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Thursday, 5 December 2002
Page: 7281

Senator HARRIS (2:34 PM) —My question without notice is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Ian Macdonald. Are you aware of the special circumstances being faced by the Sunshine Coast sugar growing community in and around Nambour? Is the minister aware that the Moreton Sugar Mill is the singular processing mill for that area? Is the minister aware that the production through the mill this year is approximately 500,000 tonnes and the break-even tonnage at US7c per pound is 850,000 tonnes? Is the minister aware that the owners of the Moreton Sugar Mill have agreed to crush next year's crop and have indicated that the mill will then close?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —Senator Harris raises a question that is very important to those people in the Nambour region of Queensland, and I thank him for his interest in that area. Coincidentally, Senator Harris, as you probably know, yesterday a group of councils were down from the Sunshine Coast area that encompasses Nambour. Their federal representative and my Liberal colleague Mr Alex Somlyay had them in speaking to Mr Truss about the mill and its future. It is obviously of concern, but I think it is well accepted in the community of Nambour that the mill is simply unable to operate profitably and that therefore there has to be some look at its future.

Senator Harris, you are right: the mill owners have agreed to extend their closure from the end of this season, as was originally anticipated and announced, and have now indicated that they will not close until the end of the 2003 sugar crushing season. I understand that the reason behind that is that, in conjunction with local growers and John Holland Ltd, they are looking at a proposal for an ethanol plant at Yandina, just outside Nambour. If that does come to fruition, obviously the cane farmers will supply the ethanol plant, and life will go on in a slightly different direction.

I guess that depends on what the government determines in relation to ethanol. Senator Harris, you would probably be aware that the government is working on that. It is an issue that does take a lot of Mr Truss's time and energies, as we work through a number of very complex issues on ethanol. The government hopes to be able to make an announcement on ethanol before the end of this year or sometime early next year. That will then give places like Nambour, the growers there and John Holland, the time to assess whether it is appropriate to invest in that particular area.

Senator Harris, there is something happening; the growers understand. The very important issue is that the sugar package which the government has announced will be of considerable benefit to that mill. We have a real problem, though, because the Labor Party have announced that they do not support the sugar industry and, in fact, they are intending to reject the proposed levy. Of course that means that without the levy there will be no rescue package, no future package for the sugar industry. That is something that is concerning us; Senator Harris, I am sure it is concerning you as well. I know it is concerning the Labor government in Queensland, who have called upon Simon Crean to allow this levy through. Any number of state Labor members up and down the coast have pleaded with Mr Crean to allow this package through so that the cane farmers, who do need some help at the present time, can get that help from the Queensland and Commonwealth governments. It is very distressing to read in the papers that the Labor Party are going to oppose that and, in doing so, they are going to completely reject the interests of the sugarcane farmers and make sure that in their time of need there will not be any facilities, there will not be any assistance available to those farmers. Labor—for some reason which no-one can quite understand, least of all their Queensland colleagues—are so opposed to the sugar industry and they just cannot help the sugar industry. (Time expired)

Senator HARRIS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, will you within this current financial year take a proposal to the government that will address the social and economic impacts of that proposed closure of the mill? Will you give an undertaking to address the specific concerns, in addition to the proposed package, of the cane growers, harvest workers, the workers at the mill? What will be the flow-on effects to the area around Nambour? Minister, it is important that we do not wait until those people are in a desperate situation before the package is implemented. Based on the unique impact of the impending closure of the mill, an effective, efficient and caring government would initiate a special discrete package for the Nambour people.

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —We obviously are a very caring government: that is why we have announced the sugar package. It is beyond belief that the Labor Party will be rejecting the sugar package and making sure that there are no funds available. Senator Harris, your question really presupposes that the mill in one form or another will shut down. As I mentioned in response to your original question, there may be a bright future for the sugar farmers in the area in a slightly different focus. So until decisions are made in that regard by the local growers, it is a bit premature. Certainly the sugar package that we are proposing does help those who have to leave the industry. All we have to ensure, Senator Harris, is that that proposal does get through this parliament so that we can make sure that there are funds available to help those sugar farmers, perhaps like those in the Moreton area who are in dire straits. Without the support of that levy, it is going to be a very tough time, a very tough Christmas, for the sugar farmers. (Time expired)