Tuesday, 27 March 2018
Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading
With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, can I say that, while one could never ever complain about one's participation in our democratic processes, I do lament the fact that while waiting to make a contribution I have missed the first speech of new New South Wales Senator Kristina Keneally. I apologise to her from the despatch box and say to the House that I have no doubt that she made a very fine speech and that she will make a very fine senator for the state of New South Wales. She comes with a lot of talent, a lot of experience and certainly a commitment to Labor ideals and values. I thank you for your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I remind the House that I'm in continuation. The bill that we are debating, at the risk of oversimplifying it, strengthens the capacity of statutory research and development corporations to raise or secure funds for marketing activities. Labor is supporting the Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill 2017, although I will now move a second reading amendment, which I understand the member for Shortland will second at the conclusion of my remarks. I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Turnbull Government has failed to develop evidence-based policies to support primary industries through appropriately targeted research and development, and the efficient allocation of funding".
In fact, the timing of the debate is more fortuitous than would have been the case if we'd continued back on 1 March. I have moved this second reading amendment to broaden debate on this bill to reflect more broadly on the government's performance on agriculture policy over the course of the last 4½ years, but I say it's more timely because just recently, I think only a number of days ago, the Prime Minister launched what I think is a very good document for the National Farmers Federation. The document is entitled Talking 2030. It was produced and published with the assistance of Telstra and KPMG. I make that point because I think the PM's decision to launch the document is an admission of the failure of the government's agriculture white paper. All this time afterwards the PM has decided that we need to hit the reset button and has agreed to launch this report. I welcome the fact that he has done so, because this is a quality report and, I would suggest, something more like what you'd expect an agriculture white paper to look like. I assume that by launching the report—it's not always the case; I accept that—the PM has in effect given his approval to most of what, if not everything, the report says.
I'd like to quote from the President of the National Farmers Federation, Fiona Simpson. In the forward to the document, she says, 'Each of these is a momentous task'—she's referring to the key points or conclusions of the report—'requiring a willingness to embrace new ideas and cross-industry collaboration.' And I couldn't agree more, because it is true, as I've said here many, many times before, that the opportunities ahead for Australia's agriculture sector are very, very significant—the least not being, of course, rising demand for high-quality, high-value food in Asian markets. But it's also true that the challenges before agriculture are also very significant.
I want to paraphrase and draw out some of the key points of the document. We are facing a growing global population—to state the obvious—and that of course flows on to growing global food demand. We are also facing dramatically changing consumer preferences. Members of the House will be familiar with those. The third point I make is that new and higher value markets are emerging, as are market segments. And there is an important difference between markets and market segments. Fourth, we are facing a more challenging and a dramatically changing climate, which makes our task all the more challenging and difficult.
The fifth point is that we're facing strengthening competition. I was having a conversation only today about the emerging strength of producers of grains in the Black Sea area and what that means, what implication that brings for Australian growers and exporters. And the sixth point I make—not that I assume these points to be exhaustive—is that possibly we are also facing an emerging protectionism, with what has originated in the United States in particular and some of the implications and consequences we are already seeing as a result of that.
I don't want to repeat them all at length here again this evening, but I have recently talked about what I believe an agriculture minister needs to be focusing on. The NFF document goes more broadly. It goes to all the other important things that will be critical to agriculture's success: connectivity, trade agreements, transport, improved roads and rail links and better and more efficient ports. But none of those things are directly the responsibility of the agriculture minister. An agriculture minister has to work with his or her colleagues in those other portfolios for the greater good and for the good of the agriculture sector.
I've talked about the need for high-level policy guidance, the need to re-kickstart the COAG process, the need to do more to protect our greatest competitive edge, that is our reputation as a provider of clean, green, safe and high-quality food, and what that means for our investment in our biosecurity and traceability systems. I've talked about the need to develop and embrace a productivity agenda, without which we cannot hope to be successful, and the need to embrace better land-use practices in response to our changing climate. Then there is the further pursuit of mechanisms to ensure that we are efficiently allocating our limited natural resources; the pursuit of higher value markets; a greater concentration on non-tariff barriers that so many of our growers and producers face; a bigger effort in research and development, innovation and extension. These are the things we need to be concentrating on. I welcome the NFF report because it touches on each and every one of those, unlike the government's failed agriculture white paper.
The other thing I'll say about the NFF's report—or, more particularly, the Prime Minister's embrace of it—is that the embrace and launching of a report is fine, but the sector needs more than reports and papers now. In 4½ years the Prime Minister has embraced an agricultural white paper and an NFF report. We've had report after report on the forestry sector but still no action or policy of any great note in agriculture or the forestry sector.
Meanwhile, other concerns are emerging. At the beginning of my speech—on 1 March, before I was interrupted—I think I said that in recent times we've had the outbreak of white spot in Australia's prawn sector, blueberry rust in Tasmania, fruit fly more recently in Tasmania, and more recently again the outbreak of listeria in our rockmelons, a serious issue for the producers in that sector. I don't want to be too critical of governments—plural, because the rockmelon issue is largely a matter for New South Wales in the first instance—but what concerns me is a lack of urgency in helping sectors affected by these outbreaks when they need it most.
It is very relevant to this bill, because this bill is about helping research and development corporations that are statutory corporations, unlike industry owned corporations. I make that point because the bill's talking about statutory RDCs, and in horticulture the RDC is industry owned. Still, the capacity to raise funds when things go wrong is very important. I again contrast the government's response to the outbreak of hep A during the berry scare. Everyone will remember that; it was on the six o'clock news for days on end. The government's response was a very robust one, because it was an area where the government had very little control. Rather than fix it, they tried to switch the focus of the electorate to country-of-origin labelling, which was completely irrelevant to the issue, because the berries which had allegedly carried the problem were a clearly marked product of China. That was, from my perspective, a distraction by the government to rid themselves of any responsibility.
What has been happening with rockmelons is very much an Australian problem which will need to be overcome with a certain degree of marketing and public reassurance. It is relevant to this bill, because we're looking at how we might help research and development corporations in those marketing efforts. I again signal to the government that we're very happy to work with them in any way we can to restore confidence, because people out there are devastated by the outbreak in the rockmelon industry. They will need help, and we should be standing with them.
I close by reminding the House that the opposition will be supporting the bill. We think it's a worthy initiative, and I again appeal to the new minister for agriculture to accept my invitation to work on a bipartisan basis to overcome the significant challenges agriculture faces so that we can take up those enormous opportunities and meet our aspirations.
Primary industries, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, have always been an essential part of the Australian economy. From our early history of Australia riding on the sheep's back, our primary industries have innovated, changed and grown exponentially. A critical part of this growth has been investment in research and development, as well as in extensive marketing.
As a farmer myself, I know that it is one thing to produce a product; it is entirely another to find profitable long-term markets for that product. This is why trade and our free trade agreements have been, and will continue to be, so important to the primary production sector. When we look back to what's been asked of us as a government repeatedly, it's been the No. 1 issue that farmers have raised—the market access issue.
Some of the challenges for those of us who are farmers and primary producers is to continue to extend Australia's competitive edge in the global food and fibre market; to tackle challenges such as competition in both domestic and export markets; the employment in our towns that goes with our primary production; and the long-term impacts of the change of climate on ag productivity and sustainability.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences forecast our farm exports at $48.7 billion for 2017-18. It's a massive earner for our country. And you know very well, Mr Deputy Speaker, how it underpins so many regional communities—the small businesses and local economies right around Australia. Since 1945, when the government established ABARES, we have seen increased productivity—constant increases, constant innovation and some amazing farmers. They are some of the best in the world, without a question. This is mostly because of continuous research and development.
There are industry-specific development corporations, as we know, from the Australian Egg Corporation, Meat & Livestock Australia and Horticulture Innovation Australia to the very well-known Australian Wool Innovation and many others. These corporations also have a marketing function. And the R&D isn't just into more efficient ways to produce their respective commodities but also into the marketing of the products. Relevant industries invest in their R&D corporations through levies on the production itself, and the Australian government invests by matching the industry R&D levy expenditure. It is a real partnership and a unique model in Australia and in the world.
According to ABARES estimates, for every dollar invested in agriculture R&D our farmers, our primary producers, actually generate a $12 return within 10 years—for every single dollar. It's a great return on investment: strong agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries are a massive benefit for all Australians and underpin so many of our rural economies, as I said. It is those local jobs and small businesses.
As I mentioned earlier, there are 15 rural R&D corporations. Out of those 15, 14 can carry out marketing activities but only 10 do. They provide a very valuable service to their industry sectors in both R&D and marketing. This has helped to build our pork, wool and red meat industries, for example, and expanded Australian access to international markets. This is particularly relevant with the free trade agreements delivered by this government with Japan, Korea, China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Peru and Singapore.
