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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 664


Mr HUNT(10.06) —The Opposition will give ready passage to the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill 1987 because of the circumstances at the present time. The Opposition will facilitate its passage through the Parliament because as the legislation now stands it would disadvantage the Australian wheat growers by somewhere between $1.40 and $1.50 a tonne, due to a flaw in the drafting of the existing legislation. I mention in passing that this legislation is being introduced at a very important time because today farmers in western New South Wales are suffering the ultimate indignity of having their tools of trade, that is, their tractors and machinery, sold by the finance companies that have repossessed the equipment.

More than 100 items of machinery are expected to be auctioned today near Molong. They have been repossessed by the finance companies, most of which happen to be subsidiaries of the Australian banks. They are saying to the farmers: `Although we will not drive you off your land and you can stay on it we will take your tools of trade away from you'. The value of the equipment is estimated at between $1m and $2m. In many instances these farmers were advised two years ago to make the purchases, purchases designed to increase their productivity, efficiency and output.

One case study was brought to my attention only yesterday by Mr O'Dea at Canowindra. He cites the case where a fellow bought a tractor for a purchase price of $30,000 three years ago. He has paid off $16,000. He could not meet the repayment this year because the interest rate had gone up from 19.5 per cent to 26 per cent. The item has been repossessed and the man was told that he still owes $40,000 on the tractor. That means that on a tractor worth $30,000 on which he has paid $16,000, he still owes $40,000. The tractor is likely to sell today for around $18,000, leaving a balance of $22,000, for which this farmer will be summonsed. It is hardly surprising to learn that there will be pickets at the sale today, especially in view of the threat of further sales if today's goes ahead. I give warning to this Parliament that if these sorts of actions continue to take place around the country areas, because of the crisis in which the farmers are finding themselves at present and because of the great crisis of confidence and anxiety among families--


Madam SPEAKER —Order! I remind the Deputy Leader of the National Party that this is a pretty restricted Bill. I have given him some latitude but I ask him now to attend to the Bill.


Mr HUNT —This Bill is related to the wheat industry and it involves the payment of an extra $1.50 a tonne to the Australian wheatgrowers. I submit that we are giving early passage to this legislation and we will do everything we can to facilitate the passage of this Bill because of the critical situation facing Australian wheatgrowers. Nothing highlights it more than this disgraceful situation in central New South Wales. I think it would be a great pity if, in discussing this Bill and the plight of the farmers at present, this particular issue was not brought to the attention of this Parliament-and I do not know how else I am able to do it, with any reason. People are very disturbed indeed. It is for that reason that in discussing and giving support to this legislation to give it a speedy passage, I raise this issue. In other circumstances it may have been very hard to get the Opposition members, both in the Senate and in this House, to allow a piece of legislation to suddenly come into this House, as this Bill has this morning, without having had an airing in the Opposition's rooms.


Madam SPEAKER —I will accept the reasons of the Deputy Leader of the National Party for so incorporating the backup argument.


Mr HUNT —Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. I think that shows something of your compassion for people.


Mr Simmons —Ha!


Mr HUNT —The honourable member opposite should not laugh. I ask him not to laugh at a situation that is of great concern to many people. As one who represents a rural constituency, and as one who knows of four suicides in his home area in the last two or three months and another attempted suicide, I can assure the honourable member that I have never been more worried about the anxiety and the problems now affecting so many of our rural families.

This piece of legislation is designed to correct an anomaly which has existed in legislation for two years. As the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) has indicated, it was recently detected by the Attorney-General's Department. The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that Australian wheatgrowers do not lose $1.25 to $1.50 a tonne in their final wheat payment for the 1986-87 season. The Attorney-General's Department has advised that strict application of section 15 (2) of the Wheat Marketing Act 1984 would force the Australian Wheat Board to change its method of calculating pool payments. This would be contrary to the best interests of both the industry and the Board. Under current arrangements all payments are made through a pool based on the price of middle grade wheat, termed Australian standard white, with premiums for grades of higher quality and discounts on grades of quality lower than ASW. If section 15 (2) strictly applied, it would mean separate pools for each grade, it would be cumbersome, costly and against the wishes of the Australian Wheat Board and the industry-and certainly against their best interests. Separate pools would be a real problem as different sales are made at different times of the year into different markets. This could theoretically mean that a higher grade could attract a lower price than ASW grade due to market circumstances.

