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Wednesday, 10 May 1989
Page: 2211

Senator POWELL(5.42) —We are here debating the Wheat Marketing Bill 1989 and a package of complementary legislation. My remarks will be directed to that major Bill, the Wheat Marketing Bill 1989. For some explanation of what this Bill does I went to two sources. One was the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Kerin). In his second reading speech he said:

The purpose of this Bill is to introduce new marketing arrangements for the wheat industry and thereby establish a sound future for one of Australia's most important export earners.

I then looked at what the Opposition spokesperson for primary industry in the House of Representatives, Mr Bruce Lloyd, said in opening the debate for the Opposition. Mr Lloyd said:

The Wheat Marketing Bill 1989 and the related wheat levy Bills have a number of major features. They include the removal of the Australian Wheat Board's acquisition and price setting power for wheat for domestic human consumption; the retention of the Board's export monopoly and the reduced underwriting guarantee from the current 95 per cent to 90 per cent next season and then a phase-down to 80 per cent in 1993, after which this part of the legislation will cease; the removal of an acceptable level of wheat grower Board membership; and the virtual prohibition of the Wheat Board from intrastate trading and a threatening restriction to its pool interstate trading.

I find Mr Lloyd's definition of what this legislation does to be far more accurate and truthful. The Bill also overrides State laws in the transport, handling and storage of wheat.

I want to make it quite clear that the Australian Democrats are absolutely opposed to all aspects of this legislation, a fact which we made clear six months ago and which we have reiterated many times since-in fact, at every possible opportunity. What we have here is a classic piece of ideological deregulationist legislation proposed by the economic rationalists of the Hawke Labor Government and supported by the privatisers in the New Right Liberal Party, whose President, John Elliott, includes amongst his major business interests a significant international grain trading arm which is no doubt salivating now-if an arm can salivate-at the prospect of a new playing field, however uneven it will be, for Australia's grain growers.

What about the National Party of Australia? I can do no better than quote the honourable member for Mallee, Mr Peter Fisher. He pointed out in his contribution in the House of Representatives that he is a wheat grower and represents one of Australia's greatest wheat growing electorates-a claim with which I concur because that is the electorate in which I was born and brought up. I lived on a wheat farm myself. Mr Fisher said:

. . . the tragedy of this wheat debate, and the major changes to wheat marketing arrangements it proposes, is that wheat growers and their industry have been forsaken by politicians for political considerations of power, unity and ideology and not through any understanding or debate on this issue;

I will take a few moments at this point to explain what Mr Fisher was referring to by looking at a bit of the history of this exercise. Mr Kerin, in his second reading speech, went on, after his rather marshmallow definition of what the legislation was doing, to begin at the beginning. He said:

In a speech to the annual conference of the Grains Council of Australia (GCA) last year, I invited the industry to take the opportunity of the need for a new Wheat Marketing Act and the report of the Royal Commission into Grain Storage, Handling and Transport to think seriously about the future structure of the wheat industry and its position in the Australian and world economy. It is a matter of some regret that the GCA has been unable to articulate a vision for the future of its industry and has adopted a position of non-negotiability on the major issues.

I think what Mr Kerin really meant was that it is a matter of regret to him that the Grains Council has been able to embrace his vision for the future of its industry. Mr Kerin went on in his second reading speech to say:

The industry has shown that it can respond to the pressures for change.

This is no less so in the case of the Australian Wheat Board. Over the years, as an institution and part of the wheat industry, it has responded to pressures for change. It was that fact about the industry to which Mr Kerin referred in his second reading speech.

For 50 years since it was established-particularly since the late 1940s when rural industries, particularly the wheat industry, increased their strength, organisation and political voice, and were then able to influence decisions better-the Board has developed marketing structures which, with modification, flexibility, development and increased commercialisation, have served growers well. One only has to ask growers to be told that that is the case, and it continues to be so. Of course, one would not deny that further change, further development and further modification are, and always will be, needed in an organisation such as the Australian Wheat Board; but not major surgery or amputation of this kind, the Australian Democrats would contend. The Grains Council of Australia, and the wheat industry in general, had to wait until April this year to begin hearing from the Opposition about what approach it would take to Mr Kerin's package or, perhaps, his vision.

While the National Party, before that time, appeared to be indicating that in its own right it did not favour wheat marketing deregulation, it found itself with a coalition problem. It should not have been a problem for the National Party or, indeed, for Liberal Party members representing rural and particular wheat growing constituencies. The National Party holds seats in this Parliament, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, based on a claim that it represents Australia's rural population, especially Australian farmers. The National Party does indeed have a very strong constituency, a sectional base, in many parts of rural Australia.

