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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21769

Mr KATTER (4:50 PM) —I wish to draw to the attention of the House the extremely depressing conditions that prevail throughout rural Australia, particularly that part of rural Australia that I represent. At the time of speaking to the House, all of the Central West and other areas of Queensland—the Great Mid-West, as they are called—are suffering very severe drought conditions. In my lifetime as a parliamentarian, spanning some 30 years, I cannot ever remember us getting knocked back for drought moneys when we made a serious attempt at them. But given the administration of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—the honourable member for Wide Bay, Mr Truss—once again Mr Truss is going to score a first in the incompetence of the handling of his portfolio and the incompetence of the department which he presides over.

Believe it or not, a drought declaration for North Queensland has to be undertaken by officers of the department living in Canberra. I pointed out to the officers in the department that some 20 stations are destocked either partially or totally and that I can give them the names of stations where they have moved from having 15,000 sheep down to 400 sheep. I can give them the names of stations that have been pushing down prickly trees for their cattle to eat for some six or seven months. They have now run out of prickly trees. I can point out to them stations where they have been handfeeding part or all of their herd for some five months now. Effectively what they said was that their computer model did not indicate that we had drought conditions.

The DPI officers who live in North Queensland have traditionally assessed these situations. It is thought by some people—who I think live in the Stone Age—that they are going to get a better deal from the coalition than they are going to get from the Labor Party. It may be true that they will not get a better deal, but it is most certainly not true that they are getting a good deal now or can survive on the deal that they are getting at the present moment. Go no further than this decision.

AgForce, the industry representative body in Queensland, is led by probably the finest farm leader we have in the country. He, along with John Bronger of the Pharmacy Guild, is one of the two finest leaders of owner-operated businesses in this country. The situation is that AgForce has come forward and said that there is a very severe drought on up there. The DPI, the local state officials, have said, `There is a very severe drought on in half of North Queensland.' Everyone seems to agree on this except the officers of the department here. They cannot even see fit to leave their computer screens, with their computer models, in Canberra to go up there.

It must be pointed out that I do not expect officers in Canberra to be experts on landforms throughout Australia; nor do I expect that they would be experts on weather conditions. In the area that I represent—in the cracking clays, the vertisol soils, the black soil plains, if you like, of the northern half of Queensland—if you get anything less than an inch of rain it really does nothing else but fill the cracks. Nothing will happen as far as grass growing. If you get more than two inches of rain it all runs off; the soil seals over. It is a very drought-prone area in its natural state. To apply a computer model that will work in western New South Wales or north-western Victoria to North Queensland, where we have a drought at the end of each year, is quite ridiculous. We have an entirely different situation.

As far as governments coming to grips with what needs to be done for these people, we really do not need to be providing a handout, even if there is a small subsidy involved. I was reading the brief on ethanol from the congressional briefing paper in the United States and it mentioned in passing that the corn growers were enjoying a subsidy for this year in excess of $1,000 million, at a guaranteed price of $2.60 a bushel. That is how other countries treat their farmers. If we could just get interest rates to the same level as the interest rate that the government pays—which is probably around four per cent or less at the present moment—we could pass on to the growers the benefit of that wholesale interest rate that government enjoys. That wonderful and great man John McEwen provided for us development banks which simply loaned the money out to the farmers at the same interest rates that they were borrowing money. That was carried on in the same tradition by Doug Anthony, his successor. Quite frankly, if you put 0.2 per cent on it—and I was one of the two ministers overseeing the QIDC in Queensland—you make very handsome profits. So we are not asking for a handout; in fact, we are inviting the government to make profits. Lending in agriculture is very safe.

The policies imposed upon us by the current regime—and I must again mention Mr Truss and Mr Anderson, who are both ardent free traders—have deregulated industries. It is not a philosophy of the Country Party, which I have spent most of my life in, or the National Party, as it later became. Most certainly, in its modern context, it is the philosophy of the ALP. People got up all the time and talked about 25 per cent tariff cuts. That came from Mr Whitlam. The father of economic rationalism in this House was none other than Mr Keating. When that person deregulated the wool industry, he first undermined the scheme and then abolished it. When he did that, the price for wool dropped clean in half. The member for Richmond is in the House at the present moment. When his father introduced that scheme, the price for wool went up 300 per cent. What a wonderful, magnificent contribution to this country Mr Anthony made as a minister and as Deputy Prime Minister. In 1989 that scheme resulted in one-tenth of the nation's entire export earnings coming from one commodity—wool. The deregulation of that scheme took earnings from $5.9 thousand million a year—one-tenth of our export earnings—down to a situation now where half of the sheep herd has vanished.

Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, let me switch subjects completely. You, the member for Richmond and I represent part of the banana industry. I represent the larger share of the industry. If AQIS, or Biosecurity, as it now calls itself, should exist then it should exist to protect the industries of this country and to prevent disease from coming into this country. The Philippines has 23 diseases of bananas that Australia does not have, including the dreadful moko and black sigatoka diseases which you are quite familiar with, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure. In New Scientist magazine of February this year there was a front-page article on how the banana industry is vanishing and is doomed as a result of those two diseases—both of them endemic in every part of the Philippines. How any responsible minister or any responsible government could seriously consider for a fraction of a second bringing those bananas into this country and still say they have a quarantine service is beyond the wildest stretch of my imagination.

Let us save the Australian public money and close the quarantine service down, because it should not be there if it allows bananas to come in. The grape decision staggered me, when we brought the grapes in from California where a 10th of them have died as a result of Pierce's disease. But if this happens, I will not use the arguments that 5,000 or 6,000 Australians will lose their jobs or that the economies of whole towns will completely vanish overnight. It would be naive for me to do that. For my colleagues on the right who may be a bit ignorant about these things, the industry will be replaced by cattle—an industry that employs nobody at all.

We could put most of these shire areas, such as the Innisfail shire area and the Tully shire area, under cattle and we could run the whole industry with 100 people—and this is a place where there are probably 3½ to 4½ thousand jobs at the present moment in bananas. If they are replaced by cattle, that will be the fate that awaits those towns—similar to the ethanol for sugar industry and the tobacco industry. A reintroduction of the tariffs we were allowed to have, and the introduction of a cancer research levy if necessary, will, I am sure, guarantee that we will be able to have tobacco back in the Australian marketplace again. And, of course, as I speak, the dairy industry is going through its death throes throughout major parts of Australia. That is the situation in rural Australia. (Time expired)