The coalition government has worked hard to open international markets for access by our primary producers. As I said, the most common thing said to me—and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker—was about markets access, 'We just want a fair go into the market.' That's what this government has worked over time to deliver. I've said previously, and I'll say it proudly every single time: our primary producers in Australia are some of the most efficient in the world, in spite of operating, often, in much harsher and more extreme weather and growing conditions than many of our international competitors.
Much of that capability and capacity to manage environmental challenges comes from continuous research and development. For instance, Dairy Australia is an R&D corporation that defines its role as:
… to build a sustainable and internationally competitive industry and to provide solutions that help farmers adapt to an ever-changing operating environment.
That's the world we live in. It doesn't stand still for us on the farm. And it acts as the collective investment arm of the dairy industry and invests in research, development and extension as well as industry services.
In my electorate of Forrest, Western Dairy assists farmers with many programs made possible from R&D contributions. Western Dairy helps farmers with programs in relation to compost, financial analysis and farm safety, as well as one called Stepping Back, which assists farmers in transitioning and setting up for the next generation of farmers, which is really critical in this space.
Australia's rural and ag sector employs more than 1½ million people. The overall ag supply chain contributes 12 per cent to Australia's GDP. And I really like this statistic: each year the average Australian farmer feeds 600 people. What a great achievement. We feed 600 people, each person. And I think that's often overlooked. Innovation, agility and efficiency are critical to our industry. Strategic, targeted and regionally relevant research and development is the key to that, as is the collaboration, the extension onto farm, between researchers, investors, governments, primary producers and agribusinesses—that direct return beyond the farm gate itself. In 2015 Deloitte said that agribusiness is 'the sector with the strongest competitive advantage for Australia's outlook', as well as the benefits of R&D flowing directly to farmers and regional state and federal budgets. That's what it does. It doesn't just sit with the farmer; it flows right across the board. It flows down to help provide innovative, cutting-edge education for our agricultural students, which is one of the reasons I cannot understand the WA state Labor government, which announced $64 million in education cuts, some of which they've had to reverse because of public pressure. The CWA actually marched on state parliament recently and protested against those sweeping cuts to regional education.
But the one that I really believe is so retrograde and negative—the most blatant and ill-conceived cash grab—is taking 20 per cent of funds from the Agricultural Education Provisions Trust fund. This is physically taking funding from our agricultural colleges and Esperance Farm trainee school in WA. These funds are earned by the schools themselves and generated from selling their own produce. The Harvey ag school in my electorate is a fantastic facility, but they're going to lose at least $50,000 every year. These are the funds that the ag schools use for farm machinery, for developing their farms and applying the latest innovation and technology, and for repairing and replacing fences, as well as the constant recurrent costs that they have to meet. So Labor's cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from these regional ag schools.
I have no doubt—and I'm sure there are members in here who have no doubt—that agriculture is critical both to the WA economy and to the Australian economy. In WA alone it's worth $8.6 billion—just to the WA economy. And the expectation is that that could double over the next 12 years as our beef, lamb, wine, beer, dairy, fruits and vegetables, seafood, pork, wheat and grains are marketed overseas in high-end products. That's where we belong, at the high-value end of niche products, because we have fantastic quality. And we should never underestimate that and its impact around the world.
Our farmers and our primary producers work very closely together to get these products to the markets, and our future farmers need the best possible education, with the most current innovation and training technologies—the machinery, the tools and trades equipment—like that at the Harvey ag school's trade training centre. It is exceptional. The students currently have access to well-equipped workshops. They're training on the machinery and tools currently being used in the relevant industry, whether it's automotive, construction, furnishing, metals or engineering. But also, as you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, the ag school is an economic contributor in itself to our local Harvey community—in employment, in sourcing inputs from local businesses.
Over 600 students attend these colleges. What this tells me is that, unfortunately, the WA state Labor government just don't understand the constant changes that occur in the ag sector. They don't understand why our ag students need access to cutting-edge farm machinery, technology and equipment, and that's delivered not only by continuous research and development but by access to funding to keep upgrading what they have at their disposal to teach great young people. But mostly what is worrying is they don't want to invest in the future of agriculture for the next generation. What sort of a message does this give to the great young people who want to go into agriculture and see a great future? And this is in a state that is set to double its population by 2050.
For farmers, constant innovation, constant focus on quality is what we do. It's what helped to keep us competitive and we are constantly improving our efficiency and productivity. We know that 58 is the average age of farmers in Australia. That's why these young people at the ag colleges in Western Australia are so important. We actually need every single one of our new young farmers. So I say to the state Labor government: cutting funding from Western Australia's agricultural colleges is a short-sighted city-centric decision. Continuous R&D and marketing are the keys to being competitive.
This legislation deals with the four statutory R&D corporations that are still governed by the 1989 legislation—the fisheries, cotton, grains and rural industries R&D corporations. Like most of the R&D corps, they must have a statutory levy attached in order to undertake marketing. This change was made in 2013 following wide consultation which led to the passage of the Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Act 2013. The process to impose a statutory levy is often time consuming and its collection can be expensive. The fisheries R&D corporation and its industry body say the smaller industries can't afford the cost of establishing and collecting a levy, so this bill will make it possible for the fisheries, cotton, grains and rural industries R&D corporations to carry out marketing activities by using voluntary contributions—for example, a gift, a grant or a bequest. It simply updates the legislation and puts these four corporations on the same footing as the other corporations.
The bill also requires the R&D corporations to report on the marketing activities that they carry out each financial year in their annual report. This will ensure transparency for the industry, and the bill expands the definition of marketing activities to include matters that are incidental to marketing. This will allow the R&D corporations to plan and to coordinate marketing activities using the funds provided to them for R&D purposes.
In finishing my remarks today, can I just give a great shout-out to every farmer, every primary producer that's out there in Australia. I have enormous respect for my fellow farmers. I'm very proud of them. On Saturday evening, I attended a Dairy Industry Association of Australia event where the DIAA award winning products were celebrated. There were some fantastic products from right around Western Australia. But what I did do, which will be of no surprise, is remind those great small, medium and large manufacturers in Western Australia that we are interdependent—my family and I as producers of some of the best quality milk in Australia and they as manufacturers. We work together to produce some of the best quality dairy products in the market. I'm hoping they in turn take advantage of the fantastic free trade agreements that we've signed and look at how to not only to get their products well established in the domestic market but actually get them into the wider international markets as well. We can compete anywhere in the world with our great farmers and our fantastic manufacturers, and I just urge them to get on with it.
I rise to speak in support of the member for Hunter's amendment to the Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill 2017. In particular, I wish to highlight this government's failure to have evidence based policies to support the efficient allocation of taxpayers' money. This side of the House will be supporting this legislation, but I have to say there are a number of issues where the government has failed to efficiently use taxpayers' dollars and, importantly, has failed industry through research, development and marketing.
I want to highlight an issue directly related to this legislation, on which it seems the former minister for agriculture, the member for New England, completely dropped the ball: the Australian Wild Abalone campaign. The Australian wild abalone industry has a beach value of approximately $180 million, and my state of Tasmania is the biggest contributor to this nationally, with $100 million in value coming from my state. In fact, the Tasmanian industry harvests, processes and exports the world's largest abalone resource, supplying over 25 per cent of total annual global production of wild caught abalone product. Abalone is Tasmania's most valuable wild harvested marine resource and one of the state's largest export earners. Tasmania harvests 1,850 tonnes of live weight abalone annually, over 95 per cent of which is exported, principally to the Asian markets of China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. This in turn generates some $200 million worth of associated economic activity into the state's economy. So you get the picture that this is quite big for a small state like Tasmania.
There are, however, opportunities for increased growth in associated and complementary industries, such as food tourism, particularly targeting Asian markets, which we do very well in in other sectors. The industry recognises the opportunity to significantly increase industry returns via investment in a strategic market development program such as Australian Wild Abalone. The wild fishery already competes on the international stage against an increasing farmed-abalone sector. Production has shifted from wild caught to farmed, and over 90 per cent of the world's abalone comes from aquaculture. The Australian Wild Abalone campaign is designed to meet these international challenges and, as mentioned, generate new industry opportunities. This is what we should be supporting wholeheartedly. It has a crucial role to play in supporting the long-term future of the Tasmanian and Australian wild caught abalone industries. The Australian Wild Abalone campaign highlights that abalone is harvested from pristine ocean waters, which are abundant in Tasmania, that it is managed in an ecologically sustainable manner and that the product is certified for export under the EPBC Act, to name a few points.
The legislation we are debating has a role to play in supporting the Wild Abalone campaign through the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. The FRDC will be given a new capacity to undertake expanded marketing activities. The Seafood Cooperative Research Centre has previously been collecting funds from Abalone Council Australia to facilitate the Australian Wild Abalone campaign. I don't know about you, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, but talking about abalone is making me a little bit hungry. It was proposed that these marketing funds held by the Seafood CRC would be rolled over to the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation by 30 June last year, but because of the former minister's bungling this did not take place, and the legislation is only before us now. Industry, sadly, has been forced to make other arrangements as an interim measure.
