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Wheat deregulation issue: Coalition position

CHRIS CLARKE: I've been joined on the phone now in Canberra by Peter Fisher who is the National Party member for the seat of Mallee in Victoria. Mr Fisher, do you know if Bruce Lloyd is going to resign his position as Deputy Leader and Shadow Spokesman in Primary Industry?

PETER FISHER: I don't know.

CHRIS CLARKE: Right. He's obviously upset about it, though.

PETER FISHER: Well, I would assume he would be because Bruce has put in a tremendous amount of work in regard to rural industry and particularly into the forthcoming launching of our rural policy, and I would imagine he would be upset.

CHRIS CLARKE: What's your position. I take it that you don't support this coalition position worked out last night?

PETER FISHER: Well, I don't support the deregulation of the Wheat Board's power on the domestic market, no. I very much support major elements of the legislation that, hopefully, will bring about some change to the rip-off that the Australian wheatgrowers have suffered in regard to transport, handling and storage.

CHRIS CLARKE: Will you cross the floor on this legislation?

PETER FISHER: I will not vote for clauses that are intended to bring about deregulation of the Wheat Board's powers on the domestic or export market.

CHRIS CLARKE: What, you might abstain, you might not ....

PETER FISHER: No, I will not abstain. I'll be voting against it, whether that means crossing ....

CHRIS CLARKE: Right. This is a terribly divisive issue for National Party members. Are you resentful of being stomped on by Liberals in this?

PETER FISHER: Well, I don't think I'm prepared to comment on that. All I want to say to you is that I represent the largest grain-growing electorate in Victoria. I have absolutely no doubt as to what the vast majority of my family wheatgrowers want and I will be supporting my constituents' view. I'm a wheatgrower myself. I've had great faith in the operation of the Australian Wheat Board. I believe it's brought us great equity and stability; it's got a very low administrative cost - it's only about 1.5 per cent which compares more than favourably with any other operation in this country, and I am simply not prepared to see a structure destroyed on vague promises at this stage.

CHRIS CLARKE: What do you think of Hendy Cowan's advice, that those Nationals who really don't support the wheat industry would be better off in the Liberal Party. Any of your colleagues in that boat?

PETER FISHER: I don't wish to comment on what Mr Cowan says. He is the leader of our party in Western Australia and is quite entitled to make comment on this but it's not something that I want to add to.

CHRIS CLARKE: This could split the coalition, couldn't it?

PETER FISHER: I don't believe so. On many issues in the Federal Parliament - I remember the immigration issue not so long ago. A number of Liberal Party members either voted against or abstained from a particular piece of legislation. I think the main thing is to vote according to your own principles as you see them.

CHRIS CLARKE: Sure, but - a fundamental issue, isn't it? I mean, you're either for deregulation of the wheat industry or you are not.

PETER FISHER: Well, yes, of course you are.

CHRIS CLARKE: Well, how do the two co-exist in a coalition?

PETER FISHER: Well, it's just a different view on a particular issue.

CHRIS CLARKE: On a very important issue, an issue that's important enough for you to consider voting against your colleagues.

PETER FISHER: It's a very important issue for the Australian wheat industry, and I see the unfortunate part of this is that the greatest majority of members of Parliament are probably voting without having any significant responsibility for the Australian wheatgrower and of course that vote, I guess, is made more for political reasons than for the issue of the wheat industry itself.

CHRIS CLARKE: Has Ian Sinclair given you the sort of leadership on this that you would have hoped for - has he been strong enough?

PETER FISHER: I believe that we have done, within the political system here in Canberra, the best that can possibly be done. As a coalition, the decision was determined by a majority.

CHRIS CLARKE: Mr Fisher, I'm sorry, we'll have to leave it there.

Let's cross to Canberra now where Bruce Lloyd, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, has just begun a news conference in Parliament House.

BRUCE LLOYD: .... such as the further deregulation of the domestic wheat market, the Wheat Board's export power and the level of underwriting guaranteed by the Government.

The wheat industry had agreed, in principle, to accept the further deregulation of the domestic market once reasonable progress had been achieved in reducing wheatgrowers' costs, by greater transport and waterfront efficiency, and by protecting the domestic trading position of the Wheat Board in an open market, et cetera. These were the criteria. I believed that no objective assessment of the criteria could allow the coalition parties to support this further deregulation at this stage and that we should hold out for 95 per cent underwriting rather than the Government's 90 per cent down to an 80 per cent level.

So that was my position overnight. However, this morning I have received calls from the Grains Council of Australia and graingrowers from all over Australia asking me to stay in the fight to try and prevent any further weakening of their position. I believe this country desperately needs a change of government and my resigning at this critical stage when I am on the brink of issuing the Primary Industry coalition policy next week would not be helpful to the coalition or, more particularly, the National Party and Australia's farmers. Therefore, I have decided not to resign as I believe I can achieve more for the wheat and other rural industries by remaining Shadow Minister and fighting for equitable policies for these industries.

The position adopted by the coalition parties has already achieved considerable changes to the Government's original position on wheat deregulation or on the wheat legislation generally, if you like, particularly the retention of the Wheat Board's export power and the last minute inclusion of powers to improve the Wheat Board's grain transport arrangements in Australia. However, it is imperative that the coalition holds firm for a significantly better underwriting guarantee than that proposed by the Government, and I will continue to argue for that section of the legislation to be amended in the Senate. So that's the statement of which there are copies now at the back of the room.

No, I certainly had many phone calls and discussions late last night and during the morning, and the decision was mine, and I have made that decision I've just announced.

REPORTER: How will you vote on this legislation?

BRUCE LLOYD: I will be certainly arguing for the Shadow Ministry and the joint parties to amend the legislation in many ways and obviously be voting in favour of those amendments, and my position at the final vote will be one, I think, that I still am considering in that I am a Shadow Minister and therefore there is a certain requirement with that, but I do have strong feelings on the way this issue has been handled.

REPORTER: ....National Party backbenchers ....

BRUCE LLOYD: I would expect virtually all National Party backbenchers to cross the floor.

CHRIS CLARKE: There we have it. A far from happy Deputy National Party Leader, Bruce Lloyd, at a Canberra news conference, talked out of resignation only at the last minute, it seems, over the issue of wheat deregulation, and the coalition's position on it.