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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 10026

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (12:13): Firstly, I want to indicate that, with the amendments that we have circulated—and I will be seeking leave to table some additional correspondence—we will be supporting the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012. I have given this bill very serious thought and consideration. I want to acknowledge the process that has brought us to this point. I participated in the Senate inquiry and have consulted extensively with the industry, and at this point I would like to acknowledge all the people and the organisations that have very constructively engaged with me, with the Senate committee and with the process in general in this debate.

This bill has been on the Notice Paper for a significant period of time and yet up until very recently we have continued to seek assurances and amendments to ensure that we do find a way forward that meets the interests and needs of growers around Australia. As we have said previously in this place during the iterative debates on deregulation of the wheat market: the Greens are cautiously supportive. I can remember standing in this chamber last time saying, 'We are cautiously supportive', and that we were supporting the bill to move from the single desk to the process that we are using at the moment. We have always stated that we would watch this process carefully and continue to be engaged, which is what we have done.

This bill has clearly been a source of significant tension for all the people involved in this debate. Unfortunately, I suspect it has been sport for some, which I do not think shines a good light on such a serious issue for the sector. As a Western Australian, I am deeply aware of how this bill has brought out quite a serious tension between the east and the west on many substantive points. It is a tension that has been there all along, but this has highlighted it. Western Australians export nearly their entire crop. Western Australians have a different set-up and so it plays out very differently for them compared to growers in the east. However, that is not to diminish the very valid concerns of the growers in the east. We have seen growers in the west very strongly supporting this bill—I can show you any number of emails and letters I have had on it—and growers in the east expressing some very serious concerns, which we have taken very seriously.

As I have articulated, we will be supporting this bill with amendments. I really want to take some time to go through the issues that we have considered and why we have come to the conclusions that we have. The reason I made that point about the difference between growers in the west and the east is there are very significant differences of opinion, which I am sure the coalition will acknowledge, in the sector. We have tried to reach some sort of way forward for all those involved. If we just did not support this bill it would mean disadvantaging a significant number of growers in the west, and if we just support it without amendments it would mean disadvantaging some growers in east—and we would also miss the very important opportunity to start dealing with some of the ongoing issues that are still to be resolved.

As I said at the outset, we have consulted very long and very hard on these amendments and on this bill. With this bill, and in moving the Greens amendments that I understand have the support of government—I know that the coalition has been seriously considering them—hopefully we will reach a point where we can move on and finally resolve some of these ongoing issues. It is precisely because the Greens are concerned that the industry is not ready to absolutely, fully deregulate—and there are some ongoing issues which I will articulate in a minute—that we have seriously considered and questioned the effectiveness of a voluntary industry code. We do not believe we are ready for that yet. That is why, and I will discuss it a bit later, we are moving amendments to require that the access code be mandatory. That is why we oppose the bill in its original form and also why we contributed to the dissenting comments through the committee inquiry process.

There are still a number of long-term, ongoing issues which have been identified, particularly through the committee inquiry process, that this bill does not address. If it had gone through without addressing those, then those issues potentially would never be addressed. It would also bring up issues around the effectiveness and efficiency of the market and a failure in the market process, but we would not get an opportunity to address these issues again.

There has been, as I said, a very wide-ranging community debate on these issues and they have long been recognised. It is because of the lack of progress in addressing these issues that the Greens also sought to look at a mechanism to address these particular issues. These issues were articulated in the dissenting report, which goes to issues around access to stocks information—still an unresolved issue—and the quality of our wheat. People raised suggestions around what Canada and America do, where they have a board that looks at issues around the quality of the wheat exported—long, ongoing issues. There are also the issues that have subsequently been raised, or touched on, around failures and monopolies in the market and, as I said, the access code. We sought to look at a way to deal with those issues and it was suggested in the committee report—particularly the dissenting report—that WEA would be a body that is already in place that could take on these functions.

When we wrote the dissenting report, we thought at first that the WEA would be a body that could do that. However, we have subsequently conducted more consultation and we do not believe that mechanism is necessarily the right mechanism; we do not believe it is flexible enough. There is general agreement that the current undertakings and work of WEA has done that job and people do not seem to have any concerns around moving on from that particular role; but we have continued to identify these ongoing issues.

What was foremost in our minds was dealing with issues of not entrenching monopolies and not having faith in a voluntary code. I will come back to that in a second. We were also very strongly concerned about the ongoing issues around wheat quality and access to stocks information. The inquiry into the bill demonstrated that there are still significant concerns, particularly from growers, that relate to timely access to wheat data and stocks information, port access arrangements and cargo integrity which have not satisfactorily been addressed by the legislation as it stands without amendments. Submitters such as Grain Producers Australia and ASX reiterated concerns they first raised during the 2008 inquiry, in particular pointing to the fact that individual growers are unable to access market information, thereby allowing integrated grain handling companies a significant advantage over other participants in the supply chain.

Furthermore, the committee inquiry demonstrated that the voluntary code had the potential to be a toothless tiger as there was nothing to force bulk handlers, other than some complicated things they were trying to work out through existing processes, which the Greens had absolutely no confidence would deliver appropriate outcomes and therefore raised our serious concerns. It is evident from the inquiry and from conversations with stakeholders across Australia that maintaining the status quo would only defer the necessary changes, with significant cost to growers in the form of a 22c per tonne wheat export charge, which would continue if we did not deal with some form of regulatory approach. We came to the conclusion that WEMA was not the best organisation to deal with issues such as wheat quality assurances and stocks information and there could potentially be other bodies that would be more appropriate to look at that—for example, Wheat Quality Australia—and at other mechanisms to deal with wheat stocks information.

