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Thursday, 1 June 1989
Page: 3193

Senator COOK (Minister for Resources)(11.27) —It is my privilege to reply on behalf of the Government to the propositions that have been put forward by the Opposition and the Australian Democrats and to support the motion moved last night by the Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh:

That the Committee does not insist upon amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 20 to which the House of Representatives has disagreed, and agrees to amendments made by the House of Representatives in place of amendments Nos. 1, 5, 9, 10, 19 and 21.

I commend that motion to the Committee and trust that it will be carried, although I note that the numbers are stacked against us, suggesting that it will not be. However, I want to persist in arguing that it should be carried. It would have the effect of rejecting the amendments made previously by the Senate, enabling the Government to carry the legislation and put in place deregulation of the Australian domestic wheat market.

Senator Lewis has identified the four core clauses that, in particular, are commended to our attention. There would be no point in my reciting them because we all know them well, but I have to indicate that if Senator Walsh's motion is passed they will be rejected. There are a number of reasons for what the Government proposes, and I will now address myself to most of them. Perhaps it is unfair of me to identify any particular speaker and, under parliamentary procedure, it is probably wrong of me to worry about answering what are essentially side arguments rather than core arguments. However, I was so diverted by the artificial anger generated by Senator McGauran that I have to say that, for me, his speech had a particular pithy quality.

I was a member of parliament back in 1983, when we inherited government. I recall every lobby group identifying unemployment as the biggest problem in Australia. They all said, `The biggest problem in Australia is unemployment, but in our case you should do this'. The same lobby groups now say, `Look, one of the big problems that the community is concerned about is the environment. We are concerned about it too but you should now do this'. Over the years industry delegations have said, `We want some more deregulation. We want a phase-down of tariffs. We want a removal of that type of protection'. But often the members of those industry delegations presenting an industry view to government have sprinted back up the front steps of Parliament House as soon as the members of the delegations were in their cars heading back to their hotels and have privately said to us, `But in my case you should do this'. There is a marked resemblance in what has been said by Senator McGauran to that type of approach.

What is being said here is that we should deregulate across the board and that we should speed up deregulation. The recipes for that have been paraded. But these people are also saying, `But in our case there are special sensitivities. You should be cautious and you should do these things'. I make one observation: one cannot be half pregnant. One has to be one thing or the other. In this case one has to say, `We support the de- regulation that the Government has proposed and it should be done fully'. Otherwise the purpose of it is subverted. If one subverts the purpose, one discredits the case by not allowing it to work effectively. Senator McGauran is saying, `Do all that to everyone else but our case is a special case'. Against that background, why should we pay attention to his special case? Why should we not say, `This is not an example of ``Don't do as I do, do as I say.'' '? This should be an example of adhering to the principle across the board in order to get the best effect. I make that observation constructively.

There have been a number of speakers. It is not for me to reply exhaustively to each of the arguments that have been put. Before I go to the detail of the four clauses that have been mentioned I want to say that a number of the arguments have fallen into a couple of categories. I can answer them by globally replying to those categories.

The first is the McGauran form of argument. He says that in his particular case there are special sensitivities and that we should tread differently here. As I said, that argument has its roots in the old fashioned protectionism of the National Party of Australia-the old style regulator mentality. It is a product of that mindset. The difference between us is not in the measures the Government has taken but rather in mindset. One cannot apply a regulator's mindset to a deregulated market and try to retain ancient vestiges of old regulations in order to feel comfort and joy that maybe something has been retained. One does one thing or the other.

While I recognise the differences of view in the Opposition parties, I have to say that the prevailing view seems to be that expressed by the dries in the Liberal Party. These were acknowledged as being Mr Howard's finest moments in terms of drawing the Opposition together. Maybe these moments unfortunately led to his demise as leader. They are, nonetheless, the views of the Opposition. But the Opposition, in order to get a compromise on its side, cannot patch all the little bits and pieces together and make people feel good; it actually has to tackle the matter full on and do things properly. The Opposition cannot operate in a new environment by maintaining vestiges of the past and making little comfort stops at this little clause or that little clause.

