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Monday, 21 October 2002
Page: 5491

Senator O'BRIEN (3:41 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

The Senate sought copies of documents relating to the government's dealings on ethanol for a number of good reasons. Australian motorists are entitled to know the details of government negotiations on the content of the fuel they put in their petrol tanks. Australian taxpayers are entitled to know the details of the government's private deals on excise and production subsidies. Australian businesses are entitled to know when special assistance is being given to one business on the basis of its close relationship with the government. Further, Australia sugar growers are entitled to know when they are being duped into thinking that the government cares about their future. The Senate did request the documents. The request was made because the government has been evasive about its policy framework and basis to date.

The first important issue is the failure of the government to establish a maximum ethanol content in fuel. It is important that it is clear that the government has known for two years that unregulated ethanol use in petrol is doing damage to motor vehicle engines and engines of other devices—marine devices and other devices used in agriculture and in ordinary home use. Its failure is also undermining community confidence in the legitimate use of ethanol in petrol products. What is needed is the immediate establishment of a maximum allowable standard for ethanol in petrol and a requirement that the percentage of ethanol in petrol is disclosed to consumers when they purchase a product. Why has the government failed to act? That is what the full production of the documents requested by the Senate is likely to reveal, and it brings me to the second and third reasons for the Senate's request for these documents.

Taxpayers and business owners are entitled to know when the government is involved in special deals, especially when those deals result in preferential treatment for a business that happens to have a close relationship with the government. Contrary to claims made by some members of the government, it was not the Labor Party that first suggested that the relationship between Manildra and the government might be influencing its ethanol policy. It was suggested by Mr Brian Nye, the Executive Director of the Australian Institute of Petroleum. It is Mr Nye's clear recollection that at a meeting with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on 21 August—

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The senator sought leave to take note of my statement, which quite explicitly said that the government intended to comply with an order of the Senate and that it was not able to do so today but would be doing so shortly. That was for one reason, and that was the number of agencies involved. If the senator does need to take note of that rather simple and precise statement, he should be required to speak to that and not to open up an entire debate about alternative fuels in Australia in the 21st century.

Senator O'BRIEN —The statement is in relation to a decision of the Senate, and the decision of the Senate is to require the minister to produce documents which relate to the specific issue that I am addressing. I am addressing the importance of the production of this information now, and it will become clear—

Government senators interjecting

Senator O'BRIEN —The parliamentary secretary suggests that I am wasting time. I do not think it is the case that I am wasting time at all, Mr Deputy President. But in addressing the point of order, I say it is entirely relevant for me to address the basis of the statement—the basis of the statement being the motion of the Senate and the importance that it be complied with.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order.

Senator O'BRIEN —As I was saying, it is Mr Nye's clear recollection that, at a meeting with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on 21 August, Mr Truss told him that the Prime Minister would not permit any decision on ethanol that adversely impacted on Manildra, run by the Prime Minister's mate Dick Honan. Mr Truss, of course, denies this statement, and it is clear that both Mr Nye and Mr Truss cannot be accurate in their description of the meeting.

It is not much of a stretch to imagine the Prime Minister's view creeping into a conversation about the government policy on ethanol—and, after all, the place of the National Party in the cabinet room is tenuous at best. The Liberal Party does not need the National Party to form government and the current Nationals in cabinet hardly justify a place on performance.

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. If the honourable senator opposite is going to stay within standing orders, he must remain relevant, and having a discussion about the internal make-up of a cabinet could not possibly be construed as relating to the very short, concise statement I made in relation to the timing of the government's response, which is not at issue. The issue of course is the coordination of the departments to ensure that the Senate order is complied with. The government is doing the right thing by complying in a timely manner with the order. The honourable senator opposite is using this occasion to extend the deliberation of the Senate, to filibuster, to waste time, and, quite frankly, if the senator wants to do that, then he is showing that he does not have a bona fide request. He is simply trying to play cheap politics with this debate and, quite frankly, the government should note the senator's motivation when it comes to how timely its response is.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order. Senator O'Brien, you should watch what your remarks are referring to in the debate.

Senator O'BRIEN —I will do that and, certainly, it is not my intention to waste the Senate's time, Mr Deputy President, and I would be quicker without the interruptions.

