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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5477

Senator HARRIS (2:30 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Macdonald. Minister, could you please advise the Senate of what the interest rate will be for the low interest loan component of the federal sugar assistance package? In asking this question, I duly note that to date there has been only one successful applicant accessing the Queensland government's low interest loan package. The state announced these loan facilities with great fanfare and made much of the $20 million that was being made available to canefarmers. In two months there has been one application totalling just $20,000. That would tend to suggest that this component of the state's package has failed to deliver.

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —I thank Senator Harris for the question. The final details of the Commonwealth's package on interest rate subsidies have not yet been determined, so I am not able to indicate to you today exactly what the Commonwealth's interest rate subsidy will be. Senator Harris, you do make a point about the Queensland government's initiative in interest rate subsidy. As I understand it, although I am not particularly competent to answer for the Queensland state Labor government, their interest rate subsidy provides loans at 6.07 per cent. I agree with you, Senator Harris, and with people in the sugar industry that that is not a terribly generous interest rate subsidy. I know there are commercial loans around of not much more than that, so the interest rate subsidy from the Queensland government is, as I said, not particularly generous.

There have not been a lot of takers. You mentioned that your understanding is that only one person has taken up the loan—that is my understanding as well—and that is somewhat of a concern. Senator Harris, you will recall that the Commonwealth announced with Queensland an assistance package of $150 million for the sugar industry in the difficult times that it is currently experiencing, with $120 million of that package being provided by the Commonwealth government and $30 million by the Queensland government. The money from the Commonwealth is intended to fund regional adjustment, diversification and industry rationalisation, and that will be driven by local committees under the direction of an industry guidance group. The Commonwealth's package will also provide short-term income support measures for 12 months to help stabilise the industry. As you said, we are going to provide interest rate subsidies to support replanting. The exact detail of that is not available as I speak but it will be available very shortly. We are providing payments of up to $45,000 each for farmers wishing to exit the industry.

In relation to the measures for income support, Centrelink has already distributed some 700 income support claim forms and has commenced processing those claim forms. They will be dealt with as expeditiously as possible so that the money can get out to those in need. The income support assistance will be backdated to 1 October. To you, Senator Harris, and to my other Queensland colleagues I say that any farmers or harvesters interested in applying should contact Centrelink at their local agency or on the toll-free number, or they can complete an online registration form. Senator Harris, there is an MOU between the Commonwealth and Queensland as to what the two governments can provide. That does, of course, require the removal of any impediments to industry reform. However, I make it clear that the export single desk marketing arrangements will not be reviewed as part of the Commonwealth-state agreement.

Senator HARRIS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. In that answer, the minister made a reference to the board that will administer the program. Could the minister advise the Senate as to how the growers will be represented on that board? Will the minister commit to the federal government delivering an interest rate that is of real benefit to the growers?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —I hope that every element of the Commonwealth's package will be of real benefit to the growers. Whilst I cannot announce the details of the interest rate subsidy at the moment, as I said, I am confident that it will be of considerable assistance to the industry. Senator Harris, you also raised the issue of what we are calling the industry guidance group and you asked how the industry would be represented. It is meant to be a group that will give guidance to local committees. Local committees will be made up of people from the industry and community leaders. This overarching group will give the local committees some guidance. The local committees will have a range of expertise. They have not yet been absolutely finalised either, but Mr Truss's department is working very heavily on that at the moment and we hope to be able to make an announcement shortly. (Time expired)