House debates

Monday, 7 December 2020


Excise Levies Legislation Amendment (Sheep and Lamb) Bill 2020, Customs Charges and Levies Legislation Amendment (Sheep and Lamb) Bill 2020; Second Reading

5:16 pm

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

I foreshadow that I will be tabling and moving a second reading amendment in the course of my contribution today.

At the outset, it's important to emphasise that the opposition is going to support the Excise Levies Legislation Amendment (Sheep and Lamb) Bill 2020, but frankly it's just disappointing that here we are again debating another bill that should have been passed long ago. Sadly, farmers are becoming accustomed to the fact that they are often overlooked by this Liberal-National government, which portrays itself as representing them but whose actions betray its words about what will be done. During 2017, Sheep Producers Australia commissioned a review of the impacts of any change to the Australian definition of 'lamb' such that it would harmonise the Australian definition with that of our friends across the Tasman in New Zealand. In March 2018, SPA endorsed a change in the industry definition based on a formal industry-wide call for feedback. In March 2019, an amendment to the Export Control (Meat and Meat Products) Orders 2005 changed the definition of lamb. However, it was not reflected in all legislation, which brings us here today.

This bill was introduced in the House of Reps on 17 June 2020 and seeks to align the definition of 'lamb' for the purpose of imposing levies and imposing sheep and lamb customs charges and alter the statutory definition of 'lamb' to include 'an ovine animal that is under 12 months of age, or does not have permanent incisor teeth in wear'. These bills will bring Australia's definition of sheep and lamb in line with international competitors and streamline the levy system for industry. It will also bring administrative clarity to levy payers by ensuring consistency across the statutory definitions of sheep and lamb and the levies and charges that are imposed on the animals.

But, as always with this government, it's been a long time coming. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the SPA endorsed the changes to the definition of sheep and lamb in March 2018, over two years ago, and here we are, in December 2020, still attempting to implement these changes. It's yet another example of the government failing to prioritise agriculture and overlooking the importance of an efficient and streamlined research and development scheme. As we know, the levy system allows producers to collectively fund research and development, marketing, animal health, biosecurity and other projects that will benefit their industry. We've got to ask ourselves: why has it taken the government over two years to amend the definition in these acts?

I'm not here to speculate about the monetary effects on R&D of the government failing to bring this bill before parliament sooner; however, I do think it's appropriate to reflect on what it says about the government's priorities, and agriculture certainly isn't one of them. Unfortunately, it is a story all too familiar to our farmers. This government has failed to prioritise agriculture legislation for the past seven years. To name a few, the Wine Australia Amendment (Label Directory) Bill 2019 was introduced in the Senate on 2 December last year. Similarly, the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019 was introduced last December but hasn't been passed. The fact is the government makes the big announcements, gets the headlines out there, throws meaningless amounts of money at industry but has done nothing to fix the gaping policy vacuum that's been created by seven years of inaction by this government.

Since becoming the shadow minister for agricultural and resources, I have been able to undertake regional trips for the portfolio, particularly in regional New South Wales and regional Victoria, and I have been grateful for the chance to tour with the member for Eden-Monaro, Kristy McBain; the member for Macquarie, Susan Templeman; and senator for Victoria, Raff Ciccone. In Eden-Monaro, there was a packed schedule for meeting with the Tumbarumba Vignerons Association, touring the Hyne Timber Tumbarumba Mill and visiting Batlow Apples—I'll speak further in relation to the Tumbarumba Vignerons Association in an upcoming bill. I just wanted to stress that I've got nothing but full admiration for the heartfelt and passionate commitment of these businesses to overcome everything nature threw at them over the last 12 months. When you think about droughts, bushfire and then the pandemic on top of that, these businesses, like most in the sector, have undertaken an extraordinary amount during that period of time.

What I saw across these communities is the impact of government apathy or delay, particularly through bushfire and drought recovery. It is taking far too long for government assistance to come through. We need to think of ways to protect people who are under threat and jobs that are under threat in the regions and rural communities that are feeling that pressure. It was particularly staggering when I took into account that it's been over a year since those bushfires, particularly in regional New South Wales, started to sweep through. It took ages to get the assistance in place, and then on top of that, after that delay, new announcements seemed to be—maybe I'm cynical—timed to be held with a by-election that was occurring in early July. Even in my recent visit in November, it was still taking time for that money to flow through. It simply should not be the case that people that endured so much had to wait for so long.