The previous minister's focus, it seems, was on the relocation of the APVMA, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, to his own electorate, and the establishment of the Regional Investment Corporation in a National Party-held seat in Orange without any business case. Among the previous minister's failings is that the $272 million Regional Growth Fund announced in May last year has only just now opened up for applications, nearly a year later. The fund is meant to support projects in regional Australia in areas that are undergoing structural adjustment.
My electorate, which includes the West Coast of Tasmania, would strongly argue that they are undergoing structural adjustment—the long-term shut-down of the Mount Lyell copper mine, the recent closure of the Edith Creek Murray Goulburn Plant in Circular Head—and would welcome the opportunity to apply for these funds. As I've said, they've just opened up, so we've missed nearly a year of opportunity to actually get things moving for these areas in regional Australia that are undergoing structural change.
I also want to use this time to talk about research, development and extension work that particularly relates to the Tasmania fruit fly emergency that we are now seeing. Sadly, more fruit fly has been found in the southern part of Tasmania, which is absolutely alarming, and the member for Hunter mentioned this earlier. An emergency has been caused by biosecurity failures at a national and state level under conservative governments. The Tasmanian government cut biosecurity funding. Funding cuts were also made by this coalition government. This government restructured the way funding was delivered to Tasmania to what is now a fee-for-service model. This sounds great on paper, but what this means on the ground is that Biosecurity Tasmania has had to do more with less, because there is now a 20 per cent reduction in Commonwealth payments.
The new minister, sadly, does not even know what is going on in Tasmania. The fruit fly emergency threatens the state's $200 million horticulture industry. Valuable exports into overseas markets have been compromised by fruit fly. This is incredibly serious for Tasmania. The markets are being closed. Farmers are being forced to destroy fruit. The Tasmanian brand has, sadly, been damaged. I hope we can resurrect this damage, because it is so vitally important for my state. Tasmania's agricultural minister described this issue as a 'national system breakdown'. I want encourage the new minister; I want him to take on more responsibility. I want him to make biosecurity, particularly regarding Tasmania, a front issue, a priority issue. It is imperative for this state, and I'm sure for other states, that biosecurity is front and centre, that it hits you in the face when it come to a state like Tasmania, that you are compelled to be part of that shared responsibility.
Sadly, the current agriculture minister—who I do have some respect for, I must say—chooses to blame the states without even knowing all of the facts. Yet again we have the state blaming the Commonwealth and other states, so it's a bit of a mess. In reply to a question in this place he said it was 'all Victoria's fault'. But it is a national breakdown. If the minister had been paying attention to answers given by Biosecurity Australia officials and Plant Health Australia officials during Senate estimates, he would have known—or should have known—that the advice is that the source of fruit fly outbreaks around Devonport in my electorate and George Town in the electorate of the member for Bass is still not known.
I'm prepared to give the new minister the benefit of the doubt as he comes to grips with all the former minister's failings. My invitation remains—and I mean this sincerely—for him to visit my electorate. I did invite the previous agriculture minister to visit the north-west of Tasmania and meet with my dairy farmers—no strings attached. It was completely for their benefit, not any political benefit and, sadly, that minister ignored my request. The new minister can come. I don't care if he comes with the Tasmanian Liberal senators, though there is only one in my electorate, Senator Colbeck. He should come and speak to the growers in my electorate. While he's there, come and see all the wonderful things we do. Come and see our abalone industry and many other sectors of primary industries in our state. Let's just see what he does.
We also know, from Senate estimates in late February, that Plant Health Australia conducted a biosecurity exercise in Tasmania for fruit fly. This exercise in itself has remained shrouded in secrecy. We do not know how prepared Tasmania was for a fruit fly incursion. Clearly, they weren't very well prepared at all. Plant Health Australia claims to not know the outcome. What did work well in that exercise, what didn't, what measures were needed in Tasmania to prevent fruit fly incursions—we don't have answers to those questions and I think the Tasmanian public and those growers need to know.
Bizarrely, this government and Plant Health Australia officials say the exercise has nothing to do with the fruit fly emergency in Tasmania because it was only looking for exotic fruit fly, not the endemic Queensland fruit fly that we see. But the actual protocols remain the same. Being an island, you would think you would know that if it's exotic or if it's Queensland then those protocols would be the same. A fruit fly is a fruit fly and will devastate our horticulture sector.
I've also invited Assistant Minister Ruston or Plant Health Australia to come to my electorate and look farmers in the eye and tell them that this work has nothing to do with them and has no relevance to the current fruit fly emergency. The secrecy of Plant Health Australia and the actions of the assistant minister in Senate estimates and Tasmanian Liberal Senator Colbeck in running defence and diversions can lead to only one conclusion: that Tasmania failed. This government is too busy running a protection racket, rather than being honest with the Tasmanian community and farmers. If I'm wrong on this, I'm happy to be proven wrong. I would welcome either the minister or Plant Health Australia coming clean on the exercise that took place.
Plant Health Australia collects a levy from Tasmanian farmers to support their work. Part of their work is the development of the Emergency Plant Pest Response Deed. This government, along with all state and territory governments, are signatories to the deed. Tasmanian primary industries minister, Jeremy Rockliff, signed off on a new deed last year. Plant Health Australia says that they are interested only in exotic fruit fly, not the endemic Queensland fruit fly that has reached Tasmania. While I appreciate the need to have rigorous measures in place to prevent incursions of exotic species of fruit fly in Tasmania, the Queensland fruit fly is an exotic species to us in Tasmania. Under the deed, farmers who are subject to an exotic pest incursion are able to access reimbursement for costs associated with such an event. So, technically, you would think, Tasmanian farmers should be able to access compensation because of a Queensland fruit fly. But, sadly, that's not the case. And this is what the state minister for agriculture signed Tasmania up to.
Our farmers pay a levy in good faith to Plant Health Australia. While Fruit Growers Tasmania are aware that, due to this technicality, farmers are unable to access any support, I am sure many farmers would be shocked to know that the levy they pay to support the deed does not allow them to obtain compensation in this emergency. Fruit Growers Tasmania believes that the deed needs reviewing, and I support that call. The Queensland fruit fly is an exotic species to Tasmania, and I call upon the state, the Commonwealth and Plant Health Australia to work with Fruit Growers Tasmania to revisit the deed. All levels of government should be working together to support Tasmanian farmers who have been affected by this biosecurity failure. Rather than shift blame among themselves, it is time all parties came together and worked collectively to resolve this situation. Measures must be put in place to prevent this type of incident ever occurring again. It is so sad to go and see these farmers and see how limited they are now in the exclusion zones, and the impact this has had on their productivity and the markets that are now shut down to them because of the protocols in place—which you can understand, but this should never have occurred in a place like Tasmania.
On this side of the House we already have a $2 million commitment on the table to support increased biosecurity in Tasmania to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Labor has acted, while those opposite have stayed silent. In so many areas the other side, in particular the Nationals, pay lip service to the regions and our farmers. Just once they should step up to the plate and do something to support Tasmania's farmers. Our economy depends on it. Jobs in regional communities depend on it. And our farmers, who work so hard—tirelessly, day after day, exporting and trading on the Tasmania brand—deserve support from the other side of the House more than ever. Thank you.
I rise to speak on the Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill. As I often say—in fact, on many occasions; some people may find it boring—every year Australian farmers will grow more food, they will grow more fibre, they will grow it in a more environmentally friendly fashion and they will grow better-quality food. It's been a remarkable achievement. Just the changes in farming practices over the last 20 or 30 years—the no and zero till revolution has reversed the loss of our fertile topsoils.
On my own farm, I marvel at the increased productivity and increased fertility, and the patches of degraded soils being restored to full health. Many a day I spent carting old sand drifts from the forties and fifties off my fence lines and back onto the loamy ridges. Now, once the soil has been taken back, with modern farming practices it stays there: highly fertile soil, in its right place.
Australian farming and Australian farmers are a runaway success story. But we are a high-cost production platform. Innovation is what has kept Australian farmers in business. We've innovated on the back of a great two-way partnership between farmers and scientists. I was closely involved with the ag research sector in this way before I entered parliament. I remember well a scientist telling me just how much he valued the interest and two-way interaction with switched-on and eager farmers. He said: 'Often, as scientists, we don't know what question to ask or where to find the next barrier to address. Farmers provide that information. They are the catalyst. They are the challengers of the scientists.' And we are in a very good space in Australia in that way. That's why, in many cases, our agricultural innovation has led the world.
The method of funding agricultural research in Australia has evolved over a very long period. Historically, research was largely the domain of government agricultural departments. However, over the last 30 years or so it's become apparent that if agriculture were to reach its full potential then much more was required—more investment was required. So we reached out to the private sector and introduced laws in Australia which protected and rewarded the development of intellectual property.
Specifically, in one case at least, that has led to what we call plant breeder's rights. So the researcher who has spent the money developing a new grain, a new cultivar, can reap the rewards through a royalty system. When the grower delivers the new grain to whatever facility, whoever he sells it to and whoever they sell it to pay a royalty back to the original developer of the product. Just this move alone has led to private investment—both local and international—and developments in new cultivars, with remarkable improvements. As a friend of mine once said, 'You should never underestimate the amount of technology in that single grain.'
