House debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2019


Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2019; Second Reading

4:23 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Continuing with my speech: the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2019 requires financial institutions to adhere to additional conditions when making loans of up to $5 million to small primary production businesses. The small primary production businesses are predominantly family run and operate in perfectly competitive markets which are highly responsive to market fluctuations, weather and exchange rate movements largely outside the control of the business. Small primary production businesses ordinarily expect to make profits over a multiyear cycle rather than in each and every season, and their ability to pay creditors or reduce their debt level is grounded in these profit cycles. Operating under such variable conditions places small primary production businesses at a distinct disadvantage in managing their credit arrangements with financial institutions and warrants additional conditions to level the playing field.

I therefore urge the government to consider the measures that are contained in my rural finance bill when considering the merits of this bill, because our Australian farmers do not want a handout. Australian farmers need, want and deserve the right and the support to either pursue a new venture or establish a viable, resilient and sustainable farm for generations to come. If the government refuse to minimise Australia's contribution to climate change then they can at least minimise its impact by helping our farmers who are enduring the current hot and dry conditions, and prepare their farming operations for more to come.

I'm pleased that the state and federal governments are beginning to take small steps towards recognising that the fate of our farmers is extremely linked to climate change. During the Agriculture Ministers Forum, held in October this year, agriculture ministers endorsed a national climate change work program to assist farmers to meet the challenges of climate change. The program will focus on four priorities:

          The national climate change work program will be overseen by the Climate Change Task Group. It's unclear how members of this task group will be selected, or even when the program work will commence; however, I urge the government to attend to this as a matter of urgency. In conclusion, I commend this bill to the House.

          4:26 pm

          Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

          It's interesting where the farm household support scheme came from. A group of farmers in Far North Queensland came together as the Rural Action council, and they were a pretty fiery mob. It probably had a lot to do with my exit from the National Party. What sent them into a fury was that John Anderson had said, 'We have 200,000 farmers in Australia and we only need 100,000.' Well, now we have under 100,000 actually. Their thing was, 'This bloke seems to be saying that we should go: "We don't need you, so go."' When the current crisis through the drought occurred, I was absolutely shocked to find that all the National Party members, and the LNP member for Maranoa, talked about exit packages. The farmers are in very deep trouble. So what is the solution? Get rid of the farmers? Then we'd have no farmers. We'd be in deep trouble. The reaction was quite extraordinary. But that was not the reaction by the fighters, and the people that have come down here about the Murray-Darling are the same sort of people.

          If up in Far North Queensland it led to the loss of a seat in this place and the loss of four state seats in North Queensland, it's only a matter of time before the Independents movement, as it was under Peter Andren and others—which was totally destroyed by Tony Windsor, who decided to become an ALP member and vote with the ALP. He voted almost every single vote with them. I can't remember—and nor could Chris Pyne—a single example where he didn't vote with the ALP. It blackened the name. We had the balance of power. We delivered nothing. And, worse than that, we just became a rubber stamp. Since they got a lot of publicity, I was sort of tarred with the same brush, even though, in this case anyway, I was totally innocent.

          Let me get back to the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2019. Rural Action floated what was called the Emerald Creek declaration. I think it's probably the best thing I've ever seen on agriculture. The head of the NFF has come out and said: 'The government has no policy on drought. The government has no long-term agriculture policy.' It might have taken a thousand people out in front of the NFF headquarters this morning, but, anyway, that's what she said. I don't mean to criticise the government by saying that that's 100 per cent true. I don't mean to criticise the government, because I don't think the government have had options put before them that they've seriously listened to. When I say that, I'm referring particularly to the Prime Minister.

          Having said all of these things, let me return to the family household support scheme. It says if your income doesn't come up to welfare payment the government will top it up to welfare payment. Rural Action floated this through, I suppose, their relationship, more or less—my board of control at the time. They had a debt summit that the president of our little party, the KAP, got out of the then-Treasurer, Wayne Swan. I think the history books will read that Wayne Swan was a very good Treasurer. To bring us through the GFC was quite an extraordinary achievement. Whether it's attributable to the Prime Minister or to him I'll leave to other people. He had this farm debt summit, here in Canberra, and it was chaired by the president of our KAP, but there were members there from all points of the political spectrum, including the LNP. What we got out of that summit was the farm household support legislation. It was a terrific breakthrough.