Unless the amendment is carried, passed and enacted this week, the final season payments, which must be gazetted by 1 March, could be jeopardised. As the Opposition spokesman for primary industry for a long time, I have had to fight this Government in this House over the structure of farm legislation. Many problems could have been avoided had the Minister consulted the industry bodies properly. In recent times I have felt that the Minister was negotiating far better with industries. I refer to the wool industry. I have heard only good reports from the Australian Wool Corporation and the Chairman of the Wool Council of Australia of the extent to which the Minister and his Department have consulted with the wool industry. But it is unfortunate that this amendment is necessary at such a critical time.

To some extent, I blame the Parliamentary Counsel, because obviously those who drafted the legislation are basically responsible for this difficulty. But I was staggered to find that yesterday the Department had not been in touch with the Grain Growers Council of Australia. Mr Ray Jeffries was contacted yesterday morning by my office and he had no knowledge whatsoever of this situation. I found that extraordinary. This anomaly was, after all, uncovered three weeks ago. Yet 24 hours before the legislation was due to come into this House-and there was a request that it be dealt with in a way which broke every procedure in the rule book-the industry was not aware of the change, although the Wheat Board was. The changes directly affect returns of about $1.25 a tonne, at a time when average wheat farmer incomes across Australia this year will be a miserable $1,200, on average, which of course is about 10 per cent of the average weekly wage.

I recall the introduction of the parent Bill-the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill-in this place. At that time the Minister introduced 13 amendments to his own legislation at 1.20 in the morning on the day of the debate. I think that was the time, Madam Speaker, when I called you Madam Fertiliser. There were so many Bills coming into the House at that time that I got totally confused, just as the whole place was confused. I think we ran out of gas.


Mr Simmons —Like the National Party at the moment.


Mr HUNT —No, the National Party of Australia is not running out of gas. Did the honourable member see the poll this morning? The National Party is going like a train. I recall the frustration of handling the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill 1985. Eventually we gained Senate support for five amendments to the legislation.

I recognise the pressure imposed on the Minister's office. I was in that situation for a number of years and I know the sorts of pressures. But if legislation affects the livelihood of people, especially in this case wheat growers, at a critical time his Department or his officers should take the time to talk with industry bodies. If the Minister cannot find time to do this, which is probable, somebody in his office or in the Department should be making the appropriate contacts. I think it is very unfortunate that the industry is feeling embattled, as it is at present, and getting the treatment that it is. I will never forget the spectacle of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) turfing the nation's top farm leader, Mr Ian McLachlan, out of his office just before Christmas. It was an incredible thing for the Prime Minister to do. He must have been tired. He must have been fed up with something. Surely, no human being would do that to another human being unless there was something really wrong. I do not know whether somebody had upset him. It may have been the Treasurer (Mr Keating) for all we know. But I feel sorry for Mr McLachlan, and farmers generally for having their leader thrown out of the office. It was incredible. I can never recall that happening to any leader of any organisation at any time during the term of the Fraser Government.

Other changes in this Bill are minor. They include the clarification to include interest on credit sales and income from investments as revenue when calculating the gross returns for ASW wheat. More importantly, the legislation protects an income of $1.50 a tonne, or about $400 a year, to growers, while the Government continues to ignore other direct policy measures which are dragging thousands of wheat growers towards bankruptcy. Those two important areas of policy, of course, are domestic production costs and the external trade policy. I accept that the savage downturn in wheat grower fortunes today is due in part to both factors. This vital industry must be preserved. It is either the second or third-depending on the season-most important export revenue or foreign exchange earner. It has enormous potential to assist with recovery from the record trade deficits that we are experiencing at present. There is such a crisis that it is very important for the Government to keep input costs down. It was for that reason that I released a 14-point strategy, which I would like to table, if that is possible, with the leave of the Minister and the House.


Madam SPEAKER —Is leave granted?


Mr Kerin —If it is the same old stuff, there is no problem.


Madam SPEAKER —Leave is granted.


Mr HUNT —I say to the Minister that it is not the same old stuff. It is quite important stuff as a matter of fact. There would not be a wheat grower, even in the electorate of Calare, who would not agree that these points are very necessary if we are to have any benefits from this or any other legislation. The immediate injection of substantial additional funds to the rural adjustment scheme to extend the interest rate and debt adjustment scheme is required.


