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Wednesday, 20 June 2007
Page: 36

Mr WINDSOR (10:59 AM) —I listened with interest to the member for Grey and I congratulate the government on the decision to move in the way they have. As some members would be aware, I was recently critical of the process the government put in place when it was determined that a consultant group was to travel around Australia and consult with growers. I went to two of those meetings, one in Gunnedah and one in Moree, and it is on the record that I was a little disappointed with the way in which those two meetings were handled. I followed the meetings held in other parts of Australia with some degree of interest as well.

At that particular time I was critical of the Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister for undertakings he gave in Victoria last year that, if there were to be any substantive changes in wheat export arrangements for Australian wheat growers, he would poll the wheat industry to find out what the growers themselves wanted for their future. He subsequently wrote a nice little letter to all wheat growers saying that the government was carrying out reviews, but the letter failed to poll their particular views on those matters. I thought that was disappointing because the rhetoric inside and outside this place at the time was that everybody was concerned about the wheat growers and that they were of paramount importance to this particular issue. In my view, the only way to find that out was to ask them, but it was deemed that that was not the appropriate process. In fact, last year—it may have been earlier this year—I moved an amendment to the legislation that a poll take place, not to bind the government but to be used as an indicator of growers’ views.

The group that travelled around Australia under the chairmanship of John Ralph suggested three broad proposals ranging from what we have now—or what we did have before the minister’s use of veto powers—a single desk arrangement, through to a multilayered marketing arrangement where there is more than one export operator operating under certain rules and regulations as determined by the government of the day, right through to a fully deregulated export environment. With those three broad criteria in mind, I wrote to all wheat growers as I thought it was a crucial question that they be involved in. It was the future of their industry that we were talking about.

In its infancy, the Wheat Board was driven by one of my constituents, Mr Don Barwick, a man who passed away only a few years back. He was one of the frontrunners in the late forties and early fifties who were behind the wheat-marketing arrangements that were put in place. He was also involved in many other programs and projects in the agricultural sector.

The poll that I conducted in the letter I wrote to wheat growers was asking them, as individuals, to respond to the three broad agenda items that the Ralph inquiry was putting to them by way of substantive meetings—from a single desk arrangement to a multilayered marketing arrangement right through to the fully deregulated option. I will spend a moment reflecting on some of the answers to the inquiry I made of wheat growers. I received a total of 3,372 responses from all states. I will go through a couple of the outcomes because I think they reflect in a positive way on the decision that the government has made and, in the main, back up that decision-making process. I gave copies of the documents and responses to the Prime Minister and the minister for agriculture and others, particularly some within the National Party, who were interested. I congratulate some of the members of the National Party for sticking to their guns on this issue and standing up for the wheat growers. I know they had difficulties with some members within their coalition, but I think the outcome was worth fighting for. The totality of the responses vindicates the decision that they argued for in the coalition rooms and the government’s final commitment. I am fully aware that there are some problems that will need to be addressed regarding the veto arrangements and timescales et cetera.

As I said, I will go through some of the responses that were given on the three broad arrangements that were put: 82.6 per cent, or 2,786 wheat growers, supported a single desk structure for the marketing of Australia’s bulk export wheat—the key words there are ‘single desk’, ‘structure’ and ‘bulk’; 11.2 per cent, or 377 wheat growers, supported a regulated wheat-marketing system where there is more than one marketer of export wheat—that is, a multiple licensing arrangement—but not full deregulation; and 6.2 per cent, or 210 wheat growers out of the 3,372 who responded, supported full deregulation of export wheat marketing.

At first blush, the government has put in place something that is very close to what wheat growers wanted. The growers wanted a single desk structure. I think we are all aware that the structure is going to change—as it should, in my view—because of various management problems that occurred during the Iraqi fiasco. The concept of a single desk structure for the marketing of Australia’s bulk wheat is reflected in the legislative arrangements.

A number of people, in debating this matter, have said that only the farmers with small tonnages really needed the protection of a single desk and that those with bigger tonnages were more than happy to take on the world in a fully deregulated arrangement. In the survey that I sent to growers, I asked them what their tonnage arrangements were—how big they were in terms of the wheat industry and what sort of structure they preferred. It is interesting to note that, of those with tonnages ranging from nought to 500 tonnes—those who would be considered to be at the smaller end of the wheat-growing industry—727, or 84.7 per cent, of the smaller growers wanted a single desk structure. Of those with tonnages ranging from 501 to 1,000 tonnes, 85 per cent wanted a single desk structure. Of those with tonnages ranging from 1,001 to 5,000 tonnes—those who would be considered to be growers with reasonably hefty wheat tonnages—81.3 per cent wanted a single desk structure for the marketing of Australia’s bulk export wheat. That figure was very similar to the total average figure of 82.6 per cent. Of the growers with tonnages over 5,000 tonnes, 68.1 per cent wanted a single desk structure for the marketing of export wheat.

