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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 671


Mr HAWKER(10.55) —I, too, would like to support the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill brought in by the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin). As previous speakers have mentioned, the amount of $1.50 a tonne to a wheat farmer may on the surface not seem significant when farmers are receiving in excess of $100 a tonne but I assure all honourable members that, as the honourable member for Wakefield (Mr Andrew) and the Deputy Leader of the National Party (Mr Hunt) have already pointed out, wheat farmers are now desperate. They have seen returns falling year after year. Most wheat farmers are making a loss on their farms. Any amount of money that they receive is more than welcome. To them, it is certainly significant.

To give some idea of the seriousness of the decline of wheat prices and the value of wheat, in 1984-85 the gross value of production of Australian wheat was of the order of $3.4 billion. It was Australia's biggest primary industry. In the coming year, 1986-87, we will see that gross value drop to around $2.5 billion-a very significant drop. It will have a significant impact on our balance of trade but more significant is the impact it is having on individual farmers. That is extremely serious. It is the human heartache, the suffering and the sheer desperation that some farmers find themselves in today that is the real down side of the serious decline in the price of wheat.

The problem in the legislation was uncovered some three weeks ago but, as the Deputy Leader of the National Party has pointed out, until yesterday the Minister or his office had not even bothered to consult the Grain Growers Council of Australia which is the number one policy-making forum for farmers in this country. I find that quite staggering. In the short time available I say that I was very interested to hear the honourable member for Grey (Mr O'Neil) outline some of the major problems facing wheat farmers, apart from the fact that the world price is dropping. He pointed out that wheat farmers in other countries, such as in Europe and America, do not have to face the problems of wheat farmers in Australia, namely high inflation and high interest rates. It was very significant that this came from a member of the Government who admitted what really is one of the major problems facing farmers in particular and all agriculture in Australia.


Mr Fife —They are crippling factors.


Mr HAWKER —Indeed they are, as my colleague the honourable member for Hume has just pointed out. The high interest rates more than anything are sending farmers to the wall. I well recall a former leader of the Victorian Farmers and Graziers Association saying at the time of the 1982 drought: `We have got through this sort of thing before, but there is a major difference and that is the level of interest rates'. Interest rates have continued to stay up and in real terms they have gone even higher than they were then. It is little wonder that so many farmers today are in such a desperate situation.

One point on which I really take offence is the comment by the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell), who mentioned the leader of the National Farmers Federation, Mr McLachlan, and tried to suggest that he was not concerned about interest rates. I remind the honourable member for Kalgoorlie that that was the very reason that the leader of the National Farmers Federation tried to see the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) before Christmas. It seems ironical that the honourable member should say that Mr McLachlan was not concerned about them. That was the very reason he came to see the Prime Minister-to point out the incredible damage that high interest rates were causing to farmers. Yet the Prime Minister would not even speak to him because after the Prime Minister had held up Mr McLachlan for some hours and when the Press had asked for a comment, he had given it. The Prime Minister immediately grabbed that excuse not to confront the reality from the leader of the National Farmers Federation about what the Government's policies are doing to primary industry.

When the Prime Minister was the leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, did he ever hesitate to give a Press conference before he went to speak to the Prime Minister of the day? I am sure there hardly would have been an occasion when he did not berate the government of the day and say: `We in the ACTU want this' and then talk to the Government and expect to be received and listened to. Yet when the boot was on the other foot, through reasons which partly were beyond the control of the leader of the National Farmers Federation, the Prime Minister used that excuse not even to bother to discuss the incredible damage that high interest rates are causing to the farming community.

The problems of the wheat industry and the reasons why the amount of money involved in the amendment today is of such significance are well outlined by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics in its February review. In it we find that the average price for wheat from 1985-86 to the current year has dropped by 17.4 per cent. But worse still, we find that production is falling and is forecast to fall even further. Again, in the same Quarterly Review of Agriculture, we find that the forecast for production in 1987-88 is expected to drop by a further 17.8 per cent on what is already a declining crop. So the two things compound. We have a falling price and a falling acreage. The two are obviously leading to a very grave situation in which wheat growers are in extreme difficulties. Not only are the wheat growers' problems, on the human side, of concern but also this is a very grim warning to this Government that Australia's problems with the balance of payments will be further compounded by the fact that what was our greatest primary industry is now reeling under the pressure of external prices, high interest rates, high inflation, high fuel prices and now, falling production. Very grave problems will continue to arise.

Whilst my colleague the honourable member for Wakefield has pointed out the problems facing young farmers, more than just young farmers will feel the pinch and many will find themselves in the desperate situation of having worked a property, having put their whole lifetime's effort into it, and ending up with absolutely nothing. I assure honourable members that that is a very grim and real prospect that is facing many farmers today. That is the human side and that is why I found it amazing when I listened to the honourable member for Grey bringing up the story about the country task force. Frankly, the country task force might be a good diversionary tactic put up by the back bench of the Government, but from what I have heard of the force, it is nothing more than hot air. It listens, speaks and makes all the right noises but it achieves and offers nothing. That is really not enough. The problems facing the wheat industry are far too serious to be treated in such a frivolous manner.

It behoves the Government to face up to the real problems which, as I pointed out, are high interest rates, rising costs and rising inflation-particularly affecting fuel. I would also like to contrast the country task force, which is nothing more than a bit of a public relations exercise, with the real achievements of the all-party committee that went to the United States last year. I know that the Minister was a member of that committee and he made a very positive contribution. But it should also be recognised that the Deputy Leader of the National Party was the prime mover for that all-party delegation. He and he alone deserves the credit for the achievements of that all-party delegation. It was his efforts and those of my colleague the honour- able member for Hume (Mr Fife) as well as those of the Minister, which achieved what must have almost seemed like a miracle at the time, when the United States Government was on the verge of bringing in some Bills that would have absolutely devastated our wheat exports.

I hope that the Minister will take on board the comments by the Deputy Leader of the National Party on this matter, because he has the experience of having achieved something. He suggests that while this tactic should not be overused, it has achieved something in the past and therefore should be considered at the appropriate time. When a high-powered delegation like this can be sent overseas to try to influence other governments, the Government should not hesitate to take up that opportunity.

As time on this debate is limited, I would like to conclude where I started by saying that this amendment, which offers a relatively small payment to wheat growers, is extremely significant and extremely important to them, because we have desperate people, so desperate in fact that I think we could describe the wheat belt as a place that is full of heartache and despair and, unfortunately, a place in Australia that is now becoming the place of bankruptcy.