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Wednesday, 27 May 1987
Page: 3420

Mr ANDREW(3.57) —I do not want to put too fine a point on it nor would I want you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to be acutely aware of the fact but, if one were to look around the House, as well as the Press gallery, one could be forgiven for supposing that this was legislation of very little consequence.

Mr Braithwaite —You are short on interest but long on quality.

Mr ANDREW —Precisely. As the honourable member for Dawson said, there has been all too little interest in what is a debate of some significance. I note that the honourable member for Macarthur (Mr Martin) said that he supported entirely these matters, which have emerged from the May economic statement. I have a good deal of reason to express concern about the Bills being debated cognately before the House. If one looked around the House, one would suppose that these were Bills of no consequence. Apart from one faithful reporter, even the Press gallery seems to be all but empty. We are dealing with three changes to the Customs and Excise Act. The first change relates to the payment of customs duty by Commonwealth authorities, the second to the imposition of a $200 fee on applications for a refund of customs duty and the third to new arrangements that will apply for those who seek a rebate, principally primary producers, on their diesel fuel excise. I note that yesterday in this House the Tasmanian members entered the chamber wearing black arm bands. They were suggesting that there was some reason why we ought to grieve for Tasmania and the way in which it was treated in the May economic statement. Without in any way being sacrilegious, I observe that during a funeral service one may hear the statement `the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away'. This legislation is an instance where, quite frankly, the Government is seen to have given with one hand and rapidly taken away with the other. The most pertinent illustration of this is the impact that the changes to the diesel fuel rebate will have on farmers. The Government says to farmers: `If you use diesel fuel for the purpose of primary production, we will rebate the excise duty to you'. Yet in the legislation before the House some of those rebate provisions are about to be very smartly taken away by the Government.

There needs to be a wider appreciation of the role played by diesel fuel in primary production in Australia. It would not be realistic to say that it is as essential as sunlight, water or soil, but it would be fair to say that it is an essential part of every primary producer's tool for producing whatever crop is involved. Twenty years ago the use of diesel was not quite so widespread. Thirty years ago much of agriculture was conducted using tractors powered by either power kerosene or petrol. But today, whether in broadacre farming, grazing, horticulture, viticulture or even floriculture, a large proportion of the fuel used in that primary production is diesel. In the past the requirement has been that primary producers had to consume 1,000 litres of diesel within 12 months in order to make an application for the excise paid to be rebated to them. There was some flexibility, in that if one had not consumed 1,000 litres but had made the application within 12 months of buying the fuel consideration would be given to refunding the excise paid.

The legislation before the House proposes that, for every primary producer in Australia, instead of the minimum usage amount being 1,000 litres, it will be 2,000 litres. That is a matter of some real concern to primary producers. My plea to the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button) and to the Government is for them to consider at least exercising the sort of flexibility that will not demand the use of 2,000 litres within a 12-month period before one can apply for a rebate. I am suggesting that the flexibility that some States already exercise ought to continue in this legislation. A minimum claim of 2,000 litres represents, in the old terms, about 10 gallons a week. Whilst it is not difficult to consume 10 gallons a week in the middle of a planting or reaping season-in fact it is not difficult for most large area broadacre primary producers to consume more than 2,000 a year-some involved in smaller forms of agriculture, in intensive livestock rearing, pig breeding, horticulture and viticulture will find that the 2,000-litre limit exceeds their annual consumption.

I see no reason why a small primary producer should be disadvantaged by this Government. The small farmer needs that $400 or so that he would be rebated on 2,000 litres of fuel-I confess that it is a fluctuating figure-every bit as desperately as does the farmer who has consumed an even larger amount of diesel fuel. I make the plea for the Government to exercise some flexibility with people who apply for the rebate but who indicate that they have used less than 2,000 litres.

The other change to the diesel fuel rebate system in this legislation is a change in the averaging provisions. In the past the rebate has been made available to farmers on the actual amount of diesel excise paid. The proposal is for an average of the excise applicable over a six-month period to be rebated to farmers. That may seem to be all well and good and, as the honourable member for Macarthur has said, in the interests of efficiency. But I point out to the Government that, even in this area, there could be inequities, particularly if the farmer discovers that there is a rise in the excise rebatable in the latter part of that six months after receiving a smaller rebate for the large part of that six-month period.

I make the point that, philosophically, the Government ought to be at least as committed as is the Opposition to protecting the small farmer and the family farmer. At least it ought to be philosophically committed to caring for small producers, but there is little evidence of that in this legislation. The legislation suggests that the Government no longer believes that small is beautiful. I bring that statement to its attention.

Another concern that I have with the legislation is that small primary producers-all primary producers-may well be involved in more paper work; this additional burden ought not to be foisted upon them. An additional area of the legislation that I want to address is the proposal for the imposition of a $200 fee on all applications for a refund of customs duty. I am a little interested in this because, along with every other member of Parliament, I have had people come into my office claiming that they have been disadvantaged in some way by a decision made by the Australian Customs Service. To require that a $200 fee must be paid before such a decision can be reviewed when that $200 fee may not be refundable, seems to me an unfair burden. It is not difficult for the Customs Service to make a mistake. I am currently dealing with an instance where a large asset, in the form of pig killing equipment, was imported into South Australia and the Customs Service dictated that duty was applicable. In fact, subsequently I believe we have been successful in getting a refund of a large sum of money on that imported equipment.

Mr Braithwaite —You were lucky not to have had to pay $200.

Mr ANDREW —As the honourable member for Dawson says, we were lucky that the people affected did not have to pay $200. But I go on to make the point that, even if the $200 had had to be paid, it would have been a small proportion of the refund cheque that they would have anticipated. But for many people the items in question would be worth little more than $200 and they have every reason to be indignant at the action presently being taken by the Government.

I have an agreement not only with the Opposition Whip but, I hasten to add, with one as elevated as the Government Whip to conclude my speech in 10 minutes. I will stand by that agreement, but I once again want to plead with the Government to ensure that its proposals to alter the present arrangements affecting the rebate of excise paid on diesel fuel are flexible and kept reasonable from the point of view of primary producers, particularly small primary producers.