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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 2718

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(9.28) —I would have been reluctant to grant leave to incorporate the letter in Hansard were it not for my reasonable satisfaction that I think the same representations were made to us. Although I have not seen the particular letter, I am sure I have seen the content of it in a similar form. I want to acknowledge that, having taken up really the same points with the Government on 10 November and having received a letter from Senator Button in response, dated 17 November, essentially the letter from Senator Button contests the facts which are contained in the representations which were made both to the Opposition and to the Australian Democrats. I advised the people making representations to me that because of the overall decision we had made with respect to the Budget it was not possible for us to move to increase the Government's financial liabilities under this legislation, but I did undertake to pursue the factual issues which were raised with us because I was concerned that there may have been an error which would be to the disadvantage of this industry.

I think it is worth pointing out to the Committee that the manufacturers in this field I think in all cases are in a very difficult situation, and I am sure that has been part of the concern behind the moving of these amendments by the Australian Democrats. I share their concern. It is not surprising, given the very difficult situation of the Australian rural industries, that these manufacturers are themselves facing very real difficulties. What might seem to be a relatively minor thing, a change of one per cent to the proposed bounty rate, is something they see as being of considerable importance to them.

Whilst the Minister's letter is, on the face of it, meeting the points which have been raised and answering them, albeit in fairly general terms, I am concerned as to whether or not the Minister has had a proper and full briefing on this matter. I am not suggesting any dishonesty on the part of the Minister, but he says in the fourth paragraph of his letter to me:

The industry first raised this matter with my Department some weeks ago and it has been discussed with officers of the IAC. The IAC has in turn re-examined the basis of its estimates and also discussed these with a number of importers.

There does seem to be some doubt, certainly in the mind of some of the manufacturers and their agents after making inquiries of the IAC, whether the IAC has conducted in any real sense a re-examination of these figures. I ask the Minister: Is he in a position to give us any assurance that in fact the IAC has re-examined the basis of its estimates and has the IAC had a discussion on this with a number of importers? If that is the case I would be interested to know with which importers these discussions have taken place.

It is important to remember that this is not a situation where the industry is sitting around trying to blame its troubles on to the Government. The industry was receiving a level of assistance from the Government in the way of tariff about which, as far as I know, it was not complaining. It was the Government, as part of its rural package, which chose to turn the tariff assistance into a bounty. That was a change which the Opposition was quite happy to support because the desperate need of the rural community in Australia at the moment is to see a reduction in the cost of their input. The use of bounty assistance in this way as against the tariff is of significant assistance to the rural industry.

The fact is that we are arguing about a difference between 10 per cent and 11 per cent as against what might have been an argument about 12 1/2 per cent and 13 1/2 per cent. I remind the Committee that the Government in a sense has broken its commitment, its word, on this matter because what it said to the rural community and to the industry was: `We will give you an equivalent in bounty protection to the tariff protection you were receiving'. Again, that is unexceptionable. It is something that the Opposition would say, and did say at the time, it supports. This has now got caught up with the general 20 per cent across the board reduction, so we have a situation where had tariff protection continued there would not have been any effect because tariffs were not affected by the Budget in the same way; it was only bounties that were changed because of the expenditure implications of the bounty.

So these very beleaguered manufacturers are in a situation where, having been promised 12 1/2 per cent, or perhaps it was 13 1/2 per cent if one did the arithmetic differently, they are now arbitrarily faced with a 10 per cent level of assistance. It is yet another specific example of the rank injustice and of the highly undesirable nature of the change that was announced in the Budget from an industry policy point of view. The Opposition accepts that there is nothing it could do to reverse that, but we do seek a better assurance than we have had in the letter from the Minister of 17 November that the worrying arithmetic questions which were raised by people on behalf of the manufacturers have, in fact, been closely and carefully addressed. Is it a fact that the Minister and the Government can be really satisfied that the wharfage charges and the customs clearance charges which are part of the original calculations supplied by the Industries Assistance Commission do, in fact, stand up to a careful scrutiny?

I should warn the Government that there are certainly some people out there in industry who feel that they have been short changed and who feel that the calculations have not been done accurately. That is really adding insult to injury as far as these people are concerned because they have, as I said before, without any warning at all, seen the loss of 20 per cent of the assistance which the Government promised them as part of its rural package.