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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 7787

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:26 PM) —I realise that we need to conclude this debate on the disallowance motions by 6.50 p.m. and that Senator O'Brien has to close the debate. But, as a Queensland senator, I thought it appropriate to put my views about this on the record. The Democrats are very pleased with the extra money for the environment that we have managed to negotiate from the government. Some of it is new money and some of it is redirected money. The total amount will of course depend on how much the Queensland government wants to put in. But the basic fact is that it is money being directed towards improving water quality in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and restoring and maintaining wetlands around coastal areas, which will assist significantly with water quality. It is money that would not have been there except for the Democrats, and the Democrats are pleased to have ensured that the money is being directed towards that important environmental problem. As a Queenslander, I am very keen to ensure that more is done to protect and improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The Democrats certainly do not suggest that this package put forward by the government is the magical solution to every problem the sugar industry faces. We do not think it is the best package possible, but it is the only package on the table. The choice for the Senate is between this package and no package. If this levy were knocked off, it would possibly be funded from general revenue. We do not know. The government says that it would not. Who knows? I do not think cane farmers should be stuck in the middle of that sort of political game playing. They deserve certainty.

Another issue is whether it is appropriate for the package to be funded by consumers, as is the case with this levy—or this tax— rather than from general revenue. I certainly do not mind calling it a tax. It is a tax, even if it is collected under levy legislation. There may not be a strong case for one industry to get significant resources paid for by all taxpayers, but there is an argument that that funding should come from consumers—people who use the products that industry produces. The sugar industry is being treated equally to many other agricultural industries, in the sense that the consumers and producers of the product are directly paying a levy that goes back into the industry in various ways—in assistance packages like this or in research, promotion, et cetera. That is a consistent, longstanding practice and one that I think is much more acceptable, in many ways, than expecting the entire taxpayer community to bale out a particular industry. If you do that for one industry, why not do it for another? In that sense, there are arguments in favour of using this levy as a funding mechanism.

Whilst this package will not address everything in the sugar industry, including what people in financial difficulties need or the restructuring of the industry so that it can deal with the very different economic, scientific and research climate of today compared to the past, there is no doubt that this amount of money is going to be a lot more help to the sugar industry than no money at all. That contrast needs to be put forward. In many ways, the other factor from the Democrats' point of view is that, if this levy were knocked off, whatever else the government proposed to do in its place, if anything, would not give the Democrats the opportunity, as an environmentally concerned party, to use our balance of power to get more support for a marine park and for environmental issues. We think it is appropriate, in our role as a party in the Senate—and Senator Cherry and me being Queenslanders—to use the opportunity to get a better outcome for Queensland and for the environment. We see it as part of our role in the Senate to ensure that we get constructive outcomes and raise issues where we can—as we have done repeatedly in relation to the marine park—but also to try to get concrete outcomes. I am pleased that we have achieved that in this case.

There are issues for the sugar industry that the Democrats believe need to be acknowledged in the long term. When I was going around Queensland I spoke to sugar growers in Mackay, in Cairns and in Brisbane, and I spoke to the Mayor of Douglas Shire, which is a significant cane growing shire. I found it perplexing that every time the Democrats mentioned the word `environment' or talked about the environmental performance of the cane industry there was this incredibly defensive reaction as though everything that needs to be done is now being done. Whilst I do not dispute that the cane industry has improved its performance in recent years, I do not think any industry would suggest that they are doing everything perfectly. We are pleased that we have been able to change the criteria for the allocation of this funding so that environmental standards, including using the industry's own Compass standard as a benchmark, will ensure that the money is used in a way that will improve the environmental performance of the industry.

I think the industry needs to acknowledge that raising the need for them to improve their environmental performance does not mean that we are calling them mindless environmental vandals. We are not saying that at all. But we are saying that there are genuine issues. There is no doubt, as the research shows, that one of the causes—although not the only cause—of impacts to water quality in the marine park and to loss of vegetation, and particularly to wetland degradation, is activity with the sugar industry. Those issues need to be addressed. I think the industry, more broadly, recognises that.

I would like to particularly commend the work of the Douglas Shire and its mayor, Mike Berwick, and indeed the Mossman Mill, who are being very creative in trying to minimise the environmental impact and maximise their standards and the value they can get from the sugar cane product. That is the sort of direction that the Democrats believe the industry needs to go in. Like all agricultural industries, it needs to recognise that there are limits to the areas that it can cultivate and limits to the size and appropriateness of the land on which sugar can be grown. Again, the Douglas Shire and the growers there, and the way they are working together, have put forward a good example. I would urge the rest of the industry to look at what is being done in that area, which I think is the northernmost cane growing region in Queensland.

In short, the Democrats do not support this disallowance motion, as has already been indicated by my Queensland colleague, Senator Cherry. We recognise that the package is not perfect, but it is better than no package. We also express our pleasure, and I guess our thanks, to the government for its willingness to provide extra resources and extra strengthening of the environmental criteria of the package as well as support through the CRC funding program for further research into water quality issues. These are issues that need more attention and focus. The Democrats will continue trying to get more focus for those issues. We believe this is a small step forward. Again, it is not going to solve every issue, but it increases the resources that are being provided and at the same time provides some assistance to those in the cane industry who we recognise do need assistance.

The final message I would leave for the cane industry, though, is that assistance cannot continue for ever and ever. I think every industry realises that. Eventually, significant adjustments will have to be made—there is no doubt about that. It is for the industry itself to work out how best to go about doing that. But if that adjustment is not made then the problems will only get worse and the ability of government, the public and consumers to continue to fund assistance packages is going to have an end point at some stage. Broadly speaking, I think the industry recognises that, but it needs to acknowledge that these sorts of assistance packages are not done easily. The level of public tolerance and acceptance of assistance packages to all industries has its limit, and that needs to be acknowledged and absorbed by the industry.