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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 10024

Senator COLBECK (Tasmania) (12:04): I rise to make a contribution on behalf of the coalition on the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012. I indicate at the outset that the coalition is not supporting this piece of legislation, for very good reasons. I think that if you were to look at the government's history in relation to agriculture over the last couple of years you could understand that we do not trust the government when they ask us to trust them. You only have to look at the agriculture minister's record over the last couple of years in relation to his support for agriculture to see that the government has been a complete and dismal failure. I cite live exports, where the minister succumbed in cabinet—obviously his opinion not carrying any weight—to a decision that was made without even any cabinet documents being presented. If you look at the recent debacle where the minister was overridden by the environment minister in respect of fishing in the south-east small pelagic fishery in Australia, you see we had special legislation presented to this parliament only a few weeks ago to make a political decision to override the systems that exist in our agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. They are world renowned, particularly our fisheries management. So the currency of this minister to actually do what he might have promised is very low.

Look at what is happening in my home state of Tasmania right now, where we are looking at the locking up of over 50 per cent of our land mass, making it out of bounds. Again, where is the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry? The one who should be standing up for the forests sector has been completely stood aside by the environment minister yet again. What voice did we hear from the agriculture minister in the current Murray-Darling debate? Silence. So when we are looking at this government's management and handling of the agriculture portfolio, I think, as the coalition believes, we have reason to be very concerned.

Look at what this government did to exporters wanting to get their products into the market. We say we are going to be the food bowl of Asia, yet they made the cost of export more expensive by removing assistance to the export sector, by taking away the 40 per cent rebate for export fees and certification fees and charges and imposing an extra $40 million a year on industry. Had it not been for the opposition, a package would not have been put in place to lighten that load and force the government into a transitional process.

The government boasts about its $127 million package to assist exporters through the reform of the export fees and charges process. But it was because the opposition held out and because the then crossbenchers, Family First and Senator Xenophon, held out with us that we were able to force the government into putting a reasonable package on the table. The government might boast about it, but the reason it is there is that this coalition stood up for the agriculture sector. In the circumstance of the export fees and charges, the Greens were prepared to flip out for $20 million, but the package that we got was $127 million. We have a record of support for the agriculture sector and we are proud of it.

That is what sits at the genesis of this piece of legislation. We are concerned that a number of things have not yet been sorted out in relation to the export of wheat that need to be sorted out. It has been through an extensive process. It has been through Senate inquiries. In fact, a couple of Senate inquiries have looked at issues around exports, access to the belts and to the export facilities, at issues around quality, which I think are quite legitimately a major concern for our export industry in Australia, and at access to information around volumes, materials and wheat in storage. I think it is important that that sort of market information is available. We do not actually have in place the systems to achieve that, so the opposition are saying, 'Let's put those systems in place before we take away what is left of our regulatory process.' We are not opposed to removing the regulatory process, but we are saying, 'Let's have the mechanisms in place to make sure that the information that should be available is readily available to industry so that there is capacity for fair competition in the marketplace.'

This argument is not about the single desk. I need to make clear that that discussion is done and dusted and over. But the opposition remain concerned that there be fair competition in the marketplace. We are aware that this piece of legislation will now pass because the government has the support of the Greens and that the Greens have some amendments they will bring to this debate during the committee stage—we are also aware of some commitments that the government has made to the Greens in relation to those. We will obviously have that conversation during the committee stage.

It is important to note that the government has an abysmal record in relation to its dealings in agriculture, which is clearly visible to the agriculture sector and to the community. It is important that the government are properly held to account, so we want to make sure that they can be held to any commitments they make. We also want to make sure that all of the mechanisms that need to be put in place are there to ensure there is fair competition in the marketplace and that good data about supplies and stocks held is available, and not just to those who hold those stocks. That is an important piece of this overall puzzle.

Those are the issues that we are concerned about and that need to be sorted out as part of the development of this piece of legislation. So we will be looking very closely at the amendments that will be brought through the chamber by the Greens and by Senator Xenophon. We will be looking very closely at the commitments that have been made in relation to those. We want to make sure that commitments that are made are kept. I think it is important that we do that as part of this overall process so that we maintain our well-earned and hard-fought for reputation as a quality, reliable wheat supplier into global export markets. That is absolutely fundamental for us.

In recent visits to some of those markets, I have seen the value that is placed on the quality and safety of product that comes out of Australia. It is part of our reputation. It is a hard-earned reputation and, unless it is properly managed and protected, it will not be that an individual supplier has caused a problem but that there is a problem with Australian wheat. That is an issue that we in the coalition want to ensure is properly managed. So there needs to be a proper process for establishing and certifying wheat standards. There needs to be a mechanism to ensure that market information is freely available. Those are the things that the coalition want to see put in place as part of this process, and we will work with the chamber through both the debate and the committee process of this piece of legislation to ensure that those things are achieved. We trust that those commitments can be made and can be achieved through the chamber, and we are in a position to be able to support those.