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Thursday, 1 June 1989
Page: 3186

Senator MACKLIN(10.43) —The Australian Democrats will be seeking to divide the motion so that there can be a vote on the first half and on the second half. They are essentially about different items. One is asking us not to press certain amendments and one is seeking our agreement to certain amendments made by the House of Representatives. It might be easier if they were taken separately; but that will be decided later.

I reiterate the fact that it is not, contrary to what Senator Brownhill said, entirely up to the Government. This chamber has power. It has power, for example, to completely nullify the very blatant blackmailing exercise attempted by the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Kerin) in the letter which was sent to all senators. Fairly clearly, if we continue with the status quo, which this chamber could ensure by supporting Senator Powell's Wheat Marketing (Renewal of Sunset Clauses) Amendment Bill, then there would be no basis on which the Government could say, `The whole wheat industry will collapse unless you pass our Bill'.

I say that for the benefit of honourable senators who do not not have a long institutional memory, because we have gone through this exercise before. In 1984 a package of Bills dealing with wheat marketing was discussed. Part of one of those Bills dealt with the structure of the Australian Wheat Board. That was the first attempt by the Government to take away grower control of the Board. In a speech I made in this place on 9 May 1985, I said that it had been Democrat policy that there ought to be grower control of commodity boards. In line with that, I negotiated with the Minister with regard to this particular piece of legislation. It might be interesting to quote from the speech in the House of Representatives that the Hon. Tom McVeigh made on behalf of the Opposition parties on 4 October 1984 when, as Opposition spokesperson, he was debating the Wheat Marketing Bill:

I have drawn the attention of the House to the Minister's statement. That statement is blackmail, and blackmail of the most cowardly kind. By blackmailing the Opposition this Government, through its lame-dog Primary Industry Minister-

it is the same Minister now-

is attempting to blackmail Australian wheat growers. In consultation with industry representatives the Opposition has several amendments to propose to the legislation. However, the Minister, intent on prostituting the Westminster system, has ensured that there can be no meaningful amendments to this legislation without denying growers their $2 billion of harvest payments.

That was the exercise in 1984. That was the type of blackmail attempted then. It did not work then because, while Tom McVeigh was on his feet saying that because of that blackmail the Opposition would support the legislation, I went to the Minister and said, `There is no way that legislation is going through the Senate because we will keep talking about the wheat Bill until Christmas'. The Minister at that stage backed down and that particular section dealing with the Wheat Board was taken out of the Wheat Marketing Bill and deferred until the following year. The following year we got the Government to accept that there would be grower control of the Wheat Board because there was no other way to go.

So this is not the first attempt at blackmail; it is not the first time that the Government may succeed in using blackmail over the Wheat Board. All that is required is that the status quo be maintained, and there is no possibility of blackmail. That can be done very simply because we can say to the House of Representatives, `The sunset clause has been removed. You have another four years to work out what you want to do'. If the House of Representatives does not accept that, it is the Government's and not the Parliament's problem. We have in fact legislated to protect the wheat industry. There is a very simple way out. Once this chamber gives in to the type of blackmail in that letter, we will not have a leg to stand on. So it is not just about this matter; it is about whether or not we will be able to do an effective job in this chamber. Last night in this debate I said by way of interjection that there is no way the Government can continue the type of exercise that it was proposing in the letter. It is simply absurd to think that any responsible government could go about what it is suggesting.

Most honourable senators well realise that I do not have a great place in my heart for most bureaucracies. Indeed, I find that many of the problems that have emerged in legislation have stemmed not from the Government but from what has been written in by a variety of people who think they know better than the elected representatives what ought to happen. When I was our party's primary industries spokesperson, I had a number of dealings with people from the Wheat Board. I met them on quite a number of occasions not only in Australia but also overseas, particularly in Washington on two occasions when we had a parliamentary delegation lobbying Congress with regard to the United States stance on trade with Australia. I found these people to be some of the toughest bureaucrats that I have ever met. They have a very tight structure and they have worked very well. They have the runs on the board. They have been operating in an extraordinarily tight trading market and have done their job well. In fact, they have moved our wheat under the most incredibly difficult international circumstances. They have got prices which I think most people did not believe they could get.

