Tuesday, 26 June 2012
I rise to make just a few comments tonight about the wheat industry and where the industry sits at the moment. I do have to say that, having been a very strong supporter of the single desk, I see no reason to change that view four years later. However, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that point in time when we saw the deregulation of the wheat single desk and we are now in a different period in the wheat industry's history.
I do have to say, though, as a wheat grower—I had better declare my interest as a wheat grower in this place—I have seen nothing, sadly, in the last four years to convince me that I was not right in supporting the retention of the single desk. There are a number of issues that have evolved over the last few years and come to light. There has been some discussion recently about a piece of legislation to do with the Wheat Export Authority, which I will not specifically to speak to, but I want to make some general comments around the present situation of the industry. Having done two inquiries with the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport Committee that looked into various aspects of the wheat industry, it has become very clear that there are a number of areas within the wheat industry that do need to be addressed to improve the performance and the future sustainability of the industry.
There has been a move from the government to abolish the Wheat Export Authority, and I think this shows the complete disconnect again from the Labor government to the needs and issues surrounding the wheat industry. It really does show that they do not understand the operation of the wheat industry or the issues that need to be addressed before we move to full deregulation of the industry. It really is a very sad indictment of the government that they have not listened to the industry, that they have not taken on board all of those concerns that the industry has put forward, and yet they are moving to deregulate the industry completely by getting rid of the Wheat Export Authority.
Interestingly, there is not a cost to government for this. The Wheat Export Authority is funded by the 22c a tonne levy on growers. So it is interesting that the government is moving to completely get rid of the Wheat Export Authority and part of what they want to do is move to a voluntary code of conduct. I have to say that I have nil faith that a voluntary code of conduct will be able to address the issues that have arisen over the last while with regard to the wheat industry. A real concern was raised four years ago, when we moved to get rid of the single desk for wheat, that we would end up with regional monopolies across the country. I think it has been borne out that that is indeed the case. Others may argue against that, but there are a number of us who have very strong views that that is the case. Certainly the great majority of wheat growers would like to see the Wheat Export Authority stay, at least for a period of time. A number of issues have been raised around wheat stocks information: unequal access, port access, the management of the supply chain and port capacity information. There are very strong concerns around the integrity of Australian grain exports and probably even stronger concerns around the integrity of the container trade. All of these issues have been raised in the context of the last couple of inquiries done by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee.
There is a view from the overwhelming majority of wheat industry participants that the Wheat Export Authority should stay where it is until we can determine the best way to address those particular issues. Certainly a number of growers that I am talking to, as well as industry representative groups, have a view that all of those issues can be addressed through the reconfiguring of the Wheat Export Authority. I certainly agree with that. I think it makes far more sense than completely getting rid of the Wheat Export Authority with a view to starting up an entirely new system to address these issues that have been raised by industry down the track. I do acknowledge that others have a different view, but I certainly believe—and probably the majority of growers believe as well—that the most appropriate way to deal with these issues, the least cumbersome way, would be to maintain the WEA until an appropriate period of consultation with the industry about the best way forward in how to reconfigure the WEA can be found. I certainly believe that it will be far more cost effective. I think the growers will be quite happy to wear the 22c a tonne they are paying at the moment as an ongoing cost for a short period of time, believing that it will be far more cost effective to continue a current body than to dismantle it and set up a whole new body. In terms of the ability to do that seamlessly, I think it is believed by the majority of industry that that is the way forward. The recent report that was tabled in the chamber outlines that coalition senators and Greens senators certainly believe that that is the way forward.
We have recommended that the bill be amended to allow for the continued funding and existence of Wheat Exports Australia in order to do a whole range of things, and I would direct colleagues and anyone listening to go to the report and read that rather lengthy recommendation, which covers what I have been discussing so far. There is certainly a view that a voluntary code of conduct will not work. There is no faith that a voluntary code of conduct would be able to deliver all of those issues that need to be addressed by industry. I think it is quite fair of the industry to raise these issues, to look to some leadership from government to find a way to address that. They certainly have some solutions with regard to this, very well-considered solutions, and it is interesting to see virtually right across the board, across all jurisdictions, that state industry bodies are speaking as one on this. We certainly took that into account on the committee.
I, as a senator and also as a wheat grower, am very well aware that these issues need to be addressed and need to be resolved. So any move to, with any kind of speed, get rid of the Wheat Export Authority without an appropriate oversight body simply, in my view, should not happen. I do believe that is reflected by many across the industry; indeed, I would have to say the overwhelming majority of the industry. Certainly some of the bulk handlers have a different view. We are very well aware of that. But, as a senator in this place and as a senator for the Nationals for regional Australia, my responsibility is to make sure that I represent those people out there in the regions. I believe those wheat growers overwhelmingly want these issues to be addressed and they believe that the most appropriate way to do that is to maintain the WEA until we can appropriately reconfigure the WEA to take into account these concerns and put in place those solutions that are most definitely needed by the industry.