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Thursday, 25 June 1998
Page: 5398


Mr TUCKEY (11:53 AM) —I, as an individual, have had a very long association with prawn fisheries within Australia. Whilst a lot of that association directly resulted from my time as a resident of the town of Carnarvon in north-west Western Australia, I still have a close association, through my electorate, with the fishing port of Geraldton. A number of residents and fishermen in that area have licences to fish up in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, referred to so eloquently by the member for the Northern Territory (Mr Dondas).

Whilst the town that I lived in, which is a major prawn fishery, is not in my electorate today, I still have this interest which I want to refer to along with the interests of those particular people. When the fishery was first established in Carnarvon, as the then shire president and an active businessman in the town I was active in assisting those who brought that industry to Carnarvon.

Nevertheless, I want to commence my comments on a more generic basis because this Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1998 is groundbreaking legislation. It is the first time, to my recollection, that the grassroots of an industry has been consulted and that one of the many levies imposed by this parliament on various industries has been removed at their request.

From time to time in our years in opposition, you, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, and, I am sure, the Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel (Mrs Bishop), who is at the table, would have heard me stand in the party room, after having had a representation from the shadow minister in those years gone by that there was a request for a new levy on some aspect of primary industry which, of course, had the `support of the industry', and say, `Whom are we talking about? Are we talking about a few industry bureaucrats, or are we talking about the people who actually produce the product?' Of course, the answer earnestly given by the shadow minister was, `Of course it was the industry bureaucrats'—but they are `the industry'.

More and more we are discovering that the grassroots not only do not appreciate people taking their money but are questioning the effectiveness of its expenditure and are demonstrating less and less that they have confidence in these bodies that constantly contact parliament asking that their membership, or the people they claim to represent, be taxed for the purpose of their own activities. This particular piece of legislation, in removing two levies—the prawn boat levy and the prawn export charge—brings to our attention the process that has been applied.

I have to say that the people whom I represent operating their prawn trawlers out of Geraldton wish to have this levy retained. They lobbied me, and I gave considerable acknowledgment to their concerns that this particular levy was of value to the wider prawn fishing industry. That was certainly their right. My response, of course, was that they were ringing the wrong fellow, that they should be contacting all of their colleagues within the industry and putting that point of view because we as a government had changed the rules relative to the application of these levies so that there would be a process of consultation with the grassroots of the industry. I told them that, in this case, where a levy was already in existence, we would accept representations from people who thought that there was no need for the levy, that it had no value, and, as has been done in this case, conduct a plebiscite of interested parties to establish the facts.

That is the process that has been followed in this case, and the evidence is to be found in the second reading speech of the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Parer) where he points out that not only did the plebiscite take place but also, in sending people ballot papers, they were given comprehensive yes and no cases—meaning that my constituents who wished to have the levy retained had equal rights to communicate with those who were going to vote as did those who wanted the levy removed. That, to me, is democracy at work. When one thinks that all of this money was being raised, arguably to assist the industry, surely the people who were involved would know whether it was or it was not.

The minister tells us that, as a consequence, 67 per cent of those eligible to vote did vote. Anybody who has had an experience in local government such as I have would know that, in a voluntary voting context, that is a very high vote. So it is arguable that people did respond in substantial numbers.

The other piece of evidence is that 85 per cent of those who voted voted to remove the levy. The minister points out that, as government should, it does retain the right to be the final arbiter in this issue. The minister was not compelled to respond positively to the results of the referendum but, of course, that is our promise to the people concerned. The minister has responded by introducing this legislation to the House, and I congratulate the government consequently.

My constituents are great contributors to the politics of the industry, and I would like to record some of their names. I am talking of Bert Boschetti and his wife, Julie, of Latitude Fisheries. They are people who are constantly bringing forward issues relative to the efficiency of the prawn trawling industry and the crayfish industry, in which they and their family are actively involved. One of their daughters is now a licensed skipper of a cray boat operating out of Geraldton and I think that is almost a first, but it just shows the family's commitment. I have had some great opportunities from time to time to spend time socially with them and I can always be assured that, during that period, they will be arguing the case for conservation and efficient fishing and pointing out to me many aspects of the present Commonwealth fisheries regulations which they think could be improved. I might say that that is on both sides of the fence—that is, areas where the legislation is too restrictive and areas where it could be more efficient and produce a better result.

I supported their position, and recently the state government of Western Australia, through the fisheries advisory council, advocated a 28 per cent reduction in the pots available for Western Australian cray fishermen. That reduction was needed because of the massive increases that have occurred in the efficiencies of catching crayfish, such as the GPS—the geostationary positioning system—which allows a fisherman to literally drop a craypot in the ocean and return to it the following day to within a metre. Those things have truly changed the efficiency of fishing and, with all the other electronic equipment available, it was necessary to reduce the number of pots that were in the water to protect that resource. The Boschettis led and supported the argument for a 28 per cent pot reduction. Others lobbied against that and the political decision taken in Western Australia was that pots be reduced by 18 per cent. I raise that point as a credit to the Boschettis who, in their view, thought the reduction should have been more. That shows their commitment to conservation within the fisheries.

So it is very important that they had a view to retain the levy. I respected their view, but I cannot criticise the majority view of this particular plebiscite arrangement. I consequently encouraged the government to revisit many of the levies that are involved and that we collect year after year.

