House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Grievance Debate

Farming Sector Reform

9:20 pm

Photo of Dick AdamsDick Adams (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to take up a grievance I have regarding an article in today’s Australian Financial Review by Alan Mitchell entitled ‘Farming sector thirsts for reform’. Actually, it is more of a pat on the back to Mr Mitchell for raising this issue. He starts the article by commenting on the National Farmers Federation dig at the federal government’s promised reform of drought assistance and then goes on to tell us:

The reform of drought relief is important, not just for farmers but for the wider economy—

which is very true. I am in the process of putting to bed a committee report on the issue of agriculture and climate change, and I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the community, from which we have had many views, also feels that there is a need for reforms on how the farming sector should be assisted.

Australia has faced some enormous changes in the last few years, and not all of them are down to climate change. But they have implications for change to productivity through technology, the influence of the marketplace on the types of crops grown and the overarching role of the WTO in regulating some of the trade excesses or unevenness in the market. Mitchell, in his article, states:

It takes 80 per cent of Australian broadacre farms to produce just 36 per cent of the sector’s total output.

He then suggests:

The other 20 per cent of farms produce almost two-thirds of the output.

He goes on to say that the bigger farms are better protected against drought because, as the bigger of all industries are able to, they can measure their risks, and they can use sophisticated tools for financial planning by diversifying their enterprise mix and/or landholdings with efficient stocking and improvements to their natural resource base. They can weather some of the extremes, whereas the smaller farmers may get through some of what nature throws at them but are less able to deal with extremes delivered over time. They are obviously less able to remain productive as they do not have the flexibility of the big guys. They have neither the financial reserves nor the technology to shift direction, even if they are aware that they have to.

I am very much aware, after moving around the country, that change in the sector is hard because we still have grandfathers and fathers sitting at their tables with sons who are trying to encourage and manage change. It is a nice thought but it severely strains the ability of the younger generation to put change in place, and we have never done generational change in rural Australia very well.

So it is no surprise, as Mitchell states in his article:

The Productivity Commission last year concluded that that the present drought assistance programs do not help farmers improve their self-reliance, preparedness and climate change management.

In fact, some of them do the opposite. They can be ineffective and can encourage poor management practices, allowing inefficient farmers to remain on the land when perhaps, with a different sort of encouragement, there exit could be facilitated and managed socially while a review of the land potential can be undertaken. This review, by its very nature, should take into account the history of farming in this country. It has been our economic backbone and it has been a hedge in times of hardship; but, like everything else, it needs to reflect the changes that are going on in the rest of the world.

If this government can help manage this change while being also very aware of the social implications, it can take those rural communities with it—and I believe we can. By listening and reacting to their problems, hearing their ideas, innovations and very real solutions, I believe the fundamental change that is needed can occur. I only have to read the Tasmanian Country each week, where they expound the virtues of new crops being trialled—such as Uplands Spanish cocksfoot, which from the article appears to be a complementary ground cover with clover—or the commencement of the use of GPS units to maintain a controlled traffic environment that minimises unnecessary traffic movements on the farm. This allows farmers to plan for their property’s unique needs using yield maps to see management techniques can be improved. This shows that people in the rural sector are interested in change and what other people are doing—otherwise, the Tasmanian Country would not sell—and there is a need for a constant feed of information into the farming community, not just from the newspaper but also from other sources such as the website and of course the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association website, to name a couple.

Schools can play a role too. There are a number of farm schools in my electorate, including Hagley, Cressy and Sheffield, which are already using new farming techniques and learning how to drought proof. There are other schools and community groups developing kitchen gardens, where students are encouraged to grow their own food, harvest, prepare, cook and, finally, eat it. Everybody learns nutritional values and how to grow food, in a very historical way for our country. This leads to a greater understanding of where food comes from and how it is part of our lives. I believe it would be useful if many of the city schools did something like this as well. It would mean that their students would get some idea of the stresses and strains for those in the rural sector in making sure they get their ‘daily bread’ and milk. Milk does not just get into a carton by itself, and wheat has to be grown and baked into bread somewhere before it gets to a supermarket. Chips do not just come out a packet. We could apply the same idea to our clothes. Understanding how fabric is made and how clothing is designed and produced might lead our students to look for a career in design or fabric manufacturing, or even in the production of high-quality clothes.

As Alan Mitchell noted, the blueprint for change can come from this government, which has more chance of doing so than the previous government, which, Mitchell said, ‘needed to prop up the Nationals by keeping people in rural electorates, and by guarding against populist independents’. Labor members in rural electorates have an opportunity to seek community endorsement and approval of the many new ideas and directions, and I hope the various reports and inquiries that are currently under way will allow them to take the findings and raise them in their communities. We cannot do it without the assistance of local communities, who put so much effort into coming up with new ideas and also into helping to ease the distress of farmers who are not coping with change, not able to make decisions and not able to easily ask for help.

Together we can go forward and make sure that there is a place in the world market for our Australian farm produce, our technology and our skills to ensure that, whatever happens with the climate or the economy, we have the tools and people to deal with it. It is not as though our variable climate is particularly new. I have just been hearing about a book called Droughts, Floods and Cyclones: El ninos that shaped our colonial past. It was written by Associate Professor Don Garden and put out by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2009.

So today I wish to encourage everyone to take up change. I want to encourage all those who are busily working, researching and developing new models, and all those engaged in other rural activities to share the knowledge they have gleaned and what direction they think we should go in. (Time expired)

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

Order! The time for the grievance debate has expired. The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.