House debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading

4:52 pm

Photo of Ian MacfarlaneIan Macfarlane (Groom, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources) Share this | Hansard source

I would have been happy to move an extension of time. There are very few people in this House who understand the wheat industry and there are probably fewer than a dozen of them who have same level of understanding of the wheat industry as the member for New England, as he quite rightly pointed out. For the benefit of Hansard, when I interjected that he wouldn't know anything about the wheat industry I was of course being sarcastic. He in fact has an extraordinary knowledge of the wheat industry. I hate to tell you, member for New England, but it was 22 years ago that you and I sat together at a table with the Grains Council of Australia and discussed issues to do with coarse grains and the early days of deregulation of the wheat industry in Australia. Twenty-one years ago I had the pleasure of travelling to one of your towns, Tamworth. I still have the photograph on top of my wife's piano in my house to remind me where we all come from. It is important that we remember.

There have been a lot of things during this debate and I am not going to revisit them. I am going to speak of my personal and professional knowledge of the wheat industry in Australia, including as an ex-grower. Unfortunately for me but happily for my wife, I am an ex wheat grower. I have not grown wheat with my own hands for 15 years, although I was still involved in wheat growing up to about a decade ago. The industry in my short lifetime has gone through enormous change. There would not be very many people—and the member for New England would be one of them—who knows what FAQ stands for. It was 'fair average quality'. That was where everybody got paid basically the same based around fair average quality. The Queenslanders and the Northern New South Welshmen always got dudded, because we grew high-quality prime hard wheat and were paid fair average quality prices.

The industry evolved. In my time as the President of the Grains Council of Australia, I took it through one of the most traumatic, most difficult and most hard-fought times in the wheat industry's history. The previous president, Don McKechnie—some might remember his name—and another fellow called Mitch Hooke tried unsuccessfully the previous year in a tour around Australia to convince growers of the need to move the wheat industry into the 21st century by privatising. I had the poisoned chalice passed to me as the president of the Grains Council. I have to say, with modesty, that I succeeded and the wheat industry moved another step towards complete deregulation.

There have been steps taken along that road that were mistakes. Around the time that I was president of the Grains Council and immediately before that, there was very much the strong belief that the growers should pool their resources. Each state, give or take—Victoria and South Australia shared the barley board—had its own state coarse grains marketing group and each state owned its own handling system; and, when I say 'state' here, I mean state growers. You had the potential for an enormous natural monopoly to be built, one completely owned and controlled by growers. I and people like Ross Bailey from Brookstead in Queensland and Ian White, who was the CEO of Grainco, which is now part of GrainCorp, formulated a plan with Don Taylor, who is currently the chairman of GrainCorp, where we would move the assets of the Australian Wheat Board and bring together all of the assets of the state organisations and form a super co-op. I look back with regret that that did not happen. Growers made their choices. I respect their choices. When we privatised the Wheat Board, we could only privatise as a single entity.

Since then, we have seen those bodies sold off for good reason or for bad. When I became a cabinet minister, I divested all of my shares in the Australian Wheat Board and Grainco and the Peanut Marketing Board. I remind the House that I grew the best peanuts in Australia in 1984, and I have the certificate to prove it. I divested all my interests in those grower-owned and -controlled cooperatives. Unfortunately, that was a precursor, as we have seen those grower owned cooperatives turned into companies and sold into foreign ownership. The member for New England quite rightly raised the issue of the potential for GrainCorp to be sold and for growers to lose control of it completely.

One thing that I have learned during the passage of time on this path to the deregulation of the wheat industry is that growers find it incredibly difficult at times to prepare for the next step and to prepare to accept change. Change is inevitable. As I used to say to them when I was travelling round during that period in 1993 and 1994, you do not still drive the same tractor that you had 10 years ago; you do not still farm in the same way that your father and your grandfather—who probably used horses—did. Change is inevitable, along with death and taxes. We are here today to talk about change. I suspect that the minister has done a deal with the Greens—who have no knowledge or understanding of or care for the future of the wheat industry in Australia—which will see the final chapter of this saga played out. Like the member for New England, I am going to lament that on the basis that I think that there was a better way.

Although I only have a scant understanding of what he has done, I applaud him for the efforts that he has made to try to convince growers to move from what we have now to what they could have in the long term to ensure that the quality and the standard of our exports is maintained and that the integrity of the marketing system—with growers being paid—is maintained. I can understand why growers have trepidation about that step, having been through and having worked with growers, as I said, to bring about substantial change in the grain industry. But I think that as a result of this government's unwillingness to take an appropriate amount of time to consult fully and to consider options before taking this step, the growers are about to get shafted again by this government. If we could have more time here—and time is not of the essence—then we could produce a far better outcome than the one that this House is about to deliver sometime this afternoon.

