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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7875

Senator O'BRIEN (1:09 PM) —The opposition supports the speedy passage of the Taxation Laws Amendment (Earlier Access to Farm Management Deposits) Bill 2002 so that there can be a resolution of a fundamental problem. The operation of the Farm Management Deposits scheme is a matter of direct concern to many thousands of Australian farmers. The current scheme is a direct successor to Labor's Farm Management Bond scheme. It has been suggested that farm management deposits are the brainchild of this government; that is not the case. Farm management bonds were created by Labor in 1992 as part of the national drought strategy. These bonds were introduced as part of a suite of measures designed to encourage and support appropriate risk management by farmers. I am pleased to note that the minister responsible for the introduction of farm management bonds and the implementation of the national drought strategy was the then Minister for Primary Industries and Energy and current Leader of the Opposition, Mr Simon Crean.

Labor has a strong record of support for primary producers, and the reforms in this bill build on a scheme containing an investment product created by Labor. The bill amends the Farm Management Deposits scheme in three ways. Firstly, it provides an exception to the 12-month waiting period for access to farm management deposits for primary producers in exceptional circumstances declared areas. Secondly, it allows part of a farm management deposit to be withdrawn within 12 months provided certain conditions are met. Thirdly, it allows farm management deposits to be held in accounts of any term provided the amount is not withdrawn within 12 months of the date of deposit. Each of these measures represent sensible reform of the Farm Management Deposits scheme and have the support of the opposition.

The provisions relating to access for farmers in exceptional circumstances declared areas and the compliance of short-term farm management deposit products were announced by the government late last week. The announcement followed Labor's call on 19 November for changes to the Farm Management Deposits scheme. Senators will be aware that point 2 of Labor's six-point drought plan identifies farm management deposit reform as a policy priority. Although the government has been churlish in its failure to acknowledge Labor's policy initiative, I am pleased to acknowledge its full embrace of our farm management deposit plan today.

On a related drought policy matter, the government has announced a partial adoption of our plan to protect core breeding herds through the provision of interest rate subsidies. Although it has not adopted the 100 per cent subsidies proposed by Labor, the government has at least responded to Labor's call for action. With two points of Labor's six-point plan already adopted, I urge the government to delay no further in the adoption of the other four elements. These are to improve the assessment of exceptional circumstances applications to ensure prima facie assessment within seven days and full assessment within 28 days, to adopt a whole of government approach to drought policy by working with the states rather than engaging in pointless political point scoring, to address feed grain shortage concerns by ordering a feed grain audit and conducting a review of import protocols and to coordinate federal government programs to assist rural communities to cope with drought conditions.

While the bill introduces sensible reform, one of its provisions points to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry's failure to manage his portfolio. The uncertainty over short-term farm management deposits—those offered for terms less than 12 months—is not new. According to evidence given at a recent Senate estimates hearing, the government has known about this uncertainty since July last year. For almost 18 months the government has done nothing while farmers invested in short-term farm management deposit products, some of which have been promoted on the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry's own web site. While this bill clarifies the conditions under which these products comply with the scheme rules, the government has left it far too long to deal with this problem.

I wish to briefly address one final matter, outlined in more detail by the shadow Treasurer during debate on this bill in the other place. The explanatory memorandum to the bill provides scant detail about its financial impact. It is disappointing that the government has paid such little attention to its obligations to provide this parliament with detailed costings of the revenue measures proposed in this bill. Just as Labor was pleased to support and indeed to propose the reforms in this bill, it is pleased to provide the bill with speedy passage through the parliament.

The Senate regularly deals with matters pertaining to tax. On 4 December we dealt with a motion moved by Senator Brown, recorded on pages 6767 and 6768 of Hansard, relating to another tax matter: plantation forestry and the 13-month rule. The motion proposed by Senator Brown—and fortunately defeated—alleged that the tax concessions would `promote the clearing of 70,000 hectares or more of native forests by Gunns'. It has been drawn to my attention that the Hansard of a committee hearing in Tasmania shows that on 29 November—less than a week prior to the motion being put by Senator Brown—in answer to Senator Murphy's question, `How many hectares have you put in under managed investment scheme arrangements?' Mr Baker, on behalf of Gunns, said, `We have sold a total of about 17,000 hectares.' That is a difference of 53,000 hectares from the number outlined in the motion proposed by Senator Brown. Senator Brown's motion extrapolates certain costs to the Commonwealth from the 13-month rule tax scheme which would accrue to Gunns as a result of a number which does not accord with the facts and does not accord with the Hansard record of evidence—evidence given in the presence of Senator Brown.

Whilst I understand that the connection between this matter and the bill before the Senate is only that they both deal with tax, it is important to draw the attention of the Senate to a difficulty with—and let me be charitable—detail by Senator Brown in a motion proposing that the Senate adopt a resolution which did not reflect the facts set out in Hansard and at a hearing in the presence of Senator Brown. The opposition also note that certain other propositions were extended in that motion which do not accord with the facts. The motion suggested that the entirety of the area cleared was cleared of native forest, when the evidence showed that much of the land had already been cleared and was farmland planted with plantation forest. Senator Brown should have known that and should have put that before the Senate. The opposition will be exercising extreme care with motions proposed by Senator Brown, having regard to this divergence from the facts.