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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19129

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (3:45 PM) —Matters of public importance provide the parliament with an opportunity for an exchange of views on how issues of importance should be addressed. We have now had the opposition's contribution to the debate, and there has not been one single suggestion as to how Labor would respond to this matter of public importance. Not one single suggestion has the member for Corio made about what Labor would do to respond to the problems confronting the sugar industry. They have just had a federal conference in Hobart, a gathering of all the wisest people in the Labor Party to deal with all the important issues of the nation. This is an important issue, and it has been raised only a few days later by the opposition as a matter of public importance.

One would have expected today that the Labor Party—fresh from their think tank and fresh from their discussions about how to resolve the important issues confronting the country—would have provided a response to the problems confronting the sugar industry, but there was not one offer of a single dollar in the Labor Party's next budget. There is plenty of money available, we are told, for initiatives in a whole range of areas and to roll back the tax system. We are told that we are going to have higher budget surpluses and all these sorts of things. All of those detailed financial arrangements have been determined, we are told, but how much of that included aid for the sugar industry? There was not a word today from the honourable member for Corio about how much he has asked the Labor shadow Treasurer for. This is the former agriculture minister, I might add—one who might even be able to pronounce the names of the sugar towns without too much difficulty. How much has he asked the former agriculture minister, the now shadow Treasurer, for by way of aid for the sugar industry?

Perhaps he may have taken the lead from the state Labor governments, which actually manage most of the Australian sugar industry—there is a tiny bit in Western Australia. We have state Labor governments in Queensland and New South Wales. With all of the sympathy it expressed today for the plight of the sugar farmers—so much sympathy that the shadow minister was even prepared to go and visit the sugar farmers as long as the government flew him up on a VIP jet; that was three years ago and that is the basis of his expertise on this whole matter—we might well have thought that the Labor Party would have some kind of response to these issues. Bear in mind that the industry's concerns are not fresh. There has been the difficulty of declining prices confronting the industry for quite some time, and there have been a number of occasions when the sugar industry in Queensland has sought support. The member for Corio rightly referred to the problems in relation to disaster relief. There have been four cyclones. In fact, there have been four natural disaster relief declarations. On four occasions, the federal government have responded with our state colleagues to deliver relief and support to those farmers and other people in the business community who were confronting cyclones, floods and other similar difficulties.

Most recently, there has been the problem confronting the South Johnstone sugar mill. This is an example where a mill was at the point of closing, so the crops of several hundred farmers simply would not have been able to be crushed this year and that cane simply would have been lost. The local farmers, the members of this cooperative, went on hands and knees to the state government to seek a little bit of support—just a guarantee of a loan—to see them through these difficulties. What was the Queensland government's response?

Opposition members—None!

Mr TRUSS —There was absolutely nothing. They were not prepared to do a thing. This is what Labor feel about the sugar producers of the South Johnstone region. They did not even care about the workers in the mill who were going to lose their jobs. We hear all the time about how Labor are the friends of the workers, but not a finger was lifted to help keep the jobs of the South Johnstone sugar mill workers. It was only when the federal government intervened and agreed to provide the sort of assurance that the banks and the industry needed to ensure that the crushing could occur this year that that mill was able to open. What a contrast there is, therefore, between the approach of the coalition, the Liberal and National parties, towards these difficulties and what the Queensland Labor government have been prepared to do. They do not help the workers, they do not help the farmers and they could not care less about the regional sugar communities that are so vitally dependent upon this industry.

Now we come to the current situation, where there is a need for aid because of poor yields and problems, particularly with the outbreak of orange rust on the variety 124, which is probably the most significant of the sugar varieties being produced in Queensland and even in New South Wales at the present time. The situation includes the lowest price historically that the industry have ever seen, the problems associated with the cyclones, the high rainfall, the rats, the disease and other matters that have really affected this year's yields. Those have certainly placed financial stress on many of the state's cane farmers. Quite some time ago, the industry again appealed to the state government for support. They said that it was essential for there to be some assistance so they could find their way through these difficulties. Finally, several weeks after the Prime Minister addressed them at their conference in Cairns, the industry put together a package, which they submitted to both the state government and the federal government at the same time, seeking both state and federal contributions towards planting next year's crop in particular and towards the other financial needs of the industry.

As federal minister, I have sought on many occasions to engage the Queensland government to reach a joint response to the industry concerns, and the Queensland government simply have not been interested. Then, last week, out of the blue they announced with much fanfare a $10 million assistance package to support the farmers. When it came to the crunch and we started to have a little bit of a look at this package, it was not a $10 million grant. It was not even a $10 million allocation of new money. It was funds transferred from existing programs. It led to a maximum allocation of $10,000 to individual producers by way of loans for three years at a six per cent interest rate. The average loan was going to be only $5,000—enough to plant perhaps three, four or five hectares of cane. It was a very small contribution indeed.

