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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 2048

Senator BROWNHILL (Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia) (6.27 p.m.) —I have some sympathy with Senator Woodley in his genuine desire to make sure that the current reference to the committee, on which we both serve, provides some meaningful outcomes for people in the rural community who are seeking improvements to the rural adjustment scheme. I have complete sympathy with the people in the rural sector who have these problems.

  However, I do not believe that at this stage we ought to be altering in any way the terms of reference which have already been circulated and to which people have responded with submissions. In fact, we received the terms of reference on 24 March; the inquiry was advertised extensively; we have had something like 239 submissions; we have had four days of hearings so far and, to be fair, we would have to rehear all those people from whom we have already heard because they would be looking at different terms of reference. We have to look at it in that light.

  By extending or altering the current terms we will put considerable time pressures on the committee to complete its work. We have already said that we want this inquiry to finish in the quickest time. We have been looking at the adequacies of the scheme to see if it is working properly because people are hurting. I believe it is very important that it is done quickly.

  Already the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs has a very tight timetable in order to meet the deadlines imposed by the Senate for this reference. It will require a great deal of work by the committee and, more importantly, its secretariat to ensure that we complete the inquiry by October. I hope that some of the committee's findings will cover a number of the concerns raised by Senator Woodley. In fact, I am sure that that will be the case. However, it would not be appropriate for the committee formally at this stage to adopt a change in the terms of reference only in this case. I believe that it will set a bad precedent which others may seek to follow. Having once altered the terms of reference in this instance, it will be hard to refuse requests by others who wish to do so. I believe that once terms of reference have been decided for a committee, it is important that the committee should stick to them.

  Senator Woodley should ask the constituents whom he believes he is representing through this extended reference to write to the committee under the existing terms of the inquiry highlighting the need for the rural adjustment scheme to provide an appropriate financial framework, taking into consideration the ability or otherwise of particular farmers to diversify their current farming operations.

  In ensuing meetings of the inquiry, Senator Woodley will be able to ask whatever questions he wishes. One sees from the committee's terms of reference that it has been set up to examine:

the adequacy of the rural adjustment scheme, including its current guidelines and operations, in meeting the present and future needs of primary producers suffering from prolonged adverse circumstances beyond their control.

I would say that provision covers all the areas of concern mentioned by Senator Woodley. The committee already has the aim of examining, through the exceptional circumstance provision of the Rural Adjustment Act, the necessity to put additional support mechanisms in place for farmers in farming areas where soil type and/or rainfall and/or location prevent diversification. We have already said that we want to look at the RAS and current guidelines—in other words, at the guidelines as they now exist. Certainly it would appear that Senator Woodley's separate term of reference is already covered by what the committee is considering. The second term of reference before the committee relates to:

the extent of rural debt, the nature and serviceability of that debt and its social, economic and ecological consequences.

Again, I believe that covers some of the concerns expressed by Senator Woodley. The third term of reference before the committee relates to:

what mechanisms should be recommended for the management of rural reconstruction and the contributing roles of government, the financial sector and industry.

The terms of reference already before the committee are so broad that they will encompass any sectional or other interest that people may discover on the way through the inquiry. As the chairman of the committee has already said, the committee is half way through its hearings. It has already had four days of hearings and I hope that it will be able to report in October, and certainly before Christmas. If we add this extra term of reference I believe it will put an extra load on those concerned and I think that is unnecessary. Certainly I feel it will not add to the inquiry in any way.

  Within the broad parameters that already exist, what Senator Woodley seeks to do can be achieved during the forthcoming hearings by way of question and answer. Indeed, this morning the committee had before it submissions on the rural adjustment scheme presented by the Department of Primary Industries and Energy. Senator Woodley can put all his questions to those witnesses when next they appear before the committee. Therefore, we would be better to stick with the present terms of reference, leaving Senator Woodley, if he so wishes, to bring up during the inquiry any matters he wishes to raise.

  The opposition will be voting against this additional reference. We do not take this course because the reference has no worth or has no ideas behind it. However, Senator Woodley may wish to elucidate those ideas during the inquiry. Certainly we believe that the present terms of reference are adequate. So far the inquiry has gone very well and has heard some very good evidence on how RAS is working. I repeat that the opposition will vote against this changed reference.