House debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading

4:36 pm

Photo of Tony WindsorTony Windsor (New England, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012 before the House. I do so in front of the member for Groom.

Mr Ian Macfarlane interjecting

It is a privilege to speak in front of him. I thank him for those complimentary remarks. The member for Groom and I were members of the grains council coarse grains committee some years ago. I am sure he, in his more private moments, will recollect some of those days and also recollect the circumstances before the House today and how history tends to repeat itself in one shape or another in the grains industry. One thing I do remember fondly of his and many others contributions to the grains industry—and I exclude myself from this—was a much greater and more positive degree of leadership than there is these days within the grain sector. I think that is one of the issues that needs to be addressed. I do not mean that as a criticism of individuals; we have a lot of very good people in agripolitics trying to do their best by their constituent groups. But I think the fractious nature of the cropping and grains industry in recent years has possibly been to the detriment of the industry itself.

This legislation has come off the back of the abolition of the single desk system many years ago, the establishment of the WEA and the consequent sunset period. I have been quietly involved over the last month with various grower interest groups such as Agforce Queensland—which the member for Groom would be very familiar with; they are very good people—the New South Wales Farmers Association, the Victorian Farmers Federation, Grain Producers South Australian, parts of the West Australian grains industry and also Grain Producers Australia. I know there have been many discussions within the building. I have also had discussions with the minister and the minister's chief of staff, who is with us today, to talk about various arrangements that may or may not be put in place and about the issues that arose through the termination of the WEA.

I do not think there are many people in the building who want the Wheat Export Authority to be maintained; there are some. There are many within the industry that would like to see something put in its place. I guess that is where the argument develops. What do you put in its place, if in fact you put anything in its place? Should that body have some degree of statutory bite or not? If it did have some statutory bite, would it be an attempt to recreate what has been taken out? Some people have suggested—quite wrongly in my view—that there is an attempt by some other people to recreate the single desk. I do not think that is the case at all.

There are some issues which I think are pertinent in the development of grain handling systems and the control of the ports. For many of the growers or their representatives that I spoke to, the issues of port access, stocks information and wheat export standards do have some relevance. There are a number of issues that can reflect on the supply chain. There are some arguments that this is all about free enterprise and about exporters making their own arrangements with other countries. Regrettably, and I think we saw it through the live export arrangements that were put in place in the north, the impacts can go back through the supply chain—not just to the exporter, not just to the grain handler and not just back to the particular individuals who may have supplied grain to a particular shipment if it was found to be poor in quality or the correct sanitary arrangements had not been put in place.

There are some supply-chain issues that I believe should be addressed. I do thank a member of my staff, John Clements, who spent considerable time working with industry groups to try to come up with a resolution that was acceptable to the industry, particularly in Western Australia. I am familiar with the issues the Western Australians have in this and with the politics in this House of that particular issue. John Clements spent quite some time with the industry players trying to reconcile some of the differences. We had a number of meetings with the minister, Joe Ludwig—and I thank him for that—to try to come up with an arrangement which could be suitable to the industry and which would allow the WEA to be moved on and to address these three significant issues. The minister and I had discussions again yesterday around a broad framework that might work, such as some sort of ministerial council appointment or a task force to address these particular issues. It may well have access to the export charge as a funding source so that the industry can address these three issues and others under certain terms of reference if the industry agreed. Those discussions were held without prejudice.

This morning I had a phone hook-up with about a dozen people from various states to discuss this issue and to see whether they were interested in exploring this fairly broad framework to address these issues under the auspices of some sort of council or task force arrangement with a view to using wheat export charge moneys to do some further research into the issues of public and private good that the industry groups have been raising.

It was determined by way of the phone hook-up that the industry players were not particularly interested in that proposal, even though it was fairly broad in the framework. They felt that they were not prepared to give up any leverage in terms of the WEA for something that was a bit out-there in the fine detail. I made the point that the detail was really for them to write, and I did not think that other than the code of conduct there was any real room to move in terms of statutory bite. As a consequence of that meeting, which was held in a very cordial atmosphere, it was decided that the growers would not take advantage of that opportunity and preferred to try to have the status quo put in place, or that a future government may be able to address the issue in a more favourable sense as far as they were concerned.

Since that time—and things do move quickly in this House—I believe there has been an agreement struck with the Australian Greens. I am not privy to all of that agreement, but I think some of it might be fairly similar to the arrangement that the minister and I have been talking about. I will listen with interest when it is raised in the House or when the debate takes place over this so-called arrangement with the Greens as to what it actually means. That will possibly determine the way in which I vote on this issue in relation to how it addresses some of the issues that the growers were raising.

I would be interested to hear from any growers as to whether they are attracted now to this arrangement. I think one of the things that we have to be a little bit careful of is that it looks as though the numbers could be in both houses for the WEA to be put to bed. I do not think anybody would really object to that but, as I said, in some sectors of the industry—the eastern states, South Australia and some parts of Western Australia—they believe there needs to be some sort of body that can oversee some of those three issues that I raised earlier. This is a live animal at the moment, and I will be interested to see what the particular amendment is that the minister's representative in this chamber may bring. I guess that will take place in a number of minutes.

The other bit of history—as well as the member for Groom, and I do not mean that he is history—was that I listened to the contribution of the member for Hume.

Mr Stephen Jones interjecting

You listened too? I was in the New South Wales parliament at the same time as the member for Hume, and he made a good contribution to the debate. On re-reading it I think some of his historical context is just a little bit out of play. Nonetheless it was in a hung parliament, similar to this one, where my vote put a Liberal premier into power. Part of the agenda of that particular coalition government at the New South Wales level—when Wal Murray was the Leader of the Nationals—prior to the election was that it would sell the grain handling system to commercial interests. The grain handling system was called the Grain Handling Authority in New South Wales. It had previously been the Grain Elevators Board et cetera.

