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Transcript of joint press conference with the Hon Mark Vaile MP: Parliament House, Canberra: 5 December 2006: Wheat marketing; Fiji; Labor.



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PRIME MINISTER

5 December 2006

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE HON MARK VAILE MP, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER AND

MINISTER FOR TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL SERVICES, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: wheat marketing; Fiji; Labor.

EO&E…………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, Mr Vaile and I have called this news conference to make an announcement about the Government’s decision concerning the wheat industry. In the wake of the Cole inquiry the Government’s considered this issue, and over the next three months there’ll be very extensive consultation with the industry around a range of options about future marketing arrangements. As you know, both within the Government and also within the industry itself, there’s a wide variety of views. There are some people who very strongly favour the retention of the single desk. There are others who would favour a move to immediate and full deregulation and in the middle there’s a whole variety of options. It is important that before we reach a final decision we’ll discuss…that we discuss the matter fully with the industry, and that is what we intend to do, and there’ll be a process of very extensive consultation with the industry, which is very important, over the next three months. It’s a vital industry to Australia, and it’s had these marketing arrangements now for a very long period of time and there’s nothing to be gained by hastily changing things in the absence of full consultation.

In the shorter term, however, there is an issue that arises in relation to this year’s crop and the operation of this year’s pool. And the Government has decided to urgently legislate this week, and this legislation will be introduced with a view to passage through the Parliament before it rises on Thursday night, of amendments to the relevant legislation to transfer the veto power from AWBI to the Minister. And this will be for a period of six months. There’ll be a sunset clause in the legislation. It is our belief, however, that well within that six month period the Government will have determined its longer term approach to future wheat marketing arrangements. The Minister will enter into, from the time of this announcement and pending the

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passage or anticipating the passage of the legislation, the Minister will begin discussions with AWBI, with CBH and others in the industry who are involved. We see this as a way of resolving the differences that exist in relation to the current crop and the pool. It does not prejudice the ultimate decision that is taken concerning the longer term marketing arrangements. Now this has been for the Government a challenging issue because there is a range of views. But I have to say that both Mr Vaile and I are very pleased indeed that the arrangement that has been approved by the joint party room has been approved. It’s a sensible response, both to the short-term situation and the longer term marketing arrangements. It recognises the reality that in all of the circumstances to leave the veto power with AWBI, particularly in relation to this year’s crop, was not tenable. The appropriate repository of that power in the short-term is the Minister, who will of course in exercising that power consult relevant senior Ministers. That’s the announcement and we will not only commence the process that I just mentioned in relation to this year’s pool, but will also over the next three months have a very extensive period of consultation on a whole range of options with the industry.

MINISTER VAILE:

Just to add to what the Prime Minister’s had to say, it is obviously a very sensitive issue, both within Government and within our parties because of the circumstances and the complex structure of the management and marketing arrangements of the Australian wheat crop. But it is also within industry, and I think it has been terribly important, and we’ve been saying for some time as we’ve been through the Cole inquiry, that as a number of different options have been mooted by different industry players; that ultimately there needs to be a full consultative process take place with industry and importantly with growers. A lot of the focus in the debate seems to gravitate towards the entities in the, if you like, in the middle of the supply chain, when the important people in this industry are the growers who put their lives and their family’s futures on the line to plant that crop. Of course this year, they are, in the majority of cases across Australia, extremely stressed because of the drought and that has created a differential set of circumstances to be managed in Australia. But the important thing is that we do understand those circumstances, we understand the technical complexities of the management and the marketing arrangements of this year’s crop. We need to move through that providing confidence to growers and to our markets and then go through that process, as the Prime Minister has outlined, of full consultation and discussion across that broad range of proposals that have been out there in the ether for a number of months. And it covers, you know, all the extremities of the situation. There are a lot of people out in the wheat growing community that have been well served by the current arrangements and would like to see that basic structure remain. There are a number of people obviously within Government who have the same view. There are others with alternative views. But we need to give this the time to go through that process of consultation to work out, collectively if you like with industry, what is going to be the best structure to move ahead into the future.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister as you’re aware the…WA’s in a bit of a deadlock at the moment, I think 70 to 80 per cent of their farmers are warehousing their wheat. With you having the power of veto Minister, how will you exercise it in terms of the rival bid from CBH?

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well what we’re going to do is get the Minister acting for the Government and in consultation with the Deputy Prime Minister and myself to enter into discussions with a view to a satisfactory resolution of that. Now I’m not going to say any more than that and it’s not sensible to do so at this stage. I am very well aware of the feelings in Western Australia. My colleagues from Western Australia have made me aware of that, and I’ve had extensive discussions with them, and I want to thank them as I do thank my fellow…the fellow members of the Government from the National Party who have some strong views about the existing arrangement. There’s been a bit of give and take in reaching this understanding, but it provides a device, a mechanism to resolve satisfactorily the Western Australian issue. But I’m not going to be pushed on precisely what that resolution is.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, isn’t this just a stay of execution for AWB though?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, that’s…look it’s a sensible handling of the situation. Now I’m going to avoid colourful language and I counsel you, Mr Lewis, to do the same. We have reached a decision on how to deal with the immediate issue and that is the competing arguments about this year’s crop and this year’s pool. And we’ve found a way around that, I believe, which will deliver a sensible outcome. You couldn’t get a proper outcome while the veto lay with AWBI because AWBI was not only, how shall we put it, a player, but was also the holder of the veto. And by transferring it to the Minister for a six month period, we’re not predetermining the ultimate policy direction because that’s got to be the subject as Mr Vaile and I both said, of discussion, but what we’re doing is providing a way, a cut through mechanism in relation to the Western Australian issue.

