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Wednesday, 12 October 1983
Page: 1669


Mr McVEIGH(5.55) —As the honourable member for Ryan (Mr Moore) has stated, the Opposition does not oppose these Bills. However, a number of points need to be made. There is a question of double standards involved here on the part of the Government that needs to be highlighted. I will go into that in a moment. The whole question of tariffs and bounties brings us back to the fundamental question of costs.

Australia, by world standards, is an economic and cost-efficient agricultural producer. We are a world leader. But costs are pricing us out of world markets. The appreciation of the Australian dollar has its greatest impact on our exporters and, in this case, our primary producers. The effect of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's decision to grant wage rises to the Australian work force will mean increased costs across the board. It is reliably estimated that this will increase the cost to the Australian farming community by $20m a year. It will have its greatest impact on the ability of the nation's farmers to produce and market products competitively on world markets. The strain in terms of international competition is ever present, and it is growing. Wage rises do not help. Neither do industrial disputations or irrational decisions of governments.

In the case of these Bills, the Government is proposing to spread the cost of protection for the Australian tractor industry over the entire community. The Australian taxpayer will share the burden of this protection. In my view, that is proper and correct. Why then did the Government choose to opt for a continuation of the 15 per cent tariff on imported grain harvesters, rather than provide protection by way of a bounty, in its recent decision? Protection by tariff imposes the full cost on the industry concerned, the Australian grains industry, whereas protection for local manufacturers by way of a bounty would be shared by the community as a whole. If a government decides that protection for an industry is necessary, surely, it is fair and equitable that all Australians, and not just one section of the community should pay for such protection.

The grain harvesters decision was an absolute disaster. The Australian Wheatgrowers Federation has estimated that the tariff will cost the grains industry $14m a year. By contrast, protection for local manufacturers by way of a bounty would cost only $2m. There have been signs that the Government has recognised the stupidity of its decision in this area. I understand that the Minister for Industry and Commerce (Senator Button) had some discussions on this issue on Monday. Further, the National Farmers Federation, I understand, also raised the issue with the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) yesterday. The point is, however, that the Government decision was announced over two months ago, on 5 August. Since then, there has been uproar within the grains industry. The Government promised a review of the decision and has said nothing more. In the meantime, the grains industry has told the Government in no uncertain terms that it will not have a bar of the 15 per cent tariff policy. It is becoming increasingly frustrated that the Government continues to promise a review but does nothing more.

How long does it take this Government to review stupid decisions? Why has there been no further statement from the Government? Why is the Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr Hurford), who is in the chamber, silent? Why does the Government make decisions without consulting the relevant industries-especially given its so-called election commitment to conciliation and consensus? The Australian Wheatgrowers Federation, in a statement on 8 August, highlighted the stupidity of the Government's tariff decision on grain harvesters. The statement hit the nail on the head when it stated:

This decision casts serious doubts on the Government's commitment to the rural sector . . . Because of the Government's concentration on short-term expediency it is not coming to grips with the basic issues affecting agriculture, especially the effects of the tariff on low cost, efficient industries. The Government's statements about understanding the need for the grains industry to be competitive and have low costs are now shown to be empty rhetoric.

How absolutely and completely true. The simple and very sad fact is that this Government might say it understands the needs of our agricultural industries, but in reality it just does not have a clue. The Minister for Primary Industry might have some little idea of what it is all about, but his knowledge is virtually worthless because he is not in the Cabinet. His stock phrase is: 'I have lost that one'. He is the only Minister for Primary Industry not to be in the Cabinet since the inner and outer ministry practice was first introduced by the late Sir Robert Menzies on 11 January 1956. The question is: Why did the Government accept the IAC recommendation on the grain harvesters without any consulations with anyone?

On August 8 the great Australian Wheatgrowers Federation stated:

Grain growers are particularly annoyed at the lack of opportunity to comment on the IAC's report to Government prior to the decision. This is in direct contrast with the draft report hearings for assistance to the wheat and steel industries. Growers are also angered at the lack of consulation between the Government and the grains industry prior to the Government's announcement and the refusal of the Government to respond to a call for such consultations from the industry in a telex dated June 9, 1983.

The other question relevant to this argument is just how much input into this decision did the Minister for Primary Industry actually have. The Government decision was announced not by the Minister for Primary Industry, the bloke who is supposed to look after rural Australia, but by the Minister for Industry and Commerce. He did not even take the opportunity of consulting with the Minister for Primary Industry. This raises the question: Was the Minister for Primary Industry involved at all? If so, did he honestly go along with the views of his colleagues? It is unbelievable to me that he should have done so. Surely he knows a little bit more about agriculture. He must have realised the stupidity of the decision. He must have realised the uproar that it would create. No one in his right mind would wish that on himself. The grain harvesters decision is totally inconsistent with all available advice. The Balderstone Committee report on agriculture recommends that if and where protection is warranted it should be by way of bounty and not by tariff. That has been the consistent view of the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Wheatgrowers Federation. Even the Government accepted the bounty philosophy when it made its decisions on protection for the steel industry. Why then has it not followed this course with regard to grain harvesters? It has not only stupidity, but also inconsistency. It has a double standard. It is a double standard that savagely affects the Australian grains industry. It proves the Government has no understanding of the importance of the cost of the tariff to farmers. Worse still, the IAC report on grain harvesters was published on 18 May this year. In other words, the Government took three months to come up with a totally ridiculous decision. Its review of that decision has been proceeding for more than two months. This whole sorry saga is turning out to be a bigger production that Gone with the Wind.

I hope that the Minister representing the Minister for Industry and Commerce, or maybe even the Minister for Primary Industry, can give the House today, and also the industry, some indication as to exactly where the Government now stands on this issue. It has gone on for far too long. The Bounty (Agricultural Tractors) Amendment Bill proposes an additional bouty as short term assistance for a period of 12 months. As I have said, and as the honourable member for Ryan has said, the Opposition does not object to this at all. My concern, however, is that the Government does not repeat the stupidity of its decision with regard to grain harvesters in the long term.

The Temporary Assistance Authority has concluded that there is a case for temporary assistance for tractors, pending the outcome of an immediate review by the IAC. The Minister told us in his second reading speech that this review is now in progress and that the Government will decide its long term policy for the tractor industry when the IAC report is received. It would be nice, although probably too much to ask for, if the Minister would give the House an assurance that before the Government makes a final decision it will consult with the industry, with the farmers, with the rural people. If it was to do this, it may save itself the embarrassment that it has faced for the past two months over the grain harvester decision. The Government should forget about talking to trade unions and talk to the farmers who are the real backbone and life-blood of this great nation of ours.