Interestingly enough, that grain-handling authority eventually morphed into what is now called GrainCorp. We now have a scenario being played out on the coast where American interests are considering the purchase of GrainCorp, which is a commercial operation. The way it transitioned from a grower group was that the growers actually paid for the grain-handling system by way of levy back in those days. I guess a similar thing would have happened in Queensland. The Greiner government came to power and they intended to sell it to the highest bidder. One of the conditions on the formation of government that I was able to apply was that, if in fact it was sold, it had to be sold to grower-friendly interests. It was a fairly simple line, and Nick Greiner did adhere to it. It was sold for, I think, $100 million, and it was probably worth more than that. It was sold to the Prime Wheat Association, which, again, was a grower body—a very good body. Over time politics and a whole range of other things came into it—agripolitics—and it morphed into a commercial arrangement. The control originally was by growers because of the shareholding—there were different grades of shares struck—and growers lost some degree of control over the handling system. Then it morphed into a fully commercial operation, and that operation today, GrainCorp, is under some degree of threat by international interests.

Again we see a similar scenario being played out, and growers are quite anxious about what all that means. There is an old saying, 'He who controls the ports controls the industry.' I do not think that is strictly true, but there are elements of it that probably are. One of the things that the growers have been asking for is that they need scrutiny where they believe there could be the development of some degree of monopoly power and impact when the grain handlers are also grain marketers and that the little people are regarded within that system. The stock information and the access arrangements all give confidence to the industry and the players. The quality issues that are significant to many in the industry group should be significant to all of us. We have seen the fiasco with the live cattle export: the way in which that has impacted on, not only people who breed those sorts of cattle, but others as well—(Time expired)

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.

5:07 pm

Photo of Craig KellyCraig Kelly (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012. It is a pleasure to follow the member for Groom, who has more knowledge on this industry at his little finger than the entire combined knowledge of those who sit on the other side. From the outset, I will say that I believe, along with the rest of the coalition, that there is simply no going back to the Australian wheat industry being centrally controlled under a single desk. For, although the Australian Wheat Board were founded back in the 1930s and for many years successfully promoted the export of Australian wheat, their excesses, their waste and their mismanagement are just reminders of the dangers of monopoly, the dangers of centralised control and the dangers that come from overly concentrated markets.

However, the coalition supports the deregulation of the export of Australian wheat. But in doing so we should be reminded of the words of Adam Smith, from 250 years ago, in The Wealth of Nations:

The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce … ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.

Smith was right, especially when it comes to new laws seeking deregulation of our agricultural sector. For, although the free market is the greatest force we have to lift prosperity, to create wealth and to develop a strong middle class and a vibrant democracy, we should not be naive enough to believe that free markets simply evolve by themselves. Often, to protect the workings of the free market, we need some type of regulation to stop it becoming overly concentrated and to stop predatory conduct to make sure that the market works as it is meant to. That is why we must heed Smith's warnings, especially in deregulating the wheat industry. We need to tread carefully and, in doing so, be sure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. And we should look at the mistakes of previous deregulations of our rural sectors.

So let us take a quick look at the deregulation of the dairy industry and the deregulation of the egg industry to see if there are lessons to be learnt for deregulating the wheat industry. Firstly, let us look at the Australian dairy industry, which was deregulated on 1 July 2000 at the cost of $1.94 billion to the taxpayer. Back then, we had all the self-proclaimed competition law experts saying that it was the consumer who was most likely to benefit significantly from the lower cost of fresh milk. Let us have a look at what happened. We know what happened to the farmer. We know that before deregulation the farmers were getting $1.011 billion of income for their market milk. Yet two years later, in 2002-03, their income had fallen to $521 million. So we saw the dairy industry lose $500 million of income after deregulation—almost one-half was wiped out virtually overnight. But, much worse, far worse, was that within two years of the deregulation of the dairy industry a health department report showed that every four days a farmer in this country was committing suicide. Between 1990 and the year 2002, ABS figures show that 202 farmers and farm managers committed suicide.

What were the benefits to the consumer from the deregulation of the dairy industry? If you look at the ABS data, it shows that retail prices not only increased but continued to increase faster than the rate of inflation. In fact, between 1990 and the year 2007, while the CPI rate of inflation was only 60 per cent, the retail price of milk actually increased 114 per cent, almost double the rate of inflation.

Secondly, let us look at the example of the deregulation of the egg industry, which occurred in the early 1990s. Certainly sufficient time has now passed for us to assess the full effects of deregulation. Again, when the deregulation of the egg industry occurred, we heard those who were strong on theory but weak on practice rabbit on about increasing efficiencies and about those efficiencies being passed on to the consumer through lower prices. In 1989-90, just prior to deregulation, the ABS reported that the average farm-gate price for a dozen eggs was $1.53. Fast forward to June 2005, when the ABS last published such farm-gate prices for eggs. The average farm-gate price had increased just 9c, to $1.62—an increase over 15 years, for the farmer, of just six per cent, at a time when our CPI was running at 48 per cent. But what happened to the retail price over the same period of time? It skyrocketed by an incredible 70 per cent. So in the 15 years following deregulation we had the farm-gate price increase by just six per cent and the CPI increase by 48 per cent but the retail price—what the consumer was paying—increase by 70 per cent.

There are other lessons to learn from past deregulations, especially how those who supported some of these deregulations were prepared to distort, to mislead and to cover up when things did not turn out how they expected. Take the ACCC's 2008 inquiry into the competitiveness of retail prices for standard groceries. In that report, the ACCC concluded, in relation to eggs, 'It is not true to say there is an increasing gap between the farm-gate and the retail price.' But the truth was the exact opposite of the ACCC's conclusions. The facts were that over that period of time, from 1990 to 2008, when the ACCC did their inquiry, the farm-gate price had increased by just 12 per cent, but the retail price had increased by 100 per cent. So after deregulation we had a 12 per cent increase at the farm gate and a 100 per cent increase at the retail end. The truth is that there has been a massive increasing gap between the farm-gate price and the retail price, yet the ACCC's findings showed the exact opposite.