There is absolutely no doubt that the majority of wheat growers across the board wanted a single desk structure. Some people have suggested that Western Australia does not have the marketing outlets that the eastern states have. In fact, it was made very plain at the Moree meeting in particular that a lot of wheat growers do not access the export wheat market because they can access domestic marketing arrangements. So the export market is not as important for them as it is for growers in Western Australia or even South Australia.

On a state-by-state breakdown, of the New South Wales and ACT wheat growers who responded, 84 per cent, in round figures, wanted a single desk; in Victoria, the figure was 87 per cent; in Tasmania, it was 100 per cent. However, I make it clear that only four wheat growers from Tasmania responded; I do not think that any export wheat comes out of Tasmania.

Mr Schultz —Not much comes out of New South Wales and Queensland either.

Mr WINDSOR —The member for Hume mentions Queensland. Eighty-three per cent of those who responded wanted a single desk. Of those who responded from South Australia and the Northern Territory, 79 per cent wanted a single desk structure. It is very interesting to note that in Western Australia, which is the state that is most reliant on global markets, 80 per cent wanted a single desk structure, while 6.7 per cent wanted full deregulation. Interestingly enough, in the over 5,000 tonnes range, 17 per cent wanted full deregulation. So the numbers in favour of full deregulation were reasonably small.

Another significant indicator that came out of the survey—and I think the government has picked up on this as well—was the preferred structure that wheat growers wanted. One of the options put to them was for AWB International Ltd to hold the single desk marketing arrangements as part of AWB Ltd, and 23.7 per cent wanted that to happen. Being a wheat grower myself, I was interested in that response. Sixty-two per cent, or 1,700 wheat growers, wanted to separate AWB International Ltd and AWB Ltd, with the objective of creating a grower owned single desk manager—AWB International Ltd—to market Australia’s bulk wheat internationally and a purely commercial agribusiness company, AWB Ltd. In fact, they wanted a differentiation between the marketing arrangements of the Wheat Board and the other commercial arrangements such as the selling of dog biscuits, fertiliser et cetera, that they had entered into. So 62 per cent were essentially saying they wanted a single desk marketer, but they wanted it structured so that its core business was the marketing of Australia’s bulk export wheat. They did not want it to be involved in other activities, such as the selling of dog biscuits et cetera.

That is essentially what the government has delivered on, but the Western Australian figures are interesting in this regard. Bearing in mind that I have just outlined that 62 per cent in total wanted a demerger arrangement, 70 per cent of Western Australians wanted that particular arrangement, compared to only 57 per cent in New South Wales, 58 per cent in Queensland, 63 per cent in Victoria and 61 per cent in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Some 14.1 per cent of respondents wanted to reissue the single desk licence to a new, grower owned operation.

There are a couple of other interesting findings, which I think the government picked up on as well. I found it quite interesting, as a wheat grower, given that the majority of growers had made a decision that they would like a single desk structure and that they would prefer a demerged structure, or a variation on that theme, to see what they wanted in terms of bagged and containerised wheat. It was a vexed issue for many wheat growers that the existing Australian Wheat Board had not marketed smaller quantities of wheat into some of the niche markets very professionally. I would agree. When growers were asked, ‘Should containerised and bagged wheat be exempt from any veto?’—and bear in mind that 82 per cent wanted a single desk—only 31 per cent said yes. Only 35 per cent said no and 33 per cent were not particularly concerned either way. Only a third of wheat growers actually wanted the veto powers, or a single desk structure, imposed on those niche markets of bagged and containerised wheat. That is a very significant response from the wheat industry. I am pleased to see that the government has picked up on that in the legislation. The bagged and containerised wheat arrangements will be treated somewhat differently to other arrangements.

The legislation will change the role of the Wheat Export Authority, and it will be renamed the Export Wheat Commission. There are some concerns that the member for Hotham and some members of the government have raised. I know there are concerns in the wheat industry about the specific powers that the commission will have other than the gathering of information. Some of that may be clarified over time, but this is something that must be looked at fairly closely. I know the Labor Party have been arguing that the bill should be split to let the minister have the veto powers for another 12 months and put a bit more effort and time into the new structure. I can see some logic in that, but I will be supporting the legislation. I think, in the main, the government has attempted to put in place something that the majority of wheat growers want.

I have been very disappointed—as I think many people have been, on both sides of this debate—in the leadership shown within the agricultural sector. The National Farmers Federation once again has been found wanting in this debate. The Grains Council has been almost absent—it did not seem to have a view; then it had a view that was different to that of some of its members. It has almost become a joke in terms of displaying leadership in the grains sector. I think the Prime Minister has laid it on the line that, if the industry cannot get its act together, all bets are off. I challenge the industry. The growers have displayed what they want. It is time that the leaders in this industry overcame some of their little state boundary skirmishes and petty agripolitics and started to address the future of this industry.

I was critical of the Ralph report at the time, but it came up with the right recommendations, almost duplicating the survey that I have just gone through for the parliament. It is time that the leaders of the grains sector—the National Farmers Federation, the Grains Council and others, including state based bodies—played a greater role in the future— (Time expired)