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Thursday, 12 November 1998
Page: 289

Mr FORREST (12:56 PM) —I am very pleased to stand here in defence of the Wool International Amendment Bill 1998 . I have to say right from the outset how disappointing it was to hear those remarks from the member for Corio and the member for Lyons. I am standing here, as the member for Mallee, with the previous speaker, the member for Wannon. Between the two of us our electorates cover the entire half of western Victoria. Couple these electorates with that of the member for Ballarat—who would love to be in here speaking in support of us but gives his moral support to this legislation—and the three of us represent the great bulk of the wool industry in Victoria. That is a large number of growers, and for the member for Corio, the shadow minister, and the member for Lyons to come in here and accuse us of not standing up for our constituency is the most unadulterated dribble I have ever heard.

This matter has received an incredible amount of public debate in the last three or four months, and I have come to this parliament having been re-elected with a commitment to the growers of the southern Wimmera that this would be the first piece of legislation we would consider—and we are doing that. If the Australian Labor Party was so convinced, in respect of the comments they have made in this debate, why is it opposing the freeze of the stockpile?

The member for Wannon has already incorporated in Hansard the schedule for the eastern market indicator which shows the impacts on the wool price. When the government announced its intention in the middle of August, there was an immediate rise in the indicator. It was of some regret that Wool International chose not to support the government's clearly indicated public position on that. After that short rise, when releases from the stockpile recommenced, the indicator went into free fall, and I just think it is absolute nonsense for both of those members to come into this chamber and ignore that fact.

This legislation does not make out that freezing the stockpile solves all the problems of the Australian wool industry. The previous speakers have overlooked two things. The member for Corio spoke about 63 people, the staff of Wool International. He seems to forget there are in excess of 50,000 wool growers in Australia, probably representing in excess of 100,000 to 150,000 people.

I am really wondering how many wool growers he knows personally and what he knows of the financial struggle that many of the families associated with the wool-growing industry have had in the past decade. Apart from what the member for Lyons said about a former minister for primary industry, the sad fact is that, despite all the good things he may have done—as the member for Lyons asserted—the reserve price scheme for wool will be the one thing that is permanently inscribed, sadly, on his epitaph. The wool growers out there know and understand that, and they will not be swayed by the previous remarks of the member for Lyons.

This legislation puts into place a procedure by which to launch the wool industry. I share the comments of the member for Corio and his aspirations that we restore this industry; it was one of Australia's greats. The industry will be launched into a process of instigating what it needs to do. The industry needs to restructure and refocus.

Wool International is the statutory authority responsible for selling down the stockpile and retiring the associated debt. Back in the early 1990s, when the stockpile was a massive and major problem—4.7 million bales and an accumulated debt at that stage of $2.7 billion—it was appropriate to tell those purchasers of wool what our intentions were as a nation in releasing it onto the market. It hung like the sword of Damocles over the market, with consumers wondering whether we were going to burn it, dump it, or whatever. It was an appropriate measure then to establish Wool International to be the liquidator of that stockpile. It should never be forgotten that wool growers funded Wool International to liquidate that debt. They do not get a lot of credit, but that was a credit to them.

The stockpile has now been reduced to almost 1.1 million bales and the massive debt is down to $230-odd million. Today, in 1998, the stockpile is not necessarily the problem it was in the mid-1990s. It is now manageable. In fact, many of the growers that confronted me outside post offices during the recent election campaign happened to regard the size of that stockpile as something of an asset. Even the figures that the member for Corio has put to the parliament confirm that. It represents a little over annual production. It can serve as a buffer for the uncertainties and vagaries of the market.

A new process has to be established on how we will deal with the fact that the stockpile still exists. Therefore, this legislation is quite timely. I have been somewhat anxious for it to be tabled in the parliament so that Wool International and everybody else will know the government's intention on the matter and the uncertainty that existed from August to October can be removed. I urge members on all sides of the parliament to support the legislation, including members in the other house, and to work with the government to achieve exactly what the member for Corio aspires for the wool industry. I represent these people. If there is no prospect of a future for wool, those in the industry need to know that so they can consider other options. I happen to believe there is a future. But it will not occur without the pain that is so often associated with the adjustment that is needed for those primary industries.

The member for Corio does not have an advantage that I have. I wish him well in his shadow portfolio, but I hope he takes a lot more time to be better briefed. I represent, as do others, including the member for Wannon, many industries—something like 55 different commodities in my electorate. All of those are in a phase of readjustment. What is badly needed today are industries which are market focused, consumer focused.

Later in this session of parliament a bill will be introduced to deregulate the Australian dried vine fruit industry. This is because, with so many options available now for grape growers, the dried vine fruit industry has shrunk back to a niche and more lucrative market. Grape growers have many other options, be they table grapes or wine grapes. An adjustment requires a considerable amount of pain and it is the government's responsibility to provide some leadership. I think it cheapens the whole exercise for members opposite to come in here and play a cheap political game, taking cheap political shots.

Mr O'Connor —Well, it was a political decision.

Mr FORREST —For the right reasons—not the reasons asserted by the member for Corio and others. Things have changed since the schedule for the stockpile was instigated. They have even changed since the initiatives of the government back in March last year to extend the debt recovery response to 30 June 1999. Since then we have had the impacts of what has happened in Asia and the falling demand for apparel consumption in our key markets, including Europe, Japan and Korea. The impacts on the price of wool have been dramatic, incurring direct pain on growers.