I was able to visit the seat of Macquarie on National Agriculture Day, a day when we congratulate Australia's agriculture sector for helping put high-quality food on our tables and, importantly, for being an employer of over 319,000 people and 85,000 farm businesses and making a contribution of over $60 billion to our nation's economy—and that has increased, as has been recorded and noted today by ABARES. The member for Macquarie and I visited Bilpin Cider, where I met Sean Prendergast to hear how their business has grown since 2015 and the challenges they faced when they had to close their cellar door at the height of the pandemic.

Whilst Bilpin Cider didn't lose any of their trees to bushfire, other businesses weren't so lucky. For example, the owners of Bilpin Fruit Bowl showed me what they had lost and the way in which those fires crept on to their property and took down so much. In fact, the bushfire affected a lot of the property itself, and they're recovering from that. I might say, to the credit of the government, some of the funding has gotten through for them to recalibrate their business in different ways, and I think they were very happy with assistance that the federal government that finally got through to them. I congratulate the federal government on that funding. When visiting there, I met with Margaret and Simon Tadrosse to hear about the challenges facing them and other producers.

It's important to know that they lost over 7,000 apple trees and acres of netting protecting their crops in those bushfires in December last year. The damage to their property is estimated to be $3 million and, quite frankly, it took them quite a bit of time to get their insurance. There were quibbles with insurance and trying to get that through. It finally did happen, but it's something that has been of concern which I have picked up along the way—the amount of time it took for the insurers to come to the party. Again, there was extensive damage to their property, estimated to be about $3 million. A year later, some of them are still waiting to get support through what has been promised to repair fire affected infrastructure.

If agriculture is going to reach its goal—and the government has aligned itself to the National Farmers Federation's goal of seeing a $100 billion contribution by agriculture by 2030—the government will need to start showing some leadership. The government's neglect to legislate, in this case, the revised definition of 'sheep' and 'lamb'; the wine-labelling bill that we'll be debating shortly; and the streamlining administration bill highlights a disregard for the sector and also a disregard for the importance of research and development and the RDCs.

The agriculture minister has said that the RDCs are on notice. He has commissioned reports and held inquiries into the RDCs, but there hasn't been much as a result of all that talk. The minister's $2.6 million review into RDCs found that they're not fit for purpose. That report was delivered before the 2019 election. Then, in September last year, the government undertook a review—another review—into modernising the RDC system. That produced two discussion papers—hallelujah for that! Two discussion papers! They culminated in the announcement of the National Agricultural Innovation Agenda on 1 September 2020.

Part of this agenda involves the development of a national agricultural innovation strategy, which won't be announced until the first half of next year. Just like the elusive agricultural workers strategy, it seems the innovation strategy will be remarkably and similarly elusive. And while we wait for this third-term government to deliver its strategies, on 1 October the minister announced Agriculture Innovation Australia. According to the minister's media release there is $1.3 million committed to kickstart investment in AIA, which is intended to deliver:

… cross-industry research, to leverage private sector investment and to target transformational innovation.

These are all fine words; let's see if they actually get anywhere.

At estimates, Labor senators sought clarity about AIA's mandate. However, they were unable to establish anything substantive. It seems there's a lot of money going out the door to support AIA. Whether or not this will lead to anything significant, concrete or tangible we'll wait to see. The RDCs were also unable to tell us what AIA will do that existing RDCs should not already be doing. What's clear is that the individual RDCs will be buying into the AIA, using levy-payer dollars, more than likely to conduct research they should have been undertaking themselves. The effectiveness of the AIA remains to be seen. However, it seems very unlikely it will successfully remedy the inefficiencies of existing RDCs.

I just want to remark on this fact: in Victoria, against this backdrop and in the absence of government leadership, we've seen the ag sector in Australia take the lead on innovation and innovation investment. With the New South Wales-Victoria border reopening the other week, I was able to visit regional Victoria, as I indicated earlier, with senator for Victoria Raff Ciccone. We went to Gippsland Jersey to hear about their plans to expand and build their presence in the Australian dairy industry. They showed us how much they've been concentrating on clean and sustainable farming by helping and supporting other local dairy farmers. They have big plans to diversify their product range and have been displaying quite actively and talking about that through social media. I commend them on that, and thank them for their time.