It is interesting to look at how the ACCC actually arrived at these misleading and erroneous conclusions.

One way to manipulate data to mislead or deceive is to cherry-pick the base year from which you start an analysis over time. In the ACCC's analysis of eggs, the ACCC chose the base index as the year 2000-01. Surprising, this was the year that was selected, despite this year not being used for anything else in their inquiry. So why did they pick this year, when ABARE's Australian Commodity Statistics for 2007, the very source which the ACCC cited in their report, has data going back to 1989? Surely, you would have used all the data that was available to you, and you would have gone back to this date—but they did not. Alternatively, ABARE used 1997-98 as the base year with the index of 100, so it would have been quite simple for the ACCC to choose that year. So why did they pick the year 2000-01 to start their analysis? Well, surprisingly, that year was the lowest farm-gate price in 20 years. Picking the absolute lowest farm-gate price in 20 years was just a happy coincidence that enabled the ACCC to reach their conclusions.

But the coincidence did not stop there. In fact, the ACCC had actually shifted the base year for various items. In their studies of milk they used the base year of March 2002 and for beef they used 1998—and, surprise, surprise, if you look at ABARE's numbers, these are either the lowest or the second-lowest prices in the farm-gate cycle. What an amazing coincidence! The odds of randomly selecting the base years which conveniently match up with the lower point in the farm-gate price are about 1,000 to one. The only conclusion is that the ACCC's inquiry into the competitiveness of retail prices for standard groceries under this government was either a shameful whitewash or was grossly incompetent.

The reason that the deregulation of the milk and the egg industries merely delivered an asset transfer from producers to our supermarket duopoly was the failure to understand that you cannot just deregulate one part of the supply chain and leave other parts of the supply chain regulated, especially when these other parts of the supply chain are controlled in the hands of a small number of players. For the milk and egg industries, while it was the production of these commodities that was deregulated, the retailing of these commodities remained highly regulated, where the Australian supermarket duopoly enjoys special legislated protection from competition.

Mr Deputy Speaker, let me give you two examples from my electorate of Hughes of how this protection from competition works. Firstly, there was the infamous Orange Grove affair, which occurred under the watch of the New South Wales Labor government, run by now Senator Bob Carr. Without getting into the sordid tale of the Orange Grove affair, the New South Wales government shamefully forced the closure of an operating shopping centre, with the loss of 200 jobs, simply to prevent them competing in the market.

Secondly, Mr Deputy Speaker, take the shopping centre at Sappho Road in Warwick Farm, also in the electorate of Hughes. To protect the interests of the supermarket duopoly, the regulations at this shopping centre included:

The display and sale of the following item classifications is strictly prohibited: [including] grocery items …

It was also at this shopping centre at Warwick Farm that the so-called champions of the free market and deregulation, the Woolworths corporation, took their smaller competitors to court for no other reason than to protect themselves from completion.

We had the farcical situation in this country where we deregulated our rural commodities, but, at the retail side, we had three judges at the New South Wales Court of Appeal and a platoon of QCs, barristers and lawyers arguing about what goods could be sold from a retail shop. I will quote directly from the decision the goods that the court said were not allowed to be sold:

Small plastic storage containers; garbage bins; vegetable peelers; electric light globes; sandpaper; baby bibs; child's potties; dog kennels; bathmats; pre-recorded CDs; Christmas cards; Christmas trees …

So, while we come into this place and say we are the champions of the free market, we have regulations and courts making laws about where children's potties can be sold. We need to learn the lessons, when we are looking at the deregulation of the wheat industry, that we cannot just leave other parts of the supply chain regulated or controlled in the hands of just a few players.

This is certainly currently a concern when it comes to port access and rail transport, especially in Australia, one of the few nations that have no effective laws against anticompetitive price discrimination. The dangers to the free market, the dangers to growers, of price discrimination on rail freight have long been recognised in the home of the free market, the USA. In fact, it was concern about price discrimination in rail freight of agricultural commodities that led to the very first law to combat anticompetitive price discrimination. This was the Interstate Commerce Act 1887, which was the forerunner to the Clayton Act 1911 and the Robertson Patman Act 1936. Basically, this law provided that, for a grower filling one rail car—the equivalent of a modern-day 20-foot container—because there were no true economies beyond that, they would be able to get the same price and would not be discriminated against compared to a grower that could produce a larger quantity.

The other issue that growers should be concerned about is the quality standards for export grain. We have recently seen the Indonesians express a concern about the perceived lack of quality of Australian wheat—and I say 'perceived' because we do have in this country the highest-quality wheat in the world. But we know that, in many markets, perception becomes reality—and this provides a real threat to Australian exporters, who are at a disadvantage against American and Canadian wheat exports, where we have the American and Canadian governments having attested quality controls and guarantees on their exports.

We should heed Adam Smith's warning that we should proceed with any deregulation with great caution, and any such deregulation ought never to be adopted until long having been carefully examined, with not only the most scrupulous but the most suspicious of intentions. We must learn from the past. We must learn from the previous episodes of deregulation of agricultural commodities and the disaster that they have resulted in for our producers. And there are issues that this bill fails to carefully consider—port access arrangements, the inappropriate transportation standards in relation to stock information and minimum quality standards for grain. Therefore I cannot support this bill. However, I support the coalition giving a commitment that, if elected at the next election, the coalition in its first term will implement measures agreed by the industry to ensure that we have a well-managed, deregulated— (Time expired)

5:22 pm

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Second Deputy Speaker Georganas, allow me to congratulate you on your election to high office. I note that as a member of the Speaker's panel you were diligent, and with this new responsibility the parliament will be enhanced through your involvement.

On 24 November last year I resigned from the Liberal National Party of Queensland and the coalition to become an independent Speaker of this parliament in the Westminster tradition. I was honoured by being elected unopposed as Speaker of the House of Representatives but, in resigning from the Liberal National Party of Queensland, I did not resign from my conservative principles. I did not resign from my belief in free enterprise and I did not resign from my belief that producers of products or growers of wheat should be allowed to sell their product to whomsoever they wish.

