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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 668

Mr ANDREW(10.36) —I am pleased to have this opportunity to follow my neighbouring electorate colleague, the honour- able member for Grey (Mr O'Neil), in participating in this debate on an anomaly in the Wheat Marketing Act. Ironically, I ran into many of the problems to which he alluded when I was at a clearing sale in the north of my electorate, not all that far from my boundary with the honourable member for Grey. No doubt the paddocks of some of the wheat farmers in his electorate run into my electorate and vice versa. So he, too, ought to be familiar with the sort of conversation that I had when speaking to wheat farmers at a clearing sale in the north of my electorate. There I was, at a clearing sale just north of the town of Clare, in part of the premium wheat growing area of South Australia, faced by farmers who were desperate. The most desperate of them were aged somewhere between 25 and 40 and had young families and young farms. Those farms were not paid for, and the farmers were substantially in debt. These young men, accustomed to dealing with all sorts of adversities, accustomed to harvesting under the sorts of conditions that people used to air-conditioning would not tolerate, were at the point of tears as they described to me their financial plight, because they saw their farms disappearing over the horizon.

These are days of desperation in the wheat growing areas of Australia. We have to face the simple unpalatable truth that this year 23,000 of the 40,000 grain farmers in Australia will operate their properties at a personal loss. I use the term `personal loss' because I am talking about the fact that they will not have enough income to meet any of their domestic requirements. Every wheat farmer will run his property at a real loss; no one will make a realistic return on his investment. But ignoring that, 23,000 farmers will run their properties at what I call a personal or domestic loss. So we have come into the House this morning to look at a Bill-the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill-that helps to address an anomaly which if not addressed would further disadvantage the wheat farmers of Australia.

For the information of those who are listening to this debate, under the Wheat Marketing Act all wheat is pooled for a price that is determined by what is called ASW-Australian standard white-which represents the normal range. The price set, should underwriting arrangements be necessary, is determined by ASW in this mid-range of the pools. Any primary producer who produces any products in any sort of co-operative system will be familiar with pooling. Pooling involves taking products that are harvested at a range of times over a harvest period, or having a range of quality or a range of sizes, and agreeing to feed that range into a market and pool the market returns. Under the Wheat Marketing Act, the ASW has been the benchmark on which the price for wheat has been determined. However, under amendments to that Act which were brought into the House in 1984 we have discovered, as a result of the interpretation of the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen), that the strict application of section 15, Part II, of the Wheat Marketing Act 1984 would result in there being a requirement for us to move away from ASW as the benchmark into separate pools for separate varieties. It is believed that this move would disadvantage farmers somewhere between $1.25 and $1.50 a tonne. So this legislation has come into the House in order to allow that disadvantage to be corrected and that anomaly to be addressed.

Of course, the Opposition is happy to facilitate this legislation because the Opposition is acutely aware of the dilemma currently facing not only all Australian primary producers but particularly Australian grain growers and, most acutely, Australian wheat growers. It may be said by some that $1 or $1.50 a tonne really is-if honourable members will pardon the pun-chickenfeed, and I would agree. But if a person has a negative income or is one of the many farmers alluded to by the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt) whose income will be less than $1,200, frankly, the $1 or $1.50 a tonne addresses some of the immediate needs that he is facing. Hence the Opposition is willing not only to support this legislation but also to facilitate its rapid passage.

The honourable member for Grey came into the House and commended the Opposition for its preparedness to support the Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill. Quite frankly, I would like to say to the honourable member for Grey that the Opposition is even more acutely aware than he is of the desperate need for this legislation to be passed and of the urgency with which it must be passed. The honourable member for Grey came into the House and commended the Government for the implementation of its country task force. He said that the country task force has been prepared to move all round Australia to listen to farmers. I can think of few offences greater than being prepared merely to listen. Of course, one would be not to listen at all. But to listen and do nothing is to suggest to farmers that they can be merely dismissed. Quite frankly, the honourable member for Grey is welcome to his country task force in his electorate of Grey. I hope that it keeps well clear of the electorate of Wakefield.

What farmers want is not someone to listen to them but someone to take some action to address the problems that they are facing. All we have heard from the Government is that the problems are in the world economic scene and so they cannot be handled. I wish it were true, but it simply is not. Do honourable members know that the major problem facing my grain growers right now is not that the wheat cheque will not be what it ought to be, but simply that interest rates are bleeding them dry. Of course, the fall in the wheat cheque will embarrass them this year when that wheat cheque would have been used not only to fund the expenses that they incurred in growing the crop but to prepare them for next year's crop as well. But up to this point the farmers in Wakefield and the farmers across Australia are being affected more by this Government's domestic policies and the consequent interest rates than they are by the world trading scene. It is meaningless for the country task force to wander around Australia offering platitudes and little else when what Australian farmers want is a cost of production climate in which they find themselves positively addressed.

I think the real indictment of what has happened to grain growers across Australia is that the fall in incomes has coincided not only with the election of the Hawke Government but also with what have been climatically good years. It is true that things were not easy in the last 18 months of the Fraser Administration but that was in the face of a drought such as the nation had never known before. For the last four years across the nation we have had comparatively good years and from a farming point of view the economic environment has got increasingly worse.

Since 1981 the fertiliser usage on Australian farms has fallen by 23 per cent in spite of good climatic years and in spite of a growing acreage sown. What does that tell us? It tells us that we have a nation full of farmers who are so poor that they cannot afford to buy the fertiliser they need to sow their crops and so they are cutting back in the very area in which they ought to be expanding. We are using up the reservoir of nutrients that is part of the Australian farming scene. It tells us that we are running down the soil, running down the credit balance that we ought to have in the soil bank and so we are effectively pledging future generations into soil bankruptcy. That is the sort of serious matter that ought to be addressed by the country task force, not the mere tripping around Australia on some junket that mouths platitudes to try to placate frustrated and desperate wheat farmers.

I recognise that the legislation before the House is the result of an anomaly that has occurred for which, as the honourable member for Gwydir has said, we do not apportion total blame on to the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin). However, we are frustrated and annoyed to discover that the grain growers of Australia were not informed of this debate until the honourable member for Gwydir notified them. Some more commitment to the grain growers of Australia, some more commitment to our domestic demise, some more commitment to addressing the problem of interest rates would go a great deal further to helping us be a little more productive and helping the exporters of Australia to address our balance of payments deficit.