Thursday, 3 December 2015
I would like to give this valedictory on the year that has gone past in agriculture and show what a brilliant year it has been for the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and go through some of the achievements. First of all, there is the $4 billion Agricultural Competitiveness white paper. It was a paper that lays out a path, not only for agriculture for this term of government, but, hopefully, for governments into the future. It is a path that reflected on over 1,000 submissions that people had given back to the government as a way to say, 'These are the things that we want.' Now we are rolling out that path.
Overall agriculture has seen one of the most dramatic turnarounds in soft commodity prices in the history of our nation, and we are bringing real money back through the farm gate, as we said we would. Our modus operandi within the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is a better return through the farm gate, and we are delivering that with record cattle prices, record meat sheep prices, turnaround in the wool market, new access for tropical fruits, turnaround in the wine market, new markets for almonds and all our protein lines are moving. We can go through so many other things. This has worked on the back of three new free trade agreements where we worked with the trade departments, both here and overseas, to make sure that we could bed down the most substantial agreements in trade this nation has seen. We have also noted that, whether it is Japan, Korea or China, that these markets now are booming. They are booming in the product that they are purchasing from our farmers, and we are making sure that the protocols are in place to get the smooth transition to get the flow of funds so that we can actually add to the pie. People talk about how we actually earn more money, how we increase our revenues. We increase our revenues by making sure that we get more market share, and we are doing that.
We have also brought water across into the agricultural portfolio. This is something that is incredibly important. Just prior to that we had the Water Amendment Bill passed capping buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres so that we can make sure that we do not create excessive detrimental effects to the socioeconomic substance of the people in the basin.
We have also made sure that we reflected on the Australian people's views where they had concerns about our oversight of foreign investment, and we have made sure that we have reflected on that by lowering the thresholds to $15 million for individuals and $55 million for agribusiness. Still, we have people lined up out the door trying to make sure that they can be part of the action in agriculture, because we are a great place to invest. We are still the most liberal place on earth. The Australian people asked for greater oversight, and we have delivered greater oversight.
We have made sure that we have more and proper competition in the farming sector. Part of the white paper was the delivery of a quarter of a billion dollars a year in concessional loans. We already have loans rolling out. We have Drought Recovery Concessional Loans of 2.71 per cent, the drought farm finance at 3.55 per cent and drought loans at 3.05 per cent. $191.2 million went out in farm finance to well over 400 approved farm businesses by 31 October. We had $194.5 million lent out in Drought Recovery Concessional Loans to 323 approved businesses. We had $14 million that went out in drought recovery loans for 28 farm businesses, and that will come more into play now. We have made sure that the concessional loan scheme is suited to the people in the areas. We have delivered for people who want cash, straight onto their kitchen table, so that they can make payments for their medical requirements, for fuel and for basic groceries. We have a direct payment that allows a couple to get around $1,000 a fortnight, and 5,584 of those claims for household allowance had been granted by 27 November.
We have over $4.6 billion held in Farm Management Deposits. We have approved for the extension of these deposits up to $800,000 and for them to be offset against a loan on their farm. Basically, we hope to get this working well and operating as a tax deduction to pay off a property, because we all know that the greater equity you have in your property, the greater chance of survival you have. Probably one of the greatest protections in drought is to have equity in your farm.
We have made money available for pest and weeds management in drought-affected areas of $25 million. We are now seeing claims come through for the construction of such things as dog fences so that we can get sheep back into the areas, get the shearers back into the areas, get the economies working again and getting employment working again. This is absolutely vital for stimulating the economic effect. I know that the member for Grayndler is just as interested as I am in making sure that those on the edges are well looked after, and that we look after the shearers of western Queensland and western New South Wales, who were, once upon a time, the heart of the Australian labour movement. We have continued to work on stimulus packages for those in the drought areas, making $35 million available. That money is rolling out as well.
We have expanded social and community support programs. We have put further money towards additional rural financial counsellors. We have received more than 8,300 calls to the ATO hotline for drought-affected taxpayers. We have assisted small exporters by making money available to programs assisting small exporters to get their products to the world.
In biosecurity, we have made substantial moves forward, getting one of the largest acts in the history of this parliament, the Biosecurity Act 2015, through; it passed both houses of parliament. That took substantial work over a long period of time; it was completed by this government. We have made sure that we have put further money into the white paper for pest control, pest eradication and biosecurity upgrades. We have made more money available for the National Fruit Fly Research, Development and Extension Plan so that we can get in front of the issues in some of our permanent planting areas and make sure that those markets are also able to export to the world.
Country-of-origin labelling has been a fundamental requirement, not only of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources but of the Australian people. We have made sure that we are now progressing with the proper country-of-origin labelling process so that we get away from these amorphous and misleading concepts and give people a clear understanding of whether the product they are buying is from our nation or another nation, and not only tell them whether it is from our nation or another nation but tell them what proportion of the substantial product that is in that package comes from our nation. I want to commend the work that was done by the minister at the time, Ian Macfarlane, as we worked together to make sure that we got this through—working very closely together for a substantive outcome for the Australian people.
We have made sure that we have further assisted, working with the minister for infrastructure, to get money given to the CSIRO TRANSIT process so that we can get a clearer understanding of how we properly and methodically give a tactical reason for investment in infrastructure in regional areas. I want to thank Warren Truss for the amazing work that he has done, especially in progressing such vital infrastructure as the inland rail. We have waited for so long for the inland rail, and finally it is happening—because we have a person who does not just talk about building things but actually builds them.
We have made sure that we have started streamlining agvet chemicals. We have made sure that we have continued to work on getting proficient trawl areas for fisheries.
We have made sure that, in our timber industry, we stand behind them so that they have a lively capacity to not only deliver to the domestic market but also take up the opportunities that are overseas. We have opened an over-$370-million biosecurity facility near Melbourne. We turned the first sod on this, and the other day I went down there to open it up. This shows a competent government with the capacity to turn the first sod and the capacity to actually finish the project off.
It has been a great honour to take agriculture and water resources back to the centre of government—to make sure that this fundamental pillar of our nation is well respected. This pillar is now actually carrying the load. It is doing what it has always done before for the Australian people—delivering more money back into our economy.
In 2013-14, we had a nine per cent growth in the gross value of our exports. In 2014-15 we had a seven per cent gross increase in the value of our exports. And we had 12 per cent growth over the first quarter last year.
This has been a year of delivery, and we are absolutely certain that we have the competence and the calibre to go to the Australian people in the next year showing that we have delivered and we have been effective—that it has not just been hyperbole and rhetoric; it has been real delivery.
The best result you could ever get as the minister in this area is to go to the saleyards and have people walk up to you and say, 'You actually have made a vast difference, because you have got the live cattle trade going again.' We now have new markets in Egypt, Bahrain and Lebanon; new markets in Iran, if the health protocols are together—in Iran, after four decades of it being closed; and new markets in Cambodia and Thailand. Live cattle are now moving into China. We are making a difference. We have made and we will continue to make a difference.
I commend all the work of my department and all the work of my staff, and we look forward to doing it again.
In closing, I would like to thank all those who have assisted—all of those in the chamber, all of those who have done every job in this building, and all of those throughout the department of agriculture across our nation. I wish everybody all the very best. All the best, and God bless.