I am a little dumbfounded when the born again regulators of the Australian Democrats come in here and put their views, but their stand on this legislation is consistent with Democrat philosophy. The Democrats want nothing to change but everything to improve. In these circumstances we cannot obtain improvement without change. I have to say that in this place the Democrats are notorious for picking up the interests of any pressure group that bobs through the front door and puts a case to them in which there might be a voter base. If we were to do that in government we would never be able to make a decision. We would be paralysed by indecision. One of the features of this Government is that we have been prepared to make decisions that, in the short run, have caused particular difficulties for us in the electorate. But we make those decisions because we believe that in the long run it will be proven that those decisions were beneficial to the electorate. With all the across the board deregulation that we have entered into, that has been the case. I believe that it will again be the case with this legislation. We are prepared for some short term pain in order to get the better long term result. The Democrats should show a bit more resolve in that type of approach in their contributions to this debate.

I am running out of time but I want to reply to the four specific provisions. I will take them in the order they appear in my notes. The first is the matter of the Chairman being a wheat grower. That is indeed a mindset problem. Opposition members think only in terms of the old style of doing things. We are not saying that a grower will not be the Chairman. In fact, the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Kerin, has said that initially he will ensure that a grower is the Chairman. But we do not want to be locked into having a grower as a Chairman always and forever more. That is not capriciousness on our part; that is an interest in seeing that the industry is properly protected in a domestically deregulated environment.

Senator Panizza has asked why we cannot find someone from the huge population of growers-all the sons, daughters, wives and husbands-to be Chairman. I hope we can. But he should remember that it will not be a domestically deregulated environment. I do not think that any grain grower in Australia, or indeed the world, would want to go into a court case and represent himself if the value of his product were at stake. If the value of his product were at stake, the best silk in Australia, specialised in that area, would be found to represent him.

When one moves into a deregulated market one may well find a grain grower with the specific skills to lead the Australian Wheat Board in that environment; but one may not. We therefore need to keep the flexibility to find the best person so that in a competitive environment we have the best competitive and entrepreneurial skills at the helm. A grain grower may have, but will not necessarily have, those properties. If we are to enable the Board to best respond to the competition entered into by it and to get better returns we do not want to be locked into that position. The same applies to members of the Board.

The next matter is the exemption from the Trade Practices Act. The aim of this amendment is specifically to exempt the Australian Wheat Board's pooling activities from the Trade Practices Act. As we said in the first instance, such an amendment really is unnecessary. The Bill provides clear authority for the Wheat Board to operate pools. Such operations are therefore authorised under section 51 of the Trade Practices Act, which provides for specific exemptions of the activities of statutory marketing authorities. Secondly, such a specific exemption in respect of the pools' marketing activities is unwarranted. As indicated in Mr Kerin's second reading speech in the other place-which speech was put down in my name here-the Australian Wheat Board should not operate in such a way as to abuse its market power. We need to have it operate within the terms of the Trade Practices Act, not exempted from the Trade Practices Act. After all, that Act provides the rules for profit trading activities. It should apply here.

With my eye on the clock I go to what is perhaps the most strongly fought issue: the 95 per cent underwriting. Many things have been said about this 95 per cent underwriting-most of them by Senator Panizza. He is having a debate with Senator Walsh. I indicate my support for the Walsh position. Senator Panizza's comments in this debate are a red herring. He is making a debating point. The core issue is: what level of underwriting should be provided for? Underwriting is provided so that better and earlier payments can be made to growers because the Board can borrow against the level of underwriting. We want to phase that down, and we are determined to see that it comes down to a reasonable level. In the circumstances, we believe a reasonable level ultimately would be about 80 per cent. But we recognise the sensitivities of growers about this issue. This is one of those security blanket type things that relate to the old mind-set. So we say, `Let's start at 90 per cent and work our way down to 80 per cent, and as we move down the fears that you have expressed will be assuaged by the perform- ance because there will be an increasing competitiveness by the Board'.

The final matter, of the top four, is this question of the Grain Council of Australia's involvement in regulations governing the operation of the fund. Senator Lewis actually gave the game away by saying, `Well, of course, since the Council represents grain growers, it should have a say in the regulations'. Of course it should; we agree. All we differ on is that it should not control the ultimate regulations. That would be to delegate to an outside body what is a final government authority. The Government, in the end, will make those regulations. But the Government will make them in full, proper and due consultation with grain growers, as it should properly do, and the commitments on that have been many and numerous and are well known; in fact, some would say notorious. So with those remarks, on behalf of the Government, I indicate to this chamber that the Government rejects the proposals that have been put forward and would ask the Committee to support that rejection.