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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20096

Senator WOODLEY (11:43 AM) —I too wish to speak on the Horticulture Marketing and Research and Development Services Bill 2000 and a further bill which supports this one. I want to speak on it for a number of reasons. Quite clearly, the opposition parties are in support of the legislation, but there are a number of issues which are worth raising in the context of this debate and which will serve to give the government notice of concerns that we have and which will continue to be raised. This legislation provides for the formation of a company to be established under the Corporations Law as the industry services body for Australian horticulture. As we have seen, and as Senator Forshaw has mentioned, this is part of a process which has been taking place in many commodity bodies and it is one that the Democrats have largely supported because it does give autonomy and control to producers to a very large degree.

Although generally we have many questions about privatisation as a principle in itself, certainly in terms of privatisation of these particular industries, where it means giving control to companies that are largely controlled by growers, we have been pretty much in support of the process. However, in terms of the transfer of autonomy to producers, with the special relationship and new relationship which exists between those privatised companies and government, there is a question which is both particular and philosophical. That question has to do with how much autonomy these privatised companies do have, how much they should have and whether or not at times that autonomy is overridden not because the particular company has any failing but because of government involvement in other instrumentalities which bear on the operation of such companies. I will come back to that a little bit later.

In reference to the bill itself, we note that there are provisions for the continued support of the research and development program and the marketing program. These are important issues in any company operating in Australia today but they are of critical importance when we are talking about primary produce. As all senators know, for many of our rural producers and for many of our commodities it has been a real struggle. It has been a struggle in terms of continuing to receive support for research and development, which is the only thing which keeps many of these industries as world leaders in terms of the product which is grown. We know that many of our products are world leaders, but we also know that most of our commodities are sold into world markets which are corrupted, in many instances by governments that give to their own industries support which we do not give to our industries. So research and development is critical in keeping our producers and our products right at the very cutting edge of development. The same goes for marketing. We need to be right up there in our continued support by the Australian community generally for primary production in this country, and that support by the general community is generally channelled through government programs.

We note that the change in organisation is welcomed by the industry generally. It should lead to efficiencies, and the promise of a more directed research and development program—and therefore a more focused export program—I think is welcomed by everybody. The move by industry and government in this instance follows similar rearrangements of other agricultural industries in which the government seeks to support the industry but remains at arm's length from its management. Often the involvement of government is because of levies which are still collected through government agencies. The problem is that the definition of arm's length is often a very slippery one and very hard to get hold of. I think government would recognise that. Senator Forshaw in his speech raised a number of issues where this relationship in terms of continuing government involvement is one that is not clear. That is not the fault of government; it is simply that we are developing these relationships and the way in which they operate as we go along, and there is not always a consistency in the way in which continuing government relationships are defined in legislation, depending on which commodity we are talking about.

As well as the issue which Senator Forshaw raised, there is another issue which I suppose is a peculiar Democrat issue that I want to raise here. It is to do with the autonomy of producers. I want to say to the government that it is okay for us to want to transfer to producers responsibility for making decisions about R&D, export and other things. But producers sometimes feel that in certain instances they are not listened to and that there are decisions made by government which affect their industry over which they have little control, which raises in their minds questions about whether or not they really are autonomous and whether they really do have control of their own industry.

I suppose the classic is the current decision on imports which is being contested very hotly by apple and pear growers in Australia. This is one where the Democrats differ from the major parties. While we recognise that it is not possible to achieve zero risk in terms of imports—in other words, we cannot guarantee that there will be no environmental or economic impacts when we allow imports into the country—the Democrats believe nevertheless that zero risk is what Australian producers and Australian consumers want. I know that we operate on what is called managed risk, but it is another one of these very slippery definitions, because managed risk can mean anything. It can mean whatever the government, AQIS or whoever is involved in the decision happens to believe is acceptable at the time. I have real problems with that. I believe that the goal of any quarantine service ought to be zero risk.

