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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator O’BRIEN (9:29 PM) —It is a pleasure to be able to address the Wheat Export Marketing Bill 2008 and the Wheat Export Marketing (Repeal and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and say that the Labor Party are doing just what we promised to do before the last election. This is not a policy that was developed after the election but one that was clearly enunciated before the election, and I repudiate the comments of Senator Minchin suggesting that that was not the case. Clearly, our policy was announced on 10 October. It was debated in the community. It has been suggested that a majority of wheat growers oppose it. But we did hear at our Senate inquiry in Perth that the member for O’Connor campaigned effectively for our legislation. He was opposed by a National Party candidate who campaigned against the legislation, and guess what? The National Party candidate ran third, the Labor Party unfortunately ran second, and the member for O’Connor was returned. That says to me that the arguments that the Labor Party put forward, which were adopted by the member for O’Connor, were supported by the electorate.

In fact, when you look at the history of agricultural policy in Australia over the last 25 years, guess who has been the leader? It has been the Labor Party. In 1989 it was Labor which deregulated the domestic wheat market. A lot of the growers who were here protesting today have been the beneficiaries of the deregulation of the domestic wheat market since 1989. And guess what? Back in 1989 or 1990, the sky was going to fall in. Deregulating the domestic market was going to destroy wheat growers. Of course, it did not. The fact of the matter is, as we have heard from Senator Cormann, Senator Adams and others from Western Australia, that the deregulation effectively advantaged the wheat growers on the eastern side of Australia relative to growers in other parts of Australia. You might ask why. The reason is that those growers had more markets to sell their wheat to. They had more buyers for their wheat. As a result, they could take the best price. They could put their wheat into the domestic market at the best price they could get, and if that was not good enough they could put their wheat in the pool. So they took the best of both worlds. It is funny trying to convince some of those growers who are receiving that benefit that a system being put forward by Labor—which actually gives growers access to more buyers—is better for them, when obviously the system that Labor implemented back in 1989 created just that circumstance for wheat growers in eastern Australia. It is a pleasure to be able to say that Labor again leads the debate on market arrangements for important commodities for Australian farmers.

We did hear that only last year the former government decided that it would deregulate containerised and bagged wheat for the first time, effectively allowing exports of containerised wheat without a permit from the Wheat Export Authority or, as it became, the Export Wheat Commission. The fact of the matter is that in 2003 Labor moved an amendment to do just that—an amendment which was opposed by the coalition, by the National Party and the Liberal Party. It was suggested when the deregulation of exports of containerised wheat occurred that we would not see a great increase in the amount of wheat sold, because there were not enough containers, because it was too difficult and because the cost of freight was too high. A whole lot of reasons were put forward as to why that was not a significant reform. But we have heard from Senator Adams what a significant reform it was in Western Australia. The reason it was significant was that it gave growers in Western Australia more buyers to sell their wheat to. And what did they do? They took that opportunity.

This legislation put forward by Labor creates the opportunity for wheat growers around Australia to have access to more buyers of their wheat and more markets—niche markets and different types of pool opportunities. There will be pool opportunities because there are many who wish to sell into the international market who will be keen to offer pools, and that indeed was the evidence that the Senate committee took when it conducted its inquiry earlier this year. So Labor has put forward yet again an important reform for an important sector of Australian agriculture.

Back in 1989, when we proposed the deregulation of the domestic market, it was the Liberal Party who decided that Labor was following the correct path, and it made the correct decision and supported Labor. It was the National Party who then said: ‘The sky is going to fall in. This will be a terrible thing for wheat farmers. It will destroy growers.’ And they led protests, particularly on this side of the continent. Of course, they cried wolf then, and we hear them now with the same arguments. What they are saying now is not exactly but in general the same as they were saying back in 1989—that a reform allowing wheat growers access to more buyers of their product will be bad for them. You only have to keep saying it to understand what a ridiculous proposition it is.

We have seen a number of areas over the last decade where some of the marketing arrangements for export of Australian products have been deregulated. Some have been at a state level and some have been at a national level. There are various views of the deregulation of the dairy industry, but let me tell you this: at the moment, the dairy industry is attracting higher prices than it ever has. Those farmers who restructured their operations and who have not been blighted by drought are doing very well, and the international market is booming. But that was not what we were told would happen when the market was deregulated.

I suggest that what is going to occur now with the reform of export-marketing arrangements for wheat is that we will see a variety of pool operations established. This legislation, I believe, will provide for the accreditation of grower cooperatives and groups. Even other smaller entities will establish themselves in the market, and farmers will club together to sell their own grain. Farmers will be looking to sell into markets that have not been exploited properly by the monopoly exporter AWB. Farmers will be looking for opportunities to get superior prices for types of wheat that can be marketed specially in certain markets that are looking for small quantities of high-quality wheat.

There will be markets where Australian wheat is purchased to be blended with wheat from other continents, as it is now. I believe that is a factor that operates significantly in South-East Asia at the moment and has the potential to be expanded where Australian farmers will be dealing with buyers from those markets who will be keen to take their wheat where they can blend it with, say, Argentinean wheat to get the qualities they want for the flour they need to make the products that they want. All of these opportunities will be developed—opportunities that have been denied to Australian farmers for many years and would continue to be denied if the National Party, the party that claims to represent the farming sector, had its way.

The Labor Party appreciates the support of the Liberal Party in this debate. I do not think it is fair of Senator Minchin to suggest that we did not flag these changes before the election, because we clearly did. I do not think the way the National Party has run their scare campaign in this debate has been appropriate, working upon the fears of what many growers see as an unknown environment that perhaps they have not developed the understanding to be able to operate in as best they can. Rather, it would have been good to see the National Party try to think of how the sector they represent can achieve the best it can in the world economy. Frankly, treading water with the sort of marketing arrangements that have stumbled along since 1997 is not in the best interests of the Australian farming community. It is a set of marketing arrangements that would doom many farmers to poverty or bankruptcy.

In travelling the country before the election, I was the beneficiary of advice from farmers in small and large properties in various parts of this country. There are a great many farmers who want to grab this sort of opportunity with both hands and get out and do the best thing that they can with their enterprises, get the best prices that they can for their product and get themselves into a position where they control their own destiny. This legislation will achieve that. I am pleased to say that I believe it will now be passed. Again, when we get past the arguments from the opposition National Party, who as usual are saying the sky will fall in over this legislation, we will see this develop the way that deregulation of the domestic market has seen opportunities develop for markets of wheat in eastern Australia.