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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator WEBBER (5:57 PM) —The Wheat Export Marketing Bill 2008 and the Wheat Export Marketing (Repeal and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 outline new arrangements and the legislation comes to this place after an extensive consultation period has been completed. This has included the release of the exposure drafts for public comment, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee inquiry and report and the Wheat Industry Experts Group’s consideration of the delivery of industry development functions.

In addition to that, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Burke, has also had constructive discussions with all of the major state farming organisations and major bulk handling and trading companies. The government has conducted several detailed private briefings with each of the state farm organisations, as well as a significant number of non-government members and senators. There has been detailed discussion around these new arrangements. Most in this place and the other place have agreed that there is a vital need for new arrangements. The old system was broken. It had ceased to work, and it was actually a public embarrassment to Australia.

The government, after this extensive consultation process, outlined these new arrangements in the legislation that we have before us today. The new arrangements, as has been said by others in this debate, are designed to benefit the entire wheat industry—which I have got to say, as a representative of Western Australia, is a very good first step. It is designed to benefit the entire wheat industry, particularly the growers, by providing greater contestability and selling options for growers, more cost-efficient marketing services and greater transparency of price and cost information, and by reducing the risks associated with relying on a single seller.

If you had any doubt about the problems we faced under the old arrangements, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray, you only had to come to our home state of Western Australia. Not only have these new arrangements been arrived at after detailed consultation but, as Senator Minchin mentioned earlier, they provide a relaxation of the regulations around the bulk export of wheat. Coming from the state that, I believe, has the most efficient and most export-oriented wheat farmers in Australia, I believe this is a reform that is long overdue. Most of the wheat production in my home state is for the export market, not for the domestic market, and we did not necessarily feel very well served by the previous regime. In fact, there were some notorious Western Australians involved in the demise of the previous regime, which was not helpful.

As has been outlined by others, this legislation establishes a new industry regulator, Wheat Exports Australia, with the power to develop, amend and administer an accreditation scheme for bulk wheat exports. Whilst WEA will be given the power to administer the scheme, it will do so under broad policy parameters set out in the legislation before us. WEA will only accredit companies that meet stringent probity and performance tests. WEA must consider criteria such as the financial resources available to the company concerned, its risk management systems and the demonstrated behaviour of the company and its executives—a reform, I would say, that no-one in this place should argue against.

In considering the lengthy consultation process that has been undertaken by the government and by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport in arriving at this legislation, I would like to place on record my thanks for the hard work of the members of the committee, particularly that of my good friend from Western Australian Senator Glenn Sterle as chair of the committee. Senator Sterle came to this place with a passion for and belief in rural and regional Western Australia, but I think the issues surrounding wheat farming in rural and regional Western Australia were new ones for him. I congratulate him on the open mind that he brought to the challenge and on the conduct of the inquiry.

It is not often when considering issues in this place that I find myself on somewhat of a unity ticket with Senator Judith Adams on issues to do with social policy. And it is not often that I find myself on a unity ticket with Senator Judith Adams, the member for O’Connor in the other place and the state leader of the National Party in my home state of Western Australia. All of us agreed on the need to reform the previous regime and that the single desk arrangements were not serving the wheat farmers of Western Australia well and therefore were not serving Australia’s wheat exports particularly well. As I said, I am firmly of the belief that the Western Australian wheat farmers are the most efficient and effective wheat exporters in Australia. That we had in place under the previous regime arrangements that acted to their disadvantage is something that has needed to be addressed for a very long time. So perhaps from time to time this place does operate as a states’ house. Perhaps the unique view that those of us from Western Australia, across the various political viewpoints, bring to this place actually does have some effect and we manage to bring forward, as I said, an unusual unity ticket.

Wheat Exports Australia will have the necessary investigative powers, including the ability to require information of and audit accredited exporters to perform its regulatory, monitoring and enforcement responsibilities effectively—again, a very important reform. There will be severe penalties for breaching the conditions of the scheme or individual accreditations. Wheat Exports Australia will also be able to suspend or revoke accreditations.

This legislation contains an appropriate balance, in our view, between the need to apply strict probity and performance tests to protect the interests of growers and the need not to apply an excessive regulatory burden on accredited exporters. We can allow those who play by the rules, who are ethical and who are acting in the best interests of our efficient and effective wheat growers to get on with the job at hand, which is to get the best price possible for the product and to export as much as possible.

As I have said, extensive consultations have been undertaken both by the minister and by the Senate committee, but I accept that with any new arrangement not everyone is going to be happy. Any change to what has been an entrenched policy for a very long time can be very threatening to a lot of people, and I understand their concerns. It is my belief that these new arrangements will not act to the disadvantage of any successful, entrepreneurial, effective and efficient wheat farmers anywhere in Australia. What they will do is allow those who are the most effective, efficient and export-oriented to get on with the job in the best possible way: to market the product, to go straight to export, to export in the most effective way and to provide the good, consistent quality of export grain that we know we can in Western Australia.

For far too long for those in Western Australia who are very close to the export markets there has been the nonsense arrangement that we have been governed by the needs of wheat farmers from this side of the country, the eastern seaboard. Everyone has an important role to play in the production of wheat in Australia; there is no doubt about that. Each and every effective, efficient, hardworking farmer has an important role to play. But it is a nonsense to say that the most effective, efficient and export-oriented of all the farmers should be governed by the needs of their compatriots in New South Wales and Queensland. We do not do that in any other sector of our economy. We do not say to those involved in other export-oriented industries in Western Australia, ‘You must be cognisant of what New South Wales says before you can export anything.’ We actually say: ‘Good on you. As long as you comply with the law of the land and you have access to the market, go for it, do the best you possibly can.’ This is what this legislation is about. It is about putting in place a regulatory framework that protects the markets and makes sure we redress some of the bad image we have had in the recent past but allows those who are the most effective and efficient to get on with the task at hand. I will conclude my brief remarks by again congratulating Senator Sterle and the rest of the committee but also by acknowledging the important roles that Senator Adams and Mr Tuckey have played in bringing this matter, and the uniquely Western Australian perspective, to the parliament.