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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator FISHER (9:05 PM) —I rise with pleasure tonight to talk about the Wheat Export Marketing Bill 2008 and associated bill. As with a debate about any industry in transition, particularly an industry which involves members of the farming community, we see a debate that is necessarily not just about farmers’ livelihoods but also about their lives. Therefore, inevitably, it involves much consideration of emotional issues, such as attachments to land and produce, as well as economic and market issues. I hope that I, as many do, bring to this chamber some understanding of the tensions involved in the minds of those who have been contributing to this debate. I come from a wheat-growing family in Western Australia and from a background of representing the interests of farmers in New South Wales for a period of time. I now represent South Australians here in this place.

Farmers have lived with a single desk since World War II. It has clearly performed a very important role, but the times are changing. It is interesting that many younger farmers seem to accept or are more accepting of the need for a move to deregulation, as attitudes to single-desk marketing have evolved over time. We have been subject to strong and intense lobbying by a range of interest groups supporting a range of different proposals. The relevant Senate committee has heard evidence from many who support the legislation and, equally, from many who oppose it. In my home state of South Australia, growers are divided on the issue. The chairman of the South Australian Farmers Federation Grains Council, Peter Treloar, said:

... what growers want is to get on with some secure marketing arrangements and I honestly believe that this debate has been had, it’s been done and dusted and it’s time that our time and efforts were spent on other things.

That very valuable input can be contrasted equally with submissions by groups in South Australia, such as the Chandada Farmers Group, which vehemently oppose the legislation. I, as did many of my colleagues, asked South Australian growers to tell me what they wanted for the future of wheat marketing in Australia and to provide me with their comments on the bill. Their views were as wide and varied as those of other growers across Australia. As a result of those varied views, the Liberal Party has come to its position on the legislation and it proposes amendments which seek to address some of the concerns raised at the Senate committee inquiry and by growers who contacted members of the Liberal Party during that process.

In the Senate committee report, Liberal senators made some additional comments about the need for access undertakings to apply to up-country facilities. However, since that time, we have received further information about the cost burden that could be experienced by such access undertakings and also about some legal complications that could arise from it. As has been foreshadowed by the leader of the Liberal Party, Brendan Nelson, in another place, the party is considering some amendments to the bill. We believe that the amendments will maximise opportunities for wheat growers. The proposed amendments will include amending the objects of the legislation to make it clear that it must advance the interests of growers. The legislation must allow wheat growers who wish to individually bulk export their wheat to an international purchaser to be exempt from the accreditation system. The legislation must be amended to include a review of the system within two seasons to ensure that it is working, and this must be done before any heavy-handed regulation of bulk handlers is introduced. However, given the time-critical nature of the bill, we have put these amendments to the government for its consideration, and I look forward to its response as we proceed to the committee stage.

Many of those who are concerned about the transition of the industry argue that wheat is special and unique. With all due respect, it is difficult to see how wheat is special and unique from the perspective of other agricultural commodities—other than it is the one commodity that has remained with a single-desk marketing arrangement. In that way it is special because it is the last to make the transition. This legislation is in the best interests of wheat growers. The evidence is that, in every other area of agricultural produce where single-desk marketing arrangements used to prevail—for example, the barley market, the oil seeds market and the sorghum market—growers have demonstrated their resilience in dealing with transitions from A to B through to C. Importantly, such transitions have resulted in increased production—for example, the sorghum crop is the biggest ever this year—and in an increased value of production.

Over time, where monopoly marketing arrangements have been put in place in the various sectors, the advantages of market stability and market price, so lauded by those who support those arrangements, have gradually been eroded and, I would argue in respect of the wheat industry, captured by grain-handling authorities and grain marketers but not by growers. Some further evidence of that came to light today with the release of a report by the Export Wheat Commission. It highlighted the fact that AWB ‘shared the profit with farmers but left them all with an unacceptable level of risk’—in this case, losses of $260 million in a year. This, in my view, is a classic and unacceptable example of a monopoly marketer deliberately misusing its market power to line its own pockets when the markets rise and leaving growers to foot the entire loss when the markets go down.

To the comments of my colleagues, I want to add my acknowledgement of the genuine, diligent and determined comments and submissions made by those who oppose the bill. But I believe that the bulk of wheat growers who export wheat, or who grow wheat for the export market, are not only relieved with the imminent passing of legislation of this sort but have spent quite some time preparing for it. My expectation is that, as was the experience with the recent deregulation of the barley market in South Australia, industry will get over it and get on with it. They are ready to do so. The review of this legislation remains very important and needs to be undertaken in a timely manner to ensure that returns are maximised for growers and that any review of the legislation is geared towards that. There are great hopes for the future of the wheat-marketing industry in Australia. Indeed, I consider that it is part of my job in this place to ensure that this legislation delivers results for the wheat growers of Australia.