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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 7773

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (5:03 PM) —I am pleased to hear support from Queensland senators to this proposal, because the sugar industry is so very important to those of us who live in Queensland and those of us who support industries in Queensland. I am delighted to hear Senator Cherry's contribution, and I know that Senator Bartlett, another Queenslander, is very keen to make sure that the sugar industry in Queensland does not fail. I know that Senator Boswell is speaking on this and that he will be supporting it. My colleagues Senator Mason, Senator Brandis and Senator Santoro will all be supporting this package because it is good for Queensland and it will save the sugar industry in our state—an industry that has done so much for the development of coastal regions, particularly in North Queensland. I think it is an industry that, in spite of its present difficulties, still has a very big future.

I am distressed to hear that the Labor Party are not supporting this package for the sugar industry. I can understand why Senator O'Brien, Senator Hogg and Senator Ludwig, who are all city based people from the south of the nation, are not supporting this, but I am absolutely devastated to learn that Senator McLucas will not be supporting this package. Senator McLucas lives in Cairns. She should understand the sugar industry. She should understand the very severe difficulties that the sugar industry is in and will be in unless this package goes through. In the past, Senator McLucas and her party have supported wholesale sales tax increases across the board. As Senator Cherry nicely pointed out, they have also supported levies on any number of agricultural pursuits over the years. I am particularly grateful to Senator Cherry for his research pointing out that the current—and I emphasise current— leader of the Labor Party, Mr Simon Crean, was the minister when a lot of those levies were introduced. I suppose Senator McLucas, or any of the other Labor senators who follow in this debate, might explain why a levy is a levy under a Labor government but under a Liberal-National Party government it somehow takes on another name.

I am also delighted to see that the Queensland state Labor government, and all of the state members up and down the coast, are also supporting this package and supporting the levy. I understand there are a lot of factional difficulties for Senator McLucas up in the North, but she should leave factions out of this and get with her state colleagues and support this bill, because it is so very important to the sugar industry. Not only do the Queensland Labor government and most of the Queensland senators in this place support this package but the cane growers and leaders in the industry generally also support the levy, because they understand the need for this particular package.

At this stage I pause to congratulate the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Warren Truss, on the tremendous work he has done to get this package through. It is not always easy to get a $150 million package for any industry in Australia, particularly in a government that is very careful about how it manages the economy. Mr Truss has done an absolutely fabulous job. I happen to know the amount of work Mr Truss has put into working towards a package which will be of benefit to the sugar industry. I want to congratulate Mr Truss. I also should congratulate his staff, who I know have put a lot of work into this, as have Senator Cherry's staff. Although Senator Cherry's staff were not always easy to deal with and they drive a hard bargain, I do appreciate their courtesy and the cooperative way in which we were able to deal with these issues.

I should also acknowledge the huge amount of work the public servants—and I emphasise public—have put into this. That includes those in Environment Australia and AFFA, and of course the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr Kemp, and his staff, who have also done a lot to make sure this package is good not only for the industry but for the environment as well. I do thank the sugar industry and the manufacturers who have met with the government so many times in consultation over this levy. We do appreciate the fact that they have come together—that they have made their points. They have assisted the government in designing a program that will least adversely impact on the manufacturing industries but will give the maximum benefit to the sugar industry.

The package devised by the government was always a very good one. It is a very good one for the industry and a very good one for the environment. But I have to acknowledge that the Democrats did actually work with us to focus some of the environmental initiatives. I thank them for that. As a result of their input, there will be an additional $16 million. There will certainly be $8 million from the Commonwealth and, we hope, there will be $8 million from Queensland—we have put that to Queensland. This is absolutely new money. This is not part of the Natural Heritage Trust where money has been put aside. This is additional money that has been going to some environmental initiatives.

I want to acknowledge that, because this is what happens when you work cooperatively with a government. Together we can make a good package even better. The Labor Party are just dummy-spitting all the time and trying to score political points regardless of the interests of the sugar industry. They try to make it difficult for the government to balance a budget. Labor are blocking most of last year's budget bills—we still have not got them through—and they are hell-bent on destroying the economy and the magnificent economic framework that the Howard government has put in place to make sure Australia goes forward.

It is quite clear to all of us here that Labor are simply not serious when it comes to any package of support for farmers and for people who live in rural and regional Australia. I can understand why they are not interested: they have practically no representatives from country Australia.

Senator Boswell —What about Senator McLucas?

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I will come to that. She is not a representative of country Australia, Senator Boswell. If she were representing country Australia, Senator McLucas would be supporting this package. I challenge Senator McLucas to come over to this side and support the sugar industry. Give away the Labor Party's regimentation. Come over here and support the sugar industry. I challenge you to do that. I note that you are on the speakers list, so you will be able to tell us that you are coming over here to support the sugar industry.

Apart from Senator McLucas, you would give the Labor Party away because there are very few who understand country Australia, although I would have thought that Senator Ludwig might have been supporting us because the AWU used to be a great union in the sugar areas and Senator Ludwig's father was very much a supporter of the sugar industry in days gone by. I ask Senator Ludwig to give his father, Bill, a phone call this afternoon in order to understand how good the industry is and to come over with Senator McLucas and join us in voting for the sugar industry.

Senator Sherry has very nicely exposed Labor's hypocrisy on this matter. Not only did Labor introduce the levy bill; it was Mr Crean who was there when the last of the levies were put on by a Labor government. So all of this babble about looking after the Treasury, making sure it comes out and does not affect the manufacturing industries, is a great load of hogwash or, to put it more politely, a great display of the hypocrisy for which the Labor Party in this parliament has become so well known. Remember in Labor's term of government—and fortunately those memories are dimming as every year of the Howard government goes by—how every year the taxes used to go up. The wholesale sales tax, that inequitable tax, kept increasing election after election. I should say after every election, because they would always talk about reducing it before an election, but, as soon as the election was over, up the wholesale sales tax would go.

