is not a matter which can bo said to be sprung hurriedly upon the House. It was, as I have shown, raised by my late leader ; and, on the Address-in-Reply, realizing that this question was urgent, I again brought it up. saying that we wanted information as to why the people of Australia were being charged 6d. per lb. for sugar. The Prime Minister, in reply, said nothing whatever about the figures I had been quoting, but made it appear that the price of sugar would be reduced as soon as possible. Subsequent to that, and because of inquiries by honorable members from both sides of the House, the Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Rodgers), promised to make a statement, for which we waited most patiently. When at last it was presented to this House, we were told that it was the promised statement, that it covered the whole of the transactions of the control period, and that it ought to be satisfactory to honorable members because it had been audited, not only by the Auditor-General, but by a private accountant. Do honorable members admit that the statement was satisfactory ? One does not require to be an accountant to be able to say merely if certain figures, setting out income and expenditure are in accordance with the books of any trading concern, are correct or otherwise. Was it the business of an accountant called upon to audit a transaction of this nature to look into the question of buying and selling and so on ? Such a proposition would not, of course, be put up to any accountant. All he would be required to do would be to make an examination of the figures and certify to their correctness or otherwise. It will be noted, however, that the certificate of the Auditor-General was only attached after certain information had been asked for and furnished.
– That is not so.
– Well , I am basing my statement upon the foot-note to the balance sheet to the effect that the Auditor-General wanted certain information. The Minister will have the right to reply, and’ may then explain the reason for the foot-note.
– The figures supplied were not satisfactory; that is the explanation.
– That is quite incorrect.
– This is the footnote attached to the balance-sheet : -
The foregoing statements of accounts have been audited by an Audit Inspector, acting under my direction, the statements having been submitted for examination on 14th July (in stant). After examination, the statements were again submitted in the present form this day, and they have been further submitted to audit.
The transactions of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company and the Millaquin Sugar Company had previously been audited by the Audit Inspector specially appointed to examine the accounts of these companies, such accounts having been passed to the 30th September, 1921, and the 31st December, 1921, respectively. The transactions since those dates, and the figures for which have been incorporated in the above statement, were supported by the certificates of the respective General Managers, as also have the figures relating to the value of stocks stated to be on hand at the 30th June, 1922. These figures, therefore, remain to be verified by the Audit Inspector when making his next visit and conducting his audits at the offices of the companies concerned.
Subject to the foregoing remarks, and to the verifications referred to, the above statements are certified to be correct.
What a careful man is the AuditorGeneral! We ought to be proud of him, for the care he exercises in safeguarding the interests of the public. He certifies that the figures placed before him are correct, subject to verification of certain details supplied by the officers concerned. That is the position. The Minister (Mr. Rodgers) may laugh if he chooses, but that is the position. There is the footnote in plain English. I have no wish to add to, or take anything from it.
After the Minister had made the promised statement, the House was left in exactly the same position. We were not concerned with any lump sum in regard to the transactions of the Government during the period of control. What we wanted to know, and what we should know as custodians of the public purse is, What amount of sugar was locally grown ? What did it cost ? What amount was purchased overseas ? What was the cost? From whom was it purchased? What additional expenditure was incurred in importing it? Was the whole of the imported sugar refined in the Commonwealth, or was some of it sold in an unrefined state? We want all this information to guide us in our judgment. The figures that have been supplied to us do not help us at all, and there has been no effort . on the part of the Government to facilitate discussion. It was only after we had frequently urged that this question was of vital importance to the people of Australia, that it was’ placed on the notice-paper to come on for consideration after the approval of the Washington Treaties, which was urgent.
Then when I submitted a motionthat the price be reduced to 4½d., the Country party, for- some reason best known to themselves, came to the assistance of the Government with an amendment. The Government wanted an adjournment of the debate. That- was the position at the last week-end.
– Wehave asked often enough for the information.
– The honorable gentleman has not received the information, and he will not receive it. The result waa that the matter was adjourned until the following week ; and then, after a promise had been made to the Leader of the Country party (Dr. Earle Page) that information would be available, and the suggestion conveyed that it would be advisable for the matter to- stand over,, the only information we received was a statement by the Prime Minister. That statement related only to the different factors which went to make up the retail price of sugar. The right honorable gentleman showed that under the, agreement the price of sugar must be 5d. per- lb; retail. That may or may not be so* - it remains to be seen - but if a comparison, is made between that statement and a speech delivered by the right honorable gentleman on the 30th March, 1920, and reported on page 950 of Hansard of that date,, differences will be disclosed. In March, 1920, he said tha.t the growers, got £19 14s. 5d. per tom. If that were so-, it would work out at 2.1’12d. per lb. In his statement on Wednesday he said that the growers- received 2.0714d. per lb. This is only a difference in decimals, and whilst the dis- crepancy may appear to be small, it is much greater when it is calculated on a ton basis. In hie- former statement the Prime Minister said that the miller received £10 12s. 3d. per ton.
– The honorable gentleman ought to look at what the agreement says about the price of cane and of sugar.
– I have considered those matters,, and included references, to them in my former speech. I am not now saying whether the figures are right or wrong, but my purpose, is to show that, even on the information supplied to this House, by the Prime Minister and furnished to him by his responsible officers, who- are capable men, there are some dis- crepancies in the figures quoted on two different occasions^ There is evidently grave doubt as to the charges. While the Prime Minister told us in 1920 that the miller received £.10 12s. 3d. per ton, which ia equivalent to 1.137d. per lb., he said on Wednesday that the miller received’ 1.178d. per lb., or slightly more. Bags, he said on the first occasion, accounted for- 16s. per ton, or . 085d. per lb.,, but on Wednesday he gave the decimal figure as . 0174d. per lb., which is a trifle less. Freight, quoted at £2 per ton on- the former occasion, works out at 214d’. per- lb. In Wednesday’s statement the figure was reduced to . 155d: per lb-. Coal, he stated- originally, waa 10s. per ton ; management expenses, £1 2s. 6d. ; selling charges-, 7s> ; and- the cost of refining £1 3s., making a total of . 334d. per lb. On Wednesday he gave the total as , 46d., or nearly½d. per lb., which is again a difference. In March, 1920, the 5 per cent, discount to wholesale distributers’, amounting to £1 10sr. per ton, worked out at . 160d. per lb.; and the other day he gave 5 per cent, discount to wholesale and retailers* as> amounting’ to 225d. per lb. The retailers’ profit, he said in- 1920v was £8 9s. 5d. per ton, which wasr . 907d.. per lib-., but on Wednesday he said that the retailers’ profit was ½d per lb.
– I did not say that The figures I gave represent a further retail total profit. The profit is . 225d., plus a halfpenny per lb-.
– If we add . 5d. to 225d. it will still make a figure which is less than . 907d; but that . 225d. mentioned by the Prime Minister is included in the 5 per cent, discount, to which I have already referred.
– We are reducing these profits in order to be able to sell the sugar at 5d. per lb.
– That is further information which we did not have before-. It has been urged’ in this House time and again that the prices were unalterable, as they were provided for in the agreement. Now we are told that they can be altered, and have been altered.
– I ‘have said that the sugar price cannot be altered,, but I have not said that freight or the price of coal cannot be altered.
– I am dealing with the retailers’ profit. The Prime Minister says that has been altered, but I am mak- ing a comparison to show that there must be a diversity of opinion in the Department itself in regard to these transactions.
– I do not admit that.
– The right honorable gentleman will not admit it, but, personally, I feel quite sure of it. I am considering only his own figures, and putting them side by side and making a comparison. They show a difference between this two statements, and disclose what a very little we know about the sugar business. The total figures given by the Prime Minister on the former occasion to which I have referred were: refining and distributing, £15 17s.11d.; to growers, £19 14s. 5d. ; and to millers, £10 12s. 3d. per ton. These figures make a total of £46 4s. 7d., or an equivalent of 4¾d. per lb., but his later figures -work out at 5d. per lb. There is therefore a difference in the figures supplied to this House regarding the price that should be charged Tinder the agreement.
The debate on this question came on early this week, and we had a spectacle on Wednesday which, as far as myknowledge goes, is without precedent in this House. The honorable member for Cowper (Dr. Earle Page) had been promised certain information, and he was prepared for an adjournment of the debate over the week-end. So, also, were many other honorable members, and some of ‘them had, perhaps, committed themselves to bringing about a reduction in the price of sugar . as early as possible if a reduction was warranted. They said, “ Why should we vote for an amendment to reduce the price of sugar at this juncture? We want further information.” The Minister for Trade and Customs replied, “The information cannot be supplied, but if you will allow the matter to stand over I shall get the details for you early next week.”He made that promise to the honorable member for Cowper. I take it that after the Government had undertaken to obtain the information it would put its best public servants on the job, and that they would go into the matter diligently. It is no doubt true, as has been stated in the press, that they have been working until a late hour at night in order to collate the information for this House and bring it up to date. Is it nota travesty on the conditions existing with regard to the control of sugar when the Govern ment is unable,with a staff of competent men, to give information in this House as to the Teal position. Honorable members who say that the price is too high, and that it should be reduced, should ponder over this fact: While, in 1920, the Government had been apprised of the position, and could have fathomed the whole business by undertaking a full investigation, and by demanding that a proper balance-sheet be produced, nothing whatever was done. They reckoned, of course, that this business could go on all right. Sugar was merely on a par with many other matters during the war period, when responsible government had almost disappeared from, this Parliament. The Government thought they could create a bureaucracy. Here we have a sample of it ; the Control Board appears to have beengiven full power to fix the price of sugar, to purchase foreign supplies if necessary, and to do whatever it has wished todo,and no returns have been made available to Parliament. have said before, and now emphasize, that no one can take exception to the growers getting a fair thing ; and no one will question the policy of the employees being given a fair deal. But -that is only one phase of the whole concern. Has the business generally been carried on in a proper manner ? Is : anyone else getting more than . a fair thin? ? What about the Colonial Sugar Refining Company?
– Who does the honorable membersay is getting too much5? What is the use of beating the air ?
– I complain of lack of information. We have not sufficient data upon which to be made acquainted with all the facts. We do not know whether or not the consumers are being justifiably charged 6d. per lb. The whole issue turns upon the people being able to purchase their sugar at the lowest possible price consistent with the terms of the agreement. The Prime Minister says we cannot go beyond the agreement, that we cannot do anything outsideof it. I am not discussing anything outside of the agreement; I desire to be informed of the whole situation within the scope ‘of the agreement. Despite our persistent endeavours, covering a long period, the whole of the information has -not been* made available. We have sought without success to learn whether the peopl* are being charged an exorbitant rate. IS everything is right, nothing further need be said ; but we do not know, and cannot learn, that all is well. It is strange, if everything is right - even remembering that so much sugar has been imported in consequence of the shortage of local production - that all the details should not have been made known. Now, why have the particulars been withheld, and why has such information as has been conceded been so tardily presented ?
Why have not all the facts concerning the Colonial Sugar Refining Company been readily brought to light? As an outcome of its operations during the financial year ending on 31st March, 1920, the company made a profit of £289,565. During the next financial year, ending on 31st March, 1921, its profits were £326,939; while, for the financial year ending on 31st March last, the profits had expanded to £452,192. Where did the company get those profits ? How did it make them? What were the factors which almost doubled those profits between 1920 and 1922? The Government may urge that the company’s profits are no business of ours. But they are, and the revelation of the whole of the facts is a matter of vital interest to the country. Did this company make its enormously expanded profits under the terms of the agreement; and, if so, is the reason to be found in the maintenance of the retail price at 6d. per lb.? If the company’s profits have been legitimate, and have been earned outside of Australia, is there any less reason why the facts should not be stated? And, if the profits have been made independently of the Australian sugar market, should they not be shown on balance-sheets separated entirely from the dealings of the company under the sugar agreement?
– The company’s shares have gone up in value.
– Yes. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company has not only paid dividends, but has presented to every shareholder a bonus of £4 upon every share held.
It is idle, in all the circumstances, to argue that there is no need for inquiry. The whole business is too glaringly in need of investigation. This week’s statement by the Prime Minister has not led us anywhere.
– Does the honorable member say that the Colonial Sugar Refining Company is getting too much ?
-I do not say so, becauseI do not know. How can I tell ? Not only has the Colonial Sugar Refining Company obviously done very well, but the Millaquin Company has also done, at any rate, fairly well.
