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Wednesday, 16 April 1980
Page: 1484

Senator CHIPP (Victoria) (Leader of the Australian Democrats) - Senator Walshof the Australian Labor Party has brought to the notice of the Senate the implications of the Government's fuel pricing policies for country areas. I believe that he ought to be thanked for doing so because this matter is a problem. Without being personal, I believe that listeners to this debate would have been astonished to hear the speech rendered by Senator Collard, who is not only a supporter of the Government but also a member of the National Country Party. I listened carefully to what he said. He hardly referred to the terms of the matter of public importance now before the Senate. He made some sound points about the reason why we should have import parity pricing but he hardly said a word about the specific difficulties facing the people referred to in Senator Walsh 's proposition.

I was very disappointed in the speech of the Minister for National Development and Energy (Senator Carrick). Some of it did not make sense in justifying import parity pricing for oil. In particular, I am getting rather tired of the fact- I say this with great respect to Senator Carrick- that when the Labor Party or the Australian Democrats criticise Government policy he always seems to hark back to what happened between 1972 and 1975. That might have been a justifiable political tactic in 1 976 but it is now 1 980. To say that the Labor Government did something in 1 972 seems to burst with total irrelevance. I hope that in future we will have more constructive replies to sensible matters put on the Notice Paper by the Opposition.

Recently, the Government has done two things which I commend. Firstly, it has reduced the freight subsidy scheme for petrol and other fuels for country users. I would like to examine that for a moment. The Government has quite properly said that freight to country areas is not to cost more than 0.44c a litre anywhere in Australia. That means that the Government will subsidise the freight of petrol anywhere in Australia to the extent that the freight component in rural areas will not be more than 0.44c a litre. That is a very commendable proposition and I commend the Government for it. I invite Senator Carrick to clarify this point: If that is so, logic demands- I ask Senator Carrick to correct me if my logic is astray- that a litre of petrol in any country area should not cost more than 0.44c a litre of the cost in any city area. That may not be the case in a very small country town that perhaps takes only half a tanker load of fuel. But if the oil companies are being subsidised so that the cost of petrol to a remote rural area is only 0.44c a litre more than the cost of petrol in the city, why does the Government allow the Shell Company to charge 36.6c a litre in Tom Price in Western Australia when the average price in Perth is 3 1 ,9c a litre? Why does the Government allow all petrol stations in a country town 90 miles from Melbourne to charge 3c a litre more for petrol than petrol stations charge in Melbourne or even in Shepparton, which is 20 miles away?

Why does the Government allow the oil companies to recommend a retail price for petrol of 34.77c a litre in Tamworth, New South Wales, when most service stations in New South Wales are selling petrol at 33. 1 c a litre? In an area halfway between Sydney and Newcastle petrol is selling at 34c a litre or 2c to 2!6c a litre more than the city price. This can mean only one thing. The oil companies are ripping off unmercifully country users, making a super profit in the city areas, and the Government is doing nothing about it. Not only is it not doing anything about it, but also I refer to the extraordinary action of the Minister for National Development and Energy before the weekend who courteously reminded the oil companies that they were entitled to apply for an increase to the Prices Justification Tribunal because of the changes in Government policy in regard to liquefied petroleum gas. It is crystal clear that anywhere in Australia oil companies should be charging a price only 0.44c per litre more than in the city. The fact is that they are charging between 3c and 5c a litre more. That must be a super profit.

Secondly, I refer to the Government's action in cutting LPG prices for motor vehicles and domestic users but not for industry. This gives people in the country some relief because it makes LPG about half the price of petrol. The household rates for country users are cut by about one-half, and I commend the Government for that. But that does not help the farmer because the LPG he uses for machines is not subject to this discount. The oil companies have hiked the price of petrol to over-compensate for their losses on LPG. This relief is very slight in comparison with the explosion of fuel costs in the last couple of years due to the Government's import parity pricing policy for Australian crude oil.

I find the situation of the National Country Party in this Parliament quite astonishing. It is incomprehensible. This morning the National Farmers Federation condemned this policy as it applies to rural, people. The Queensland Graingrowers Association and many other producer organisations are condemning the hike in petrol prices for country people. Yet this morning, the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Nixon)- a member of the National Country Party- said that the policy was right for Australia and would not change because it had caused an increase in oil exploration. The National Country Party has been called a rump party. It has been called a minority party that gets into office by the gerrymander of the Electoral Act. I will not canvass whether that is so or whether it is in office under false pretences, but the fact is that the National Country Party allegedly represents rural people. It is not just a party that sits on the side benches in this place; it is a member of the coalition government.

