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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5478

Senator O'BRIEN (2:36 PM) —My question is also to Senator Ian Macdonald, representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Has the minister seen reports that hundreds of intensive livestock farmers are in danger of seeing their operations collapse under the pressure of drought induced grain shortages and exploding grain prices? Is the minister aware of statements by the Australian Wheat Board's Mr Mitch Morison that grain supplies have gone from a surplus last year to a very tight situation this year? Is the minister also aware of a statement by a Grainco general manager, Mr Simon Warner, that there may be a need to import grain if there is no improvement in seasonal conditions into next year? What action is the minister taking to ensure that these key intensive industries do not collapse as a result of the current drought?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —Senator O'Brien asked firstly whether I was aware of media reports and I can indicate that, in general, I am. I am not specifically aware of the comments attributed to senior officials in the grain growers organisation but I am sure that Mr Truss, who is the minister with direct carriage of these matters, would have had that information before him. There is certainly a concern that the drought will impact upon grain crops; it can have a very serious impact on all elements of the primary industries in Australia which rely on them. It is, as Senator O'Brien well appreciates, a very unfortunate situation. At a time when our commodities are attracting very good prices worldwide and certainly when they are needed within Australia, we have this insidious drought over which, of course, nobody has any particular control and which is cutting us off at the knees, so to speak.

Senator O'Brien, I am not quite sure what we can do to save the grain industry from the impacts of drought. Perhaps you have some suggestions on how to deal with the elements that would do so. What we have done with our Farm Management Deposit Scheme, as you know, is provide a scheme whereby farmers can put money aside on a tax-free basis during the good times; those moneys are then available for farmers experiencing drought or other natural calamity situations to withdraw to help them out in difficult times. They are the sorts of things governments can realistically do. I am not quite sure what you think the government might be able to do to make sure the industry keeps going when drought is stopping it dead in its tracks but I would be interested in any suggestions you might have. I will also ask Mr Truss— who, as I said, is the minister with day-to-day control of these issues—whether there is anything further he would be able to assist you with in answer to the questions that you have raised.

Senator O'BRIEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given the crisis now engulfing many in the poultry, pork and beef feedlot industries, why is the minister refusing to direct the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics to conduct a national grain audit so that these intensive industries and food manufacturers are given a clear picture of current grain availability and future supply?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) —I simply do not know whether the minister has directed ABARE or not. I would doubt that he has point-blank refused to do that. I would suspect, Senator O'Brien, that there would be a lot of information available through particular industry organisations and elsewhere that would give us some reasonable idea of this. Again, I will refer that to Mr Truss for his response to the issue that you have raised.