Some of the safest House of Representatives seats are held by the National Party. I am probably safe in saying that the safest House of Representatives seats are held by the National Party. Most of them are held with absolute majorities, many over 60 per cent. The shadow Minister, Mr Lloyd, a former local member of mine, has a very safe seat in Murray. Peter Fisher, whom I have just mentioned, represents the electorate in which I was born, another safe National Party seat. The phenomenon of the National Party sectional base and the strength of it is interesting. I note there was criticism after the Gwydir by-election that John Anderson had caused the National Party to take a drubbing, yet he got an absolute majority. That is a measure of the strength the National Party has in such areas.

I began my political career, as well as my life, in a National Party electorate. It is not easy in that kind of situation to build not only a political career but a new political party at the same time. At one point I did coin a phrase for what I felt I was up against, and I called it a socio-political Mafia because it is so strong. It is a fabric of the community. Members of that Party sit here representing those people. From time to time the Democrats have wondered how that support has persisted until now. People in rural areas have probably forgotten that the size of the Parliament was expanded because National Party members voted in favour of the Hawke socialist Government's proposal. What about smaller government?

I wonder whether people in the country remember that the tax on wine and an increase in the tax on juice and flavoured milk came into effect because the coalition and the Government in this place voted against the Australian Democrats. However, the message does not always get through. The message that country people are beginning to get-and this matter is helping them get it-is that the whole privatisation push in the coalition puts much of their community life and their economic life at risk. If it is persisted with by the coalition-which of course includes National Party members-services to people in rural areas, which in many cases are still not adequate, will have to be reduced. We already have such problems as Australia Post closing down post offices and reducing the number of letter boxes, and Telecom Australia's reluctance to provide the sorts of services that it should. If we have increased emphasis on private schools, private medicine and the rest of it, it is the country people who suffer first and who suffer worst. In any case, country people in many areas support the Country Party-even though it has changed its name.

The fact is that the National Party caved in on this matter. Peter Fisher referred to the `political considerations of power'. The coalition was put before the constituency-the constituency of farmers, their communities and a whole major Australian export industry. That is what happened in April. There was quite a bit of posturing at the time, but eventually a formal statement was put out by the then Leader of the Opposition, John Howard, which said, `Yes, we support deregulation but not Mr Kerin's package. We've got a proposal of our own'. It highlighted four fundamental points. I have here a copy of the press release. The first point highlighted was reasonable progress towards deregulation of the transport, handling, storage and waterfront areas to reduce the many cost burdens placed on wheat growers by high levels of regulation. The second point highlighted was a 95 per cent underwriting guarantee to provide a satisfactory first advance or cash trading option for the Wheat Board. The third point highlighted was the maintenance of the Wheat Board's existing powers in relation to exports. The fourth was that the Board should have the capacity to remain a strong trader, competing on fair and reasonable terms with other domestic traders.

Some members of the National Party at that time seemed to indicate in the corridors of this place, `It's all right because Mr Kerin's package deregulates part of the export industry and we said that we don't want that. Mr Kerin's package does not deregulate transport, handling and storage-we have got him there, we will be safe'. The coalition members thought they had won. What a lot of rubbish, or naivety. Anyway, one or two heads have rolled, though only one in the National Party. It seemed to me extraordinarily naive that some National Party members were comforting themselves by making such statements about that package. Clearly, the intention to deregulate in the export area was part of Mr Kerin's ambit claim all along. Maybe these people would have known this was an ambit claim when they first saw it if they had dealt a bit more with unions and such claims. Clearly, the Minister was going to give way on that point. Very shortly thereafter statements were made by Mr Kerin that he would move in the area of transport, handling and storage deregulation.

Having dealt with those two major points, we then heard from the coalition that, although it could not decide until it actually saw the legislation, it looked as though deregulation of the domestic wheat market would occur, that it had gained considerable concessions from Mr Kerin and therefore it would go ahead. At that point many people in the industry said to me, `For goodness sake, what is this I hear about the Democrats caving in on this one?'. I do not know who started those rumours in the press gallery-whether it was done by the Government or the Opposition-but it was never the case. At that point I said to representatives of the Grains Council in particular that if anyone were to do a deal on this one, it would not be the Australian Democrats-and that has been the case. I think it is shameful that the National Party agreed to such a deal on this. It should never have believed that that package was not acceptable, at least in large measure.

Clause 88 of the Bill gives the coalition that first demand-for deregulation of transport, handling and storage. On 6 April, only two days after the Opposition's package was presented, Mr Kerin announced his intention to move in that regard. At this point the industry could see the full force of the capitulation that had taken place in the coalition. Since then it has been downhill all the way for wheat growers in the industry.