When honorable members assembled on Wednesday last, what a spectacle was presented in this House ! The bald statement of the Prime Minister advanced our knowledge not one step. It furnished us with practically no additional information. It certainly provides further food for thought, in that it failed to compare satisfactorily with earlier statements of the right honorable gentleman. When the Minister for Defence (Mr. Greene) subsequently moved the adjournment of the debate certain honorable members presented themselves in a very curious light. I refer to those honorable gentlemen opposite who have protested the urgent need of a searching inquiry, and have urged that a reduction in the retail price should be brought about at the earliest possible moment. Yet, on Wednesday, they spoke and voted in favour of granting the adjournment. What was involved in that adjournment? Would it be argued that the sole outcome would have been that the debate would be continued on the following day? Every experienced Parliamentarian knows full well that when the adjournment of a debate is secured until the following day the business is placed in the hands of the Government, and that they may set down the subject-matter concerned in any place they desire in the order of business. I pointed out on Wednesday that the effect of the adjournment would be, literally, to shelve the sugar question. And what did honorable members find, upon examining the business-paper for yesterday? The resumption of the debate had been placed at the bottom of the list of Government business. That was obviously what was bound to occur; yet one honorable member, at least - who should have learned something during the several years in which he has sat in this Chamber - pleaded that he did not know that, in supporting the adjournment of the debate on Wednesday last, he would be recording his vote to save the Government. The honorable member for Fawkner (Mr. Maxwell) saw fit to make an explanation when the House met on
Thursday. He had previously intimated that he was not satisfied with the nature and extent of the information furnished by the Government, and he had voted against the Government to demonstrate that dissatisfaction. Yet he, too, on Wednesday voted for the adjournment so that the matter might be shelved. On Wednesday night, as the House was about to adjourn, the Minister for Defence intimated that the Government proposed to refer the sugar business to the Public Accounts Committee for investigation and report. What would that mean ? No one could hope to deal with the price of sugar without investigating all the ramifications of the sugar agreement - without proceeding from A to Z upon a subject involving £60,000,000. Such a task could not be recomplished except after months of concentrated effort. This investigation, if it is handed over to the Public Accounts Committee, will prove to be one of the greatest and most difficult problems ever presented to any such body. Public officials and company employees have endeavoured, under high pressure, to unravel the tangled proposition; and they have not yet succeeded, despite the utmost urgency of their work.
The Prime Minister, I take it, is about to present another statement; but I can say in confidence, before he has said a word, that his information will not carry honorable members even as far forward as 1920. Now, how can that be regarded as satisfactory? If all these highly-qualified specialists have been unable to bring their concentrated tasks to conclusion after weeks of working at high pressure by day and by night, what can be expected of the Public Accounts Committee? Are honorable members about to be subdued into voting against my motion - first, because the Government have referred the subject of sugar to the Public Accounts Committee; and, second, because of their promise that the retail price will be reduced as soon as possible? The vital point is whether the people at this moment are paying too much. If we and the public must wait upon the report of the Parliamentary Committee I can only say that there will inevitably be long delay, and that if the report is presented within a month it is bound to be incom plete. Meanwhile, I presume, however long or short may be the period of the Committee’s investigations, the people will continue to pay 6d. per lb.
With respect to the financial undertakings, covering a period of seven years, I now desire to call attention to one particular item upon which honorable members have been able to place their fingers. I refer to a sum of £415,000 which had been collected by the then Treasurer, the late Lord Forrest, from the profits made out of sugar during the financial year 1916-17. That sum appears on the balance-sheet. If it has been collected and appropriated by Parliament what right has it to appear there as an asset?
– It is shown as a deficit now.
– Of course it is. It makes a deficit in excess of £255,000. If sugar is to be sold at 5d. per lb., as the Prime Minister states, when will that price take effect? If the deficit is only £255,000, the consumption of sugar in Australia is such that it will have been wiped off by the 14th of this month. Why are the Government keeping the present price in operation ? Because they have to recover again the £415,000 that was taken by the Treasurer from the people.
– The Treasurer did not take it; Parliament did.
– I know what happened in Parliament. I remember all the circumstances. There was an estimate of £500,000 placed in the Budget. But that Budget was not dealt with by this Parliament until June, when the year had almost expired. There was no explanation, and nobody knew anything about the matter.
– It was not Lord Forrest’s Budget at all.
– He was Treasurer at the time.
– It was the Labour party’s Budget.
– I do not care whose Budget it was; but I will concede that much to the right honorable gentleman, and still say that, irrespective of what Government were in power, the sugar business has not been conducted in a proper way.
– It was Lord Forrest’s Budget.
– Unfortunately, the Labour party was not in power in 1917 ; but, even if the amount had been put in a Labour Budget, would that warrant the present Government in again collecting it from the people? That is the point. It is not a question of what happened, but of what is to be done at the present juncture.
– You cannot have the cake and eat it, too.
– No ; but. during the whole of the debate on sugar, which has extended over a couple of weeks, have we heard one statement from the Government indicating any denial that they intend to take that amount a second time from the people ?
– Why should you?
– We ought to have all the facts.
– Do you wish to reverse what Parliament has done? Is there no statutory limit to such a course?
– I have already admitted that, if the amount has been appropriated, we cannot get away from it; but why do not the Government give the people the fullest information? Why should the matter be smothered up at all?
Now there is talk about a discount. I have a lively recollection of the getting of that discount. It is said that 5 per cent. discount is divided between the retailer and the wholesaler, I had to approach the Treasurer on many occasions during the war to secure 21/2 per cent. discount for the co-operative societies in my district, who are big purchasers of sugar. They have thousands of customers, and these large concerns could not get that discount. It was denied to them, although it was given to other people. Who got the21/2 per cent. if they did not receive it? I had to induce the Treasurer to interest himself with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in order to have justice done to those co-operative societies in the Cessnock district, and in other parts of my electorate.
– They are getting it now.
– I know that. But why was it withheld when they were entitled to it, and who obtained what belonged to them ?
I do not wish to take up a great deal of time on this subject, but it is one of vital importance to the community, because it affects every household. During the last three months, notwithstanding attempts made to improve the conditions of the working people, the cost of living has increased. Sugar is a big, item in the expenses of every household, and yet the Government give us no information as to why they permit a charge of 6d. per lb. to be inflicted upon the people. We are now invited to let the matter remain in abeyance, pending a report from the Public Accounts Committee. The desired information should have been available long ago, and the absence of it conclusively demonstrates the loose methods adopted by the present Administration. Are we to appoint Boards for the purpose of dealing with the different commodities necessary to the life of the community, leaving it to those Boards to follow their own sweet will, without Parliament having any check at all upon their operations ? Surely public affairs are getting into a condition that is not in the country’s best interests. There is no doubt that such a condition does exist in regard to sugar. The Government have been unable up to the present to answer the charges levelled against them from time to time. If honorable members on this side had been furnished with satisfactory information, we would not be taking the steps we now are. If the honorable members for Balaclava (Mr. Watt), Kooyong (Sir Robert Best), Fawkner (Mr. Maxwell), and Henty (Mr. Francis), and others who have declared that the price of sugar should be reduced, that more information should be made available, and that the position is unsatisfactory because of lax administration, are going to shield themselves to-day behind what was agreed to at their meeting upstairs last night, in regard to some statement that was to be made, they must answer to their constituents. The constituencies will be the masters of the situation in a very short time. If honorable members are not prepared to take this matter to the electors immediately, it must be done eventually. Nemesis mustcome. There will have to be an. account given five or six months from now, if not earlier. Members cannot escape responsibility for the vote they record today. They will have to justify the attitude they assume in this Chamber. It is no use their adopting one stand at public meetings outside ana voting in a different way in this House. This is where honorable members are measured. The decision of the electors will depend on their action in this Chamber.
– Is there not the Grand Council?
– The “ Grand Council “ was held last evening upstairs in this House, and it was decided what honorable members opposite were to do. They were whipped into submission. They will have to vote for the Government today, notwithstanding the fact that there is still no information to guide them. They will have to shelter themselves behind an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee, which cannot possibly deal with the ramifications of the sugar question within, perhaps, five or six months. If we are to be guided by what appears in the press - and newspaper reporters are good judges of public opinion - we shall have the spectacle to-day of the Government being saved by men who have constantly condemned their administration of the sugar question, and who have, on numerous occasions at public meetings, declared that the price of sugar is too high, and that it should be reduced immediately.
– Mr. Speaker,–
Honorable members interjecting,
– Before the honorable member proceeds with his speech, I wish to say that I intend to enforce the observance of the Standing Orders. If any honorable member is aggrieved by whatever action I may feel obliged to take he will have only himself to blame.
– The motion submitted by the Leader of the Opposition, and that given notice of by the Leader of the Country party, are the natural and logical outcome of the attempt of the members of the two parties concerned in this Chamber, not to deal with the sugar question and the sugar control period of the Commonwealth of Australia, on its merits, but to deal with the matter from a purely political aspect. On no other question submitted to this House have I found so much lack of knowledge on the part of honorable members opposite with regard to their obvious obligation as representatives of the people to understand the affairs of the Commonwealth, at least in respect to matters upon which they ought to be well posted. I refresh their memories with the fact that the Commonwealth’s control of sugar commenced on the 19th July, 1915; and those who in the past have, to some extent, been involved in Ministerial responsibility during the sugar control period, and now appear among the critics of the Government, I urge to remember some of the obligations that devolved upon them.
References have been made to the fact that the sugar agreement is but another example of the Government’s usual method of flouting Parliament and avoiding Ministerial responsibility. The agreement was negotiated in a constitutional way, and, indeed, is a model of what is due from the stand-point of responsible government.. First of all, the Executive negotiated it and entered into it tentatively, and then the Prime Minister brought it before Parliament in a proper constitutional manner for ratification. That ratification was given, and every honorable member of this Parliament thus became bound by its terms.
– We are not objecting to the agreement.
– When the agreement was entered into the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes), in whose hands the matter then rested, took the proper, if not extra, precaution of communicating with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, which was, in the main, controlling the business side of the sugar control, in the following terms : - 29th Dec, 1915.
Under these agreements thecompanies concerned undertake to carry out certain work, in some cases for a specified payment and in other cases they are to charge only the actual cost incurred by them. The profits are to he credited to the Commonwealth Government. It is evident, therefore, that a very careful and scrutinizing audit of all the account is absolutely necessary, and it is essential that the audit should be a continuous one. Therefore, it may be as well to appoint an officer who can devote his whole time to the work, because it is obvious that the work would be much better done if performed by a competent officer following up the accounts continuously. lt nil! be advisable for the officer to be instructed by this Department upon legal points which apply to the agreements, and it is desirable that the officer should keep in close touch with this Department. If necessary, copies of the agreements can be sent to the Commonwealth Solicitor, Sydney, who would render any necessary assistance”.
Therefore, the Prime Minister imposed on the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, as the Government’s agent and adviser in respect to sugar control, a definite responsibility for a continuous audit;, and that audit has been continuous and complete in respect to every operation of the Commonwealth Government control period, the activities concerned being the Commonwealth Bank, the Commonwealth Treasury, the Sugar Board, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, and the Millaquin Company.
To every one wanting to know the facts, it is perfectly obvious that the reference made by the Leader of the Opposition to the qualification in the certificate of the Commonwealth Auditor-General related to the present incomplete sugar year. The completed audit applied only to the financial year ending the 30th June; but as every one who knows anything about sugar is aware, the sugar year ends in September. Subject only to that qualification the audit carried out by the Commonwealth Auditor-General is complete, and ir is a remarkable fact that not one financial expert in the Commonwealth has challenged the balance-sheet in regard either to its accuracy or to its mode of presentation.
– We have not seen it.
– The Australian Wheat Board, of which the honorable member is a member, has not presented a balance-sheet, although it has a definite obligation to do so.
– There is no Government money involved in it.
– As one interjection immediately leads to another, I ask honorable members to restrain themselves. I have no desire to take extreme action, but if necessary to insure observance of the Standing Orders, I shall certainly not hesitate to do so.
– I think it can be demonstrated beyond doubt that every transaction of the Commonwealth Sugar Control Board has been examined most’ minutely by the Auditor-General, and that there has been a woeful lack of indifference shown by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Charlton) towards the reports from the Auditor-General which are sent in each year in connexion with the control, since there was a lot of information available which has never been honestly or earnestly perused by those who now appear to take such a keen interest in the question. Those honorable members who have not utilized the details at their disposal “ flog “ the question from the political aspect, and endeavour to create a false impression, which reflects credit neither upon themselves as members of this Chamber nor upon the various agencies behind them. This is a great national industry, the operations of which have been clearly explained to the people of the Commonwealth. It will eventually be shown that the control has been m tho interests of economy, to the advantage of the nation, and next in importance to the control of wool and wheat.
T desire to separate my remarks on this question into two divisions. I propose in the first instance to deal with the business or accountancy side of the transactions, and then to refer to the political or public policy aspect of the question. If I have made any error of judgment at all during my association with the control, it has been because I underestimated the volume of detailed work involved in the assembling of the various audited balance-sheets, all of which have been audited, certified as correct, and never challenged. As I have mentioned, I have been asked for information in connexion with the industry by the honorable member for Fawkner (Mr. Maxwell) and other honorable members, but I deemed it my duty not to make any public announcement m connexion with the industry which could not be supported by the official records. I therefore directed that the balance sheets covering the whole control period should be assembled and placed in the office of the Board, which, in my judgment, should have been done by the previous controller. Knowing the false, absurd, and ruinous statements which have been made from time to time, to the effect that there were millions of pounds involved, and suggesting even corruption, 1 deemed it wise on behalf of the Go- vernment to present at the earliest possible moment an interim aggregate balance sheet certified correct by the AuditorGeneral. That balance sheet, I repeat, gives the sum total of all the other balance sheets and is unchallengeable. My object in arranging for that to be done was to put an end to the stupid remarks which were being made from time to time. I asked honorable members to accept that as an interim aggregate balance-sheet, and I promised that all details in connexion with the sugar accounts for the full period would be placed at the disposal of honorable members and the public.
– Where are they?
– They cannot be found.
