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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2063


Senator ARCHER(1.12) —On Tuesday of this week this chamber debated the fishing legislation. I think it would be reasonable to repeat two points that I raised in that debate. As recorded at page 1890 of the Hansard, I said:

I would . . . like to use the opportunity of this debate to raise the question of fuel costs. I asked a question last week about an impact study on the effect of this year's fuel cost rises on the profitability of existing fisheries and on the likelihood of new developments. I have not yet received a reply and I hope that I will . . . get some response shortly. Fishing uses more fuel per unit of production than any other industry and its situation needs to be taken into account. There is little use in putting new legislation into action to save the fishing industry if at the same time fishermen are unable to continue to fish because fuel becomes too expensive to use. How many honourable senators appreciate that the cream of the tuna fleet and, of course, of the prawn fleet are now putting from $35,000 to $40,000-worth of fuel in their boats before they go to sea?

As recorded on the following page, I then said:

The management of the northern prawn fisheries has demonstrated what can be achieved, and I would like to take this opportunity to give it special commendation for what it has done at a time when the Government was not too sure what it ought to do. The organisation, led by Peter Pownall, has demonstrated what can be done and, having struggled to rationalise a very bad situation for many years, there is every indication that it can fix it; and this legislation regularises the arrangements that cover its very excellent buy back system. If it has a good season and follows the plan through, it will be better off as an industry in the future. I only hope that every approach-and there certainly will be approaches-will be turned down totally as they arise. All sorts of approaches will be made to water down the scheme, and I hope that they are totally resisted. My congratulations go to Peter Pownall and all the boys from the north, and I offer them as a model for other fisheries.

Members of the Government may not be aware that an average 25-metre prawn trawler of modern design, fuel efficient and operated carefully, has had its annual fuel bill increased by $45,000 in May 1985 alone and that in most cases it now amounts to something like $250,000 a year to keep an ordinary prawn trawler fishing in the Gulf of Carpentaria. On the fleet basis, it is the equivalent of having to catch something like an extra 140 tonnes of prawns. The total extra cost to the northern prawners of the May fuel increase alone is in the vicinity of $4m to $6m. This follows an increase earlier in the year and looks as if it is going to precede another rise which has been foreshadowed for probably June or July of this year.

As I mentioned, the northern prawn industry has embarked on a buy-back system. Tuesday's legislation approved a $1m contribution from the fishermen themselves to reduce the effort and increase the economy of the fishery. This fishery alone provides employment for some 2,500 people and provides $120m to $150m a year in export income. It just cannot stand such an enormous obstacle as this fuel increase now puts in its way at a time when it is doing everything that it can to get on its own feet. This is just another wanton act of disruption to an industry which operates in a remote part of Australia and provides employment for 2,500 people and an export product that is worth from $120m to $150m a year at a time when Australia badly needs export income.

I suppose that there is some rationale for saying 'Let them join the dried fruit industry and the dairy industry or whatever', but I find it totally incomprehensible that a government can so selectively proceed up the track of attacking the productive sector of Australia and of transferring an enormous amount of money from that sector to the non-productive sector, as resulted from Tuesday night's effort. Our trade balance is slipping, so the Government cuts our export incentives and attacks the industries that produce export income. Perhaps we may be told just whose economic theory it is that we are following. We may then understand it better. But in the meantime we are destroying confidence in investment. We are ruining our export industries and we are on the brink of causing further diabolical sociological disruption.

In this case the Government has gone along with the way this industry intends to rescue itself, and the approval of the fishing legislation on Tuesday put that into play. The industry has done its part and has agreed to put up its own money, which will assist the Government in the overall arrangements of balancing the biological and economic issues, and now-bang!-it is hit with another rise in the cost of fuel. The day the agreement was ratified by the Senate the Government took the sort of action that makes the industry's performance extraordinarily difficult. The industry has acted in total good faith and it now looks to the Government to take action to restore the viability that it has taken away.

I believe that there are four issues to which the Government should be directing itself at this time. One is the restoration of the safe anchorage scheme which operated for some years and provided a best-pricing basis for fishing boats to obtain fuel at a more economical price. Secondly, there is the removal of the 2c tax on fuel which fishermen pay but which in fact is a bicentennial roads program tax. I believe that it is an absolute nonsense that the fishermen are still paying this 2c and have not been able to shake it off. Thirdly, the Government should be pressing to establish a thorough fuel utilisation study and to provide all the assistance that it can, ensuring that better value is obtained if and when it is possible. Fourthly, the Government should be trying to provide assistance with negotiations to arrange bulk fuel contracts from overseas for use by this group of people or by other groups in the same situation. The industry is important. It is absolutely vital to the area and, very clearly, government action needs to be taken to restore the good faith to the arrangements that the industry made only recently with the Government.

It is not only the fuel cost that this industry, as one of the productive industries, copped on Tuesday night. The industry loses heavily as a result of the export incentives. No industry has used the export incentives more valuably than the fishing industry, which has done a lot of work overseas trying to win markets in various places. It wins them and loses them in various countries from time to time. It costs a lot of money to investigate and develop them, and export incentives have meant that the price obtainable in Australia has been far better than it otherwise would be. Then, of course, there are the massive cuts to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, some of which will flow on to the fishing industry.

I ask the Government to look at the mess that has been created. I am sure that it has happened without any full realisation of what is involved. We have to get the industry settled down and operating effectively and economically. The present fuel situation simply cannot proceed without producing disastrous results. When I asked a question in the Senate last week about a fuel impact study I was told that it was unknown whether any such thing had been undertaken. It is my view that no such action has been taken. Without such a study it would be impossible for the Government to make the necessary decision based on real facts. I just ask the Government to give it some real consideration to do it quickly and to get the industry settled down again.

Sitting suspended from 1.22 to 2 p.m.