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Tuesday, 26 March 1985
Page: 834

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN(9.25) —In speaking to the Address-in-Reply to the Governor-General's Speech at the opening of Parliament I wish first to congratulate the new senators and compliment some of them on the excellent speeches that they have made in the Senate. I take this opportunity to speak about some issues that I feel are of great importance. The Governor-General said that the breaking of the drought has enabled our primary industries to regain some of the momentum of the good years of the 1970s, although I am sorry to say that it is too late for many of our primary producers.

I do not believe that we can overemphasise the importance of primary industries to our Australian economy and, of course, in my own case, to the State of Queensland. However, all too often the Government has had the tendency to highlight the so-called glamour industries, which comprise tourism, mining and high technology industries. But when all other industries have been fully exploited or have simply expired we will still need our pastoral and agricultural industries, irrespective of the low image that they have with this Government.

Of course, compounding this problem is the fact that many people think of the agricultural industries as heavily subsidised even though the reverse is the truth. Whilst agriculture funds a substantial part of general industry assistance elsewhere in the economy, assistance to the farming sector comprises only a small part of overall government subsidies. Basically, increases in farm costs well in excess of upward movements in the consumer price index are jeopardising the viability of our agricultural sector. Indeed, this conclusion is supported by the evidence contained in the Livestock and Grain Producers Association's farm costs submission which has been forwarded to both State and Federal governments as part of a major farm cost campaign being conducted by the National Farmers Federation. The Bureau of Agricultural Economics has estimated the average 1984-85 income per farmer as approximately $6,598 including the return to invested capital. This is only one-third of average national earnings and has put into jeopardy the livelihood of thousands of farmers and their families. The National Farmers Federation's detailed case to the Government showed that the farm sector employed one million people and produced $10 billion in annual export income. It stated that government meddling, unfair taxes and massive protection to other industries hobbled the farm sector. It went on to say that the ability of the Australian farmers to sell overseas had never been worse than over the past 12 months, partly as a result of government charges. Since 1980-81 Australian farm costs have risen 41 per cent-more than twice the 17 per cent increase faced by farmers in the United States of America. It also added that costs of imported machinery spare parts were 216 per cent above United States prices. The Farmers Federation argues that an immediate across the board tariff cut of 10 per cent is needed.

Is it any wonder that the average income for farmers is only $6,598 per annum? I am quite sure that not many workers in Australia would like to do a seven-day week, in many cases from early morning until late at night, and receive a return like that. Significantly, the number of Australian rural producers dropped from 232,000 in 1964 to 196,000 in 1984.

The Federal Government really must face up to some hard decisions concerning the future of Australia's rural industries. Even though our rural industries registered an all time high aggregate value of production last year and will produce just below that record this year, our farmers are still in dire straits. The real net value of rural production in 1984 was 17 per cent below that of the previous year. Yet, if the shackles of high costs and low world prices could be removed, our primary industries could and would act as the catalyst for a tremendous national economic recovery.

At the recent National Farm Outlook Conference, the Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Kerin, indicated that farmers need not 'come running to the Government for financial assistance'. It seems incongruous to me that whilst the United States Government and the European Economic Community have taken strict measures to ensure protection of their primary industry sectors by stepping up subsidisation measures for farmers, the Australian Government has, sad to say, reduced its level of assistance. Indeed, it has taken measures to thwart any attempts at recovery, through such imposts as excessive tariffs on imported goods, excessive spending and borrowing, promotion of an inflexible labour market, over-regulation of service industries, and government taxes and charges. High costs and low world prices must be addressed by this Government for the rural sector to be able to realise its enormous potential.

It is a sad fact of life for the farming community that farm costs are much higher in this country than those which are faced by our competitors, and, of course, consequently, we are suffering very much in the competition stakes. We need to look only at the level of taxation rises over recent years to see the effect that they have on farm costs. Tariffs are crippling our primary industries. The impact of the tariff on imported harvesters alone has meant adding five figures to the cost of every new harvester that a farmer purchases-and I do not think that anyone would say that a harvester was a luxury item.

