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Thursday, 1 June 1989
Page: 3189

Senator McGAURAN(11.01) -Let it be signalled to the rural community of Australia that we have before us a most important piece of legislation deeply affecting rural Australia and we had to call a quorum to get some Ministers in the chamber to listen. Quite frankly, they have not been listening since the beginning of this debate, which has been going on for the past 12 months. We have had to drag them out of the pool room, the members bar and even the tea room just to hear some words of wisdom, even from the Australian Democrats. That is an utter disgrace. It is a fair signal to rural Australia that the Government has never had any interest in this piece of legislation except to make it a political piece of legislation, an attempt to drive a wedge between the two Opposition parties. As far as that goes, it has failed. However, what the Government has succeeded in doing is to sell out the wheat farmers of Australia and in fact, in the long run, the rural community of Australia.

Before reaching what can be termed the eleventh hour of this legislation-in which I have been deeply involved from the beginning-we have gone down a tortuous path, swaying from side to side, never knowing what the end result would be. As we reach the eleventh hour of this controversial Bill, I suppose it is time to pay some dues, difficult as that might be for me, to the Democrats for their support. I recall quite warmly Senator Powell and me flying off to a wheat farmers' meeting in Warracknabeal. The meeting was well attended by Australian wheat farmers, who were outraged at the Bill. Senator Powell and I linked arms to give the wheat farmers the utmost confidence that we would fight this to the very end. That is exactly what we intend to do.

Senator Macklin's contribution has to be recognised also. He brought home the realities of the legislation: the reality of the attempted blackmail of the Government, the reality of the respect that the Australian Wheat Board has overseas, particularly in America, and the reality of who will be the great beneficiaries if the legislation goes through. Of course, Elders IXL Ltd will be the great beneficiary of the legislation. There is absolutely no doubt about that. We cannot get away from it. It has to be admitted that the grain merchants will be the great beneficiaries of the legislation and to the forefront will be Elders IXL. Many questions must be asked about why that company will be at the forefront of those benefiting from the legislation.

The Wheat Marketing Bill sells out wheat farmers. It will absolutely finish the Government in the bush. The Government has signalled to Australian farmers that it does not care about them at all. The legislation was sloppy from the very beginning. When it was introduced in the other House the Government had to move 40 amendments, quite apart from the honourable member for Murray, Bruce Lloyd, bringing in 40 amendments. The threat by the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Kerin, is absolutely idle. As Senator Macklin has pointed out, it was attempted before in 1984 and also attempted in relation to the dairy industry legislation. That sort of threat has been put on this Parliament before and it should never be taken seriously. If the Minister chooses to run his portfolio by threatening the Parliament, we in this chamber who must make judgments should never succumb to that threat. I hope that my colleagues never believe that the Minister will allow the Bill to lapse, thus throwing the whole industry into chaos. When one considers the Minister's own words in 1987, one realises that he has done a black flip on this matter. He is not genuine in his attempt to improve the lot of wheat farmers. In 1987 he recognised the very point we are making today. He said:

If you get rid of the Wheat Board's power you would be handing the industry over to the Elders and Cargills and Continental Burges and away you go.

The Minister knows exactly what we are on about. He is into the politics of the matter. Unfortunately, others are into the ideology of the matter. Those of us who are against the Bill are into the reality of the matter. The Bill will sell out 45,000 family farmers who contribute a great deal to this country's wealth, who work from dawn to dusk and have to face the threatening elements of the Australian climate. Family farmers are of great benefit to this country, both socially and economically. They are of great benefit in those two ways. They own Australia's natural resources. Heaven knows, that is very important in this country today. The ownership of our own natural resources, our own dirt, is becoming rare as this country slips into a quagmire of economic irrelevance.

We should not underestimate the Government's inability to understand what the Wheat Board is all about. It is not a monopoly, as it is painted so often; rather, the Wheat Board is the cooperative or collective of 45,000 wheat farmers. It is their marketing arm. That is completely different--

Senator Brownhill —Their orderly marketing arm.