– On Friday last, I said that officers had been working at high pressure, and that all that was humanly possible had been done. I also said that I had been informed that the whole of the details covering the foreign purchases whirl) are voluminous would be provided, and that the Government had done their best to produce and supply all the information at the earliest opportunity. At that point the honorable member for Balaclava (Mr. Watt) asked by interjection when the House would be furnished with that information, and I replied that the company hoped that by Monday the particulars which they were to furnish would be available and that they should reach the Government on Tuesday, and be presented to the House on Wednesday. I also said that beyond that I could not give a specific undertaking, as its fulfilment depended upon the completion of the returns by the company in Sydney. That promise has been fulfilled to-day.
– No. We have only the f.o.b. prices.
– The promise has been fulfilled, as the statements were received from the printer at 10 o’clock this morning, and are now in the possession of honorable members.
– Those balance-sheets contain only f.o.b. prices. Where are the c.i.f. figures?
– I may remind the honorable member for Balaclava of one of his transactions when he was in charge of sugar control, when the Commonwealth incurred a loss owing to an error in his judgment.
– What is that?
– If the honorable member had accepted the advice of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company while Acting Prime Minister, instead of deferring his decision, there would have been a substantial saying.
-i never dealt with sugar. That was handled by the present Minister for Defence, who then had charge of the Department.
– Sugar was purchased at £17 per ton odd when a lower price was ruling a short time previously.
– Will the Minister place the papers on the table?
– There is too much of the political aspect in this question and not enough business.
Honorable Members. - Hear, hear !
– I, therefore, ask honorable members to await the report of the Joint Committee on Public Accounts, a body on which all political parties are represented.
– Have you a document showing the landed cost of sugar?
– I received a letter this morning from the Consulting Accountant, in which he deals with the work intrusted to him. I cannot place my hand on the communication at the moment, but it is to the effect that all details requisite for the compilation of the individual balance-sheets have arrived, and that he and the members of his staff are busily engaged with the accounts. Those for 1915 and 1916 are complete and ready for auditing; and those for the years 1917 and 1918 are almost completed. He also said that, as the seasonal operations are not confined to one financial year, a good deal of investigation is involved. He has the matter well in hand, and is proceeding with his work as rapidly as possible. I have now been able to lay my hand on his letter, and this it what he says -
The Honorable the Minister for Customs.
Re Sugar Control.
I have to make a progress report on the work intrusted to me, namely, that of compiling seasonal balance-sheets for the period of Government control.
The 1915 season and the 1916 season have been completed. The 1917 and 1918 seasons are now nearing finality.
For your information I may say that it is impossible to compile separate seasonal balance-sheets in a short space of time, for the reason that although detailed material for each year is to hand, the operations of any given season are not confined to one period of twelve months, but the transactions usually extend over three years. This involves many adjustments as between the accounts of adjacent seasons, and it is thus necessary that every season’s accounts be prepared before any one season be regarded as complete.
This then is a partial fulfilment to date of my undertaking to the House. Had I been prepared to make use of such loose statements as those inwhich some honorable members in this Chamber seem to revel, I could have furnished the House with information of an undependable character. As a matter of fact, I am in a. position to stand by every statement I have made, and all the figures I have submitted. Those figures have been taken from audited accounts. I regret that there should have been, of necessity, an interval between the presentation of . the aggregate balance-sheet and the details of which it is composed, but honorable members who are desirous of informing their mind of all facts which are material in connexion with this matter have now before them: 1. The contracts upon which the sugar control is based. 2. The aggregate balance-sheet for the whole period of control. 3. Details of foreign purchases. 4. A dissection of presentday costs under the agreement on a basis of 5d. per lb. 5. A forecast or estimate of the position as on the 31st October next.
– Order ! The honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Scullin) will have an opportunity to speak later if he so desires.
– The Government have decided to refer the question of sugar control to the Public Accounts Committee for investigation. That is a Committee appointed by this Chamber for the purposes of the investigation of financial questions involved in the operations of the Government. It will not be the duty of the Public Accounts Committee to fix the price of sugar. That is not a function of the Committee, but it will be for the Committee to carry out an investigation covering the whole of the operations connected with the sugar control, and to check the accounts. Yesterday a letter in the following terms was sent to the honorable member for Perth (Mr. Fowler), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, by the Prime Minister: -
I shall be glad if your Committee will, at the earliest possible opportunity, investigate and report upon the operations of the Commonwealth sugar control.
An interim report is desired as to the retail price at which sugar can be sold in Australia, under the existing contract for the purchase of the Australian sugar crop, without loss to the Government.
To facilitate the investigation, the Government will be pleased to place at your disposal any outside accountants whom you may require.
Yours faithfully, (Signed) W. M. HUGHES,
That is to say, that the Government who, according to their critics, desire to smother up or withhold information have, in addition to the consideration of the matter in this Chamber, and in addition and supplementary to the information given honorable members by the responsible Minister in furnishing complete details, have further proposed forthe enlightenment of the House on the subject, to refer the matter to the Public Accounts Committee, and have specially asked that Committee to, as early as possible, furnish an interim report concerning the price at which, in their opinion, sugar should be sold. They have also placed at the disposal of the Committee the advice and assistance of any outside accountant they may require.
– The honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. West) is out of order.
– Here will be a Committee whose work is being made simple by the action of the Government. The members of the Committee will have before them the agreements, the balancesheets of the whole of the companies involved as audited by the Auditor-General, the aggregate balance-sheet, the individual balance-sheets, and the material for them, and they will also have access to the auditors on whom the Government have relied for the compilation of the balance-sheets. In the circumstancesI want to know where is the weak point in connexion with the financial control and handling of the sugar question. Can any one say where the weak point is ? Where is the muddle, except in the minds of those who are muddled? Where is the corruption, except in the minds of those who desire to mislead the country? If ever there, were a matter in connexion with which the. Government have taken every precaution possible to guard the finances it is this matter of sugar control. There is not a weak point in the whole of the financial handling of the sugar question.
Mr.Scullin. - There is not a strong point.
– Order ! The interjections of the honorable member for Yarra are out of order. He is continually punctuating the remarks of the speaker with them, and I” warn him for the last time.
– The whole of the accounts have been subjected to the audit of the Auditor-General, and the general business of this great undertaking is in the hands of the most capable men in the handling of sugar that the Commonwealth possesses. The Government have been advised by those men. In the main their advice has been taken, but. on more than one occasion it has not been taken by the Government.. I may refer to one occasion, though not with any desire to cause personal embarrassment, on which the advice of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company was not taken.
– In what year was that?
– I have undertaken to lay on the table documents which will refresh the honorable member’s memory.
– The honorable gentleman will do that to-day I presume?
– Yes. The occasion to which I refer on which the advice of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company was not taken occurred during the period when my honorable friend, the present Minister for Defence (Mr. Greene) was in charge, and, fortunately for the Commonwealth, it turned out that, owing to the non-acceptance of that advice, the country was saved a. very considerable amount of money.
– That is the best thing the honorable gentleman has: said yet.
– I might remind the honorable member, amongst other things in connexion with the sugar control, that the State of Tasmania has fared very well under it. In order to provide fruitgrowers and consumers in Tasmania and Western Australia with: sugar, at the same price as the flat rate for the Commonwealth, a sum of £30,000 has been paid in addition to the ordinary charges. The State of Tasmania gets its sugar at the flat rate, and the Commonwealth pays the freight on sugar consumed in that State in order to help the people there.
– That is because the Government will not permit us to freight the sugar ourselves.
– I want to say, in respect to transactions of this magnitude involving £60,000,000, and involving purchases oversea, at a time when trading conditions were unstable and never to be depended on, that I think I have a right to ask who is the genius who can always buy at the right time of the market? If the advice of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, on the question of sugar, cannot be assumed to be sound, who is there in the Commonwealth to whom we can look to tender better advice ?
– Colonel Oldershaw.
– I was hoping that there would be an interjection by the honorable member, because he once didsay that he thought of tendering certain advice. The Government have been advised by the best experts in this matter in the Commonwealth. They have left the main control of this great industry in the hands of those who best understand it, and can best control it. There was the crisis of war to be considered. It became a question whether the Government could leave this whole matter to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, or, should, during the period of war undertake what was, in my judgment, a definite and positive obligation to control sugar and keep the nation supplied. That obligation to control carried with if the obligation to provide for Australian consumption, and that, when the Australian supply was short, those in control should go outside and make such purchases of sugar as were necessary to meet the Australian demand. It made those purchases. Who is there in business to-day who, when he buys stocks from various sources and at various prices, does not average those stocks and prices and sell at an average price?
I come now to the supplementary statement that I have caused to be circulated amongst honorable members to-day, setting forth the estimate of the profit and loss account for the period 1st July, 1922, to 31st October, 1922. In this, the deficit of £255,186 shown in the profit and loss account for the period 19th July, 1915, to 30th June, 1922, which I submitted to the House on 21st July last, is brought forward. The amounts to be wiped off are:- The deficit, £255,186; the amount appropriated to revenue by the Commonwealth Parliament from the sugar earnings on 30th June, 1917, £415,000; interest, rebates and charges defrayed by the Sugar Board - thus reducing the Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s estimate of profit, £6 18s. per ton, to the Sugar Board’s estimate of net profit of £6 6s. 2d. per ton - £44,885, making a total of £715,071 to be wiped off up to 31st October next. The detailed statement is as follows: -
We have had to present this to-day as a re-estimate. I with the Board and my advisers prepared the original estimate that I presented in the course of my statement to the House on 21st July last. Had the House acted in a business-like way, that estimate would have prevailed. Had it treated the whole subject as one of business and not of politics, that estimate would have held good. But what has been the result of the action taken by certain parties? Owing to the amendment submitted by the Leader of the Labour party (Mr. Charlton), that the price of sugar be reduced to 41/2d. per lb., and the further amendment submitted, when that was defeated, by the Deputy Leader of the Labour party (Mr. Anstey), as well as to political action by the Country party, there has been a falling off of from 35 per cent. to 371/2 per cent. in sales. This has necessitated a re-estimate on the basis of a loss of £39,435 as at 1st November next, instead of a margin of a few thousand pounds as I first predicted would be the position at that date. This clearly demonstrates the futility of the House trying to deal in a political way with highly involved financial matters.
– That cock will not fight. In fixing upon a date so far ahead as 1st November for the proposed reduction in price, the Government knew that purchasers of sugar would not restrict their buyings so far in advance. As it is, purchasers do not know what to do. They are in a state of suspense. The business side of tho sugar control is thrown out of gear in order that honorable members of the Labour party and the Country party may gratify a desire based on political rather than business considerations. Because of that desire, they have taken action which has led to sales of sugar stocks in this country being held up. They are thus taking a grave risk of piclonging the period within which the Government can reduce the price to 5d. per lb.
– The Minister is too funny.
– Honorable members may laugh, but they laugh in ignorance. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company yesterday took the business precaution of telephoning to let us know the effect which this juggling with prices on the part of honorable members opposite has bad on the business side of the industry. It is time that this question was settled once and for all. I hop© that from both the political and business side of the matter a settlement will be arrived at to-day.
Why did honorable members opposite remain silent so long in regard to the control and price of sugar ? Why has this particular period been selected for action on their part? Why this sudden attack of political diabetes - this excess of sugar in the blood? Is it in anticipation of impending events? Is this purely business consideration to be selected as a political plaything ? Is it to be made the trump card of the Labour party and the Country party for an appeal to the country? Is that the object in view? If it is, then the people should know of it. They undoubtedly ought to know what lias been the result of the action taken by these great economists. They ought to know that the amendment submitted by the Leader of the Labour party for a reduction in the price of sugar to 4$d. per lb. would, if carried, have involved the Commonwealth in a further loss of over £1,250,000, and that if the amendment subsequently submitted by the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Anstey), for a reduction to 4fd. per lb., had been carried, it would have involved the taxpayers in a loss of £750,000.
I ask the Country party in this matter to take stock of where they are heading. They are engaged in a serious undertaking. If they continue to interfere with the business side of the sugar control the entire responsibility must rest upon their shoulders. I regard it as an obligation on my part to remind them of this. The attitude which they and honorable members opposite are adopting is holding the whole sugar business in suspense. If the motion of censure submitted by the Leader of the Labour party (Mr. Charlton), or that of which notice has been given by the Leader of the Country party (Dr. Earle Page), be carried, who can say what will bc the reduction in the price of sugar, and when the price will be fixed ? Who will know what can be done in regard to the sugar business?
I invito the Country party also to consider what, in the event of this motion being carried, would become of the proposal of the Government to grant a beef subsidy, of which notice of motion has been given, and for the payment of which the cattlemen of Australia are anxiously waiting? What would be the position in regard to the benefactions which it is hoped may come to this country by reason of the Budget proposals of the Government? Are honorable members of tho Country party at this particularly critical financial juncture quite unmindful of their obligations to the country? The whole of this attack on tho Government is from beginning to end saturated with politics. There has never been an honest attempt to examine tho figures of tho audited balance-sheets of the several component parts of the sugar control, although these have been available to honorable members had they desired to make the investigation.
– Why have we not been supplied with them?
– These audited balance-sheets have been available. In order to bring about, a reduction in the price of sugar to 5d. per lb., the Government have effected reductions under the following heads: - Ocean freight, ls. 6d. per ton; general refining changes, 2s. pel ton; distribution, charges, £3 3s. 2d. per ton; making a total of £3 6s. 8d. per ton. For the information of honorable members I present a dissection of the sugar costs, based on the price of 5d. per lb. : -
What detail of that dissection will be altered, assuming that the motion now before the House is carried?