Even then, the state said that their offer is conditional upon the Commonwealth doubling it. On top of that, we have to produce real money while theirs will just be loans that will be paid back. The actual net cost of the Queensland government's contribution is about $1 million, and most of that will probably go into their own coffers by way of administration. In fact, the honourable member for Dawson, who has been very active and very forthright in presenting the particular problems of the sugar producers in her area and indeed of cane growers right across the nation as head of the government's Sugar Industry Task Force, told me that the Queensland government's contribution to the plight of the state's sugar growers works out at an average of $170 per farmer. It is hardly the sort of thing that will restore confidence to the industry in the state. Queensland is offering $170 per farmer.

This government does have a record of supporting the cane industry over the years. Over four years, $13.45 million has been provided for research dealing with one of the other major problems that has been confronting the sugar industry over recent years, particularly in some of the northern areas, and that is the declining sugar content. That contribution is in addition to the $6 million that we provide each year to support their research and development efforts. Nineteen million dollars are provided to the Queensland industry under the Sugar Industry Infrastructure Program and about $1.76 million of that will be spent this year. Under the New South Wales component of this infrastructure program $944,500 will go to New South Wales, and there is $550,000 to help the industry in Western Australia to improve loading facilities at the port of Wyndham. We have provided $4 million in recent times from the Greenhouse Office renewable energy program; $1 million for a major project in the electorate of the member for Dawson, and $3 million to support an innovative biomass co-generation plant at the Rocky Point Sugar Mill south of Brisbane. So they are real measures providing assistance to the industry. I have already mentioned our support for the South Johnstone mill; our work that is being done through the Agriculture Advancing Australia package; support for farm planning—the very kind of response that the industry asked of us in their package; support for those in particular need, for those who do not have sufficient income to put bread on the table for their families, through the Farm Help Program; and support through the social security system to ensure that farmers are able to provide basic sustenance when they have reached the situation where their economic circumstances are so troubled. That is something Labor never did. They never did any of these sorts of thing when they were in office. They were not prepared to provide that kind of support for farmers. Farmers were specifically excluded from those sorts of measures. So those sorts of initiatives demonstrate what happens when you have a government that cares.

The reality is that the Queensland sugar industry, and indeed the industry in other states, is a very significant contributor to the national economy. Fortunately the price of sugar is improving. It is good to know that the latest figures are of the order of 10.5 to 11c a pound, and that gives real hope for the industry for the next season, and indeed for future seasons, but it will not be of much help for incomes this year because most of the crop, in accordance with usual practice, has been forward sold, so the returns to farmers this year will be poor. The prospects, though, for the industry are encouraging. World stocks seem to be much lower than expected and—particularly as a result of the initiative of our Minister for Trade, who himself has a strong personal interest in this industry as a former minister for agriculture—significant initiatives have been taken internationally to put together a coalition of sugar producing nations around the world. We have launched the Global Alliance for Sugar Trade Reform. This is something that might well interest members opposite who were so passionately involved in the free trade versus fair trade debate recently in Hobart. I did not hear too much about what the views are of the shadow minister for agriculture on the free trading agenda, but perhaps he might like to go and explain them to the sugar growers in the Burdekin next time he is in that area. But the reality is that this government is actually seeking to address those longer term issues that are fundamentally important to guaranteeing the long-term prosperity of the sugar industry in Australia. This alliance, which involves some 14 countries—most of the major sugar producers of South America, Central America, Canada, India and countries like Thailand—will be working together to try to achieve a fairer trading regime for sugar around the world. That sort of thing is very important to countries such as Australia where production is efficient by world standards but where returns are unacceptably lowered as a result of the corrupt world trading environment. So it is essential that we develop a fairer international trading regime for sugar.

So, in the longer term, the prospects for the industry are more promising. There is a short-term difficulty which this government has addressed in the past and is addressing now by way of assessing the proposal that has been put before us. Unfortunately, the Queensland government's response—in seeking to be pre-emptive or smart or in trying to attract a little bit of attention for themselves—has not been helpful.

Mr TRUSS —In fact, I suggest the honourable member who interjects might like to go back to the Queensland Labor minister and ask him why he wants to charge the federal government more money to administer a Commonwealth scheme than he is actually prepared to give to the sugar producers themselves. His response to these sorts of things, and to the real concerns of the industry, have been shameful. Labor have never been prepared to respond to the concerns of the industry, just as at South Johnstone they were doing nothing for the workers, nothing for the farmers and nothing for the communities and just as in the case of Queensland and New South Wales, in response to this package, they have been prepared to do nothing. The sugar producers of Australia know full well that Labor cares little about their concerns and will never do anything. That is why they come to us. They have given up on Labor. They know they will get nothing. That is why they expect so much of this side of the House and why we have delivered so consistently in their interests. (Time expired)