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Wednesday, 20 June 2007
Page: 47

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (11:55 AM) —I thank the government members who have contributed to this debate on the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill 2007. I may not agree with all of the sentiments or views expressed but, nonetheless, I respect their involvement, their knowledge and, in the case of some of them, their hands-on experience of the wheat industry—all of which stands in stark contrast to the contributions of the members of the Labor Party opposite, who all took the opportunity, in shrill and exaggerated tones, to attack the government and specific ministers regarding the AWB oil for food scandal. We had a replay today of the Cole commission, which exonerated government ministers without qualification. That is the measure of the Labor Party’s knowledge of and contribution to this great economic and social debate for rural and regional Australia.

Moreover, not once during this debate was there a statement by a member of the Labor Party that they will adhere to a single desk. No-one in the Labor Party is supporting the single desk. I wonder when those involved in this debate and reporting it outside of the chamber will focus on that issue. The Labor Party is not committed to a single desk. My challenge to the Leader of the Opposition is to put on the record his support for a grower owned and controlled entity assuming the single desk operations after 1 March next year. I think the silence will be deafening. I am happy to be proved wrong, but I have trawled through the transcripts and statements of shadow ministers and leaders of the Labor Party and have not found anywhere a commitment to the single desk. I conclude therefore that a Labor Party in government will not support a single desk.

The growers of Australia and the rural communities that depend on the grain industry have a stark choice to make at the next federal election. The coalition government is introducing legislation for a single desk through the 2007-08 harvest and providing growers with the opportunity to assume it into the future. The Labor Party is playing political games—attempting to split the bill, attempting to delay it and prevaricating on anything—to mask its own total absence of a stated position. The only conclusion anybody can draw is that the Labor Party in government will not support a single desk. The Labor Party needs to be flushed out on this issue. Who in the opposition will support a single desk the way the government has and the way that growers have demanded?

Despite all the issues impacting on wheat producers over the last few years, growers never wavered in their call for the wheat single desk to be retained. An overwhelming majority of 70 per cent or more was found by the Ralph committee to be in support of a single desk, and the government responded to that. Every contribution made on this issue, in all of its complexity and sensitivities, inside this chamber and outside, has to keep coming back to that point. The growers want a single desk, and the government has accommodated them.

The Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill before the House has delivered this, with changes to provide growers with greater control of their industry and greater certainty for the future. The extension of the temporary veto power for the minister to approve or reject bulk export applications until 30 June 2008 recognises the reality that only AWBI is in a position to manage the 2007-08 harvest. However, the government has put in place a system which will prevent the veto ever returning to AWBI or any other AWB Ltd company.

The bill also provides the minister with the power to change the operator of the single desk between 1 March 2008 and 30 June 2008. This limited time frame will allow the transfer of the single desk to another entity while at the same time providing the industry with certainty about the future, long-term operator of the single desk. The government is giving growers until 1 March 2008 to establish a new company to take over management of the single desk. They will have to demonstrate that the new company is completely, legally separate from AWBI. They will also have to demonstrate that the new company has the necessary financial and managerial capabilities to assume control of the single desk before the minister can consider designating it as the new single desk holder. There will be no extension beyond 1 March 2008. As the Prime Minister said on 22 May, if growers are not able to establish a new entity by 1 March 2008 then the government will propose other wheat marketing arrangements.

The government has also decided to deregulate the export of wheat in bags and containers. This will provide growers with the ability to search out niche and new markets, and to further develop those markets that provide high-value returns. By making it a requirement for exporters to comply with a quality assurance scheme, the government is also securing the reputation of Australia as a reliable supplier of quality wheat.

The government has also considered the other side of the wheat export equation by addressing concerns with the industry regulator. By providing the Wheat Export Authority with strengthened powers to request information it has reduced any possible impediment to the authority fulfilling its monitoring and reporting functions.

The bill also provides the minister with the power to direct the WEA to investigate and report on matters relating to the operation of the Wheat Marketing Act. Any information uncovered that requires further investigation can be provided to the appropriate authorities.

Further changes to the WEA have also been made to implement the government’s broader policy on governance arrangements in response to the Uhrig review. However, the interests of growers will be protected in these changes as it will be a requirement for the minister to appoint at least one commissioner of the new Export Wheat Commission based on their skills in export wheat production and at least one other based on their skills in grain production.

The amendments contained in the bill are measured and have been made in the best interests of growers. Most importantly, they deliver on the key message the government has repeatedly heard from growers: ‘Keep our single desk in place.’ The government has honoured the requirements, the demands and the wishes of growers far and wide. The Labor Party has not. The one thing that the people of rural Australia abhor more than political prevarication is political cowardice. The Labor Party does not have the fortitude to stand and declare a position on an issue that has raged for 18 months. The Labor Party has not considered the findings of the Ralph commission, which canvassed at more than 28 meetings far and wide the views of growers in an unprecedented consultation period by government on a major political issue. The future of wheat marketing arrangements, together with the debate surrounding the future of the floor price for wool in the early 1990s, stands as the greatest agricultural debate since the Second World War. Yet the Labor Party is totally absent from it and, instead, in this chamber, and no doubt in the Senate, seeks to cynically exploit the issue for some hoped—for political gain. I do not see the politics of using the wheat growers of Australia, who have been suffering a long-term drought and who are still experiencing a degree of uncertainty as to future arrangements, in this way. It is deeply disappointing to me that legislators, who have taken an oath of office, would seek to use grain growers for political purposes in this way.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I strongly recommend the bill to the House. I have the faintest of hopes that the Senate will support it as well. The Labor Party will not. No doubt they will divide on the bill and delay its consideration—all against the backdrop of having failed to enunciate and declare their own position. I would like Labor Party members to go out into rural communities, stand before an audience of grain growers and find some reason to justify their absence of a policy. The reason cannot be time—we have all had 18 months to wrestle with this issue. Admittedly, it is complex; it is difficult. There is a variety of views, as is evidenced even in the contributions of government members. But that is no excuse for avoiding the crunch point, which has come now: does the Labor Party support a single desk or not? The government does; the Labor Party does not. In the interests of grain growers, I hope and pray that the government is returned at the next election.

Government members—Hear, hear!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Hotham has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.