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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 828

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (5.15 p.m.) —Before I respond to Senator Crane directly, I will respond to Senator Boswell because he is in the chamber and he charged me yesterday—falsely, as it turns out—with misleading the Senate in respect of things I said about Mr Anderson's press conference. I was not going to bother to do this separately but, because this debate was brought on this afternoon, I will do it now.

  Yesterday in the Senate, Senator Boswell, in very dramatic terms, called on me to be a man and apologise to Mr Anderson and so on. He gave an extraordinary version of Mr Anderson's press conference on the question of propositions that a government, presumably a coalition government, would involve itself in facilitating the removal of significant portions of farmers' debt.

  I will make this clear. I have enormous respect for Senator Boswell's integrity. I do not accuse Senator Boswell of deliberately misleading the Senate, but I say to him that he has been very sadly dealt with by his colleague in the explanation he gave the Senate yesterday. Mr Anderson or his staff have been caught out on this by that same little piece of machinery that caught out his leader in the Northern Territory when he tried to mislead people; that is, a tape-recorder. The press conference was tape-recorded. I am happy to provide Senator Boswell with a tape. I have a verbatim transcript of it, and I will table the transcript.

  I do not doubt for one second that Senator Boswell was simply relying on advice given to him by others when he came into the chamber yesterday. I relied on the Canberra Times article, which was absolutely accurate, when we compare it with the transcript. Senator Boswell said in here yesterday, and he will recall it, that Mr Anderson had not actually proposed this suggestion as one of his but was simply responding to questions from journalists.

  I have a verbatim transcript of the press conference. Mr Anderson, in his opening statement to the conference, before a single question was asked, talked about setting up a committee. The drought committee that the coalition is to establish does not, I note, include the Leader of the National Party in the Senate. It does not have Senator Boswell on it. I think that might have more to do with the fact that Senator Boswell has been the frontrunner on this issue and he has, without question, received more press on this issue than the shadow minister himself. I think that has more to do with his being kept off that committee than anything else. That is just my view; he would know.

  When talking about the setting up the committee in his opening statement, Mr Anderson said that this would be one of the things the committee would examine. He said:

The committee will have to look in my view at the facilitation of banks and lenders writing off portions of farmers debts.

I do not know who from Mr Anderson's office misled Senator Boswell yesterday. It was not in response to a question from any journalist. The Canberra Times headline is accurate. It quoted this exactly yesterday. The paper was right; Senator Boswell's explanation, regrettably, was wrong.

  A journalist asked the question:

How much debt should be forgiven or restructured . . . that you raised earlier?

Mr Anderson then went on to say that he thought about a third of it would need to be written off. So I need to correct the record on that. Mr Anderson is the person who needs to apologise to Senator Boswell. This is a verbatim transcript of the press conference demonstrating that what I said is accurate, and I table that transcript.

  The second piece of dodging and weaving that has been engaged in by the members of the opposition, who were obviously in some confusion and disarray on this matter, is from Senator Panizza. I was astonished at his personal explanation today when he accused the Australian of getting it wrong. We have already had Mr Anderson accusing newspapers of getting it wrong. Senator Panizza accused the Australian of getting it wrong by personal explanation because the Australian had said that he had attacked the fodder subsidy proposal that we are supporting in here today. He objected to it and disagreed with it.

  Earlier today I watched the monitor of Senator Panizza, who stood up here today and said that the only thing he had criticised in here yesterday was me, the minister. Listen to this extract from Hansard of what Senator Panizza said yesterday about the fodder subsidy:

  I come to the point Senator Collins made about the stupidity of putting subsidy on fodder itself. I confess that I argued against that yesterday.

That was in the party room. I interjected and said:

It's got some problems.

Senator Panizza said:

Yes, it has got some problems. I argued against it yesterday because I believe it should go on to freight instead.

And I interjected and said:

So do I.

Again, I have to say that I do not quite know what the opposition is up to on this issue of drought. But, once again, the opposition really does need to get its act together. The Australian got it right and Senator Panizza's explanation today was in total conflict with the Hansard record of yesterday.

  Having corrected those two items I want to return to the debate and the matters specifically raised by Senator Crane's motion, the IEDs, fuel excise and the fodder subsidy scheme, which, as Senator Panizza told the Senate yesterday correctly, does have some big problems. That is why when the government conducted a major review—the first time it had ever happened, actually—into drought and setting up a national drought policy in 1990, it was specifically recommended against by the task force.

  Who was on the task force? Representatives of the Commonwealth government, state departments and the peak industry bodies in Australia, the cattle council, the National Farmers Federation and the Grains Council of Australia. They came down against things like fodder subsidies. I want to explain that because, remarkably, before John Kerin initiated this we did not have a national drought policy for Australia. And I am sure Senator Crane would agree with me by saying that was, as the report notes, an astonishing thing in a country like ours where—and Senator Crane acknowledged it again in the debate today and the report says this, correctly—drought is a feature of the Australian landscape. I quote from the first volume of the report:

It comes as a surprise that Australia, one of the driest continents on the globe, does not have a national drought policy. More surprising perhaps is that until recently executive responsibility for drought at federal level did not rest with the agricultural portfolio.

That is a reference to where we now want to be taken, although I concede that that is not part of this motion—back to simply lumping it in with the national disaster relief arrangements administered by the finance ministers, not by agriculture ministers in Australia.

