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Trade Minister responds in Parliament over Manildra ethanol import from Brazil.

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Thursday 14 August 2003

Trade Minister responds in Parliament over Manildra ethanol import from Brazil


MARK COLVIN: The ethanol debate has dominated Parliament this week. Today it became intertwined with arguments over political donations. But the essence of the original controversy has remained unchanged: did the Government stitch up a special deal to assist Manildra boss Dick Honan at the expense of two local competitors?  


And the Opposition has now tabled a letter obtained through a freedom of information request. In it, Dick Honan writes to the Trade Minister Mark Vaile, giving him details of the expected ethanol shipment from Brazil last year and urging him to take action to impose an excise.  


From Canberra, Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath reports. 


CATHERINE McGRATH: They've all been speaking on this issue today - Dick Honan from Manildra, John Howard speaking from New Zealand, and of course in Parliament, those with an interest have spoken up. And in the centre of all this has been the row over Dick Honan's donation to the Labor Party that the party has now returned.  


Mark Latham says Labor was right to send it back.  


MARK LATHAM: Labor has a code of conduct for fundraising. This $50,000 donation came out of the blue.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Dirty money - says Labor - that came out of the blue. But the Government took issue with that.  


Tony Abbott.  


TONY ABBOTT (in Parliament): If Manildra donated in 1996 and 1999, 2001 and 2002 - how can a donation in 2003 possibly be out of the blue? 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: But really this is a diversion from the main argument. Was the decision to impose an excise on imported ethanol last year the right decision, and was there an open and transparent process?  


And secondly, did the Prime Minister mislead the Parliament about meetings before that decision with Dick Honan from Manildra? Today the Opposition was focussing on how Dick Honan kept the Government informed of his competitor's proposed shipment from Brazil in August last year.  


Simon Crean.  


SIMON CREAN: And I ask can the Minister confirm that from at least the 21st of August 2002 he, his office, and government officials were in regular contact with Mr Honan concerning the shipment of ethanol from Brazil as evidenced by these letters and emails, two personal emails from Mr Honan to the Minister's Chief of Staff, and Mr Honan's personal letter to you addressed 'Dear Mark'. 


Minister, why didn't… why didn't the Minister or his office warn Newman petroleum or Trafigura of the $1 million damage that they would face from the Government's proposals on ethanol? Why did the Government bend over backwards to help Mr Honan but did nothing to assist its smaller Australian competitors? 


SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Minister for Trade.  


MARK VAILLE: Mr Speaker, on the first point that the leader of the Opposition raised, I wouldn't describe my contact or the contact of my office as regular. Obviously the leader of the Opposition has a copy of the letter that was released under FOI which I think is dated the 23rd of August that was directed to me. And yes, that did alert me to the proposed or alleged or possible importation of ethanol. 


CATHERINE McGRATH: Labor has tabled the documents it received under Freedom of Information Requests. And the documents show the kind of points Mr Honan was putting in his case to the Minister.  


In one letter, Mr Honan wrote: "This is just the beginning I fear, of Brazilian imports coming into this country at a price that we ourselves and CSR cannot compete against. If this Brazilian ethanol is allowed in this country, there will be no ethanol produced for industrial products, such as solvents, in this country, as well as ethanol for fuel." 


CATHERINE McGRATH: And Dick Honan urged the Government to impose an excise. Within weeks, the Government did so. The Opposition contrasted this with the treatment of Newman Petroleum. Its Chief Executive was travelling overseas with Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, when the excise decision was taken.  


Later, he wrote to the Prime Minister complaining and saying that if he'd been told that decision was pending, he wouldn't have moved to import the ethanol, a decision that cost him and his group $400,000.  


MARK COLVIN: Catherine McGrath.