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Friday, 22 March 1985
Page: 642


Senator ARCHER(10.08) —It is a pleasure to speak on an important Bill, such as the Honey Levy Legislation Amendment Bill, to a packed Press Gallery. The Bill may not be terribly important to many of the people who belong to this chamber, but to the 12,000 to 15,000 beekeepers of Australia it is important and it is important to the nation as a whole. It is important that we remember the part that is played by this industry. It is not generally fully appreciated how important this little industry is to Australia. The success and health of the industry at large are absolutely vital to the various industries which are concerned in a secondary way. I refer specifically to the fruit industries, the pasture industries and all the cropping industries. They all depend on bees and on the beekeepers operating effectively and profitably. However, to those industries that I mentioned honey is only a by-product. Honey is the direct result of pollination.

Over recent years beekeepers have had to become more mechanised, use better equipment and achieve higher standards. They face greater international competition from countries where pollination is taken far more seriously than it is here. As I said a moment ago, as part of the pollination we wind up with honey, the honey winds up on the international market and, as a result, the Australian beekeepers, who are doing such a fine job in the pollination program, have had difficulties in competing internationally because they produce considerably more honey than is required in Australia.

We still need a far greater effort in research and even a greater care over quarantine. I was somewhat bemused recently, when taking up the question of the import of leafcutter bees from New Zealand, to be told: 'Yes, bees will be coming in from New Zealand. We have brought some in because we believe that the risks of having them imported illegally are too great if we fail to do so'. That may be all well and good but I do not think that is a right reason for bringing bees in. If it could lead to any sort of disease problem in the Australian beekeeping industry there is no reason for bringing them in and there is every reason for keeping them out. I believe that in this case it is probably in order that there is probably no problem, but I do not like the reason for allowing the bees in.

This Bill reduces some of the paper work for beekeepers and as such it is to be commended. Honey is basically an annual crop. An annual return to the producer is all that has been necessary and the monthly forms that they have had to fill in have always been pretty much of a nonsense because in most cases there have been nil returns for many months. However, if reducing the producers' amount of paper work can make them slightly more competitive, it is a very good thing. They have been battling, as I mentioned, with the international market. It is interesting to note in the recently produced Industries Assistance Commission report that the average retail price of honey from a base of 100 in 1976-77 had reached an index of 162 by December 1983. Over the same period the food component of the consumer price index rose from 100 to 197, so the general average of food costs increased by 30 per cent more than the cost of honey. Going further than that, it shows that the CPI over the same period rose to 298 as against the 162 index for honey. So the honey producers have very much been caught in the cost spiral. The general costing structure has created considerable difficulties for them in competing. I go even further than that. The report, on page 18, also shows that the index of 162 for honey compares with indexes such as 319 for apples, 300 for whole milk, 266 for dried vine fruits, 294 for barley, 171 for sugar, 226 for cattle and calves, 149 for wool and 321 for wheat.

The beekeepers have survived by being efficient and by doing their job. They have contained their production. In most primary industries difficulties arise from increasing production. It is interesting to note that, although the quantity of honey produced is usually governed by seasonal conditions, in 1973-74 honey production was of the order of 21,000-odd tonnes and in 1982-83 it was 22,000-odd tonnes. There was virtually no change in the amount of honey produced.

In the scale of industries, it is not very large. In fact, it represents about one-quarter of one per cent of the total primary production of Australia. It concerns me that it is being dealt with here in much the same way as are many other industries of a primary industry nature. There are some industries that we could lose due to various external factors at present. In fact, there are some that we may well lose. But we cannot afford to have this one being anything other than up to date and profitable. The beekeeping industry just has to be kept at a very high level. At present, by any standards it is highly marginal. The international trade in honey is high. All the major producers of the world have large export surpluses. Very often there is dumping on the international market, in many cases large quantities of honey of what one might call highly variable quality.

I found the IAC report a little disappointing in that it adhered to its 10-year policy of not looking beyond the fundamental and basic economics of an industry. That pattern has been established. But 10 years up the track it is still producing much the same sorts of reports as when it started. Everything has changed nationally as to costs of production. Everything has changed internationally as to trade and international affairs. But the reports that the IAC puts down are still virtually in the same words as they were 10 years ago.

To most Australians the industry is a by-product industry. Australian agriculture and horticulture cannot do without a strong and profitable beekeeping industry. In my area, and in fact on my own property, we depend very heavily on seed and pasture crops. We need the bees to ensure the best results. In fact, we need more and more and more bees and more and more beekeepers. But we cannot expect that to happen unless their ability to operate more profitably can be assured. The export levy question has been under very strong pressure over the last few months and it seems at the moment that it may have been resolved. There has also been the question of trying to establish a two level pricing system to ensure that the return for domestic honey is at a price better than the international price.

There has been much discussion on the question of contract pollination. I believe it is necessary to have a much better control of contract pollination. At present there are estimates that the pollination work of bees is worth between $100m and $400m a year to the producers of crops in Australia. This is very largely provided free of cost to the owners and producers of the crops. An extension of this service in a proper, orderly manner can be expected in the years to come. I certainly recommend that the horticultural, agricultural and fruit industries generally should remember this and more adequately consider the position of the beekeepers on whom they depend so much. Anyone who is interested in those sorts of industries has to have a much greater consideration for the beekeepers. They have to be given more consideration.

I think that the Government and the IAC should give greater consideration to the double role of beekeeping. Between them they should do everything they can to assist the industry and to cut down on unnecessary paper shuffling and such matters. In that regard, this Bill is a start. I welcome it as some recognition of the part this small but vital industry plays in the economy of Australia as a whole.