But rather than entrust all agricultural investment to the private sector, the Australian government has remained heavily involved in the research sector. There are a number of vehicles where this occurs, including the Cooperative Research Centres. But, without doubt, the program which is admired all over the world—and I've had this continually from visiting agriculturalists—are our 15 registered research organisations. These organisations are owned and operated by the growers of the various sectors and funded by statutory grower levies, which in turn are matched by the federal government. This gives the growers skin in the game.
Those registered research organisations are the teams that have kept Aussie farmers at the cutting edge. They've directed resources to the areas where we get the best bang for our buck, and agriculture has benefitted greatly. I spoke about more environmentally friendly farming when I opened this speech. Let's just look at a few examples. Coarse grain yields in Australia have doubled on a per hectare basis over the last 40 years. They've doubled in 40 years, but that's only part of the story. The area planted to coarse grains has risen by only 30 per cent over the same period. This increase in productivity hasn't been brought on by land clearance, but largely by the tightening of cropping rotation and increased yields. The tightening of cropping rotations has been brought about by the introduction of disease-inhibiting crop rotations and chemical weed control—changes which have been underwritten by scientific advance. All of these things have resulted in coarse grain production over that period rising by about 350 per cent. Remember, yields have only doubled and the area has only gone up by 30 per cent, but the production has increased by 350 per cent. By the same measures, cereal grain exports have performed even better. They have risen by 400 per cent from 2.6 million tonnes to 11 million tonnes over the same period.
In the rice industry, there have been enormous advances in Australia. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. It's not particularly wet through a lot of Australia, so Australia has developed the most water-efficient rice plants in the world—and by a long way. With stock production, we know that we are now close to things like virtual fencing for livestock, robotic stock handling and feeding systems, drones that will change the way we farm and autonomous tractors are on the way. In the previous parliament, I led an inquiry into agricultural innovation, and one of the things we did was visit the University of Sydney's school of agricultural robotics. It was an absolute eye opener. There is so much good stuff on the way for agriculture. It's a very fine place to be, in Australia at the moment.
However, as if to underline those technological advances in the industry, while production has quadrupled across a range of products, employment in the agricultural sector has fallen by 20 per cent, which is having a major negative effect on our rural communities. If we are to regenerate jobs in the regions, we can be sure that, once again, we will be relying on the science of agriculture to find the answers because if we are going to find jobs for people in the regions it is likely to hinge around the primary products and value-adding those before we send them to the rest of the world. We will have to really commit ourselves to that or otherwise the challenges of an emptying inland Australia will become more and more pressing.
To come to today's legislation, quite rightly, the four registered research organisations which will remain statutory bodies are compelled to spend their research and development levies on only research and development. The current legislation theoretically allows them to invest in marketing, but they can only raise money for that purpose by implementing a separate voluntary levy on producers. I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as someone who was a producer of grain, that we don't normally rub our hands with glee at the thought of being hit with another levy. It presents a huge challenge to the organisations: producers are unlikely to be enamoured by a new levy.
The question is: what if the organisation could find a separate stream of income—perhaps a business partner or a benefactor? Currently, it is a no-go zone. This legislation will give them the flexibility to explore those options to find a way of investing in marketing without having to strike a new levy on their producers. It's pretty straightforward, really. While we need to make sure these organisations do the right thing, we need also to encourage them to make the best decisions on behalf of their members, and this requires them having sufficient flexibility to do so.
I firmly support the legislation as it stands and assume that it will go through this parliament—I don't think it's particularly controversial. Those in the farming community can rest well assured that I will continue to support those registered research organisations. I believe they produce great results for Australia. I believe the partnership between private enterprise and government—the taxpayer in this case—in supporting those research outcomes benefits all Australians, and I look forward to working in that sector in the future.
I rise today to support the passage of the Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill 2017 and the proposed amendment. This bill will impact the four research and development corporations established under the act: the cotton, grains, fisheries and rural industries research and development corporations. It would allow these four corporations to undertake marketing activities funded by voluntary contributions and remove the requirement that they only undertake marketing where a levy is attached to the corporation, which can be a cumbersome and expensive undertaking. The four statutory R&D corporations covered by the Primary Industries Research and Development Act 1989 have been permitted to undertake marketing activities only since 2013, when an amendment expanded the scope of their activities. The amendments we are debating today will not change the process by which R&D corporations establish a new levy, but they do remove the requirement for one in order to undertake marketing.
In addressing the substance of this bill, which is primary industries R&D, it is fair to say that regional Australia has been let down by this government and particularly by the former minister. Funding for research and development in primary industries under this government has absolutely been neglected. We have a new Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources now. Indeed, he's a fairly new member of this House; he was elected in 2016. I hope that he can renew the focus on research and development across the whole of Australia, including in my electorate of Lyons, rather than being like his predecessor and concentrating his efforts in his own electorate. Using ministerial authority to feather your nest in your own electorate might make you popular in your own seat—it might make you popular with the local businesspeople in your seat who stand to profit from government money rolling into town—but it makes you an appalling minister of the Crown. Under the former minister, policy progress in primary industries went to sleep. The agriculture white paper came and went with barely a whimper. One legacy of the paper is its cuts to R&D: $6½ million a year, which, if left unchanged, over eight years comes to $52 million.
One of the few bright spots in agriculture in recent years has been the lower dollar, resulting in better export demand for our producers. The lower dollar meant better export dollars. Who can forget the former minister treating this House to a daily stock report of the cents per kilo and boasting as if that had something to do with him? The fact is that the successes of the primary industry sector in the past five years have come despite the former minister holding the reins of the portfolio, not because of it. I do hope the new minister does better, but the early indications are not hopeful. He appears wedded to the former minister's wrecking behaviour on the Murray-Darling Basin when it comes to some irrigators stealing water. And inexplicably, for someone representing a vast regional electorate with many people on middle to low incomes, he has an almost cultish fascination with trickle-down economics, which history has shown to favour big business and multinationals at the expense of domestic primary producers and wage-earners. I really wonder how farmers in the electorate of Maranoa would feel about their local member, now the minister for agriculture, siding with big business over the legitimate concerns that producers have when they have to deal with the likes of the grocery duopoly.
I do urge the new minister to take his predecessor's white paper out of the drawer, shake off the spider webs and dust, have a read and bring it back to this House with the changes that are necessary to get primary industry policy in this country back on track. A good place to start would be to stop wasting money on the forced and ill-considered relocation of public servants to the former minister's own electorate and redirect the savings, the actual cost of that process, to research and development. Or how about having some evidence based policy to address the effect of climate change on our farmers and regional communities?
And you don't have to look far for the evidence. The new minister might like to talk to a constituent of mine from York Plains in Southern Midlands in my electorate. Peter has been farming in the area all his life. He is worried about climate change and the effects it is having on his property. The changes in the cycle, the weather patterns—dry, very dry, floods, dry again—are challenging his way of life. This is something we know farmers have put up with in Australia for generations, but when farmers who have farmed the land tell you in their own words that this is the worst they have ever seen it and that it is a systematic part of genuine climate change, no longer just an annualised weather change, you'd better to listen to them, the people on the ground. Peter's is not the only story about the real effects of climate change on our farming communities, but apparently this government does not care much for the lived experience and the evidence from generations of farmers who are concerned about their futures. The Labor Party has a sub-caucus of members who represent country electorates and senators whose duty electorates are regional. We met recently with the group Farmers for Climate Action. These are real farmers with real concerns about the future of productive land in this country. Too often we see from those opposite an ideological obsession with refusing to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the devastating economic and environmental impacts it carries.
If the minister cannot bring himself to fund R&D into climate change action—I don't know whether he believes in it or not—perhaps he can consider investing funds into combatting fruit fly in Tasmania. My colleague, the member for Braddon, spoke on this subject at some length. Our island has always been free of this pest, but four years after a $1 million cut to biosecurity funding under the state Liberal government in Tasmania, fruit fly is emerging in our state. Exclusion zones have been established in the north of our state, in prime fruit-growing regions like Kentish, resulting in heavy losses for farmers.
I was driving through there just last week, and the orchards are groaning with apples that aren't being picked. The farmers don't have the markets to sell them to. They have to sell them within the zone; they can't travel outside the zone. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of produce that will be either left to rot on the tree or picked and sold locally for cents on the dollar. Just this week, fruit fly larvae have been found in the south of the state. Biosecurity Tasmania assures us there is nothing to worry about. I truly hope that is the case, that these are all isolated incidents and that we can in the next few months continue to declare Tasmanian produce fruit fly free, but we face a nervous wait. Last week Biosecurity Tasmania released this information. Since this crisis came to a head some weeks ago:
That is 88½ tonnes of fruit that isn't going to market and is not adding to the incomes of farmers in Tasmania.
