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Monday, 25 June 2001
Page: 25014

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government) (6:07 PM) —The Dairy Produce Legislation Amendment (Supplementary Assistance) Bill 2001 is urgent and it is very important that the Senate pass the bill—it has already been dealt with by the House of Representatives this week—so that we can implement the provisions of the bill in time to help farmers and communities before the winter break of parliament. For those who may be following the debate, I have to clarify some of the issues that have been raised by Labor Party speakers, most of whom sought to score political points by misrepresenting both the history and the nature of this bill and its predecessor and also, in Senator O'Brien's case, by rewriting history so far as milk and the dairy industry is concerned.

I will just make it very clear that regulation of the dairy industry was a matter for the state governments. Regrettably, all of them, with one exception now and with two exceptions at the time the first bill went through, are Labor states. If anyone has any complaints about deregulation of the dairying industry, they should put those complaints to the Labor Party state governments. That is outside the purview of this particular chamber, but the absolute hypocrisy of Labor Party politicians by continuing to blame the federal government for deregulation knows no bounds when they know as well as anybody else that deregulation of the dairying industry was at the hands of the state governments, most of which were Labor. I do not say that they were easy times for the state governments to deal with, but they were the ones that could have dealt with it had they chosen to do so.

Senator O'Brien did at least give a partially correct history about the Commonwealth's involvement, the last of which was the Domestic Market Support Scheme. As Senator O'Brien rightly said—but he tried to hide the political impact of it—the support under that scheme concluded on 30 June 2000 because of an arrangement that was introduced by the federal Labor government. I do not recall but I suspect the coalition parties probably supported that when the federal Labor government introduced the scheme, but the reason why the federal government support finished on 30 June 2000 was that that was the detail of the scheme put in by the then government, which happened to be Labor. Those sort of points do not help the dairy farmers or dairy communities, but they do put into perspective the hypocrisy of Labor senators in attributing blame to this government for deregulation and stoppage of support which were the playthings of state Labor governments and a federal Labor government.

As everybody knows who seriously follows this debate, the federal government looked at it this way: there was deregulation at state level, the states were not doing anything about it, and there was going to be an enormous problem with dairy farmers and the dairying industry; so the federal government became involved, not in deregulation but in introducing a levy scheme that would help the farmers and communities through the worst aspects of deregulation. The federal government did that because the leaders of the dairying industry approached us and asked us to do it. That is what we have done to try and pick up the pieces that are there because of the inaction of the state governments.

I want to briefly sum up by highlighting the aspects of this amendment bill, but in passing I indicate to Senator Woodley—and Senator Woodley talked about deregulation—that we are trying to fix deregulation. That is what we are interested in; we are not interested in attributing blame. It is wrong of you and the Democrats, and anyone else, to accuse this federal government of being the cause of deregulation, rather than the states where it actually applies.

Senator Hogg made a contribution which did not pretend to be interested in the actual legislation. Senator Hogg was there simply to try and score a few political points and to try and continue the campaign of misinformation that has caused people like Mrs Stark, whom he quoted quite substantially, a lot of distress. Mrs Stark's tale is a sad tale but, again, Senator Hogg should have been saying to Mrs Stark, `I am sorry; it is the fault of the Queensland state Labor government that puts you in the position you are in.' He should have also said, `It is the fault of the previous Labor federal government that puts you in this position,' rather than encouraging Mrs Stark to not understand properly the reasons for the difficulty that the industry is in. We are not interested in attributing blame or scoring political points; we are interested in trying to fix the problem, and that is all we are interested in.

Senator Hogg talked about industry adjustment and seemed to blame the coalition government not only for this problem but also for any other problem. That is the sort of line that I recall Senator Hogg taking when we had the courage to address the pork industry, which was in diabolical trouble. You will remember, Senator McGauran, how Mr Howard went to a town in the South Burnett before the last election and was almost run out of town because of the misinformation that had been spread by the Labor Party about our proposals to help the pork industry. Mr Howard went back to the same town a couple of weeks ago, and they hailed him as a hero. It is the biggest thing since sliced ham.

