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Wednesday, 20 June 2007
Page: 34

Mr WAKELIN (10:47 AM) —It is my pleasure to speak on the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill 2007 and to address a few of the previous remarks, which are more political in nature than the practical delivery of a wheat marketing system. I doubt whether there has been an issue documented more in the popular media almost in our living memory. I do not propose to revisit that issue, other than simply to make the observation that, for the overwhelming majority of Australians, wheat industry issues are but of passing interest—other than to wheat growers, wheat marketers or people who have a particular direct interest in that industry. The only comments I could usefully make this morning are that it was caught up in a particular market; that over 2,000 companies were investigated, as I understand; and that this Australian government undertook to look at it thoroughly through the Cole commission.

To come to the legislation, there has been a very large amount of industry consultation. The Ralph committee—prominent businessman Mr John Ralph; Roger Corbett, another very prominent businessman; the respected farm leader Peter Corish; and Mike Carroll, a very respected banker with experience in agribusiness—did a magnificent job in going all over Australia and listening to the wheat industry and to wheat growers. They came back with some fairly clear impressions about the way ahead. I believe that is reflected in this legislation.

There are new export monopoly arrangements. The Wheat Export Authority will be a stronger entity. The powers and functions are much more specific and the governance of that organisation will, I am sure, give significant reassurance to the industry. The deregulation of bagged and container wheat exports is something which I am sure most sections of the industry will welcome. It is a welcome step forward.

Quality assurance is well covered. The government focused on the quality assurance matters, not to dictate the quality of wheat that can be exported but rather to make sure that exporters are meeting the specifications of their contract with customers. That is quite important. There is a great concern out there that, as we vary the single desk arrangements, quality will slip and the reputation of Australian wheat with our customers may suffer. This legislation thoroughly addresses that concern through this quality assurance scheme.

Commissioner Cole had some very pertinent words to say about the single desk which I think all of us should contemplate and respect—that is, whenever the parliament grants a monopoly, there is a very special responsibility to respect that monopoly. We should never forget that. With the Wheat Export Commission the government has undertaken to bring a balance between the domestic wheat market and the export wheat market, and that is very much welcomed. I particularly welcome the fact that one nominee from the Grains Council of Australia will come from the eastern states—that is, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland or Tasmania—and that another member of the GCA will be a resident of either South Australia or Western Australia. What we are endeavouring to do here is strike a balance between the key export regions of Australia. On average something like 65 per cent of Australia’s wheat exports over the last decade has come out of South Australia and Western Australia. It is very important that we respect the various components of the wheat industry and the great reliance of South Australia, particularly western South Australia, and the majority of Western Australia on wheat exports.

It is quite important to respect the diversity of opinion in this debate, particularly the significant interest groups including the pastoralists, the PGA of Western Australia and the grains organisation of South Australia. By a majority view, but by no means a unanimous view, South Australians believe that we need to move to a licensed marketing system and ultimately to full deregulation. That is not a view shared in every state of the Commonwealth but certainly it is a view shared in Western Australia by the PGA. I do not intend to revisit that debate because it is not particularly useful to do so.

The wheat industry is in a dynamic period, coming out of what the AWB will be able to provide in medium-term marketing and what the single desk will look like post 1 March 2008. As an aside, most farmers would be pleased just to have a crop this year. But if we do have a reasonable crop, and given the challenges of maximising the export price and our opportunities in a very competitive export market, it is essential that this legislation in all its various components supports the wheat industry, which the parliament has had involvement in since 1915. Wheat is the only commodity in Australia, as I understand it, which has a single desk marketing strategy. There are some serious questions about the future. I do not know if any of us could have predicted the circumstances that have led to this legislation, including the Iraqi situation, the outcome of the Cole commission and the opportunism of our political opponents. It has been quite a circus. In most cases it has simply meant more pain for grain, particularly more pain for grain growers. I think we can now look forward in a positive manner.

The opportunities in this debate are endless for the Labor Party, but that does not help us to respect those who endeavour to toil honestly to produce an export product. If you attempted to predict where this industry was going two years ago—before the Cole commission, the drought and now the new marketing arrangements in this bill—I do not whether anyone would have been able to run a very accurate book on it. Nevertheless that is where we are at. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has done an outstanding job in bringing this together. The consultation and the effort by the executive of this government have been remarkable. The Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers have put a lot of time into understanding the needs of this industry which have set it on a firm base and will allow it to serve this country well in the future. The industry will continue to generate export income and opportunities for regional Australia, and Australia will benefit from the economic opportunities that the wheat industry offers this nation.

Mr Ripoll —If you had done something about AWB, there would be less damage.

Mr WAKELIN —If only the Labor Party knew something about wheat, I would be much happier. I ask my friend opposite to give us something positive. Let us see whether you can get a better deal for wheat growers. I think you would get a fairly swift response from the wheat industry. I thank all those who have put in such a magnificent effort to bring this marketing bill forward. We have exciting times ahead. I look forward to those opportunities and I believe this bill will serve us well.