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Wednesday, 25 March 1987
Page: 1321


Senator McKIERNAN(4.48) —The Senate is debating this afternoon a motion moved by a Liberal Party senator from Western Australia, Senator Crichton-Browne, in the following terms:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Government to bring down the crippling interest rates, record levels of taxation and the other costs which are devastating Australian farmers and small businesses in country towns.

I suppose if we live long enough we get to see everything. Here we have the charade of the Liberal Party pretending to have an interest in not only the farming community but small business as well, particularly the small businesses in country towns. This pretence will help the Liberals in their current crises both within the coalition and within the individual parties in uniting, hopefully, on one issue and giving this Government some opposition, which has been sadly lacking for quite a long time.

There have been many references by Senator Crichton-Browne, Senator Brownhill and, just recently, Senator MacGibbon to the winning of votes by political parties and the concern felt by political parties for people in the bush, for the farmers and for those in the rural sector. One thing that is quite often forgotten and overlooked by this community, and indeed it is overlooked too often by those sitting on the Opposition benches, is that it is the Australian Labor Party that holds the most seats in the rural community in this country today.

It is the oldest political party in this country that finally gained, at the last Federal election, the recognition of farmers and rural people throughout this country. They were not being represented in the past and they put their faith in this Government. Indeed, they have not been let down by this Government. This Government has faced a crisis in international trade that no previous government has ever faced. I will deal with that in some detail at a later stage of my contribution to the debate.

In this debate we are near enough automatically locked into taking sides. There is a danger in that that the poor old farmer and those living in rural communities could be locked up somewhere in the middle, being kicked from all sides. That is a great danger in any debate in which two sides are participating. I have decided to refer to an independent source which perhaps will have some degree of objectivity, the Australian Financial Review, a reputable newspaper that is not, as I understand, under the control of or greatly influenced by either of the major political parties in this Parliament. In its editorial today, 25 March, headed `Strength through adversity'-Mr Acting Deputy President, I will repeat that because it is funny how one's tongue gets caught from time to time; `Strength through adversity'-it goes into a number of valid points about what is happening in the community today, particularly as they affect rural producers.


Senator Siddons —Why don't you speak English?


Senator McKIERNAN —My countrymen back home also say something like that, only they reckon I speak Australian. We will find out later in the year, hopefully. The article makes a number of valid points. If one were to listen to the debate from outside, not knowing what really was going on in the rural community-and I commend honourable senators in this place to go out into the rural community and see the position for themselves-one would think that it really was all gloom and doom out there and that farmers really had the seat out of their pants, were being cast off the properties and so forth. But that really is not the case. Certainly, sectors of the farming community are suffering very harshly and bitterly at the moment, as are their families and the towns and rural communities that support those isolated regions. That is happening but it is not happening in every sector of the community. It is certainly not happening all over Western Australia, as might have been implied by Senator Crichton-Browne in his contribution. I will quote a short section from the Australian Financial Review which discusses wheat, about which Senator Crichton-Browne spoke in great detail. It says:

. . . we are about to harvest the fourth largest wheat crop on record. Last year, we were also the only major wheat exporting country to increase its world market share.

I think those facts speak for themselves. Some people out there are not quite ready to be tossed off the farm. I will have something to say on that again at a later stage in the debate. It was asserted by, I think, all three previous Opposition speakers that the problems in the rural sector are completely the fault of the Hawke Labor Government, a government that has been in power now for four years and one month, that nothing that ever happened before has had any impact on the problems we are currently experiencing. Of course, that is not the case either. We have to be objective or we will never reach solutions to the problems. The people who will suffer will be the farmers. We should not merely turn them into political footballs in order to win seats-and Labor will win votes in the rural sector because there are farmers who know what this Government has done for them and who, at the next Federal election, whenever it is held, will cast their votes for us. One seat of particular interest, not only to this side of the House but also to honourable senators opposite, is that of O'Connor because the Labor Party votes in O'Connor will play a very important part in determining who represents that vast regional area.


Senator Puplick —It will choke you to give it to Tuckey.


