Thursday, 1 August 2019
Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I want members to imagine they're at home on a nice summer afternoon on their deck looking over the pool, if they are so lucky, and suddenly 30 young people burst through the gate and into the backyard waving placards. That would be a pretty confronting situation. Worse, imagine if they started tearing down the pool fence. That would be enormously distressing. Even worse, imagine if they started slashing the tyres on the ute that you rely on to secure an income for the family—pretty distressing stuff. That's happening on farms and in food-manufacturing facilities on an increasing basis, on an unacceptable level.
There is a difference. If I am at my place, the police station, as the crow flies, is maybe two kilometres away. But if you are on a farm, the police station might be many hundreds of kilometres away. At my place, if activists come through the front gate, I know pretty much immediately that something is going down. But on a sparse property, it might be a day or two before a farmer is aware that trespass has taken place and/or damage has been done.
There is another difference: this is the means of production of the food we rely upon for our lives. So I think it is more than appropriate that parliaments respond in recognition of those additional challenges and the additional importance of us protecting our food production systems. I am delighted that state parliaments have also acted with increased penalties for trespass and damage.
The shadow Attorney, quite rightly—and in a sophisticated way, as you would expect of him—highlighted some deficiencies in this bill, some potential unintended consequences. I am very pleased that it is going to a Senate committee so those issues can be addressed. Let's hope the Senate committee is able to satisfy the shadow Attorney's concerns and, indeed, make some recommendations that make this bill better than it is in its current form before the House.
Sadly, the hype around this bill and the pace at which it is being rammed through this House today suggests that the government is looking for an opportunity to divide, not unite. And on this issue we absolutely should be attempting to unite. We don't want to hear from the Prime Minister, 'Whose side are you on?' This parliament is not divided into two groups: one which supports our farmers and one which does not. That is absolutely not the case. We all stand united behind our farming community—the producers of our food and fibre.
I doubt that the next young person who is recruited on campus and energised and encouraged to join a protest on a farm will ever know anything about this bill or its increased penalties. It is just not the way the world works. Young impressionable kids will go along for the ride even without any commitment to the ideology behind the activists; sometimes it is just for fun. But I do know one thing: they are more likely to enjoy the event—or, if they are ideologically committed, draw satisfaction from the event—if it receives publicity, or the attention of the broader community in some other way. That's what they are looking for; they're trying to make a point. So this is a far more sophisticated question than this bill would suggest. It's a very sophisticated question. Activism is on the rise in many facets of our society, not just in our food production systems. The bill is okay, subject to the Senate review. We want it to be okay; we want it to pass. We want to be told either that there are no unintended consequences or that, if there are, they can be fixed quickly and we can get this bill through, because this bill can do no harm and it does demonstrate that we are watching and expressing concern for farmers and doing all we can to assist.
But there are other key players. First, there is the sector itself. The overwhelming majority of people in the food production system do the right thing, but it's not always the case. There is no group in our society whose members collectively are all the same and do the same thing. Of course, they don't. So we need to work with the sector through its leadership groups to ensure that, while it can never be perfect, we are conscious of changing community attitudes and a higher standard is being imposed on all of us. All of us in this place, I think it's fair to say, are having higher standards imposed upon us. Those in small business are constantly having higher standards imposed upon them through various regulatory regimes, and we need to ensure that the consumer knows with great confidence that our food production system is progressing in a way society would expect it to progress.
Farm leadership groups, of course, have a role to play. I'm going to tell a story, and I'm confident Fiona Simpson won't mind. Fiona, of course, is the president of the National Farmers' Federation. She called me one day when the Aussie Farms Map story first broke and said, 'I hope you're going to come out today and condemn Aussie Farms.' I said, 'No, Fiona, I will not, and I'm hoping you don't either,' because my view is that that's what they're looking for. They want a whole rush of publicity to highlight their protest. To that day, I had never heard of Aussie Farms, and I think that, if Aussie Farms had not got any publicity that day, I may still never have heard of them. We have to be smart about how we respond to these things. Those of us here, as individual members, have to be careful about how we respond to these things, too. Live sheep trade and live cattle trade are great examples. When politicians jump on these things because they see political opportunity in securing political capital as a result of the pain of others, we risk only making the matter worse. Again, we need a more sophisticated response.
