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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18395

Mr CREAN (2:17 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Why did the Prime Minister repeatedly tell this parliament that at the meeting with Mr Honan on 1 August he did not discuss the importation of ethanol from Brazil? Is it not a fact that this meeting was held only one week after commercial negotiations had broken down between Manildra and two of its biggest ethanol customers: the wholly owned Australian company Neumann and Trafigura? Is it not the case that the only option that Neumann and Trafigura had was to import ethanol from Brazil and is that not what Mr Honan discussed with the Prime Minister at the 1 August meeting? Why does the Prime Minister continue to mislead the parliament and the Australian people about the discussions he had with Mr Honan?

Mr Abbott —Mr Speaker, under the standing orders, an imputation of deliberately misleading the House can only be pursued by substantive motion; therefore, the Leader of the Opposition should be made to withdraw that.

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the House is right that standing order 144 suggests that questions should not contain imputations. A number of imputations have been contained in questions this week. It is customary though for the term `deliberately misleading' to be deemed as unparliamentary, not the term `misleading'. Nonetheless, I do not think that the inclusion of imputations in questions, while tolerated in the past, should ever be acceptable.

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —What I would say in reply to the Leader of the Opposition is that I have said, and I repeat, that the issue of a particular shipment by Trafigura was not discussed and there is nothing in the question or indeed in anything that has been drawn to my attention that would contradict that.

Mr Crean —What about the imports from Brazil?

Mr HOWARD —The Leader of the Opposition is at liberty to continue asking this as long as he likes, and I will be very happy to continue to respond as long as the House pleases. What I have said repeatedly is that the context of the question, initiated by the member for Chisholm, was about a particular shipment and that was not discussed in our meeting on 1 August. As to any commercial negotiations, that is a matter that the Leader of the Opposition will need to pursue with the companies. I am not answerable for commercial negotiations of Manildra or indeed any other company. While I am on my feet on the subject, it appears that the Leader of the Opposition's question could well be sourced from the front page story of the Sydney Morning Herald this morning, which of course is a real authority when it comes to stories on ethanol. The author of this particular story was exposed as telling porkies by one of his fellow columnists.

Government members interjecting

Mr HOWARD —He was. It took Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald

Mr Latham —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The point of order is on the question of relevance. The question was clearly about the meeting with Mr Honan on 1 August, not an article that might have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald last year or one that was written by Paul Sheehan. The Prime Minister should come back to the subject matter of the question that was asked by the Leader of the Opposition.

The SPEAKER —There is absolutely nothing inconsistent with my ruling that the Prime Minister is being relevant to the question asked. The member for Werriwa is welcome to check the Hansard record under any speakers to see whether or not the same amount of tolerance has not been exercised—as I check the record on a daily basis.

Mr HOWARD —That particular story, in a rather extraordinary fashion, carried the headline `PM's officials labelled as spies'. Apparently, if a government is considering a policy change which is designed to protect the interests of an Australian industry, it has become some kind of political crime to find out the facts. The reality is that this government went to the last election with a policy of increasing the use of biodiesel from domestically produced sources to 350 million litres by the year 2010. The policy context in which the decision was taken on 10 September last year and announced by me on 12 September last year was the threat to the implementation of that policy by large shipments of ethanol from a heavily subsidised industry in Brazil. That was a policy rationale. Of course, as always happens in situations like these, some companies are advantaged and some companies are dis-advantaged. It is no secret that Manildra—which has invested, I am told, something in the order of $250 million in an ethanol industry in this country—was a beneficiary. So indeed was CSR and so potentially would be other companies with the benefit of the capital subsidies that were announced at the time of the last election and reaffirmed by the Deputy Prime Minister—so would they. Before we took that decision we would have to know the facts about the importation—and of course inquiries were made. It was an entirely legitimate use of our post in Brazil to make those inquiries. To the suggestion that in the implementation of a policy like this in making those inquiries we were spying on the commercial activities of the company, as alleged by the managing director of Trafigura, could I simply say, in relation to that gentleman's complaints, that it was such a secret that he himself on 27 August—apparently two days after the inquiries were made by the Australian Embassy in Brazil—told a member of the Minister for Trade's staff of the pending importation. So it could not have been such a deep dark secret.

The other observation I would make is that in the same article he indicated that he had written to me and had not received a reply. I have checked on that and I am advised that the letter he wrote to me was replied to on my behalf and fairly speedily. I also noticed that the opposition parties in the Senate are proposing to block an excise measure. I simply point out to them that if you do that you will inflict damage on Australian industries and potentially cost Australian jobs.

Mr Crean —Mr Speaker, arising from that, could I ask the Prime Minister to table the letter that he says he responded to Trafigura in.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —Order! Allow me, if I might without any assistance from either side of the chair, to deal with the matter before the chair. The Leader of the Opposition has asked if the Prime Minister will table a document. The Prime Minister has declined to do so but has said he will consider it after he has had an opportunity to evaluate the document. Is that so?

Mr Howard —Yes.