And more than 100 biosecurity staff have been deployed to work on eradication. Hindsight's a wonderful thing, but it's arguable that had resources not been cut in the first place we would not have to scramble now, at considerably greater expense, to fix the problem. Labor said at the time when the state government sought to make these cuts to biosecurity, 'Don't do it; the penny-pinching is not worth it.' We were ignored, the cuts went ahead, and we should never forget it. Some R&D into combatting fruit fly would be most welcome, as would R&D into Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome or blueberry rust, which are also having impacts on production in my state.
The lower dollar, as I've mentioned before, has been good for Tasmania's exported produce, but the clean green image is not a matter of luck or of floating on the global sea of economics; it is something producers in Tasmania have worked hard over 20 or 30 years to attain, with the support of the former state Labor government and, I must say, the former Labor federal government. Both were very supportive of Tasmania's emergence as the gourmet producer of food, wine, cheese, gin, whisky and beer in this country.
I'll never forget it was Labor's Barry Jones and Duncan Kerr who had the federal law changed to allow distilling in Tasmania, a simple decision that has led to the birth of a world-beating spirits industry not just in Tasmania but one that now spreads across the continent. It's a simple change in this parliament to make it legal to have a distilling industry without all the hoops that people used to have to go through, and it's transformed regions. It shows the effect, with just a bit of foresight and a little bit of attention, and the change that this place can make, and it doesn't have to have a negative effect on the budget.
I would welcome some R&D into the effects of excise reform, because I'd like to see excise reform for the spirits industry, and beer and cider. It's long overdue. I'm personally convinced that reforming our outdated excise laws will lead to sustained growth for Australian distilled spirits, and beer and cider. There are so many innovators with great ideas in Tasmania, but they do need expert support to make their ideas a reality and that's where R&D can come in.
R&D is central to increasing industry productivity, ensuring sustainability and every dollar spent has a positive impact going forward. The member for Forrest mentioned in this debate earlier on that every dollar spent on R&D returns $12, which is a great return. It's even better than education. Every dollar spent on education gets a $7 return. That's something those opposite should remember as they merrily chop through the education budget.
It was a great shame that Labor was not elected to government in Tasmania on 3 March, as the agriculture platform of the Labor opposition included the creation of a centre of excellence in agricultural research, education and commercialisation. That sadly will now not happen. That's a real loss for agriculture in our state.
In Tasmania R&D falls under the umbrella of the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, a partnership of government and of the University of Tasmania. Our state has an ambitious goal to increase the annual value of Tasmanian agriculture to $10 billion every year by 2050, and R&D is core to that goal. To reach it, Tasmanian Agriculture will have to grow at double the rate it has grown at for the past 20 years.
Some TIA initiatives include research and development collaboration into Poppy Downy Mildew; a research and development collaboration to improve the productivity of vineyards; a biofumigation vegetable productivity project to investigate the benefits of using brassica crops to manage disease, pests and weeds to boost productivity and vegetable crops, including potatoes; the Precision Agriculture Project to look at the benefits of adopting technologies to improve farming practices and performance. There's a project that aims to ensure the future viability of Tasmania's vegetable processing industry by increasing yields of key crops and decreasing input costs. And two other priority projects more recently announced are a project to look into pastures and livestock productivity and one to look into crop and pasture seed, to grow our place in this potentially high-value market.
R&D has a particularly important role in Tasmania because, of course, we are committed as a state—both Labor and Liberal—to keeping GMO out of our state's food cycle. I personally accept there is a role for GMO in the global food market, but allowing it to enter Tasmania would be a disaster for our state's clean green image and our ability to leverage premium prices in niche markets.
With that, I will conclude by saying the importance of R&D cannot be underestimated when it comes to agriculture. It's a terrible shame that we've undergone some cuts in this area, but here's hoping that with a new minister in the chair there will be a brighter way forward for agriculture in this country.
As people in this House know, Labor is not opposing the bill that is before us. It is, again, another example of how it feels like this government are doing a bit of housekeeping when it comes to agriculture. This is a non-controversial bill that is before the House that sort of tidies up some stuff that didn't happen in the past. We all acknowledge how important R&D is, particularly to the agricultural space. Whether you talk to cotton farmers in the cotton industry, whether you talk to the grain industry, whether you talk to our fisheries industry, whether you talk to our growing unique horticultural industry—our chickpeas, pulses—R&D is critical.
However, I also rise to speak today to the amendment that's been moved by the member for Hunter, which actually says:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Turnbull Government has failed to develop evidence-based policies to support primary industries through appropriately targeted research and development, and the efficient allocation of funding".
This is a critical point. It is not just agriculture; it is across the entire government responsibilities. They are failing to ensure evidence based policies and the efficient allocation of taxpayers' resources. The previous speaker spoke about the impact of climate change. That is an area where this government has failed. They've ignored the evidence. They've ignored the science. They've wasted money on programs which we know just don't work, only to scrap them a few years later or to cut their funding. There was the Green Army—I almost called it the Land Army; it was such a long time ago in the memories of so many people in this place. With the Green Army, from the beginning, the evidence suggested that the program wouldn't work. If you cut money from connecting country, if you cut money from land care programs, put it into Green Army, then there's nobody to run the projects for the Green Army to work in. The evidence was there. Yet the government—
Thank you. I was speaking to the amendment that was moved by the member for Hunter, which basically calls out this government for how it has failed to develop evidence based policies to ensure the effective allocation of taxpayers' money.
I started with climate change. This government tried so hard to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation despite all the evidence, despite the fact that industry partners and others championed the role that it played. I'm quite proud to say that in my part of the world the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which also survived this government, has continued to fund clean energy projects that partner with agriculture. Just in the north of my electorate, around Newbridge, is a mushroom-growing farm that is also home to a solar power plant, a prototype for RayGen, where they have developed a solar panel which is generating more energy than ever before through this technology. It is helping provide power, but it is also reducing bills and power usage of the mushroom farm as well as developing a technology that is now being adapted all over the world. That was made possible because when Labor was in government it believed in evidence based policies, funded them and backed them. We have seen the complete opposite with this government.
Another area where the government are failing is their pork-barrelling. There is no evidence whatsoever that we needed to create the Regional Investment Corporation. The uncertainty they have created for the ag space—for farmers wanting to tap into concessional loans; for banks, like the Bendigo Bank in my part of the world, which purchased the Rural Finance Corporation from the Victorian government, who have been very successful and providing finance to our agricultural sector. That entire operation was thrown into chaos because the previous minister for agriculture came in here and said: 'I'm going to throw my mate in, in New South Wales in the seat of Orange, a bit of a gift. I'm going to put in his part of the world the Regional Investment Corporation.' There was no evidence whatsoever that it was necessary and, as we've learnt through Senate estimates and through the questioning in the other place, not only was there no evidence, not only was there no need for it; they've now gone and tendered to the very people currently doing the work. They've established an investment corporation in Orange, only to say to the Bendigo Bank and rural finance: 'We kind of want you to continue doing the job. So can you put in a tender to keep doing the job you're doing?'
In other words, it was another pork-barrelling exercise and a waste of taxpayers' money.
When it comes to social policy this government has really failed to respect and adopt evidence based policies. As an example of that failure you can't go past drug testing. Report after report discredits drug testing of people on a form of welfare. All over the world there are studies that prove it doesn't work, yet this government is so blind as to bring it back. The legislation was rejected by the Senate, but the government has reintroduced it to the House and is trying to push it through again. It's like the government just repels evidence: 'We don't believe it. We'll stick our heads in the sand and say, "All the evidence is wrong; all the research is wrong. We're going to do it because we think it is the right thing to do."'
Education is another area where the government has ignored evidence based policy. I should mention that, today, ECEC, the United Voice early childhood educators, have walked off the job. They are so frustrated with the way that this government has ignored evidence based policies on education they have walked off the job to try and get the Prime Minister's attention to talk about wages. It is relevant to the amendment that has been moved by the member for Hunter. We know from the evidence that early childhood education workers are undervalued and underpaid. They are paid the minimum wage. But what did this government do on coming to office? It scrapped the Early Years Quality Fund, the very fund that helped the industry lift the wages of early childhood educators. So here we are, five years on, with a government that is still ignoring the fact that we need to lift wages. This is about an issue of equal pay. This is another example of how the government is ignoring evidence based policies.
Also, when it comes to ECEC, all the evidence shows that we must give children from disadvantaged families, particularly those in regional areas, access to early childhood education. We know that the foundation blocks are built in early childhood education, particularly for kids in the bush, and that the foundations they form in the early years actually help ensure better outcomes in primary school and in secondary school. The evidence shows that. Yet this government reduced the number of hours that children from disadvantaged families, from families where people are hardworking, could access early childhood education. Again the government has failed, and because it has failed to look at evidence based policy it has not allocated taxpayers' dollars appropriately.