The opposition, in opposing the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012 and in proposing the amendment currently before the chamber, is talking about saving the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition and about coalition unity. While I resigned from the Liberal National Party, I did not resign from my principles. The position being taken by the coalition in this bill is a resignation by the Liberal Party in favour of the National Party from the principles set out on the website of the Liberal Party of Australia.

Let me draw to your attention that, in listing the items in which the Liberal Party believes and in which I continue to believe, the first item is:

We Believe ...

    Let us look at the position of the opposition in relation to this particular bill. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Curtin, has been urging, as indicated by the report on ABC News on 3 October, and I quote:

    … her WA colleagues to remain unified behind the Coalition's position, arguing it would undermine the authority of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

    This is not about deregulation or not deregulation; it is all about internal unity on the part of the coalition and it is all about asking Liberals to surrender the first principle of the Liberal Party, which refers to private sector initiative and minimisation of government interference. I understand that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition also said on Sunday, 28 October, on ABC News:

    Our policy is to support full deregulation when we're in government …

    Let us be honest: if full deregulation, if and when the opposition is elected to government, is perceived to be a good thing, why is full deregulation when the opposition is in opposition a bad thing? I find the intellectual argument on the part of the opposition incredibly lacking.

    Some would say that we have a bizarre situation where we have the party that in its original manifesto supported the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange now being the champion of free enterprise and the champion of those people who want to sell their product to whomsoever they want to sell it. What a bizarre turnaround! I am not going to pre-empt the position of the honourable member for Tangney, but isn't it interesting that Western Australian Liberals are being urged to vote against a measure which the Western Australian grains industry says will save the industry some $3 million to $4 million?

    Why is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition urging her Western Australian Liberal colleagues to vote against the interests of the wheat producers of Western Australia and, I would put it more broadly, the wheat producers of Australia? What is wrong with a person who grows wheat being able to sell wheat to whomsoever they want?

    The member for Groom, who is a person I greatly respect, delivered a speech. He trotted out the party line, but I suspect that if you looked into the mind of the honourable member for Groom you would see that his position would be the same as that being taken by the government and those members of the coalition parties who are prepared to show their opposition to the coalition position in a tangible way.

    Interestingly, I have been lobbied by the most unholy unity ticket. I have been lobbied by the honourable member for O'Connor, who is sitting two seats in front of me, and I have been lobbied by the former honourable member for O'Connor, Wilson Tuckey. When you get the member for O'Connor and Mr Tuckey actually agreeing on an issue, then each of us should sit down and look closely at what is being proposed because, surely, there must be something tangible and worthwhile in it.

    To look at the specifics of the legislation, to its credit the former Howard government initially removed the Australian Wheat Board single-desk arrangements, and since that time—in 2007—bulk wheat exporters have been required to pass an accreditation scheme administered by Wheat Exports Australia. The government agreed that, as part of these changes, there would be a review of the changes to the regulatory system. In 2010, two years ago, the Productivity Commission handed down its report into Australia's wheat export marketing arrangements and recommended the removal of Wheat Exports Australia to align wheat with every other commodity in Australia as a freely traded commodity. So the so-called socialist party in Australia, the Australian Labor Party, is actually standing up for wheat producers right around the country. What an incredible change! What an about-face!

    And this is not about deregulation, because the Deputy Leader of the Opposition says she supports deregulation, but not while Labor is in office. So if deregulation is good, if and when the opposition is elected to office, why isn't it good now?

    If there are advantages to the wheat industry by proceeding at this time, why should the wheat producers of Australia be disadvantaged to the extent of millions of dollars by having to wait until there is a change of government? As I said at the outset, on 3 October the honourable member for Curtin let the cat out of the bag: she was not talking about principle; she was not talking about policy; she was talking about naked politics; she was talking about protecting the position of the Leader of the Opposition.

    When one looks at recent opinion polls, it is by no means certain that the Leader of the Opposition will be leading the opposition at the time of the next election. You know what it is like in politics: you see the barracudas circle; you see the knives encircling an embattled person. I suppose you have to admire the Deputy Leader of the Opposition because she is supporting her leader. After all, she supported—how many leaders has she been deputy to? Sadly, I find it quite abhorrent that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition is prepared to say to the wheat industry of her home state that it is important to defeat the government legislation not on any matter of principle, not to assist producers, but simply to assist the continued leadership of the Leader of the Opposition—and I presume that she would anticipate that, if the Leader of the Opposition remains in office, she is likely to continue to remain in position as Deputy Leader of the Opposition.

    But the honourable member for Curtin should not be pessimistic. She has served a number of leaders before and she could well serve yet another leader as deputy leader. But ultimately I think the people of Australia would respect the Deputy Leader of the Opposition more were she prepared to stand up and say that she believes in continued regulation of some sort in relation to this industry. I can respect those honourable members who actually do support regulation of industry—if they come from a position of principle. I do, however, find it extremely difficult to support a policy which is not about whether something is good or bad for an industry but to prop up a person's position in office.

    Referring to the news report on 3 October, it is interesting that the president of the Durack division of the Liberal Party, Mr Gordon Thomson, has taken a shot at Ms Bishop, the honourable member for Curtin, and Western Australian Senator Matthias Cormann. He said, 'It is apparent that neither has any political nous or common sense on this issue.' So you have a leading Liberal luminary actually coming out and making those comments about people who hold a very senior position in the opposition. Let us also look at the report on 28 October, when the Liberal Party had a state council meeting in Albany and overwhelmingly backed a motion to support the federal government's bill. In fact, Western Australian Liberals have been requested by the organisation to stand up for the wheat growers of their state. Despite that, we are seeing naked party politics being played.

