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Wednesday, 27 February 1985
Page: 234

Senator BOSWELL(12.21) —The Senate is debating today the Sugar Agreement Bill 1985 and so far some very worthwhile contributions have been made to the debate. Senator Archer covered the problems of primary industry as a whole, and Senator Collard emphasised the problems that the Queensland sugar industry was going through. Senator Macklin gave us an academic speech on how the sugar industry could be saved. But the problem, as I see it at the moment, is that the sugar industry has reached a state of absolute crisis. Over 1983-84 farm incomes fell on average to $5,622. Some 70,000 cane growers grossed $1.1 billion worth of export earnings in 1981. In 1983 that figure had fallen to $617m, nearly half the earnings of 1981.

Over the last 10 years the sugar industry has earned over 4.6 per cent of Australia's export income. We have been told of the varying jobs available to those whom the sugar industry directly employs, and the spin-offs would account for many thousands of other jobs. In fact, the whole of north Queensland, with the possible exception of Townsville, depends very heavily on the sugar industry. One has only to go into north Queensland towns, as I have in the last three or four weeks, talk to people in small businesses, to cane farmers and to anyone else living there and to see and experience what is happening to those towns. It is not a pleasant sight. Small businesses are hurting, families are hurting and farmers are going bankrupt and out of business. I think that already 5 per cent of the farmers are in an irretrievable position. If this situation is allowed to go on any longer, that 5 per cent figure will grow to 10 per cent, 15 per cent, and so on. So I urge the Government to provide some immediate aid and help.

In 1983 the Government promised an underwriting scheme. That was a pre-election promise. That commitment made by the Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Kerin, was not brought forward, and it has not been implemented. Meanwhile, the sugar industry is still going through a rough period. I wish the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, Senator Button, were here because this Government has provided $176m to the steel industry by way of aid and $150m to the car industry-that is a total of $326m-while the plight of the Queensland cane farmer has been basically ignored by this Government. I will say that the Federal Government has given the sugar industry $16m, but I believe that it was embarrassed into taking that action because the Queensland Government had given twice that amount. The Queensland Government certainly has not the resources that the Federal Government has, but it acknowledges the problems of the cane growing industry and of the sugar farmers far more than this Government does.

I am looking at the speakers list and at this stage I point out that it does not appear that any Australian Labor Party senators will join in this debate. I think that is a shocking indictment of the Labor Party and particularly the senators from Queensland. Senator Reynolds, who lives in the north of Queensland, should be in here putting her Government's position to the farmers, the rural producers and the sugar producers of Queensland.

Senator Robertson —They were asked to stand down so that four of your Party could speak.

Senator BOSWELL —That is no excuse. Here we are at the beginning of the session and people are already being asked to stand down.

Senator Robertson —So that the Bill can be passed.

Senator BOSWELL —That is no good, because the people want to know what your Party thinks on the sugar industry and what it is prepared to do.

Senator Robertson —We put up the Bill.

Senator BOSWELL —This Bill goes so far, but it is a token offering.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sibraa) —Order! There are too many interjections. I suggest to Senator Boswell that he address the Chair.

Senator BOSWELL —The Queensland Government has given $30m to the sugar industry. Ten days before the last election, the Primary Industry Minister, Mr John Kerin, told the cane farmers at a meeting at Giru, which is slightly south of Townsville, that the answer to the sugar industry's problems was a fixed floor price. That was very good thinking and, of course, the Queensland Cane Growers Association, the Proprietary Sugar Millers Association Pty Ltd, the Australian Sugar Producers Association, and the co-operative millers agreed with him. The producers formulated a policy that would implement a minimum floor price the sugar industry could live with. That price was $240 a tonne. That is the break-even point at which producers can produce sugar and remain viable in the industry. It would require $80m to service that floor price. This is what the sugar industry wants. It is appealing to the Government for $80m to implement a floor price. If that floor price were put in force, I believe that the sugar industry would not be profitable but would be viable. People would be able to stay on their farms. The farms would be able to support the towns. Farmers certainly would not be able to live high on the hog, but at least they could stay on their land.

The Minister told the sugar industry that he was not prepared to grant any assistance to the industry until after the sugar growers organisations completed a review of the industry. The earliest date at which the results of this review could be released is November 1985. The sugar industry cannot wait another 12 months. It cannot wait even another three months. The situation is absolutely desperate at the moment, and the sugar industry must have help in the immediate future.

