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Thursday, 4 October 1984
Page: 1702

Mr TUCKEY(11.12) —The Wheat Marketing Bill 1984 and cognate Bills are of huge importance to this country. The providers of the wheat industry are not a government but the thousands of people who take the risks and go on to the land to produce Australia's wheat crop. Remarkably in the negotiations leading up to the introduction into this Parliament of this legislation those providers were suddenly denied their rights. They negotiated at length with the previous Minister and also with the present Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) and they received certain concessions, but suddenly they saw their representation on the very important Australian Wheat Board being reduced to a point where they would be outnumbered by ministerial appointees. To my mind that was a step towards the socialisation of this industry at its most important point, the point of marketing. No wonder those growers protested vigorously.

Numerous representations were made to the Opposition. Requests were made that we combine in the Senate with the Australian Democrats and the independent senator to give the growers the fair deal they are entitled to receive in regard to their own company. Irrespective of the statutory status of the Wheat Board, it is really and truly a company owned by the shareholders, the wheat growers who provide the product that the Wheat Board markets, namely wheat. As is normally done, the Minister, in presenting the legislation to the Parliament, made a second reading speech. It was a prepared document. He knew of the dissatisfaction of those people whom he claims to represent. He decided to make a terrible threat to them. One might say that, to all intents and purposes, those people get paid once a year. What comes after that is a very small amount of money relative to the so-called first advance. The Minister suggested that if those people did not toe the line and were not prepared to cop it in the way that he proposed to deliver it they could go without. I quote from page 1211 of the Hansard of 13 September 1984. The Minister right at the end of his speech, dropped his prepared text and said:

Members, I have noted that the Opposition has indicated that it will get the Australian Democrats to oppose these Bills in the Senate with respect to the membership question. But I remind the Opposition that this is a package of legislation and, if it is held up, growers will not be paid. I commend the Bill to honourable members.

As one of my colleagues has reminded me, Mr Deputy Speaker, it was blackmail. Furthermore, it has been said here tonight that the Minister possesses some economic training or degrees.

It is interesting to note that the previous speaker, the honourable member for Grey (Mr O'Neil), mentioned not once but a number of times, the 1982 drought. I put it to honourable members: What was the great curse of the 1982 drought? It was the removal of billions of dollars from the Australian economy, first as it came to the hands of the farmers, who do all the work, and then as the lack of it shunted its way through the economy we had the disasters that occurred throughout the Australian economy and which this Government has tried to visit on the Fraser Government. That is what happened. This Minister callously offered Australia another 1982 drought. It was a most remarkable statement for a man who thought that all he had to do was threaten some disorganised and widely scattered farmers and that they would come to heel under the threat of no income . He was promising no repayment of bank loans; he was promising no repayment of stock accounts and he was promising no payment for the workers. He was promising the retrenchment of people who make the tractors and all the other farm machinery and chemicals. What is more, he was denying many kids their Christmas presents. What a disgraceful thing that was. The facts of life are that this money would have come into circulation at about Christmas time. But of course the factor that the Minister overlooked-and honourable members should have seen the shock on the face of the Treasurer (Mr Keating) this morning when I suggested this situation-was that the Minister was going to take that money out of circulation right at the time when the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) was going to be begging the Australian people to re-elect him. Talk about the knock on the door that pensioners are going to get under the Government's assets test, I bet there was a knock on the Minister's door when the Government suddenly realised the implications of this stupid decision.

Mr Snow —Get back to the subject.

Mr TUCKEY —The subject is that the wheat growers of Australia were threatened with no income but nobody stopped to think of the implications of that. I put it to honourable members that anybody who has not got the brains to work them out is not very likely to represent the most important industry in Australia-primary industry, and agriculture in particular. But there has been a rethink on that situation.

It was my job today to make this point, and make it clearly and to have circulated an amendment to clause 34 in regard to membership. The honourable member for Grey has made the comment that the Minister will bring in some amendments to overcome this problem of membership and to retain the present structure of it. I thank the Minister for providing me with information relating to that. One of his officers has explained the situation to me and I am perfectly satisfied with the explanation I have got. Provided the amendments, as they have been circulated, are carried in this place, I think that arrangement is quite satisfactory in the interim. It will therefore not be necessary for me to introduce the amendment that I proposed to foreshadow in this speech and to introduce during the Committee stage. That amendment was to change those sections of clause 34 which refer to one wheat grower to two wheat growers. But I do not propose to proceed with that. I am quite confident of the Minister's promise but, as the honourable member for Darling Downs (Mr McVeigh) has informed the House, the real action will be in the Senate. Should there be any backdown on the promises made, I am sure my colleagues there will stand behind me, as my colleagues here have stood behind me for the last three days as we have fought this battle.

As I understand it, the present Board structure will be retained until 1 October 1985. I am surprised that in the process of these amendments-the Minister can address himself to this matter and I am sure he will have a satisfactory explanation-the part of section 34 which I proposed to amend is to stand in the legislation. I understand that the other deletions and amendments will mean that the present Board will be retained and there will be no board to replace it on 1 October 1985. Consequently, legislation must be brought to the Parliament by the government of the day to restructure the Board.

My amendment was very simple. It was aimed at maintaining the structure of the Board in terms of its grower representation. However, I have no objection-I speak personally-to the Minister trying to change the type of expertise available on the Board. We all know that a huge sum of money was to be stripped from the Australian economy by the intemperate threat of the Minister the other day. It was $2,000m to $3,000m. That sort of money and the international monetary dealings that go with it require expertise. Admittedly, it can be hired and I congratulate the Minister for including a much more flexible wage setting procedure in the new legislation. But, as easily as we can pay for good advice, it is comforting to know that sitting beside us on a board is someone who can question that advice and a farmer with other skills in which he is very competent. It is satisfying to know that the advice we are getting from our staff has the approval of such people and therefore we can represent the members we are serving.