Senator MCKIERNAN —As Senator Puplick knows, I am not in control of that. There are a number of reasons for the problem, not least of which is the current flavour of the month-restrictive work practices. This editorial from which I have just quoted says something about restrictive work practices, not those imposed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the trades and labour councils-even the Australian Workers Union or any other union for that matter. I will quote directly to put this matter in some degree of perspective:

Grain growers could also do their bit by eliminating their own restrictive work practices. There is no reason why authorities should be forced to accept wheat deliveries around the clock. Such deliveries force up labour costs unnecessarily.

So I ask the rural community, the farmers and the grain producers to look at that. This opinion is not coming, as I said, from this side of the chamber but objectively from the Australian Financial Review, a reputable newspaper. I will finish the quote on this matter but there are a number of other matters I want to deal with, not the least of which is the National Farmers Federation, which has also been mentioned in the editorial. I quote again from the editorial:

We have also done our bit to contribute to the current world over-supply of wheat. The writing was on the wall about falling grain prices by the late 1970s but our grain growers chose to happily ignore it and kept borrowing and planting.

If the current world wheat downturn forces long-overdue reforms in our handling and pricing policies, then our wheat industry will emerge strengthened from the adversities which have plagued it. Unfortunately, in farming, as in any other industry, unavoidable structural change comes at the bottom of the economic trough, not at the top.

That editorial is well worth preserving and quoting again and again. Certainly, when I visit the rural communities I will be quoting sections of it.

Senator Brownhill stuck his neck out quite a bit. That is expected of National Party people these days. He mentioned that farmers perhaps were the greatest risk-takers of all. Indeed, if one looked at the history of farmers in this country, one could tend to agree with that comment. If we looked at how they have sought political representation, we would have to agree. There is a national acceptance in the community at large that farmers are part of the conservative forces of the nation and look to the conservative parties for their representation. That record in recent years is none to good. I will not go back before my lifetime, but let us look at the Country Party, lead by John McEwen, which built up a manufacturing industry based wholly and solely on protection. Ever since that time farmers and their industrial organisations have been screaming at all governments to reduce the levels of protection.

I will move on a bit and say that the leader of the National Party, the National-Country Party, or the Country Party-I am not sure what it was called at the time-Doug Anthony, as the representative of farmers, has the unenviable record of hyping up the resources boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the detriment not only of manufacturing industry, which was decimated and destroyed at that stage; he also put the rural sector and farmers in second place to the interests of foreign multinational companies that had no interest in the people of this country or in representing them in any shape or form.

A number of previous speakers referred to the National Farmers Federation. Unfortunately, farmers have been pretty unlucky again. Just over a month ago, a major national policy release by the Farmers Federation called on the Government, just after it announced the decision to have a May economic statement, through its President, Mr Ian McLachlan, to cut outlays by $10 billion in the coming financial year. That can almost stand up against the leaked document from the Liberal Party last weekend. The $10 billion of last year, as well as cutting outlays, included demands for a flat tax. Senator Crichton-Browne said earlier that only 15 per cent of the farming community shows a profit. I would argue that most farmers do not now pay tax but if we accepted the policies of the National Farmers Federation, which purports to represent farmers, they could be paying a flat tax of 30, 40 or 50 per cent-whatever the going rate is at the moment. That is what Mr McLachlan is about.

He also called for the repeal of the fringe benefits tax. Earlier one of my colleagues, Senator Maguire, went into some details of what the fringe benefits tax is about. He asked how many farmers trot off to the city or the major town at lunch time to have a three or four hour lunch topped up with all sorts of expensive wines and spirits at taxpayers' expense. As we have heard, not too many of them. However, the National Farmers Federation, through Ian McLachlan, wants that privileged reinstated.

Mr McLachlan also called for the abolition of the capital gains tax. I do not know what impact the capital gains tax has had on the farmers of this country. As I understand it from the statistical information I have seen, the price of farm land has been going down. If that is the case, no farm land will be subject to a capital gains tax. Unfortunately, the problem we have is that the National Farmers Federation has been, and is, misleading and misrepresenting the interests of those it purports to represent. Ian McLachlan is not a resident or working farmer; he is an absentee landlord. He is more closely aligned with doing deals with fellows such as John Elliott, a director of Elders IXL Ltd, not looking after the interests of farmers. Whenever the next election is held the farming and rural sector will look closely at the policies offered by the individual political parties. Again it will endorse the Australian Labor Party and make us the major party representing the rural community in this nation.