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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 675

Senator CHRIS EVANS —My question is directed to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Senator Collins. The minister would be aware of the announcement yesterday by the Deputy Leader of the National Party of a purported new policy to address the worsening drought situation. The minister would also be aware that Mr Anderson is promoting this policy document as `a realistic blueprint' which the federal government should adopt in providing further assistance to drought-stricken primary producers. Can the minister inform the Senate whether the government intends to act on Mr Anderson's suggestion?

Senator COLLINS —So far as the central plank of the new policy is concerned, we certainly will not. I responded to a question here last week from Senator Boswell, and I made the point that the continuing drought, and the worsening drought, is not now just a problem for people in rural Australia—who of course are suffering it the worst—but a problem for the whole of Australia. I therefore awaited, I can tell honourable senators, with a great deal of interest the release of this policy yesterday because, if there had been elements of it that were reasonable, I would have had no difficulty in embracing them.

  The difficulty is, as I am afraid some major farming groups have already said, that what was offered instead was not a policy for dealing with the drought but in fact a cruel and uncosted hoax on rural Australia. It was a policy crafted in opposition for opposition. Given that Mr Anderson, extraordinarily, told the press yesterday that the opposition had not costed this policy, which passed through the shadow cabinet yesterday and has become coalition policy, I have asked the Minister for Finance, seeing that the opposition is urging us to adopt it, to cost this policy. A lot of heroic assumptions will have to be made because of the lack of detail that Mr Anderson provided, but one thing he did say was that the central plank of the new policy was a pledge to go back to the old days of the government—nationally, presumably; the federal government—providing fodder subsidies; not transport subsidies on fodder, but actually subsidising the fodder itself.

  These subsidies were well and truly rorted, as Mr Anderson himself acknowledged yesterday; and when he was asked how he would prevent this he said, `Oh, the opposition wouldn't allow that to happen.' He did not actually indicate how. But the difficulty with fodder subsidies—and one does not have to be an economic genius to work it out; this is what happened last time—is that they totally distort the marketplace. They send the price of fodder through the roof by at least the amount of the government subsidy, so the farmer actually getting the fodder subsidy ends up exactly where he was before, at square one, because the subsidy he was getting last time in fact was not even covering the inflated cost of the fodder.

  The only people who were beneficiaries, as the National Farmers Federation said yesterday, were the suppliers of the fodder, not the poor old primary producer who needed the fodder. The other huge hole in this proposal is that the subsidies go only to farmers who are `severely drought affected.' The price of the fodder, of course, goes up for everybody. Mr Anderson also did not define what severe drought is. I am still waiting to hear that.

  The difficulty with this proposition is that the thousands of farmers across Australia who routinely need and use fodder for their normal farming operations will have to pay the inflated cost of the fodder but will not be receiving any government subsidy for doing so. It is an extraordinary proposition, this central plank of the coalition's policies. But this is, I have to say, a unique document, Mr President. It is the only detailed coalition policy that I have ever seen. It is the only one.

  It went through shadow cabinet yesterday, it got ticked by the shadow finance minister, it got ticked by the shadow treasurer, and Mr Anderson said yesterday, in terms of how much it will cost, `We will leave the costing of it until later.' It is a fascinating view of the coalition in government. A portfolio minister walks into the cabinet room with a policy proposal that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars—and it will—with no costings on it and gets it ticked by the shadow treasurer, the shadow finance minister and, presumably, the shadow prime minister, who all said, `That's okay. That's coalition policy now. Tell us about the price later.' That is an interesting window into how those opposite operate.

Senator Hill —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I am pleased that the minister has sat down, but I will make the point anyway. The question was dressed up to ask whether the government would adopt the policy, thereby supposedly coming within the standing orders. But in fact what the people of Australia would have much preferred to hear from this minister is what he is doing in relation to drought-affected Australians. Why is he not coming up with some worthwhile initiatives rather than bagging an attempt by the opposition to do something constructive?

Senator Collins —Mr President, I rise on the point of order. I presume Senator Hill was in shadow cabinet yesterday when the coalition endorsed this uncosted policy. While the coalition was tacking on a raft of conditions on the land fund, I might add, it put this uncosted policy through. The coalition has called upon the government to adopt this policy. We therefore have an obligation to have it costed and to explain to the Senate why we cannot adopt it.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I do not think you are helping anything. You are debating the issue and it is not on the point of order.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The shadow minister for primary industries, Mr Anderson, has also suggested that a coalition government would seek to write off one-third of rural debt. As the government is often accused of adopting opposition policies, is the government considering adopting this particular policy?

Senator COLLINS —I wish we could. I was just astonished at that being portrayed as a piece of coalition policy. He not only said `rural debt', he said `rural debt not just for primary producers but for rural businesses as well'. Just for farmers, the cost to the government of that would be in the order of $6 billion.

Senator McMullan —Is that all?

Senator COLLINS —That is all. But we are looking at it and the finance minister will cost it. He also said that this would be extended to businesses, as it would have to be, in rural Australia. One could probably double that figure. But for primary producers alone, the cost to the government of this coalition policy would be $6 billion.