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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator MINCHIN (1:39 PM) —I inform the Senate that Liberal senators will not be opposing the Wheat Export Marketing Bill 2008 and the Wheat Export Marketing (Repeal and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. As is well known, this legislation creates an exporter accreditation scheme for the export of bulk wheat and represents the formal shift in our export wheat-marketing arrangements. Although progressive change has meant that the single desk has not been functioning for at least a couple of years in the manner in which it was established, this legislation removes the single desk and creates a scheme to accredit multiple exporters. It is a significant formal change, and we well understand that not everybody in the wheat industry supports this change. But the Liberal Party, on balance, believes that this change is inevitable.

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Murray)—Order! Members of the public gallery might not be acquainted with the rules of the Senate, but interjections are disorderly. I prefer you not to make them; otherwise, you will be removed.

Senator MINCHIN —So the Liberal Party will not oppose this bill in the Senate as we do believe these changes will create new opportunities for Australia’s wheat industry. There are a range of views on this issue. We are well aware of that, and I pay my respects to those in the gallery who wish to see the past arrangements continue. But the parliament does have to make a decision about the future of export wheat marketing, which is of course a function of legislation passed by this parliament. We do need to make a decision on this now, because something has to occur by 30 June 2008, the point at which the temporary arrangements put in place by the former coalition government expire. Those current arrangements were put in place by our government following the AWB scandal, the arrangements that were entered into with respect to Iraq and the effective collapse of those arrangements.

It was clear to the Liberal Party then, as it is now, that the single desk arrangements, with a monopoly exporter in the form of AWB, simply could not continue. If we were not to pass legislation of this kind now, we believe that would be going backwards. We do have to address the realities that we face and do our utmost to create new opportunities for Australia’s wheat industry.

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I would really rather that members of the public gallery attended the debate and listened to it. But, if you continue to interject in that manner, you will be removed by the attendants. So please accept that as a warning. We would prefer you to remain.

Senator MINCHIN —I acknowledge and understand the passions that this issue arouses. But it is the Liberal Party view that competition will ultimately deliver better prices to farmers, and farmers of course will have more choice in how they market their wheat. We do see this legislation as positive for the wheat industry, and I hope that those who are reluctant to accept these changes will look at the opportunities this new system will create. These bills have been examined by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport. I thank Liberal senators on that committee for their involvement and work throughout the inquiry, and I commend them on their additional comments in the report. They were right to highlight the flaws in the exposure drafts of this legislation, particularly the fact that they did not actually formally recognise wheat growers in the legislation. The government have adopted many of the points raised in the Senate committee report that were mentioned by Liberal senators and we welcome those changes.

I have to express my disappointment at the second reading speech of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on this legislation, as he sought to politicise this issue and attack the former coalition government. We are grappling with a difficult issue and we are trying to find the best way forward for this industry, but this is not the time to be politicising this issue. But the minister spent 20 per cent of his speech attacking the former coalition government instead of talking about the legislation and how he and his government see it benefiting growers. Labor’s only position in opposition was of course to attack the coalition. They opposed the AWB operated single desk and were also opposed to the interim arrangements that the former government put in place to deal with the outcome of the Iraq wheat scandal. They opposed a ministerial veto, yet never presented an alternative. I think most disturbing, particularly for wheat growers, is the fact that Labor went to the election quite clearly promising to retain the single desk but have now broken that promise. They have not explained that to growers, who still want a single desk, or explained why they have broken that promise.

It is important to place on record that the coalition, as such, is very proud of its record on rural and regional issues. We well understand—better than any other political entity in this country—the contribution of rural and regional Australians to this country, and we are proud of what we did in government for many, many years in this country. We know that during tough times like the droughts, which my own state of South Australia feels as much as anywhere else, rural communities are the hardest hit and need support. That is why, as finance minister in the former government, I was happy to support our measures to provide more than $3½ billion in drought assistance and other measures to help rural and regional families and communities during what has been the worst drought in living memory. All we see from this government—the new Labor government—is that rural and regional Australians are a target for its razor gang funding cuts. We are very disappointed with the sorts of cuts that Labor has made to rural and regional programs. I ask those present to contrast that with the work that Liberal members and senators do to support rural and regional Australia in this place.

My own state of South Australia contributes around 20 per cent of Australia’s export wheat production. As a South Australian senator, I am well aware of the farmers who passionately support deregulating the wheat industry as well as those who oppose it. There is a range of views on this matter and South Australian Liberal senators have listened consistently to those views. The Liberal Party have always, in hand with our National colleagues, been concerned with the plight not only of wheat growers but of other rural producers in Australia, and we acted in government in their best interests. Although wheat production in recent years of course has been affected by drought, we are still dealing with a significant agricultural industry, with production in the order of some several billion dollars. We understand and respect the importance of that industry to Australia and the importance of sustainable and prosperous rural communities, and our record in government reflects that.

