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Wednesday, 20 March 1985
Page: 560

Mrs SULLIVAN(11.33) —I suggest to the House that the best way to cast aside the party politics in this debate on the Sugar Agreement Bill 1985 would be to cast aside the speech which has just been made by the honourable member for Capricornia (Mr Wright). The honourable member paid much attention to the excellent speech of the honourable member for Dawson (Mr Braithwaite), who preceded him in this debate. What a pity the honourable member for Capricornia did not also listen to the speech of the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay), in which there was a genuine appeal for a bipartisan approach to the sugar industry and a real willingness to face the issues.

The honourable member for Capricornia comes in here and talks about what the Liberal and National parties did in government in relation to the sugar industry. In another place I happened to be a member of that Government and I happened to represent a sugar constituency including both millers and producers. I happen to know a little bit about what that Government did. The honourable member for Capricornia probably recycled the speeches which he gave during his time in the State Parliament. He put forward Queensland Labor Party propaganda and added absolutely nothing helpful to the debate. Not only did he try in his speech to bring the debate to the worst possible level of party partisanship but also he did the worst possible thing that he could do for the industry: He launched a vicious attack on the sugar millers. The last thing that the sugar industry needs at the moment is people such as the honourable member for Capricornia pouring fuel on the flames and trying to create divisiveness between producer and miller.

Sugar is not grown to any great extent in the honourable member's electorate. Nevertheless, he has been a member of the Queensland Parliament and his electorate is very close to another great primary industry in Queensland, namely the beef industry. If there is one lesson that the honourable member should have learned in his time in Rockhampton as a State member it is how much damage one can do to an industry by fostering divisiveness, as happened in the beef industry in its times of crisis, and how long a government can stall in coming to a genuine solution to a very serious problem by encouraging the playing off of one section of an industry against another. The honourable member would remember only too well how people tried to play off the beef producers against the meat manufacturers and the exporters in respect of beef prices in the 1970s and how long people were able to delay a real resolution of that problem by saying that the industry could not agree. Is that not exactly what the Australian Labor Party is doing at the moment through its Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin)?

The honourable member for Herbert tried to come to grips with some of the issues and put some of the facts before us. I do not agree with everything that the honourable member said. However, at least a member of the Government who, whilst not having many sugar farms in his electorate, nevertheless represents an electorate which is heavily dependent on the sugar industry and a lot of people directly connected with it, has shown some willingness to look at the problem and has indicated some knowledge of the industry and its needs. I say again that the last thing this industry needs is the sort of speech which has just been made by the honourable member for Capricornia, which talks about the Liberal and National parties being in bed with the sugar millers and then denigrates the idea that the sugar millers ought to be involved. Of course they should be involved.

Perhaps the honourable member for Capricornia went to the two sugar industry conferences which were recently held in Brisbane-one by the millers and one by the cane growers. We saw there an industry in great distress. Having been a representative of Queensland when the beef industry went through its problems, I saw a carbon copy of that situation. An industry in distress leads to the sorts of speeches that were made then and to inflamed passions. It is distressing to anyone who cares about this great Queensland industry to see that happen. What is needed in such a situation is not the sort of rubbish that we have just heard but a consideration on behalf of the people who have a responsibility--

Mr Wright —Disprove it.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Rocher) —Order, the honourable member for Capricornia!

Mrs SULLIVAN —He does not worry me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have seen enough of him for years.

Mr McVeigh —You never worry about a little fox terrier.

Mrs SULLIVAN —No. The people who have to make the decisions in relation to this industry have a responsibility to defuse that sort of situation and to do the best they can for all parties to make sure that the industry stays strong.

