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Wednesday, 8 March 2000
Page: 14250

Mr ADAMS (12:11 PM) —The honourable member for Wannon makes claim for this government for what it is doing for the wool industry. It had many years in government to get involved in innovation and move the wool industry forward. It failed to do that. The Labor Party seems to have been in power when it has needed to assist the wool industry and move it forward to look at innovation. The wool price collapsed because people set the price too high. You know that. It had nothing to do with the minister of the day. The price was set too high by the growers themselves and it is a reflection on that period. The member for Wannon constantly raises this political issue in debates on wool to try and blame Labor for the collapse of the price of wool. This is a furphy and it should be treated as such. It is an untruth and it is something that will not hold up when history is written, as it has been.

The Australian Wool Research and Promotion Organisation Amendment (Funding and Wool Tax) Bill 2000 is part of the government's response to the recommendations of the Future Directions Taskforce chaired by Ian McLachlan. Part of the recommendations from this study was the establishment of a new company to commission wool innovation for the maximum benefit of wool growers. The idea was that it be established as a conventional company, with shares issued to growers in proportion to their compulsory wool levies. It also would seek to be commercially focused and promote innovation, implementation and customer service. It is supposed to be a mixture of commercial and levy funded activities. It will be controlled by a board of directors with wide commercial experience.

In September last year, the federal minister announced an eight-point plan of action for implementing the report. One of them was to have an industry wide vote on future industry services and wool tax arrangements in a grower ballot that was to conclude on 25 February of this year. The idea was for growers to have a say up front. Growers were invited to vote on a series of wool service models delivering research and development, and consumer and retail marketing through the new commercially oriented innovation organisation mentioned before.

A number of financial models have been developed by the wool working party and independent business analysis consultants KPMG, in liaison with the National Woolgrowers Forum. However, the information about the poll must not be getting through to wool growers, particularly the smaller ones, as reports last week said the response was less than 50 per cent and came mostly from the bigger enterprises. That is a pity. It was a nice idea, but perhaps some growers in the more isolated areas are having difficulties getting onto the Net or getting their communications back. I am not really surprised, as I have been having a number of complaints of late about how tardy Telstra can be when dealing with country problems. One fellow rang me recently to have his phone connected just outside a small town in my electorate, on the east coast of Tasmania. When he had finally got through to someone in Telstra, he was told to wait a month. He did all the digging and preparation himself—still no-one. Then someone came out after six weeks, looked at the hole and the house and said no, he could not do it that day. That was just before the weekend. Four days later, with frantic phone calls, he finally got someone to connect him. It took three minutes only, but he had to wait for someone to drive out from the nearest city to put the thing in before driving home again. Total nonsense.

Maybe some of the wool growers also are having difficulties with their connections in communications. It reminds me of fleets of Telstra vans coming off the Spirit of Tasmania on a Monday morning and returning on a Friday to Melbourne. What sort of service is going on in this regard? I realise that I digress from the main issue, but this sort of thing makes you wonder how the devil some country businesses survive. It is a pity that some people did not fill in the questionnaire, but it is not surprising in view of some of the difficulties that people have with communications in regional Australia.

In the questionnaire it is stated that a vote is not compulsory, but if you do not vote you disenfranchise yourself. I hope all this also went out by snail mail, because people may not have realised what they were supposed to do unless they received a notice in the ordinary mail. I certainly hope that we are not going to see some sort of mess coming out of this voting situation.

The voting entitlement is calculated by every $100 that growers paid in wool tax levy during the two financial years ending 30 June 1998 and 30 June 1999 entitling the grower to one vote. The entitlement is based on the total levy paid during those two financial years. For example, if a grower paid $1,040 in 1997-98, this number is rounded up to eligibility for 11 wool poll votes. Likewise, if the grower paid $2,100 in 1998-99, this gives 21 wool poll votes. The big growers are obviously going to have more say than the smaller ones and it is very sad that the small growers are going to be virtually disenfranchised—another blow to the local man on the land, who will be controlled by the big conglomerates and the overseas money, sold out again by the Liberal coalition government. Farmers have reason to complain also about the GST, as the shadow minister rightly said, because of the extra time and the compliance costs of the GST which farmers are just starting to realise are coming upon them after 1 July this year.