The member for New England and I came in after the start of the deregulation of the wheat industry, and that was 22 years ago. I participated in massive change in grain marketing and handling and the removal of statutory controls during the early to mid-90s, and that was done at a reasonable pace. I think that this last step could be taken over the next year or so, and of course that is what the coalition is suggesting in its amendment. The member for Calare also has a very sound understanding of the wheat industry, but too few people in this House have that.

This issue is not about recreating the single desk. If it were about recreating the single desk I would be voting with the government. There is no way you can turn back the clock. Time marches forward; change marches forward. What you have to do is make the most of and take the best advantage of that change to position yourself to ensure your future in the industry, if you are a wheat farmer. There are ways to do that. This issue is not about re-establishing the single desk. It is very much about ensuring that everyone understands why this next step is being taken and that everyone is confident about their place when this next step is taken. It is about making sure that smaller growers are protected.

I heard the voice of Wilson Tuckey again the other day. Wilson and I go back a long way. In fact we go back to when he saved a plane carrying Mitch Hooke and Donald McGauchie that was lost, but I do not have time to tell that story. Wilson Tuckey fervently and with the greatest of passion campaigned against any deregulation, the slightest modicum of deregulation, in the wheat industry. Now of course he wants it completely wiped out because those that he calls the big growers in Western Australia are being disadvantaged.

I say to the growers in Western Australia that I have been interested in your interests since I was Grains Council president, in 1992, and probably before then, and I have never lost that interest. You will not be disadvantaged by the proposal the coalition is putting forward. This is not about re-establishing the single desk, it is not about taking away your rights to market your own grain and it is not about taking away your ability to grow your cooperative in Western Australia. I admire what you have done as growers to ensure that the ownership of that still remains predominantly in your hands.

This is about maintaining the standard of Australia's wheat exports. It is not about 22c a tonne. When a shower of rain can change your yield in a paddock by $5, $10, $20 or $50 a tonne, 22c a tonne is not something the growers will miss in this debate.

This debate is about providing the degree of scrutiny that gives the industry the confidence it needs to continue to sell some of the world's highest quality wheats. We are a country that pride ourselves on the quality of our wheat, the standard that we deliver to customers and the value that that wheat brings to our customers. If at any stage we jeopardise that, then we jeopardise not only our current sales but our future sales as well.

I am sure that at this stage of this debate it has nearly all been said. But I will say that, if growers are to have confidence in the future of their industry, then a little more time in this transition process is all it would take to bring those growers into a position where they were sure that this step is the right step.

There is a path that we could have gone down. As the member for New England said, we could have looked at options for bodies that could carry out the functions in relation to quality exports and the integrity of the marketplace. It does not have to be the current structure, but it does have to be a structure designed in consultation with the rest of the industry.

We have to make sure that, whatever we do, this debate delivers maximum benefit to the livelihoods of people and ensures their future, the future of their children and the future of the rural communities they are in. There was a way to do that, but the government in its usual 'no caring about anything west of Sydney' attitude has decided to bypass that process.

So the coalition has moved an amendment, and the member for Calare has been going through that in detail. As a Liberal and as someone who believes in free enterprise and the rights of individuals, I think the member for Calare and the proposal we put forward were more than reasonable. In fact, it would have given us the opportunity to maximise the positive outcomes for the grain industry in Australia—the whole industry. Obviously I am biased towards farmers. Obviously once you have been a farmer you never lose that from your being.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go out to Condamine and walk around a property on a resources related issue. When I got home I said to my wife, 'That was great for the soul but bad for the heart.' It was great for my soul to be back amongst people who grew things. There were fat cattle in the feedlot and cattle being backgrounded on pasture and the ground was being prepared for the summer crop. I just longed to be back there. That was part of what was bad for my heart, because you can never allow your heartstrings to pull at you too much. And, as I said, my wife would probably fix that up if I suggested it. But, seriously, my passion is still in the bush. My belief is still in the bush.

I want to make sure that the people who grow the food of this nation get the best chance they can. I do not believe the government proposal is going to deliver that. I believe the better way was to take the time to have further consultation with the growers to make sure we put a structure in place that maximised the opportunity for those farmers, their families and the grain industry of Australia. We had that opportunity. Unfortunately, in some dirty little side deal with the Greens, I think that opportunity has been lost.


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