– Which set of figures are we to operate upon?
– The figures which I have submitted to-day, and upon which the Government stand. No detail of the dissection of costs can be altered; but there is some hope of political success being obtained from the confusion that is being created. I have nothing to retract in the statement I made when presenting the aggregate balance-sheet, and I do not propose to go over that matter again. I now submit figures showing the total production in Australia of jams for the years 1913-14 to 1919-20 inclusive; also a return giving full details of exports- of condensed milk, confectionery, jams and jellies, and canned fruits: -
The above figures indicate clearly the advantage that has been reaped by the industries concerned from the operations of the Government during the sugar control period. Now that world conditions have become more normal again, exportation figures show a contraction, notwithstanding that the Government concession of £20 per ton, plus the British concession on sugar, makes the Australian sugar for export purposes the cheapest that enters Great Britain. What is the use of honorable members denying the facts? There never was a time when the industries associated with sugar-growing have had such a bountiful time as during the control period. Were it not for the fact that Australia was a producer of sugar at a time when the world was on small rations of sugar the Australian fruit industry would have shrivelled and been unable to weather the storm.
– That is not quite correct.
– Excepting, perhaps, in so far as fresh fruit for export and home -consumption were -concerned. But would the honorable member for Parramatta .suggest that the Australian fruit industry should subsist on the export of fresh fruit and the demand for home consumption? At the request of the Prime Minister, I have convened a National Conference of fruit-growers of the Commonwealth for Monday next, for the purpose of considering the best means of finding an overseas market for our surplus fruit. If we are to admit that we cannot find a satisfactory market overseas, we had better advise our fruit-growers to get off the land and engage in some other line of business. The future of closer settlement depends on our ability to find profitable markets overseas for our surplus products, and it will be the business of the Conference on Monday next to find ways and means of dealing with that important problem.
I have dealt with the financial side oi the sugar control business, and it is, I hope, quite clear to honorable gentlemen that the details which they required were procurable from other sources had they taken the trouble to investigate the matter for themselves. I have, I think, remedied what J candidly admit was an omission on the part of the previous Controller of Sugar in not having the balance-sheets in his own office. He had the information, and relied on the audited balance-sheets held in the offices of the other component parts .of the sugar control. These accounts certainly were audited and available, but now they have been assembled and have been incorporated in the aggregate balance-sheet, .so that all the details will be in our own sugar control office.
I hope that honorable members will address themselves to the business side of this matter, and not to the political side. I have deliberately refrained from making any reference to the future. It is not my business. I remind honorable members that sugar control is a distinct departmental entity. The Sugar Control Board is a business organization operating entirely free from political considerations, and is concerned only in the financial aspect of the matter. My last words are these. The charges are open to annual revision. This was a provision made by the Prime Minister in the agreement, and prices have been revised in the terms of that arrangement; but unless the reduced charges can be further reduced sugar cannot be sold at less than 5d. per lb., except by repudiating the contract or calling on the taxpayers to make up a deficit. Had the amendment of the “honorable member for Hunter (Mr. Charlton), or of the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Anstey), been carried, that would inevitably have been the position confronting this country. It is quite obvious why the sum of £415,000 appears in the balancesheet. Parliament appropriated that sum or, in other words, took it from the sugar control during the period that sugar was being sold at 3d. to 31/2d. per lb. This was while the war was raging. If Parliament decides to take other action to-day, it is competent to do it, but neitherI, as a Minister responsible under Sugar Control,nor the Board itself, is competent. We have no authority to do this. The Board drew a cheque against the sugar account in obedience to the resolution of Parliament, and I have no other recourse but to include it in the balancesheet, first as an earning of the Board, and then to withdraw it and show it as a deficit to be earned when Parliament took the amount. The position is clear and simple. Sugar cannot be sold in Australia at less than 5d., and those who pretend that it can are humbugging the people. It cannot be done during the term of the present contract.
Let me, before I conclude my remarks, refresh the memories of honorable gentlemen with the fact that during the control period of seven years sugar was retailed in Australia at from 3d. to 6d. per lb., and that over the whole period of control it has been retailed at an average price of 4.28d. per lb. Can anybody say that the price has ruined the householders of this country ? Let me compare the prices in other countries with the price in Australia. In Great Britain sugar was 31/2d. to 14d. per lb. during the war, and Great Britain carried, as well, a loss of £24,500,000, which the taxpayers had to make good. Had my statement of the other day been accepted, and had we been able to go ahead without amendments aimed at securing a reduction of price, I predicted not a loss, but a. very small margin of profit from the 1st November. A sum of £8,000 profit was my estimate. In America, where sugar is cheapest today, prices soared during the war to 13d. per lb.; in France they soared to 16d. ; and in Java, which is a great producer of sugar, to10d. Dust has been thrown in the eyes of the people of this country. The cheapest sugar in the world has been supplied to the people of Australia continuously throughout the whole period. The accounts have been checked and audited, and defy challenge by anybody. Those who seek to defeat the Government on this question, and particularly members of the Country party, run a great danger of imperilling the interests of their brother producers in Northern Queensland. What would be the position if the amendment moved by the honorable member for Swan (Mr. Prowse) were carried ? In it he uses the words, “ Wednesday and /or when the statements are presented.’’ The honorable member for Cowper (Dr. Earle Page) seeks to tie me down to the statement I promised “ by Wednesday next.” I have given, in answer to the honorable member for Balaclava (Mr. Watt), the quotation of what I said.
– The Minister gave me a definite personal assurance.
– I gave nobody a definite personal promise, and if the honorable gentleman can turn up any definite personal promise that I gave him I will stand by it. The answer to the honorable gentleman is that the mover of the amendment, recognising what I told the honorable member for Balaclava, used the words, “Wednesday and /or.” I ask the House to judge whether, in all the circumstances, the Government have not made a very generous and very substantial effort to provide the material asked for, in the light of all the information we have. It was impossible to obtain the information earlier, but I have supplied material to this House which will enable it to form a definite judgment as to price, financial control, and certification and auditing of all accounts of the great sugar control period. I leave the figures with honorable members with the knowledge that they will show that we have provided the cheapest sugar in the world, not only for householders, but for manufacturers, during the war period; and that we have advanced the sugar industry of North Queensland by an extension of area, an expansion of organization, and a general improvement in the conditions of the people. We have effected a degree of co-operation never known before. The Commonwealth Government, the State Government, the growers, the manufacturers, the refineries, and the workers have joined together in this industry in one great national cooperation, the result of which has been to strengthen confidence in Northern Australia, and to let Great Britain know that while it has no cane-sugar industry in its own island, sugar can be grown by the white people of Australia, to the advantage of the Empire.
– The last statement that the Minister made, and the figures which he quoted to the House, prove that he knows absolutely nothing of the subject with which he has dealt. He said that the average price of sugar in Australia, during the war, was 41/2d. per lb., and that that was the cheapest sugar in the world. That is an absolute misstatement, and the Minister is either in utter ignorance of the state of the world’s markets during the war, or he is deliberately misleading the House. I hold in my hand what is regarded as one of the very best authorities in the United States - the monthly circular issued by the National Commonwealth Bank of New York. The date of it is June, 1922. It has just arrived, and it contains the quotation for raw and refined sugar in the United States during the war period. I have reduced the figures to terms of English money, and this is the result: In 1913 the price of raw sugar was1d. per lb., and refined sugar 2d. per lb.; in 1915 raw was15/8d. per lb., and refined 21/4d. per lb.; in 1916 raw was 2d. per lb., and refined 23/4d. per lb.; in 1917 raw was 21/4d. per lb., and refined 31/8d. per lb.; in 1918 raw was 21/4d. per lb., and refined 3 l-6d. per lb.; and in 1920 raw was 6d. per lb., and refined 5 1-1 0d. per lb. I shall explain the reason for that discrepancy afterwards.
– Will the honorable gentleman tell the House that that sugar is grown by black labour?
– I shall deal with that subject later. In 1921 the price of raw sugar was1d., and of refined sugar15/8d. Covering all the years of the war, the American average was under 3d. per lb. for refined sugar. Yet the Minister has had the impertinence to tell this House that the Australian people enjoyed the cheapest sugar in the world. Statements such as those must be nailed down so soon as they have been uttered.
– The honorable member did not quote the prices for 1919.
– I have given the whole of the particulars from 1913 to 1921, inclusive. In 1919 the price of raw sugar was 6d. per lb., and of refined 5 l-10d.
– That is not so.
– I have given my authority. The particulars are drawn from one of the highest financial sources in the United States of Amen a - one, indeed, which is accepted throughout the British world. The average price from 1913 to 1921 - so embracing the whole of the war period - was less than 3d. per lb.
– I am giving the wholesale prices. Will the Minister for Trade and Customs say that the difference between the wholesale and the retail price amounts to 50 per cent. ? If there is such a difference we should be informed of it. I have furnished these particulars because the statement has been made over and over again that, during the war, sugar was cheaper in Australia than in any other part of the world.
– The honorable member is talking about black-grown sugar.
– I speak of sugar grown in the United States of America.
– By black labour.
– If the honorable member says that sugar produced in the United States of America can only be grown by black labour he is merely revealing his lack of information. He is, as usual, wrong. But if it is a fact that it is impossible for white men to grow sugar in the southern States of the United States of America, then it must be equally impossible in tropical Queensland. However, it is well known that the sugar industry in America isnot confined to black labour. The Minister for Trade and Customs did not make a fair comparison when he quoted the prices in England, where sugar is not grown, with those ruling in Australia, where it is grown, and where, in some years, we have been able to produce the whole of our requirements. The Minister said, further, that if the advice tendered to Ministers had been taken, Australians would have paid much more for their sugar. The kindliest thought I can express concerning the Minister is that he is speaking with an absolute lack of knowledge of his subject. I realize his difficulties, of course. He has but lately taken charge of his Department, and he can find in its records practically no information concerning the subject-matter under debate. He has found that his information, and his balance-sheets, must all be obtained from the offices of the
Colonial Sugar Refining Company. There is no data in the Department upon which he,as responsible Minister,can compile and furnish necessary information to Parliament. The Government are compelled to make application to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company to prepare their balance-sheets.
Just prior to October, 1918, I was informed by Mr. Ashbolt, who had just returned from Java, that sugar was obtainable there at £7 10s. per ton. I came to Melbourne and communicated that information to the then Minister for Price Fixing (Mr. Greene). Now, at this time a certain deputation waited on the Minister ; and, in order to refresh his memory, I propose to draw my facts concerning the deputation from the Melbourne press reports published on 15th October, 1918. The Annual Fruit Conference of Australia had met earlier in the month, and a deputation had been appointed to wait upon the Minister for Price Fixing in regard to sugar. The speakers asked that the pric e of sugar should be reduced for jam manufacture, or that they should be permitted to import their own sugar. I may interpolate that at this juncture the Minister (Mr. Greene) had price-fixing on the brain. He had just been appointed, and, like a little boy with a new hatchet, after he had chopped up the firewood, he had commenced on the ornamental trees, and finished up on the furniture. For example, the Minister had gone to Tasmania and fixed the price of meat so effectually that the outcome had been the closing of every butcher’s shop in Hobart save one. Reverting to the deputation, the Minister challenged the secretary, Mr. Boardman, to make a fixed offer for the Government to land sugar from Java at £15 per ton. That was his answer to the request. The challenge, such as it was, was accepted. On 18th October, Mr. Frank T. Pullar, of Ardmona, made a definite offer, through the columns of the press, to sell to the Government 10.000 tons of Java sugar at £15 a ton on one condition, namely, that the manufacturers should be allowed to use that sugar at £15 per ton. Did the Government accept the offer ? Did they then buy Java sugar? No ! They waited until the price had increased considerably, and then they imported.
Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15p.m.
– Prior to the adjournment the honorable member for
Capricornia (Mr. Higgs) interjected, while I was quoting the prices of sugar grown in the United States of America, that that sugar was produced by black labour, and 1 promised him that I would later deal with that aspect of the subject.
– You were quoting wholesale against my retail prices. Was that fair?
– I think that the Minister was temporarily absent from the chamber. I had explained that the difference between the figures of the Minister of 41/2d.–
– It was not 41/2d.
– Well, 4.58d.
– Then will the Minister now say definitely what was the price? Was it 4.28d.? I have quoted figures showing that the wholesale price in the United Statesof America during the whole period of the war and since was under 3d. per lb. Comparing the Minister’s wholesale prices with the figures I have used, it is clear that sugar was infinitely cheaper in the United States of America to manufacturers and all wholesalers than it was in Australia.
– You are sticking to the wholesale side.
– Our manufacturers purchased wholesale from the Government. In reply to the interjectionof the honorable member for Capricornia (Mr. Higgs), let me say that practically 1,000,000 tons of beet sugar is produced in the United States of America., and it is grown almost wholly by white labour. The high price the Government are charging to-day is due to the large sum they still pay for sugar grown by black labour.
– Due to a drought in Australia.
