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Tuesday, 7 March 2000
Page: 14082


Mr KATTER (9:31 PM) —In rising to speak to Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 1999-2000, I think it is right that we should review where we are—the `state of the nation', as the Americans call it. I cannot speak for the whole nation of Australia; all I can do is speak for the part of the nation that I represent. I would like to think that I can speak with some authority because I would like to think that I have made myself familiar with the problems and the issues in that area.

In my electorate, the first town of major size is Mareeba. When you drive into Mareeba, there are tobacco signs all over the town. It used to have a tobacco industry. When I was elected to parliament, there were 660 tobacco farmers. I would presume there were probably two workers for every farmer, so some 2000 people depended for their livelihood on that industry. It has absolutely nothing to do with people not smoking. In fact, people are arguably smoking more now than they were at that time. If you allow for the black market tobacco being sold extensively throughout the country, there is a greater consumption of tobacco in Australia than there was then.

But, of course, it is no longer Australian tobacco. We deregulated that industry and, where manufacturers were once forced to use 50 per cent Australian content, now they are not. The tariffs that facilitated that arrangement were removed completely. Under WTO, all we had to do was reduce them by 30 per cent, but we abolished them completely. With that we have all but abolished the tobacco industry. We now no longer have 660 farmers; we have 130 farmers, and even they are doing it very hard.

On the left-hand side as you drive into Mareeba, half of the main street is taken up by a huge timber mill. That timber mill has not worked since the days when the ALP government, under World Heritage, closed the timber industry in North Queensland. In fact, in every major town between Mareeba and Ingham, with the exception of Innisfail, you can actually see from the highway a huge timber mill that has been closed down. Each of those timber mills represented on average employment for about 70 people, and there is a timber mill in every one of those towns. I am referring to 10 major towns.

In the middle of the town are all the tobacco industry buildings and, as you drive out of the town, there are the meatworks. The meatworks were closed during the TB eradication campaign that removed 600,000 head of cattle from our two million head of cattle that we had in Far North Queensland. Approximately five meatworks were closed in North Queensland, and among them was the Mareeba meatworks.

The next town you come to is Tolga. Its landscape is dominated by two peanut silos. The government of the day and the ministers must bear the shameful burden of having made the decision to raise the amount of poison that is allowed in the peanuts being imported into Australia. Why a country that prides itself on its clean, green image would allow a dramatic increase in the amount of poison being consumed by Australians, breaking the regulations that had existed for many years in Australia and allowing a high content of poison so that peanuts could effectively come in from places like China and the United States that were not coming in before, is beyond the wildest stretches of my imagination.

I have not got time tonight, but I will be speaking extensively on milk tomorrow morning. Suffice to say that milk farmers in the electorate of Kennedy, as well as throughout Queensland, as I understand it, have received a letter from their factory. It says, `You will no longer get 58.9c for your fresh market milk. On 1 July, after deregulation, you will get 41.5c for your milk.' I deeply regret that the minister's public statements concerning this seem to indicate somehow that his deregulation package is an achievement. Let me say clearly and unequivocally that no intelligent, sensible person in this country could have coped with an outcome that would see a huge diminution in our exports—as Victorian milk is no longer sent overseas but tumbled back into New South Wales and Queensland—which has already seen a 20 per cent or 30 per cent increase in prices to consumers, with a 30 per cent decrease in prices paid to the farmers and a takeover of almost the entire Australian industry by a big European Corporation—Parmalat. As the farmers go broke—with a 30 per cent decrease in their gross income, of course, they must—they have to sell their only liquid asset—their shares in their cooperative. And the only buyer out there is the big European Corporation Parmalat.

Let me move on. In the Ravenshoe area, the next town if you are driving south from the top of the electorate, the grape industry is significant. It is not huge, but it is significant. It is big in Charters Towers. Suffice to say that the Kennedy electorate probably contains about one-third to one-quarter of Australia's northern grape production. We have now been told that Californian grapes will be allowed into this country. Californian grape growers pay their pickers, their labour, $4 an hour. We, by law, have to pay our pickers around $11 an hour. Since it is a high labour input product, we have absolutely no hope of successfully competing against the United States. The minister has obviously taken advice from his department, and I would strongly recommend that the minister check out his advice in future because there have been public statements, which have been reported to me, that there will be a minimal effect upon the Australian market because the growing seasons do not overlap. This is obviously advice that he has received from his department. The towering ignorance of the public officials who would have given that advice to the minister have brought him what can only be humiliation in the eyes of the esoteric Australian public. There should be some sanctions upon this level of incompetence by the primary industries department, as well as AQIS. I will talk about that at a later stage.

