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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5488

Senator McLUCAS (3:27 PM) —I also rise to take note of answers to questions about the impact of the drought on rural and regional communities and Senator Coonan's response to my question about the sugar package. Sadly, the responses from Senator Ian Macdonald and from Senator Coonan had a consistent theme. Unfortunately the theme that has emerged today is, `We don't know.' Essentially, Senator Macdonald said that the government does not know how to assist the grain industry. Further, he would not say if the government would follow Labor's policy of supporting Farmhand on a dollar for dollar basis. I would like to correct Senator McGauran's corporate memory, which he says he has so much of nowadays, because I am advised that in fact Labor did match the previous Farmhand contributions on a dollar for dollar basis under the Hawke Labor government. I wish he would listen, because he might learn something and add to the corporate memory of which he has so much, according to him.

Senator McLUCAS —So we did; we have just got that on the record, okay? We did contribute on a dollar for dollar basis, so I suggest that you may have misled the Senate through the words that you used in your contribution before mine. Finally, my comments go to Senator Coonan's answer. Senator Coonan did not know when or how the sugar tax might be imposed so that the sugar industry in Queensland, in particular, might have some confidence in the package that the government is putting up. I note that there is a long way for the government to go to gain the sugar industry's confidence at the moment because of the delay in responding to a crisis that the minister should have been aware of for at least a year.

Industry growers, millers, harvesters, mill workers—all the people in sugar towns—are looking for some surety and for some understanding of what the government is going to do and how it is going to be delivered. They want to know how the government will fund the assistance package but they have no surety and they have diminishing confidence in this government's being able to provide them with an answer as to how they can move forward.

But it is important to note that Senator Coonan did make one thing absolutely clear today. She made it absolutely clear that what is being proposed is a tax on the consumption of sugar. It is not a levy; it is not an arrangement. Senator Coonan, in her own words, said very clearly that what is being proposed is a tax. But, to return to my theme, we are still not sure whether the tax will be imposed on the consumers of sugar or the manufacturers of sugar. So, whilst we are clear that it is a tax, we do not know whom we are going to tax in order to fund the sugar assistance package. It is simply not good enough to say that we do not know. Farmers, farm communities in drought, sugar farmers and sugar communities need to understand government policy so that sensible, practical decision making can occur.

Particularly over the last year, I have noticed the increasing inaction of the minister in responding to events, both climatic and industry based, in primary industry. We have seen, over the past six months, bungles in the exceptional circumstances payments. Mr Truss advised the House of Representatives on 19 September that welfare payments for farmers covered by Bourke and Brewarrina exceptional circumstances applications would be `available immediately'. The minister then issued a media statement confirming his commitment and saying that eligible Bourke and Brewarrina farmers would get immediate income support. Five days later, Mr Truss told the parliament that welfare assistance would be available while their EC applications were assessed. Twenty days later, all that farmers in drought affected New South Wales have had from the Howard government is Mr Truss's broken promise. It is exactly the same story with the sugar industry immediate assistance package. It was promised and finally eventuated some three weeks after the date that Mr Truss told sugarcane growers that they could expect to receive the application forms. In fact, when growers contacted Centrelink, Centrelink's advice was, `We don't know anything about it.' (Time expired)

Question agreed to.