    I just want to say that this legislation before the House is good legislation. The amendment being proposed by the honourable member for Calare is one that I can understand he believes in—because he is a member of the National Party, and the National Party is the party of agrarian socialism. And I am happy to declare a public interest: I was first elected as a National Party member, but I got back to Queensland after my first meeting of the Parliamentary National Party and said that I had more in common with the Liberal Party than the National Party—and I suspect that some people were not too impressed by that particular statement. However, the member for Calare is at least honest. He is standing up as an agrarian socialist in this place and talking about this failed body, Wheat Exports Australia, having its existence extended for not less than six months after the commencement of the 44th Parliament to enable the government of the day to modify Wheat Exports Australia or replace it with another body to better represent the needs of the wheat industry. And he notes that the coalition commits to a consultation process which will commence immediately and provide stakeholders with a forum to outline what wheat industry issues need to be addressed.

    There has already been an inquiry; the Productivity Commission has brought down its report. This government, which historically has not been a government of free enterprise, has had the courage to introduce this bill, yet we find that people in the opposition who are all about preserving positions as leader, deputy leader, shadow minister and shadow parliamentary secretary are endeavouring to thwart it. The people of Australia are sick and tired of political hype.

    I return now to where I started. On 24 November last year I resigned from the Liberal National Party of Queensland to become an independent Speaker in the Westminster tradition; I did not resign from my conservative values. But the approach being urged upon Liberal Party members in this place by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition indicates that the Liberal Party is resigning from its political principles. The Liberal Party is no longer the party of minimising government interference. The Liberal Party is no longer the party of deregulation. The Liberal Party is a party which supports the continuation of a body which is outdated. It supports the continuation of a levy. In fact, the Liberal Party's position has no political credibility at all and is all about naked politics.

    As Australians, we expect the Parliament of Australia to talk about issues. We expect members on both sides of the House to stand up and be counted on what is right and what is wrong. What is right about this bill is that we are talking about making the industry more efficient. We are talking about giving freedom to wheat growers. We are talking about deregulation. What is the opposition talking about? I suspect that many of them will vote with a heavy heart because there are many on this side of the House who would support the government's intentions. This is all about preserving the flawed, fatal and terminal leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable number for Warringah. (Time expired)

    5:37 pm

    Photo of Tony CrookTony Crook (O'Connor, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I rise today to discuss the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012. Many speakers before me have outlined the tumultuous journey that the wheat industry has taken from the single desk to this latest push for deregulation. Many speakers have also outlined the benefits that deregulation can provide to the industry, particularly in the unique Western Australian market. As a result, I do not intend to rehash these arguments today. Rather, I intend to outline my involvement in this bill and how I have come to support it.

    As many are aware, I have received a lot of criticism for my support of this bill, much of which has come from members on this side of the House. Before I discuss my reasons for supporting this bill, I would like to directly address some of this criticism. Many on this side of the House have criticised me for supporting what they call a Labor bill. To those people, I say: I am not supporting a Labor bill; I am supporting Western Australian wheat growers and the Western Australian wheat industry. Many MPs have also criticised me for crossing the floor in a minority parliament. To those MPs, I say: as a member of parliament I have an obligation to stand up for my constituents, and this obligation to my constituents must come before any obligation to any party room. Many MPs have criticised me for standing up for my electorate in what they have called a media stunt. I solemnly request of those MPs that they honestly reflect on what they think the job of an MP involves. What are we doing in this parliament if we are not standing up for our electorates? What are we doing as elected representatives if we are not brave enough to stand up for the interests of the good people who had the faith to put us in these positions?

    As I alluded to earlier, I have had significant and ongoing involvement in this bill. My electorate of O'Connor, as the electorate that produces the largest amount of wheat exports in the country, has always had a very strong interest in the wheat market. Meanwhile, Western Australia is the biggest wheat-exporting state in the country. As a result, I was pleased to have the opportunity to sit on the House Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry, which inquired into this bill and tabled its report on 18 June this year. Since that time, I have undertaken substantial and ongoing consultation with industry bodies and industry representatives, as well as non-aligned individual growers in my electorate. Further, my Nationals WA colleagues in the WA parliament have undertaken similar consultations throughout their own electorates.

    The response in Western Australia has been clear. An overwhelming majority of Western Australian growers want this bill, and they want it now. The Western Australian Farmers Federation support this bill. The Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia support this bill. CBH, the bulk handlers in WA, support this bill. The majority of non-aligned individual growers who I have consulted with and the majority of non-aligned growers who my Nationals WA colleagues have consulted with support this bill. The Western Australian Minister for Agriculture and Food, the Hon. Terry Redman, supports this bill. The Nationals WA, including the Leader of the Nationals WA, the Hon. Brendon Grylls, support this bill. In fact, the Western Australian Liberal-National government supports this bill. I completed these consultations in the second half of September and, on 25 September 2012, following a meeting of the Nationals WA, I announced my decision to support this bill. As a passionate representative of O'Connor and regional Western Australia, in good faith, there was no other choice to be made.

    I fully understand that, in the main, this view is contrary to the views expressed by growers on the east coast of Australia. As such, I fully respect the obligations of my federal Nationals colleagues from the east coast to represent their east coast growers by opposing this bill. Indeed, I gladly defend their right to have a different view to mine and to be allowed to exercise that view in this place, as they do with me. In fact, I think there has been some unfair criticism of my federal Nationals colleagues. In all of our party discussions on this issue, I have never heard one member call for the return of the single desk, as has been claimed by some sectors. I do not deny that some growers rue the death of the single desk back in 2008 and I do not deny that it was foisted upon the industry at a time when it was very unpopular. However, in Western Australia, farmers have moved on and have embraced the free market.

    Although this stance has been difficult, I have been encouraged by the support that my Nationals colleagues have shown me, and I believe my decision is consistent with the rich history of the Nationals in standing up for their regional electorates. However, what I have found baffling, and somewhat depressing, is the inability of Western Australian MPs to stand up for their state. I stood in this House absolutely dismayed as I watched Western Australian Liberal and Labor Party MPs vote against my motion for a fairer GST deal for WA. When the bells ring for this bill, I fear my dismay will return because I fear we will once again observe Western Australian Liberal Party MPs choosing to bow to the east coast dominated party room rather than doing what is right for their state.