I rang the biggest grower in Northern Australia earlier this evening and I asked, `What is our season?' He said, `I started picking in August and I am still picking now,' which of course is March. He said, `We can hold them in storage now with the gas arrangements for up to four months.' If you would like to add that up, you will realise that the growing season in Australia is almost the whole year. The Americans, technologically, may even be a little bit ahead of us, so they would be able to produce for most of the year as well. Yet we have a statement coming out from a responsible person, obviously on the advice of his department, telling him that the growing seasons do not overlap. Maybe I have been brought up wrongly—maybe there are 30 months in the year.

There are a lot of little heroes in the next town who decided to bring in durian from overseas, which is the most expensive fruit in the entire world. The durian is the creme de la creme of fruits. They applied to AQIS to bring this fruit in. AQIS applied to them three criteria if they wanted to bring in durian because there is a seed weevil in the Thailand durian industry. They had to have every single seed inspected by an AQIS inspector; they had to pay that AQIS inspector; and the inspection had to be done by an AQIS inspector. Those were the three criteria: AQIS had to do the inspection; they had to be paid by the Australian farmers; and every single seed had to be inspected.

The Thailand farmers applied to bring durian into Australia. They did not have to pay for an AQIS inspection. They did not have to have an AQIS inspector. They did not have to inspect every seed. So not one single one of those three criteria applied to the Australian farmers was applied to the Thailand durian farmers. These young men and some older men who have invested, in at least one case, almost their entire life savings in their durian farms on the basis that the same rules would be applied to Thai farmers as was applied to Australian farmers now find out that a different set of rules applies to foreign farmers than applies to Australian farmers. This would be in keeping with the towering incompetence of AQIS. The performance of that particular group of people is a disgrace to every single person in this House.

I would like to move on to the sugar industry. I do not blame this government or the last government for the plight of the sugar industry. There are international conditions which are driving the price down, something which happens regularly in the sugar industry. Just as regularly in the sugar industry the price rises. It is a cyclical commodity. I do not have time tonight to outline why it is a cyclical commodity; suffice to say that it is a cyclical commodity. We can ride the down roller-coaster. We have no difficulties in riding the down roller-coaster: we have ridden it every single time this century. But every single time this century we have been, in retrospect, blessed with enlightened governmental leadership. Every single time this century that we have been caught in this bind, we have had development bank loans available to us. The difference is that all the sugar farmers who now find themselves in such dire jeopardy have had imposed upon them interest rates of between 8½ and 11 per cent.

In Queensland, Bill Gunn, the Deputy Premier, and I were assigned by cabinet the task of setting up the Queensland Industry Development Corporation and to oversee it. It was based—just the same as Theodore and King O'Malley had based their Commonwealth Bank and Black Jack McEwen had based his primary industries bank, his AIDC Bank and his Commonwealth Development Bank—on the premise that government can borrow money at the moment for around four or five per cent. So if government can borrow money at four or five per cent, and you have as safe a security value as you have in the sugar industry—I am not saying you have that in every agricultural industry but you most certainly have it in the sugar industry—then of course the government can loan out money to them at that interest rate. If you had a little bit of enlightened government, they would say, `Maybe we should give them a bit of help during this period of trial because if the industry falls over in certain areas we will not be able to put it back together again.' If you close a mill, you cannot just go around and open up another one because it costs $70 million or $80 million or $100 million to open a mill if it closes down and becomes u/s. If you applied a very small amount of $10 million or $15 million, you could probably deliver interest rates at 2½ per cent to this industry. That is what has happened in almost every single case where this industry has gotten into trouble this century.

But that is not happening now because the last government—I must say with the cooperation and enthusiastic support of people on this side of the House as well—sold off the Commonwealth Development Bank. Heaven only knows, generation after generation of ALP leadership must have turned in their graves. The likes of King O'Malley, Chifley and Theodore, who sacrificed their political life to deliver to this country a way of fighting off the interests of international big banking interests, surely must have turned in their graves.