Senator Woodley —A little overstated but—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Perhaps they did not hail him as a hero, but they were very happy to see him and very happy with the way he had handled the adjustment of their industry.

Senator Woodley —That is true.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you for acknowledging that, Senator Woodley, as any fair and honest person would acknowledge. I re-emphasise to Senator Hogg—although I know he knows this, in spite of the fact that he says something different—that the work we did in this bill was done at the behest of, and in cooperation with, dairy industry leaders. He says that Mrs Stark says that the dairy industry leaders let her down. I do not imagine that is correct but, from a government point of view, we have to work with the industry. The industry can only work with governments through their industry organisations and the leaders that the industry themselves elect.

Senator Harris made a contribution that I found unusual and could not quite follow, but we will perhaps get on to that a bit further during the committee stage of the debate. Senator Buckland came in, and perhaps the most significant thing he said was that he really knew very little about the dairying industry. I agree with him there, and he certainly was accurate in that aspect. But he seemed to be blaming the government for helping people exit the industry. There are any number of cases through the history of government and across all government programs where, at appropriate times, governments have done the right thing to try to help people make a soft landing, to exit with dignity. If Senator Buckland wants to go through the history lessons, we can tell him the exit support that the previous Labor government gave in many industries—I do not blame them for that. One I recall off the top of my head was the timber industry, when the Labor government stopped logging in various areas. The Labor government, although they did it atrociously and incompetently, did at least attempt to ensure that those involved could exit the industry.

Senator Buckland was saying that people are left without any future. That is what this legislation is all about: to give them some future, to help them adjust and to help them move into perhaps beef cattle, which are doing pretty well at the moment. He talked about the regional impact of deregulation—again, we have done something about it. I say to you, Senator Forshaw, and if you would tell Senator Buckland: why didn't the states do something about the regional impact of deregulation rather than turning their backs and walking away from it, leaving it to the federal government to do?

Senator Buckland did not seem to understand that the Dairy RAP program, the regional adjustment package for dairying, is all about regional development. It is trying to help people. You criticised us for a polo field. I do not know the details of that, but we have attempted to provide money for community groups to help them through this difficulty. If you accuse those who applied for funding for a polo field of doing something wrong, I will make sure that they know of your accusations and they will no doubt want to respond to you. But I am sure that all of those who have received money under the Dairy RAP package will be grateful for it and will realise that at least this government is interested in doing something to support regional communities.

I might also say for Senator Buckland's benefit that, if he wants to do something for regional communities, can he stop his party in this chamber and in the other chamber opposing every single program that this government has put in place to assist regional communities? He complained about banks closing. The Labor Party did nothing about that when they were in government. We have at least tried with the Rural Transaction Centres Program. What do we get from the Labor Party? We hear their spokesman continually carp about that program with never a positive suggestion, never any help. The shadow minister never turns up to any of these rural transaction centres when they are opened; we just hear carping all the time—criticism, negativity. The same with the telephone system—

Senator Forshaw —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I know the minister is trying to drag this out to get to 6.30 so that he can have his dinner, but we are actually debating the Dairy Produce Legislation Amendment (Supplementary Assistance) Bill 2001, not Telstra, not rural transaction centres. Could you ask the minister to get back to the topic, please?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—He has probably been distracted by your continual interjections, Senator Forshaw, which have not helped either.