The bill will allow the government to set the rate of wool tax in accordance with the wishes of growers as indicated in the wool poll ballot. It will also allow the minister, through the Australian Wool Research and Promotion Organisation, to meet the costs of establishing a new Australian wool services organisation as recommended by the taskforce. The whole thing is supposed to be in action by 1 January 2001. I would not hold my breath, though. The process seems to be taking an age to go through, because government is not prepared to put any facilitation or funds into it. We have big-noting, big speaking, big speeches up here in the parliament, but, when it comes to putting a bit of money in to assist making this happen, the government has failed the test and is failing the wool growers again.

One of the people who did get the information and is helping to promote the idea is an innovative grower in my electorate of Lyons, Clare McShane, of Oaklands. Casaveen Knitwear is now going to the world. Clare was sick of getting low prices for her fine wool and not being able to do anything about it. She developed some downstream processing: she started having her own wool processed and returned to her on the farm. The result is now an internationally renowned company, putting together some great designs of jumpers, cardigans, skirts, scarves, hats, jackets and vests. If you do not believe me, you only have to look as far as the parliamentary shop, which stocks a good selection of Casaveen for overseas visitors and for any locals that wish to take up the opportunity to buy. The business engages 50 contractors using domestic knitting machines and 12 full-time staffers to provide a range of beautiful items. It markets 10,000 garments worth in excess of $1 million and has brought a much needed boost to a small rural community largely dependent, at the moment, on the wool industry. It is innovation, going the new way, the positive way in regional Australia—looking at new ways, looking to move forward, using a very good product.

The member for Wannon did mention innovation—he certainly has some very good examples in his own electorate and he should have mentioned more of those—as did the member for Corio, Mr O'Connor, who mentioned the examples that he has. He once showed me some examples of the superfine wool that is made into suits and that comes from that region of Victoria; I think they are called merino suits. I certainly do not knock the idea of having an innovation and marketing levy. In fact, I applaud it. I talked about such a scheme in my first speech in the House, in May 1993, and of the need for brands and labels to help identify regions that are proud of the particular product which they produce but who get no handle on it and have no recognition. That was how the wool industry operated in Australia.

Even though we produced the best superfine wool in the world in Tasmania and took the record price every year, with Mr Fuji buying it for his mills in Japan, we really did not get any recognition for growing that superfine wool. There was no flow-back to Tasmania in recognition that this was where superfine wool was grown, because we had no products out of Tasmania made out of the wool that was sold out of Tasmania. It did not come into our tourism thinking or tourism opportunities; it did not come into the value adding of that great product, wool. Of course, that is changing, and this process is helping change it. We certainly need those brands and labels.

I remember that in that first speech I made I talked about going to the Harris isles and seeing the roughest sheep I had ever seen in the world, but I always had in my wardrobe a Harris tweed jacket, like so many other people. You have to establish a brand name and a marketing skill, as with the Donegal cap which hangs on the hook at home. There is a need for us to have a Cressy worsted and Campbell Town tweed to get recognition for that quality wool. This is what will help drive the new regional Australia where wool is grown if we can get it back to where we are using innovation.

I hope this proposal works, for the sake of those who have these ideas and want to take them forward. I hope the small grower can contribute and I would like to see some of the retired growers being used for their expertise in making things work during the difficult times. We have a huge expertise tied up in people who do not want to or cannot do the backbreaking work anymore but would jump at a chance to help the industry move forward. There is a whole range of those people. In my own electorate, Ian Downie comes to mind, of Dungrove at Bothwell. He was an innovative farmer during his days—he is in his 70s now—who went to his own breed of sheep, the comio, in the early days. He has now passed on his property to Peter, his son, who is doing enormously new innovative things with forestry and forest farming. We need to have the expertise of people like Ian Downie being used in the new thinking. Youth and energy harnessed to experience and commonsense can make some great things happen. It does not need much to make those sorts of things occur, just a little bit of pulling together and recognition that those people exist.

Just coming back to the actual GST compliance cost for farmers, there has been nothing released but I guess it is going to be a substantial sum and that will hit some of these innovative ideas. Therefore, the GST is not going to do any favours for regional Australia, and that should be given some consideration.

We on the Labor side will be giving support to the bill, and I wish growers all the best for the future development of this great industry, the wool industry.