JOURNALIST:

Isn’t your short-term solution exactly that proposed by the minor parties, merely replacing one minister with another?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there’s no minister at the moment, it’s held by AWBI at the moment.

JOURNALIST:

Yes, but the minor parties have proposed that the Treasurer hold that veto rather than the Minister you’re proposing?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, oh yes, I saw that as an amendment. Well, if there’s any coincidence well there’s nothing wrong with that.

JOURNALIST:

Will the Minister have criteria under which to work, in which he judges the export bids?

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PRIME MINISTER:

As with all these things he will act in the public interest.

JOURNALIST:

Will this allow CBH to export wheat out of Western Australian this year?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, let him exercise his discretion when it is given to him by the Parliament in the public interest.

JOURNALIST:

….that there are in fact multiple export licences?

PRIME MINISTER:

In the long term that is an issue…this decision in no way adjudicates on that, that’s part of the longer term process.

JOURNALIST:

Is it possible that there would be multiple export licences operating at the same time?

PRIME MINISTER:

You mean into the future?

JOURNALIST:

Well, into the future of course.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter that’s got to be determined by the Government in its policy review, so I’m not going to speculate.

JOURNALIST:

I’m wondering what your definition of the single desk is? Some people argue it is the veto powers. When you go down the path of reform…

PRIME MINISTER:

You ask very difficult questions Sam.

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JOURNALIST:

Do you still want a single organisation coordinating…

PRIME MINISTER:

Do I?

JOURNALIST:

…and is that your definition of a single market?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the best thing I can do is to, as Prime Minister and working very closely with Mark Vaile, is to facilitate a process of consultation and policy review, which we’re doing, and I’m not going to get into fancy definitions otherwise they will be construed as me enunciating what my position is and therefore the position of the Government. As you know, we need to review the current arrangements arising out of the Cole inquiry. We’re putting in place a mechanism to do that which allows for the growers and the organisations to express their views on all manner of options and when that is finished in three months time, the Government will sit down and make up its mind as to what the medium and longer term arrangements are. In the meantime, we are providing a mechanism to deal with the Western Australian issue.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Vaile, are you confident that you can carry the National Party on this? Senator Joyce has already made it clear that he won’t support in Parliament any changes to the single desk, he’ll cross the floor.

MINISTER VAILE:

Well that is going to be a matter of public debate and public discussion through this consultation process. And, of course, we’re all driven by what is in the best interests of growers and I think that that should be the sheet anchor here in terms of where our thinking is. Now, historically that view has always been taken that that has been best served by the structure as sits in place now. Now that may well be the case in the future but that needs to be discussed and tested. But it’s important that we get the views of the people that matter, and they’re the growers, and I know as far as all my colleagues are concerned they are acutely interested and aware of the concerns of industry about what is going to best deliver the best outcomes for them in the future, in terms of international marketing and competing in often distorted circumstances, as you’re all well aware, and what’s going to give the greatest stability and confidence in the industry in the future. Now as the Prime Minister has said, there’s a whole range of options, some within government, a hell of a lot out there in the industry and we need to be able to consider all of those in the clear light of day in going through a decision making process. But can I repeat again, the most important people in this discussion and this debate are the wheat growers and what they believe is going to best serve their interests.

JOURNALIST:

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How will these short-term changes to the power of veto impact the functioning of the Wheat Export Authority and the charges that it imposes on growers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what this effectively does is to give the Minister in the short term all the power necessary in relation to the exercise of the veto and as to the impact on the charges, well that is something that I think will probably come up in the discussions the Minister has on behalf of the Government with the relevant parties.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, why didn’t you have the Wheat Export Authority look after this year’s crop instead of being…

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s appropriate given that the Wheat Export Authority itself was, how shall I put it, the subject of comment by Cole. We thought the most appropriate repository of the authority in the short term was the minister.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you’ve known for several months that this was going to come to a head around the release of the Cole report, the fact you need another three months, is that an indication this is a lot more difficult to sort out?

PRIME MINISTER:

No it’s not, it was impossible; for two reasons, it was impossible to have a proper discussion about this issue before Cole: natural justice and due process, and secondly, the findings themselves are relevant to the information that people…part of the information people need to make a proper input. Now clearly one of the issues people have got to consider is what has been said about the operation of a single desk arrangement, that’s part of it. But I think what we’ve now got with Cole on the table and all the findings available, people can now have, in the industry, can have a proper debate about the merits of a single desk. I mean there are single desks and single desks and it depends who operates it. Some people argue, I am not saying this is my view, but I am injecting this into the debate, some people argue you can have a single desk operated by an entirely different company which is owned by the growers. Others argue you need a situation where an enhanced or changed Wheat Export Authority licenses a number of exporters; others argue for full deregulation, others have got other proposals. And I think now that we know what Cole has done, has concluded, we can have a proper dialogue with growers and the industry. It would have been impossible beforehand because people would have been saying this about AWBI that we couldn’t respond to because we didn’t have Cole’s findings.