The legislation surrounding wheat marketing has a long history in this country, involving a progressive change to less regulatory arrangements, going back to the Hawke and Keating governments, which of course deregulated the domestic market nearly 20 years ago. Following the Cole inquiry, the coalition government removed the AWBI monopoly on bulk exports. It was our government that deregulated the export of non-bulk wheat. In December 2006, the coalition government announced that an extensive consultation process would be undertaken to gather industry views on the future of the Australian wheat export industry. In January 2007, the coalition government announced the appointment of the Wheat Export Marketing Consultative Committee to consult with industry, particularly growers, and report back on their export marketing needs. That committee delivered its report to the government in March 2007. In May of that year, Prime Minister Howard announced the way forward for our government:

... growers will be given by the government until 1 March 2008 as the time within which to establish a new entity to manage the single desk completely separate from AWB Ltd. This may be a completely new entity or a demerged AWB International and it will take over management of the single desk.

But he went on to add:

If growers are not able to establish the new entity by 1 March next year—

that is, this year—

the government will propose other marketing arrangements for wheat exports.

Prime Minister Howard said:

Let me make this clear to the House. The options available would include further deregulation of the wheat export market.

So, certainly from the Liberal Party’s point of view, our position has always been clear and we have always held out that one of the options is further deregulation of bulk wheat exports. I would ask those present and those listening to contrast that clear and honest position with the position of the Labor Party. The Labor Party’s 2008 election policy stated:

Labor proposes a new model for exporting wheat which retains a single desk for the control of wheat exports ...

Not surprisingly, in our view, Labor has said one thing and delivered another. But Mr Burke, the minister, still claims that he is delivering on an election commitment. We of course expect the Labor Party to seek to play politics on this and point to the different views which the Liberal and National parties have on this. But Labor’s hypocrisy knows no depths when it seeks to abandon its own pre-election statements on the matter.

I mentioned that the National Party has a different position on this, and we respect its position. We understand that the longstanding position in the National Party is of support for a single desk. On this occasion, that is one issue with which Liberal senators and Liberals in the House of Representatives cannot find agreement with the National Party. The National Party opposed Labor’s initial deregulation of the domestic wheat market in 1989. The Liberal Party at that time supported that deregulation and we voted separately on that matter. But our coalition has gone on from strength to strength since that time. Our coalition is strong enough for us to understand and respect differences on matters of this kind. The National Party has, as I said, indicated it is not in a position to support this legislation.

We have—as Liberal senators and members of the House of Representatives from all over Australia—listened to the great variety of views that have been expressed to us on this matter. As representatives in this great parliament, we have had reference to our fundamental philosophies and policies in order to determine our position forward. We have come to the view that, in relation to the legislation which the government has brought to this chamber, we will not oppose it. We believe that further relaxing of the regulations surrounding the export of bulk wheat will provide new opportunities for innovation and competition in this industry and will improve choice, clarity and certainty for growers. We believe that this bill will ensure, ultimately, a better future for Australian wheat growers. We do not believe that the old monopoly on bulk wheat exports held by AWB was in the long-term interests of this country. We believe as Liberals that monopolies typically are very bad, and we believe that it was inherent in having a monopoly exporter that corrupt practices would occur and develop. That is one of the reasons why everybody has to face the reality of the situation the country is now in.

There are those who think that you can continue to have this monopoly export arrangement, where people have no alternative but to sell to one exporter. We do not believe that can continue, and that was itself reinforced by AWB’s evidence to the Senate committee, in which they said:

… it is not commercially feasible for AWB to go back to the old arrangements. Let us remember the default set of conditions is a national pool—not a single desk—with bulk permits and deregulated bags and containers. It would not be commercially feasible to manage under those arrangements.

What you are reverting to … is the 2007 Wheat Marketing Amendment Bill, where the veto will transfer from the minister to the regulator, but there have not been additional legislative measures introduced that would spell out how the regulator would apply that veto, and that is the missing part of the picture at the moment.

So AWB made it quite clear that it is simply not possible to go back to the old arrangements, and they were the ones, of course, who held the single desk.

The Liberal Party is looking at some amendments to this bill, which were flagged by our leader, Dr Brendan Nelson, in the House in the earlier debate. We do believe those amendments will improve the position for growers under this legislation. We have put those amendments to the government and asked them to consider them in the hope that they may adopt them as their own or indicate their support for them. We await a response from the government on those amendments, and that will determine our position in relation to whether or not we move the amendments in the committee stage.

I pledge that Liberal senators and our members in the House of Representatives will closely monitor this new scheme to ensure it is meeting the needs of the Australian wheat industry. We will be closely watching Labor to ensure that it does not in any way seek to politicise the new body, Wheat Exports Australia, including through its appointments to that body. We will of course closely monitor the ramifications across the whole industry. We acknowledge that it is a very big change and we acknowledge the fact that many do not want to see it occur, but we do believe that ultimately it will be best for the industry.

I want to close by saying I have the greatest respect for our National Party colleagues in this chamber and understand why they are not in a position to support the legislation, but as Liberals we have to face the reality of the position that the industry is in and the fundamental unworkability of the current arrangements and recognise that it is time for this industry to move forward.

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I will ask the attendants to remove anyone who persistently interjects in the manner in which some members of the gallery have been interjecting.