– All the sugar the Government imported was grown by black labour. What is the use of attempting to draw these red herrings across the trail ? We could buy all the sugar we required - shiploads of it - in the United States of America to-day for 2d. per lb. on the wharfs. It is not the agreement that is the cause of the present high price. There is not one honorable member who has the slightest desire to repudiate one comma of the agreement.
– We shall see about that later.
– Honorable members will cease interjecting; Ministers are infringing the Standing Orders.
– I am not one of those who- say that in the circumstances we paid too much during the war period, either to the cane-grower or to the cane-worker, but until the cane-sugar industry in Queensland can get rid of Sinbad the Sailor’s “ Old Man of the Sea,” which is on its back to-day, in the shape of the monopolistic concerns which are standing between the cane-growers and the consumers, the position will not be satisfactory from the point of view of either the cane-growers or of the people. It is derogatory to Parliament to know that after seven years of this business the man who has been chiefly responsible for the control of sugar has disappeared from Australia, although in the service of the Government, and we have now to get our facts from the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. It is not the Sugar Agreement, it is not the money we have paid to canegrowers, and it is not the money we have paid to the workers in the cane-fields, that is responsible for the high price. It is the stupendous blundering of the Government in the purchases they have made of sugar abroad, and I may add, of sugar grown by black labour.
– Why do you not blame Providence for sending the drought?
– We blame Providence for sending such a Ministry.
– These side discussions are out of order !
– I have shown what the price of sugar is abroad, in a country where it is produced. It is unreasonable, and it is not sensible to compare the price in Australia, where we grow nearly all the sugar we require, with the price in England, where sugar is not produced, and where a huge tax has to be paid upon it to help Great Britain to meet her war liabilities. The excessive duties levied to enable Great Britain to maintain her foreign credit cannot be used comparatively. The Australian price must be compared with the price in those countries where sugar is grown, and I have compared it with the price in the United States of America, where the greater part of the sugar produced is manufactured from beet by white labour. There the price is just one-half of the cost in Australia to-day.
I candidly confess that, having gone through the so-called balance-sheet tabled in this House, I cannot grapple with the question as it stands. It is startling to know that, although Government control has been in operation since 1915, and although Ministers knew that a settlement must be made during the present session, the one man who exercised that control, Colonel Oldershaw, has disappeared. Speaking from memory, I think he stood alone as the controller up to June, 1920.
– Without any assistance, apparently.
– And now he is on some mysterious mission outside Australia, and we have to go to the Colonial Sugar. Refining Company for the information we require.
– That last statement is not correct.
– It is the truth, and it is a startling commentary on the position of the industry and the Government that we should find a Minister having the audacity to lecture honorable members on the strength of a telephone message from the company in question as to the * attitude of honorable members in attempting to interfere with the price of sugar. The Minister may allow the Colonial Sugar Refining Company to dictate to him, but the House will regard it as an act of impertinence for any monopolistic combine to attempt to dictate to honorable members by means of a telephone message which the Minister is asked to repeat in the Chamber.
– The message in question was sent to the Sugar Board.
– The Minister, accepted the dictation, and lectured this House on its actions, quoting the message of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company as his authority. Now the Minister, adopting a cocksure attitude that he will drop presently, says that the sugar question is being made use of by the Country party for political purposes. Who raised the agitation in Melbourne and on public platforms condemned Ministers and the Sugar Agreement? Surely they are members of the Ministerial party to whom the Prime Minister had to apply the acid yesterday in Caucus, so that their votes would save the Ministry.
The Minister says that a great obligation has been conferred on the people of Tasmania by allowing them to get sugar at the same price as is paid by people in other States. As a matter of fact, if it had not been for the Government’s interference the fruit-growers and jam-makers of Tasmania could have got their sugar without the assistance of the Government, and obtained it very much cheaper. They asked for permission to import, and if the previous Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Greene) had allowed the manufacturers to import their own sugar when they applied for permission to do so, the enormous deficit to which so much reference has been made would not have been brought about, the sugar canegrowing industry would not have had to bear the opprobrium of charges which do not properly lie at its door, and the public would not have been mulct in a payment of 6d. per lb. for sugar at a time when the charge could have been very much less. When the deputation waited on the previous Minister, and begged him to allow them to import sugar, he had the maggot of price-fixing on the brain, and refused their request. The jam-makers offered to buy sugar abroad, and re-sell to the Government for £15 per ton landed in Melbourne, on the condition that they were allowed to get their requirements at cost price. Had their request in this direction been granted, the cane-growing industry would not have been affected. The purpose of the proposed importations was solely to make up the deficit in local production. I have said on many occasions, in my own State and elsewhere, that the canegrowing industry of Australia has suffered from the price-fixing ideas of the honorable member for Richmond (Mr. Greene), and the silly blunders made in purchasing sugar overseas. The industry needs reasonable fostering, and, to the best of my ability, I have always endeavoured to bring the cane-growers and the fruitgrowers into harmony, never forgetting that the one industry must not be sacrificed in order to foster the other. I have obtained the figures which I now propose to give from the best authorities, including the manager of our largest cooperative concern. The average yield of the three fruits mainly used in jammaking is as follows -
Apricots- Per acre, 200 bushels or 10,000 lbs.
Currants - Per acre, 2,800 lbs.
Raspberries - Per acre, 3,135 lbs.
An increase of1d. per lb. on sugar means a tax on the orchardists of Australia to the following extent -
Apricots - £41 13s. 3d. per acre per annum.
Currants - £11 13s. 3d. per acre per annum.
Raspberries - £131s. 4d. per acre per annum.
Cheap sugar for use in jam-making means absolute salvation to these small men. High-priced sugar means their absolute destruction. I believe that an arrangement could be made between the cane-grower and the fruit-grower by sweeping aside the intervening monopolists and all Government interference.
– But still paying good wages.
– I am not now complaining of the price obtained by the cane-grower, nor of the wages paid to the employees in the sugar industry. My complaint is against those intermediaries who are keeping the consumers and producers apart. In the back-blocks of Southern Tasmania we find men growing fruit in a small way, whose living, even with large crops and high prices, is barely more than enough to enable them to exist, and that only by utilizing the labour of their own children, and by working from daylight to dark. These are people who deserve as much sympathy and support from this House as do any other class in the community; so that while we are acting generously to the sugar industry, we must also see that, in doing so, we are not sacrificing another industry.
I come now to the aspect of the question raised by the honorable member for Parramatta (Mr. Pratten), who delivered an able and most thoughtful speech. The honorable member said that the weekly consumption of sugar is about 2 lbs. per head. It is a well-known axiom of all writers on this subject that the poorer the family the higher the consumption of sugar, because others more favorably circumstanced are able to indulge in greater luxuries.
– The honorable member has misunderstood what the honorable member for Parramatta said.
– Order! Will the PostmasterGeneral (Mr. Poynton) cease interjecting?
– I have given my authority ; and, if the Postmaster-General will allow mo to say so, I prefer to accept the opinion of the honorable member for Parramatta, who has had a closer and more extensive connexion with the sugar business than perhaps any other honorable member, in consequence of the nature of the enterprise in which he was for a long time engaged.
– The honorable member is misrepresenting him.
– Order ! Before the business of the House commenced this morning I made a special appeal to honorable members to endeavour to control themselves and to assist in maintaining order by refraining from interjecting. I realize the temptation which necessarily exists in a debate of this character; but it is particularly desirable that the rules of the House should be observed, especially by Ministers, who should set an example to others. Several times this morning I have had to ask Ministers to refrain from interjecting. If they still persist honorable members must realize that the business of the House cannot be conducted in a proper manner. Naturally, I have to look to Ministers to support me in maintaining order.
– I was merely correcting the honorable member, who was misrepresenting the honorable member for Parramatta.
– May I point out to the Postmaster-General that he has had sufficient experience in parliamentary life to know that if he desires to make a correction, the proper method is by way of a personal explanation, and not by interjections during the speech of another honorable member?
– I had quoted the honorable member for Parramatta correctly in stating that the consumption of sugar in Australia is about 2 lbs. per head per week.
– It is more than that.
– The honorable member for Parramatta is now present, and he corroborates my statement; so it is quite unnecessary for the PostmasterGeneral to say that the figure is incorrect.
– The honorable member never said anything about 2 lbs. per head per week.
– Order ! I again ask the Postmaster- General not to inter ject. I shall be very loath to do so, but if the
Minister persists in disregarding my direction I shall have to take the extreme course of naming him and asking the Leader of the Government (Mr. Hughes) to take the necessary action.
– I have (riven the estimate of the honorable member for Parramatta concerning the consumption, which he says is correct. If it is correct, sugar at 6d. per lb. means1s. per week to the bread-winner of a family. Some persons may think that is not much, but having regard to the extent to which consumers are already overtaxed, the high price of sugar is of vital interest to every woman who has to endeavour to make both ends meet on a small income. If the consumption of sugar in Australia is, roughly speaking, 280,000 tons per annum - that is what we usually estimate it at for purposes of calculation - an additional 1d. per lb. represents £2,500,000, or 103. per head per annum on the population of Australia. If the payments made are on the breadwinner’s basis the figures assume startling proportions.
The action taken by the Minister for Defence (Mr. Greene) at our sitting on Wednesday in moving the adjournment of the debate in the circumstances in which it was moved, fully warrants the vote of censure moved by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Charlton). A definite promise was given to the Leader of the Country party (Dr. Earle Page) that certain information would be supplied on Wednesday.
– It was not. There was a qualification.
– The Minister must not contradict.
– Order !
– It is extraordinary that whenever one quotes the statement of a Minister there is always something to be said in the way of a qualification. The Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Rodgers) made an offer to the Country party that information would be supplied on Wednesday.
– I deny that.
– Nevertheless, it is a fact, and when an officer of the Department was checking the figures with the Leader of the Country party, with the knowledge of the Minister for Trade and Customs, the Minister for Defence applied the gag by moving the adjournment of the debate. The Minister knew that an officer of his
Department was in consultation with the honorable member for Cowper (Dr. Earle Page) checking some of the figures preparatory to his coming into the chamber to speak on the subject, and yet the Acting Leader moved the “ gag “ by proposing the adjournment of the debate. What followed? Some honorable members pretend to delude themselves into the belief that the “ gag “ motion of the Acting Leader of the House meant postponing the consideration of the question only for a day. They know better.. They know that when the adjournment of the debate is moved, and its resumption is made an order for the next day of sitting, that is merely a formal matter. If they desire to see what really occurred and was intended, let them take up to-day’s notice-paper. They will find that, the Government placed the resumption of the debate at tho bottom of the business on the paper. That was the object which the Minister had in moving the adjournment of the debate. The desire of the Government was to shelve this question, but it cannot be shelved. Not only the price of sugar, but the question of the administration of the sugar control during the last seven years, has to be settled on the floor of this House. Ministers may do what they like, may threaten their supporters as they choose; but sooner or later the whole .matter will be settled ‘ on its merits or demerits in this House. I consider the motion on which I am speaking thoroughly warranted, because during my experience in th’s House, which is a fairly long one now, I have never seen such tactics followed as those which have been adopted by the Government in this matter. When the Minister who is for the time leading the House is responsible for the adoption of such tactics, which arc blackfellows’ politics, it is time to rise in protest against them. It is because I do protest against the action of the Government in this matter that I intend to register my vote in favour of the motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition.
– I had hoped to hear from honorable members who supported the motion some arguments other than those which fell from the lips of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Charlton). The honorable member who has just sat down, has treated us to a rechauffe of speeches he has made many times during the last few years. He would have us believe that he can suggest a scheme by which the lion can lay down with the lamb, the grower with the consumer, the workman with the employer, and as a result of which everybody will be satisfied - sugar will be at once cheap to the consumer, yet the grower will be perfectly satisfied with what he receives. I shall not venture intO this paradise this afternoon except for a very brief and hurried inspection.
What is the charge which the Leader of the Opposition has levelled against tho Government? When we consider the charge, and what we have .listened to in support of it, we are reminded of the immortal Falstaff’s bill, ia which the amount charged for’ sack was appalling, and the amount for bread one farthing. There is much cry, but little wool. What is the honorable gentleman’s motion? It reads -
That the Government .be severely censured for referring its sugar transactions to the Public Accounts Committee before disposing of the amendments moved by the honorable members for Swan and Bourke, thereby delayingdecision on the question of immediately reducing the retail price of sugar.
We are to be censured, not for any alleged mismanagement of the sugar control, but because -we have taken certain action in this House, because, in fact, my honorable colleague the Minister for Defence (Mr. Greene) moved the adjournment of the debate on Friday last, although the Leader of the Opposition must be perfectly well aware that there was no other course open to the Government but that which it followed. We had declared in the most precise and positive terras that we were prepared to accept the amendment of the honorable member for Swan (Mr. Prowse). We have been indeed censured this morning because we did accept it. It is said that ve accepted it in order to prevent that reduction in tho price of sugar which the honorable member would have us believe that he and his party so earnestly desire.
– The Government have not accepted the amendment of the honorable member for Swan.
– The honorable member will allow me to make my own speech.
– Then make it truthfully.
– Whatever censure is justified under the other part of the motion, in this, at any rate, we clearly stand exonerated, for we have accepted the amendment of the honorable member for Swan. Indeed, as a matter of fact, anticipating its approval by the House, we have sent on to the Public Accounts Committee instructions which will enable it to get on with the work of investigating the matter.