But we also need a whole of policy response because, while farm invasions, trespass et cetera are serious matters that we need to respond to collectively, they are just one matter weighing on the budget and on the minds of Australian farmers in this year, 2019. Drought, of course, is weighing most heavily, and I say, after six years in office and after seven years of drought, that this country still lacks an overarching, comprehensive drought policy response. And I suspect that the long dry spells and hot spells we are experiencing are, unfortunately, the new normal. I don't understand why we still don't have a dairy code. I don't understand, with respect to the dairy industry, why all we've got coming is a dairy code. I don't understand why we still don't have an agriculture visa. Workforce is still the biggest challenge facing our agriculture sector, and a so-called agriculture visa may or may not be the answer—the government seems to wax and wane—but I know one thing: up until now, at least, we've had no answer. We've had no response from this government to one of the two most pressing issues facing agriculture, and that's its workforce shortage problems.
I don't understand why, after all this time, we still don't have a biosecurity levy. After the Craik review, the government promised we'd have one by 1 July. Now it says 1 September. But we've seen no draft legislation. If you look at the parliamentary time table, there is no hope of having a biosecurity levy by 1 September. It's not happening. Wendy Craik made it clear: if we want to secure our biosecurity system, we need to put more money into the system. If the government is not prepared to kick it in then we need to get it from industry. Industry is prepared to pay if it's done in a responsible way. Yet, the government hasn't been able to put together a policy design, a tax design, acceptable to industry and hasn't been able to bring legislation into this place to get that job done.
I don't understand why, despite all of the talk, we still haven't built a dam in six years. We've had a dam here. We've had a dam there. We've had a dam everywhere. We've had nothing but talk about dams in this place and on the campaign trial by those who sit opposite, but there's still no dam. We've had plenty of reports, but no action. As I mentioned, I still don't understand why we don't have a comprehensive drought policy. I don't know why so many of our producers still don't have access to the China market, despite all the hype of the free trade agreement. Many of our horticulture products are still locked out. We don't have access to the chilled beef sector, for example, a point of great frustration for the country's largest manufacturing sector, our red meat processing sector.
I don't know why we don't have a plan to lift productivity. I don't know why we don't have a plan to tackle our natural resource misallocation. I don't know why we don't have a plan to tackle one of the other big challenges in agriculture, which is the deteriorating state of our soil resources. We can't lift productivity until we have a serious plan to address those issues. And there is no plan. To paraphrase Fiona Simson—I don't have the quote with me, but I remember it vividly; when I say 'vividly', I can't remember the whole quote—she said at the National Press Club not that long ago: 'In Australia we lack a comprehensive plan for the agriculture sector.' The National Farmers' Federation is a pretty conservative organisation. I think it's fair to say, without offending them, it's pretty close to the conservative parties in this country. So it is more than passing strange that this conservative organisation, after six years of a conservative government, has to declare that this government, which talks so much about our food production system, doesn't have an overarching strategic plan for the agricultural sector.
I think it says, in essence, everything about this government. In question time, they talk incessantly about the agriculture sector. They take every opportunity to draw political capital from the agricultural sector, even though it's at a time when our farmers are hurting, whether it be from trespass, damage or drought. Yet, their response is, at best, piecemeal. It's at best piecemeal. It's certainly not strategic. It's certainly not forward looking. They're always talking about the opportunities, but they don't talk about the challenges. But we can't take advantage of the opportunities if we don't overcome the challenges.
Let us be serious about this bill. Let us join together in supporting what this bill seeks to do. But let us not use this bill or the drought fund—you know, that thing that's on the never-never, which will do very little—as an excuse to do no more. That's what this government does. There will be a Dorothy Dixer a day on the drought fund or on the trespass laws, and those on the other side think that's all they have to do. I must say, given the recent election result, maybe that is all they have to do to retake the Treasury benches. But sooner or later it's going to catch up with them. As the new member for Indi said, our farmers are facing a crisis in terms of a changing climate, and this government have no response whatsoever. All they have are a dozen members and senators freelancing on climate change, saying that climate change is either not real, or, even if it is real, there's nothing we can do about it.
I hope my great-grandchildren will not be lamenting the fact that this government, all those years ago, just declared that there was nothing it could do. We need to demonstrate to them today that we tried our very best. Denial is unacceptable. Action is possible, even if you only subscribe to the precautionary principle—in other words, if you're not sure, do something before it's too late to do something. Let's not have this mob come in here with a trespass bill and run off that for the next year as if it's mission complete; let us have a government, for a change, come in here and present a comprehensive plan for Australia's agricultural sector.