  Nobody whom I spoke to on the ground in Queensland, from farmers to representatives of the peak bodies, wanted to support that. I put it on the table and said, `Do you think it is a reasonable idea'—because I had an open mind on it—and they said `No, we don't want it to go back to that at all.' So everyone that I have talked to has rejected that in Queensland.

  These documents make very instructive reading because they led to this document, the Senate committee's investigation of this issue in 1992. It is totally consistent and is why we have this drought policy today. The specific recommendation of Managing for drought contained in this first ever major examination of the question of drought in Australia—and that is why I think it should be paid some regard—was that things like fodder subsidy should not be supported and government assistance should be directed through RAS.

  I will hear arguments—and I will, in fact I welcome them, I call for them; I have been doing it for weeks—on helpful suggestions as to how we can restructure RAS. And let me tell Senator Boswell that I have noted and given an undertaking, which I am discharging, that I will examine all of the concerns that he and others have raised about RAS—in fact I am doing it. Senator Boswell would have noted that I acted immediately to correct what was clearly a problem that I identified myself some months ago in New South Wales RAS by amending those guidelines and opening up the system for further claims.

  The problem is laid out, I have to say, very persuasively in this major examination not just by experts. CSIRO was represented on the task force, as well as industry. The unanimous decision was that they did not want to go back to things like fodder subsidies. They wanted drought dealt with specifically through a rural adjustment scheme. What objections did they have against fodder subsidies? I know from my own experience on the land, even though it is years ago, the truth of some of the conclusions they came to. First of all—and there can be an argument about how much it distorts the market—there is a straight up and down economic argument, which cannot be argued, that subsidies of any kind distort the market; they do. But that is not the major issue.

  The major issue—and I know it is a major concern for Senator Panizza, and he probably said it in his party room—is that it is a positive disincentive for farmers to plan for drought. I know that is the view of many members of the coalition; it is certainly the view on the ground in the bush. It is a positive disincentive not to plan for drought. In other words, it totally destroys the rationale of the recommendations for the national drought policy.

  I put this to the coalition very sincerely indeed: I would be a little reluctant, without the most scrupulous examination—and I will continue looking at it—to totally dismantle the major centrepiece of the first drought policy this country has ever had, which was endorsed completely by the Senate committee on which Senator Crane serves and on which Senator Brownhill was the deputy chair, without a dissenting voice, endorsed by the Senate in 1992, that we should direct all our government assistance at assisting farmers to plan for drought.

  Senator Boswell will find that in these reports—he should read them because they are instructive. The fodder subsidies—not freight, which of course state governments are already providing assistance with—are a total disincentive for proper management for farmers. I know that is the view of many of the farmers who were sitting opposite me this morning.

  Coalition members might have heard the chief of the CSIRO division of ecology—the division I used to work for—on the ABC this morning denouncing the proposal, and I do not blame him because there is another problem: fodder subsidies encourage bad managers to retain overstocking on land for much longer than they should have the stock carried on that land, which leads to massive land degradation and loss of top soil. It is an appalling proposition from an economic perspective, from a planning and management of farm perspective, which is the centrepiece of the national drought plan, not devised by the government but put together by the first, only and most exhaustive examination of the problem of drought ever conducted in this country that comprised the peak level involvement of all of the major primary industry groups in Australia as well as state and federal governments.

  This afternoon the coalition is asking me to vote in favour of a proposition that would utterly dismantle the first drought policy the country has ever had, which was reconfirmed by a Senate committee only as late as 1992. I have to say that this afternoon I am not about to do that because the problems I have raised about transaction based subsidies, which is how they are referred to in these documents, are real. Having said that, I repeat what I said in the Senate yesterday: the situation with drought is now affecting all Australians, not just rural Australians. The drought is continuing to deepen and worsen in Queensland and New South Wales.

  I had a meeting this morning here with my colleague the South Australian minister for agriculture. Parts of Western Australia, of course, are now drought affected as well. The central parts of the Northern Territory are now drought affected. Unfortunately, the advice from the Bureau of Meteorology is grim and discouraging; the situation will not quickly get better. I have given a commitment publicly and in this Senate that we are continuing to examine the issue. I will take a further submission back to cabinet in the near future.

  I went straight to cabinet, as I committed myself to do, and got immediate additional assistance. And I want to put that in perspective. People are saying, `Only $14 million conscience money.' It has to be seen in the perspective that it took the total amount of money we have given in specific drought assistance to over $50 million. It was not meant to be seen as anything other than an immediate response. I am examining these other issues that Senator Crane has canvassed in here—the IED scheme and all the rest of it—as I said I would, and I am continuing to do what is extremely important. It is something, regrettably, that the coalition did not do, as has now been publicly revealed in its promulgation of this drought policy yesterday.

  I am continuing to work closely with the state governments of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia now and Victoria—indeed, all of my state and territory colleagues—to discuss with them the best ways of a coordinated approach, state and federal, to deal with the drought and, importantly, the industry that we are trying to help. That is why the coalition's policy is in as much trouble as it is in now and being attacked—because Mr Anderson did not bother consulting with anybody. He did not talk to any of the industry groups. The NFF has already made the point that it would like to be consulted. (Time expired)