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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Page: 81

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (8:02 PM) —The Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill 2007 represents the Howard government’s response to the wheat industry crisis generated by the involvement of Australia’s single-desk marketer, AWB, in the wheat for weapons scandal. Like its recent initiatives on climate change and broadband, the Howard government has been forced into this legislative action because of its own incompetence and neglect. The Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill 2007 proposes six key changes to the Wheat Marketing Act 1989. It extends the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry temporary veto powers over non-AWB International Ltd bulk exports until 30 June 2008; it includes the power for the minister to change the company that manages the single-desk from 1 March 2008; it provides powers for the regulator to obtain information, particularly from other wheat exporters and their associates; it includes the power for the minister to direct the regulator to investigate matters relating to its function and pass this information on to other law enforcement and regulatory bodies as necessary; it introduces the Uhrig reforms to the industry regulator; and it deregulates wheat exports in bags and containers, but with the addition of a quality assurance requirement to safeguard the reputation of Australian wheat.

The Labor Party’s position on this legislation is that we support the bill in principle. I wish to place on the public record my personal support for the second reading amendment proposed by the member for Hotham—a person on this side of the House still held in very high regard by wheat farmers and wheat industry representatives throughout Australia. That amendment states:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“the House:

(1)   notes:

(a)   the proposed legislative measures in the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill arise directly from the Australian Wheat Board’s role in the now infamous ‘Wheat for Weapons Scandal’;

(b)   the Government should be held accountable for the fact that it:

(i)   failed to act on at least 34 substantial warnings about the role of the AWB in the scandal;

(ii)   failed to utilise the clear mechanism available to insist that the AWB reveal all information in its possession regarding its role in the AWB scandal;

(iii)   failed to adopt practical and sensible measures to oversee the role of the AWB during the period of the ‘Wheat for Weapons Scandal’;

(c)   the Government limited the terms of reference of the Cole Inquiry to such an extent that it was unable to meaningfully evaluate the culpability of the Government in the ‘Wheat for Weapons Scandal’; and

(2)   calls on the Government to split the bill so as to separate:

(a)   the provisions relating to the extension of the temporary veto power of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry over non-AWB (International) Ltd bulk exports, from

(b)   the remaining provisions of the bill, which should be referred to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry for inquiry and report”.

I commend the contributions of the members for Hotham and Wills—the members from this side of the House who preceded me in this debate.

Nobody in this parliament ought to be under any illusion as to the importance of the matters that we are debating in this bill here today. Thousands of wheat farmers and wheat-farming families across the length and breadth of this great nation depend for their living on this great Australian agricultural industry. The very existence of many rural communities depends on the economic viability of the farms and farm enterprises that make up this great Australian industry. Their economic viability depends heavily on the efficiency of the marketing arrangements for wheat and the prices that they are able to extract from a global marketplace that all acknowledge is, in many instances, corrupted by European and American producers who are heavily dependent on government subsidies and support for their existence.

It is in this context and against the backdrop of this government’s negligence and incompetence throughout the AWB wheat for weapons scandal that this parliament is now considering new legislation relating to marketing arrangements for wheat. There is a very good reason why Labor is proposing to split the legislation and to refer the details of the proposed marketing arrangements to a committee of this parliament for further consideration and scrutiny. It is simply because the government has not adequately consulted the industry about its plans. We all know the history of this. On 22 May, the Prime Minister announced the government’s plans for future wheat export marketing arrangements. This particular bill was introduced into the House on 14 June, without any consultation with growers or traders—with the government knowing that there is a wide divergence of views within the producer and marketing communities on how arrangements ought to be structured for this industry’s future. Until last Thursday, grower groups had not seen the detailed legislation, and they have not had a proper opportunity to consider the impact and the details of the changes that are inherent in this legislation.

In Labor’s second reading amendment, we are providing—and we will do the same in the Senate—the opportunity for the industry to consider in detail this legislation and its impact. We on this side of the House believe in consultation with the industry on these matters. I am pleased that Labor’s proposal to split the bill has been welcomed by key players in the grain industry, including the Grains Council of Australia and the PGA in Western Australia. It is simply not enough for the government to argue that it has already undertaken sufficient consultation with industry players through the Ralph Wheat Export Marketing Consultation Committee. The fact is that nobody has yet seen the report on the deliberations and recommendations of that committee. Furthermore, there has been no formal opportunity for industry players, who hold quite divergent views on the future of wheat marketing, to comment in detail on significant elements of the government’s legislation; hence our proposal to split the bill.

A cursory scan of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s second reading speech provides ample clues to the quite decrepit state this government is in after 11 long years in office. In his second reading speech to this House, the minister demonstrates the paralysis of government that inevitably comes from being duplicitous, incompetent and in power too long. I notice that my coalition colleague from South Australia is here—a wheat farmer from the Eyre Peninsula—

Mr Secker —No, from the south-east.