Until about 30 minutes ago there was a sentiment abroad that we should have a bipartisan and wide ranging debate on the needs of the sugar industry. That is the sort of sentiment we need. What is needed at the moment is for this Government to be given a bit of a shove to get on and do some of the things it said in the last two election campaigns it was going to do for sugar. The sugar industry, of course, is not only a Queensland industry but is overwhelmingly a Queensland industry. In Australia it is a lean and superbly efficient industry, so it is not a question of rationalising the industry to make it more efficient or more profitable. It is a question of determining the factors that caused it to reach this stage of crisis, and what can be done in the short and long terms.

The sugar industry needs and deserves support. The reasons it needs support are partly domestic and partly international. The honourable member for Capricornia glossed over the European Economic Community's role in this. He made a few glib remarks about the structure of the industry in the EEC. He said that members of the EEC could well afford to pay the subsidies. We cannot afford subsidies of the kind paid by the EEC. The Government ought to be expressing as strongly as it can to the EEC its determination that, whatever happens with dumping on the international sugar market, Australia will stand by a great industry. It produces efficiently. Contrary to the impression which would be gained from the previous honourable member's speech, it has not begged for assistance at every turn during the last 20 years but has needed help on only two occasions. However, the great thing about this industry and one of the reasons it deserves support is that it does not go to the Government annually or every two years saying: 'What can you do for us next? We have been thinking about it since the last time you did something. Here is something else'. That has not been done by the sugar industry. Its record can be contrasted with that of few other industries in Australia. One of the great strengths of the sugar industry and one of the reasons it has operated as well as it has through the decades is its ability essentially to manage its own affairs. It is an industry which has gone in for a degree of self-control and self-regulation. But there is a limit to how far that will work. It has worked very well for most of this century. However, at the moment the pressures on the industry are enormous.

I have alluded briefly to the pressures from outside as a result of the EEC's dumping and subsidising policies. For a whole host of reasons this Government must show determination to the EEC in relation to the sugar industry. One of those reasons is what this industry contributes to Australia. All speakers in this debate have referred to the number of jobs which are directly involved in the sugar industry and the number of jobs that flow from the multiplier effect of this industry.

Reference has been made to the importance of the industry to major provincial centres in Queensland in particular. I have one of them in my electorate, namely the town of Beenleigh. With the great sections of the industry located in central and northern Queensland, people overlook the fact that the industry also operates in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. There would be a widespread impact on the economies of many centres of Queensland and New South Wales if the industry were allowed to founder. It has been pointed out that the support this industry asks for now to be able to keep going in the immediate and troubled future is very small in comparison with what would have to come out of the taxpayers' pockets if the industry were allowed to decline to the point where a serious number of jobs were lost.

In the case of Beenleigh in my electorate this is particularly pointed because in that area it is a very finely tuned industry. So interdependent is it that, if that industry declines at all, virtually the lot of it will go. It is a phoney tactic for the honourable member for Capricornia, in that context, to try to play off miller against producer. The producers know very well that they need the millers, just as the millers acknowledge that they need the producers. Both sides are attempting to come up with a solution. They need to be aided and advised by government, government representatives and parliamentary representatives on what are the best ways to do it. Nothing is surer than that they will fail if they allow themselves to be divided. They will be conquered in two ways. They will be conquered by a government that cops out and says 'The industry cannot make up its mind so we will wash our hands of it', and they will be conquered by those economic forces supported by subsidies. It is not a fate that this industry deserves.

Both the domestic and international pressures have been very heavy. The cost of production versus returns to the grower are out of all proportion. I will quickly give a couple of figures on costs. In the last 10 years food prices in this country have risen by 292 per cent and wages by 428 per cent. The sugar industry, along with other primary industries, is feeling that pressure of declining income on the one hand, and increased wage costs on the other.

I have said before and I say again that this Government must absolutely resolutely resist the pressures being put on it by the EEC. It is nonsense to talk about an industry not being able to cope with market forces, when market forces are not operating, as they are not in the case of the international sugar industry. Other Australian industries care very much about the determination that the Hawke Government will show in relation to sugar. The dairy industry is one which faces the same sorts of pressures from dumping by the EEC and will also need the resolute support of the Hawke Government to remain viable in this country. Australia needs the sugar industry. It depends on its ability to trade and to sell internationally. In 1983-84 sugar was our eighth largest export commodity and earned $619m worth of our export income. We must support our export industries against subsidised pressures from outside.

