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Wednesday, 21 April 1999
Page: 4007

Senator O'BRIEN (1:36 PM) —This is a government that prides itself on its free trade credentials. The Deputy Prime Minister, in his folksy style, has spent a lot of time travelling from China to Chile, from Gambia to Guinea, from Monaco to Mozambique and from Portugal to Paraguay pushing the interests of Australian industries. Mr Fischer has managed to quite effectively implement a lot of initiatives developed by the previous Labor government and for those efforts he deserves some recognition. But Mr Fischer and his government have absolutely focused on the big end of town. This is the modern National Party of Australia. They have been drawn to the Liberal focus, a focus that is now almost exclusively on meeting the demands of corporate Australia. The latest examples are the recommendations contained in the Ralph report on corporate tax reform.

Senators may have seen an article in Monday's Australian Financial Review written by its rural writer, Kathy Bolt. Kathy Bolt reported that the National Farmers Federation, an organisation that also has a reputation for focusing on the big end of the town at the expense of farm families, has formed the view that the Ralph corporate tax package does not look good for Australia's 115,000 farmers. The NFF tax expert Bob Douglas is quoted as saying:

We are finding more bad news every day as we talk to officials.

So the NFF conclusion is that the tax package takes away from small business and gives to big business. The article also quotes NFF Executive Director, Wendy Craik, as saying:

Many of the options included in the [Ralph] discussion paper would make agriculture less internationally competitive, would discriminate against farmers and significantly increase the complexity of the tax system.

So Australia's farmers will be the losers out of the government's corporate tax reforms, just as the whole of regional Australia will be big losers from the GST—if it ever gets through the Senate. The only issue is: how big will their losses be?

The Deputy Leader of the National Party, Mr Anderson, did in fact put his hand up in opposition to the government's plans to remove accelerated depreciation. But he only put it up once and only when no-one was watching. The National Party will again wait for crumbs from the cabinet table on corporate tax reform, just as it has on every key issue since the 1996 federal election. The hierarchy of the National Party has abandoned the interests of regional and rural Australia. The party has lost one constituency but it has not been able to replace it with another. The Nationals no longer effectively represent the bush, nor do they effectively represent corporate Australia. This is becoming increasingly obvious at the ballot box. One only has to look at the rise of One Nation, and one only has to look back as far as the recent New South Wales state election and the success of the Country Summit Alliance.

I note that, following the thrashing handed out to the Nationals in New South Wales, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, Mr Anderson, was reported as attacking his own candidates. In a report in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 April, Mr Anderson was quoted as saying:

There were some very effective campaigns by individuals, coinciding with some not so good campaigning by us.

A very frank concession that the Nationals were badly beaten on what was once their very own home turf. So the shift of the National Party's focus to the interests of big business has also been highlighted by a lack of interest in smaller intensive rural industries. In fact, on occasions this lack of interest has developed into outright antagonism towards key regional employers such as pork and chicken producers. The government now ignores the pork industry peak body, the Pork Council of Australia, because it dared to stand up for its members. It was not prepared to accept a third-rate policy response to a first-rate problem that was sending people to the wall—and nor should it.

On one occasion, the former Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Anderson, showed representatives of the Australian Chicken Growers Association the door be cause he did not like what they had to say about the failure of his government to properly and effectively advance their interests. He threw them out of his office. The government was, however, forced to take a closer look at that industry, and the combined resources of the Senate—government senators included—and the industry finally forced a proper policy response. The government was also forced to help pork producers, albeit reluctantly.

Madam Acting Deputy President Knowles, it is now time for the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Vaile, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Fischer, to help Australia's honey producers, and the first step should be to focus on opening up exports into New Zealand. The honey industry is not a big industry, nor is the New Zealand market for our product a big market, but they are both important. You would recall that in February I raised some concerns about the manner in which Australia had negotiated—or, more accurately, failed to negotiate—access for our honey into the New Zealand markets. Former Senator Collins and I have pursued this issue through estimates processes for some time.

I recently received an answer to a question on notice that detailed what had been a very tortuous and, to date, unsuccessful process. A proposal for the export of Australian honey to New Zealand was first provided by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service to the New Zealand Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries—which I will describe as the MAF—on 24 July 1991. In response, New Zealand authorities raised concerns about European foulbrood disease but not chalkbrood disease as the latter was already present in New Zealand. The AQIS proposal of 24 July had, in fact, already addressed the problem of foulbrood by the inclusion of a scientifically based heat treatment regime. The New Zealand authorities formally responded to the AQIS proposal on 20 July the following year.

The MAF draft import conditions essentially endorsed the AQIS proposal, including the parameters for heat treatment. According to a letter that accompanied the MAF proposal, it was endorsed by the Chief Veterinary Officer of New Zealand. That letter did refer to the provision of one month to allow for comment from the New Zealand beekeeping industry on the contents of the draft proposal. In October 1992, the MAF advised that it had received technical information in conflict with the draft import conditions for Australian honey. The MAF further elaborated on those concerns and sought detailed documentation on the epidemiology of foulbrood. The MAF wanted more detail on the proposed heat treatment, as well as documentation on the American foulbrood and its presence in both Australia and New Zealand. There was no request for refinement of the heat treatment regime.

AQIS provided the information requested by MAF on 11 December 1992. Since then, AQIS has made several inquiries of MAF in relation to finalisation of an import protocol, but MAF has not provided a positive response. In August 1993, MAF proposed to undertake a full quantitative analysis of the risks associated with the importation of Australian honey. That work was, in fact, finalised in January 1994, but it concluded that a number of technical issues remained unresolved. Then, in December 1995, MAF did finally provide a draft decision on the proposal to import Australian honey. The draft decision concluded that Australian honey would be permitted into New Zealand only from areas known to be free of European foulbrood. There was an application from Western Australia, Madam Acting Deputy President—your state; a state free of foulbrood—at the end of last year. MAF responded with yet more technical queries on 12 February this year and again on 23 February. Meanwhile, New Zealand honey continues to come into Australia, as it has done for nearly a decade. It is time that the government applied some resources to resolve this issue.

There is a range of reasons why the National Party is in decline, if I follow on from what I have been saying. I have referred to a number of those earlier today, but perhaps to reveal an insight into the problems the National Party faces one has to look at the interview given by the soon to depart Senator Bill O'Chee on ABC radio. Senator O'Chee was interviewed on the program The World Today on 29 March. He was asked what the Nationals could do to overcome the real beating the party copped in rural New South Wales and whether he thought the party could recover. He said that the Nationals could recover because they were the only party that could deliver to regional Australia, whereas Independents like Tony Windsor could deliver nothing. He then said, `That is why we will be as indispensable in the future as we have been in the past.' What smug arrogance! It seems to me that at the point where a politician decides that he or she is indispensable, they are exactly the opposite. To see yourself as indispensable is, in fact, to take the electorate for granted. It is the beginning of the end. And the end for Senator O'Chee is 30 June of this year. Senator Calvert referred to him earlier as `my former colleague', so I guess that is perhaps seeing the end sooner than it really is.