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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1438

Senator MAGUIRE —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Primary Industry. I ask: Has the Government made an estimate of the saving to the Budget, compared with current policies, of abolishing the consumption subsidy for fertilisers used in the rural sector, as apparently proposed by the Opposition? Is the fertiliser subsidy one of the major farm support elements in the Budget, if not the largest?

Senator WALSH —The answer to the last part of the question is yes. The provision of fertiliser subsidies is a major part of the Budget outlays in the farm sector and indeed is estimated for this year to be $83m, which, it should be noted, falls into two qualitatively different components; that is, $55m for what, for want of a better name, I will call a consumption subsidy; and the balance of $28m for section 96 grants to offset the effect of anti-dumping duties. According to the Sydney Morning Herald recently, ending the farm fertiliser subsidy was one of the few propositions in the Opposition's leaked expenditure cut paper which have not been repudiated specifically. Further, it has also been reported that the National Farmers Federation--

Senator Chaney —Mr President, I raise a point of order. Last week two Ministers refused to answer any questions on the Government's expenditure cuts. We how have again the rather absurd spectacle of Ministers of this Government purporting to answer questions on Opposition policy on the basis of a document which has been clearly identified as being no more than a working document. I suggest that it would be consistent with previous rulings if the Minister, having answered that part of the question that lies clearly within his own responsibilities, on the second part was told to sit down and allow another question to be asked.

The PRESIDENT —I realise that there have been a number of points of order on this matter. I have looked at some of the past rulings. Questions have been accepted where the question was directed in terms which request the Minister to state whether the Government intends to adopt some course of action suggested or embarked upon by a non-government party or a State government and to give the reasons for the Government's acceptance or rejection of the proposed course. This type of question is in order because the Minister is asked for information on the Government's intentions and the reasons for these intentions. Going with those previous rulings, I determined that Senator Maguire's question was in order. Of course, there is a problem when the Minister starts going outside answering the question and starts debating the matter. I ask Senator Walsh to bear that in mind. The question was in order.

Senator Chaney —On a further point of order: I do not dispute your ruling, Mr President, in any sense, but my point of order did not relate to whether the question was in order. I did not take a point of order on that. I thought that the question was in order. The point is that I do not think the answer is in order when it starts to canvass documents in the way this Minister is canvassing documents-in a way which is purely hypothetical-and when the Minister is permitted by you and the Standing Orders and is prepared to refuse to answer any questions about the Government's intentions, including on matters such as fertiliser subsidies.

The PRESIDENT —I took the opportunity to read out that ruling, as I said, because there have been a number of queries on it. I know that the honourable senator was not debating whether the question was in order. I have no power to direct a Minister on how to answer a question except when he starts debating the issue. I suggest to the Minister that he was beginning to get into that area.

Senator WALSH —Thank you, Mr President. All I was about to say was that it has also been reported that the National Farmers Federation would agree to the abolition of the fertiliser subsidies if that were to be part of a $10 billion total expenditure cut. Since the hairy-chested Leader of the Opposition has been able to identify only $32.6m worth of expenditure cuts, I doubt whether the NFF and the Liberal Party would do a deal on that.