Senator Ian Campbell —Talk about it when you get the documents, when you know what you are talking about. Don't waste time!

Senator O'BRIEN —It is interesting that we had a very indefinite presentation about the time span that would be required to present these documents. There have been returns to order that I can recall when that material which is readily available has been supplied and other material, which has been more difficult to obtain, has been supplied later. But that is not what is offered.

Senator Ian Campbell —Very insightful!

Senator O'BRIEN —Thank you. I accept your compliment, Senator. Mr Truss, I must say, told the House of Representatives on 25 September that a handwritten record made by a member of his staff supported his version of events. Why can't that be tabled? If Mr Truss could rely upon it in the House of Representatives last month, why can it not now be tabled as it is one of the relevant documents, as I understand it, that the Senate has required to be produced? On the one hand, Senator Macdonald is saying, `We are going to produce this document sometime,' and I am suggesting that this is a very important—

Government senators interjecting

Senator O'BRIEN —I am happy to allow you—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Campbell, it would be easier for you to keep out of the debate. If you want to get into the debate, you have got your opportunity.

Senator O'BRIEN —It is certain that Mr Truss would not move an inch outside the clear parameters set by the Prime Minister on a matter as important as fuel policy. If it is okay for the National Party to sell out its constituency on Telstra, I have no doubt it is okay to accommodate one of the Prime Minister's mates.

I must say that, in relation to the return to order, it is clear that access to all the records of Mr Truss's meeting with Mr Nye will give the community a better picture of events that transpired and allow the veracity of Mr Truss's claimed to be tested. Only by revealing the other documents requested by the Senate can the government demonstrate that it has nothing to hide in relation to its recent ethanol decisions. The public already knows that the 12-month ethanol production subsidy will disproportionately benefit Manildra with a likely benefit of $15 million over the next 12 months. What we do not know is why the government decided to adopt a policy that benefits one company in that way. Certainly Mr Honan and his company, and the Australian Biofuels Association, are entitled to advocate policies that benefit their business interests. They are entitled to meet with ministers and make representations to government.

The Australian community is entitled to expect the government to protect its interests. The government should not refuse to cap ethanol limits in petrol. The government should not refuse to require disclosure of ethanol content. The government should not have imposed this excise on ethanol and pretended that it was based on a desire to help the sugar industry when it knew all too well that the overwhelming majority of the benefit would fall to Manildra, and Manildra makes ethanol not based on sugar at all but on wheat starch.

Of course Senator Macdonald and the government would know that is the case. That is why they are embarrassed in relation to the production of material which will show that statements the government has made about its desire to protect the sugar industry with this excise are suspect. The sugar industry has told me that the excise is absolutely counterproductive to sections of the sugar industry that desire to improve their returns by adding to the value of the crop from the production of ethanol—they say that that will just not happen. When you add excise to the price of ethanol, it will become less competitive with the alternative that it is designed to replace, the petroleum product.

That is why the government has been reluctant to produce this material. I say again that if Mr Truss in the House of Representatives can refer to handwritten notes why can't they be produced today? Why can't the government say: `We can comply with this material, which we can easily find, and we will produce the rest later.' Of course, the government does not do that and neither does Senator Ian Campbell tell us when this matter will be complied with.

Senator Ferguson —Shortly!

Senator O'BRIEN —`Shortly' might mean next year as far as this government is concerned. I am afraid to say that this government has form in relation to returns to order. There are numerous returns to order which it has declined to comply with. There are numerous returns to order about which it has produced a very basic amount of information—and certainly not full compliance with the orders of the Senate in relation to production of documents. Why then would the opposition not be concerned and perhaps suspicious about the suggestion, `There is a great deal of information and a number of sources have to be gone to, so we are going to delay and reply later when we know that there is information in the hands of the government now which can be produced.'

It was not my intention to take an extensive period of time in relation to addressing this matter. I hope that the government comes into this chamber—and when it says, `Shortly', I mean during this week—to present this information. Alternatively, it would be appropriate for the government to attend this chamber and say when it does precisely intend to comply with this return to order. That would be a much more productive and constructive way to deal with this matter rather than the sort of antics we have seen from the Manager of Government Business in the Senate today.

Question agreed to.