In November 1977 the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Country Party (Mr Anthony) promised that there would be no relationship to oil parity pricing overnight. Yet, that Deputy Prime Minister and every member of the National Country Party then in this Parliament acquiesced, at the time of the next Budget eight or nine months later, to import parity being introduced immediately. I wonder how they can justify their existence and their championship of the rural sector. What bothers me more is why the rural sector continues to support a party like the National Country Party that has betrayed it over the years and is betraying it now and not just in regard to petrol. I ask why a person whose only crime is to live in a country town, whose only sin is to live in rural Australia, should be asked to pay 4c to 5c more for a litre of petrol and double the telephone bill.

The petrol, or freight, price that goes into the unit cost of a rural manufacturer adds to his unit cost. It is almost trite to say that. What happens then? The Liberal Party, with National Country Party support, has sustained a sales tax bill where the freight component of the unit cost of goods is included in sales tax compilation. That means that the rural or country town manufacturer pays the same rate of sales tax as his city counterpart but he has to pay on an inflated base because the base has been increased by the inclusion of freight. Yet, today and at the time of the next election we will hear speeches from the Liberal-National Country Party Government saying that it believes in decentralisation. However, it allows these anomalies to continue.

One of the great fears that the Australian Democrats have now- it is shared by other members of this Parliament- is the insidious, iniquitous plant breeders rights that are sweeping this country. Multinational organisations are patenting plants and seeds so that only their plants and seeds can be used in rural Australia. Having done that, they then have a monopoly of the market of insecticides, pesticides and whatever. They do this to the exclusion of any other strains or genes. Yet, this situation seems to be able to continue. To put it in perspective, I compliment Senator Walsh who pointed out that avgas- which is vital for rural Australia- was 1 5c a litre in 1975 and it is now 42c a litre. Petrol was 13c a litre in 1975 -

Senator Young - Senator, canI just say on avgas-

Senator CHIPP - I do not have much time. I would like to answer Senator Young's interjection. Maybe it can be answered when he speaks. Petrol was 13c a litre in 1 975 and now it is 32c a litre, and distillate was 8c a litre in 1975 and it is now 25c a litre. I wonder what is the Government's attitude to the statistics. As Senator Collard properly said, the rural producer is not unduly affected on the domestic market because he can pass on the increased cost to the consumer. But, more than anyone else the rural producer has to compete on overseas markets, with the major competitors being the United States, Canada and the European Economic Community. They enjoy greater subsidies from governments and lower fuel costs. Over a year ago farmers' organisations estimated that import parity pricing was costing them $61m a year for dieseline and $53m a year for petrol. It was increasing fuel costs to an average wheat grower by about $ 1,000 per year. The recent good world prices for several major farm products have cushioned the effects of these prices to some extent, but when and if a rural recession comeseven a minor recession- the results will be ruinous.

Let us look at the results of these price increases. In the 1 970s, 75,000 Australian farmers were forced to leave agriculture. I do not give a damn whether that was the fault of the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the National Country Party or whoever. It is a fact. It is now 1980 and we are entering a new decade. That figure of 75,000 farmers who left agriculture will be increased in the 1980s unless this Parliament, which represents the 75 per cent of Australians who live in city areas, realises that a minority of people in Australia- 25 per cent- live in rural areas and, logically, are therefore underrepresented. Will it be the view of politicians in this place, on all sides, that we dispense goodwill or show compassion only where the most votes are or where the biggest political clout is? If that is the philosophy we can say goodbye to rural producers and rural communities. During the 1 970s 1 50,000 agricultural jobs were lost.

I believe that the Senate ought to take a nonparty, bipartisan look at the difficulties of people in rural areas. The statistics are there. One cannot visit a country town and have the privilege of a civic reception without being told by the Shire President and all the councillors about the things that I have mentioned today and that Senator Walsh and Senator McClelland have mentioned. That experience must be one that Government senators enjoy. I call for a look with some compassion at the massive problems that people in rural areas are experiencing, particularly because of the Government's pricing policies on petrol and petroleum products.

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