Federal Labor's push to deregulate the wheat industry has had a major boost with a NSW Liberal MP vowing to defy Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and stand up for WA growers.
Alby Schultz said yesterday he would not back a coalition bid to defer the abolition of Wheat Exports Australia and a 22¢ a tonne levy, saying it was a backdoor Nationals plan to re-regulate the industry.
"If the coalition is going to walk away from deregulation of the WEA, I won't be walking with them. Simple as that," he said.
Mr Schultz, who with former WA Liberal firebrand Wilson Tuckey fought for the end of AWB's export monopoly after the wheat-for-weapons scandal a decade ago, said keeping WEA would only see WA wheat growers "ripped off" to the benefit of those in the east.
"I didn't think it appropriate at that time - and still don't - that growers who don't export wheat should live off the misery of export wheat growers hit with huge penalties in costs and charges," Mr Schultz said.
He said the Nationals were intent on a moratorium on deregulation to return to the single wheat desk.
Mr Schultz said he would not cross the floor but give Labor his vote by abstaining.
His intervention will intensify pressure on WA Liberal MPs to back State wheat growers because Mr Schultz's abstention would put the Government within a whisker of winding up WEA.
With WA National Tony Crook and Craig Thomson to vote with Labor, the Government would need just one more vote if Peter Slipper returned as Speaker. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop is asking WA Liberals to back the Nationals' amendment, saying Mr Abbott's leadership and the coalition's election prospects demanded unity.
This is causing angst internally, with MPs harangued by wheat growers and senior party figures for retreating on party principles.
Victorian Liberal MP Dan Tehan said the Government could achieve deregulation if it adopted recommendations of a cross-party committee report from this year. "It said the final step down the deregulation path should occur," he said.
WA's bulk wheat exporter CBH said administration costs under the current regime were more than $1 million a year and $3 million when port access was negotiated every three years.