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Tuesday, 5 December 2000
Page: 20689

Senator WOODLEY (5:00 PM) —There is no doubt that the Wool Services Privatisation Bill 2000 is a piece of legislation for which many people have been waiting for a long time. There is also no doubt that there is general support in this place for the legislation. That is certainly the Australian Democrats' position. When we received the report of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee on this matter, I put on the record a number of things that I will perhaps repeat today. I do seek a couple of assurances from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. At that point I will indicate those and look for an answer from her. I indicate that the Democrats are in support of the bill and of its passage as soon as possible. It is not always the case that we get to vote on a bill that has had such scrutiny. We compliment the committee—which I suppose is complimenting myself—and the committee secretariat on the amount of work which the committee has done in teasing out the various implications of this legislation, but we have now reached a point that allows us to agree with the legislation both in principle and in the detail. However, I will still be seeking some explanations, comments and assurances from the parliamentary secretary.

The Democrats remain committed to having the bill passed and to having the changes in place by 1 January 2001. I could probably make much the same speech that Senator Forshaw has made. I will not repeat what he said, except to say briefly that one of the main reasons why we had some hesitation in agreeing to debate the bill and also to pass it concerned the issue of Cape Wools and the possibility of a debt being passed on to either the new company, which would affect the equity of wool growers, or wool growers directly through some increase for a period in the wool levy. I have been given assurances that the agreement between AWRAP and Cape Wools, if it has not been finalised now, is as close as possible to being finalised. For that reason, we are prepared to go ahead with debating the legislation.

I am also given assurances that the issue which I raised, and which others raised in the committee hearings, about who would pay for any remaining debt, which was not answered at the time, has now been answered in the sense that there are sufficient assets of the old AWRAP company to cover any contingent liability. That does not answer the question of what that does to the assets of the new company, and there is a concern there, but a debt does exist. Quite clearly, it is a debt against the assets of AWRAP and, therefore, it is appropriate that the debt be paid out of those assets. I still would want to argue—although I know that the government would not accept this—that I believe there is a moral, if not a legal, responsibility on the government to also make some contribution to that debt. I know I am not going to win that argument. I believe the government was very much involved in signing off on the agreement which established the framework for the payment of the equity to Cape Wools. Because of that I believe there is a moral responsibility on the government to make a contribution. However, I expect that that argument will be hard to win.

There is no doubt that all of us who have been involved in this debate for many years are committed to the establishment of the privatised companies. We are certainly committed to seeing the wool industry get back on its feet, as it is beginning to do. I need to put it on the record that this is one point on which I parted company with the Labor Party in our minority report, because I do believe that the freezing of the stockpile and the subsequent legislation did lift off the wool industry something which was forcing down the price of the fresh wool market. At least Senator Crane and I agree on that. We can probably never prove that absolutely, but we welcome the rise in wool prices since that time. At that point I did have to disagree with the Labor Party's dissenting report, although I agreed with the bulk of it. I believe that subsequent events since the freezing of the stockpile and then freeing it up again and selling it under a different regime has meant that the wool industry in general has been able to enjoy higher prices at auction.

One of the things that I think are critical in this legislation is that, while it is called a privatisation bill, it is not privatisation in the sense that the company is being bought by stockholders who just have a financial interest. Rather, what it does is transfer equity from AWRAP into growers' hands. They will have direct control of their own industry and of the levy which they will be paying. That is very appropriate. Members in this place will know that the Democrats have not supported many of the privatisation moves made by this and previous governments but, in this sense of privatisation, we support very strongly the fact that growers will have control of their industry through these new bodies.

I very much thank people who have endeavoured to provide information, including industry peak bodies, AFFA, the minister's office and others. I also thank the people who I have had most association with over the years, and that includes the Australian Wool Growers Association, who have played a very constructive role, along with other bodies and other people, in bringing us to this point.

As I said before, it is very important that we have reassurance. I will listen if the parliamentary secretary is able to give us any more up-to-date information than I received this afternoon about the agreement between Cape Wools and AWRAP, but in any case we are reassured that growers will not be burdened with an unknown amount of debt and that that debt is now covered.

There would be no security for wool growers if the rate of the levy was in any way problematical. It is quite clear that growers knew what they were doing when they voted for a two per cent levy. They were committing themselves to further research and development in their industry, and they were very strong about that. They were very clear that the levy should be at the rate of two per cent.

One of the other questions I wanted to ask the parliamentary secretary—and I am sure the departmental officers will hear this—concerns the whole problem of the wool producers who have been infected with ovine Johne's disease, particularly where they have had to de-stock. If we operated on the basis of the legislation in establishing their equity, they would be severely disadvantaged or end up having no equity at all. I was going to move an amendment to try to correct this, but I have had some assurances along the way that this is covered in the bill or the regulations. It would be very helpful if the parliamentary secretary would confirm that those wool producers who have had to de-stock because of ovine Johne's disease will not be disadvantaged in the allocation of equity.

I still have some concerns which I know Senator Ferris raised very strongly in debate and in questioning staff. They concern the problem of the transfer of staff from AWRAP to the new companies. I am not going to be critical of any individual—clearly there are many very highly qualified staff who would make a good contribution to the new companies—but there is the question of the transfer of the culture with which AWRAP was burdened. Probably that answer has been given, but it may be helpful if the minister addresses that question.

I note that in the legislation there is a requirement that no secondary representative bodies be formed under the auspices of this new company. The Democrats continue to support producers' groups which are funded by voluntary levies. Sometimes statutory bodies which are assured of funding through compulsory levies can become complacent and not responsive to the concerns of their membership. I believe that is what prompted the reaction which resulted in the Goulburn event some time ago. Those bodies which are unresponsive to the reality of producers' needs and operate in this environment of complacency, with no direct link to an individual producer's problems, will find themselves under increasing scrutiny. I am pleased that there is in the act the requirement that the levy not be used to fund those bodies.

I have supported very strongly the rise of voluntarily funded bodies in the wool industry, the sugar industry and, more recently, the dairy industry, because I believe that those bodies can be much more representative of people at ground level. I commend the legislation to the Senate, having raised a couple of issues, and look forward to the parliamentary secretary's assurances a little later in this debate.