Senator Forshaw —Mr Acting Deputy President, a further point of order: I accept your ruling, but the minister was actually addressing his remarks to a senator who is not even present in the chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —There is no point of order.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Senator, I was addressing them to you actually and I think you are in the chamber. I was talking about another senator who is not in the chamber but I was addressing my remarks to you. I think you are in the chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Ian Macdonald, address your comments through the chair, please.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am simply going through the speeches of other senators who have made contributions and pointing out the absolute hypocrisy, in most instances, of the contributions they have made. For example, Senator Buckland blamed the dairy deregulation on the national competition policy. I do not agree with him but, if he is right, why didn't he tell the Labor government about it when they introduced the national competition policy? It is his own party's program that he is then criticising; again, we supported it at the time. Senator Buckland cannot have it all ways: his government introduced it but now he finds it politically expedient at this time to criticise it.

There are a lot of other issues I could debate with previous speakers in the second reading debate, but I am very keen to get this bill through. It is essential that we get it finished before the winter break, so it is important that we continue with it. I will briefly summarise by repeating that this amending legislation, this supplementary assistance bill, provides an additional $140 million on top of the $1.78 billion package that the previous bill provided to the dairy industry through this government. Senators will be aware that last year in the lead-up to the decision by all states to deregulate their fresh milk arrangements and as a result of a united request by the industry, the federal government put in place this very generous adjustment package to assist with the transition of the dairy industry to a deregulated environment.

The falls, however, in the market milk prices have been greater and faster than anticipated by the industry. These falls have been most pronounced in the ex quota states—that is, Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales. Consequently, although the government anticipated the varied impact of deregulation and thus provided higher payments for market milk at 46.23c per litre, compared with manufacturing milk at 8.96c per litre, it became evident that we as a government, acting in the best interests of not only the industry and regional communities but also the nation, had to do more. The changes to the market milk regulations came about, regrettably, because of the decisions made in state parliaments that state governments would provide no compensation for removing the state based price support mechanism. That is why we have had to come back. One would have thought that, when the states removed their price support mechanisms, they would have at least put in place some program to help the industry through. Except for the coalition government in Western Australia, which stood out on its own here, none of the other states have provided any sort of compensation for the removal of their state based price support mechanisms. We have come to the party again, and we have provided this supplementary assistance.

Most of the senators have indicated what this package is about: $100 million in the additional milk market payments to farmers who were most heavily dependent on the market milk production; $20 million for eligible people who, because of extraordinary circumstances, were excluded or their entitlements were significantly lower than normal under the Dairy Structural Adjustment Program; and an additional $20 million for the Dairy Regional Assistance Program, Dairy RAP, which is doing so much in regional communities and which is being criticised so heavily by Labor senators. It is inevitable that, in any assistance measures of this nature, there will be producers who are concerned about their eligibility. We have heard examples of some of these during this debate. However, I make the point that the underlying principle of supplementary dairy assistance measures is to provide targeted assistance to those people and communities directly affected by the fall in market milk prices. This assistance is not about providing compensation or income support; it is about helping with the adjustment by those farmers who are most in need, thereby easing their transition to a deregulated market and providing wider public benefits to regional communities.

In addition, the government accepts that a relatively small number of people have been denied or have received a lower adjustment package payment entitlement than they would normally have expected. A discretionary payment right is to be made available to address the interests of these people. The discretionary payment right will be available to dairy farm lessors in certain circumstances where there is evidence that the lessor would normally have been an owner-operator or where significant reliance and fall in lease income can be demonstrated. The government is responding to requests from the industry for additional assistance.

The findings of the ABARE report were quite dramatic. They demonstrated in detail to the government that there was a need for additional assistance. The government is acting as quickly as it can to address the concerns of vulnerable dairy farmers and their communities. These new measures will deliver targeted and timely assistance to those dairy farmers and dairy communities most in need. I commend this legislation to the Senate.

I repeat that this is an urgent bill. In spite of whatever objections the Labor Party or the Democrats or Senator Harris might have to some of the finer details of the bill, they will accept that it is very important that this legislation goes through before we rise on Thursday for the winter recess. The money is needed now. It needs to be put in place at this time. As well as commending the bill, I urge senators to deal with it expeditiously so that we can get it passed and so that the benefits can start to flow immediately.

Amendment not agreed to.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.