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —Oh, from the south-east. He has joined us in the House tonight for this debate. He would appreciate this comment: there is no point in feeding the minister wheat. He has been running around in policy terms like a chook with his head cut off ever since the wheat for weapons scandal. I ask: where in the minister’s second reading speech is the acceptance by this minister and this government of their responsibility to growers and to the industry? I note in the gallery tonight a visitor from Geelong—a local legend, Mick Robinson. Mick served for some 10 years on the Bellarine Council. He served with distinction on that council as a local legislator who accepted his responsibility to his constituency and to his community. He umpired some 300 games in the local leagues in the Geelong and Western District regions, and he accepted responsibility for the decisions that he made in all of those games. He now serves on the tribunal in the Geelong area, and he accepts responsibility for the decisions that he makes on the future of others. But we do not get any sense of responsibility when we look at the minister’s second reading speech on this piece of legislation. I am going to take you through this speech, because it is a classic example of how this government avoids being accountable and avoids its responsibility to key constituencies in this nation. In his opening remarks, the minister states:

It has been an immensely difficult 18 months for Australia’s wheat growers.

We on this side certainly agree with him. He goes on to say:

Last year they faced a devastating growing season as winter and spring rains failed and the drought continued to tighten its grip across the country.

This is from a government that only recently conceded that global warming is a problem. He goes on:

Growers have also had to deal with continued pressure to dismantle their wheat single desk due to strong, but justified, criticism of the corporate behaviour of AWB Ltd stemming from the findings of the Cole commission of inquiry.

What the minister failed to mention was that this industry and those growers have had to deal with the incompetence of National Party ministers in dealing with the AWB scandal that has cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in lost market—and it is about to cost them many hundreds of millions more as the international wheat community starts looking at the prospect of suing the pants off AWB for its actions in the wheat for weapons scandal.

What he fails to mention is that the Howard government became Saddam Hussein’s bagman. It all happened under the watchful eye of Howard government agriculture, trade and foreign affairs ministers. The cost to growers is in the hundreds of millions, yet not one minister has paid any political price for their incompetence in those portfolios. The minister then goes on with the speech, giving the detail of the legislation and coming to this point:

The government has decided to give growers until 1 March 2008 to establish a new entity to manage the single desk.

What happened to the government’s responsibility to govern? Isn’t that what you were elected to do? Talk about giving a hospital handpass to somebody in a difficult position. The industry is on its knees from drought, is reeling from the wheat for weapons scandal, has had to put up with incompetent ministers whose negligence has almost brought it down, has to put up with a government that has until recently denied the existence of climate change, and, when the going gets tough, the National Party ministers handball the problem to growers and deliver them an ultimatum: it has decided to give growers until 1 March 2008 to establish a new entity. The minister goes on to say:

The government acknowledges that the challenge it has set the industry is a significant one. No-one should be under any illusions as to the difficulty of the task that lies ahead for the industry. It will require strong leadership and unity within the industry to reach a satisfactory outcome in the time allowed. It is now time for the industry to act. The government is giving industry the opportunity to set up what it has asked for; it is now the responsibility of industry to deliver.

Have you ever heard a greater cop-out than that? I have been in this parliament a considerable time and I do not think that I have ever heard a greater cop-out in terms of ministerial and governmental responsibility than that. Of course the challenges are significant and it is a difficult time for the industry. But where is the leadership from and the unity of the government?

Every member of this House—both sides of it—knows exactly the contempt in which these National Party ministers are held in this place. I hear it from members opposite. The senior members of the coalition grizzle in my ear and complain about National Party ministers and their incompetence. We get stuck into them, and it is our right to do so. But when it comes from members opposite, I simply say to them that they should get up in their own party room and wield the axe on them. You should have done it long ago, because they are absolutely incompetent and have betrayed the industry that they pledged themselves to protect. I will go to one more line of the minister’s speech, if I might. He had this to say:

The wheat industry is a major Australian export earner of great social and economic significance. Growers must be given the opportunity to get it right.

It is not the growers but the government who should have got this right. It is the government that should have prevented the wheat for weapons scandal. The only reason that this legislation is in this House tonight is the incompetence of government ministers.

Why do I say that the government is duplicitous? Because one after the other they get up here on the floor of this parliament and beat their breast about defending the single desk. We on this side of the House, the Americans and the whole international community know that they have already sold the single desk in the US FTA and the WTO—they have sold it out to the Americans. As part of the US FTA, the government agreed to work with the United States in the current round for the dismantling of all state trading enterprises, such as the wheat single desk. Everybody knows that when the Americans talk about state trading enterprises they are talking about Australia’s single desk. Article 3.1.1 of the US FTA commits the parties to work together to ‘reach an agreement on agriculture in the WTO that eliminates restrictions on a person’s right to export’. In its report on the FTA to the President and congress, the US Technical Advisory Committee on Grains, Feeds and Oil Seeds made it clear that it expects the administration to hold the Australian government to this commitment—the commitment in relation to the export monopoly single desk here in Australia. The summary of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement on the website of the US special trade representative contains the following statement, which is dated 2 August 2004:

In response to U.S. concerns about Australia’s agricultural state trading enterprises, Australia committed to working with the U.S. in the ongoing WTO negotiations on agriculture to develop export competition disciplines that eliminate restrictions on the right of entities to export.

There can only be one conclusion from those statements, and that is that the Howard Liberal government agreed in the US FTA in 2004 to work with the United States entities to dismantle the single desk. Pure and simple, this is a duplicitous and incompetent government. Wheat growers have paid a heavy price for that incompetence. The reason we are having this debate tonight is that this government failed to be accountable to the wheat growers, to this nation and to the great governance principles that govern all enterprises in this nation. (Time expired)