Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20099

Senator O'BRIEN (12:01 PM) —As Senator Forshaw said, the horticultural industries are a key sector of the Australian rural economy. They account for around 20 per cent of the production value of Australian agriculture. That alone demonstrates the importance of the measures contained in the Horticulture Marketing and Research and Development Services Bill 2000 and the Horticulture Marketing and Research and Development Services (Repeals and Consequential Provisions) Bill 2000, and the reason why they should be given close scrutiny by the Senate in its consideration of this legislation.

Last year, 80,000 growers produced horticultural products worth an estimated $5½ billion, which was up from $2.4 billion in 1998-99. Last year, horticultural exports were worth $1.2 billion, which is an increase of 110 per cent over the past decade, and fresh produce exports were worth around $700 million. It goes without saying that these industries are key generators of jobs in regional Australia. For example, in 1999-2000 the fruit and vegetable processing sectors employed 11,200 people. My state, Tasmania, is a key player in this sector. The state of Tasmania has a cool to temperate climate, good soils, good water and a stable work force; this enabled it to generate horticultural exports worth $54.4 million in the financial year 1998-99. My home and my electorate office are in the north-east of Tasmania, which is one of the key areas of horticultural production.

I recently visited Scottsdale, the location of one of the major potato processing plants in northern Tasmania, where I spoke with members of the community at a meeting I attended with the member for Bass, Michelle O'Byrne. I talked to people who were employed in the farming industry, the vegetable processing industry and other industries such as forestry. Certainly horticulture is a key industry and a key employer in this region, in terms of both production and processing. You will not be surprised to hear that, when we spoke to members of the community at that meeting, the big issue was not this piece of legislation; it was the cost of fuel. That is a matter that has received significant airing in this chamber recently and that will, given what is taking place in regional communities, be a matter of great concern for some time to come. Anyone you want to talk to wants to talk to you about fuel. It is an issue which, as I said, we will be dealing with in other circumstances.

In relation to this legislation, on 12 September this year, horticultural industry leaders signed a memorandum of understanding setting out the main operational and policy items agreed to between the industry and the government for the establishment of a company to be known as Horticulture Australia Ltd. I want to commend the work done by Senator Troeth in successfully negotiating this outcome with such a large number of identifiable industry sector groups—I think about 29 comprise the horticultural sector. Looking at the schedule on page 31 of the constitution of Horticulture Australia, it is evident that they are very disparate groups: the Australian Apple and Pear Growers Association, the Australian Avocado Growers Federation, Australian Citrus Growers Inc., custard apple growers; the Macadamia Society, the Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation, cherry growers, the Potato Industry Council, chestnut growers, almond growers, fresh stone fruit growers, mushroom growers, nashi pear growers, the garlic industry, the passionfruit industry, the tomato processing industry, the nursery industry, Queensland Fruit and Vegetable Growers, the Australian mango industry, the Australian onion industry, the Dried Fruits Association, Strawberries Australia, pistachio growers, the Australian Nut Industry Council, the Australian Rubus Growers Association, the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, the Pyrethrum Growers Commodity Committee, the Australian Banana Growers Council, the Canning Fruit Industry Council and the Australian Sugarplum Industry Association.

Senator Forshaw —And there's more!

Senator O'BRIEN —There may well be more. I am certain that this is such a disparate sector that 29 organisations could not possibly encompass the range of horticultural commodity producers and processors that this country can and, no doubt in the future, will support. That is why I say that one can do nothing but commend Senator Troeth for bringing those organisations together. As someone suggested to me, it may be that Senator Troeth was fortunate to get them on the one day that they can agree! One never knows what the future will bring with regard to such a disparate group.

Senator Troeth —Two and a half years.

Senator O'BRIEN —Senator Troeth suggests across the chamber that it took 2½ years. It took 2½ years to arrive at the one day when these organisations could agree. If that occurs every 2½ years, then the board of this organisation will be unanimous once in each term of government during the coming century. What an organisation we are going to be dealing with! The Commonwealth is going to be dealing with this organisation under the umbrella of this legislation. The two bills that we are considering today provide a new framework for the marketing and research and development activities to be undertaken by this private company, which will operate under the Corporations Law. The company will replace three statutory authorities: the Australian Horticultural Corporation, the Australian Dried Fruits Board and the Australian Horticultural Research and Development Corporation.