Senator McGAURAN —That is right. Senator Brownhill is one of the experts on this matter. From the very beginning he has put in a great deal of work. He not only has kept in close liaison with wheat farmers and the Grains Council of Australia but also has been a strong spokesman for the National Party. It is no secret that the National Party has not warmed to the Bill. As a National Party spokesman, Senator Brownhill has been at the forefront.

In giving more praise to the industry let me ask: Why would we muck about with an industry that produces over $2 billion of export income for this country when the world is on the verge of a trade war? We know that to be true. It has never been as important as it is now to support such industries. We should not think that by changing the domestic market the export market can be kept intact. If we took 20 per cent away from any business it would not remain viable. The domestic market is very important to the Wheat Board's operations and, of course, to farmers' operations. We should not think that the export market will not be threatened. Of course it will be threatened. I want the Government to explain why this would not be the thin end of the wedge of deregulating the export market. Once the grain merchants are freely able to buy wheat in the domestic market, what will stop them from overbuying and carrying a surplus which will not only affect the following year's prices for the farmers but also encourage grain merchants to run to the Government saying, `We have a surplus. Let us export it.'? That will be the first cry. If the Wheat Board has to fulfil its quotas and half the grain is being bought up on the domestic market, the Wheat Board will have to buy the grain from the grain merchants to fulfil its export quotas. That will absolutely snooker the Wheat Board.

Senator Powell —That's what they want.

Senator McGAURAN —Senator Powell says, by way of interjection, that that is what they want. Let them deny that that is what they want. I would like to hear from the Government on that matter. There are 45 sellers and two or three large grain merchants. For those idealistic ideologues who work out of text books, that is called an oligopoly. Let them try to explain how that leads to an efficient market.

There is no argument about micro-economic reform. The argument centres only around the Wheat Board. The report of the Industries Assistance Commission says that. It says that we can maintain the Wheat Board as it is today-the Commission believes that it is an efficient industry-and that deregulation of the transport industry and similar changes can come about. The waterfront situation is no different. There have been any number of reports on the waterfront and how it can be improved. Billions of dollars can be saved in that area. The Trade Practices Commission supports my concern. I would like to quote the most potent parts of the Trade Practices Commission's concern about just open slather deregulation from the rural guidelines. It states:

While a superficial analysis may suggest that economic efficiency would be best served by removing regulation and allowing the market to operate free from intervention with the individual seller negotiating with the buyer, this does not hold where the market power of the large buyers would (in a deregulated market) far outweigh that of the producers. The concentration of market power among processors, manufacturers, distributors and retailers implied by these figures, indicates that powerful buyers have emerged in the acquisition of primary products. Similar concentration has developed in the supply of goods and services such as fertilisers and services provided by stock and station agents.

So my concerns are backed up by the Trade Practices Commission. I signal my support for the coalition amendments. I call upon the Government to support those amendments. The most important one is, of course, the 95 per cent underwriting provision. The Government must realise that, on this particular amendment alone, all that lies between the farmers and destitution is a strong Wheat Board. It will not be strong unless there is that significant underwriting factor of 95 per cent. What the Government has in place is no more than a market facade. It will never be triggered. The phasing down of the underwriting provision that the Government has and which will ultimately, after five years, be wiped out, will never be triggered. It is a market facade, and the Government knows it. Underwriting is most important to any orderly marketing system in rural Australia, and I support such a system. It gives some security to the farmers and it is also an efficient allocation of resources in primary industry. It is a guard against the collapse of prices; it is a guard against corrupt markets; and it is a guard against the pending trade wars.

In conclusion, I give my full support to the coalition amendments. I salute the endeavours of those attempting to incorporate these amendments in the Bill. I know the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Kerin, has been unflinching in not accepting these amendments. But perhaps by the end of this debate the Government will finally come around to understand that underwriting is of critical importance in this Bill. At the same time, however, I signal my vote against this Bill at the third reading stage if those amendments are not supported.