The trawling industry employs 700 or 800 people in the electorate of Kennedy. That industry has been told by Minister Hill—he claims it is his decision; I think it is really the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's decision—that trawling, which occurs on only about 18 per cent of the Queensland coastline now, must be curtailed. There is only a very small proportion of the area of the Queensland coast that is now trawled. Obviously you cannot trawl reefs or any areas where there are bommies. You cannot trawl in close because your nets will get snagged. In any event, legally you can trawl only a very small area. We now have DMVs on our fishing vessels so we can establish where they are at any point in time, so we can most adequately police these rules. I will not go into the details, but they had been told that they have to effectively reduce their catch by five per cent a year for the next seven years. If you take 30 per cent off a person's gross income and his cost structures stay much the same, clearly you are going to be taking 100 per cent of his net. So the trawling industry in Queensland is looking at the valley of death. In terms of what this means to individuals, I had a group of fishermen in my office and one of the wives broke into a bit of a trot running up and down my office. She was yelling at the top of her voice and my secretary came in twice to see whether the police were needed or an ambulance was needed, because quite clearly the stress had got to this young lady and it was affecting her very severely. Later on in the evening I and the local president of the QCFO were walking up the street together and one of the other fishermen from the meeting was sitting on a chair in the main street of Innisfail crying his eyes out. That is what these things mean to people.

I move on to the western part of my electorate. Charters Towers has for probably the last 15 years been a goldmining town. The Reserve Bank board appointed by the last government and the current government decided to flog off our gold reserves in one huge hit, clearly demonstrating to the world that Australia did not consider that the gold price was going to stay up and showing that the third biggest producer of gold in the world considered that gold really did not have much of a future. It was a clear and unequivocal signal which brought the price of gold throughout the world tumbling by 25 per cent and arguably 30 per cent. That had enormous ramifications for the stock market. Some three of our mines had fallen over, as mines often do. Where normally they would be pumped and rolled back up onto their feet by another float on the exchange, of course no money could be raised and those mines closed their doors, putting some 200 or 300 people in Charters Towers out of work.

The wool industry, the great mainstay of the mid-west plains of North Queensland, is an industry where Doug Anthony, a great Australian who did not march to the drum of the ecorats, the economic rationalists, and their ilk, introduced the minimum price scheme for wool. The price for wool and the income that this nation enjoyed from wool went up 300 per cent in the 2½ years after that man, with very great courage, initiative and leadership, introduced that scheme. When the pygmies of the Labor government, Mr Keating and Mr Kerin, removed that scheme, the price went down 300 per cent. Surprise, surprise! So Australia's biggest export earning item, earning us that year $6,000 million, plummeted to below $3,000 million. The number of sheep in this country has dropped dramatically, by 30 or 40 per cent, so the herd is not there to earn the money even if the price were to be brought back. But, with the weak-kneed, supine, pathetic trading policies of the government of Australia for the last 15 years, does anyone seriously expect that we are going to be able to in any way assert a positive upward influence upon the market?

Once upon a time John McEwen got all the sugar producers together, exactly the same as later on the Arab countries did with the oil exporting countries, and said, `We are going to reduce the production of sugar throughout the world by'—I cannot remember the figure—`around 10 per cent.' That had an enormous salutary effect upon the price of sugar worldwide; in fact, it drove up the price of sugar very significantly worldwide. The aluminium producers did it: they drove the price up 30 or 40 per cent. Brazil led the coffee industry, following the example years before of John McEwen, and were able to drive the world's coffee prices up 30 or 40 per cent with a similar sort of approach. But supine trading attitudes, the WTO grovelling sycophancy of this place, have left this country with the most pathetic trading arrangements that we have ever seen in our nation's history.

I do not have time to talk tonight about the removal of some 700 or 800 jobs from the railways in the electorate of Kennedy. It could be much more; it is very hard to establish an exact figure. Suffice to say that in my old state electorate fettlers alone were reduced from over 400 to 92. Some 50 Telstra workers were removed. In closing, let me say this: there is no future for agriculture in this country. There is no way that we can compete against European sugar when, on the figures that the Parliamentary Library has given to me, at the present moment the subsidy tariff level of European sugar is 340 per cent. We cannot compete against that. (Time expired)