As I and other speakers have said-I will not canvass all the figures again-the sugar industry is a major employer. It is economic sense for the Government to support the industry and to keep it going in a time of pressure when the alternative is unemployment, the costs of unemployment benefit and the resultant cost to the taxpayer. I hope that the Government and its members will not be tempted to say that we cannot afford it and that this money would come out of the taxpayers' dollar. In fact, this industry and its producers have been major subsidisers of the Australian consumer in past times. I remind the honourable member for Capricornia that within the last decade, during the life of the last Liberal-National Party Government, new arrangements were entered into in relation to the domestic sugar price. Previously the sugar industry had been prepared to subsidise the domestic consumer. When pressure came too heavily on international prices a rearrangement of the domestic sugar price was necessary. The Fraser Government and the sugar industry worked that out. I suggest that the honourable member for Capricornia should look at some of the literature and propaganda of that time when the sugar industry was in crisis. He would probably find the source of half his speech. He would find that people were attacking the sugar millers in those days too.

I want to refer briefly to the ethanol matter. The honourable member for Dawson made reference to ethanol in his speech. In debate in the other place much was made by an Australian Democrat senator of the possibilities for ethanol in the future. The honourable member for Dawson mentioned a number of those issues. Since that debate I have received a letter from the General Secretary of the Proprietary Sugar Millers Association Pty Ltd on the subject of ethanol. It is a very technical letter. It was circulated to all Queensland senators and probably to other honourable members. I seek leave to table the letter so that it can be a public document.

Leave granted.

Mrs SULLIVAN —That letter is available to honourable members who would like to look at the more technical side of ethanol and see that it is not the panacea that some might suggest it is.

I think I ought to remind honourable members of the actions that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), as Leader of the Australian Labor Party, and the Minister for Primary Industry, as the primary industry spokesman, said the sugar producers could look forward to. After all, it was the sugar producers who caught the cane train to Brisbane and who met with the Prime Minister during the last election campaign. They went away believing that action would be taken by a Hawke Government. In public meetings in north Queensland during the 1983 election campaign the sugar producers met the Prime Minister and the Minister for Primary Industry and believed that pressures on their industry would receive relief under a Hawke Government. The term 'sympathetic consideration' was used by both Mr Hawke and Mr Kerin. I do not bring in this matter to put down in any way the things the honourable member for Herbert has said. I hope the sympathy he has for the sugar industry is such that he can persuade the Minister and the Prime Minister to share that sympathy. In 1983 there were hopes raised of industry loans and/or an indemnity scheme. In 1984 there were hopes raised of a fixed floor price. So far there has not been much movement. I point out that in the life of this Government the steel industry has received $176m in assistance; the car industry $150m in assistance and the sugar industry $16m in assistance. It has been suggested, uncharitably, that that $16m might not have been forthcoming if there had not been twice that much forthcoming from the Queensland Government, which the honourable member for Capricornia so viciously attacked a short time ago. Not only the present State Government but also, of course, the previous Queensland governments were attacked by him.

To advance the debate it is necessary that pressure be kept up by producers, and sugar millers whose livelihoods are also at stake, and by those sympathetic to the sugar industry. It is necessary that the Hawke Government be reminded of promises it has made in two election campaigns of assistance to the sugar industry which is yet to be forthcoming. I think first and foremost it is necessary that the industry and its problems be debated objectively. I hope that in the rest of this debate we will see an illumination not only of the sugar industry's problems but also of possible solutions. I hope-I trust not in vain-that at the end of the debate the Minister will be able to give some better indication than the industry has had so far of action that is to the point for the benefit of this great industry.