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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3620

Mr HOWARD —Does the Prime Minister believe that `agriculture in Australia is at a crisis point', as stated by the Minister for Primary Industry, a Minister in his own Government, in Bangkok less than three weeks ago? Does he support yesterday's decision by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to pass on in full the last 2.3 per cent national wage increase to all rural employees, regardless of their employer's capacity to pay? What advice has he received on the employment consequences of this decision for the various sectors of the rural industry? Does the Prime Minister agree that this decision highlights the inherent inflexibility of the current centralised wage fixation system? What assurance can he give to Australia's rural community that the outcome of the current national wage case will be a wage fixing system that is capable of accommodating the diversity of economic performance within and across industries in Australia?

Mr HAWKE —That statement to which the Leader of the Opposition refers was not only made by the Minister for Primary Industry; had the Leader of the Opposition had his wits about him he would have known that on many occasions over the last 12 months or more I have also commented on the extraordinary difficulties confronting Australia's rural producers. But, as distinct from the Leader of the Opposition, who by his policies in government deliberately compounded the difficulties of rural producers, this Government has set itself deliberately, positively and constructively about trying to assist Australia's rural producers. I do not have the time or the inclination to list all the devastating damage inflicted upon Australia's rural producers by the Leader of the Opposition when he was Treasurer, but let me remind him and the House of one or two elements of his decisions which inflicted enormous damage on Australia's farmers. First of all, I refer to the fact that the previous Government-and the Leader of the Opposition as Treasurer must accept the major responsibility-deliberately kept the Australian exchange rate at artificially high levels, and the worst sufferers from that Government's refusal properly to manage the Australian exchange rate were who? They were the farmers of Australia. That fact has been acknowledged by the farmers of this country. Because the previous Government did not have the guts, the wit or the wisdom to have a proper exchange rate policy, this cost the farmers of Australia hundreds of millions of dollars. That was responsible for a large part of their suffering. The previous Government had neither the courage nor the wisdom to bring in the proper economic policies.

Let us look at the previous Government's record on wages policy. Because it did not have either the courage or the wisdom to introduce a proper wages policy, there was a wages explosion in this country which brought double digit inflation. We have addressed these basic issues which determine the welfare of farmers. We have made sure that our exchange rate policy is relevant and major beneficiaries of this, of course, have been the farmers of this country. On wages, instead of having an explosion which had our wage rate at 154 per cent in terms of growth against our major trading partners, we have brought that level down very significantly. That is known and acknowledged by all economic commentators in this country. If one wants to measure the impact of that on the growth in farm costs, one must realise that this Government inherited a rate of farm cost increase of more than 11 per cent. That is what the previous Government brought about as a result of its policies-the rate of growth of farm costs was more than 11 per cent. We have more than halved that. If the Leader of the Opposition wants to talk about the impact of government policies on the welfare of farmers, he should just have a look in the mirror and ask himself why he did not have the proper exchange rate policy or the right wages policy.

As well as addressing these issues by way of internally appropriate economic policies, this Government has also, in an unprecedented way, addressed itself to the question of trying to get some sanity into the international trading regime for agricultural products. I must say that the National Farmers Federation, which increasingly is speaking more for rural electorates than is anyone on the Opposition benches, has had the decency to come out and publicly congratulate the Government, and in particular the Minister for Trade and the Minister for Primary Industry, for doing what the Opposition never effectively did before-that is, going into the relevant multilateral negotiations, going to the United States and going to Brussels. As a result, very largely, of the activities of our Ministers we now see for the first time the possibility of having agriculture sensibly addressed in the MTN rounds. Again, those opposite had no competence, no wisdom and no courage in terms of internal economic policy, neither did they have either the courage or the wisdom properly to pursue the interest of farmers in the international trading forums of the world.