    I think it is important to note my absolute surprise that this Labor government has produced a bill in the agriculture portfolio that actually has the support of WA farmers. Let's be honest: this government has unequivocally failed in most of its dealings with regional Australia. This government has failed to deliver regional infrastructure spending, especially when you compare it to the hugely successful Royalties for Regions fund delivered by the WA Nationals—it pales into insignificance. This government failed to deal with live animal exports, particularly when the industry was looking for leadership to support them, not to shut them down. This government has failed to properly support farmers in what is, after all, supposedly the Year of the Farmer. However, this bill—which, I note, is Liberal Party policy—is unequivocally supported by the Western Australian industry and will undoubtedly provide great benefits to WA growers and the WA economy.

    So I say to the WA MPs who claim that they put the interests of their electorates and their states first that this is the time: as this debate ends and the bells ring, that will be your litmus test. Regardless of all the public grandstanding, WA MPs will be forced to choose between the interests of their state and their east coast dominated party room. WA Liberal MPs will have to choose: they can either meekly fall into line or stand up and represent Western Australian wheat growers The people of O'Connor and the people of WA deserve to be passionately represented. For those reasons, I am proud to support this bill.

    5:45 pm

    Photo of Dennis JensenDennis Jensen (Tangney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I hope tonight to explain the concerns I have about the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012. For me, politics is about clear and robust principles and philosophies. From these cast-iron principles good policy should flow. Those on this side should seek to honour our founder, Robert Menzies, and his philosophy of expanding freedom in whatever realm. It is my job, by definition, to stand up for the views of the people I represent in this place.

    My electorate in Western Australia includes stakeholders of Cooperative Bulk Handling Ltd, the WA Farmers Federation, the WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association and the WA Liberal Party—both the grassroots and the parliamentary party. They all want to go back to the free market. Regulation is not a natural position, and it is certainly not natural for the Liberal Party to oppose cutting red tape. Note that blue pumps through my heart.

    The Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012 offers an imperfect but expeditious road to deregulation. It puts in place a time frame and an end date. It gives certainty to farmers that they will be able to sell their wheat again without the diktats of bureaucrats in far-off offices. It is time to tell weak-wristed, water-cooler dictators: 'Hands off, Mate! It's their wheat, and they should be allowed to sell it on their terms.' I remind a sound-bite obsessed House to look upon the difference of opinion in the Liberal Party not as weakness but as strength, for in our party there is a competitive marketplace of ideas, and it is this struggle that leads to better policy for all Australians. Labor group-think is in reality Labor no-think.

    It has been said that the wheat industry is not ready for full deregulation and that not all farmers support it, but the wheat industry has been deregulated since 2008, following the removal of the single desk, and has been transitioning towards full deregulation for the past five years. It has been sad that WEA could provide oversight on bulk handlers. But The WEA's only legislated role is to administer a fit and proper financial assessment on bulk wheat exporters before they receive accreditation to export bulk wheat. The WEA does not provide industry oversight and has never assessed port access undertakings. That is the role of the ACCC. If the ACCC believes that a bulk handler is operating outside their port access undertaking, they can instruct the WEA to suspend or withdraw accreditation.

    If oversight is the objective, then why not take the moneys that would have funded an ineffective organisation in the WEA, put it into ACCC—an effective oversight organisation—and beef it up? It has been said that ACCC is a toothless tiger when it comes to port access. But under WEMA wheat is classified as a regulated industry and, as such, the role and functions of the ACCC are prescribed and limited to port access only. Removal of WEMA would permit greater scrutiny by the ACCC over all operations of the bulk handlers, not just port, including upstream storage and handling charges. The ACCC can also investigate any aspects of possible collusion between bulk handlers or exporters, with penalties the same as for any other breach of the Competition and Consumer Act.

    It was the legacy of 70 years of statutory marketing that led to the bulk handlers retaining port facilities. However, since deregulation, the BHCs—bulk handling companies—have made substantial investments in port facilities, including capital improvements. Now bulk handling companies are being told by the WEA to share these facilities with competitors, despite such competitors not being forced to make a contribution to capital investment and cost recoupment. Prolonging the WEA, with its overhang of port access authority, is just delaying possible solutions to this stalemate.

    Nobody has yet explained the role of growers in this and why government should get involved. If growers get involved with such port based committees, surely they must then be willing to make a contribution to port capital infrastructure development. It has been said that an industry code of conduct needs to be developed prior to removing the WEA. Stage 2 of the bill calls for the development of a non-prescribed industry code of conduct for all grain export terminals to meet the needs of exporters and growers, consistent with ACCC guidelines for developing effective voluntary codes of conduct that include continuous disclosure rules. The development of this code of conduct has been underway since February this year, and consists of a code development committee, comprising key stakeholder representation, including nominees appointed on behalf of port owners, major users, industry and producers. Secretarial duties are performed by Grain Trade Australia. The ACCC and DAFF are also members.

    The trend is the same. Things that should be done quickly go on and on. It has been said that growers want greater involvement with Grain Trade Australia before the industry code of conduct is accepted. Currently the National Farmers' Federation and Grain Producers Australia represent growers on the CDC, and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association has written to the chair seeking membership, as the two organisations have little, if any, representation in Western Australia. Port access does not directly affect farmers. The vast majority of farmers sell either on-farm or from private up-country storage, and all ongoing supply chain costs are the responsibility of the merchant or exporter. It is still an ongoing role of ACCC to ensure competition amongst merchants and exporters, irrespective of what happens to the WEA.

