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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7070

Mr VAILE (Trade) (4:36 PM) —I thank the House for the opportunity to make some comments on the budget outcomes with regard to my portfolio responsibility of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, and also representing the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, the Hon. Senator Robert Hill.

I will respond to some comments made last night during the consideration in detail debate by the member for Corio, the shadow minister in this portfolio. Firstly, I draw the attention of the House to the support that he gave to the extra funding to a number of programs announced in this year's budget, particularly the Great Artesian Basin Program, the ovine Johne's disease program and the $15.8 million for the increased patrols in the Southern Ocean for Australia's fishing industry.

I welcome that bipartisan support from the member for Corio on what are good outcomes, good programs that the government announced and is funding in the interests of regional and rural Australia. But I take him to task with regard to some critical comments he made about the macro-economic settings under which our government has operated. I remind the member and the House of the level of interest rates that were in place when we were first elected in 1996 and which we have been vigorously working on to get down ever since we came into office, over four successive budgets, one of which we are debating here. The measures that we have put in place have seen interest rates reduced to the lowest—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —Order! The level of conversation on my left is just a smidgin too high. Please control the volume a little more. The minister has the call.

Mr VAILE —I agree with you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The members opposite should listen to this because, since we have been in office since 1996, we have reduced interest rates in this country to the lowest level in 30 years and that is worth $540 million to the farm sector every year. That was something that the Labor Party in 13 years in office could never achieve and never had a mind to achieve. All the constituents in the electorate of the member for Paterson wanted lower interest rates. In his first term in this parliament, he could not deliver them and he is not in a position to deliver them now. In four years we have delivered that to the rural sector in Australia. That is what we are doing for rural Australia as well as putting in place programs that deliver outcomes that rural Australia wants. We are underpinning and facilitating a much stronger structure in rural Australia so that our farmers, our primary producers, can better compete with the rest of the world.

A number of programs have been announced in this budget and we are very proud of programs such as the $17½ million over two years to establish a biotechnology office and a regulator for the advancement of biotechnology within Australia and particularly within the agrifoods industries in Australia.

They are programs that are going to continue to build on consumer confidence that we have in this country. Unlike other countries around the world where this technology is being used to improve the use of biotechnology and the development of new crops in agriculture and new foodstuffs, we are not calling the changes we are getting into place genetically modified organisms or genetically modified foods. They are genetically improved foods. They are foods that are going to be produced with far less use of chemicals, and that is what the world's consumers are looking for.

You will be aware that we have also announced the extension of the funding for the Supermarket to Asia strategy, which has been extremely successful in the last three years of our government. We are announcing the extension of that funding for the Supermarket to Asia strategy as well as new programs within the context of the Supermarket to Asia program. Just this year, in the March quarter of 1999, we received some statistics that were quite compelling and underpinned the fact that the Supermarket to Asia strategy has been extremely successful. Food and agricultural product exports to South-East Asia in the March quarter of this year increased by 14 per cent in the face of economic downturn in South-East Asia, where the knockers of the Australian economy—mostly within the Labor Party in this parliament—were saying that we were not doing enough, that we were not safeguarding our situation. (Extension of time granted)

At a time when all the negative commentators in Australia were saying that we were not going to be able to quarantine Australia's economy and safeguard our exporters against the economic downturn in Asia, we achieved just that. All those macro-economic settings that I spoke about before—lower interest rates, reducing the country's debt, getting the budget back into surplus and the work through the Supermarket to Asia strategy that we put into place—were working towards maintaining our market access and finding new markets in South-East Asia. We have done that, and the statistics underpin that in that we have increased our exports of food and agricultural products to South-East Asia by 14 per cent in the March quarter.

Last night the member for Corio congratulated the government—and we accept those congratulations—for announcing the $32 million for the bore-capping program in the Great Artesian Basin. The member for Corio recognises that the Great Artesian Basin covers in excess of 20 per cent of Australia's land mass. There are thousands of uncapped bores that are reducing the pressure in the Great Artesian Basin, a water aquifer that holds the equivalent of at least 17,000 Sydney harbours and is a very valuable resource for a lot of inland pastoralists in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. We are allocating $32 million over five years to assist the community in capping those free-flowing bores so that we can maintain a sustainable water resource that is going to be invaluable in the future for those pastoralists in that area. It is a very important program that we have undertaken and one that the government remains wholly committed to.

While I have time, I might just go to some comments that were made by the member for Reid last night and some made just a few moments ago by the member for McMillan. Just listening to the member for McMillan—

Mr Albanese —You waited for him to go.

Mr VAILE —No, he did not want to hang around. On the comments made by the member for McMillan, if I were not here at the opening of his remarks, I would have sworn that he was talking about the Carr Labor government in New South Wales and what they have done to the forestry industry in that state. In the electorate of the member for Paterson they have closed down the timber industry. In my electorate next door and south of your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, they have closed down the timber industry with no regard for the consequences. They are not prepared to commit to any long-term strategy for the timber industry and the workers involved in that timber industry in New South Wales. There were in excess of 30 mills in my electorate, one of the great timber electorates in New South Wales, but there are only two mills remaining. The New South Wales Labor government have done that. They have turned their backs on those workers. The representatives of the CFMEU in my electorate are not welcome on the site of any mill in my electorate—not by management, but by the workers—because they have done nothing to help the Commonwealth government try to establish a properly structured RFA process in that area that recognises what was set out in the reports commissioned into how we can sustainably manage our timber industry.

It is no good the Labor Party coming in here and complaining about the management of this nation's forests when their colleagues in New South Wales will not discuss with the Commonwealth, will not progress the RFA process and have unilaterally closed down forestry in New South Wales, costing thousands of jobs.

Mr Horne —I raise a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not sure of the relevance of the statements being made by the minister. He is aware that the RFA process in New South Wales was supported by the National Party, the Liberal Party and the Labor Party.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Mr VAILE —Mr Deputy Speaker, our government, through our Minister for Forestry and Conservation is continuing to try to negotiate with the New South Wales government to establish an RFA. We have allocated money for that process in this year's budget that we are debating right now. But the New South Wales state Labor government has made unilateral decisions to close down forests right outside of this process, not in consultation with anybody let alone the industry. We are being asked by industry and the workers in the industry to get this framework established. We have allocated funding in this budget to do just that, but we cannot get any sense at all out of the Carr Labor government in New South Wales.

In closing, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me say that we will hear a lot of rhetoric from the Labor Party during this debate as far as the budget is concerned, but it remains a fact that our government over the last four years and particularly in this year has got the economy of this country back into shape. We have got an economy that is fireproofed from what has been going on around us and we have put this economy into an incredibly strong position as we go into the new century. We see the activity in the marketplace kicking along and we will be in a position to move with our industries and help strengthen the structure of our primary industries. (Time expired)