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Wednesday, 29 November 2006
Page: 93

Mr WINDSOR (3:53 PM) —This is a very important matter of public importance because it reflects on the future of one of Australia’s proudest and most important export industries. I know that everybody in this House is aware of the events of recent months. I do not want this motion to be too much about the past—the motion actually is about the future of the wheat industry—but obviously there has to be some degree of reflection on what has happened and also on the outcome of the Cole inquiry, because that very inquiry and the events that occurred in the Middle East could have, and probably will have, a dramatic impact on the shape of the wheat industry into the future.

Commissioner Cole made the comment that the dealings of the AWB in the oil for food program have cast a shadow over the reputation and credibility of the wheat industry. I think all farmers would agree with that. There are probably only three or four people in the parliament who are actually wheat growers and I happen to be one of those people. I was also on the Grains Council of Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so I have had some involvement in the very issue that we are talking about. I think the most important thing all of us should reflect on is that the people who are going to be affected by decisions made in this place are the wheat growers of Australia. We want to keep them foremost in our minds when we are deliberating about their future. I think everybody understands the problems that have occurred in relation to drought et cetera, and the very futures of these people hang in the balance.

The Cole inquiry came up with two things, in my view. It really put the Australian Wheat Board in a very bad light both domestically and internationally. It did so in an environment where various ministers within the government, particularly the former Minister for Trade, had been working with some degree of diligence to try to achieve better outcomes internationally in terms of free trade. The dealings of the AWB have ruined that credible attempt to try to gain a better foothold for trade internationally. Domestically, I think wheat growers have lost trust in those directors, those people on the board who were there to actually administrate on their behalf to try to gain the best price for wheat internationally.

I am aware that Senator Joyce, in another place, made a comment some months ago that I believe should have been sanctioned at the time. He said that that is the way you do business in these places—that you have to take along bribe money to do business with people in the Middle East. People such as the former chairman of the Wheat Board, Clinton Condon, would not agree with that. They did not carry out this sort of activity to maintain an interest in the Middle East, in Iraq, and they particularly did not do it in a climate where the oil for food program existed, where there was obvious conflict, where there was a madman in charge of a country and where there were supposed weapons of mass destruction. They did not do it in a climate where that sort of activity was being perpetrated.

The activities of those people within the AWB have been absolutely disgraceful and unforgivable. In saying that, I think there are going to be very real problems of re-establishing the AWB in some guise of its former self that will have any credibility internationally or domestically. I would also reflect on what I believe, even though it does not show up in the Cole report, was the absolute incompetence of some people in government departments that, in my view, has aided and abetted this process. Even though Commissioner Cole was unable to find absolute proof that people did not know what was happening, I think the public is fully aware that there were people who did know. Whether they passed on the message to their superiors or through the ministerial wagon is another question, but I think the general public understands that people did know and that, at the very least, some of the senior bureaucrats were incompetent in administering the oil for food arrangements and the licences to sell grain into Iraq.

My view is that, given the damage done by the AWB executives to the credibility of the wheat industry, we do have to look at future arrangements to be put in place so that the industry can move forward with some degree of credibility. In saying that, I gave a doorstop interview this morning in which I gave my support to the arrangements being discussed by the member for O’Connor. I have looked at them closely and have held discussions with him and others, and with people in my electorate, about some of the issues raised in the last few days since the report of the Cole inquiry came down. It seems to me untenable if the arrangements we have had in place are carried into the future; a new arrangement should be put in place that will have some credibility.

I am not saying that the proposed private member’s bill by the member for O’Connor ought to be the absolute option accepted, but I think the parliament needs to have a serious look at it. Essentially, it transfers responsibility from the Wheat Board to the Wheat Export Authority or an authority of that nature, and the single desk would be virtually controlled by that authority. If there were to be any other export licences, they would be issued through that authority. The proposal also gives the parliament some degree of say as well.