We cannot achieve zero risk sometimes because of the cost—that is the problem—but I believe that nevertheless we should maintain that as the goal and do our best to come up to that. The goal should not be an acceptable managed risk, because that is a very slippery goal indeed. That is why we are having all of these disputes arising and recourse to Senate inquiries after the fact. It has occurred with salmon; it is now occurring with apples. It raises the whole issue of whether or not these industry bodies have real autonomy. They have autonomy in terms of research and development and some issues to do with marketing but, if in fact they do not have the ability to influence decisions such as the decision about the importation of New Zealand apples, one puts a question mark over whether or not they do have control at the point at which it really counts. It is a philosophical debate and it is one that I presume we are going to engage in continually over coming years. It is a debate on which the Democrats have a particular view—if you like, a peculiar view—but nevertheless it is worth putting that view on the table.

Another part of that debate is the fact that, while the claim is made constantly that AQIS makes these decisions only on the basis of scientific data, it has been very clear in the inquiries we have had that trade imperatives seem to be given equal weight by AQIS, and I have to ask the question as to why. If it is the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, surely pure science is all that it should engage in and taking account of trade issues is not its job. I know that the whole issue of trade is dealt with by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but the distinction between the responsibilities at this point seems to be very blurred. That has come out very clearly in some of the inquiries that the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee has dealt with.

I will close with these comments. The issue of fire blight is one that has caused a lot of concern in the industry. Some would say that there has been an erosion of our quarantine standards and that the loopholes and this erosion should be dealt with. I guess, as we continue to progress our Senate inquiry, that debate will be very much to the fore. I note, as an illustration of what I am talking about—the concern of industry that sometimes it does not have the control over its future that it feels it should have—that next week, I think it is, there will be a complete shutdown of businesses in the town of Shepparton.

Senator Troeth —Yesterday.

Senator WOODLEY —Right, I thought it was Tuesday week but it was yesterday. Thank you for that information, Parliamentary Secretary. As you can see, I am not always up with the game. I am reading from the press release which dealt with that and I note that it was predicting a massive public rally. It said that it was a protest against Biosecurity Australia's plan to allow the importation of potentially fire blight infected apples from New Zealand. We should take note of such protests. I do not think conservative business people in conservative communities—of which I believe Shepparton is an example, and I have had some relationship with Shepparton over many years—engage in these kinds of protests lightly. It raises again very clearly the question, which I think this chamber must take account of, of just how much control producers do have over their own industry if part of what the industry engages in is certainly under their control through this company but other decisions are made over which they feel they have no control. Certainly, it raises the issue of whether or not they really do have the autonomy which this bill seeks to give them.

I note that fire blight as a disease is very serious. I note that the press release of the Australian Apple and Pear Growers Association says:

"This is a people's protest," says local businessman David Jobling. "Closing the city is symbolic. It's what will happen to Shepparton and many other country towns if Fire Blight is introduced from New Zealand. The apple and pear industry is the lifeblood of this area. If it goes under because of the importation of Fire Blight, we will go as well."

It notes:

Fire Blight destroys pear orchards and severely damages apple crops. It is endemic in New Zealand and 40 other countries, but does not exist in Australia.

Independent researchers predict Fire Blight would cost Australia $1 billion in 6 years. It would cut pear production in this country by 50 per cent and apple crops by 20 per cent—90 per cent of the pear orchards around Shepparton would be destroyed.

So I am sure the government is just as concerned as we are about that issue and certainly about the obvious concern that is in the industry and associated industries. It is a very good illustration of the point I am making that, when we come to talk about autonomy and giving control of an industry to growers, sometimes it is very much a qualified control, and we need to take account of the concerns that are being raised here. In conclusion, let me say that the Democrats welcome the chance for increased efficiencies in the industry. We are pleased that growers will have autonomy in these particular instances. I close by saying that industries need to have real control and real autonomy in all of the issues that affect them.