          It's a very sad comment upon agriculture in Australia that Mr Anderson said, 'We only need 100,000 of you,' and now, I think, there are only 84,000 left—half of them have gone, a lot of them in the most terrible manner possible—and of that 84,000 left 9,600 have been on welfare payments. That'll give you some idea of where agriculture is today. I keep screaming in this place that your free-market policies are ridiculous in the face of the subsidies provided.

          An OECD report from 2007, I think it was—the last report, but it could have been later than that—states that if you're a farmer in the world, on planet Earth, you get 41 per cent of your income from the government. Canada is the lowest. Canadian farmers get 36 per cent of their income from the government. However, if you're an Australian farmer, you get 4.6 per cent of your income from the government. If you think our farmers can give those American cattlemen a 36-metre start in a 100-metre race, you are wrong. There is no way. I've only been briefly overseas but, in that time, I spent two days on what they call a cattle ranch. We call it a cattle station. It's almost identical to my own land, North Queensland's mid-west, in every way. But, I'll tell you what, you'd want to get up very early in the morning if you wanted to get on top of Marvin, and you'd want to get up very, very early to break up the ice on the troughing. You'd want to get up very early in the morning too if you wanted to beat the southern Brazilians in the sugar industry. We've got enormous competition from very astute, very capable farmers in southern Brazil.

          Clearly, agriculture is doomed. We can't give our competitors a 36-metre start over a 100-metre race. No-one in here could seriously and sanely think that. Our second problem is we only have two people to sell food to in Australia: Woolworths and Coles. No other country on earth would countenance this situation. It is bad for the farmers but bloody awful for the consumers. The average mark-up on food, when Woolworths and Coles have 50.1 per cent of the market—that was in 1991. By the time they had reached 90 per cent of the market, which they have now—and don't let them tell you they haven't got that. I've got all the reports and records—unless they're lying to their shareholders—that they now hold 90 per cent of the food market in Australia. So we've only got two people to sell food to in Australia. Whereas the mark-up was around 108 per cent back in 1991, the mark-up now is around 300 per cent. A leader in South Australia, Nick Xenophon, did 15 items, and the mark-up was about 330 per cent. I'd done it on a smaller basket of items, and it was about 260 per cent, but now it's moved up to 300 per cent.

          So you have free markets. Was it good for the consumers? No. They were buying goods on a mark-up of 100 per cent; now they're buying goods on a mark-up of nearly 300 per cent. Was it good for the farmers? No. More than half of them have gone belly-up—finished. The country is now a net importer of fruit and vegetables. The country is now a net importer of seafood. The country is now a net importer of pork. It's pretty hard to name our cattle numbers. We had 32 million before all this free-market rubbish started. They were 22 million two years ago. I suspect that next year we'll be on 19 million in the cattle industry. Our greatest non-depleting national asset is the cattle herd. Yes, we have mineral resources, but they're depleting assets. I might argue that water is a depleting asset. This place keeps taking the water off us farmers, so it may be a depleting asset as well; I don't know.

          But the third element—and I sit under a picture of the great Jack McEwen. I've got a decision to make here as to whether Jack McEwen and Doug Anthony were right or whether the Lilliputians who are in here right now representing agriculture are right, because their policies are complete opposites. The Anthony family made their name by forming the banana growers cooperative. The biggest item sold in stores in Australia is bananas. All bananas got sold through the cooperative, and we put a price on it. If you didn't do that, you got bashed. One of their forebears came from Sicily, and they reckoned you got a bit more than bashed sometimes if you didn't sell too cooperatively! Whether those stories are true or not is irrelevant. The fact is that they made their name establishing a fair go for the farmers. There's only one way you can get a fair go, and that is to sell collectively and aggressively, and they had the brains to know that.