In Heyfield I visited Australian Sustainable Hardwoods, Australia's largest hardwood manufacturer. I undertook a tour of their factory and also saw some of the ways that they're changing their production processes with the implementation of fairly sophisticated production techniques that are allowing them to undertake quite significant and different projects along the way. I was very grateful for the time there. We had the opportunity to meet with the CFMMEU to hear about how innovation on the plant floor is helping to not only improve worker safety but, importantly, improve workers' employability and the sustainability of their jobs longer terms. In just a couple of weeks I have been able to meet with all these stakeholders, and I'm very grateful for their time and their advice and to have had the ability to learn from them and in particular to hear some of the issues they care deeply about that affect their sector.

The thing that did strike me is that there is a concern about a lack of leadership being displayed by the government. Again, any question time you can hear the minister for agriculture go to the dispatch box and rattle off announcements. He'll rattle off amounts of money that they're prepared to spend. It all sounds great, but people are waiting for the actual delivery. There is, I suspect, a degree of frustration creeping in over the fact that the government will make announcements—they announce legislation, table it and it takes a year to get here for debate—and then there's not much being seen by way of delivery.

We had the meeting bringing together the ag ministers from across the country held last week. It was the first time, according to those state and territory ministers, that they were going to have a substantive meeting in 10 months. Those ministers actually released a letter expressing their frustration at the lack of any substantive policy agenda that was going to be debated through AGMIN. I imagine that there'll be some within government ranks who'll say, 'It was just one political side lobbing a criticism against another.' This wasn't the case because even state governments that are not of the same political persuasion as us are also saying that AGMIN should be used in a much more comprehensive way to deal with the issues of the sector—for example, the pressures that are being put on the sector as a result of the need to diversify trade given the current disputes that are going. When you look at the major exports in agriculture—wool, barley, wine, beef and seafood—they're all affected at the moment with respect to some of the disputes that we're having with one particular destination. We don't need to necessarily name it. I think everyone's big enough and wise enough to know who I'm referring to there. The pressure for trade diversification is well and truly on, but I wonder whether or not this agriculture minister gets it.

At the Rural Press Club on 8 October, in response to questioning about what might be done on diversification, his big contribution was to blame exporters and say: 'These are decisions that are made by companies. They're not made by us as a government. We just open up the markets. It's the companies' issue whether or not they decide to put all their eggs in the one basket.' We've seen in the last few weeks a very furtive attempt by him and the trade minister to suggest that they're in these crisis talks with the sector to undertake trade diversification. But that's a really different story to just a few weeks earlier, when he was trying to blame individual exporters. When the government make a trade agreement, they're there to claim the credit and to claim how they've opened up these markets and have encouraged people and companies to export—and they absolutely should do that. But they're not there when help is needed or they scramble to respond.

As I said, you'd expect the agriculture minister we have would be a bit wiser. But there's a thing with this agriculture minister. He loves to talk tough. He loves to show that he's across his area. He loves to show that he's sticking up for it and he's taking a tough stand. But he doesn't necessarily show that toughness can also be paired with wisdom and that you might want to think before you speak, particularly in respect of this issue. Certainly this minister, who I've criticised in this place for not being across the detail, for example, of the Biosecurity Act, which he initially thought the department did not administer in respect of people and said that it didn't cover human health—big news to a lot of Australians!— should really demonstrate that he's taken the time to know the acts that are actually within the purview of his own department. Maybe we'll see some action on that front in a concrete sense.

And I come back to this point: he makes a lot of claims, suggests that there's a lot of action, throws out the figures, throws out the numbers, and where is it all getting to? That has prompted me—and I flagged this with the clerks—to move a second reading amendment:

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 condemns the Government for its failed record in assisting drought-affected farmers and communities".

That amendment has been seconded by the member for Fenner.

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

I knew there was a reason I went to an agricultural high school!

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

And a capable seconder he is, because he informs me dutifully that he went to an agricultural high school—well done, Dr Leigh.

