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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2832

Mr DAWKINS (Minister for Trade)(4.35) —This poor, embattled and befuddled leader of an embattled and divided party sits here overshadowed by a septuagenarian demagogue in Queensland. The right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair) has just made a speech which exposes the confusion in not only his mind but the minds of those in the divided Opposition. The honourable member started off by saying-and this is also evident in his motion-that all our problems are due to domestic circumstances, and then the right honourable member proceeded to spend a good deal of his time talking about what was happening to our beef market in Japan, what was happening in the United States, and about what was happening between Japan and the United States. They are some of the international circumstances about which we are concerned but with which we have been dealing more effectively than any other government. If the Leader of the National Party of Australia really wants to go back to where the trouble started in relation to the Japanese beef market, I ask him to review what his former leader did during the 1977 negotiations. However, the right honourable member prefers to criticise the very effective negotiations that were undertaken by my colleague, the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) in 1984.

In the context of the Japanese market, we still enjoy a much more favourable position for quota beef than does the United States. But it is interesting to hear a contribution made by at least one member of the Opposition on the question of trade, because for months and months we have sat here in despair and wondered when the Opposition would outline a policy in relation to trade and exports generally. All we have heard has been an almost weekly cry from various members of the National Party to send yet another delegation to the United States. That has been their only policy, namely, send a delegation to the United States. What on earth would a delegation do in the United States if it were not to address the international circumstances confronting Australia? Honourable members opposite have had only one policy and that was doing something about American policy, and then they come in here with this proposition saying that the whole of our problems are related to domestic circumstances.

Further on the matter of these cries being made for delegations to be sent overseas, over a period of time the Deputy Leader of the National Party made nine separate calls for a delegation to go to the United States. The former spokesman on trade made eight separate calls for delegations; indeed his best effort was to make four calls in four days for a delegation to go to the United States. When the Government does respond recognising that now is an appropriate time to send in a low key and non-hysterical way a group of members of this House, and one from the Senate, to the United States to talk to counterparts in the United States Congress, all that members opposite can do is to disparage the leader of the delegation, who was a member of the last successful delegation and someone who is highly respected in the agricultural community for the work that he has done on behalf of the agricultural community. I think that to disparage this delegation even before it has left Australia, the delegation which has been the centrepiece, indeed, the only plank in the Opposition's trade policy, is a deliberate attempt to undermine its effectiveness when it gets to the United States. If that is really the attitude of the National Party to this delegation, why do not National Party members withdraw from it? Of course those members want to be on it; they want to go on a weekly delegation. All they are interested in is tripping off to the United States, rather than making some concerted effort towards policy development in this difficult area.

That delegation will be followed by my own visit to the United States so that we can have a two-pronged approach to the problems confronting us with a belligerent and increasingly protectionist Congress. So, this delegation will talk to members of Congress and then I will follow it up a few days later to maximise our efforts in that regard. It is very curious that the Leader of the National Party should make this deliberate attempt to undermine the efforts of this delegation, a delegation of which his Party's Deputy Leader will be a member, before it has even left Australia.

Let me agree with the Leader of the National Party on one matter, and that is when he refers to some of the domestic circumstances confronting our industry. Let us look at the circumstances confronting the Queensland coal industry. Coal remains our largest export. It is absolutely vital for us to continue to have a prosperous coal industry, one which can compete in the world. That industry confronts difficult times. There is massively increased competition from other countries for the existing coal markets around the world. Those coal markets are not expanding very fast, but the competition is expanding extraordinarily fast. As a result of that competition, prices for Australian coal are dramatically down. There has never been a more important time when we should be addressing the difficulties within that industry to try to improve its efficiency, productivity and overall competitiveness so that it can hang on to the important markets that it has around the world.

This is a responsibility which lies with both employers and employees. The Australian Coal Consultative Council involves both sides of the industry, which would not even sit in the same room when we came to office, so sour were the relations between employers and employees, largely as a result of the neglect of the former Leader of the National Party. We have been able to get the various sides of that industry-the employers, the employees and the various governments of the States in which those industries operate-together to try to address some of the difficulties that confront it. They have had a series of meetings, and I have attended several of them. They have all been thoroughly productive in terms of seriously dealing with some of the difficulties which confront that industry and the kind of change which confronts it. I have said to the employees as well as to the employers, the managers, that they will all have to improve their game; they will all have to improve the way in which they work; they will all have to work to improve the industrial relations within that industry, which, of course, has not been very favourable in recent times.