Having allowed the coalition to deliver to the Government the required numbers to pass the deregulation package, which was extended into the area of transport deregulation, National Party members in the House of Representatives did not solidly support their rural constituency and the actions that Peter Fisher and one or two others took. They had delivered the numbers to the Government. Surely they could have stayed solidly together in the interests of their constituents. It was clearly a case of individual ambition and the dream that one day there might be a coalition government and that they might be on the front bench, looking at the fate of others who had done the wrong thing in the past. It should be remembered that this occurred last week. That thought kept them firmly in their seats alongside other members of the coalition. I certainly hope that this week in the Senate, National Party senators will show some more spine.

I remind rural people what is happening. The Australian Democrats oppose this legislation. We will vote against it at every stage. Some individual members of the National Party have done that. What happens here remains to be seen. However, the Democrats will vote in favour of most of the amendments to be moved by the Opposition-and we will vote for all of those which are supported by the Grains Council. Had the Opposition not moved them, we certainly would have. The major features of those amendments include-this is a major one as far as we are concerned-that they allow for the retention of grower representatives on the Wheat Board and for the appointment of a grower chairperson. We consider, as we always have in rural legislation, that grower control and involvement is essential.

I do not see how the Government can possibly argue against that. On the one hand it is saying to us, `We will deregulate marketing', and, on the other hand, it is saying that we are insulting growers by saying that they cannot market their product without the Wheat Board-a board which they have had for 50 years, which they say they still want, which serves an enormously important purpose by allowing them to get on with their job of growing so that they do not have to get out in the marketplace; they are represented there by their own body. The Government is saying, `That is an insult. They can get out there, they can do it. Growers are really on the ball and they know all about commercial marketing. But don't ask us to appoint five of them to the Board. Don't ask us to let one of them be the chairperson'. There is no logic in this argument. The Government dare not say to the Democrats, `This amendment is not on'. This amendment is on; it is an affirmation of what the Government is saying-that growers can be competent in marketing. We are saying their most competent representatives should be appointed to their Board. That is why we will support the amendments.

We will support the amendments which involve consultation with the Grains Council on various aspects of the operations of the Board, the representation by the Grains Council of the grain industry on issues such as handling of the industry fund, and so on. We will support the amendments which ensure that the Wheat Board, at least until some sort of challenge comes up, if it does, is able to trade intrastate. I cannot imagine how the Opposition in the end can vote for legislation which, if this amendment is not accepted by the Government once it is passed by the Senate clearly will kill the Wheat Board, because a minimum of 80 per cent of grain traded on the domestic market is traded within the State in which it is grown. That is the Victorian figure. In most of the other States it is higher. If that wheat cannot be sent through the Australian Wheat Board, it certainly does not have a level playing field on the domestic market. Not only that, but the Minister's representatives at meetings which I have attended in wheat growing areas have been saying, `Don't worry, growers will still go to the Wheat Board. They are comfortable with it, they have been using it for 50 years and so it has an advantage'. They will not be able to go to the Wheat Board unless the Government accepts this amendment.

I certainly agree with the aspect of the second reading amendment which condemns the Government for not stitching up its deal with the States before coming to us with this legislation. That amendment, which we will be passing in the Senate, is only necessary because the Government needs complementary legislation, but clearly it will not get it. I have not been able to get the report from the last meeting of the Australian Agricultural Council in February, but I finally received a communique from it today. A press report today re-emphasises the New South Wales Government's rejection of being pushed into complementary legislation. Certainly New South Wales and Queensland have made public the fact that they are not going to be pushed. Even if they were, the legislation would not be in place before 1 July, which is when new wheat marketing legislation of one kind or another must go through this Parliament. I certainly think the Government stands condemned on that amendment.

Another amendment provides for exemption from the Trade Practices Act which is essential if the Wheat Board is to be able to operate. I will go into more detail when we discuss this matter. Clearly sellers who are small must be able to get together, particularly in a market where there is mainly an oligopoly of large buyers. An amended Bill, which will be better for growers in the industry than an unamended Bill, will go back to the House of Representatives. As I said, I believe that the Government must accept these amendments. This is a part of the voice of the industry being heard through the Senate. I acknowledge that the Government has started negotiations on this legislation and has made amendments, many of which were only necessary because it was pretty sloppy in the first place; for example, the Government has used the term `grain' when it should have been restricted to wheat and that sort of thing. There has also been confusion about the rights that it wants to take over from the States and so on.

I previously asked a question of the Minister for Resources (Senator Cook), who represents the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy in this place, about statements made by Mr Kerin that he would not be blackmailed or held over a barrel by the Parliament on this matter and that we could end up with no wheat marketing legislation at all. I am very concerned about that. I am disappointed that we did not get an answer. It would be utterly irresponsible of the Government if it moved in any way so that we do not have wheat marketing legislation in place by 1 July. I hope it will not come to that. The question really is whether the Opposition will hold firm anyway if Mr Kerin decides to dig in his heels. I am concerned about a statement made by the Opposition spokesperson, the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd). When the legislation was going through the House of Representatives, he admitted in a press conference that the coalition would support the legislation even if the Opposition's amendments were rejected. I suppose in the fullness of time we will see whether that meant only in the House of Representatives.