I come now to the charge that we have delayed consideration of the amendment of the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Anstey), who moved that the price of sugar should be forthwith reduced to 45/8d. per lb. Before I deal with this charge on its merits, I may be permitted to observe that the honorable member’s amendment means, so far as the public are concerned, 43/4d. per lb., and as there are no farthings in this country, it means, if it means anything, to the person who goes to buy 1 lb. of sugar, that he will have to pay 5d. for it. But, of course, the honorable member for Bourke, between whose orations and conduct there is so wide a gap, whose ideas are as expansive as the universe and as lofty as the stars, does not bother about the poor, unhappy wretches who have to purchase sugar by the 1 lb. The honorable member’s proposal means, if it means anything, that the bread-winners of the country will have to pay 5d. per lb. for their sugar. The Government then are to be censured because they have delayed for a single day the consummation so devoutly wished by the honorable member for Bourke that sugar should be reduced to 45/8d., which means to the poor 5d. a lb. The honorable member’s amendment is mere beating the air; it means nothing substantial to the people of this country.
The next point is that before my honorable colleague moved the adjournment of the debate on Friday I had set out with a wealth of detail and meticulous accuracy every item that went to make up the price of 5d. Those items have not been, nor can they be, challenged., The Leader of the Opposition this morning affected to find some ground for speculation and doubt because these items, as presented by me in 1920, differed in minor particulars from those presented by me the other day. He called attention to the fact that, according to the statement I made in 1920, the amount which the grower receives differs slightly from that which he is said to receive according to the table I submitted on Friday. That is perfectly true; but the honorable member, in common with other honorable members, will not read the sugar agreement. If he had done so, he would have seen that it provides machinery for payment to the canegrower for his cane upon a basis of sugar contents, and. those sugar contents vary from year to year, and, if honorable members please, from paddock to paddock. The grower always gets credit for the sugar contents of his cane. If those are high, he gets more for it, and if lower, he gets less.; but whether they are higher or lower, the raw sugar price remains constant at £30 6s. 8d. per ton. The answer to the honorable member is, therefore, simply this that in the year of which I spoke the sugar contents were higher and so the cane-grower received more per ton. What bearing has that fact upon this question? How is it a matter in respect of which the Government is censurable? How does it help us to reduce the price of sugar ? The amount of £30 6s. 8d. per ton is the one definite and unalterable factor in this problem. Although the cane-grower may have received a few shillings more or less per ton of cane, the price for the raw sugar remains the same. For although the distribution of the amount between grower and miller may vary, the total remains unaltered. And as the price for the refined sugar is governed by the price of the raw sugar, and not by the few shillings more or less per ton that the grower receives for his sugar cane, whether the grower or the miller gets a little more or a little less is immaterial to the price of the refined article.
My honorable colleague (Mr. Rodgers) this morning set out very clearly what the position is. I shall recapitulate it. There are two questions that are really relevant to this debate. The first and main one is, “ What is the lowest price at which sugar can be sold to the consumer under the agreement?” The second is, “ What is the earliest date at which sugar can be reduced to that minimum price?” These are the two vital points; nothing else matters.
Let me deal with these two questions. The first bears directly on the motion before the Chair, namely, that we are censurable because we have not reduced the price of sugar to 4gd. per lb. I need not read again the table that I put before the House a day or two ago. It sets out the position with admirable clarity. I call attention to the fact that we have made substantial reductions, where reduction was possible, in all these items. As we are bound by the agreement, a reduction in the price of raw sugar is not possible. We, therefore, have not attempted it. We have made reductions where reduction was possible, and unless we had been able to do that we could not sell sugar at 5d. per lb. under the agreement. If we continued to pay to every one concerned the price that we have been paying while sugar has been 6d. per lb., it would not be possible to sell at 5d. per lb. With sugar at 6d. per lb. there was an excess of £6 6s. 2d. per ton coming to the Government, and utilized for the reduction of its overdraft. A reduction of Id. per lb. in the price would represent £9 6s. 8d. per ton. It follows, therefore, that we should lose £3 Os. 6d. per ton by reducing the price to 5d. unless we had been able to effect economies. That we have done. We have secured lower freights and have , effected other economies with the retailer and the wholesaler.
I am not called upon to champion the cause of the wholesaler or the retailer. They are organized and can defend themselves; but I should like to remind the House that they are citizens of this country, subject to its laws, and called upon to pay the wages prescribed by its Courts. They are as necessary and as much entitled to be called producers of sugar as are the men who actually grow the cane. They are entitled to a fair return for their labour, and, under our proposal, they get it.
This, then, is the position : First. sugar cannot be reduced to less than 5d. per lb. My honorable colleague the Minister for Trade and Customs has given, over and over again, the reasons why it cannot be reduced below that price, and I also have done so. We come, then, to the amendment moved last week by the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Anstey), that the price be reduced to 4§d. per lb. 1 am dealing now, not with the political side of this question, but with its ostensible object, namely, a reduction of the price of sugar. Neither the honorable member nor his Leader has suggested that we should reduce the price by means of a subsidy, or that we should make good out of the Consolidated Revenue the loss so suffered. No such suggestion has been made by them. In order, then, that we may determine the price at which sugar can be sold, we have only to consider the cost of production. The amendment submitted by the honorable member for Bourke disposes of a charge which at one time gained some credence in the community - that the Government was “ making millions “ out of sugar. That lie was stillborn, or if not stillborn, died while yet young. We hear no more of these millions that the Government was said to be making. We come then to a mere jj d. per pound. Now the honorable member for Bourke would be the first to admit - because be is a very logical-minded man, when he is not on his feet - that a reduction to 4)jd. per pound if agreed to would mean that the person who desired to buy a pound of sugar would have to pay 5d. for it. And so we find that the Government is not now charged with having made millions out of this business. It is not charged with having battened on this industry or with having mismanaged it. I shall come in a moment or two to the charge made by the honorable member for Franklin (Mr. McWilliams). Meantime I would point out that in connexion with the sugar control, we have handled, some £60,000,000 of money, and have done so at a charge of some £5,000. The Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Rodgers) has said rightly that there is no parallel to such a transaction, and we have a right to invite our fellow citizens to take note of it. The gravamen of the charge is that we have not reduced sugar to 4?d. ner lb. But, as I have shown, this cannot be done.
So much then for the question as to whether 5d. per pound is the minimum price at which we can sell sugar under the existing agreement. I say nothing whatever as to anything that may follow that agreement, but while it is current we cannot sell at less than 5d. per pound. Let ms now address myself to the con ten- tion that we ought to reduce the price to 5d. per pound before 1st November next. The Minister for Trade and Customs, this morning, presented a statement of accounts setting out the position as at 30th June last, showing the Government sugar overdraft, and, after estimating the daily consumption of sugar, showing that by 31st October next that overdraft would be wiped out. It is said by the Opposition, however, that “ If you had an overdraft of only £255,000 on 30th June last you ought to be able to extinguish it much sooner than by 1st November next.”
Let me deal with this point. In order that we may understand the position it is necessary to take into consideration, not merely this present agreement, but also the other agreement entered into during the period when I had the honour of being associated with my friends on the other side of the House. In those halcyon days, we made an agreement under which we guaranteed the grower and miller a price of £18 per ton and sold sugar to the people at 3d. per lb. It was then the cheapest sugar in the world. The Pool was managed so well - although I say it,”as shouldn’t” - that we made a profit of £415,000, and my honorable friend the member for Capricornia (Mr. Higgs), being at that time an efficient custodian of the finances of the Commonwealth, placed the amount to the credit of the Consolidated Revenue, and submitted, or intended to submit, to Parliament the Budget for that year. But time and tide, which wait for no man, swept us along, tossing us hither and thither like corks in the stream; and it so happened that the Budget was presented by another Treasurer of a new Government. A new Parliament, fresh from the people, deliberately appropriated this £415,000, and used it for the purpose of carrying on the war. It is now suggested that we should take back that £415,000 which a Labour Government made, and which a later Government placed to the credit of the Consolidated Revenue, and use it for some specific purpose.
– That appropriation was made in 1917, when no Labour Government was in power.
– Of course it was ; but a Labour Government made the profit out of the sale of sugar and intended to pay the amount to the Consolidated Revenue. It is true that it was left to another Go vernment to present the Budget. But, of course, it is quite immaterial what Government or what party did it. The fact remains that Parliament appropriated the amount and that it was used for the conduct of the war. Now we are asked to take it back and use it to liquidate the deficit in the present sugar account so as to bring about an immediate reduction in the price of sugar. All I can say is that such a suggestion has the merit of novelty, but that it would establish a most vicious precedent. We should never know where we stand if one Parliament, having appropriated a sum of money, another Parliament, years after, decided to use it for some specific purpose. If this were possible there would be an end to all sound finance. And in any case if any one is entitled to this £415,000, surely it is the sugar-grower, because we made it out of him by getting sugar for less than it was worth. But the money has been appropriated. The transaction was closed five years ago. Since then we have made a loss through selling sugar to the people at much less than it cost the Government to purchase, and this loss must be made good. That is the position. There can be no denying that the sum of £415,000 is part and parcel of the sugar overdraft as it existed on 30th June last, making, with the 5255,000, a total of £670,000, and the question is, On what day can that £670,000 be adjusted ? It is estimated by Commonwealth officials and by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company that the earliest date, assuming that the consumption of sugar is normal, will be the 31st October next, and my colleague (Mr. Rodgers) has stated that on the 1st November, and not before, we shallbe able to sell sugar for 5d. These are the two points that are material. They go to the very root of the matter, as it concerns the people. The figures supplied by my colleague are vouched for. It is true that there is no statement in detail covering the seven years of sugar control, but these are being prepared, and my colleague has said distinctly that the accounts for the first period have been completed, and that the figures for the balance of the term are being rapidly assembled.
We are charged with having evaded the amendment submitted by the honorable member for Swan (Mr, Prowse), and with endeavor-ring to delay the day when we shall reduce the price of sugar. Let me say that, we shall welcome the cooperation and collaboration of the Public Accounts Committee.. Investigation by that body will, give honorable members and the public generally an additional assurance that, their interests are being adequately safeguarded, but we shall not delay by one single moment the presentation of our own case, nor shall we delay by one single moment the reduction in. the price- of sugar. If, as is probable, the Public Accounts Committee find that it is confronted with a Gargantuan task, and that the investigation will occupy a. longer period than is anticipated, the Government, irrespective of the finding of the Committee, will reduce the price of sugar, the moment the overdraft is liquidated, and will present these balance-sheets to the House without waiting for the- report of the Public Accounts Committee. This, I think, disposes of the charge made by the honorable member for Hunter. I have shown that the first part of his motion, which relates to the amendment submitted by the honorable member for Swan, falls- to the ground, because we have adopted that amendment.. Likewise, criticism that under cover of the amendment we have attempted to evade our responsibilities, also fails. We accept our responsibility, although we are prepared- to ask the Public Accounts Committee- to investigate the position. An investigation will go on, and will not be delayed by an hour. The other point is that the price of . sugar cannot be reduced below 5d., and therefore the amendment of the honorable member for Bourke cannot be accepted.
Those are the points that are relative to this matter. They go to the root of the question, as it presents itself to the public. The public are not concerned, as consumers of sugar, with the extraordinary spectacle that meets the eye in this Chamber. Here we have men representing organized labour, which to-day stands for the socialization- of all industry, cheek by jowl with gentlemen whose’ proudest boast is. that they oppose all Government control. We have men whose slogan but yesterday was that the farmer should make a sacrifice for the benefit of the community cheek by jowl with those who insist that the man on tile land should receive first consideration. We have those who were railing but yesterday against the high price of wheat in this country cheek by jowl with those who stood: for 9s. per bushel when the world’s parity had fallen below that figure. We do not hear from them in these days, and certainly not from those in the Corner, one word against the high price of bread. The honorable member for Franklin (Mr. Mcwilliams) gave- the House a most pathetic presentation of the position with regard to the sugar consumer. He- spoke of a man with a large family, the members of which consume 2 lbs. of sugar per head per week, being hard put to it to make both ends meet. The price of bread, as I pointed out the other night, has increased by 288 per cent, sin-‘.e 1914, and it is admitted that while sugar is good as an article of diet, bread is better. It is certainly very extraordinary that the gentlemen who are so anxious for a reduction in the- price of sugar should say nothing about a reduction in the price of bread. Again, the price of coal to-day is a scandal and a menace to the industrial life of this country, and yet these gentlemen do- not say one word about a reduction in the price of coal. One could run the gamut of the whole domestic dietary, and one would see that what is true of sugar is true of anything. The cost of living has gone up, and you cannot have your cake and eat it too. If I am asked whether I am in favour of driving the man who is on the land off it by reducing the price of primary products below a fair and reasonable level, I reply that I am not. If I am asked whether I am in favour of cheap sugar at the expense of using black-labour sugar, I say that I am not. Put off that veil of hypocrisy that covers your faces, and let us see what it is that honorable members of the Opposition want. Go to the men in the north of Queensland, and talk to them about cheap sugar, and, when you have returned:, let me see you and hear what they have said. You talk about cheap sugar ! How are you going to get it f You talk about 4fd. as if mankind was to be saved by fractions. The honorable member for Bourke claims to speak for Democracy; he. is going to change the face of the whole world, and make a new heaven upon this old earth; and he is going to do it by eighth* of a. penny ! That is the great battle for which the workers of the world are enjoined to prepare themselves. It is for this Homeric struggle that the masses are to muster beneath the Soviet banner ! What a farrago of nonsense this is! 4gd. ! What does that mean? When a poor woman goes into a shop, if she can only get a quotation at fiveeighths she may buy sugar for 4(jd. per lb., but if not she must pay 5d. That is the meaning of my honorable friend’s amendment in favour of cheap sugar. Cheap sugar can only be obtained by cheap labour, and if honorable members are in favour of cheap labour, let them say so. I am not.
