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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 8017

International Year of Co-operatives

Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (14:51): My question is to the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Senator Wong. In these closing stages of the International Year of Co-operatives, with the United Nations and other international bodies promoting the expansion and support of cooperatives across the world, can she advise what concrete support—and by concrete I do not mean the token gesture of a commemorative coin and stamp that are not even available to the general public—the government has given to Australian cooperatives that will enable them to grow and survive in what is becoming an increasingly uncompetitive free market economy dominated by multinational corporations?

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:52): The government recognises, as does the senator, the important and valuable role that cooperatives play within the Australian economy and in particular in relation to, I think, the senator's areas of interest in regional areas, particularly in the context of agriculture and banking services. I understand the senator may have previously raised some issues about industry assistance programs. Whilst I cannot give an indication about the eligibility of every industry assistance program that the government has, obviously the government is very conscious of the importance of ensuring that the design of these programs does not unreasonably exclude any particular business structure from eligibility.

In the context of the Treasury portfolio, in the 2011-12 budget the government did announce it would establish a regulator for the not-for-profit area, which is relevant to cooperatives: the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Whilst only tax-endorsed charities will be regulated by the commission, the bill does establish a regulatory framework that can be extended to all not-for-profit entities, including cooperatives, in the future. This is a process that has been underway for some time. I think Senator Stephens had some role in dealing with this previously.

The government has also, through its banking reforms, taken steps to facilitate the competitive power of Australia's mutual credit unions and building societies, including through the introduction of a guaranteed deposit symbol which informs consumers that the government guarantees deposits of up to $250,000 with any ADI. This allows mutual lenders to market themselves as mutual banks. I would note that the regulation of cooperatives is in large part the responsibility of state and territory government, but the Commonwealth has supported the progression of the cooperatives national law through the COAG Legislative and Governance Forum on Consumer Affairs. (Time expired)

Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (14:54): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, on 15 March this year, in answer to my questions on the Enterprise Connect scheme, Senator Lundy advised that, despite the requirement for applicants to the scheme to have an ABN, any cooperative is entitled to apply for assistance under the scheme. Minister, do you have details of the number of cooperatives that have applied for assistance under Enterprise Connect since that statement and how many of those applications have been successful?

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:54): I am aware of this issue; it has been raised previously. It is obviously not a matter within the finance portfolio. I understand that Senator Lundy will take this matter on notice and respond directly. I think the question is specifically about how many cooperatives have gained access to the scheme. I am advised—I do not have the numbers—that some cooperatives have been accepted under the program on an exceptions basis, with certain criteria attaching to that. I hope the senator would not mind if we take the opportunity to get the relevant minister to check so we can get further details about that for you.

Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (14:55): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, can you explain to me and the Australian public, especially those hundreds of thousands directly involved in cooperatives, why they should accept that the government has all but washed its hands of them and has offered them nothing more than a few token gestures instead of the support they have been asking for during this year that has been dedicated to them?

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:56): With respect, I do not accept that the senator's characterisation is accurate. I have outlined some of the measures the government is taking. I understand the concerns that have been raised about the Enterprise Connect program and, through Senator Lundy, Minister Combet will be responding. I also understand that the UN International Year of Co-operatives national conference is being held—maybe the senator is attending—in Port Macquarie later this month. It will be hosted by Regional Development Australia Mid North Coast, which of course is funded by the Commonwealth government. I am advised that speakers will include chairs and CEOs of some of Australia's most successful cooperatives and mutuals, including Murray Goulburn, NRMA, CBH and a number of others. The discussion will focus on the role of cooperatives and mutuals.