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Thursday, 22 November 1973
Page: 3733

Mr SINCLAIR (New England) - I move:

After clause 7, insert the following new clause: 7a. Section 13 of the Principal Act is amended by omitting sub-section (3) and substituting the following sub-sections:

(3)   The Minister may disallow a sale or disposal or agreement for the sale or disposal of wheat, wheaten flour, semolina, corn sacks, jute or jute products which in his opinion provides for a price or conditions which would provide for less than a reasonable market return. (3a) The Minister shall table in both Houses of the Parliament within fifteen sitting days of a disallowance of a sale or disposal or agreement for the sale or disposal of wheat, wheaten flour, semolina, corn sacks, jute or jute products a statement of the reasons on which his disallowance was based.'.

I have moved this amendment because there has been some discussion during the second reading stage in regard to the difference between the1948 and the 1954 legislation. Significantly our concern on this side of the chamber is as to the pattern of ministerial invervention. As one who believed that there was a commercial arrangement between Egypt and the Australian Wheat Board, there were some aspects of the Board's withdrawal from the original negotiations with Egypt which concerned me. Any reservations about it were removed by the statement this afternoon by the Minister for the Northern Development (Dr Patterson). He overtly admitted that the only reason for the intervention was to ensure that his Government, the Labor Government, might pursue an even handed approach in the Middle East conflict.

I see no ground for an intervention on that basis, particularly in the circumstances where the Australian Wheat Board had been concerned about the flow of payments from Egypt on past sales, where there was concern which had been expressed to the Wheat Board by the Export Payments Insurance

Corporation about the risk of markets in the Middle East and in other parts of the world and where the Wheat Board was trying to ensure that the interests of wheat growers would be protected. The intervention by the Government in the way it did is the first occasion on which the present provisions of section 13 (3) of the principal Act have been so applied.

Because we believe that it was not intended by Mr McEwen, as he then was, and Sir Philip McBride who introduced the legislation on his behalf, that that legislation should apply in this form, we have moved this amendment which will ensure that the ministerial power is restricted to the area where the Wheat Board can and should be directed only if the interests of taxpayers or the interests of wheat growers, insofar as the sale covers a price or conditions less than a reasonable market return, are concerned. The amendment, if carried, will ensure that the Australian Wheat Board is subject to ministerial direction but that the interests of wheat growers and taxpayers can be protected. The ministerial power will be restricted in a narrow confine which relates particularly to areas where it would seem reasonable for it to be capable of being applied.

This power has not been exercised in the past by any previous government. Indeed, the only occasion when such a direction has been given in the past was way, way back in 1946. Then, the Labor Minister for Commerce and Agriculture entered into an agreement to sell Australian wheat to New Zealand for a period of 4 years to 5 years at a price of 5s 9d a bushel, which was significantly below the world market price. The transaction apparently was made secretly behind the back of the Australian Wheat Board and without its approval. That is the only precedent that I have been able to find for the action taken by the present Labor Administration. I believe that, in light of the Egyptian sale and the earlier sale to New Zealand, there is a good reason for this amendment to be moved.

There is a further reason for proposing this amendment. It relates to our philosophic approach, probably one of the fundamental points of variances between this side of politics and the Labor Party. We believe that the people who are involved in business, the people who are the producers or a commodity, should be given the responsibility of handling and selling it. We do not believe that the responsibility is that of the Government. The cross words that I have had with the Minister sitting at the table over sugar, as with the words that we have had over wheat, relate to the degree to which a government, by intervention, is disrupting the normal flow of commerce and the normal commercial negotiations between those who should be responsible - the people, in the market place - and the Government which is there as the political leader and as such taking different judgments in the market place. It is our opinion that ministerial directions reflecting political decisions alone are anathema to the normal pattern by which we see the best interests of producers and others in the Australian community, including Australian consumers and certainly including Australian taxpayers, being protected.

One of the reasons I have mentioned the intervention of the Minister for Overseas Trade (Dr J. F. Cairns) is the reservation I have because he in fact implied almost by way of blackmail to Australian wheat growers that if there should be a change of government there would be no future sales to China. lt is that type of political intervention which we believe is unjustified and unwarranted. To ensure that it cannot be undertaken by a government that seems to be committed to that sort of non-commercial practice, I have moved the amendment standing in my name. I believe that it will remove from the ambit of any suggestion of ministerial or political intervention the powers of the government of the day to intervene in the valid proceedings of the Australian Wheat Board.

I believe that the Australian Wheat Board should be permitted to carry on its functions in the way in which the Act entitles it so to do. I do not believe the fact that this provision was introduced by an earlier Country Party Minister has as much importance as has the fact that the power was never used. To me, the important aspect is that if the power had been used in the past it would have been used with restraint and in a non-political manner. Out of the Minister's own mouth this afternoon has come the information that the ministerial intervention with respect to wheat sale-, to Egypt has been purely and simply motivated by political purposes. This has demonstrated the validity of our reason for introducing this amendment. It is for that reason that the Opposition believes that the original legislation should be amended and that this changed form of words should be inserted to place the necessary restraints on the abuse of power which we believe the Labor Government has used in this instance.

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