Where do honorable members in the Corner stand on the Sugar Agreement? The honorable member for Franklin (Mr. Mcwilliams), in his remarks about the price of sugar in the United States of America, quoted figures which were grossly misleading. I repeat what my honorable colleague the Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Rodgers) said, that the people of Australia had during the war the cheapest sugar of any nation in the world, with the possible exception of New Zealand. It is not true that the United States of America had cheaper sugar than Australia, either during the war or at any time afterwards. Refined sugar in 1913 in America was 3½d., in 1916 it was 4£d., in 1919 it was 5½d., and in 1920 it was 9d. I have before me the Public Ledger of America for Saturday, 3rd June, and it quotes the price of granulated fine at 49s. 3d. The Produce Markets Review for 20th May, 1922, quotes fine granulated 48s. 9d., and No. 1 granulated 48s. 6d. In the face of these figures, why should we be told that sugar is dearer in this country than it is elsewhere? I have quoted the wholesale prices in America, and they are higher than the prices at which sugar is sold wholesale in Australia. The retail prices in America were also higher than the retail prices in Australia. In England, of course, the position was very much worse. On 3rd June, 1915, “ grocery wholesale “ was quoted at £27 10s. per ton, and on 22nd September of the same year it was £32 5s. per ton, as against £25 10s. per ton throughout the year in Australia; in 1916 the price was £34 153. to £41 12s. 6d., as against £25 10s. here; in 1917 it was £46 15s., as against £29 10s. here; in 1918 it was £57 15s., as against £29 10s. here; in 1919 it was £66, as against £29 10s. here; in 1920 it was £72 up to £112, as against £49 here; and to-day it is £67 10s., as against £49 here. There is no truth whatever in the statement that sugar waa cheaper at any time in America than in Australia. There is no truth whatever in the statement that the jam makers of this country have suffered, or are suffering, under any disability in the export trade. It is a fact that they were able, as a result of having the cheapest sugar in the world, to build up their industry during the war. I think I am right in saying that while the prewar export of jams and jellies was under 2,000,000 lbs., it had increased by 1920 to 75,000,000 lbs. The general production, which in 1913 was 85,000,000 lbs., went up in 1920 to 120,000,000 lbs. The figures speak for themselves. They demonstrate that under the agreement the people of this country have had the cheapest sugar in the world, that the jam industry ha3 made greater strides than ever before, and that the workers of Australia have been the best paid in the world, of which I am heartily glad. This is the only country where white-grown sugar can be, and is, produced at a price that can, and does, compete with black-grown sugar.
I am not going to say one word about the merits of the agreement, except that if we place a fair Tariff upon sugar we cannot get sugar more cheaply than today. We have no right to single out sugar and penalize it with, a lower Tariff because it has to compete against black labour. We must impose a fair Tarin”, and, if wo do that, we shall not get sugar any cheaper than under the agreement. The position is clear : I have shown that we cannot reduce the price of sugar below 5d. per lb., and I have demonstrated the reason why. I have shown that we can not reduce the price before the 31st October, and I have made known the reason why. Honorable members have the figures, and have been informed or the price of every parcel of sugar purchased by the Government from abroad.
The honorable member for Franklin (Mr. Mcwilliams) has been telling the House that if the Government had only followed his, or somebody else’s, advice we could have saved millions of money. It is easy to be wise after the event. No doubt, if we could only have known what was going on, and what was about to happen, we could all have made a great deal of money. The honorable member has been speaking of certain purchases made in 1918. In that year; - happily foc myself - I was engaged in England in endeavouring to deal with matters of vital importance to the Commonwealth : and I had handed over the control of my Department which then embraced the sugar control, to the honorable member for Balaclava (Mr. Watt). On the 9th October of that year, the right honorable gentleman v;.i3 recommended by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company to buy Java sugar at £13 10s. per ton f.o.b. But he did not do so. In a communication to the right honorable gentleman, dated 9th November, 1918, the general manager of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company said - . . I notice with interest that the Prime Minister is making inquiries in - London regarding the sugar position. . . .
I had been cabled to make inquiries and see if I could get quotations in London at a lower rate. The communication continues -
Since you decided, on tho 9th October, not to entertain the offer of Java sugar at £13 10s. f.o.b. which we submitted to you, the market has . . . gradually hardened, and to-day £17 is asked for the’ same grade of sugar.
On the 2nd December a memo, was signed by the right honorable member for Balaclava instructing the Sugar Control Board to buy up to 40,000 tons at prices up to £.17 10s. per ton f.o.b.
– Will the Prime Minister make those papers available for my inspection when he has finished with them?
– I hand them over to the right honorable member now. These are all that there are. No doubt, it’ the right honorable gentleman had bought sugar when it was £13 10s. per ton, Australia would have been that much better off; but, on the other hand, it must bo remembered that the Colonial Sugar Refining Company gave us advice which, if we had accepted and acted upon it, would have placed Australia nearly £1,000,000 out of pocket. It is very easy for people, after everything is over, to say, “If you had done soandso you would have made money.” We did the best we could. We pretend to no special prescience. We are not gods, but men. We were unable to control or manipulate the market.
With respect to the alleged cheap sugar in Java, I would point out that if the Commonwealth Government, or any other Government, had gone into that foreign market, and bought heavily, the prices would have jumped. In this regard, I would remind the honorable member for Echuca (Mr. Hill) that, at a certain period in 1919, I sold 1,500,000 tons of Australian wheat, and, immediately, the Argentine wheat leaped some 6s. or 7s. per quarter. Naturally so! If the Argentine Government had sold similarly, or proportionately, our om market would have improved. One cannot go into a market and buy heavily, and expect it to remain unaffected. The reason why Java sugars were low was that it was impossible for Great Britain or America, or for any other country, to secure freights to carry purchases from that market.
I do not know that I can usefully deal with any other points, except to impress this upon honorable members - the whole subject has been made a political one, and the result has been most unfortunate. The outcome has been to reduce the market to a state bordering on chaos. No man knows where he stands. We are told by a section of the Melbourne press, which devotes itself alternately to the recording of divorce proceedings and to biographical paragraphs about “ Squizzy “ Taylor, that the Government, or sugar, or both, are going to fall. And the people do not know where they are. The result is that, merchants will not, and cannot, buy ; while the ultimate effect will be, if this state of affairs is prolonged, that the Government will not be able to reduce the price of sugar from the 1st November next. We have already lost £47,000 as an outcome of this new-born zeal for the consumer which has been manifested by our friends, who care less for the consumer, possibly, than they do for Rameses the Great. I have before me a telegram from a merchant in Hobart which very well represents the position throughout the Commonwealth. His wire says -
Sugar supplies completely exhausted. Necessary to order next fortnight’s requirements tomorrow. Can you give us any information re position of Tasmanian importers? Importers are not prepared to order supplies unless guaranteed reduction in prices. Great inconvenience to general public will result. In your personal opinion, is reduction likely to be before November 1
We shall be faced with the position that merchants will be buying, almost literally, from hand to mouth, and tho market will bo disorganized; it will drag along. My colleague the Minister for Trade and Cus- toms did that which was right in announcing an actual date an which, the price would be reduced. That was the date which had been fixed by men who understand the business; men who are not amateurs, who do not come into a great business with the outlook of a paralyzed gnat, but men who deal with big affairs in a big way. They said, “ On the 1st November, you will be able to adjust your accounts.”
– Is not the fixing of the date responsible for the falling off in the buying ?
– No. That was one of the things that my honorable colleague (Mr. Rodgers) and the experts took into consideration. So long as there -was sufficient time ahead, purchases would have gone on uninterruptedly until late in September, or until October. We anticipated that they would shorten then, but, as a result of the uncertainty created by the honorable member’s tactics they have shortened already.
I ask honorable members to put an end to this business, which is paralyzing the conduct, of public affairs, and making government a farce. The object that animates the two wings of the unholy alliance between the Labour and Country parties is perfectly well known. The difficulties of honorable members opposite are such that they require no touch from my brush. They are the marionettes that dance at the end of the string. Even the devils in hell would laugh at my honorable friends opposite speaking of the members who support the Go’vernment as being coerced in the party room. In honorable members opposite we have men whose very souls are not their own. They have not one political opinion which they dare say will still be theirs this day month. Some of them are thanking God that they ha,ve been selected, and others are hoping to God that they will be. They are not free citizens who can say that they will stand before their electors whether they are selected or not. They are dependent on the gods behind the throne. They have submitted this censure motion in order to get themselves out of a, difficulty. ‘ They have been covered with infamy by the honorable member for Cook (Mr. J. H. Catts), and their object on the present occasion is obvious. As for the motive for the Country party’s attitude, it requires but a word to disclose it. The Victorian redistribution scheme has been sent back. If they can get to the country before that report is returned, it will be better for them, and they are prepared to risk a dissolution, although terrified at the very thought of it. They are committed to Government control of the sugar industry .by the resolution at the Adelaide Conference. Do they deny it? No. It is camouflaged by a kind of bedside manner, but there the thing is. The censure motion is only a pretence and a sham. Honorable members supporting it have no concern whatever for the consumers. Their zeal is belated, their object apparent. I am satisfied that a majority of the people realize that, behind all this pretence of consideration for their welfare, there is nothing but political chicanery. I feel sure that the statements which have come from this side will satisfy the people that, in the control of the sugar business, there is nothing to cavil at. This great concern has been carried on now for seven years, and it has been the beet seven years in the history of the industry. Behind all the agitation, where it is not political, there is seen the hand . of a great and powerful interest, which, hopes for its own benefit to put an end to the present control. That, however, is a matter to be decided later.
.- The speech of the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) is full of impudent bluff and cheap wit. The people are asking for cheap sugar, and all they get from the Prime Minister is cheap wit. He reminds me of the jester in “ The Yeomen of the Guard.” All he has to do is to say, “ Pass the mustard,” and his friends crack their sides with laughter. We have had a lecture to-day from the Prime Minister about reducing wages. He says that the Labour party wants to reduce them. Before he runs away, I desire to remind him that he is the only honorable member in this chamber against whom judgment has been entered for not paying his . gardener. I have a good many more things to say, and I am sorry that the Prime Minister is leaving the chamber. The honorable member for Franklin (Mr. Mcwilliams) adduced evidence that he had given warning to the Government to buy cheaper sugar, but the Prime Minister merely replied that it was easy to be wise after the event. “ We are men,” he said, “ not gods.” I know that the average individual cannot look into the future, but if there is one man capable of anticipating the rise and fall in anything and everything, I should say it is the present Prime Minister of Australia. I recall a most memorable occurrence when the Prime Minister was able to forecast, five days before the event, that Senator Ready would fall suddenly ill in the dining-room, and, when all arrangements had been made, for Senator Earle to be seated on the doorstep prepared to take his place. The Prime Minister, who peered into the future on that occasion, should have been able to see ahead in connexion with sugar. He comes along with a good deal of cheap wit concerning the amendment of the honorable member for Bourke (Mr. Anstey) proposing that the price should be 4§d. per lb., but, with a wave of the hand, the Prime Minister says that the poor unfortunate working man would have to pay 5d. when buying 1 lb. of sugar, because there are no fractions recognised. That is about the cheapest sort of argument one could imagine. How many of the working people buy sugar by the single pound ? If the Prime Minister knew anything about this subject, he would not put for- “ ward such an absurd argument. It shows that, like a drowning man, he is merely clinging to a straw. Even if the amendment of the honorable member for Bourke did mean what the Prime Minister said, it aimed at bringing about a reduction at once to 4§d., ‘whereas all we have now from the Government is a promise, of 5d. at some future time. The Prime Minister said that, if we could make the lion lie down with the lamb, everything would be satisfactory. He tried to liken the grower and the consumer to the lion and the lamb. As a matter of fact, the lion in the path is neither the grower nor the consumer, but tlie Colonial Sugar Refining Monopoly. I shall show by the figures placed before us to-day that that is sc. Take a few more words uttered by the Prime Minister. He said, “ We are not to be censured on account of sugar control, but for referring this question to a Committee.” Then he said, “ We accepted the amendment of the Country party, and that amendment was to have a Select Committee of this House.” Now the Prime Minister proposes that the matter shall bc referred to the Public Accounts
Committee. That is a different proposition altogether. The Government are taking credit for referring the matter to the Public Accounts Committee, when it could have gone to that body at any time. The Prime Minister tried to impress on the House the fact that the sugar contents of the cane might affect the price received by the grower, but, as a matter of fact, if the grower gets a higher price because of the higher sugar contents of his produce, it does not increase the price of sugar to the consumer.
