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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1587

Mr COURTICE(8.10 p.m.) —-Farmers are facing one of the toughest years they have experienced this century. In my electorate, input costs have gone up dramatically as farmers with irrigation have striven to keep their crops alive. They have even had to strive to keep sugar cane ratoons alive, which is incredible at this time of the year, given that some of the crop was harvested only a few months ago and some of it is being harvested now and given, of course, the effect and impact this is having on the horticultural industry in Bundaberg, the biggest area in Australia for horticulture.

There is no doubt that this year we face the worst drought this century. Four droughts come to mind--those of 1890, of 1932, of 1946 and this drought--but I think this drought is the worst. As a previous speaker said, given the fact that we have had a crash in commodity prices at the same time as this drought, the double whammy, the double impact, is having a dramatic effect on morale, on family life and on workers and businesses in rural Australia. It will take a lot of hard work, a lot of prayers and, hopefully, a lot of rain to break this drought.

Mr Costello —-How many prayers are you offering up?

Mr COURTICE —-Quite a lot. The 1991 Federal Budget contained a wide range of social and economic measures to assist farmers suffering financial hardship, including increased funding under the rural adjustment scheme and the rural counselling program, which does an outstanding job under very tough circumstances. In addition, farmers will benefit from revised eligibility rates to the family allowance and family allowance supplement payments. Parts A, B and C of RAS are the Government's main instrument for providing broad-based structural adjustment and income assistance to farmers in financial difficulty.

The decision to phase down tariffs on general agricultural products was consistent with the Government's process of restructuring the economy to improve the productivity and efficiency of Australian industry. The prospects for a successful Uruguay Round outcome hinge on attaining agreement on agriculture. The honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd), who is in the chamber, knows as well as I do that the EC is the key in this matter. The talks stalled at the Brussels ministerial meeting last December as the community was unwilling to enter serious negotiations. The Cairns Group has been effective in ensuring that agriculture remains at the top of the agenda. Without reform in agriculture, there will be no successful conclusion to the Uruguay Round.

The honourable member for Murray and I have just returned from a bipartisan mission to Europe, and it was pleasing to see politicians from all parties putting Australia first. The problems we face with trade are above politics. I think that this mission did have an impact and sent home to the Europeans the message that we are participants in a trade war--not one that we have brought on but, nevertheless, one that is impacting on our nation and on our farmers.

Indeed, I was amazed when I was in Paris to see 150,000 farmers protesting in the streets about the commodity prices they are getting. They are getting four times the price for sugar and many more times the price for beef and grains that our farmers are getting. I indicated to the Europeans that if our farmers were getting the same price they would also be in the streets, but drinking champagne and celebrating.

Mr Lloyd —-That has been a good point you have made on a number of occasions. It still sparkles.

Mr COURTICE —-I thank the honourable member for Murray. We keep saying that because it is true. In fact, Australian farmers this year will average 9,600 French francs per farm. When we indicated this to the French, the interpreter asked three times whether we had the correct amount, because nobody could believe that such a low income was going to be returned to farmers. Of course, many farmers in Australia will not have a net income this year, as the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) indicated in answer to a question in the House today.

It is vital that Australia takes every opportunity to convey to the European Community the effect of the crippling burden being suffered by Australia's efficient farm producers as a direct result of European export subsidies. Industry downturn, such as that which we are now experiencing, must not be cushioned by general subsidies or support for all of those in the industries affected, because it will only add to and exacerbate the problem in the long term. However, we do need to ensure that we target those farmers most affected and, as I have said, we have been doing just this through the rural adjustment scheme.

We have also faced a difficulty in the sugar industry, an industry close to my heart. While I was overseas, I was very disappointed to discover in the course of trying to talk some sense into the European governments that the United States had decided to cut sugar imports by a third in 1991-92. This will mean that Queensland canegrowers, who produce all of Australia's sugar exports, stand to lose millions of dollars in export revenue at a time when they are facing a reduced harvest due to severe drought and a current depressed world price for sugar of around US9c a pound. I stress that this is at a time when European farmers and American farmers are getting about US33c a pound.

The new global access level of 1.385 million tonnes represents a reduction of approximately 34 per cent over the 2.098 million tonne access level for 1990-91. This means that Australia's share of the market will decrease from 168,000 tonnes in 1990-91 to 109,671 tonnes in 1991-92. What disappoints me most of all is that there is no way that the United States Government can say that this is part of its retaliation to the EC program of the Europeans. Neither that nor the cuts in our beef have anything whatsoever to do with that.

Reluctantly, I have today written a letter to the United States Ambassador setting out my disappointment. It is a very sad state of affairs when I, who have supported and will continue to support the United States, have to write to the United States Ambassador, as the representative of his government here in Australia, to point out my disappointment for what I believe to be shabby treatment of Australian farmers at a time when they can least afford it; at a time when Australia, as part of the Cairns Group, is trying to get some liberalisation into the trade in order to get a better world. With the distortions in trade, we will never have a level playing field or a steady climate for world environment. I am very disappointed with the United States Government for having done that. I hope that the United States President, when he does come to Australia, does not just offer platitudes, that he does not expect us to be first rate friends when it suits and third rate friends when it comes to trade.

Our wheat farmers are suffering a dear price because of the export enhancement program. Although it is interesting that the Europeans blame the United States and the United States blames the Europeans, we are not to blame. I stress that we are not to blame. I am sick and tired of seeing our farmers being affected by two giants hiding behind agrarian socialism and at the same time preaching a level playing field in technology, manufacturing and everything else. These are the communities that led a renaissance in Europe a couple of hundred years ago. The United States has been a protector of freedom, yet both of them are hiding behind the walls of protection. The best way to cure the problem would probably be to send Dr Christiaan Barnard to Europe and the United States to visit some of the politicians, since they are lacking a little bit of heart and a little bit of political courage. I am disappointed that Australian farmers are suffering as a consequence.

The other point I make is that, given this challenge, the Queensland sugar industry needs to look to the alternatives and opportunities it has. I believe we need to look to further deregulate the sugar industry in Queensland. I do not mean to throw the baby out with the bath water. I do not mean total wholesale deregulation. But I do believe that there need to be more commercial opportunities for our large refiners, CSR and now Tate and Lyle, to take up the opportunity to refine white sugar here in Australia for export markets.

Only earlier this year, we knocked back an opportunity to export white sugar to the Philippines because there was no capacity there to refine. I have written to the State Minister for Primary Industries for his urgent consideration of this measure, because at a time when farmers are suffering from drought and commodity prices we need to make every post a winner and to take every opportunity to capitalise on an existing demand for white sugar.

I commend Appropriation Bill (No. 1) in relation to agriculture. The challenges we face over the next few years are going to be the toughest challenges Australian agriculture has ever faced. We will come through them, but there are going to be casualties, regardless of how many prayers we say and regardless of what happens in Europe before Christmas. My heart goes out to those farmers who will not make it.(Time expired)