We will not deal with that by taking the attitude of Charles Copeman. He instituted a lockout in one of our other vital export industries, the iron ore industry. What do honourable members think was the attitude in Japan when the mining company decided to lock out the work force and suspend exports to Japan, a most important market for us and one which has to be supplied reliably if we are to be looked upon as a serious supplier of iron ore? Of course the Japanese were totally confused by that action which was very unnecessary. Since that time, since that heroic and massively unsuccessful gesture on behalf of Mr Copeman, the unions have been prepared to sit down and work their way through some of those outdated practices. We cannot blame the unions alone for the existence of those practices. During the period of the former Government there was a very lazy and complacent attitude to the circumstances confronting the mining industry. Just because prices were high, management gave in and granted extraordinary conditions which should never have been accepted. Most of those mad work practices which are now being reversed were agreed to. They were accepted by management. It did not even resist them. What sort of an attitude is that for management to take? It is now paying the price for it because the circumstances in those industries are not as favourable and they are having to wind back some of the conditions.

In this difficult situation what do we see the Queensland Government now doing? It has introduced a piece of legislation which is quite calculated and quite deliberately intended not to solve the problem of industrial disputation in the coal industry but to inflame it. The real purpose of that Queensland legislation is to cause, not stop, a strike. We have this crazed megalomaniac, Bjelke-Petersen, out of control simply with a politically inspired campaign directed at the heart of our most important export industry. The Leader of the National Party is right; there is a great domestic threat to one of our great export industries, and it comes from his Party in Queensland. That is the most serious threat to our export performance at the moment. It is quite deliberately designed to cause strikes when we should be ensuring that we have increased reliability within our coal industry.

The Leader of the National Party indicated that some sweetheart deals may be being done between Prime Minister Nakasone and President Reagan. One of the areas of great concern to us is that maybe the Japanese will buy more coal from the United States. Would it not be a wonderful excuse for the Japanese to divert their sources of supply if our coal industry went on strike? If it went on strike that would give the Japanese the excuse they want to divert their sources of supply. This has been done quite deliberately by a lunatic in Queensland in the party of the Leader of the National Party who comes in here and tries to say that we are responsible for the problems confronting exporters in this country.

I want to make another point about this. The silence of the coal companies in Queensland is quite intolerable. I know that they have been threatened; they have been intimidated by the Queensland Premier with threats in relation to coal levies and rail freights to keep their mouths shut, to not express the view that they otherwise would express about this mad legislation. They are opposed to it; they know what a threat it represents to the stability of their industry, yet they are being threatened by the Queensland Premier that if ever they should voice any criticism of it the levies will go up and the freight rates will go up-levies and freight rates which, of course, are already a punitive tax on the coal industry in Queensland, ripping something like $90m out of the industry, not in respect of any services provided by the Queensland Government but just as a straight, blatant tax. He is threatening to put them up if those coal companies ever step out of line. Those coal companies cannot afford the luxury of their silence. They have to expose the threat which this legislation represents not only to their industry but also to the whole of the Australian economy.

Indeed, it ill becomes the Opposition here to maintain its silence because it knows what this is all about and it ought to have the courage to expose this campaign for what it is. The Government would not under any circumstances condone any industrial relations action in this matter. We are working with the unions, and with the industry if it is prepared, to find ways of defeating this legislation-and defeat it we must because, as I said, it is not designed to stop strikes; it is designed to start strikes and threaten our great coal exporting industry.

Let me deal with a couple of blatantly incorrect facts which were represented to the House by the Leader of the National Party. In the first instance, he quoted the circumstances of our agricultural industries. Of course they have been badly affected, not by the policies of this Government but by the international market-place. The price of wheat has halved, but we did not halve it; the Americans and the Europeans did. We have not disrupted the sugar market; that has happened as a result of European policies. Nevertheless, as a result of the devaluation which flowed from the floating of the Australian dollar, a policy which even the alleged farmers' friends could not get through, the farmers have been saved.

If we look at farm cash operating surpluses, which is the normal measure to establish the conditions of Australian farms, we find that in 1986-87 the average surplus across the sector is expected to increase by 30 per cent following a fall of 12 per cent in 1985-86. We know that that does not make farmers well off, but it is quite incorrect for the Leader of the National Party to say that their circumstances are continuing to deteriorate. There have been rises of 140 per cent in sugar and 105 per cent in beef. There have been improvements in farm operating surpluses of 100 per cent in relation to sheep, 97 per cent in cotton, 44 per cent in relation to sheep-beef and even 13 per cent in wheat. The Leader of the National Party has exposed a total misunderstanding, a total ignorance, of the circumstances which we currently confront.

Another fact which is worth putting on record is that we now enjoy in this country a very substantially improved competitiveness, not only as a result of the depreciation of the dollar but also as a result of improvements in our wage structure. If we compare our unit labour costs with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average we find that we are now 25 to 30 per cent more competitive than we were 2 1/2 years ago. The Leader of the National Party went on about a whole lot of other issues that he alleged we have not addressed. Our record on removing impediments to trade has been infinitely better than anything that he and his colleagues ever did.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! The Minister's time has expired. The discussion is concluded.