In putting that amendment forward, I re-emphasise that this is a minister who loves making announcements, but where's the follow-through? Let me go through some of the things that were announced: a drought resilience self-assessment tool, $3 million, with the first phase of the tool expected to be operational before 30 June 2021; climate services for the agriculture program, $10 million, with the first phase of the platform expected to be operational before 30 June 2021; National Resource Management Drought Resilience Program—Landscapes, $5 million, with funds expected to be provided for activities to commence in February 2021; and National Resource Management Drought Resilience Program grants, $10 million, with funding for successful applicants expected to be provided for activities to commence in early 2021.

So, 2021 is going to be a big year in responding to drought—a hell of a time, given what people have had to go through out in the regions, tackling drought. With most of these funds, these activities, it's great to announce them, or talk about them here at the dispatch box, but look at the actual implementation. More examples: drought resilience research and adoption, $20.3 million, with the call for applications for innovation grants expected to be open in February 2021, and networks for building drought resilience, $8.75 million, a competitive grant with the first round to select a provider to deliver the program expected to open in September 2020—and we look forward to seeing the results of that.

With some of the things I mentioned, where people have struggled and had to face that level of adversity, you would expect that there'd be a lot more dexterity and speed by the government in order to get through all that and deliver it in a meaningful way. We still hear, for example, concerns about the Future Drought Fund. Certainly you'd expect a lot more money to be flowing to affected communities as a result of that. But early on in my service in this shadow ministerial portfolio I'm hearing the concern that it's not moving fast enough. The fact that I'm picking that up in such a short period of time should be a concern to the government.

I also want to reflect, if I may—on indulgence—on something else that happened in the past week. In order to get across these issues and particularly to understand what's happening in rural and regional communities, for people across the country, we depend on a vibrant media that is reporting on the things that are affecting rural and regional communities. It was my great pleasure last week to attend an awards evening that recognised the contributions of journalists in rural and regional Australia, in particular during the tough year that people have experienced. The event was convened by the National Rural Press Club and supported by a number of companies, and I want to commend those companies for the support they gave, as this forms a vital platform for recognising the contribution of rural journalists.

The National Rural Press Club 2020 Excellence in Rural Journalism Awards evening was held at the National Press Club here in Canberra. The awards presented included the Westpac Best News Story award, the Animal Medicines Australia Best Feature Story award, the CropLife Scoop of the Year award, the CaseIH Best Photograph of the Year award, the National Rural Press Club Best New Journalist or Cadet award and the overall winner award. These awards went to a number of people who I particularly want to highlight.

One winner who stood out for me was the overall award winner, Sean Davey. He was the unanimous choice of the judges for his picture capturing a particularly difficult moment in time that summed up months of horrendous events. His photo of a farmer, Steve Shipton, having to put down an injured calf in his paddock after a bushfire in New South Wales on 1 January this year is a very powerful image. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words, and this one certainly did. It obviously captured what a lot of farmers had to go through over the course of that event.

There were a number of other awards as well, as I mentioned. Clare Armstrong, from The Daily Telegraph, took out the Westpac Best News Story. The Animal Medicines Australia Feature Story went to Clint Jasper, who is part of the ABC's national regional reporting team, for his report on the scrapping of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. He also filed a number of reports on the bushfires. The CropLife Scoop of the Year award went to The Australian's Rosie Lewis in respect of the Eden-Monaro by-election earlier this year. The CaseIH Best Photograph of the Year award went to Sean Davey. And I want to extend my congratulations, because it's always important to recognise people coming through the ranks and taking up the case of quality rural journalism, to the Best New Journalist or Cadet award winner, Andrea Cantle from the Bay Post. She joined the Bay Post as a cadet last year, and, in some of the most difficult circumstances so early in a career, had to cover a bomb scare that evacuated the CBD of the bay area and did outstanding coverage of the bushfires, which devastated her new home. For a period of time, she had to share premises with the editor. She has shown huge commitment and professionalism. So, with the indulgence of the House, I extend my congratulations to all those rural journalists who do an exceptional job in speaking up for rural and regional Australia and ensuring that the rest of the country is aware of the challenges in these areas.