Again, there is not common agreement among the growers around access to stocks information. There is regarding some elements of stocks information. But, for example, in regard to up-country stocks information, I have had numerous organisations telling me they do not want to do it, they do want to do it and they want access to certain information. In other words, while there is agreement that stocks information needs to be addressed, there is not an agreement yet about how much. That is why we have been trying to come up with a mechanism to resolve these issues.

Since the report was delivered in October there have been some significant opportunities to take a constructive approach. Rather than simply just saying, 'No,' we believe these issues need to be addressed. As I have said, in my home state of Western Australia there is very, very strong support for these issues being addressed. However, there are growers, in the eastern states in particular—and still some in my home state of Western Australia—who have these ongoing concerns. So we know there are issues that need to be addressed. We have chosen to try to find a path for a way forward that would put in place mechanisms to address access issues and then those ongoing issues I have articulated.

I would like to very quickly take the opportunity to explain our thinking behind the amendments and also table some correspondence between the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and me that will explain in a bit more detail some of the nuancing behind some of the amendments. Those have been circulated to the whips, as I understand it. I seek leave to table those three letters now.

Leave granted.

Senator SIEWERT: One is the original letter from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Ludwig, when we first announced that we would be making some amendments, which articulates the sorts of things the industry task force would establish—which one of our amendments addresses. There is a letter from me to the minister articulating some concerns and seeking reassurances around the amendments, and a letter back from the minister explaining and giving commitments around some of this detail. They have been circulated to the whips. I will now table those letters.

Our amendments firstly go to making the access code mandatory. I know that Senator Xenophon has circulated amendments about requiring a review of the process for the access code. Under ACCC rules— the mandatory code—there is a review after five years. We think this process, because it is new, is too long. The minister has agreed to put in place a review after two years. While this process of the bill being debated has been going on over the last couple of months, a committee has been set up to discuss the voluntary code. That committee, I understand, had made some significant progress and they had reached agreement about level of access to stocks information at port by grade. We have had assurances from the minister in that correspondence that in fact that process will still be included in the mandatory code, because there was some concern expressed by growers that discussions for the access code were going backwards. But the minister has now made a commitment that that information will be included via either that mechanism or another mechanism that is workable.

The other amendment that we are circulating and will be moving shortly is to establish a national wheat industry advisory task force. This task force will be tasked to look at these ongoing issues that are yet to be resolved, such as the issues around continuing stocks information access, quality issues, and also around failures in the market. We have also in that correspondence sought commitments from the government about independence. I will seek in this debate further commitments from the government around the independence of this committee. We have sought assurances about the selection process and the terms of reference. We have specifically not included that in the bill because we wanted a mechanism that was flexible enough that, if other issues came up, they could be referred to the task force. In the correspondence you also see that the minister has undertaken to have a regular reporting mechanism so that the considerations of this task force are transparent and accountable.

We have a strong belief that we need to get some experts around the table that can actually sit down, look at these issues and come up with a way forward. We have an industry divided over many of these issues. If we can get a task force of experts looking at these issues, providing advice and finding ways forward, I think we will be significantly helping the wheat industry in this country. That is the approach we have been taking the whole time: how can we ensure the future of our industry?

We understand that there are concerns about the further deregulation process. We do not think that we were fully ready for it. We understand there are concerns about potential failures in the market and the efficiency and effectiveness of the market mechanism, and we do believe that that needs to be addressed. We have very strongly heard the concerns from the growers around the need for a mandatory code for access. We have strongly heard about the need for a commitment, and we have a commitment from the government that that access code will in fact include stock by port zone by grade weekly during harvest and monthly thereafter.

These are very important issues to the sector. We know that because we have talked to them. We do not believe it is an option to do nothing here. We do not believe it is an option to sit on our hands for two years under the current process. We have genuinely sat down and talked to people to see how we can balance the needs of all in the sector and the industry, and we desperately hope that the task force mechanism will find us a way forward, where all the industry can engage and try to move forward, so that we have these ongoing issues resolved—because they do need to be resolved, we absolutely agree. We absolutely agree that there is the potential for monopolies to have undue influence, and we are concerned about denying access or making port access difficult. We are concerned that they have an unfair advantage in access to information. We are concerned about the reputation of our industry and the issues around wheat quality. We are not convinced that the old WEMA was the body to do that with. We are convinced that we need to look at it, find a way forward and find a mechanism once that task force has looked at and researched the issues to recommend mechanisms for the way forward. That information will be publicly available, it will be reported, it will be transparent and it will be able to engage with the broader community.

I would urge the opposition to very seriously consider our amendments. I understand to a certain extent where they are coming from, because there is strong concern in the eastern states, but the eastern states are not the growers in Western Australia. We are trying to find a way forward that meets the needs of the growers in my home state as well as meeting the ongoing concerns for the industry in the east, which has different circumstances. I very clearly acknowledge that it has different circumstances in the eastern states from what we have in Western Australia, which means that those needs need to be accommodated. We think we have found a way forward. It certainly is better than doing nothing, because these issues cannot sit on the table any longer; they need to be addressed. I commend our amendments to the chamber, and I am happy to discuss them further during the committee stage.