I am pleased to speak on the Grain Handling and Storage Amendment Bill.
At the very heart of this bill is a reduction of regulation affecting grain handling and storage in a sector for which the Essential Services Commission recommends a light-handed regulation regime. Secondly, the bill extends access regulation to the port of Melbourne by way of the new regime being put in place. The history is that section 23(1) of the act was amended in 2003 to require the commission to complete an inquiry by 30 June 2006 as to whether grain handling terminals should be regulated. Following that inquiry, the commission recommended there should be no discrimination in the regulatory treatment of facilities at the port of Melbourne on the one hand and the ports of Geelong and Portland on the other hand.
From the inquiry the commission found that although increased competition between the facilities had reduced the need for regulation, the significant degree of change in the grain industry still warranted a degree of regulation — for example, things are still up in the air as to what may happen with the Australian Wheat Board. The commission considered that this limited regulation should take the form of undertakings that operated in favour of access seekers and access users being given to the commission by providers. This is a fairly mature way of going about business It is a very mature way for business to conduct itself: you have some key principles, undertakings are given, and, if there is a breach of those undertakings, there is a framework whereby there is recourse if there is a dispute. In lots of ways just moving towards that form of behaviour within business and the ports of Geelong, Portland and Melbourne is significant.
It is also important to quickly go through the amendments in this bill, which are contained in 13 clauses. I will do that in a fairly straightforward manner. Clause 1 sets out the purpose of the bill. Clause 2 stipulates the commencement date as 1 January 2008. Clause 3 incorporates the port of Melbourne into the act. Clause 4 revises the definition of ‘competition principles agreement’ and inserts a definition of ‘general access determination’. Clause 5 gives effect to the specific services at the port of Melbourne, that being prescribed services for the purposes of part 3 of the Essential Services Commission Act 2001. Clauses 6, 7, 8 and 9 contain a series of consequential amendments.
Clause 10 inserts a new section that enables the commission, of its own notion, to make a determination to revoke the general access determination if it considers that a provider has not complied with the general access determination, and a new section that enables the commission to monitor the compliance by a provider with the general access determination.
Clause 11 applies to a person who considers that his or her right of access to prescribed services has been hindered by the provider, which was the point I was making earlier in terms of recourse — that there is essentially a disputes procedure for the parties to exercise. Clause 12 enables the commission to publish guidelines. The final clause, clause 13, contains an automatic repeal provision that takes effect on 1 January 2009.
The aim of the amendments is to build on the growth that is occurring at the ports of Geelong, Portland and Melbourne. The efficient functioning of the ports cannot be underestimated, and I think it is important to highlight a couple of facts for the house. If you look at the port of Geelong, for example, it is the second busiest port in Victoria. It generates 8.3 per cent of gross regional domestic product. It is the biggest bulk cargo port in Victoria and the sixth largest grain terminal in the entire country. It also supports around 6100 direct and indirect jobs.
That is how critical ports are, and their efficient operation is absolutely instrumental to a properly functioning economy.
The grain industry itself — our grain producers, our farm equipment suppliers, our transport providers and storage handling facilitators, along with their families — is far too important to put at risk. Whilst we were very much hoping for a bumper crop just four weeks ago, the jury is now out. I share the concerns that Mr Vogels and Mr Drum have with respect to our cereal growers, particularly in northern Victoria, and I do not think in any way there is a role for a political party to play by engaging in point-scoring on this issue. Indeed we need to take a bipartisan approach on how we can handle this dreadful ongoing and potentially worsening situation for our rural communities in this state. The cutting of red tape and the streamlining of processes are key ingredients in maximising throughput at the ports.
This bill does that, while at the same time providing for a framework that ensures fair play and a recourse if those principles are not followed.
Whilst this bill may not go as far as some people may want in providing total deregulation, this new regime will allow the Essential Services Commission to adopt more of a monitoring role, which would see it intervening only if terminal operators failed to meet the requirements of the undertakings I explained previously. Licensing fees will disappear as the industry takes this important step towards self-regulation. This is a mature step, and mature behaviours are required to support a longstanding and mature agricultural and transport industry. This new, light-handed access regime gives the commission a role in line with the conclusion reached in the Council of Australian Governments competition and infrastructure reform agreement that monitoring may be appropriate when scaling back from more intrusive regulation.
Following some of the comments made by previous speakers, I believe some points need to be driven home with respect to rail infrastructure. These are black-and-white facts, and I do not think they are open to too much interpretation. The first is that the privatisation of Victoria’s freight rail was an abysmal failure. There is no denying that. In fact the government concluded the buyback of the regional freight rail network for $134 million earlier this year. That is this government’s commitment to making sure we have an appropriate infrastructure to get our much-needed grain to ports. This followed a commitment in the May budget of $53 million to upgrade the Mildura freight rail corridor.
That is in the budget papers. Members opposite cannot just sit there and say that this government is not doing anything in respect to infrastructure in rural areas and is not supporting rural industries. We bought back a run-down system; it needs investment; we are putting money into upgrading that system. The Liberals sold it; they let it fall into decline; we know that there has been very little maintenance over the years it was privatised. We have had to put an enormous amount of money out of consolidated revenue into those maintenance costs. It is going to take time, but there is a commitment and there is a plan; we are going about our business. I commend this bill and I urge the house to be sensible when it talks about rail infrastructure.