Mr Kerin —I rise on a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not mind incorporation, but this is not a chance for a policy speech. It is a very narrow amendment.


Madam SPEAKER —The Minister has a point. The Chair has given some latitude to the Deputy Leader of the National Party to explain the background to the problems of the wheat farmers. I suggest that he not continue to read his points of policy to the House.


Mr HUNT —I would like to table it and also to have it incorporated in Hansard.


Madam SPEAKER —I regret that it does not fall within the guidelines for incorporation into Hansard, but the honourable member has leave to table it.


Mr HUNT —What are the guidelines, Madam Speaker? Could you explain them?


Madam SPEAKER —The guidelines are that the material cannot be easily read into Hansard. It would be a diagram or graph.


Mr HUNT —It is not a graph. May I show it to you, Madam Speaker?


Madam SPEAKER —Yes. A graph or a list of tables can be incorporated but something that can be easily read at the table cannot be incorporated. This is a narrow Bill in which this document does not belong and the honourable member cannot have it incorporated into Hansard as it does not fall within the guidelines.


Mr HUNT —It is very unfortunate, Madam Speaker, and the Standing Orders need to be changed. I am sad that this cannot be incorporated, but I respect your ruling. I cannot leave this very important subject or legislation without once again appealing to the Minister for Primary Industry, who seems to have a perpetual grin on his face-I do not know what he is laughing at; I certainly hope that he is not laughing at the problems of the Australian wheat growers or at his own misdemeanours or mistakes in respect of this legislation. I hope that he will explain when he responds what he is laughing at. In fact, he is making us all laugh. This is a serious matter, and the industry for which he has a direct parliamentary responsibility as Minister is in dire difficulties. This piece of legislation indicates the shabby way in which the industry has been treated over a period of time. I can assure the House that people in the industry feel very upset at their own circumstances. No industry needs this $1 a tonne more than this industry at present. No industry needs relief from high interest rates more than this one. The average debt load on wheat farmers is about $200,000 and they will need that money as quickly as possible. No group of people need this type of legislation more than they do at the moment. The legislation must be given a speedy passage because the anomaly it deals with would deny them receipt of this important consideration.

I conclude by saying that it is vital once again for the Prime Minister to turn his attention to the need to send an all-party delegation to Washington to the Congress. I do not know that the Minister is seized with the importance of or necessity for such a trip, but the delegation's trip to Washington last year was very successful. I think that an all-party delegation needs to go back there because of the moves in Congress at present. I understand that there is a piece of legislation, which has the number S310 attaching to it, which is supported by five Democrat senators and which seeks to extend the export enhancement program to all wheat markets around the world. If they succeed in gaining sufficient congressional support for S310, there is not the slightest doubt that this will have a very serious effect on our commodity prices and will depress wheat market prices even further than they are depressed at present. It is very important that we use every measure at our disposal to try to ensure that the Congress in Washington does not take an action that could cause further destruction to the livelihoods of Australian farm families who are so dependent on wheat as a source of income. Once again, I urge the Government to consider that. The Prime Minister has written to me and indicated that he is of a mind to send a further delegation back to Washington. The timing will be a matter for him and his Government. I urge the Department of Primary Industry and our mission in Washington to watch and monitor this very closely so that legislation does not enter the Congress before we have had an opportunity to talk face to face with the congressmen at Capitol Hill. I do not think that we would be successful in having legislation withdrawn once again. We were last time, but I do not think the Congress would move to remove legislation once it had been introduced. I am sure that we will have an opportunity to put our case before Congress takes the final action.

I repeat that a lot needs to be done to overcome the great problems confronting this industry. Certainly, fuel is a case in point. We tax fuel far too much in this country. All those input charges over which the Government has control-fuel, tariffs on machinery, spare parts, chemicals and so on-must be removed as a matter of urgency, otherwise we will place the wheat growers in a position where they are competing not only with the treasuries of the European Economic Community and the United States, but also are battling against the costs that are imposed on them. The Opposition regrets that this legislation is necessary at this time and assures the Government that it will endeavour to give the Bill speedy passage, both in this place and in the Senate.


Madam SPEAKER —Before I call the next speaker I should explain to the Deputy Leader of the National Party that some years ago members were producing voluminous speeches and when they ran out of time they were asking for the balance to be incorporated in Hansard. The Speaker at the time determined that the speech could be incorporated only if it were incapable of being read. That is one of the decisions made by my predecessors that I endorse.