Mobile phones and black spots are a critical issue for agriculture and for the regions. Report after report from the Auditor-General's office has condemned this government for its failure to expand decent mobile phone coverage in any way at all. I've lost count of the number of farmers and people working in agriculture who say that connectivity is critical. It is critical to developing R&D. Connectivity is vital, whether it be for fisheries, cotton, grains or water management. The rollout of the NBN is another area where the government has failed agriculture and failed research and development. It is really hard to be innovative and to improve R&D if you don't have basic connectivity. In my own part of the world we recently did a survey, which was returned by over 3,000 people. Of the number of people who have been allocated Sky Muster—I know it sounds a bit ridiculous that in the city of Greater Bendigo so many people have been allocated Sky Muster—80 per cent said that the Sky Muster service is too slow, drops out and is unreliable. Farmers in particular said they can't monitor their stock properly. It's an issue when it comes to managing water. The R&D in water management in our part of the world is world-class. I want to give a shout out to the people in the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin, who were the early adopters of R&D in this space. They're now monitoring moisture within soil to the drop so that they're not wasting a drop of water. That is phenomenal. It's all online and all done through having access to the internet.
There is the role of telecommunications when it comes to the poultry industry. We always had Hy-Line in Huntly: 70 per cent of the day-old hens in our country actually come from Hy-Line in Huntly. Their entire operation is online, and they need access to fast internet to be able to have on-time management of temperature controls. And we have Hazeldene, which have done the same. They invested $30,000 of their own because of this government's failure to roll out the NBN. They've had to invest their own money because this government has failed to roll out the NBN.
When it comes to an area like emergency management, without any evidence whatsoever this government shut down the Australian Emergency Management Institute on Mount Macedon, a regional area. It was seen locally as a bit of a cash grab, because Mount Macedon properties are worth quite a lot. They thought they could get a bit of money but in the end they couldn't, because of the bushfire overlay. So the Victorian government bought it from the Australian government for a bit of a song—a bit of a cheap price—and have reopened it as the Victorian Emergency Management Institute. If only we had a government that actually had evidence based policies to ensure the efficient allocation of taxpayers' money!
And this is where it comes down to the one that the Prime Minister announced last week and that I just cannot believe. I say to the National Farmers' Federation: stand up to this government! Enough of the photos with the Prime Minister being proud to announce another conversation—a white paper, a conversation; another white paper, another national dialogue. Our farmers know exactly what they need from government in terms of basic infrastructure and exactly what they want in terms of R&D. They want the dollars and the scientists back in the CSIRO. They want the funding and they want the independence. What they don't want is another white paper, or a photo op with the Prime Minister or another national conversation that can be retweeted by a few people.
That's what the Prime Minister announced last week: a national dialogue. Where's the real policy? After five years in government, we have a little bit of tinkering when it comes to R&D but no genuine policy on how we're going to develop our agricultural industry here in this country. Given that they're saying this is the future of this country—that ag is the new black—you would think they would do a bit more than tweeting that we're having a national dialogue about agriculture. But that's what we've got from this government. They've got no decent comprehensive plan for agriculture policy. They have no decent comprehension about how we rebuild R&D and make sure that not only do we have the independence but that we have the scientists and the researchers ready to partner in it.
Instead, what we have is jumping from chaos to chaos across the board. We have a government that is not actually standing up for the regions and is not actually investing in the regions. But, worst of all, it is not listening to the regions. It is not listening to the people on the land, to the people who know where they want to go and who are being innovative and creative, and solving their own problems. They're almost at the stage where they're saying to this government, 'Just get out of the way and let us do it,' when, really, it should be a partnership.
If we really want to unlock the potential of agriculture and unlock the potential of regional Australia, they need a partner in government. Instead, what we have is another bill before the House that only really tinkers with it; it's not really controversial. What we have are more tweets about our national dialogue. You can't really do much in 144 characters. What we need is a government that's real about agriculture and that actually has a comprehensive plan, not more discussion.
I rise today to speak in support of the Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill 2017. This bill amends the Primary Industries Research and Development Act 1989, which governs four statutory R&D corporations: fisheries, cotton, grains and rural industries.
As my colleague the shadow minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry has stated, Labor supports the passage of this bill. However, we request that the House acknowledges that the Turnbull government has failed to develop evidence based policies to support primary industries. It has failed to support appropriately targeted research and development or ensure an efficient allocation of funding. In a relatively short time, the Turnbull-Joyce government established a sorry track record of instituting populist policy issues across our primary industries that were, frankly, quite rubbish. We saw the deputy leader of the coalition force the relocation of the APVMA and the statutory research and development corporations. This, as we know, was an ill-thought-out move that brought about unintended consequences and failed to deliver the promised long-term benefits—I ask you: scientists working out of wi-fi at Macca's in Armidale? It is just unbelievable. It is but one example of the former agricultural minister's ignorance of evidence based policies to pander to his electorate and his own satisfaction. Rural industry is crucial to the Australian economy and this irresponsible expenditure channels money away from substantive issues that genuinely matter and make a difference to rural and regional Australians.
I know this firsthand because my electorate of Paterson is known for its beef, dairy cattle, fishing, prawning and oyster farming. Our farmers work incredibly hard and, in recent times, things have not been easy, to say the least. Parts of my electorate have this summer experienced their driest season in 80 years. Stock farmers were forced to sell their beasts or face exorbitant hand-feeding costs. Vegetable farmers watched entire crops fail and even those with river irrigation access struggled due to rising salinity. In the words of one of my constituents, this drought on the land equalled a drought on the water. Our fishers bore the brunt of the big dry as well. These trials and tribulations are nothing new. They are, unfortunately, the lot of many of those who live on the land. But the extremes of weather are becoming more marked and more regular, as our planet heaves under the changes being wrought by global warming. In the face of these uncontrollable challenges, we owe it to our farmers to appropriately support their industry and, in turn, their livelihoods, in any way possible.
Rural industry bodies are the future of Australian agriculture, fisheries and forestry. The Primary Industries Research and Development Amendment Bill supports these industries by supporting the R&D corporations that stand behind them, and that is a good thing. R&D corporations are crucial. They keep these industries competitive in national and international markets. They conduct and provide imperative research and development advice. This bill fosters the ease with which industries can reap the benefit of these R&D corporations. In particular, this bill concerns the marketing activities of R&D corporations, an element central to the success and expansion of rural industry. Changes to the act introduced in 2013 allowed R&D corporations to conduct marketing on behalf of industry, as long as a marketing levy was attached. However, the fisheries R&D corporation and industry bodies reported that small industries found levy collection too onerous, too expensive and too time consuming. The bill removes this hefty burden on small industries, and I do welcome that. It will mean that fisheries, cotton, grains and rural industry research and development corporations can raise voluntary contributions for marketing purposes by gifts, grants or bequests. There is no limitation on who can contribute these funds: industry representatives, companies, governments, individuals—the list goes on. With more contributors, small industry will reap more benefits. This brings these R&D corporations more in line with their non-statutory counterparts. It will also allow small industries to contribute funds on a voluntary basis, which is the preferred option of the affected industries.
Secondly, the bill removes a requirement that an R&D corporation can only undertake marketing if there is a marketing levy in place. Thirdly, the bill expands the definition of marketing activities. The revised definition of marketing activities will include matters incidental to marketing. This ensures that much-needed research and development funds are indeed spent on R&D and that marketing remains a separate kettle of fish in terms of funding. It will allow the R&D corporations to not only commission marketing activities but also plan, consult about and organise marketing on behalf of industry.
I'd like to make the point that when we speak about marketing we're not speaking just about advertising or sales campaigns. And this is really critical. To draw on my own electorate of Paterson, as an example I'd like to describe the plight of wild caught prawn fishers. I first met Sue and Rob Hamilton when their family prawning operation was shut down in 2015, when the RAAF Williamtown PFAS scandal broke out. The Hamiltons and other commercial fishers working Tilligerry Creek and Fullerton Cove were stripped of their livelihoods when it was discovered that firefighting chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, had leached from the base into the waterways and its community. Fishing bans lasting 12 months were implemented. This took a toll on the Hamiltons and other fishers in Paterson.
The Hamiltons battled through, however, and returned to the water and their industry, thankfully. Sue contacted me again in October last year to raise her concerns about the prevalence of white spot syndrome, a virus in imported green prawns. Importation of the prawns had been suspended following an outbreak of the virus in commercial prawn farms in Queensland and then around wild prawns in the Logan River and Moreton Bay. It had spread. Sue reached out to me after the then Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Barnaby Joyce, lifted the suspension on the importation of green prawns into Australia. Sue was concerned because white spot is a massive deal. It leads to a highly lethal and contagious viral infection. Outbreaks have been known to wipe out entire populations of prawn farms in days. The virus is not dangerous to humans, and it's killed when the prawn is cooked. But the Aussie tradition of putting a green prawn on a hook and throwing in a line puts our waterways and our seafood industry at risk. Sue and her husband, Rob, still reeling from the year-long PFAS shutdown of their family business, were incensed by the biosecurity issues that remained in play even after the importation ban was lifted. And it's no wonder. The situation was and is nonsensical.
