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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator BARTLETT (6:26 PM) —There are only a few minutes to go before the dinner break, so I will just speak initially to the Wheat Export Marketing Bill 2008 and the Wheat Export Marketing (Repeal and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. As I think all speakers on the legislation have noted—including Senator Scullion, who has just concluded—there are different views amongst the community. There are different views amongst growers and amongst and within most political parties. I think the fact that the Senate has been able to examine the issue in some detail and work through those differing views via the Senate committee process is a tribute not only to Senate committee processes when they work well but also to those senators who have sought to engage constructively on what is a heated and complex issue. There are a lot of different stakeholders with respect to this and it is an area where there have been significant changes and there is ongoing change—social change and economic change—at a local level, a national level and an international level.

It is certainly the case that the Democrats in the past have tended to support single desk arrangements, both in this area and in others. That is a position that I do not believe is sustainable any longer. I do not say that to criticise the position that others have taken in the past but simply to examine the situation as it stands now. I do not believe it is the case—as far as I can see from looking at all the evidence—that the majority of growers will be worse off with the scrapping of the single desk. It seems fairly clear to me that the changes that are put in place through this legislation are not likely to be the last word with regard to wheat marketing arrangements and wheat exporting arrangements. I have absolutely no doubt that there will be a very strong examination from all quarters about how these new arrangements operate, whether there are unintended consequences and whether there should be further modifications—and that is as it should be. But I think it is fair to say that, if and when these changes are passed, while there may be further changes down the track, they will not be changes that see us go back to a single desk arrangement. I say that not just because of the specifics surrounding the wheat industry at the moment or in the foreseeable future but also because, if we look at the other single desk arrangements with other products that have become part of history over the years, I think in many cases it has been shown that the sky has not fallen in.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm

Senator BARTLETT —Continuing my remarks on the Wheat Export Marketing Bill and the related bill, as I was saying before the dinner break, with many other commodities in Australia in the past, we have had single markets operating. Over time, all of those single-desk arrangements have been phased out or removed, and the sky has not fallen in. I do not believe that the sky will fall in on this occasion with the passage of this legislation. As I also said before the break, I do not believe that the majority of growers will be worse off with the abolition of the single desk. Indeed, it is quite clear—it is one of the reasons why quite a significant number of growers do support this legislation—that some growers have clearly received less for their wheat as a result of the single desk than they otherwise would have. That is an arrangement that had some historical justifications for it, but I do not think it is justified any longer.

There is a diversity of views on this, as I said previously, across all political parties. Not all people in the Democrats agree with the position that I take in regard to this—that the single desk should be abolished. There are differing views undoubtedly and clearly within the Liberal Party and within the Labor Party. I am sure that there are some, indeed, within the Nationals who do not actually agree with the position that that party is taking. Whilst the scandal over the activities of the AWB may have been the catalyst for the breakdown of the single-desk arrangements, I think it is wrong to suggest that that is the only reason why the single desk is being abolished. The time had clearly come for a change in the arrangements in this area. If that was a catalyst for moving forward then so be it. But I think it is actually a positive outcome and will produce, over time, better results and better income not only for the majority of growers but also for others that are involved in the process of wheat exports and wheat trading more generally.

I think it is important to focus on the impact on growers and on all of those that are involved in and affected by the wheat industry and the impact on Australia’s export earnings rather than getting too far into being sidetracked by some of the political points that could be scored backwards and forwards. I do not seek to do that in this debate, but I do think there are some broader philosophical issues that come into play here. The situation regarding the wheat industry has changed over the years, and attitudes and views about agricultural sectors have also changed over the years. My views have changed over the years. As I said prior to the break, the position of the Democrats in this chamber has traditionally been to support not just single-desk arrangements in wheat but also other single desks and similar types of arrangements that have existed in the past. I certainly have modified my views over time and I think there are quite strong arguments for it being in the interest not just of growers but also the Australian economy and, in some significant respects, better environmental management. We actually have more opportunity for competitive markets and for the incentives for investment that come from having those competitive markets. That does not necessarily mean a laissez-faire law of the jungle arrangement, but it certainly means moving away from the sorts of constrained markets that occur under a single desk.

We have seen and at the moment are seeing—I note that Senator Joyce is following me on the speakers list; I am interested in hearing his views about this—debate about the future relationship between the National Party and the Liberal Party in my home state of Queensland. Perhaps it is just as well that this issue is out of the way before the proposed merger occurs. I saw reports of Senator Joyce talking about the nature of the Nationals, at least in Queensland, and calling them—apparently without irony—‘agrarian socialists’. I had always thought that was an ironic label, but perhaps I was mistaken. To some extent, it shows me some of the problems with what I would see as the dated approach that the Nationals are taking on this particular piece of legislation. I am not saying they are being insincere in their approach by any means, but I think it does not recognise the problems that go hand in hand with that.

Without getting sidetracked, I see Senator Mason in the chamber. I almost feel a bit of inspiration to start attacking the lefties and the socialists, as he has done year after year. As I said, I think the phrase ‘agrarian socialist’ is actually an ironic label, so perhaps Senator Mason was also being ironic in the past when he made those many speeches. But I think the broader thing that comes forward under that particular label is the inherent assumption of reducing the potential amount that can be made through the operation of a more free-flowing market and trading that off, if you like, with the safety net—people might not earn as much, but at least people will all know what they are going to earn. That, to me, seems to be one of the key issues in this particular debate. Certainly it is handy to have a clear idea of what the price is going to be; but, if that is at the cost of providing the opportunity for people to explore getting a higher price, it does not seem to me to be a particularly helpful arrangement in the longer term for an industry, for an economy and for the wider community.

We need to ensure that we do not adopt an arrangement that maximises a private approach when there are profits to be made and that maximises regulation when there is concern about losses. The arrangements that apply in most other agricultural industries should, in my view, apply in the wheat industry. There are ongoing issues that need to be sorted out as the industry makes its transition. I do not for a moment pretend that the transition will not be without pain and difficulty. My view and, I am sure, the view of all Democrats is that difficulties that occur along the way should receive a sympathetic ear from government and from all the players who are linked into the industry. The fact that there are some difficulties involved in adjusting should not be used as an excuse not to make those adjustments, particularly when the end result, as I have stated previously, will most likely be that the majority of growers will be better off as a result of these arrangements.

It is already quite clear that a significant number of growers have had to settle for less income than they would have otherwise received under previous arrangements, with the middlemen and others along the way creaming off far more than they should have. So, while these new arrangements will not be perfect in every way for all players, I think it is clearly a move towards a better set-up for wheat growers as well as for others who are involved in the process. It is a positive move for the environment. Indeed, I think it is a positive move from the majority of the opposition who are taking this step and, to some extent, making a shift away from the position they were taking in the past. In the same way, the Democrats have shifted their view on this matter. The only thing that I would urge is ongoing assessment of the operation of these new arrangements.