Farmers in my electorate, due to a decision of farmer bureaucrats supported by the government of the day, have got an investment in the wheat industry of $250 million. They are called wheat industry funds. It was a straight-out two per cent levy. I opposed it bitterly. It was argued that it was needed for the privatisation of the Wheat Board so they would then have enough money to pay the `first advance'. Many of my farmers now have $100,000 plus tied up in this wheat industry fund, and that equals their first advance. So they are funding it themselves now. Many of them have to borrow money each year to put a wheat crop in while they have got all this money tied up, this two per cent of farm gate value. It was never necessary. It was promoted by a group of farmer bureaucrats who saw the opportunity to be captains of industry. Again, Mr Deputy Speaker, you have heard me in another place railing on this issue with little success.

It all comes down to the same thing. It is not difficult today to conduct a plebiscite. When one talks about 50,000 wheat growers, one might think that would be more difficult than hundreds of prawn fishermen. The reality is that in both cases the situation is that, if people took some practical steps, such plebiscites could be conducted quite simply. I have made the point in many forums that this could be achieved by using local government polling arrangements. Quite a few of these plebiscites could be undertaken and collected on the day local governments have their polls. It is quite easy for those local authorities to maintain a register of the persons who are quite clearly wheat growers, prawn fishermen or whatever. Those persons could then cast their ballot and the cost would be no more than the cost of the ballot paper. So why not use that opportunity? Why is it that government frequently believes that it knows better?

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that, after raising the wheat industry fund on behalf of the Australian Wheat Board for five years, I and the late John Panizza attempted to have a Senate inquiry into the operation of that fund; we were in opposition at the time. I wanted to know how it could make so much money, to tell you the truth, and I had some questions as to why that might be so. Let me tell you that the wheat industry bureaucracy, headed by the then chairman of the Wheat Board, Mr Clinton Condon, took us on and fought us bitterly about that inquiry. He went as far as to cancel all his overseas travel until it was knocked off. Unfortunately, he gained the support of certain members of parliament, whom I will not mention here today. I kept asking the question, `If you're doing so good for farmers, why is it that you don't want a Senate inquiry to be able to confirm that fact?' Quite clearly, they had things they preferred not be exposed.

This is the other aspect of these levies. Nobody ever looks into them. We just keep collecting the money. We keep sending it to people all around Australia for research or whatever and we seldom have any proper audit. We check that they have spent the money, but we seldom have an efficiency audit to see to what extent these moneys extracted under the laws of Australia actually deliver advantages to the people they are supposed to help.

I thought it pretty interesting that, in passing, the member for the Northern Territory talked about native title. I am delighted that negotiations continue, at least with the Independent Senator Harradine, as to the effects of native title and the ability to get some workable legislation. I remind the House that our legislation is about bringing native title into the general administration of land management within Australia. That is absolutely necessary if people are going to know that their investments stand. In my electorate I have 900 properties whose owners have recently discovered that the title they had considered absolutely secure is in fact wobbly.

One constituent had an offer from an overseas company to buy his property for a price well and truly in excess of the market rate, but when the overseas buyer discovered that it was a perpetual lease, not freehold, and that it was subject to a much larger native title claim, they walked away from the deal. A lot of these properties just through uncertainty are unsaleable. That can bring great hardship to people if they have financial difficulties or whatever.

It is similar in the fishing industry. It costs millions of dollars today to purchase and equip a prawn trawler for the Gulf operations. The fuel just to get to the Gulf runs into tens of thousands of dollars before you catch a fish. Yet many people who have never gone into the water further than up to their knees are claiming vast areas of the sea, are laying claims over these fishermen—who are licensed by the federal government—and are forcing them to go to court and spend their own valuable time and money to defend a right to fish those waters, a right that we have already issued in this parliament. We read of some of the more ridiculous claims of sacred sites under the water where people never went. This is just another aspect that has to be resolved. This government has to have the right to issue a fishing licence and to apply various conservation measures.

I was interested to hear again this morning of the stupidity of the New South Wales government in issuing inland freshwater fishing licences, presumably in order to have some control over conservation of fishing stocks, and then telling us that Aboriginal people need not apply. It does not matter what your background or the colour of your skin is, if the reason for government intervention is conservation, why are some people not to be controlled by that? The same situation has applied in Canada with their salmon stocks, and it has created a mess. It has put their resource at risk. You cannot do that. You either have control or you do not.

The member for the Northern Territory also chose to mention the cost of freight when people have to transport from these remote areas. There is the other challenge to this parliament—being opposed by the opposition—that is, having a sensible tax system. The member for the Northern Territory did not tell the House, but in every week that those freezer trucks operate, carting the prawns away from the people who are generating this great overseas income for our country, they pay $2,000 in tax to the federal government by way of fuel tax, wholesale sales tax, payroll tax to state governments, and so on. Of course, those operators have no choice but to charge those payments against the prawn trawler operator. To get that prawn catch back to the freezers in Geraldton is a week's trip. So, for 20 tonnes of prawns, $2,000 goes by way of indirect taxation straight to the Commonwealth government and adds to the cost in a very competitive market today—because fresh prawns are now in competition with farmed prawns in all the Asian regions. Then there are also the difficulties associated with their reduced buying power. We are adding to that burden and in fact driving some people out of business. It is pretty dumb to be the only country around the place that has a tax system that damages the ability of people to export. (Time expired)