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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1603

Mr PETER FISHER(9.31 p.m.) --There is no greater indictment of this Government's primary industry record than in this year's Budget when we turn not to the primary industry appropriation but to the Department of Social Security to see whether, among the inequities and welfare gaps that exist, people involved in primary industry and in self-employed areas have received any support. We know that our earnings from agricultural and mining exports will fall for the first time in 10 years and that incomes for our hard pressed farmers will decline. Tragically, Australia is in the midst of a total crisis in the country. Farmers are facing a fall of 24 per cent in net farm income on top of the decline of 35 per cent in 1990-91. This is a collapse of nearly 60 per cent in average net farm income over a two-year period. It is fair to ask the Australian community whether any PAYE worker would accept such a cut of 60 per cent in his or her wages over two years. We know the answer is no.

There is a feeling in rural Australia that this Federal Labor Government simply does not understand or simply does not care about the difficulties that exist. Where are the priorities of this Government when we have one million people unemployed, massive business bankruptcies, farms being sold off, and now horrendous drought extending through much of eastern Australia? The priorities, of course, have developed in a feud between the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the former Treasurer, the honourable member for Blaxland (Mr Keating). The former Treasurer--the wrecker and the architect of all the problems over the past few years--is now trying to justify his existence. We know that real interest rates are still at destructive levels. The Australian put it well when it stated:

There are many people out there in the electorate now wondering at Mr Keating's concern with the recession which they see about as credible as a fox with a mouthful of feathers inquiring about the state of the hen.

There is very little in the latest Budget that will do anything to assist primary industry out of this high domestic cost structure under Labor and allow it once again to become a very significant contributor to the Australian economy.

I now mention something positive that is going to be celebrated in the agricultural sector very shortly. I am sure that honourable members would not be aware that 1991 marks the hundredth anniversary of wheat breeding in Victoria. My electorate, which is based very much on broadacre cereal farming, is the prime region for Victorian research and breeding programs. It is interesting to note that wheat variety improvements and testing were established by the Victorian Department of Agriculture in 1891. This work was initiated by a committee formed by the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science originally to investigate the problem of rust in wheat. The research was, coincidentally, conducted by a vegetable pathologist in the first instance who grew numerous varieties from different countries, Farrer crossbreds and local varieties, in a nursery at Port Fairy in the western district.

From these very simple beginnings wheat breeding grew in importance over the following 100 years. I particularly refer to the work of Hugh Pye at Dookie Agricultural College, who developed up to 100 wheat varieties, a number of which were extremely successful. It was early this century that wheat breeding was expanded to the Wimmera region at Longerenong Agricultural College, where many varieties such as Ranee, Rajah and Nizam were bred. Breeding programs were also carried out at Rutherglen and Werribee. From the work at Werribee a large number of varieties were released, particularly Ghurkha, Pinnacle, Quadrant, Insignia, Olympic and Sherpa. These are evidence of that very successful breeding program at Werribee.

In 1968 the Wheat Research Institute was established at Horsham and became the new base for the State's wheat breeding effort. Varieties released during the 1970s and the 1980s included the very successful varieties of Millewa, Meering, Cocamba, Lowan and Moray. In 1983 the Wheat Research Institute was expanded to the Crop Research Institute and all crop breeding programs were transferred to Horsham. The Institute was recently renamed the Victorian Institute for Dry Land Agriculture, which reflects the cooperation and coordination of the extension services with breeding agronomy and pathology to support rural agriculture.

In the celebration of 100 years of wheat breeding a milestone has been reached in Australia's agricultural history and one that is worthy of the celebrations that will take place in Horsham on 6 November. I congratulate the director, Jim Kollmorgen, and his staff and wish them a successful celebration while continuing the research that is vital to our region's future. It is an indictment of this Budget that the only real assistance that has been provided to the agricultural sector is being provided to those leaving the land rather than those remaining. It is a further indictment that, even in the provision of welfare, many of the inequities and the welfare gaps that exist for rural families and those in self-employed enterprises have not been corrected.

The downturn in rural fortunes is having a major social impact on the farming community and the small towns and cities that depend on agriculture for their well-being. The high interest rate regime and the high domestic cost structure that agriculture has had to deal with over the past few years has brought such a lack of confidence that our young people with the skills that we need for the future are being forced to desert our regions. We will lose the next generation of young people from our communities, which will put more pressure on those who remain.

Nothing better illustrates this tragic situation than the recent information provided in the report from the Wimmera Fightback Committee. Their rural counsellor advises that in the last financial year farmers seeking help from that one rural counsellor--and I have five in my electorate--had an overall debt of $31m. The Committee's annual report shows that the average debt of the Committee's 116 clients was $267,370, which is above the average Australian farm debt of $225,000. Another worrying trend is that the average age of clients seeking assistance was 47.7 years and there were eight farmers in the 65- to 75-year-old bracket. These figures indicate the extent to which the depression is affecting all facets of the economy. It is commendable that the community today is united in tackling the problem. The focus of our attention cannot waver from families that are so devastatingly affected by the situation, not only in money terms but also in social cost and human terms.

Recently the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) visited my electorate and I welcomed that visit, even though I was not advised of it or invited to it. I draw to his attention that many of the initiatives that have been taken in this Budget, particularly the increase in inspection costs for industries that are desperately trying to increase their export potential, are all going to disadvantage this sector rather than improve it. The Minister speaks in very glowing terms of the need to value add and, while I do not disagree with this, it will be seen as a smokescreen if the Government does not provide some real initiatives in so many vital areas of industry.

In almost every community in my electorate during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, we had value added industries. We had flour mills in almost every town with very high levels of employment, and almost every community had a functioning abattoir. We must ask ourselves why these value added industries, which had been in existence for so long, are now non-existent. The reason is not related to the fact that Australia's farmers are not efficient. They are efficient. They are producing under high domestic cost structures and selling products at Third World prices. Of course, the reason relates to factors such as the disastrous state of industrial relations in Australia's secondary and manufacturing industries and the fact that our domestic costs are so out of line with those of competing nations.

What then can be done about it? First, I think we have to take immediate measures to cushion the impact of the economic and rural crisis in our country communities. Why did the Government, for instance, not accept the coalition's recommendations that the wool levy be no more than 10 per cent? Why has the Government not reintroduced an acceptable underwriting scheme for our wheat industry and paid compensation to the wheat and other industries for the loss of market share as a direct result of trade sanctions against Iraq?

The Government should immediately reinstate Commonwealth financial assistance in funding for drought aid, ensure that export inspection charges are limited to no more than the actual cost of service, and drastically improve the efficiency of our inspection services. In light of the reduction in tariff support for many of our industries, it is essential that anti-dumping laws be appropriate and that national labelling laws are extended so that consumers can clearly differentiate between imported and locally produced products.

It is cruel that at the time that rural incomes are declining, tax average mechanisms ensure that farms are still paying high levels of tax even though in many cases incomes are negative. We must also reinstate the tax incentive element of the income equalisation deposit scheme. There is an opportunity for the Hawke Government to move now to ensure the future strength and growth of country Australia and its industries. If it fails, this Labor Government will go down in history as the government that destroyed Australia's great rural industries and infrastructure, and the people who go with it. (Time expired)