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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11581

Mr COULTON (7:39 PM) —Tonight I rise to speak about a disaster that is unfolding in my electorate. I refer to the crisis that the wheat farmers in Australia and particularly in my electorate are facing at the moment. While this crisis is reaching a peak now, it started some years ago when the current Prime Minister was the shadow minister for foreign affairs. When he saw the AWB scandal in Iraq as a vehicle for him to lift his public profile and finally become Leader of the Opposition and use that as a vehicle to go to the last election, the fate of my wheat farmers was virtually sealed.

It reached a peak in June of this year when the single desk was abolished by this House. It was a time of great frustration for me as someone who came to this place to represent the people of my electorate. I had the feeling of being impotent at that particular time. It was particularly galling to me that the minister for agriculture, the minister who supposedly represents the industry, used that particular time to make political points. The fact that he claimed that he had spoken to wheat farmers and mentioned to me the wheat farmer from Broken Hill who he had spoken to clearly shows his lack of knowledge and understanding.

Despite the ridicule that my National Party colleagues and I encountered at that particular time about our lack of understanding of the brave new world of wheat marketing and how much better off farmers were going to be, our predictions, unfortunately, have proven to be remarkably correct. At the start of harvest, due to the ability of farmers in my electorate we were looking at a remarkable crop. Some farmers are part way through harvest, some are further through than others and some have not started. Despite the fact that a multitude of sellers have been registered as exporters, none have been able to raise finance, transport grain or buy any of the grain. So as I speak, there are large temporary storages scattered right across the north-west.

If that was not bad enough, in the last two weeks further disaster has struck. There has been 200 millimetres of rain in my area since the start of harvest. Coupled with the fact that many of the contract harvesters have gone broke in the last seven years because there has been no crop and they have lost their headers, many of the farmers have had the frustration of not being able to find equipment to harvest their crop. As I speak, there are a range of storms going through my electorate and the forecast is that they are going to reach a climax on Friday when 40 millimetres of rain is expected. There are a million and a half tonnes of wheat in my electorate alone still in the paddocks. In the last three days the value of that wheat has dropped $100 a tonne—$150 million has been taken out of a part of my electorate, the part of my electorate that can least afford it.

I believe that this parliament owes those farmers. We are going to have to come to their aid. We let them down when they needed us most and now they need the assistance of this parliament. After seven years of drought, to be within the grasp of obtaining a crop of wheat and then watch it being wash away is devastating. Not only is the downgrade of the grain a problem; this ongoing rain means that machinery cannot get onto the ground. Crops are rotting, particularly on the black soil plains west of the Newell Highway, because you cannot get machinery onto the ground.

At the moment no-one has the money to buy the wheat. Credit is very much restricted to the grain merchants. In previous times the Australian Wheat Board would have run a pool and sold the wheat. They would have made an upfront payment to farmers and sold the wheat into the market over a period of time. We no longer have that ability. I think it is an absolute disaster, an absolute disgrace that the Australian parliament—and I feel a responsibility as a member of it—have let down this group of people, and I think that we need to seriously look at a way of coming to their assistance.