If the shadow minister, who is at the table, wants to be the shadow minister, he should be a little more focused about whom he purports to represent as the opposition's spokesman on primary industry. These are the growers. These are the people on the ground who are committed to their commodity, whatever it might be. They deserve better consideration than the remarks of the member for Corio reflect. I am a little disappointed in him because I think he is a decent chap, but so is the member for Lyons. I call on him to be a little more focused and to work with us more to get this important industry to Australia back on its feet.

I am confident, from the commitment that has been shown to getting this legislation into the chamber, that the government's commitment to growers is unshakeable. The reactions from the different sectors of the wool industry, which have been quoted here this morning by the opposition, are not unpredictable. For someone like me, and other rural members on the government side who have been associated with agropolitics for so long, it is always difficult to get a broad consensus on these commodity issues. You will always have somebody who does not agree and who has a very high public profile. That is the nature of agriculture in Australia. We are dealing with a diverse geographical spread of people and we are dealing with a diverse professional background of people. In such environments it is always difficult to make sure proper communication exists.

It was no surprise to me to find the New South Wales wool growers saying what they said about the decision to freeze the stockpile. It was no surprise to find farm organisations in Victoria expressing a contrary view to what my growers were saying to me. I know what I heard from the 4,500 wool growers I represent, particularly during the recent election. I know what they said. I gave them a commitment that I would come back into this chamber and urge that this legislation receive speedy passage through not only this chamber but also the other place.

I hope that this legislation will ignite, for the wool industry, a focus on the things it needs to do to rehabilitate itself. I have been a member of this place now for five years. Prior to that I did not have a lot of detailed association with the wool industry, but in my former life I had an association with many of the other commodities. It has been somewhat amazing for me to find how difficult it is to get one voice out of the wool industry. The difficulty that industry has in expressing itself with a single and determined voice never ceases to amaze me.

That is the first thing I hope the wool industry can address, so that when requests come for the parliament to take action on a particular matter we get a more united voice which assists not just the minister but the government and all members of this place, particularly the opposition, to support good initiatives. This is a good initiative and it deserves the support of everybody around this chamber, irrespective of their politics.

I understand that at the annual general meeting of the Australian Wool Research and Promotion Organisation in Goulburn on 30 November, there will be a motion of no confidence in the Wool Research and Promo tion Organisation. This is a little disappointing but it does, I think, indicate some of the frustration that growers feel that their wool promotion organisations, their marketing associations, that are supposed to be acting on their behalf are not representing their interests.

I hope that the motion of no confidence will not be the focus of the conference in order to score a point, go over old ground and look for scapegoats. The motion provides an opportunity for the industry itself to establish its own vision, which is clearly one of marketing and promotion and somehow finding a way to put innovative growers directly in contact with their marketplace. This has been a failure of the wool industry—the same failure that many other commodity industries have experienced in the past. They have been the producers of commodities leaving the farm gate when they have had no connection as to whether or not they were producing the right product.

Those industries that have succeeded in Australia, particularly those in my electorate, are those that have twigged to the necessity to connect to their consumers in an innovative way. I have already mentioned the Australian dried vine fruit industry. That is a good example, as is the dairying industry. There are many others around the nation. That is the key for the wool industry. It is my call to all of the leadership of the wool-growing and marketing associations to seek that goal. If this motion at the annual general meeting is just seen as an opportunity to score points, it will be very negative. They ought to take the next step and have a debate on refocusing the industry.

I hope that the legislation before the chamber today serves as the launch pad for the public debate on the need for a greater industry focus. It is not pleasant to see industries turning on themselves when they ought to be directing their energies to deciding for themselves what their future will be. We went through this with the grain industry. Thankfully, we have got through that long, drawn out process. I think great credit must be given to the former Minister for Primary Industries and Energy for steering the reform to the Austral ian grain industry. We now have a wheat board that is structured in a way that provides ownership by growers and, therefore, their direct connection to the market is established. There is a process for that. The wool industry badly needs such a focus.

This legislation is just a small part of what is needed for the Australian wool industry. It must not be seen as the cure. It is a very short-term measure to shore up, I suppose, the industry—to launch it onto what it badly needs to do, which is a better focus on customers in the marketplace and, I am sad to say, a crying need for firm industry leadership and innovative approaches to the processing of wool fibre.

I have a habit of walking around and asking people, `How much wool are you wearing?' On many occasions people will be wearing clothing made of an alternative fabric, which is a much better product. That is why they buy it. They buy it because it does not crinkle, it is easy to wear and it does not itch—whatever reasons might apply in the fashion industry. This is the real challenge confronting the wool industry. In the last decade we have let some of our competitive fibres get the runs on the board and get ahead of us. This is another issue that the wool industry needs to address.

I am very pleased to stand here. I feel very satisfied that it is the first piece of legislation that the new 39th Parliament is considering. I am pleased to support it, and I urge all members to do the same. I am not all that moved by the opposition's pious amendment. I believe that all of the seven points addressed in the amendment are being taken into account by the government, with the one exception that we believe the leadership needs to come from the industry itself and that the government is just the facilitator. I use the model of the achievements in the Australian grain industry. I urge the leadership, growers and all those associated with the wool industry to follow the lead from the grain growers of this nation. I urge the parliament to give this legislation its support.