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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator MURRAY (7:59 PM) —I rise to speak to the Wheat Export Marketing Bill 2008 and its companion, the Wheat Export Marketing (Repeal and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. I do not speak to this bill as its portfolio holder—for our party that is Senator Bartlett, who has already spoken—but I want to speak to it as a senator from Western Australia and also as the portfolio holder with respect to Corporations Law and corporate affairs generally. In my opinion, this is a great advance in both agricultural and corporate policy. The previous speaker, whom I am sometimes inclined to refer to as the ‘lion of Queensland’ because of his strong and courageous approach to matters, said that we senators know that this bill is wrong. Well, this senator does not. On the record, I say that I am going to present an alternative view.

I have spent a great deal of time with such members of the farming community, both people at the representational level and individuals, as I could, including, when the Ralph review was underway, attending a couple of mass meetings. I have said before in this chamber that I have never been convinced about the majority argument, but, even if it were true that a majority of Western Australian wheat farmers were for the single desk—there has been no survey, no headcount, ever that can attest to a majority; that is on the Hansard record of the committee hearing—and even if the majority of Western Australian wheat export farmers continued to be in support of the single desk, I would still regard this change as a desirable and necessary one in terms of a modern Australian agricultural economy.

I have not ever understood why it is good practice and good law, supported by all parties, that other grains and agricultural products are exported competitively—not on a single-desk basis—but that somehow wheat needs to be isolated in this manner. As we know, domestic wheat is sold in an open, deregulated and competitive market. As we know, the majority of eastern states wheat farmers do sell domestically—they are not export farmers. The majority of export farmers are, in fact, in my state.

But I do understand that many in the community, including their political representatives, feel very strongly about this issue, and I do not seek to diminish or devalue the strength of their feelings; they come from conviction. What I want to express in this debate is that I too have conviction and my conviction is different from yours. I am expressing that honestly, determinedly and positively. I have come to a conclusion which differs. It does not make yours invalid, but neither does it make mine invalid—unless the dangers you forecast actually emerge, and then of course I will be proven wrong. But, if the dangers you forecast do not emerge, you will be proven to be wrong, so we will have to see what the future holds.

It is Western Australian farmers who constitute the great bulk of wheat exporters. My view is that a minority want total deregulation with an open, competitive market with no controls at all—and that is a minority. My view is that another, considerably larger, minority want the retention of the single desk. My impression is that the rest in between, a more silent group, perhaps a majority, want a regulated market with a choice of a few licensed exporters. That is what they are getting. They are getting a regulated market, not an unregulated market. It is a regulated market with a choice of a few licensed exporters. It is not a laissez-faire market where you can sell to anybody on any basis you want to.

Australia is a modern, open-market, competitive economy. The National Party has stood proudly with the Democrats, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party in advancing the cause of a modern, open-market, competitive economy. Australia’s farmers and the farming community in general are amongst the strongest and best exponents of a competitive industry and they certainly attract my admiration in many of the things they do. The wheat industry, as a component part of the Australian agricultural economy, has been structured remarkably differently, but other farmers do very, very well without single-desk mechanisms.

As a matter of public policy, monopolies are not desirable and they need to carry strong public interest arguments for their imposition or retention. Sometimes, of course, that argument can be made. It can be made with utilities. It can be made with things like casinos. I happen to believe that we do not need more than one in Western Australia, so I think an argument can be made in the public interest. But I do not think that argument has been made for export wheat, particularly when—I stress—all other grains and all other rural products are happily exported with a choice of exporters in normal, open-market arrangements. If a single desk is not needed for all other agricultural products and all other trade products, I have to be persuaded that it is in the public interest for it to be retained for wheat, and I have not been persuaded. So, with great respect to my National Party colleagues, whom I both like and value: I differ from you on this matter.

It comes to the question of numbers and the bills that are before us. I think there are weaknesses in the bills. For instance, one that occurs very much to me as a West Australian is that we have a state access regime that is already established and operating under law and there is a proposal in this bill to duplicate that, to double-up on regulation. That is unnecessary. Both the previous government and the present government were and are committed to doing away with overlapping and duplicated regulation. I would hope that either the National Party or the Liberal Party, or both of them, would be putting forward an amendment. In my view that amendment should say one of two things: if a state access regime already exists then they are exempted from the federal access regime; alternatively, the minister of the day should be given the power to exempt a complying state access regime. I have neither the time nor the carriage of this bill to construct such an amendment, but that is one of the amendments I would seek. And I would urge my National Party friends on the benches, if they see that they are going to get rolled with this bill, to at least put up amendments to address weaknesses that have been identified.

In the process of referring to weaknesses, I should of course compliment the chair and the members of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, which examined the exposure draft bills. I am aware that people like Senator Joyce attended numbers of those hearings. I only attended one, from memory. They did bring up some very cogent points. I think what I am doing is right, not wrong. I formed an opinion based on my consultations with the agricultural associations in my state, some of whom want the single desk and some of whom do not want the single desk—

Senator Boswell —St George’s farmers or St Georges Terrace farmers? That’s the Liberal Party!

Senator MURRAY —Stop making me laugh! Those farmers I am in touch with. I would hardly describe myself as a country lad, but I am certainly of the opinion that I have done enough consultation and observation and have involved myself in this issue enough to be making an informed opinion. And my informed opinion is that I will vote with the government on this bill.