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Tuesday, 5 December 2000
Page: 20691

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (5:12 PM) —Mr Acting Deputy President Murphy, I think it is appropriate that the Wool Services Privatisation Bill 2000 is being discussed with you, as a former gun shearer, in the chair. I do not think it is likely to happen again, and it is very appropriate. The legislation comes before the Senate on a day when the government has announced a very commendable and well received package for those thousands of grain growers affected by the flood and also comes three days before the annual general meeting of AWRAP—I expect the last AWRAP meeting—in Melbourne on Thursday.

This is important legislation for Australia's 45,000 wool growers. As we all know, it is a vital industry for regional Australia. It has always been so and will be so for the foreseeable future. It completes the decision of the government to get out of the industry as far as possible by handing AWRAP back to growers. Firstly, the government privatised the stockpile and its debt. That happened two years ago, and wool growers have already benefited from the return of the capital, the better management of the sales and the upward movement of prices. We now have before us the privatisation of the Australian Wool Research and Promotion Organisation, which comprises the assets of the Woolmark Company, some real estate, intellectual property and some financial reserves. It flows from the growers' decision in 1998 to sack the board of AWRAP and also the recommendations of the McLachlan inquiry and the interested groups mentioned by Senator Woodley, including the Woolgrower Advisory Group, the Australian Wool Growers Association and the interim advisory board of the new Wool Services Company.

The details of the benefits are well known. There is universal support for these changes. The second reading speech sets the scene well; however, I wish to raise a couple of matters in the very short time allocated to me in this debate.

The first is the status of the eight per cent interest of the South African Cape Wools company, their share of ownership of Woolmark. The value of this has been negotiated and I understand is in the process of being settled to the satisfaction of both Cape Wools and AWRAP. I have a message from the legal advisers of Cape Wools who say that they expect that the negotiations will be concluded tonight. As an interested observer, I have no problem with Cape Wools keeping an equity in the new company. It was, however, the value they placed on a cash settlement in terms of their interest in Woolmark which was inappropriate. I want to put on the record that the South African negotiators I met were very decent people, like most people in the wool industry, and I think that they would bring an extra momentum and value to the new company if they chose to stay in.

The other matter that I wish to raise is a matter of some urgency. We did expect this legislation to be debated last week, before the 30 November cut-off date for the registration of shares in the new Wool Services company. This opportunity to apply for shares in the new commercial company is obviously something which will have to be extended because I understand only half the growers have registered for their shares. Those with an interest in CommercialCo will have permanent shares and the R&D company will have a rolling register, but existing levy payers—those people who have paid up to 30 June 2000—will have shares in the R&D company as well, and, of course, they will have shares in the commercial company. As I said, only half of those entitled to register have done so; at the end of November about 22,000 remained to be registered. There was a problem with flood affected growers, and the Australian Wool Research and Promotion Organisation said that they would make allowance for those people to register late, and I expect that they will. Just one final point on the registration of votes: I think that, having paid tax, wool growers found it very annoying that they had to register for votes in this organisation. If that was an indication of the level of competency of AWRAP, then I think the decision taken by growers to sack the board a couple of years ago was entirely appropriate. I am sure that the new privatised body will be a much classier show than the previous body. I have every expectation it will be. I commend the government on this legislation and I thank the main participants, the Woolgrower Advisory Group and the Interim Advisory Board, including Tony Sherlock and Rod Price, for doing the things that needed to be done to help get this important industry back on track.