I regret to say, Senator Cherry, that in the former incarnation of your party, your then leader used to join with Labor and vote with them to increase wholesale sales taxes. History has shown why that happened. Your former leader, going back a few, obviously was more aligned to the Labor Party than we ever knew about. That may explain why your party, in that incarnation, always supported Labor when these taxes went up. We all remember the l-a-w law tax cuts. They actually legislated to reduce income tax.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Bolkus)—Order! Senator Macdonald, you are straying from the topic.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is all about levies and taxes, Mr Acting Deputy President.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —I ask that you get back to the topic.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is all about levies and taxes; Senator Cherry mentioned levies and Senator O'Brien talked about taxes. I simply want to point out that Labor were all about it—and I know the Labor Party are sensitive about this. They said they would legislate to reduce income tax but, as soon as the election was over, they actually legislated to get rid of that reduction. And they have the hypocrisy to come in here and talk about taxes and levies. This is a levy, the same sort of levy that, as Senator Cherry has mentioned, has been imposed on agricultural products and elsewhere on a number of occasions.

Labor's approach to these sorts of things is to promise the world. You know the sort of thing: `We would have paid for this out of revenue'—the same way as they are going to pay for the Coastguard and the same way as they are going to pay for new education. Where is the money coming from? We never hear about that, but we look to the record of the Labor Party and see what happened last time the Labor Party were in charge of the treasury bench. If they were very lucky, sugar farmers in my area used to get their interest rates at 18 per cent. Most of them were paying 20 to 22 per cent to the banks and, as I say, a lot of the banks would not deal with them. When I was in my former profession we used to try to help them by getting private money, but that private money was only available at something like 26 or 27 per cent. This is what sugar farmers had to pay when Labor were in charge because of the way they mismanaged the economy and the treasury bench, and they want to do the same again.

Sugar farmers well remember those interest rates that they were paying. They well remember the inflation rates of 11 and 12 per cent. They remember the taxes going up, and they remember that, as a result of Labor's mismanagement, we had a government debt in the order of $90 billion. You do not have to be an Einstein or a doctor of some economic theory to understand that that sort of thing is what kills an economy and a nation. Unemployment went through the roof—and that happened because Labor simply could not manage the economy and did in those days what they are talking about now: `Give everybody everything they want. Don't bother about how you pay for it, just put it on the tick and you get those sorts of interest rates.'

Ask sugar farmers what they would rather be paying—six, seven, eight, nine or 10 per cent interest rates or the 18, 19, 20 or up to 27 per cent interest rates they were paying under Labor. We should never forget that, because talk is pretty cheap; talk is easy. `Oh, yes, we'd have funded this out of revenue,' they say, but the facts of Labor's administration are clear, and there would not be a sugar farmer in Queensland or anywhere in Australia who would want to go back to those days. They understand better than the Labor Party think the absolute need for financial vicissitude and good management of the country.

This is a good package for the sugar industry. I regret that we have got to the situation where this package is needed, but the industry have been beset by a number of difficulties and problems, not the least of which is the overseas price, over which they and the Australian government have absolutely no control. It is a difficult situation. Like most primary producers, they are price takers and they have to accept that and manage their businesses with that in mind. But on top of this there have been difficulties in climates and difficulties with pests—across the board there have been difficult times. The Howard government want to give the industry a chance to prepare for the future and to adjust for the future. We are doing that in any number of ways that are mentioned in the package we are funding by the levy, which the Labor Party is trying to defeat today. That package will provide income support for those who really do need bread on the table, so to speak. It will provide exit assistance for those who really cannot stay in the industry. Through our industry guidance groups and regional guidance groups, we will be looking, at a regional level, at how the industry will prepare itself for the future.

It is very important that this motion be defeated so that the money is available and the package can go ahead. I call upon the Labor Party to reconsider their attack on the sugar industry by joining with us in this vote. It does appear from what Senator Cherry has said that the motion will be defeated, but it would be great for the sugar industry if the farmers, the workers in the mills and the milling industry could all understand that the federal parliament is unanimous in its support for the industry by all senators coming to this side and opposing the motion. It would show the industry parliament's support—and the industry do need some comfort; a bit of moral support. They need to know that the federal parliament understands their difficulties and is prepared to support them in their hour of need. It is not a lot to ask of the Labor Party, and I do hope that the Labor Party will reconsider that proposal, throw aside the hypocrisy and get on board and support the industry.

I invite those who will speak in this debate who are not from our side—and those speaking on our side are Queenslanders—to get up there and have a talk to the real sugar industry, have a talk to those who do have a plan for the future. They are not seeking government handouts. There are a small group of farmers who want more and more, but I have to say, gratefully, that they are a very small group, a very small part of the industry.

Most people in the industry understand the problem. They understand that governments in any country cannot continue to prop up an industry that cannot look after itself in a difficult world trading environment. All of the sugar industry leaders, a majority of the sugar farmers, all of the workers and all of the manufacturers understand that. They understand that there is a need to move forward, to readjust to today's situation. They also understand that this has to be done in a way that is environmentally sensitive. I am delighted that the whole package, as it originally was and in its slightly enhanced form, will concentrate on a sustainable industry for the future, one that can benefit not only the industry but the ecology and our way of life generally. I urge senators to vote against the Labor motion. I plead with the Labor Party to show solidarity with the people in the sugar industry by also voting against their own motion, coming over to this side with us and rejecting this ridiculous attempt to try and attack the sugar industry.