I'll conclude my remarks at that. I do hope that, in the course of the debate, we get some expression of urgency from the government to do a better job in making sure the legislation that's brought into the House gets acted upon in a much more timely way, because there are a lot of people outside of here who are dependent on laws proposed by this government to benefit the sector into the years ahead.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment, and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Chifley has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

5:43 pm

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to say that I'm a little bit deflated and disappointed. I was looking forward with great anticipation to the member for Chifley's address on the Excise Levies Legislation Amendment (Sheep and Lamb) Bill 2020. I know that many of my farmers and producers are particularly interested to hear his views on the live sheep trade, as am I, given his strongly held personal view that the trade should be phased out. The Labor Party took a policy of phasing out the live export trade to the last election, and it's my understanding that they still have that policy. Unfortunately, the member for Chifley spent 90 seconds speaking on the bill, and about sheep and lamb in particular, before segueing onto the wine industry, where he obviously felt that he was on much firmer territory.

But in relation to this particular bill, it is a technical amendment to the levies act. The substantive change which allows farmers to sell their lambs as lamb, as opposed to mutton, took place some 12 months ago. This bill directs the levies to the correct channels. The total amount of money doesn't change, and the money ends up with Meat & Livestock Australia to distribute anyway. So it is a technical amendment, but it is important, and of course I commend the bill to the House.

For the benefit of the member for Chifley, if he's back in his office having a look, I'll move on to what this bill is about and what it means for a sheep producer. A lamb, like a human baby, has baby teeth. At around 10 to 11 months, the lamb starts to cut its adult teeth. Traditionally, the minute that you could identify the adult teeth cutting through, the definition of that lamb changed to 'mutton'. Traditionally, again, the lamb price was significantly higher than the mutton price.

This year, that is slightly different—particularly in Western Australia, where there's a great deal of restocking going on, or of sheep being purchased by eastern state breeders for restocking their properties. Well over a million sheep have left Western Australia this year for the east coast to assist those farmers recovering from drought to restock. We've seen some extraordinary prices for breeding ewes, and they're certainly outstripping the lamb price at the moment. That usual price differential just doesn't exist this year, but of course the cycle will turn and it will be very useful for lamb producers that that definition has been moved from the first cutting of the adult teeth to the first wearing of the adult teeth—or 12 months, whichever occurs first. It's a very important change that came in around 12 months ago for sheep and lamb producers.

I did want to talk today about the importance of the live export trade in relation to sheep and lamb, particularly for Western Australian producers, where—

Dr Leigh interjecting

Well, it's in relation to the bill—sheep and lamb. Those lambs are exported live, member for Fenner. If you had any knowledge of the Western Australian sheep industry, you would well know—

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

It's not in the bill!

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We're here to debate the definition of a 'lamb'. A great deal of concern for me is the need to diversify our markets out of Western Australia. We have a small domestic market for chilled lamb, and we export predominantly to China, which is fine—they've been an excellent market for us—but 48 per cent of our product now goes into China. I think most sound businesses would be thinking that they're getting a little bit top-heavy in the one market and that we need to expand. Of course, one of our longest standing, most important and most loyal markets has been our friends in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, just last week I received a letter—a copy of a letter—from the Widam Food Company, a company which imports chilled meat into the Middle East. They also import live sheep. In October 2019, when I was on a personal trip to Europe, I called in and met the Widam CEO, Mr Al-Marri, and was taken on a tour of their newly installed feedlot and the abattoir they were building that was only weeks away from being commissioned—state-of-the-art facilities built specifically for receiving live sheep and slaughtering them there in the Middle East.

The announcement from Widam that they would be no longer importing Australian chilled meat will have a severe impact on one particular abattoir in my electorate, Hillside Meat Processors, which provides about 12,000 to 15,000 carcasses for the airfreight trade. These are lightweight lambs, member for Fenner, that will now have to find another market. Of course, the market that's there and ready to go, and the exporters that are ready to service it—that's the live sheep trade.

We need to support our exporters. We certainly need to see that product exported out of Western Australia, whether it be as chilled product or live product, but there is demand for the live product, which takes me to the Saudi trade. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of live sheep in the world. It imports around eight million head per year from all over North Africa and the Black Sea—countries which don't have anything like the animal welfare protocols and requirements that we do. We have been locked out of that market since 2011 because of some of the protocols that this government sought to impose on the Saudis. But it was with great anticipation that the industry looked forward to the conclusion of negotiations between the Australian government and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment for some protocols to resume the trade.

