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Wednesday, 5 May 1993
Page: 125

Senator CRANE (12.16 p.m.) —I wish to speak in this debate on the proposed resolution that Parliamentary Secretaries exercise the powers and perform the functions conferred upon Ministers. I support what my colleagues have said and I question the motives behind this move on this occasion. I also recognise the reasons why this was done previously. As Senator Bishop so aptly stated, `You give that crowd on the other side an inch and they want to take a mile'.

  The only explanation we have been given by those opposite for doing this is so that Senator Sherry, in his capacity as a Parliamentary Secretary, may represent the Minister for primary industries in estimates hearings. This is similar to what occurred in this chamber yesterday when the Governor-General, in an hour-long speech, outlined the Government's policy objectives for the next three years. In the Governor-General's speech, 30 seconds was devoted to primary industry. There was not one mention of the wool industry, nor was there mention of the severity of the drought. Senator Cook represents the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Crean, in this place. It appears that, once again, there is an attempt to allow the Minister responsible for primary industries in this place to abrogate his responsibilities regarding estimates hearings. I object very strongly to that proposal.

  I think it is totally wrong and unacceptable to allow this motion to be passed. I appeal to the Democrats in general and in particular to Senator Bell, who is not in the chamber at this time. Senator Bell has served on the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs along with a number of other senators, and has shown a rational understanding of the situation that exists in rural Australia. I add that Senator Sherry has also served on that committee.

  That is not the point at issue here. The point is that the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) appointed Senator Cook to carry out that particular function before estimates committees, and it should be Senator Cook who carries out that function, not somebody who is ranked third in order of responsibility for the position. This is a particularly important issue at a time when there is a very serious crisis in the wool industry.

  I make particular reference to an interjection made earlier by Senator Burns. Senator Burns is chairman of the rural and regional affairs committee. When the crisis in the wool industry was mentioned, Senator Burns interjected, `Whose fault was that?'. I say categorically that much of the fault lies clearly with the Labor Government. I make the point that when the reserve price scheme was in place it was approved at every step by the Labor Government. The Government also had its own representatives on the board of the Australian Wool Corporation.

  When the reserve price was in place—initially, I believe, at 870c; it was then lowered to 700c—the Minister at the time, Mr Kerin, made statements that the situation would not change, that it was set in concrete, that it was rock solid. He made those statements in wool-buying countries such as Italy and France, in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. In changing that policy position, which was said to be absolutely set in concrete, he totally undermined the confidence of the trade in purchasing Australian wool. Combined with that, we saw what occurred yesterday with the current account figures that came through: there was another loss to this nation of $2.1 billion. There has been a subsequent fall in the Australian dollar today. Once again, these economic policies are undermining the confidence of overseas buyers purchasing our product.

  These things I mention are not the only ones. The Government cannot abrogate its responsibility and the position it adopted, undermining an industry which last year, despite its problems, put $3.8 billion into the economy and which has one of the highest, if not the highest, employment multiplier effects of any industry in this nation. Much of Australia's infrastructure depends on a viable and healthy wool industry.

  My opposing this motion and not accepting the reasons that are given by the Government is not a reflection on Senator Sherry but a reflection on the fact that the Minister named by the Prime Minister should accept his responsibilities and appear before estimates committees to answer the questions and to give the rationale behind the Government's policy position. Through you, Mr Deputy President, I once again appeal to the Democrats, and particularly Senator Bell, to accept the responsibility of making sure that those who are chosen by the Prime Minister to carry out certain functions in this Parliament do so. In this case it happens to be Senator Cook who is named on the ministerial representation sheet as the Minister representing the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy and also as Minister representing the Minister for Resources. There is another very good reason why Senator Cook should appear. It fits very neatly into his responsibilities as Minister for Trade, and this matter should be addressed in terms of the operations of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. If this motion is carried, it will allow a Minister of the Crown to abrogate his responsibilities as the Minister representing primary industry in this place.