Imported prawns infected Australian wild prawns and prawn farms. Affected Australian wild prawning areas and prawn farms were slapped with a ban. Meanwhile, the ban on the very source of white spot—the imported green prawns—was lifted. In what universe does that make sense? In Sue's words:
I would like you to think about the allowing of green prawns into Australia.
Australia was always 'white-spot' free but last year there was a huge outbreak in Southeast Queensland and it has been attributed to the importation of green prawns.
There was a halt on imports but Barnaby has again allowed these prawns to come into Australia.
Where is the proof that it won't happen again?
Mind you, currently prawns caught around the Moreton Bay area cannot be brought into NSW 'just in case', but the prawns that originally brought the problem to our shores are now allowed back in!
It just doesn't make sense. There is a strong case for a permanent ban on the importation of green prawns. While investigations continue into treatment and testing regimes, this situation is a real-time example of how marketing levies can protect our primary industries. As mentioned, schedule 1 of the bill expands the definition of marketing activities to include activities that allow the R&D corporation to consult about, plan, scope and organise marketing on behalf of industry. In the case of Sue, Rob and other Australian prawn fishers, marketing became a tool to educate the public on the importance of protecting our waterways from disease.
Across a four-year period, the Seafood Cooperative Research Centre facilitated the voluntary collection of marketing contributions for the Australian Prawn Farmers Association and the Australian Council of Prawn Fisheries. It funnelled the funds into its very successful Love Australian Prawns campaign, which not only encouraged consumers to support our domestic fishers but also raised awareness of the scourge of white spot. There is enormous risk associated with allowing green prawns into our waterways or inadequately disposing of any part of their waste. Consumer research and sales data by Love Australian Prawns confirmed the effectiveness of its campaign on several fronts. The Love Australian Prawns campaign will continue for a fifth year, but not without overcoming obstacles thrown up by the government's tardy attention to this bill. This led to unnecessary complication and confusion about how funds held by the Seafood Cooperative Research Centre could be rolled over for use in this most valuable campaign.
In 2018 the campaign will target Woolworths, seafood retailers and consumers. They will be provided with educational material about handling green prawns. In addition, the campaign will expand into the food service sector. We know that there is a great demand for uncooked prawns in food service. According to the Australian Wild Prawns website, of the 30,000 tonnes of prawns imported each year, to the end of 2016, 10,000 tonnes were uncooked, 7,000 tonnes were marinated, and 13,000 tonnes were cooked, crumbed or battered. When the import ban was in place, the food sector reported that prawns were being taken off the menu due to their increased cost. Regardless, we know that many Australians prefer to buy Australian, and better menu transparency is expected to drive demand for Australian prawns. Again, this is where marketing can help educate and inform consumers, igniting their preference to support local farmers and increase domestic support for Australian produced products.
While considering this bill, my office spoke with Sue, the local prawner, for an update on her situation. Her frustration with the lack of biosecurity around the importation of green prawns remained palpable. While she believes the Love Australian Prawns initiative has and will be a positive measure in support of our Australian prawning industry, she has other points to make. So, on behalf of my constituents Sue and Rob Hamilton, I ask you: why is there a continued ban on Queensland prawns while imported prawns, which still are testing positive to white spot, are on to our shores and into our markets? Why are there no stringent biosecurity measures around green prawn imports?
It's one thing to support a marketing and education campaign encouraging people to love Australian prawns, but, like many consumers, people who buy prawns are price driven. As I mentioned earlier, a drought on the land equals a drought on the water. For prawns to flourish in my electorate of Paterson, we need good rain in the north-west throughout August, September and October, to flush the river and bring the prawns down. When this doesn't occur, there are fewer prawns to catch. With our great Aussie thirst for prawns, the demand stays the same, so even more are imported. And then, when our domestic fishers actually do bring in a catch, they are competing with cheap imported product. Imports devalue our Australian prawns. I ask you: why is imported seafood so cheap? Well, as with much in life, you only get what you pay for. With prawns, what we're getting is prawns that are often infected with white spot. No amount of marketing activities will change that truth.
I put to you that the Turnbull government has failed to ensure efficient allocation of money. The situation that our prawn farmers and fishers find themselves in is a gross example of negligence. I understand that the then minister for agriculture had a great deal on his mind during his tenure in the role; even so, surely the issue of white spot demanded the former minister's attention. Surely the greater threat to the iconic prawn warranted investigation and biosecurity intervention. Surely the effects of climate change on our farmers of land and sea are worthy of scrutiny. Surely there is more the Turnbull government can do for those who are at the mercy of our ever-changing climate and endure heartbreaking and unavoidable drought. I can only hope that for the sake of Australian agriculture, fisheries and forestry the Turnbull-McCormack government has its head is the main game and spends our tax dollars wisely.
Thank you. It is a great pleasure to be able to raise a number of issues related to research and development in primary industries. I thank my good friend and colleague for her contribution to this debate in the fisheries area. I will focus on more terrestrial issues. Labor does support the inclusion of marketing in this whole research and development area. Marketing is a critical factor for our primary producers, and I think it has been neglected in many respects. I look at my own region—and certainly when I was in the portfolio of agriculture and fisheries, travelling the length and breadth of this nation, I would see the opportunity, the potential, that we have, particularly in terms of regional branding. You have seen what the French have done over the years with their regional branding, but Australia has that potential too. We're looking at a world now which by 2050 will have nine billion people and, as we often talked, at that time, that food would be the new gold. There's this challenge but there's also this opportunity.
In particular, in our region we've seen the rise of a growing middle class—1.4 billion people moving up to demand more and better quality food. In addition to that, for example, in China you have seen concerns over the safety and health aspects of some of their produce, which is threatened by, shall we say, more lax environmental standards. The milk powder issue that arose in China recently led to a greater focus on our dairy products. And that, certainly, did hearten me from the point of view of Australian dairy marketing potential, as my family are all dairy farmers in the Bega Valley. In fact, my great-great-grandfather founded the Bega Cheese Co-op and was the first chairman. The 90 farmers down there are almost all family, because we were all good Irish Catholic breeders back then. They see this opportunity and they've grasped it. They're doing great things in export opportunities for Bega Cheese products.
They also demonstrate the importance of getting the research and development aspects right for the future productivity of farming and the management of our landscape, and that's so important. Our farmers are stewards of this landscape and the most important environmental actors in this space. There's something like over 60 per cent of the Australian landscape in the hands of our farmers. Bega Cheese founded their Bega environmental management system program for their 90 farmers back in 2005, because they understood not only the productivity benefits from managing their land better but also their responsibility for keeping the waterways and estuaries of our region as clean as possible for the benefit of our oyster growers—prominent oyster growers with world-leading brands, like the Tathra Oysters and the Wapengo oysters. They are fantastic growers in our region and they're looking to do more.
With this marketing opportunity we have in our region, there is the potential here, through the new international airport operations out at Canberra, to get our produce onto plates all around our region within 28 hours, and to continue to grow that branding in terms of the healthy, green, clean space that is going to be so important for driving Australian primary producers' opportunities in international markets. But, of course, that opportunity that's been presented by Canberra international airport has a threat posed to it. I will come back to that in a minute.
But these are the potentials we have. However, there are issues that the Nationals' Scott Mitchell, former federal director, highlighted when we were moving past the former deputy leader and agriculture minister's issues, shall we say. He is now looking to see a united team working on the substantive issues that matter to rural and regional Australians rather than populist policy issues that often have unintended consequences, and fail to deliver long-term benefits, and that's what is most important. In particular, he was referring to some aspects of the decentralisation policy, which I'll come back to.
When we talk about research and development opportunities, we've seen fantastic pioneers, and pioneers in my own region, doing wonderful things. People like Tony Coote, and I've been pleased to be briefed on his projects out at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms. This comes back to all of the experiences, lessons and proposals that have been developed in the context of natural sequence farming that had been originally advocated by Peter Andrews, has now been picked up and refined by a number of advocates, including Michael Jeffery, our former Governor-General, a former Army colleague of mine. This natural sequence farming, the restorative farming, that we've seen developed in areas like the Mulloon Creek Natural Farms is now spanning some 23,000 hectares in the headwaters of the Shoalhaven River flowing down to Tallowa Dam, which is Sydney's back-up drinking supply. All of this is not only restoring natural hydrology across the landscape, and regenerating natural ecological functions, but boosting farm productivity and improving the quality of our water catchment. I salute what Tony Coote and the advocates of this better approach to farming have achieved. More research and development in this area will be very beneficial.
We've also had some great work by CSIRO with my high country farmers, the Monaro Farming Systems group, in the context of the severe drought that ended in about 2009. They were suffering terrible mental health issues as a consequence of being unable to come up with answers of how to deal with such extreme circumstances, but they were able to team up with CSIRO, who developed a terrific management tool for our farmers called GrassGro. It enables them to put together a plan to help manage their herds and pastures over cycles out to 50 years. This gave our farmers a great tool to fall back on to give them some mental support—that there is a way to manage these changing circumstances—and to get more out of their pastures. I thank CSIRO for the work they did with GrassGro in supporting my farmers in the Monaro Farming Systems group.