We will not support those clauses of the Bill which deregulate transport, handling and storage. I think it is quite incredible that Senator McKiernan should become sensitive about the union bashings going on over here. For goodness sake, this Government dished up the ideal opportunity to this Opposition to go into a union bash. The list of speakers just gets longer and longer. Most of them will be union bashing and the Government has caused that to occur. It has capitulated to the Opposition simply to get this deregulation package through. The Government did not consult with the unions and it does not seem to care that ultimately more than 1,000 jobs will be lost in Victoria and that 300 jobs will be lost in Queensland. I am told that in one western Queensland town 100 rail families might have to move out. That will be the end of that town altogether. The Government does not seem to worry at all about that. It will have to sit there and cop it if the Opposition gets into a union bash. The Government has left it wide open and the Opposition has put a further wedge into it with an amendment, which we will not support, to deregulate the labour market.

I think that the Government has asked for it. The Opposition has given it to the Government and no doubt will continue to do so through this debate. The Opposition's labour market deregulation amendment shows that even though it has a new leadership it is still a New Right Liberal Party. I do not think anybody should lose sight of that. Clearly if that amendment were passed we would be in an enormously confrontationist industrial relations situation. Unless that amendment is withdrawn before the committee stage it will be clear that, new leadership or no new leadership, we are in for strife under a coalition government as far as industrial relations are concerned.

The Australian Democrats will not support the usual amendment which has been trotted out on equal employment opportunity, based on the furphy that the equal opportunity legislation has in some way or other built into it a system of quotas; it does not. We will not support that amendment because to do so would be to concede that part of the argument. It is the usual coalition rubbish about quotas. I heard a rumour earlier today that that amendment would be withdrawn. I wondered for a moment whether the journalist I heard this morning commenting on the leadership changes might have been right-that woman and wets would benefit from the leadership upheaval in the Opposition. The amendment has not yet been officially withdrawn with me. I certainly hope that it will be withdrawn because at least Andrew Peacock and the rest of them deserve one victory out of all this.

We will reluctantly vote with the Opposition on the second reading amendment. I have already remarked on one of its aspects. It condemns the Government for this whole exercise. The Government deserves to be condemned for this whole exercise, but so does the Opposition. I remind the Senate and the Australian public, particularly those people in rural towns, the people in the wheat belt and their families-in fact all Australians who rely so heavily on the wheat industry-that if this legislation is to get through the numbers will be provided by the Opposition. If we are going to condemn the Government for this legislation we must also condemn the Opposition. The Democrats could move to amend that amendment, but we would not get support. I cannot imagine either the Government or the Opposition supporting us in an amendment which asks them to condemn themselves. Therefore, we will support the Opposition in its amendment but under protest, pointing out the hypocrisy in moving an amendment to condemn somebody with whom it is about to vote on a specific piece of legislation.

We will be moving amendments in the committee stage. They will be the amendments that the honourable member for Mallee (Mr Peter Fisher) moved in the House of Representatives. Those amendments maintain the Australian Wheat Board's powers on the domestic market while allowing opportunities to give greater flexibility and a more commercial thrust. I will await with interest the actions of the National Party senators when those amendments are moved in the committee stage. Even if the National Party senators do move to vote with us, as they should, the Opposition will still give the Government the numbers on this legislation. All that aside, the end result is deregulation.

If for no other reason, we should all be opposing this legislation because of the international situation. We are not thrusting this industry into a level playing field. Recently Mr Quayle visited Australia. He said that Mr Hawke was giving all the wrong figures, or he could not understand them; but the facts are that the United States has increased its share of the world wheat and flour market by 48 per cent since its export enhancement program commenced. Our market share has fallen by close to 43 per cent over the same period. The figures go on and they are figures which Mr Quayle was given by Mr Hawke. There is no evidence whatsoever that internationally this major industry is anywhere near a level playing field. We should all be opposing this legislation, even if only on that basis.

This has been and remains a shabby exercise by both the Government and the Opposition. The Nationals have caved in, the Liberals are making an ideological push, from which Mr Elliott benefits, and the Government is on its own ideological push-deregulation of the wheat market. It is hoist on its own petard and has initiated a union bash in this place having done its deal with the Liberals and walked out on its union constituency-first on the railways and who knows where next. Only the Democrats have stood firm in the best interests of a major Australian industry-those who grow the wheat, their families, the communities in which they live and all of us who benefit from the economic advantage that this industry has given us in the past and will have now a much greater struggle to give us in the future.