I think some very important points have been made which are not all that dissimilar to the current structure within the Wheat Board. I think the Wheat Export Authority was a bit tardy in its work in the last few years too. We have an authority that has control over the single desk and the ability to on-licence potential exporters if it sees that the maximising of returns to growers is an objective that can be sensibly done through that arrangement. I think we really have to have a serious look at that. Some of the basic structure of the current Wheat Board would still be maintained but in my view sets it aside so that it can move forward.

As a grain grower I think the Australian Wheat Board made an error, and maybe the corporate experience has failed generally. I think what we are trying to do today in the splitting off option and the return to the past is more of a grasp for survival rather than a meaningful attempt to address the loss of credibility internationally. I think that, when AWB moved to a situation where it was essentially shareholder driven and started to move into areas that were not necessarily about the sale of grain domestically and internationally, it started to move away from the greater body of wheat growers.

Another issue that needs to be looked at, particularly in terms of the deliberations of the member for O’Connor, is the special place of Western Australia in relation to export grain. I do not think it is any secret that Western Australia has been fortunate enough to produce quite a lot of grain in recent years, and most of it is required to go overseas. That may change in the future, with the increase in biofuels and ethanol et cetera, but it most probably will not in the short term at least. The Western Australians do need to have a real say and participation in the future of this great industry. I think it is only a matter of time, and it may require a change of government—who knows—before very little grain will be exported, from the Eastern States in particular, and most of it will be used in other forms of value adding, particularly for ethanol but also for the feedlot industry. But, in the determinations, I think the Western Australians should be listened to as much as possible.

I raised an issue some months ago which was very much in terms of the future of the Australian Wheat Board, but at that time I was unable to get a real response from the Leader of the National Party. One of the things that I want to raise today, particularly as there are so few wheat growers in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, is that if meaningful change is proposed, such as that by the member for O’Connor—and no doubt there will be other options—those options be put to a poll of registered wheat growers. It should not be decided by the National Farmers Federation or the Grains Council of Australia, because I do not think they have the right to make such decisions anymore.

I think they really have opted out of that favoured position of being the spokespeople for grain growers—for instance, the Grains Council of Australia opposed a mandate on ethanol, which is completely contrary to interests of growers, on the basis that motorists should have choice. So I think that is an example of how the Grains Council does not necessarily represent the people who are driving the tractors. There is an assumption among some in this place that some members of the farming community might not have the capacity to make decisions on the future of their industry. They should be the ones who actually do make the decision on the various options that are and will be proposed for its future, because I do not believe there is any way that this industry will move forward in the same guise as it is now: with the Australian Wheat Board as the vested power for the export of grain internationally. I think that situation would be untenable. We will have a situation where maybe a dozen people will be before the courts. We will have some international ramifications probably in America and in other parts of the world because of the conduct of the Australian Wheat Board and the Australian government in relation to the food for oil program, so it would be untenable to go forward with the way it is now. The options of the member for O’Connor and others have to be considered, but in the light that the wheat growers should make the decision about the future of this industry.

The report of the Cole inquiry highlighted a number of things, some of which are of a political nature. It highlighted the way in which the wheat industry moved through the 1970s and 1980s and then changed gear in a corporate experience that did not advance the intellectual capacity of those who were driving it. The change of climate took place in a legislative sense, but it did not take place in a mental sense in the administration of the operation. In fact, what actually happened to growers was that they were not the prime target of the board; the survival of the executives and the shareholders of the board became the major focus for the board going forward.

In conclusion I would suggest that whether the government knew or did not know or whether the directors of the board knew or did not know about the failure of the Wheat Board and the quite blatant arrangements that some members of the Wheat Board executive put in place is almost irrelevant in terms of the future. What is relevant is that the damage has been done to the reputation of a once great body that is seen as the representative of wheat growers across this nation. As we move forward, the focus has to be on what the wheat farmers of this nation want, not on what the political operatives within this place think they can do in making life difficult for one another. It is time for all of us to have a good think about how we can make the farmers’ lives better in terms of the export of their grain. (Time expired)