The Labor Government promised an underwriting scheme in the 1983 election campaign, and this has been ignored. Eleven days before the last election, it promised the floor price scheme. It is now becoming increasingly obvious that once again the Government is trying to wriggle out of this proposal. I quote from a Press release from Primary Industry Minister, John Kerin:

As the Prime Minister has indicated to the Queensland Government, across the board assistance such as was raised before by the industry has shown to be overly expensive, undirected and largely ineffective in helping those growers most in need.

As Senator Collard pointed out in his speech, that is a complete contradiction of the Government's election campaign promise. The promise made before the election in 1983 was broken. Now, in 1985, soon after the election, another promise has been broken. The sugar farmers' patience is running out. As I mentioned before, 6 per cent of the sugar farms are unviable at the moment. On top of the collapse of the international sugar market, people in the industry are facing increasing farm-gate costs. Over the last four years-they have risen by 39 per cent. On 22 November 1,200 cane farmers joined a cane train from Mackay to Brisbane where they sought and were granted a meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke. The Prime Minister said then:

I undertake on behalf of the Federal Government to you and to the industry that we will undertake a financial commitment to assist you on the basis that the review-which is accelerated as a result of co-operation with the State Government-move towards drawing up an overall package which is going to result in a strong and viable industry.

The sugar growers put four points to the Prime Minister. They asked that the Federal and Queensland governments get together at ministerial and official level and for the State to co-operate with the Federal Government in accelerating the review of the sugar industry. To this date there has been no meeting between the Federal Government and the Queensland Government. I believe that there is to be a meeting in April. Secondly, the growers asked for significant financial assistance from the Federal Government once the review is considered to be progressing towards a viable result. The review will take about 12 months before it is completed. Therefore, I urge the Prime Minister and the Government, before that 12 months is up, to implement the floor plan proposed by Mr Kerin. Thirdly, the growers asked that plans be put in hand for an international meeting on the sugar industry. I understand that the Prime Minister took such a step on his recent overseas visit. The fourth requirement by growers was that the Prime Minister become personally involved in negotiations nationally and internationally once the election was over. I stress that these negotiations should be conducted at head of government level rather than lower down in the echelons of the Public Service.

It cannot be emphasised enough that if these four points are not implemented immediately, the sugar industry will go down the drain. This will happen not because the industry is inefficient, because everyone acknowledges that the sugar industry in Australia is the most efficient producer of raw sugar in the world. The sugar industry is facing a crisis because inefficient countries in the European Economic Community are heavily subsidising their sugar production on the international market. The viability of the sugar industry will depend on this Government's actions within the next six or seven months. If the Government does not implement this floor plan, it will have a number of serious effects. Cane farmers will not plant because they will not be able to afford the petrol, diesel and other farm costs. Sugar mills will close because they will not have the throughput necessary to keep milling costs down. Harvesting contractors will go out of business and their harvesters will be repossessed. Small business will go to the wall and the whole industry will slide to a point where it will take 20 years to recover, if it can recover at all.

The sugar industry has given a great deal to Australia. In the last 10 years its exports have earned $300m. Surely with the industry in its hour of need, and this is now its hour of need, this Government can come forward to offer some type of assistance. In the same way that the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, Senator Button, has assisted the car industry and the steel industry, I urge him to offer support to the sugar industry, because it is such a viable industry to Australia. It provides many jobs, it keeps many Queensland towns and many northern New South Wales towns such as Grafton viable. Therefore, to let the sugar industry slide into oblivion would mean that for the next 20 years people in Queensland towns, as well as northern rivers towns in New South Wales, would suffer terrible effects.

If the Government fails to stand by the sugar industry and does not acknowledge its present position, it will invite an attack by the EEC countries-countries which are heavily subsidised-on every one of our primary industries. Our industries will be picked off one by one. The dairy industry will be next, then the beef industry. The EEC will subsidise its production and target in on our markets and in that way Australia will be damaged. I plead with the Government to stand up for the primary industries of Australia. Those industries are now under attack as they have never been before. If the Government does not stand up for this industry and bring in the $240 a tonne base floor price, the EEC countries will attack our sugar markets one by one until we have no market left. The whole industry will be wiped out. It is no good suggesting, as did the Prime Minister-I acknowledge that he probably made the suggestion in good faith, but with little understanding of the industry-to the 6,000 or 7,000 farmers remaining in Queensland that they should produce vegetables. That does not get to the basis of the problem. It shows that the Prime Minister does not understand the problem. If that suggestion were to be implemented, Australia would have such a glut of vegetables that not only would the cane industry be made bankrupt but also the horticultural industry would find itself equally bankrupt. Therefore, I urge the Government to back up the sugar industry. It has been good to Australia and deserves the support of the present Government.