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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1261

Senator CRANE (6.34 p.m.) —I do not know about them being more important but there are a number of comments that I would like to make about this inquiry by the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and its report on New Zealand shearers. I would like to start by acknowledging the contributions of the committee members. I particularly include our chairman. This was a much more difficult inquiry for the Australian Labor Party members than it was for the coalition members. I say that because, firstly, the coalition members have had more practical experience in the shearing shed over their lifetimes; secondly, the inquiry started on a spurious basis of the claim that 42 per cent of Australian sheep were shorn by New Zealanders.

  I think we all knew that was not correct but nonetheless the inquiry did perform a very useful function. The recommendations that have come out of it, particularly in relation to training and further award restructuring, are important. The shearing industry did participate in the award restructuring two or three years ago and some significant changes were made to the award. I see that Senator Forshaw has come in. He was a principal player, I believe, in that award restructuring. A lot of flexibility was introduced into the award that did not exist before, which picked up in a lot of instances what was happening on the ground. We need to recognise that, but as Senator Burns said, it needs to go a little further. I will not go over time tonight because I have to catch a VIP plane back to Western Australia—

Senator Panizza —And I have, too.

Senator CRANE —It is important that Senator Crowley is here with us because there is no doubt from the evidence that over the last eight to 10 years the involvement of women in the shearing shed has been an important development. I knew this as a person involved in the industry. I should declare an interest because I am a woolgrower and I did shear for 20 years, so I had a little practice at the game. The involvement of women in the shearing shed and their handling of wool have been incredibly beneficial to the industry. For whatever reason—and I am not going to go into that—it is my view from my experience and from the evidence that was given to us that by and large women are better wool handlers than men. Whether it is because they have more patience or whatever is irrelevant; it is an important development.

  The breaches of the award are minimal, very much at the edges. We did not come up with any substantial breaches, certainly not in terms of pay. Generally, awards were observed. The other point that needs mentioning in terms of this report is the number of New Zealanders operating in Australia. The interesting point about the number of New Zealanders here is that the vast majority of them are residents of Australia; they live here. One particular individual who gave evidence and pointed out the facts as he knew them said that his understanding was that most of the people in this area had been in Australia—working, paying taxes, their children going to school, or whatever part of community life they were involved in—for more than 10 years. It was interesting to learn how stories grow on top of stories.

  In one particular instance in Queensland—I forget the name of the town—after some encouragement, an individual appeared before the committee. I am sure Senator Burns will remember this well. The individual had been named as one of the big, bad New Zealanders. He got up and said, `I want to put a couple of things on the record. One, I have been in Australia for 18 years. I married an Australian girl. I have four Australian children but actually I am a citizen of New Guinea.' That gives us some idea of how myths grow up. Getting these things on the public record is important.

  The point that needs to be understood very clearly is that most of the problems in the shearing industry, and in this particular blow-up, emanate from the collapse of the wool market and the enormous drop in sheep numbers. Pressure was put on employment because within a very short time—some four to five years—sheep numbers dropped from 173 million to 139 million. I am using figures estimated over the past two years. It meant that almost a quarter of the sheep were slaughtered or were sent to market and that there were fewer sheep to be shorn.

  This created the problem that there were the same number of shearers to shear approximately 25 per cent fewer sheep. This must be taken into consideration when we deal with this subject. A great deal of emotion was generated on both sides of the equation. On one side were the woolgrowers and farmers who were being economically pushed and losing a lot of money on their operations, and on the other side were the people involved on the production line—the shearers, rouseabouts and wool classers—who were also being economically pushed because there were not the same number of sheep to shear. When the government develops policy responses, it is important that it understands that there is economic pressure on both sides.

  I have worked with shearers, I have employed shearers and wool classers, and I have worked on a lot of properties. I can say quite categorically that in my experience 99 per cent of the employers that I worked with were very good, considerate and helpful. I can say the same about the shearers that I worked with on the board, the rouseabouts, the wool classers and the wool pressers. But it is the one per cent of people—and this runs right across the shearing industry—who often give the industry a bad name, and certainly an unfair name.

  I would urge the government in its response to this report, and in response to any matter pertaining to the wool industry, not to direct all the efforts to the side of the one per cent of the industry who cause a lot of heartburn, heartache and disputation. They are the people, whether employers or employees, that we do not need in the industry. If we continue to see the current improvement in wool prices, I think the problem will go away very quickly. Australian sheep numbers will build up to 150 million or 160 million again, there will be sufficient work to go around and there will be a return to the producers. As a result I believe content will return to the industry.