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Trade Minister wants to retain wheat export system; Shadow Minister wants changes to international wheat marketing arrangements.

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Wednesday 11 April 2007

Trade Minister wants to retain wheat export system; Shadow Minister wants changes to international wheat marketing arrangements


MARK COLVIN: It's more than five year s since the fall of Saddam Hussein, nearly five months since the Cole inquiry's report into AWB and the oil-for-food scandal was tabled in Federal Parliament, but there's still no clear decision on the future of wheat exports from Australia. 


The Cabinet's been discussing it in Canberra this afternoon, but in an election year, an issue with the potential for serious friction between the two Coalition parties looks increasingly likely to be shelved. 


There are already rumblings, though, about a possible postponement, with some saying it puts the interests of politicians ahead of farmers. 


Hayden Cooper reports. 


HAYDEN COOPER: Wheat is topic that divides the Federal Coalition like no other.  


The Nationals are zealous defenders of the single desk export system. Many Liberals think it should go in favour of competition.  


It's the job of the Prime Minister to find that happy place where everyone agrees and strike a policy on wheat exports that keeps farmers and the Nationals happy, as well as his own party. 


JOHN HOWARD: Oh look, I'm not going to set any benchmarks. We will talk about the issue today. I had a very good discussion with members of the backbench yesterday. There's a range of views, everybody knows that. But we all want an outcome that's good for the wheat growers.  


The wheat growers are part of the backbone of Australia's rural industries. It's a difficult international market, and they need arrangements that deliver good outcomes for them.  


There's a range of opinions within the Coalition parties about this issue. I've collected those opinions, and we'll have a yarn about it when Cabinet meets today. 


HAYDEN COOPER: That was this morning.  


And after meeting for most of the day, there's been no announcement on just what the Government plans to do.  


But if the view of the view of the Trade Minister, Warren Truss, has any weight in Cabinet, the issue may be pushed to the back of the drawer until next year. 


WARREN TRUSS: Certainly if we maintain the existing arrangements that would enable the current structures, with all their flaws, whatever they might be, to actually get on with the job. And I think getting on with the job will be one of the priorities to be taken into account.  


HAYDEN COOPER: Mr Truss is the second most senior National in Cabinet. But he's at pains to point out that overhauling the wheat exports system just as farmers plant their grain is not a recipe for success.  


WARREN TRUSS: Well, I think it would be very difficult to put in place a new company, or a new marketing arrangement in the very short period of time between now and when the crop comes to market.  


Bear in mind legislation would have to go through the Parliament - that would take several months - and in that time no one will be out there actually marketing the crop and making sure that there's a capacity to sell it in various parts of the world.  


So I think it very much is at the last hour. 


HAYDEN COOPER: And as if to demonstrate the ill feeling among Government backbenchers, the Liberal MP and AWB critic, Wilson Tuckey, shot straight back at Warren Truss.  


WILSON TUCKEY: Well, I think that's Mr Truss' dream, not the reality he is facing in Cabinet as we speak. I trust, considering he is not the responsible minister, that he keeps his personal musings to himself until he is able to come out and support whatever policy, as I will be obliged to do, that the Cabinet eventually agrees. 


HAYDEN COOPER: For its part, Labor is pushing for a prompt decision.  


Primary industries spokesman, Kerry O'Brien, says now is the time for the Government to act.  


KERRY O'BRIEN: The Prime Minister saying they've got the growers' interests at heart. It's not demonstrated by the Government's unpreparedness, apparently according to reports, to do the things that the growers need to get the industry operating properly.  


HAYDEN COOPER: Would a one-year transition period be a wise way to go? 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, some would say that if you were going to make changes to the international wheat marketing arrangements, this would be the best year to do it. The suggestion with a small crop that the transition from this crop to something else would be a lot easier than if we had a bumper crop  


MARK COLVIN: Labor's primary industries spokesman, Senator Kerry O'Brien, with Hayden Cooper.