JOURNALIST:

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Prime Minister, AWB warned that if there is competition over this year’s crop over the single desk, the markets of Japan and South Korea could be at risk, do you subscribe to that view and what are your words to AWB?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look I am not going to express a view about that, I mean obviously AWBI has a commercial interest, I understand that, other people have commercial interests and that’s…you are just really making the Government’s argument. That’s the reason why the veto power in the current situation should be taken away from AWBI and given to the Minister. Any more questions on this?

JOURNALIST:

Will grain growers be given the opportunity to vote on their preferred option?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well their views will be obtained and we’ll be very conscientious in obtaining their views, but in the end the Government will make a decision, we don’t delegate decision making to any group of people, but we very closely and carefully consult them and we’ll not take decisions that are not mindful of the views of growers and people in the industry.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard is their any reaction to the developments in Fiji?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. Yes, I wish to join the Foreign Minister in utterly condemning what’s happened in Fiji. I should inform you that this morning the Prime Minister of Fiji rang me and asked for Australian military intervention in response to the coup. I indicated to him that that would not be possible. We had previously communicated our position on that. I did not think it was in Australia’s national interest to become involved. The possibility of Australian and Fijian troops firing on each other and in the streets of Suva is not a prospect that I for a moment thought desirable. I think what has happened is a tragic set back to democracy in Fiji. The Prime Minister has behaved with great courage, I wish I could say the same thing about the President of Fiji who does not appear to have upheld the Constitution of that country, whereas the Prime Minister as he informed me this morning, was presented with two options. He was presented with the option of either resigning or caving into all the demands being made by the military and he refused to do either. He upheld his oath of office in an admirable way. I exhort those responsible for this coup, not to do any physical harm to anybody in the properly elected Government of Fiji. There will be long international memories about this if that occurs.

JOURNALIST:

Is this the first time Australia has said to no to a request of military intervention?

PRIME MINISTER:

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No, no, we had indicated previously through our High Commission and also through the Foreign Minister that we would not intervene militarily.

JOURNALIST:

Will Australia…is there anything Australia can do in response to the request?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are a number of things we can do diplomatically and in an appropriate manner through our High Commission, but it was not something, and we discussed this at some length at the National Security Committee of Cabinet a short while ago, a few days ago, and we knew it may come to this and we took the view then, and we’ve remained steadfast in the view that it was not appropriate for military intervention. And in reality if military action were taken now we’d be in effect invading the country and we’ve absolutely no intention of doing that.

JOURNALIST:

Are evacuations possible now Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the history of coups in Fiji is that they have by and large been peaceful and I hope that continues to be the case. One more question and then we must go and eat.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard have been out and about on the airwaves today, they’ve talked a little bit about their new vision, being about consultancy and being long term and they charged you, your government as being short-term and not consulting. What’s your response to those sort of criticisms?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think we’ve spent a bit of time talking about consultation with the growers in the Australian wheat industry, but long term-ism, short term-ism, let’s take something that they have mentioned and that’s climate change. I can’t think of anything more short term than the attitude the Labor Party’s taking on nuclear power. They are not even willing to debate it. I mean Mr Rudd and Miss Gillard are saying you can’t be short term, you’ve got to think of the longer term. Well if you are thinking of the longer term, energy security of Australia and longer term climate change issues in this country, surely to goodness you would at least debate the possibility of having nuclear power as part of the response. Yes I am very happy to (inaudible) issue with them on issues relating to the short and longer term. If you are talking about the longer term prosperity of this country you can’t go back and chain yourself to a trade union dominated past, that is very short term. They may think it’s a populist line to run, I don’t think it is actually, I think Australians have worked out that a freer industrial relations system is in their interest. But if you are talking about short term populism versus the longer term interests of this country, the most stunning example in the current debate is the nuclear issue. It is the most obvious example.

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Everybody knows that if you have serious debate about climate change in this country you’ve got to include the nuclear option in the debate and they won’t even include it in the debate. I can’t think of anything more short-term. Is this a short question?

JOURNALIST:

This is a very short question about that very issue. The House of Representatives Report tabled yesterday talked about the need to educate the public and indeed address some of the school and university curricula in respect of nuclear power? Have you had a chance to consider those sorts of issues, do you think there is any merit in a sort of public education campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I think there is a lot of merit in a better understanding of what’s involved. I think there needs to be a bit of education on the other side of politics, you know, and I think I might even, you know, have a Martin Ferguson endowment fund to sort of assist the process. I mean he is very good on this. He really is, he is thinking of the longer term, but we’ll look at that and you get my drift. I am interested in better education and more information on this issue because it is, I mean, this is a classic longer term issue and it would do a terrible disservice to Australia if short term populism dominated this debate.

[ends]