The Government should be looking specifically at implementing initiatives in the areas of tariffs and taxes, wages, interest rates, transport costs and fuel, in order to set the wheels in motion towards a flourishing rural economy. Besides the removal of tariffs and sales taxes, we need greater flexibility in the wage fixing process, reductions in interest rates for public sector borrowing, the removal of monopolies in rail transport used in the transport of primary products, and a commitment to remove all excise paid on diesel fuel for off-road purposes and that used by the railways in the transportation of primary products.

At Kingaroy, if one wants to get a rebate on the cost of one's diesel fuel, one has to fill out forms. One is supposed to fill them out, I guess every month, but sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get them organised and get them in, so many farmers throughout Queensland probably think that it is hardly worth the bother. But my Scottish blood demands that I complete those forms, submit them and get my rebate for the diesel fuel. It was much easier in the days before these rules and regulations were introduced.

With regard to petroleum products, I have received a letter from the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland, and I would not be surprised to learn that all Queensland senators have received the same letter. I am sure that Senator Boswell has received it. He is in the chamber tonight. I would not be surprised if our Acting Deputy President, Senator Jones, had received it also. It is a letter to Queensland's Federal parliamentarians about the current import parity pricing policy for petroleum products. The RACQ says that it is unrealistic and it must be changed. The letter was written on behalf of its 487,000 members protesting strongly against the Federal Government's present import parity pricing policy for indigenous crude oil. I would not blame the RACQ for one minute for writing such a letter. It states:

Already this year that policy has added 2.5c per litre to the wholesale price of petrol and further rises of up to 5c or 6c are expected within the next two months.

It is quite a long letter. It went on to say:

The RACQ believes that the price of Saudi Arabian light crude oil is no longer appropriate as a benchmark for the pricing of Australian crude which should reflect-

(i) the price which Australian refiners would have to pay for comparable crude on world markets if no indigenous crude were available, and

(ii) the price which Australian producers are able to obtain for exports of indigenous crude.

This is a very sensible approach to the problem.

When the present Government is collecting all the money from the extra fuel excise, I sometimes think back to some of the things that were said during previous election campaigns. At the 1983 election, the present Treasurer, the Hon. Paul Keating, when he was shadow Minister for Resources and Energy, said:

When we win government we will guarantee the public much cheaper fuel, and LPG will be reduced to its original price.

That is a promise that the Treasurer has not kept. I wonder whether the cheap fuel has evaporated, like his promises.

Senator Peter Baume —Did he ever intend to keep them?

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —He might have meant well before he started, but when he became Treasurer he could see that he was getting a great big rip-off from the fuel pricing policy, so the Government thought that that was fair enough.

I have a cutting of a letter that Mr Goodluck, the honourable member for Franklin, had published in a newspaper in the last few days. He produced a form of advertisement that was used by the Australian Labor Party during the 1980 election campaign. It said:

From January 1, 1981, a Labor Government would freeze the price of locally produced crude oil. After 12 months petrol would be 2.4c a litre cheaper than if overseas price rises continued to be passed on at their present rate of increase.

Apparently what one says in opposition is quite different from what one does when in government.

Recent talks in Brussels between the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, the Minister for Primary Industry and the EEC have failed to result in absolute guarantees for Australia's beef, sugar and dairying industries. We are all aware that over the past 10 years the EEC, because of its surpluses, has been dumping its primary products on to the world market. This is very sad from our primary producers' point of view. The EEC replaced Australia as the world's major beef and veal exporter in 1984, and that situation is expected to continue this year. Having cattle people in my family, I think that that is rather sad, because beef producers are a very important part of our primary producing people.

The Prime Minister and Mr Kerin held discussions in Brussels concerning the plight of Australia's sugar industry and the low world sugar prices. This is a matter that should affect not only Queensland senators and members but also every member of our Senate and the House of Representatives. The EEC subsidies to sugar producers last year totalled $1,100m, or $500 per tonne when the free market price was about $140 per tonne. Sugar subsidies have led to so much beet sugar being grown that Europe, only recently a net importer, is now the world's largest exporter, pushing up to 4 million tonnes on to the world market. Queensland's 6,200 cane farmers had very little reason to celebrate after our Government's talks in Brussels.

