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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2201


Senator COLBECK (Tasmania) (15:11): I certainly will be taking up further discussion around the IER, as was perhaps promised by Senator Moore. I have to say, the minister's answer to this question today just demonstrates even further the complete and utter chaos that operates within the government around the operations of the agricultural portfolio. I asked a number of questions at additional estimates on 11 February—not long ago—to find out what the status of this reserve was. I was told that it would be reducing from about $24 million in surplus to about $10 million in surplus. Just last Friday the committee received a correction to the advice that was given to the committee and to me at additional estimates on 11 February. When I asked the question about what the reserve might be, I was told by the departmental official that the forecast was to be around $14 million by the end of the financial year—a change from $24.688 million. The correction that arrived to the committee last Friday, and that was accepted by the committee on Monday just gone, was that the IER is forecast to be around $10 million in deficit; a turnaround of $24.688 million, going from $14 million in surplus—reducing by $24.68 million—to about $10 million in deficit.

Today Minister Ludwig came in and said that it has since been recalculated. He accused me of trying to mislead the Senate and of not doing my homework. This is the latest advice that I have, accepted by the committee on Monday and received last Friday, saying that we are $10 million in deficit. He then tabled an answer today to questions on notice, taken by the department and by the government at estimates on 11 February, saying that the figure has been revised—after he tried to accuse me of misleading the chamber by giving a wrong number when his department gave me that number just last Friday—to say that the industry reserve balance is forecast at $3.4 million. That is a start; that is at least a change, but it is still a significant reduction from $14 million in surplus to $3.4 million. They are still going backwards by $10 million. Yet, when I ask what the money is being spent on, the minister cannot tell us the answer to that question. What is the money being spent on? Is it, as we suspect, significant, out-of-control cost overruns on new IT systems being developed by the department? We just want to know; industry wants to know.

But, more importantly, how are we going to turn this around? How do we turn around this continued running down of industry reserve funds that are there so that there does not have to be a huge fluctuation in the rate of fees and charges that are charged to industry? Is industry going to have to pay for the government's complete inefficiencies yet again? Are we going to see huge increases in fees and charges like we did under the export fees and charges program where they have gone up in excess of 1,300 per cent? Are we going to see more of that? How is it going to be recouped? How will we get this reserve back to $18 million—$18 million is where the department would like to see the reserve placed.

The minister had absolutely no idea of any of these elements of those questions today—absolutely none. The only thing he could do was to accuse opposition of misleading the parliament when he has not provided the parliament with the information that we sought. He tabled an update after question time today, and yet the latest information we had from the department, from the government, was only last Friday. It just demonstrates the complete and utter chaos that exists within the agriculture portfolio. It compounds the complete debacle of live exports that has caused damage right across the beef industry in this country. You really wonder how this minister continues to hold his portfolio when, within three or four days, and only four or five weeks after additional estimates, we have complete chaos in relation to the numbers that are being provided to this parliament.