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Thursday, 24 March 1994
Page: 2215

Senator BOSWELL —My question is addressed to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy. Is the minister aware of the widespread criticism in the farming community that the eligibility criteria for the wool exceptional circumstances provisions under the rural adjustment scheme are too tight? Is he aware that the Wool Council of Australia, several state agricultural ministers and a range of farmer organisations also support a relaxation of the criteria which require woolgrowers to have earned at least 65 per cent, rather than 50 per cent, of their income from wool before being eligible for assistance? Does the minister acknowledge that, in the face of the wool industry crisis, woolgrowers have had to turn to other sources of income just to survive, and the result of doing this has been to disqualify them from assistance? Does the minister agree that this is the reason why the states have not spent all the funds allocated under the wool exceptional circumstances provisions of RAS, despite the desperate need in the bush?

Senator COLLINS —Yes, I am aware of that. But I point out to Senator Boswell that the purpose for the wool exceptional circumstances provisions is to assist specialist woolgrowers. I have had quite a number of submissions on this matter. Indeed, one farming organisation put to me very seriously that the government should consider making wool exceptional circumstances money available to primary producers who indicated a preference for wanting to become woolgrowers; that is, to transfer from their existing operations to wool.

  I point out that we are talking about multimillions of dollars of public money—very large sums—which have been put into wool exceptional circumstances provisions. In fact, over the last 10 years the government has expended almost $1 billion of public money in the wool industry generally in promotion and other assistance. That money has to be targeted to the people who need it and are eligible for it. That is why these guidelines have been established.

  The government has taken action to have the matter examined. The Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Committee—RASAC—is an expert committee. I am sure Senator Boswell knows that we have eminent people on that committee, chaired by Mr Neil Inall. I have had several meetings with him where the subject has been discussed. These people know what they are doing. This particular reference has been to that committee twice, and twice the committee has come back to the government and said that it considers that the 65 per cent margin is appropriate in terms of the way this money has to be directed. However, as minister, I have no objections at all in raising it again with my Rural Adjustment Scheme Advisory Committee. I will speak to Mr Inall about re-examining the 65 per cent limit.