We've also seen, as I know the member for Grey referred to, no-till farming. No-till farming has been a great improvement, particularly in broadacre farming enterprises out west of my area, which is not broadacre—mainly grazing, a bit of horticulture, and also our dairy production on the coast. No-till farming has been great in those broader landscape and broadacre farming operations. By increasing organic matter retention and the cycling of nutrients in the soil, we have seen tremendous benefit. Some of our Nuffield scholars have done a great job of proselytising about these better practices around the farming community
That leads too to the opportunities our landscape offers in dealing with things like climate change. This is the greatest threat to our farmers. It's something we should not let anyone walk away from. They can also contribute to the effort of fending it off. I salute Farmers For Climate Action. They are a terrific group who are concerned about this. They also see the opportunity of diversification on their properties through getting renewable energy operations into the landscape. If you have a wind turbine on your property, the earnings from those help you get through droughts and bad times. Farmers out at Bungendore, for example, brought this home by saying that effectively got them through the drought. The 2016 Farmer Climate Survey of a large number of farmers and graziers highlighted that eight in 10 Australian farmers support more renewable energy in regional Australia. We have to do more, but farmers can contribute to this. While I agree that we cannot achieve rapid cooling of the climate as it is now, sequestering carbon in the landscape provides us with an opportunity to contribute at a faster rate to that process. Now is about preventing further catastrophic climate change and dramatic increases in temperature.
My region is the canary in the coalmine in that respect. We depend on the snow industry, which constitutes 50 per cent of the economy of the Monaro, $2 billion. That ski season is continually contracting now with the effects of climate change. Anybody sceptic on this issue needs to talk to the guys at Snowy Hydro, who will take you through the data they have amassed on that scheme. They don't care how precipitation falls, so it's not such an issue for them whether it's rain or snow, but for the skiing industry, you can see that contraction.
Across all of our industrial opportunities and farming opportunities climate change represents a massive threat. We need to get behind our farmers, who are ringing the alarm bells and have a more aggressive approach to solving this issue, which we will achieve only with a thorough ongoing policy encouraging climate trading, reinforcing the carbon farming initiatives and methodologies we pioneered, which will be a massive benefit to our farmers and another opportunity to diversify. They can do things like banding together under a brokerage to combine for, say, forestry plantings on their properties to assist with that effort and to earn themselves some extra money on aspects of their properties that are perhaps more marginal, where reforestation can occur.
I want to finish with this issue of decentralisation and make a plea to the new agriculture minister about this effort to effectively destroy the APVMA's efforts in research and development to support our farmers. No-one does more important work than the APVMA. This decentralisation policy has crippled it. The best estimate is it may take something like seven years for the organisation to recover. They've lost something like 30 per cent of their scientists through this movement and also lost the head of the organisation, Kareena Arthy. It has been crippling but, not only that, they were involved in a cluster opportunity here in Canberra by being close to the CSIRO and close to ANU. What farmers need out of the APVMA are answers to their questions of how they keep their beasts healthy, how they keep their crops healthy and how they improve productivity, so it has done them no favours trying to move them to Armidale in what was obviously a blatant pork-barrelling effort.
I plead with the government to stop this process of decentralisation for the other reason that—coming back to Canberra's international airport—if you try and take away whole departments from this area, you're not increasing jobs in regional Australia; you're stealing jobs from one part of regional Australia and putting them in another. This is the bush capital. It underpins the economy of the whole of southern New South Wales in so many respects—propping up jobs right around southern New South Wales. It is not promoting jobs in regional Australia; it is just shuffling deck chairs.
In addition to that, if we lose departments in this area, we will lose that international airport capability depriving the farmers—the cherry growers in Young, the oyster growers on the coast, our high-quality beef and sheep meat and wool growers—from the opportunity of getting their produce quickly into the markets of our region. If we can stop that and if we can hang onto that the international airport opportunity, we also need some better biosecurity operations at that airport, too, to facilitate that primary industry opportunity.
We saw an independent analysis by Ernst & Young that predicted that the relocation of the APVMA would impose a net economic cost of $23 million and involve significant risks, so there was no basis, no business case and no earthly reason why this should have been attempted. The Southern Downs Regional Council said that functions like administrative processing and call centres were more likely to be viable in regions than trying to transplant these whole agencies. The meat and livestock crew of Australia said there was 'no regional/rural base that naturally puts the company closer to one stakeholder group without making it less accessible to another.' That is to say, placing the pesticides authority in Armidale may raise the perception, and even reality, that those who depend on the authority in Mr Joyce's electorate will get a better suck of the sauce bottle than clients in the other parts of the country. The Australian Dairy Industry Council expressed:
The dairy industry has strong reservations about relocating key government bodies to regional areas where the relocation will impose additional costs … put essential relationships at risk, result in possible loss of specialist staff, and reduce effectiveness.
Relocating a government organisation to a regional town may provide benefits in strengthening regional communities, but if it is done without regard to the organisation's ability to operate effectively and efficiently, it will not be of net benefit to the agricultural sector
So the dairy industry has strong reservations about relocating key government bodies to regional areas.
The government's got to start listening to the real authorities in primary industry about the effect of their actions in this decentralisation policy. I ask them to call a halt to this insanity. They need to do proper business case analysis of policy. It's not this sort of knee-jerk reaction stuff that you might pick up in a pub in Armidale. We have to have evidence based policy and, if the government's really serious about looking after farmers, it will make sure that the APVMA can do its job. So leave it where it is, let it work with the CSIRO and let's get our farmers the support they need for productive farming.
I'm delighted to rise following the member for Eden-Monaro, who not only has made a very impressive contribution to this debate but is also a most effective local member, particularly insofar as his recent role in providing an integral level of support to those affected by the bushfires that have ravaged his local community. He should also be commended in relation to that support he's provided.
As I'm sure we are all aware, this bill amends the Primary Industries Research and Development Act to allow R&D corporations—or RDCs, as I will refer to them—regulated by the act to undertake marketing functions with funds raised by voluntary contributions, such as gifts, grants or bequests. Currently, spending on marketing is limited to money raised by a statutory marketing levy. I'm delighted to say—again, in a spirit of substantive bipartisanship—that this bill will go great lengths towards ending that restriction. Mr Deputy Speaker, as I'm sure you are very well aware, Labor supports the passage of this bill subject to, of course, the amendment moved by the member for Hunter, and I must say what a tremendous job he does as well as an advocate for regional Australia and certainly regional Australia insofar as it supports the primary production industries.
Only four RDCs are governed by the Primary Industries Research and Development Act: Fisheries RDC, Cotton RDC, Grains RDC and Rural Industries RDC—and I'd like to come back to Fisheries RDC in due course. Whilst at first blush it might reasonably be said that for someone like me, as a member privileged to represent those in Western Australia who are from the inner city, the connection to primary industries appears remote, I'm pleased to say that that is not the case. Quite frankly, the importance of backing in primary industry is one which touches us all and one which has quite a connection to my own history on two levels. Firstly, I am delighted to say that from 2010 to 2013 the Fisheries RDC worked with Murdoch University, which is the university I previously attended. The work, to the tune of $300,000, was on the development of a model that would enable reliable estimation, from age and length data, of the mortality of fish species that undertake size-related, unidirectional offshore movements. That might sound a little esoteric but it really does relate back to, say, consumers in my electorate, as they regularly attend farmers markets in seeking to obtain the benefits of fresh local produce.
I would talk about the subject of the research at some length if only time would permit, because I'm really just getting started, Mr Deputy Speaker. It relates to a famous species of fish called King George whiting. King George whiting, for those who don't know, is a tremendous species of fish that really could not be more removed from, let's say—without wanting to disrespect them too much—its poorer cousins the standard whiting or the sand whiting. The King George whiting is something else for a number of reasons. Firstly, in terms of its pound-for-pound ratio, it is quite the fighting fish. Whilst I was born in Perth and moved back to live in Perth, I spent some of my childhood growing up on Kangaroo Island. For those who do not know it, Kangaroo Island is renowned as an incredibly fertile fishing ground for King George whiting. As a matter of fact, I caught my first ever fish on Kangaroo Island, and guess what fish that was?
An honourable member: A whiting?
It was a King George whiting. I still remember that day when I hauled up my first ever fish and the wonderful shimmering colour and movement of the King George whiting appeared. I don't know whether it was a sign of things to come or whether my luck quotient peaked too early, but it was not just one fish; it was a famous double-header. The double-header of two King George whiting caught from my late father's boat off the shores of Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island is something that will be forever stuck in my mind.
The reason it is important here is that the Fisheries RDC looked into research to make sure that we preserve this famous fish, the King George whiting, not just for my generation but for many generations to come. If this bill goes some way to making sure that other kids get the same benefit I did, that is delightful.