The Government are deliberately delaying the settlement of this question at a cost to the consumer of £70,000 per week. There were two correct statements in what the Minister said to-day. One was “ that some one was throwing dust in the eyes of the people.” It is the Government, and the Prime Minister particularly, who are doing so. The other was “ that business methods are necessary.” I echo that statement. We need them badly. According to the Minister for Defence (Mr. Greene), balance-sheets have been audited every year. Where are they? Why have they not been presented to this House ?
But the outstanding feature of this sugar question is the control exercised by the Sugar Monopoly. The methods adopted by the Government are exactly those adopted by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, which controlled sugar before control was sought to be exercised by the Government, and in reality is controlling it to-day. The company works in secret. It never gives the public the facts of its operations. When a Royal Commission was appointed its representatives absolutely refused to answer questions when they were called upon to give evidence.
– Come up to date!
– I come up to date by saying that it is still the same company carrying on by the same methods. When a Federal Labour Government in 1915 entered into an agreement with the Queensland Labour Government for the control of sugar the control was hedged round with every conceivable safeguard. It was insisted that information should be furnished, and that supervision should be exercised by the Sugar Controller. It was also provided that there should be an audit of the whole of the business transactions. Unfortunately, the split upon the conscription issue took the Labour party out of office, and brought the present Government into power, with the result that, whereas the Labour party had provided for control of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company by the Government, the position has been reversed, and we have had control of the Government by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. The abject apology made by the Minister (Mr. Rodgers) this morning when he admitted his mistake in promising details within a week or so was the most pitiful I have ever heard. He said, “ I relied on the accounts being in the Controller’s office.”
– That is not so.
– That is exactly what the Minister said. Why are the accounts not in the Controller’s office? Why are accounts affecting £60,000,000 of public money to be found only in the office of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company? How is it that we have to wait for three or four weeks for details? It is because we have had to go to a private company that will reveal nothing and extract information from it as a dentist would extract teeth. The Government are in a sorry position through permitting its sugar transactions to be controlled by a monopoly. It is an astounding condition of affairs when we find that a private company, which is one of the most complete monopolies in the Commonwealth, has all these accounts in its hands, and that the Minister in charge of sugar knows nothing about them.
The Prime Minister, in an endeavour to answer the honorable member for Franklin (Mr. McWilliams), tried to prove that the price of sugar was higher in America and England than it is in Australia. When honorable members pointed out that the price of sugar is lower in other countries the honorable member for Capricornia (Mr. Higgs) always says, “ Oh, yes, black-labour sugar.” Yet now we have the Prime Minister telling us that black-labour sugar is dearer than our own white-labour sugar. It only serves to prove what we have known for years, that Sugar Trusts are operating all over the world. Whether the sugar be white grown or black grown, or whether the wages are high or the labour is sweated, unless the Government takes a grip on the industry itself, the Trusts will always make the people pay their price.
It is a remarkable fact that the profits of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, which has been doing all its Australian business under the terms arranged with the Government, have risen from £298,000 in 1920 to £452,000 last year, and that the profits of the Millaquin Company, which does nothing but handle sugar under the Government terms, have risen from £16,000 in 1920 to £61,000 in 1922. It is, however, not a matter for wonder when we know that they keep ail the accounts in their own hands, and that the Government are obliged to go to them for any sort of statement for presentation to this House.
The documents distributed this morning reveal some extraordinary features. In 1920 the Prime Minister read a statement in this chamber, prepared by his Department, in which it was estimated that at the 30th March, 1921, the deficit on sugar account would be £220,802. As it was estimated that there would be a profit of11/2d. per lb., or £14 per ton, on the sale of sugar, the total profit since then should have run into something like £4,000,000. However, that statement has since been amended. In fact, nearly every statement brought down by the Government has contradicted its predecessor. The Government now declare that the profit they are taking out of 6d. per lb. is £6 6s. 2d. per ton. Fifteen months have elapsed since the 30th March, 1921, when the Prime Minister estimated a deficit of £220,802, and the consumption has been stated to be 337,000 tons, which at £6 6s. 2d. per ton should, at any rate, give a profit of £2,134,000. It has been suggested, though not definitely stated, that money has been lost in importing sugar at a high price, but the documents presented to-day show that there have been no importations of sugar since the 30th March, 1921, with the exception of 912 tons purchased at 4.77 cents per lb. f.o.b. What has become of the £2,134,000 estimated as profit in the latest figures? In the importations which were given this morning, honorable members will notice some very striking and amazing particulars. First of all, we were alleged to have been given details concerning importations ; and there is no doubt that the Government have given details of a kind, because they have submitted particulars concerning the dates of contracts, names of vendors, the country from which importations were made, quality, f.o.b prices, and even the names of the vessels; but the one essential point which should have been mentioned, namely, the landed cost of the sugar, is not given. What did the sugar cost landed here in a raw state, ready for refining, and distribution to the public ? I am not in the least concerned with the names of the vessels and the other particulars given.
– They have merely given us f.o.b. prices.
– Yes, and that is what I am emphasizing. The cost of the sugar landed in Australia is vital, and the Government take mighty fine care not to give the people of Australia the information which they really need.
I intend to divide my remarks on the question of importations into two periods, because from May, 1915, to May, 1917, there was a number of importations, and then there was a cessation for two years. Importations were resumed in 1919, and I draw honorable members’ attention to the fact that at the end of the first period a profit of £415,000 was made, which was appropriated to the revenue of the Commonwealth. This morning the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes), by interjection when the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Charlton) was speaking, and in his speech this afternoon, sought most cleverly to convey the impression that it was a Labour Government which appropriated the amount mentioned. He said that, under satisfactory management, sugar was being retailed at 3d. per lb., and a profit of £415,000 was made. It was perfectly true that the profit was made during a Labour regime, but it was confiscated under an anti-Labour regime. The Budget presented to this House which appropriated the £415,000 was the late Lord Forrest’s. He was not a Treasurer in the Labour Government, and when the £415,000 was appropriated the Labour Government had gone out of office.
– Had not the money gone into Consolidated Revenue long before that?
– No, it did not and could not without the sanction of Parliament, and that was given when an anti-
Labour Government was in power. This was not a concern owned and controlled by the Government. The Government were working under an agreement with a private concern, and merely made the arrangement, which was financed by the Treasury through the Commonwealth Bank. The Government could not have appropriated one penny of that amount, because it required an Act of Parliament to give the authority, and that was done under an anti-Labour regime.
I now wish to direct honorable members’ attention to the extraordinary change that has come over the scene, and in doing so I shall refer to the balancesheets presented to us. In the balancesheet submitted by the Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Rodgers) three weeks ago, an amount of £415,000 was shown as an asset. I questioned it, and so did the Leader of the Opposition, and said that it was not an asset, as the sum appropriated to the revenue no longer belonged to the sugar account, and could not be taken as an asset. What do we find now ? It appears in the latest balance-sheet as a deficit.
– Yes, it flies from one side to the other.
– In that respect it can be compared with the Prime Minister’s attitude on most questions. In the first place we had a balance-sheet presented which the Minister for Trade and Customs said had been duly audited by the Auditor-General, and a special auditor, in which an amount of £415,000 was shown as an asset; but the same Minister now submits another statement audited by the same authority in which that amount is shown as a deficit.
– Does not the Auditor-General audit on vouchers without going into details?
– It is remarkable that the Auditor-General should sign one balance-sheet in which £415,000 appears as an asset, and which amount now appears in the document which has been made public as a deficit. According to the latest balance-sheet presented to this House, the previous one was an absolute fabrication, because it showed a deficit of £255,000, and on the latest the deficit is £670,000. Let us compare the balancesheet presented by the Minister for Trade and Customs three weeks ago with the one received this morning, in which it is estimated that it is impossible to sell sugar under 5d. per pound. If the one presented by the Minister for Trade and Customs three weeks” ago is correct, the) statement that the cost of sugar cannot be less than 5d. per pound is a fake. The previous balance-sheet showed that the total charges for handling, refining, distribution, &c, 1,997,178 tons amounted to £6,302,932, or an average of £3 3s. per ton. According to the document presented this morning these charges will amount to £7 10s. How do they explain the disparity?
Motion (by Mr. Hughes) put -
That the question be now put.
The House divided.
Majority . . . . 1
Question so resolved in the affirmative.
Question - That the motion (Mr. Charlton’s) be agreed to - put. The House divided.
Majority . . . . 9
Question so resolved in the negative.
.- I rise to make a personal explanation. In the course of his speech in the recent debate, the Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Rodgers) made a statement respecting my association with the administration of the sugar control during the year 1918, the effect of which, so far as I can recall it, was that the delay exhibited by me as Acting Prime Minister in making certain purchases of sugar cost the Commonwealth many thousands of pounds. The Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes), in his subsequent speech, did not use the same language, but practically fortified the statement by producing certain documents, which he has been good enough to hand to me. The first of these, dated 9th November, 1918, is a letter signed by the general manager of the Colonial Sugar Refining
Company, Sydney, and is addressed to the Honorable the Attorney-General. I think that I ought to read the whole letter, since the Prime Minister has merely quoted a passage from it -
The Hon. the Federal Attorney-General,
Dear Sir, - I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 7th instant, from which I note with interest that the P.M. is making inquiries in London regarding the sugar position.
Since you decided on the9th October not to entertain the offer of Java sugar at £13 10s. f.o.b. which we submitted to you, the market has, as we have advised you, gradually hardened, and to-day £17 is asked for the same grade of sugar. We also mentioned in our letter of the 2nd instant that London advised a general and active demand for foreign sugars, and taking all things into consideration, it looks as if the higher values now ruling may be maintained.
It seems quite certain that some 35.000 or 40,000 tons of imported sugars will be required in Australia up to the 30th June next, and the time is approaching when a beginning should be made to secure a portion, at any rate, of these.
Then follows this paragraph, with the side note “ Mackay Cyclone Losses.” -
Enclosed I am forwarding a copy of a letter received from the North Eton Central Sugar Company and of our reply thereto, so that you may give the matter your attention.
So far as the records show, and my memory serves me, that letter was never referred to me, and I have not seen it before. It was addressed, as I have said, to the “Federal Attorney-General.” The Acting Attorney-General at that time was the present Attorney-General, the honorable member for Darling Downs (Mr. Groom).
Attached to this letter is a document prepared by the then Controller of the Sugar Administration, Colonel Oldershaw. It is headed, “ Sugar Ideas,” and is dated 2nd December, 1918. If honorable members are sufficiently interested I will read it.
– It is as follows:-
That is to say, supplies for Western Australia -
Say 1,100 tons per month for direct shipment to Fremantle. White crystals can be sold without refining.
We will make all shipping arrangements - but will consider any offer c.i.f., or tonnage offers.
That memorandum, recommending the purchase at once of 40,000 tons of Java sugar, is dated “ 2nd December, 1918.” There appears on it a minute, bearing the same date, in my own handwriting, as follows: -
Buy up 40,000 tons up to £17 10s. f.o.b.
I know not what other records may show, but I mention these facts. The present Minister for Defence (Mr. Greene), who is saturated with knowledge of the departmental methods employed at the time, can ascertain all the facts for himself. I simply say that, so far as the documents used in this debate show, or my memory serves me, the matter was dealt with promptly, by myself, on the advice of the Sugar Controller. I dealt with it on the very day on which the document was typed - on the day that it was brought before me.
.- I move-
That the House do now adjourn.
I cannot now refer to what the honorable member for Balaclava (Mr. Watt) has just said, but shall do so at another time. On the motion for the adjournment of the House last Friday I notified the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Charlton) that it was the intention of the Government next week to bring down the Budget statement and to ask for Supply. I requested him to let me know whether he could undertake on behalf of his party that Supply would be granted to us by Wednesday night next. I also put the position to the Leader of the Country party (Dr. Earle Page). I have not heard from either honorable member, and I do not know how the matter stands.
– We do not know what Supply the Government want.
– I said last week that we should ask for two months’ Supply.
-We think that, in view of what has happened, we should not grant more than one month’s Supply.
– I am not going to argue the matter now, but I should explain that the position has altered a little since Friday last. . My honorable colleague the Treasurer (Mr. Bruce), who then anticipated that he would be able to make his Budget statement on Tuesday next, if we met on that day, or else on Wednesday next, will not be able to deliver it until Thursday. We shall, therefore, be content to ask for one month’s Supply on Wednesday next. To that, I assume, there will be no objection. All being well, the Budget statement will be delivered on Thursday. Had the Treasurer been able to submit it before asking for Supply, the Government are of opinion that they might properly have asked for a grant of two months’ Supply. In the circumstances, we shall be satisfied with one month’s Supply. We shall meet as usual on Wednesday next.
.- I wish to protest against having been denied an opportunity of speaking in the debate that has just been concluded. I had waited to hear some Ministerial statement that would guide me as to the position I should take in the voting, and I intimated to the Government that I was anxious to speak. Indeed, I rose, as no doubt you, Mr. Speaker, observed when the last speaker was called upon, although it was not our turn. As Leader of the Country party, I indignantly protest at not having had an opportunity to put our point of view upon the question at issue. With regard to Supply, I wish to say that the notice of motion in my name stands. In the circumstances,. I am not going to give any assurance or guarantee of any sort regarding Supply.
Question resolved in the affirmative.
House adjourned at 4.20 p.m.
Cite as: Australia, House of Representatives, Debates, 11 August 1922, viewed 22 October 2017, <http://historichansard.net/hofreps/1922/19220811_reps_8_99/>.