There is good reason to have specialist members on the Board. If that means fewer farmer members that is not necessarily bad, provided the farmer shareholders control the Wheat Board. There is absolutely no reason for a Minister to have that right. He has a representative because the Government has an involvement if there is a guaranteed minimum price. The Government has an overall responsibility, as it does with any other statutory authority, but the real losers if anything goes wrong are the farmer shareholders. They are the people we should be concerned about. When these skilled positions are created on the Board there is absolutely no reason why farmer shareholders should not be involved in appointing people to fill them. It is an absolute certainty that all knowledge does not reside in a Minister. The large group of farmers who are putting their money where their mouths are would take great care in attracting the best advisers on to their Board as many companies do.

I helped restructure on one occasion a small co-operative trucking company in which we foresaw exactly this need. We identified the responsibilities and qualifications of our directors and their business capabilities. There was a designation of certain seats but all the shareholders of that co-operative voted for each of those seats. What is wrong with something like that? I accept that the Minister proposes a review. All these forms of evidence can be put to it. I hope the Minister will correct me if I am wrong but I understand that when the report of the review is received it will result in legislation for a restructured board which will be presented to the House and to the Senate. The Opposition-I hope we will be the Government by then-will not tolerate the structure of a board that does not give the Australian farmer, the Australian wheatgrower, absolute control of his own destiny.

The Government is involved because it is necessary to have some organising central power. That is the only reason the Government is there and any attempt to socialise the Wheat Board will be resisted; and for good reason. We know the amounts of money that go through that Board; we know now its involvement in overseas finance and money markets. We have talked about the corn futures and other factors. The fact is that it is possible for governments to consider the Board an economic instrument. It is not so many years since the Fraser Government took an economic decision about the Wheat Board when it removed its borrowing powers from the Reserve Bank and told it to go out on the open market. That was a major economic decision, for better or for worse. But the reality of that is that the Board is big enough to influence the Australian economy and I do not think that that temptation should ever be available to any government of any particular persuasion.

There are other matters we must deal with in this regard and unfortunately I have spent a lot of time on that matter but I wanted to express my view and I have fought very hard for the last two or three days to make sure that people understood the position. Nevertheless, we know that wheat growers are not entirely happy with other areas. The Minister should be prepared to listen to them further. They are concerned that under what is really quite an excellent arrangement whereby stockfeed will be able to be traded directly under permit, the permit fee, to which they have no objection, will be used to assist in the subsidising of freight to Tasmania. I have raised this matter before. I wish to put clearly on the record the fact that I do not oppose the help that the Australian people collectively give to the island of Tasmania. There is nothing wrong with that. Our objection is that wheat growers should be solely responsible for that subsidy. That is a charge on Australians. It is something that we accept; we accept that type of responsibility in many other ways. This is just a case of the Government dodging this issue.

My other point is that for some inexplicable reason the Government has decided not to refund growers their own money-the $100m that stands in the Wheat Finance Fund-until next year. When I say that this is inexplicable, I should add that it is easy to understand why the Government did this. That money is now in Consolidated Revenue, a trust fund, and any movement of that money comes out on the debit side of the national budget. This Government has been trying to convince Australia of its wonderful economic management, management that has seen it receive $8.6 billion in additional revenues, yet has not enabled it to get itself out of its Budget situation. Consequently it has a $6.7 billion Budget deficit, one of the largest in the history of this country. The Government did not want that deficit to be seen for what it really was-$6.8 billion. It did not want that situation to get out, so it fiddled the books. Who is paying for that? The growers. Yes, they will get some interest, but many of them desperately need the money.

In my electorate in areas that were affected by drought there were growers this year who could not benefit fully from the excellent rains because they could not get the money to buy the superphosphate and the fuel. Of course when they bought the fuel they had to pay the 3c a litre tax that this Government puts on their enterprise. That is a tax which they must pay on the effort to grow a crop, not on the crop itself and not on the proceeds of the crop. The growers are being taxed today for their enterprise in planting a crop. That tax is 3c a litre and it will be increased. That is the sort of thing these growers needed the money for and they still have not got it. I stress that payment on 1 July next year will not help them plant their next crop. Thank goodness the evidence is that the growers will have a good season. Possibly the actions of nature and the Lord will overcome the stinginess of this Government in fiddling the books and trying to make this Treasurer look good. The Treasurer happened to follow the Mexican Treasurer in receiving congratulations by some world body. I have just been to Mexico and if the Treasurer is second best to the Mexican Treasurer, God save Australia. But the fact of life is that a fiddle was done to make things look good, to allow the Treasurer to stand up in this chamber and praise himself and then get a bit more praise on that issue.

The situation is that the farmers should have had that funding by now. These are the issues which worry the farmers. Nevertheless, I am sure that the wheat farmers are gratified with the modifications to this legislation. I hope that some of my colleagues who will follow me in the debate tonight will make reference to them. I am absolutely sure that members of the Government will pay attention to those matters. I would not like to sit down without letting people know that the Opposition congratulates the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) for having come to an agreement with the wheat industry and for having done those things that the industry needs. We should recognise that an attempt is about to be made to try to reduce the power of the Senate. I hope that every farmer who is listening to the debate tonight realises that. We could not have won this argument if the Senate had had less power than it has today. The reality is that the Minister knew we could win but he made a silly mistake.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mountford) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.