    We are told that until better port access is achieved there is room for manipulation by the bulk handlers to support their monopoly, which is the case in South Australia, where you can only deal with Viterra—and soon only Glencore. ABB demutualised to become ABB Grain on 1 July 1999, and in 2004 it merged with storage and handling company AusBulk and the holding company United Grower Holdings. In September 2009, the shareholders of ABB—mostly farmers—voted in favour of a merger with Viterra, which is the largest grain handler in Canada. In the 2010 season, Viterra made several mistakes which impacted on the efficiency and cost of grain movements out of South Australia. However, they have subsequently improved their operations accordingly and are now looking at a takeover by Glencore.

    Now that the sale to Glencore is looming, there will be capital investment, international experience and better leadership to sort out SA problems, particularly when ACCC has far more power over a private company than it does under WEMA.

    There is a requirement for appropriate transparency standards in relation to stock information, as there are huge margins for growers in blending to achieve specific grades. While some growers do blend to maximize their margins, they do not require national public data collected and released by government to do so. If they are acting as blenders or merchants, there is quite sufficient regional information seeping out to keep them informed as to opportunities. Information leaks out to growers within regions. It is a matter of knowing where, and what the buyers want. Most importantly, an opportunity is soon lost when everyone knows about it.

    We are told WEA would provide a competitive edge if it had a stock information collection role similar to that of USDA. But USDA does not report all US wheat stocks or survey all farm stocks; it relies on voluntary reporting of US commercial trade wheat inventories. It guesses what is unsold and on-farm based on regional yield-acreage samples over time.

    The USA can better promote wheat competitively in East Asia because of supply consistency in both product quantity and quality. Until now, the Australian government has been publicly releasing stock and inventory data to all of our competitors so that they can base their trading decisions on this information. This has dramatically affected forward wheat futures market liquidity.

    The WEA has never had any role in collecting stocks information, and there is already an agreement for stocks information to be published by the Grains Research and Development Corporation. Advocates and supporters for greater release of Australian wheat stock information have vested commercial interests. There are privacy laws that need to be respected for unsold individual wheat stocks, while the Personal Property Securities Act 2009 provides farmers with individual ownership and significant property information rights for unsold co-mingled product. There is no role for government in reporting private wheat stocks, particularly when such reporting disadvantages growers. If commercial interests voluntarily agree to publicly release their inventory data, then that is okay provided that it is not grower owned.

    I turn to minimum quality standards. Given that farmers, industry, and government have little control over the quality of wheat produced in Australia, the government has at least acknowledged the matter is best dealt with through buyer and seller contractual specification agreements and international enforcement through GAFTA, supported by private grain-testing laboratories in Australia. If a government restricted exports to meet some vague brand integrity, Australian growers would suffer with increased domestic supplies, falling prices, and worsening bases.

    The estimated eight million tonnes of wheat that was downgraded during the 2010 harvest languished in domestic storages for much of 2011 while prices fell from $330 per tonne in early 2011 to $210 per tonne. The only beneficiaries of brand integrity will be the domestic starch manufacturers at the lower-value end of the wheat chain. If a private exporter establishes brand integrity in an exclusive international supply chain niche, or if a merchant wants to export low quality volume, then it is up to them not government.

    The quicker the wheat is sold the better it is, because it is a deteriorating biological product. It has been said that delaying the bill and allowing for an orderly transition is not deregulating the industry or the return of the single desk. The bill actually supports an orderly transition as the WEMA has done over the past five years. However, the coalition plan provides no certainty over the time frame or the manner that full deregulation will occur, and has no clear objectives or defined methods to achieve it, which can only lead to more government intervention. The coalition must accept that government cannot be expected to solve intrinsic industry problems, especially when the majority of growers and industry does not want it to do so. If WEA was in a position to prevent another Coles-Woolworths duopoly occurring then I would be in favour. But it does not, and cannot.

    Yes, I am cognisant of the power of unintended consequences—and I refer here to the futures markets. Will there be a collapse in the price? No. The quality of wheat exported out of Australia is contingent on a variety of factors. However, I cannot but be optimistic, as the human and innovation capital invested in agriculture continues to increase. That is how Australia got to be where we are today, as the world's third largest exporter of wheat behind the US and the EU. So in a country where 70 per cent of the wheat production each year is exported throughout the world, this bill is important.

    This bill is too important for partisan politics. How important is it for my state? Well, WA is the biggest wheat export state. It is the dominant crop in the agrisector and worth $3.5 billion per annum. The grain crop is about to be taken off in Western Australia. Farmers deserve to know the conditions under which they will sell their crops before they harvest their crops.

    In sum, there are many reasons as to why one would and should back a move to a fully deregulated wheat market. Removing barriers to entry and moving to classical contestable markets will increase the true competitiveness of that market and increase the investment inflows to that industry. I am committed by party and philosophy to support any policy that will help rather than hinder investment. Investment means jobs, and there can be no doubt that jobs provide economic freedom. Freedom is the kernel of my argument and action. The Liberal Party was founded on this principle. If I do not seek that kernel now, then surely our party will be chaff to history.

    The farmer is the only person in this economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale and pays freight both ways. So it is timely that we in this House give the farmer a leg-up. It is time to put some trust and principle back into politics, and I cannot oppose this bill.

    Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

    It has been an extraordinary debate, with a lot of passion. I acknowledge the speech we just had from the member for Tangney. I note the member for O'Connor and his contribution, and I note the many conversations I had on this issue with his predecessor.

    At its core, the scenario on the ground that is at stake here is: a farmer grows some wheat that they got for harvest and someone comes to them and says, 'I can offer you a better price.' Are they allowed to take the best price? That is the principle this whole thing is about. If you have a single desk, the answer is: 'No, you can't do that. You can't go to the best price that comes to you. We'll tell you who you have to sell it to.' Even with the regulated system that we have at the moment, which is not single desk, whether they are accredited or not determines whether you can sell to them. So there will be occasions where a grower will be offered the best price and they are not allowed to take it. I do not think that is fair. I do not think that is a reasonable position. It is the opposite of free enterprise. It is the opposite of an open market and it is the opposite of the direction this parliament ought to go in.

