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Wednesday, 27 June 2001
Page: 28734

Mr O'CONNOR (5:16 PM) —It is very interesting that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry comes in here with what he terms `his compromise proposal'. It is an interesting proposition, because his colleagues in the Senate indicated there would be no compromise on the floor of the Senate, but the minister has come into the House with a proposal that amends what was put to the Senate and passed by the Senate.

Essentially, the Supplementary Dairy Assistance Scheme package was deficient in this respect: it failed to provide assistance to some dairy farmers who were hardest hit by deregulation, particularly those in Queensland and New South Wales. What the original supplementary package effectively did, however, was penalise some of those dairy farmers who had made a commercial decision ahead of dairy deregulation to restructure their enterprises themselves. In some cases in those states, dairy farmers expanded their farms and their herds and they updated their plant. In the process of doing that they went into debt. Then, of course, came deregulation and the massive miscalculation by the government of the impacts of that on dairy farmers in particular areas of Australia. In the wake of dairy deregulation, the farmers to whom I have just alluded who reduced their dependence on market milk below this particular threshold of 35 per cent found themselves receiving no assistance at all from this package.

The minister's Supplementary Dairy Assistance Scheme package has created significant divisions within the ranks of dairy farmers, certainly between states. There are dairy farmers in some states who were opposed to any sort of supplementary assistance package at all, and we acknowledge that particular position, as has the minister on many occasions. However, there were a number of dairy farmers in the worst affected areas in the worst affected states who were not going to be able to access this supplementary assistance package at all. Recognising this, the opposition moved its amendment in the Senate to ensure that some assistance, some reward, flowed through to those farmers who had attempted to do the right thing in advance of dairy deregulation—they had restructured their enterprises and prepared in a positive manner for that event, but are now excluded from the government's supplementary assistance package.

We examined very closely the amendments that were put forward by the Australian Democrats and we examined the proposals that were floated from the One Nation representative in the Senate, and we came to the conclusion that to support those would lead to a significant increase in the cost of the package, and we were mindful of that particular fact when we made and structured the amendment that we did on the floor of the Senate. I understand that it was a vigorous debate on the floor of the Senate. There were significant discussions at the officer level, and also between senators from both sides of the House. But I want to make this quite clear: although perhaps the exact form of words in the motion passed by the Senate might not have reflected the eventual financial outcome that the minister assessed, in the discussions and the debate we made it quite clear that the proposal that we were putting would cost in the region of $15 million. (Extension of time granted) I note that the minister has indicated that the alternative measures that he has proposed would cost in the order of $19 million. Am I correct in that respect? We do not have the resources of the government; it is quite difficult for an opposition without resources to do the technical assessment and calculations, not having the industry figures or the confidential figures that are at the disposal of the minister.

I suggest to the minister that there is not a lot of difference between a $15 million proposal that the opposition succeeded in moving through the Senate and the $19 million proposal that we have here today. When the minister gets up and says that he costed this particular proposal at $60 million and it is on that basis that he rejects the original Senate amendment, he is referring to the technical issue of whether, under this legislation, we refer to these farm businesses as entities or enterprises. Once you shift the definition, the argument to do with the $60 million—which the minister has quoted as the motivation for this amendment—disappears.

The minister knows very well the intent of our proposal. As I said, we did not have the resources of the government at our disposal to accurately cost it, but it is surprising that in the minister's assessment of his proposal, which is not too far removed from the one that we put up, there is a difference of only $4 million. So I think it is a little naughty of the minister to be mounting the argument that our proposal would have cost $60 million, when in fact we had costed our proposal at $15 million. The hair-splitting in this was the definition under the legislation of the farm as either an entity or an enterprise. We accept the technical amendment that the minister has proposed to clarify that it is enterprises that we are talking about, and the calculation that he has made fits very closely with the one that we have.

We need to go back just one step to have a look at the original package of assistance that was provided by this government. The minister was in the parliament even today on the issue of the DRAP funding—which is a part of this supplementary package and a part of the original package—once again creating the myths that he was not responsible in any way for dairy deregulation, when on the floor of this House and in his press releases he has made the statement that, unless the states agreed with this proposal, there would be no federal umbrella legislation to give effect to this $1.7 billion package. The second point that he continues to make is that he portrays this particular package as being the government's money. I need to clarify yet again that this is not the federal government's money and it is not the Howard government's money—it is the consumers of Australia who are now supporting a supplementary assistance package, as they did with the $1.7 billion. I say to the minister that the reason why I am standing here debating your particular proposal and the reason why we are debating yet again the supplementary assistance package is that the original one failed and it has taken the government too long to respond to the dire straits that many dairy farmers have found themselves in.

I really do think that this amendment that the minister has brought in here is a bit mean and it is a bit tricky. It is tricky because he has modified in a very small way the proposal that won the support of the Senate and that was passed by the Senate, and that was the proposal that was put by the opposition. (Extension of time granted) That particular proposal that we put was made in good faith. It was made in good faith, because the opposition saw that there was a deficiency in the supplementary assistance package—that it was creating divisions in the ranks of dairy farmers, that the supplementary assistance package as it stood did not address the needs of hard-pressed dairy farmers who were excluded and, in a perverse sort of way, it did not acknowledge the contribution of the dairy farmers who had restructured their enterprise in advance of dairy deregulation, who are now excluded from the supplementary assistance package. The fact that we are debating this issue here tonight is an indication of the lack of planning and the lack of vision that motivated this whole exercise on behalf of the government.

I find it interesting that the minister considers that this particular proposal will add $19 million to the cost of the package. The assessment that we have done would indicate that there are some substantial savings in the supplementary assistance package that would defray the actual cost of this particular proposal and that, within the ambit of the total package and the elements of the original package, there is a considerable amount of unspent money that could have been used to top up or to make this particular payment. Many people in the community might argue that this is really a pretty hollow gesture of $19 million when you match it against the $1.9 billion at which this package stands at the moment. I say to those people that there is important symbolism in this particular proposal. It seeks to pick up those dairy farmers who looked at the commercial realities of their industry, who went out and planned for change and who were then excluded from the supplementary assistance package when the going got really tough, when the prices fell out of the marketplace, when land values fell in many dairying communities and when incomes were severely reduced.

Minister, I think this is a bit mean and tricky. I would suggest to you that we could have resolved this matter even before the Senate proposal came to the House. But inherent in the proposal that you are making, as I understand it—and I stand to be corrected on this—is that there be a reduction in the payment to some dairy farmers who would have received more assistance had the Senate amendment been passed, even in a slightly amended form in a technical sense. If that is the case, you are coming into this House with a very mean-spirited proposal. If the outcome of what you are proposing is going to mean that those dairy farmers are going to receive less—some of them will receive less under your proposal than they would under the one that is proposed by the Senate—we will oppose your amendment on the floor of this House. I would encourage other speakers who might have some words to say on this to join me in debate.