On the other hand, over the past two years the Queensland Government has provided $31m in positive assistance to the sugar industry through several avenues. It provided $15m towards carry-on finance in 1983-84 under the rural adjustment scheme. It gave $5m carry-on finance to cane growers in 1984-85; $10m in Treasury loans to six co-operative sugar mills; $175,000, being half the cost of the sugar industry review which is expected to take up to two years; and $800,000 towards the interest component to raise the first delivery payment from $160 to $180 per tonne. The Hawke Government has provided only $16.5m assistance to the sugar industry, one-half of the total of the Queensland Government's assistance, despite a pledge by Mr Kerin that support for the sugar industry would be a first priority.

Sugar was Australia's eighth largest export commodity in 1983-84, earning $619m export income for this country. I view very cynically the fact that our Federal Government can find $176m for the steel industry and $150m to prop up Australia's car assembly plants but cannot find the amount of money required to help our sugar industry. That is very sad indeed. The Federal Government receives every year $80m in excise on potable spirits. These are some of the points I want to bring to the Senate's attention this evening.

When I was speaking in the debate on the sugar industry I mentioned that 1,200 cane growers descended on Brisbane last year to voice their concern to the Prime Minister when he was there. He said that he would undertake a financial commitment to assist them on the basis of a review. Unfortunately, a review takes a long time-it is very slow-and in the meantime the poor sugar farmers are going to the wall. About 20,000 Australians are employed directly in the sugar industry with an indirect flow-on of another 100,000 jobs, all of which are affected very detrimentally by the problem of the sugar industry. The livelihoods of thousands of cane growers and their families are threatened by the inaction of this Government. Coming from the State which is responsible for about 95 per cent of our total sugar production, I find the situation intolerable.

Another rural industry with severe problems at present is the dairying industry. The Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Kerin, has rejected out of hand two years of effort by the Australian dairy industry to produce a national dairy plan to rationalise the industry. The scheme was one of co-operative self-help which involved the transfer of resources to the manufacturing milk producers, mostly in Victoria, from the liquid milk sector. The plan announced by the Minister will cut production by more than 20 per cent by 1990 rather than the gradual fall of about 10 per cent envisaged under the modified Australian Dairy Industry Council plan. The shadow Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Hunt, said that the dairy farmers of Australia had been sold out through one of the most cynical and disgraceful political stunts ever played on any section of the community.

There has already been substantial adjustment in the dairying industry with the numbers of producers having fallen from 49,000 to 19,700 in the last 20 years. In Queensland alone, we used to have 25,000 producers whose numbers were reduced to approximately 5,000. That is a big reduction if ever there was one. I feel that the dairying industry has certainly rationalised its operations. The dairy farmers in Queensland are very concerned about the whole proposal. I point out that Australian farmers are among the least protected in the community. The level of effective protection has fallen from 28 per cent to 9 per cent in recent years.

I feel that this Government's dairying plan is a virtual declaration of war on farmers generally. Not only has the sugar industry been hoodwinked by pre-election promises, but, I regret to say, the dairying industry has been dumped also. As a matter of fact, the Minister, Mr Kerin, said recently that, whatever happens to the dairying industry, quite a few farmers will go broke. Whether there is deregulation, or whatever happens, many farmers will go out of the industry because production has increased beyond what can be sold at a profit. That seems to me to be very bad news for the dairying industry.

One aspect of the debate over the viability of our primary industries which I do not think has been given enough priority is the devastating effect that industrial disputes are having, not only on our production performances, but also on our reputation as a reliable trading partner. Strikes which have occurred recently, and are still occurring and are looming on the horizon, are likely to send farm input costs soaring and will certainly cripple the once-reliable supplies of farm exports. In the past two years, the amount of industrial unrest affecting agriculture has hit an all-time high, despite the industry supposedly having a truce with the unions-in some States anyhow-and the accord which was achieved by Mr Hawke early in his term of government has seriously cracked and looks as though it could self-destruct at any tick of the clock.