    In this debate, I have a level of respect for the National Party position to the extent that it has been consistent. I think it is a ridiculous position, but at least it has been held consistently. From the days of AWB the members of the National Party—and in this I separate the National Party member from WA—have at least been consistent in their position, the whole way through the debate, as to what they think should happen.

    I feel for those members of the Liberal Party who believe in free enterprise because, unless they cross the floor, they are about to vote against it. No one should be in any doubt as to the simplicity of the scenario we are talking about. Someone pays for their land, invests in the costs of putting a crop together and invests in the harvesting of that crop—and we are about to decide whether or not they are allowed to choose what they think the best deal they can get is. That is this issue in its entirety.

    I have referred before to a meeting that I had on a wheat farm back in the electorate of O'Connor, when I first became Australia's agriculture minister. A young grower there made the comment to me: 'Why can't I choose who I sell to? It's my wheat.'

    Dr Stone interjecting

    A whole lot of arguments will come up, and I hear some being interjected back and forth across the chamber right now, saying: 'It's all too complex. It's about the quality assurance.' There will be a million weasel words to come up with an answer that, at its core, says that you want to tell that farmer: 'We will tell you who you are allowed to sell to. It's not your wheat.' It is the absolute height of arrogance from a parliament, wanting to resolve that it knows better than the individual farmer who that farmer can sell to. That is the position some members of this parliament are about to take.

    The National Party have consistently said that this right of a farmer should not be there, and they have acted on that. The Liberal Party, throughout its history—until this year—had a position that they were always on the deregulation side of the argument. John Howard's Liberal Party would have been voting for deregulation. Brendan Nelson's Liberal Party would have been voting for deregulation. If the member for Wentworth were still the leader of that party it would be voting for deregulation. The current Leader of the Opposition is fundamentally taking the Liberal Party to a position where they believe government should tell growers who they are allowed to sell to. It is a position that is not just wrong—and a completely arrogant position to take to that grower—but also the opposite of any of the principles that would have caused members to join the Liberal Party.

    If anyone has a chance to flick through Hansard, there are a few high points. The member for Hume's contribution was extraordinary both for what he said and for what he chose to not say. Here is someone who has defended deregulation all of his political life. He is now in a situation where he is intending to vote in a different direction. That says everything about the direction the Leader of the Opposition is taking that party. The member for Fisher, I think, made a contribution that will be memorable for a very long time, and it was true to the principles of a party that is about to abandon a whole lot of principles.

    All we are saying to the Liberal Party is: why not do something really radical and be on the free-enterprise side of the equation in this vote? That is all this vote is about. The member for New England knows the industry well. He has worked within the industry and on industry boards and had a direct engagement either as a member of parliament or in a private capacity for pretty much all of his adult life. He asked me to refer in the reply to some of the agreements that have come today in discussions with the Greens and to make sure that I went through that before we got to the point of having a vote.

    It is interesting that when we wanted to get majority support in this parliament, to be able to get it through and get a free-enterprise position, we had a better chance with the Greens than we had with the Liberal Party. That is the nature of the negotiations we are in. But today we did reach an agreement with the Greens on amendments to this bill. The Greens have come to the table with an honest question about how we can best support the industry into deregulation.

    The amendments agreed to will change the code of conduct from a voluntary code to a mandatory code under the ACCC. Industry will provide a draft code of conduct to the minister for agriculture, through approval, before the code becomes prescribed. Secondly, the government will establish an expert wheat industry task force to address the questions of wheat export standards and stocks information. This task force will advise government and industry on the development of grain quality standards for the Australian wheat export industry which will provide the accurate certificate of grain quality and which will be underpinned by uniform and accepted terminology. It will give users access to information that will enable them to determine this.

    The task force will provide a framework for markets to establish grain quality improvement incentives and reflect the value of the end uses of grain. The task force will take into account scientific and other developments relating to the end-use performance of grain. The task force will also consider options for the most appropriate mechanisms to enable the publication of timely and accurate port capacity information. It will also look for the best means of implementing the quality standards developed by the task force as well as any other matters that the minister requests.

    The deregulation of this industry has been going through a very long process, and the Liberal Party supported many stages of that journey at both the state and federal level. The attack that I received as minister for agriculture from the Liberal Party three years ago was that the reforms I was putting forward were not going far enough. They put amendments that I accepted to actually extend deregulation.

    I congratulate the Nationals on what they have achieved in the joint party room. They have taken control of economic policy on one of our most significant exports. That is a big achievement for a little party. The Nationals should be very proud. This is back to the days of McEwen. They should be boasting quite proudly about what they have achieved. But the Liberal Party should be in absolutely no doubt of what they are about to do. Thankfully, not all of them are about to do it. Some of them have made comments that they intend to be true to the principles that their party stood for up until the new Leader of the Opposition arrived. There is a level of consistency, decency and intellectual honesty that has come from those members of the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, they are very few and are not in the majority of their party.

    At its core, we are going to have two votes, one of which will be to just keep putting it off and say, 'For the next few harvests we will keep telling you what to do, and then we will consider it.' Let us make no mistake: the Nats want that position because they want to go to higher levels of deregulation further down the track. That is at their core. They still have a policy for a single desk. We have a very proud member of the Nationals sitting right here who has always believed in that position. They think they might have half a chance. The first vote will be on the delay, and the second vote will be squarely on the bill. When we get to the second vote, the issue of the delay will be off the table so the Liberal Party cannot claim that is still their position. When we get to the second vote, the Liberals cannot say 'We are doing it for a delay.' That vote will have been had. When we get to the second vote, which we will take in a moment, be in no doubt: the Liberal Party will either be voting with the government to support free enterprise or voting with the Nationals to tell farmers what they are allowed to do. The Liberal Party's history of deregulation, I suspect, is about to be shown to have fundamentally changed. I commend the bill to the House.

    The question is that the amendment be agreed to.

    Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

    The question is that this bill be now read a second time