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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 2135

Senator SIEWERT (1:55 PM) —The Wheat Export Marketing Bill 2008 and related bill represent a major shift in export wheat marketing in Australia. This legislation sees the final dismantling of the single desk marketing arrangements that have been a feature of bulk wheat exporting in this country for many years. However, this reform is not unexpected. The domestic wheat market has been deregulated for more than 20 years, and the export of wheat in bags and containers was deregulated last year. The export of all other grains has been progressively deregulated. Furthermore, the single desk as it existed at the time of the AWB Iraq scandal has been compromised. The previous government allowed other exporters to enter the market, moving the veto from AWB to the minister. Since then, the single desk has really not been operating as a genuine single desk. The current wheat-exporting legislation needs to be amended, as we all know, one way or another by the end of this month. The present situation is untenable.

This is a very complex issue and one the Greens have not taken lightly. We have recognised the passion on all sides of this important debate, and I wish to thank all those wheat farmers who have taken the time and trouble to write to and meet with me to discuss this matter. I acknowledge their very real and deep concerns about the proposed changes in this legislation.

The Greens have in the past always been supportive of the principles that underlie a single desk for bulk export wheat marketing. We do not automatically believe that the market will provide and are suspicious of deregulation for its own sake. We are also aware of the compromised international wheat market, with Australian farmers competing with farmers who receive substantial subsidies from their governments. We understand the appeal and very strongly believe in the strength of collective bargaining. We think this is particularly important when competing in such a compromised market.

We are conscious of the concerns about large multinational companies coming to dominate wheat marketing in Australia to the detriment of wheat farmers. Similar concerns about the nature of the market and about company behaviour led the Greens to oppose the corporatisation of AWB, believing that the conflict of interest inherent in a corporate holder of a single desk was not in the public interest or the interests of farmers. We were unfortunately shown to be right in the subsequent scandal involving AWB and Iraq and the evidence that AWB did not always operate to maximise returns to farmers. The way that the AWB was structured meant that it could not always put the interests of farmers at the forefront.

We also understand that there is a difference between the principle of a single desk and what happened under the corporate AWB. However, we are not convinced that it is a realistic option at this time to recreate the single desk underwritten by government because government are not convinced that that is the approach to take and are unwilling to put in the funding that would be required to establish a single desk. We believe that the best approach in an ideal world would be a single desk and we have articulated that argument on many occasions. However, as I said, we are aware that the government would not favour a single desk and would not put resources into it, and we do not believe there are resources currently in the farming community to establish a single desk that would operate effectively. In looking at this legislation, the Greens therefore saw their role as one of seeing what would be in the best interests of farmers if we could not have the ideal world and achieve a single desk.

The Greens are very conscious that some wheat farmers, particularly those in my home state of Western Australia, did not support the continuation of the single desk. Many farmers in my home state are in fact supportive of wheat export arrangements that provide them more control and choice as to how they sell their wheat. The views of the WA wheat growers are important in this debate, we believe, as nearly all the wheat grown in Western Australia is exported rather than sold into the domestic market. This in no way diminishes the evidence and arguments of the wheat farmers who are opposed to this bill. The Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport heard passionate defences of the single desk, and I received correspondence from numerous farmers arguing their position very strongly. They not only argued their position but also articulated the effect this would have on their communities.

Debate interrupted.