I believe that the majority of Australians want the Government to take some permanent action to halt union attempts to undermine this nation's future stability. I am quite sure that rural producers and all Australians are sick and tired of strikes. The slump in our dollar has created concern about a possible flow-on to wages, which will surely test the Government's prices and incomes accord. Even though the Hawke Government has reaffirmed its pre-election promise not to allow increases in the deficit, taxation or government spending, some Ministers have now forecast new and increased sales taxes, capital gains taxes, death duties and gift taxes, not to mention Senator Walsh's startling admission of the possibility of a means test for the spouse rebate.

Despite our traditions of being a hardworking nation of people, industrial disputes seem to be becoming part and parcel of our way of life. We cannot afford the tremendous costs that strikes inflict on the community, on business interests and on our relationships with our trading partners-Japan, the United States, and the European Economic Community. Even Mr Nakasone on his recent visit stressed that Australia's reliability as a supplier was essential to future trade. Already, a Swiss-based report by the internationally-recognised European Management Forum indicates that Australia has slipped from twelfth position to sixteenth in overall competitiveness.

I will not go into all the details about the industrial unrest in Queensland and the problems that it has caused. We had a very interesting matter of public importance debate yesterday. Because of the strike, the Queensland coal industry lost $9m a day in export income. That is a lot of money in anybody's language, and the bill has already topped $100m because the Queensland Colliery Employees Union joined the strike in sympathy with the Electrical Trades Union. However, Queensland is not the only State which has had problems with strikes. New South Wales has had lots of strikes, including railway stoppages and silo workers strikes. In the past year alone, they were estimated to have cost grain growers $100m in lost contracts. On an Australia-wide industrial front the year 1985 certainly looks very worrying for industrial relations.

I want now to talk a little about the assets test and the effect that this test will have on some sectors of the aged population. The process of farm valuations is a scandal. I do not need to remind honourable senators that many people in the community feel that they are being victimised in the course of the valuation of assets. As a matter of fact, I have heard of some cases in the South Burnett area of assets test inspectors having valued land at about six times the amount the accountants said that the land was worth, the accountants' valuation being 10 times more than that of the Valuer-General. That is one of the problems that I have heard about. I think that Senator Boswell intends to tell the Senate quite a deal more about that matter.

I am assured that pensioners who have had small land holdings in the family for generations are being advised to sell up and move to the city because their pensions would be cut because of the high valuations of their family properties. No doubt the Government is sincere in trying to weed out the people in receipt of pensions who are not really entitled to them, but it has really gone too far. I wonder where our sense of initiative and enterprise will end up after so much government interference, which is having the effect of making people ask: 'Why should I bother?'. This country was built on the principles of hard work and determination, with the thought of reward for enterprise at the end of it. Nowadays, if the Government actually allows us to go ahead with some venture the unions will get at us; if they do not, the tax man will. That is how it works out.

Is it any wonder that we are beginning to breed a race of Australians who see that there is no point in having a job or earning a decent wage for an honest day's work when they see their fathers struggling to hold on to a small business, their mothers out working to try to supplement the family income and their friends finding it almost impossible to obtain a job? I think the idea that is being promoted of doing some work for the dole is an excellent idea. I have been saying that for years, but unfortunately nobody has said they can do anything about it. There are think tanks all over the place in Canberra. I think it would be a very good idea if somebody came up with a scheme whereby young people, or indeed anybody in receipt of the dole, did something for it. I can remember the man who used to live over the road from us during the Depression. He could not earn any money to keep his family of four girls. He had to go to work on the Kyogle railway before he could draw his dole. It was not called the dole then, it was called the unemployment benefit.

His Excellency, the Governor-General, referred to the fact that this country, under this Government, was embarking on a course of national reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction. I cannot agree with that. I am afraid for the very heart of our economic strength and our national identity-our primary industries. I fear for the employer of some 60 per cent of the Australian workforce-small business-which is defenceless against the unions' might and all consuming quest for power. I fear for our young Australians who see a future filled with excessive government charges and taxes and who think to themselves: 'Why should I even bother to try to make a go of it? They'll never let me'.