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Thursday, 25 May 1989
Page: 2689

Senator McKIERNAN —I direct my question to the Minister representing the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy. Has he seen the report on the front page of today's Sydney Morning Herald headlined, `Peacock backs down on wheat'? What action will the Government take if the Leader of the Opposition fails to stand up to the National Party by maintaining Mr Howard's final position that the coalition would try to amend the legislation but that even if the amendments were defeated the deregulation of the domestic wheat market would not be opposed?

Senator Puplick —I raise a point of order, Mr President. Standing order 99 requires that questions shall not ask Minister to indulge in hypothetical matters. Senator McKiernan's question is `What happens if' and it is a comment about something which does not in any sense constitute a proper matter in terms of avoiding the requirement of paragraph (g) of standing order 99 that the question shall not be based upon hypothetical things that may or may not happen. It is clearly a question which is out of order.

The PRESIDENT —I am aware of the difficulties with the particular standing order that Senator Puplick refers to. I ask Senator Walsh to limit his answer to the Government's intentions and to areas of his portfolio and not to hypothetical questions.

Senator WALSH —That is very easily done, Mr President, because Mr Kerin has already sent out a letter to all senators, I understand, telling them what the Government will do. I was asked whether I saw the press report with the heading `Peacock backs down on wheat'. I certainly did. I must say that I was not at all surprised. Indeed just two weeks ago in the Senate I forecast precisely this outcome. I pay tribute to Mr Howard-although I have been critical of him from time to time for which I neither apologise nor resile-for being the first Liberal Party leader in history to have the courage to stand up to the National Party. I made the forecast that that situation would change under the new wimpish leadership of the Liberal Party.

Senator Puplick —On the point of order, Mr President: the clear direction which you gave to Senator Walsh was to confine himself to matters which are within the portfolio responsibility which he administers or which he represents. The question of hypothetical situations arising or indeed of the Opposition's policy which has been already laid down in this place is not one which conforms with the direction which you have given Senator Walsh. The question, in terms of its hypothetical basis, was clearly out of order. The direction which you have given to the Minister is clearly being ignored by the Minister, and I suggest that you bring him to account.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I was listening to Senator Walsh's remarks and I thought they were an introduction to his answer. I remind him of my previous direction.

Senator WALSH —Certainly, Mr President. I have made the point: it is not hypothetical. It may have been hypothetical that I forecast that under this new wimpish leadership the Liberal Party would revert to type and allow the National Party to run the show. It is no longer hypothetical. We now know that that has happened. The Government's response is, as I mentioned earlier, set out in a letter which Mr Kerin dispatched yesterday. Mr Kerin made the point very firmly that if the Senate proceeds with the amendments, which it proposes to do, the Government will not accept the amendments. Therefore, on 1 July the Australian Wheat Board will no longer be able to trade on the domestic market and two years hence it will not exist at all. It will not be trading on the overseas market either. The consequences of that are that those who said they did not want private trade in wheat on the domestic market will have nothing but private trade as from 1 July.

Senator Puplick —I take a point of order, Mr President, both as to the failure of the Minister to observe your strictures on this matter and now to the additional point which relates to the final part of standing order 99, which states:

Questions shall not anticipate discussion upon an Order of the Day or other matter which appears on the Notice Paper.

I draw your attention to item No. 34 appearing on the Notice Paper which reads, `Wheat Marketing Bill 1988-89-Consideration in Committee of the Whole of Message No. 445 from the House of Representatives', and other matters. I ask you to rule that, both in terms of ignoring your earlier ruling and in terms of the matter which the Minister has now introduced which is contrary to that part of Standing Order 99 relating to items which are on the Notice Paper and the fact that item No. 34 appears on the Notice Paper, the Minister is clearly out of order.

Senator Robert Ray —I raise a point of order, Mr President. I do not know what Senator Puplick has had for lunch, but if we cannot discuss at Question Time things that are on the Notice Paper, nearly every matter will be put on it and we will not be able to canvass anything. I know what is in the Standing Orders and Senator Puplick knows what is in the Standing Orders. He also knows what the practice has been over many years. It has been to allow flexibility in asking questions which applies as much to the coalition side as it does to this side. If the Opposition wants to narrow the scope of that it will get an even more sterile Question Time than currently exists.

Senator Chaney —On the point of order, Mr President: following what has been said by Senator Robert Ray, it is true that in normal debates in this place and in Question Time the strict Standing Orders are often not applied and that is on both sides and for the convenience of both sides and for the ebb and flow in this place. Points of order are often not taken even though they could be. The point is, however, that on this occasion the Opposition is taking the point of order because the Minister is playing politics with Question Time in a way which we object to and we are entitled to take advantage of the Standing Orders. Let me say that the simple reality which the Minister obviously has not heard about is that Mr Peacock confirmed this morning that our stance on those Bills is precisely the same as the stance that we originally adopted. So there is no change in the Opposition's position at all. Therefore, the game that is being played is one that we do not believe is a proper use of Question Time and I suggest that you rule on the point of order in accordance with the Standing Orders and not in accordance with some sort of general gloss of them.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I have ruled before that a strict interpretation of standing order 99 would mean that there would be practically no Question Time. I point out to Senator Walsh, however, that I believe he is debating the question. I ask him to conclude his answer.

Senator WALSH —I readily understand Senator Puplick's embarrassment. Having helped to engineer the coup of a couple of weeks ago, he is now a bit shocked by its consequences. I have been asked about the Government's response. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard for the definitive record the letter that Mr Kerin circulated yesterday.

Leave not granted.

Senator WALSH —Those opposite reckon that they do not want to waste time in Question Time! I will read out the letter. It states:

Dear Senator,

I am writing to you to seek your assistance to prevent a severe crisis of confidence from engulfing the wheat industry.

The House today passed an amended Wheat Marketing Bill, but rejected a number of Senate amendments. Those amendments can be portrayed as allowing the Board to ignore the Australian Constitution, to abuse its market power, to risk having people on it who are not the best available, and to expose the taxpayer to the risk of 95 per cent underwriting. These are all unacceptable to the Government.

If the Senate insists on these amendments, there will be no Bill passed, and the sunset clause in the existing Act will be triggered on 1 July-

that is 1 July 1989-

This means there would be no underwriting of the 1989 crop and the Board would suffer a severe crisis of confidence as its very existence after 1991 would be at risk.

The Senate must pass the Bill as it now stands. The Government has shown a great deal of flexibility throughout the wheat debate-there is no room for more.

In particular, we will not extend the existing legislation, so any attempt to use these amendments as a back-door attempt to sabotage domestic wheat market deregulation will not work. On the contrary, those who do not want private trade in wheat will risk there being nothing but private trade.

The issue is no longer about deregulation-that was settled by two weeks ago.

I trust that you will be able to assist the wheat industry by ensuring that the Bill is passed in the Senate.

Yours sincerely,

John Kerin