          Larry Anthony is a kid who started off as a postal clerk. He was sent up to Murwillumbah—he hated Sydney and got himself transferred—and every afternoon at five o'clock he raced down, bought two clears of land and cleared it. It became banana farm. He became one of the biggest banana farmers in Australia after about 10 or 15 years. That's the story of Larry Anthony.

          Black Jack McEwen got all the dairy farmers in Victoria together and said: 'I'm sick of living on a dirt floor in a galvanised iron shed and eating rabbits, so from now on everyone sells through a cooperative. You all get a quota and we put a price on our product.' He was only 28, and so was Anthony. Coincidentally, they were both 28 when they did this. His case was identical except that he pre-dated Anthony.

          As always, our leadership betrays us in agriculture. It's almost a truism to say that our leadership betrays us. Three of the leaders of the dairy industry in Victoria said: 'We're not being told how we can sell. You don't understand it and it won't work.' So he said: 'Well, I'll explain it to you outside. I don't want to take up the time of the meeting.' He took them outside and gave all three of them a big flogging—bashed the hell out of them. He came back in rubbing his fists and asked, 'Anybody else need an explanation?' and nobody else wanted an explanation. But it was the same story as Anthony's.

          These were the towering men who gave you the most competitive, aggressive and successful agricultural dimension of any country on earth. This bunch of pygmies and Lilliputians here, here, and here in the chamber have completely destroyed it. Our cattle numbers are down by 30 per cent—probably 40 per cent. Our dairy is down by 50 per cent. We're closing a sugar mill every two or three years. Soon in Queensland there will be no sugar industry at all. It will make a lot of people happy because they'll have no run-off on the Barrier Reef. It won't make a lot of people in Queensland happy, because it's the biggest employer in Queensland—still bigger than coal. So it will completely destroy the livelihoods of everyone that lives in the state of Queensland. There are a lot of elements that are going to close down the coal industry as well, so we'll have nothing left at all. Sugar, dairy, cattle, sheep, the wool industry—and I want to be very specific here, because, when I asked the minister a question, he said that I didn't know what I was talking about, that the wool industry was the example of where minimum pricing doesn't work. Well, he's a very ignorant young man, because, if he knew what he was talking about and got his brain into gear before he shot his mouth off, he would have known that when Doug Anthony—one of the towering figures of Australian history—introduced the scheme, the price went up 300 per cent. Within three years the price went up 300 per cent. It was there on a nice, gentle upward slope for 20 years. When I was burying my father, I had to say, 'What was the most remarkable thing that was ever achieved in rural Australia?' and it was the wool scheme, because for 20 years, at long last, we had a viable national agricultural industry. (Time expired)

          4:41 pm

          Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

          I thank all members who have spoken on the Farm Household Support Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2019. By keeping the economy strong, the government can support our key agricultural industries to combat, recover from and prepare for drought. We know that farming, in the end, is a long game. Support in times of hardship is part of what's needed to help farmers and their communities through these quite obviously difficult times. There are times like now, when widespread drought conditions impact on all of our primary production and the livelihoods of our farmers and their families. That's why the farm household allowance was originally created, and with strong bipartisan support—to make sure that farmers doing it tough have the support they need.

          Since the introduction of the farm household allowance in 2014, over $365 million in fortnightly payments has been made to almost 13,000 farmers and their partners. Let me be clear: the farm household allowance is not a drought measure. However, the government fully acknowledges that many of the proud farmers who access this allowance do so because of drought. This bill will improve the financial situation of farmers and their families who are facing this financial hardship. It's the next instalment by the Australian government to implement the recommendations made in the report of the independent review, Rebuilding the FHA: a better way forward for supporting farmers in financial hardship. Support for farmers, their families and drought affected communities remains this government's most urgent priority, and I therefore commend this bill to the House.

          Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

          The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Hunter has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Hunter be agreed to.