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Tuesday, 5 May 1987
Page: 2623

Mr IAN ROBINSON(8.46) —I rise to support-briefly but nevertheless sincerely and strongly-the Sugar Cane Levy Bill and the Sugar Cane Levy Collection Bill which establish the framework for the collection of levy funds to finance the industry research under the umbrella of the newly formed Sugar Research Council. I understand that an amendment will be proposed by the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin), but it is not opportune for us to make reference to that at this moment. I want to say very clearly that the sugar industry has, in fact, been for several decades past one of the most efficient rural industries in Australia. It has, of course, been confronted with the problems of world market fluctuations to an extent that is perhaps unparalleled in many other industries. If one were to consider the extent of the ups and the downs one would see that few other industries have encountered such economic difficulties and nevertheless proved able to cope with that dilemma. The sugar industry has done so in a way that reflects very great credit on it, the industry organisations, the individual growers and in fact on all segments of the industry from the cropping to the actual sale of sugar on the international market as well, of course, as on the home consumption market.

The purpose of this legislation is to give the industry a positive approach to research. That is not to say that there has been any failure in the past on the part of the industry to endeavour to have the very best aspirations towards research and to gain for itself the benefits of scientific developments so far as sugar cropping is concerned. What this legislation does is to create the opportunity for research under the efficient guidelines of the Rural Industries Research Act, which is really the basis upon which this new arrangement will apply. Of course, it is important to recognise that the levy struck will be matched dollar for dollar by the Commonwealth up to a limit of 0.5 per cent of the gross value of industry production. Although this figure could be set at a higher level for the purpose of the levy, perhaps it is pertinent to say that at this time, when there is such economic stringency within the industry, it is prudent that that figure not be taken to the upper limit.

Nevertheless, the efficient approach that is inherent in the legislation before us will, I believe, enable a positive plan to be put into effect. We do not want to see any delay with this plan. There is some concern that it will take a little time for the whole operation to get under way. Whilst conceding that that is inescapable to a large extent, I know that the Minister for Primary Industry and all those concerned in the industry will want to see the work started quickly. One of the reasons for that is that this particular aspiration is not based simply on the agricultural considerations. It is based on the need to ensure that a lot of useful work is done in other fields. I refer to the economic problems of the industry. The industry in both Queensland and New South Wales has a firm basis for research, but in recent years these programs have been inadequate. If one takes the trouble to look at the work being done usually adjacent to most of the mills in New South Wales and Queensland, one sees experimental plots; one sees people engaged on a permanent basis, usually attached to the mills, giving advice to the farmers, seeing that they have the best possible opportunity to ensure that not only are the breeding programs and the varieties right for the particular location, but that the best and most efficient support is given to the individual grower to do the job he aspires to do as a cane grower. Then within the milling organisations similar high standards of efficiency have been attained because of research programs which have been undertaken in the past. But to bring all this together for the industry, at this important time, it is necessary to move forward. That is what this legislation provides for.

The Commonwealth will support a program that is intended not only to carry on the traditional research, but to move into areas such as economic and marketing research. That perhaps is the area of greatest significance at this time. It is significant because we face the challenge of cutbacks in our world market potential. Certainly the threat from the United States of America against the existing quota for Australia-a preferred quota at a preferred market return-requires the combined efforts of the Government, the industry and everyone connected with it to ensure that if there is a difficulty it is cushioned to the greatest possible extent. Economics and marketing research becomes a vital issue.

I was sorry to hear my colleague the honourable member for Corangamite (Mr McArthur) refer to the industry as the product of an agrarian socialist background and that this had been carried on into the present day and age. Frankly, the truth is plain to anyone who understands sugar growing. I profess to know something about it because it was a crop that my grandfather first grew, and a crop that my father grew. I have not been an active cane farmer on the same land because it had to be turned in for a significant reason-namely, that it was not suitable to continue to grow sugar cane efficiently. It is wrong to say that there have been stringencies under the provisions of control both in Queensland and New South Wales. The reverse has been the case. That is why the industry has been so efficient. In fact, the industry in northern New South Wales has set examples which in many respects have been followed by Queensland.

There should be recognition of the fact that the sugar industry has been an efficient industry over the years. In the recent difficult period one must remember that there was an expansion of quotas in Queensland and northern New South Wales. That was a little more than a decade ago. That expansion of quotas was the consequence of the potential which existed and which was then made use of. It involved an increasing opportunity on the international market. The sugar industry grew enormously in that period. If it had not, its efficiency would have been less, its capacity to cope with the present crisis would have been less and, quite frankly, the economy of the east coast of Australia would not have been as great as it is today. It is true that in recent circumstances difficulties have been encountered, and some have to be addressed. In Queensland the rationalisation of mills and of transport is essential, and it is pleasing to know that this work is going forward. The same action is not necessary in northern New South Wales because this aspect has been addressed previously.

There is also the question raised by the honourable member for Corangamite relating to the industrial relations aspect and the importance of assisting the industry so far as is possible in that regard. In my experience in northern New South Wales the mills have been crushing for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There have been industrial difficulties; nevertheless, the need to ensure that the mills did not stop or slow down during the crushing season has been recognised as important.

I return finally to the issue before the House, and that is the question of research, its financing, the structure under which it can be effectively carried out and its importance to the industry. This is fundamental to the Bill. On behalf of the National Party I strongly endorse this legislation and express the hope that it will make a further contribution to the ongoing efficiency of one of the country's great primary industries.