This whole exercise ought to be seen as a model for other boards and corporations, not as something that ought to be dismantled. We do not see deregulation of the domestic market in the same light as do the Opposition parties. Quite frankly, our view is that deregulation of the domestic market will destroy the Australian Wheat Board's ability to operate as an international trader. What would happen if the market were opened up in that way? At the end of the day, if I were a grower-which I am not-I would prefer to deal with the Wheat Board rather than with Elders IXL Ltd.

I think we need to continue the arrangement under which growers have primary control of the Board. It is important to note that the Board has had grower control during the period in which it has been incredibly successful. As Senator Powell said the other night, the Government suggests that a wheat grower cannot be a successful entrepreneur. But the entire legislation is premised on the view that he can. I think the contradiction is apparent to everybody: we can deregulate the domestic market but we cannot trust the growers to operate properly on the Wheat Board.

But I think a further important point has been missed in this debate, and that is the relationship between the Board and the people whose livelihoods we are talking about-the wheat growers. This is a two-way process. If changes need to be made, if modifications are necessary when the going gets tough in the international market, the Wheat Board, in view of its association with the Grains Council of Australia-the commodity body-and the National Farmers Federation, is able to get back to the growers and give them information. The Board has an understanding of the context in which the growers are operating. The growers, who know that there is a majority of people on the Board who understand their industry, are much more likely to accept decisions made by the Board than they would decisions made by people who have never been in the industry.

So there are many pluses in having grower control of the Board that I think are often missed by people who want to wave wands and make the types of changes that are proposed in the legislation. I have not discovered where the Opposition stands, but I presume that we are not going to make the changes that are required by the Government. I do not think the changes have been argued for. No basis has been put up as to why they should be accepted. One only has to look at the explanatory memorandum as to why our amendments have been rejected. We are simply told, `We do not accept them'. This is probably almost the same as the gobbledegook that we are given as to why legislation has not been proclaimed. We are told that our amendments are not appropriate. Quite frankly, I do not want some pipsqueak public servant putting into the mouth of the Minister that they are not appropriate. It might be all right if we could be given a reason as to why they are not appropriate. But I find it quite extraordinary that the Parliament and the elected representatives should be told by the wave of a quasi-ministerial hand that it is not appropriate for us to amend the legislation. If the Minister can give some reasons why it is not appropriate, we could debate them. I am not going to have a debate with somebody who merely says, from his position of power, that it is not appropriate.

Senator Panizza —When they have not got good reasons, they give false figures.

Senator MACKLIN —I listened to Senator Panizza last night in relation to the support system. I thought he was very kind in his remarks, because the situation goes back a long time. That support system set out by Senator Panizza is to provide a fall back position. If it is ever activated, it will be only for a year and then the new floor price comes into effect. It is a means of adjustment. The wheat industry, under the Board which has been so roundly criticised by the Government, has managed under incredibly difficult circumstances. I think that the Government, wearing another hat, would recognise that it has had to trade in most extraordinary circumstances. I refer particularly to the Americans, whose wheat costs twice as much to grow as ours, but who then embark on a subsidy exercise. One person said to me on the hill in Washington that the biggest wheat grower last year-who did not grow any wheat, by the way-had just received $US20m. He said that the Texans do everything big and that even those people who do not do anything do it in a big way. It is extraordinary that one individual should receive $US20m. That is the type of thing against which our farmers are competing. As Senator Brownhill said, they are competing not just against the weather or Australia's internal problems-and, by the way, those types of problems exist in every country-but also against the United States Treasury.

The Wheat Board has done a magnificent job. It has been able to draw on expertise and advice in every area where it is required. It has no lack of expertise in the international market. One has only to look, as I did, at the futures trading floor in Chicago, which trades in our wheat, to know that things are done in a very sophisticated way. There is no lack of expertise, there is no lack of initiative and there is no lack of success. If those are the circumstances, why are growers going to be ditched in favour of some other silvertail? (Quorum formed)