The key to the future of this sector, as with all other rural industries, is, among other things, an effective and efficient research and development effort. According to the last annual report from the Horticultural Research and Development Corporation, current investment in research and development is running at around $32 million. The total value of the research and development program at the end of the last financial year was $101 million. Last year, the number of projects in the corporation's program was 566. There were 1,050 researchers working on these projects, located in 378 research centres, which is quite a network for this new body to oversee. Under current arrangements, with the organisations that are proposed to be replaced by this Corporations Law company, we have a set of arrangements for accountability to the parliament for the expenditure of a large amount of money. That relationship with the parliament and through the parliament to the Australian public is quite clear. Under the Horticultural Research and Development Act 1987 the corporation is directly responsible to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. I understand—the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry may wish to correct me on this—that Senator Troeth has delegated responsibility in this regard. Senator Troeth is nodding. The Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act requires the corporation to report also to the Minister for Finance and Administration.

According to the annual report there are currently two key stakeholders in the research effort: on the one hand, there are the industries involved in the production, processing, handling, storage, transport and marketing of horticultural products; and, on the other hand, the Commonwealth of Australia. Under the new arrangement to be established through this legislation, these accountability measures will be replaced by a memorandum of understanding between the new company and the Commonwealth. That means that this new entity—an amalgamation of marketing and research and development—will sit outside the direct scrutiny of the parliament. However, it will still have access, as I understand it, to around $14 million of public funds. A deed of agreement will cover the expenditure of levy moneys as well as the Commonwealth's contribution to research and development funds.

The revenue from the Commonwealth for this purpose was $13.7 million in 1999-2000. I note in passing that, when these bills were before the other place, the government did not provide the opposition with a copy of this important deed of agreement. The government subsequently changed its mind and provided the documentation necessary for the Senate—and, certainly, for the opposition in the Senate—to give appropriate scrutiny to this important shift in the arrangements for rural sector research and development and its administration. It has been suggested, with regard to the way this has been structured, that the government has taken the same approach as it took with the wool privatisation legislation—that is, it chose to push the bill through the parliament without providing any of the detail. In that case, it has been forced to change its mind and provide that detail, which the opposition would say it should provide.

Under the new arrangements, the two stakeholders remain the industry and the Commonwealth government, but the role of the Commonwealth has been radically changed. On the face of it, these bills represent an outsourcing of the marketing and research and development functions to the industry itself, but public scrutiny of the expenditure of significant amounts of public funds will shift from the parliament to the executive—that is, the minister. In fact, the new arrangements provide the minister with significant if not absolute power over the new corporate entity. I am concerned that, in attempting to limit the role of government in the day-to-day affairs of organisations such as those in the horticulture industry, the government may have created greater problems. For example, the minister has the power to give the new company a formal direction with which it must comply, but the minister is then not required to formally account for his or her actions in the parliament. That is one of the issues on which the opposition will be seeking clarification in the committee stage of these bills.

From what I am saying, it is obvious that we are going to support the bill in the second reading stage with a view to pursuing these matters in the committee stage. There is quite a range of matters which need to be pursued, and it is my understanding that the opposition will be prepared to maintain support for the bill, conditional upon the satisfactory answering of questions raised in the committee stage. It may be—the opposition will keep an open mind on this matter at this stage—that amendments need to be made to the legislation to properly provide the means to scrutinise certain executive actions. Those matters will be the subject of responses that we receive in the committee stage of the deliberation of these bills.

What I am perhaps suggesting is that the committee stage will take some time. Hopefully, it will be possible for the questions to be answered at the time they are asked and to be considered in a timely fashion but, if not, it may be that the committee stage will need to be interrupted for the provision of that information. I say that because we are not seeking to unnecessarily delay this bill. If the answers can be given in a timely fashion, hopefully we can consider them at the same time and move forward. I would not want the government to feel that the opposition are locked into supporting this bill whatever the answers are, because that is not my understanding of our position.

I do not really wish to put a lot more on the record at this stage, but I have quite a deal of material I want to raise in the committee stage. I did want to ask Senator Woodley to come back in the committee stage and explain to us what he meant by `peculiar Democrat issues', because I think there was a bit of ambiguity in what he said. Rather than misrepresent him, I think he should have the opportunity, when we come to the committee stage, to come back and give us an interpretation of just which Democrat he was describing as peculiar or whether that was a general term he wanted to use in relation to his own organisation.