These negotiations were concluded in April 2020 and the industry was looking forward to the resumption of the trade. Unfortunately, since then there have been some additional conditions applied by the department of agriculture around the scabby mouth vaccination, which many farmers conduct in the lamb marking cradle. I have done many thousands of lambs myself. What happens is the lambs are restrained in the cradle—they're quite small at that stage of their life—and the vaccine is applied. There's a little vial with a needle and you scratch the lamb—just a little scratch under its armpit—and the vaccine enters the bloodstream and vaccinates the lamb against scabby mouth.

What the department of agriculture has told the live export community—and this has not been asked for by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—is that animals will need to be scratched within 30 days of them going on a boat. For an 18-month-old, 60 kilogram wether, the animal will have to be restrained and scratched within 30 days of going on the boat. In practice, the Scabigard vaccine is actually highly toxic and it's quite dangerous to use. The lambs are restrained in a marking cradle so they can't kick and wriggle, but a 60 kilogram wether would throw me to the floor without a blink and I would probably end up stabbing myself with the needle and giving myself a dose of the Scabigard vaccine, which is highly toxic for humans.

It's a great disappoint to me—and to the rest of the industry—that the ag department has imposed this condition, because it wasn't requested by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are protocols in place from pre-2011 for dealing with any issues around scabby mouth. I'm sure that the department is concerned about a repeat of the Cormo Express incident of 2003—and none of us wants to see that—but the memorandum of understanding that was signed in 2005 does take account of those sorts of issues and there is a protocol and a series of actions that can take place under those arrangements.

I just want to conclude my comments by coming back to the legislation and saying this has been a great initiative by the government and it makes a real difference in most seasons to the farmer's bottom line. It means that farmers can retain their lambs for a little longer and get them a little heavier—which is actually what the market wants; they want the lambs as heavy as possible—without running the risk that that lamb will be devalued the minute it cuts its lamb's tooth.

I particularly want to commend the government and the minister for that legislation and reform to the industry. I want to remind the House that this is a $4.5 billion industry. There are 31,000 sheep farmers across this nation who benefit from this industry. In the heat of the COVID pandemic, back in March and April, one thing Australians did not have to worry about was whether the farmers of Australia would be able to feed our people and, to a large extent, that was because of the success of our farmers and particularly our sheep and lamb industry. Without any further ado, I commend this legislation to the House and I look forward to the support of the opposition for the bill.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for O'Connor for that very educational speech.

5:54 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Excise Levies Legislation Amendment (Sheep and Lamb) Bill 2020 and the Customs Charges and Levies Legislation Amendment (Sheep and Lamb) Bill 2020 align the definition of 'lamb', as the member for O'Connor has so well articulated, for the purposes of imposing sheep and lamb custom charges. They bring Australia's definition in line with international competitors, providing a definite signal for producers about when a sheep is no longer a lamb. I won't detain the House on that. I think the member for O'Connor knows much more about that than probably anybody else in the House!

The bills will provide administrative clarity for levy payers and support compliance with the levy scheme through ensuring consistency across relevant legislation in the definition of the animal upon which levies and charges are imposed. That sounds sensible, boring, straightforward, but it has taken this government two years to amend the definition in these bills. These bills are, by any definition, well into 'mutton' territory. I'm therefore grateful to the shadow minister for the second reading amendment, which allows members to bring to the House's attention the government's agriculture inaction over seven years.

I inform the House that a trade deal with Qatar for the export of 1.2 million chilled fat lambs has just fallen over, and I'm yet to hear anything from the minister about it. Qatar was providing an internal subsidy to make Australian chilled fat lamb more affordable for Qatari customers, but it has just ended that arrangement, taking our exporters completely by surprise. They had understood the subsidy was to stay in place until at least 2023. The fear, of course, is that without the subsidy Australia's premium product will be unable to compete in the Qatari marketplace, with much cheaper products from our competitors, including India. Tasmanian Quality Meats in my electorate has been sending 1,500 chilled lambs to Qatar every week for five years. It's been a terrific arrangement for both TQM and Qatari customers. The news comes as TQM starts a $9.5 million upgrade to its Cressy processing facility, increasing its weekly kill capacity from 10,000 to 20,000. I look forward to seeing what agriculture minister, Mr Littleproud, is going to do to repair this obviously fractured relationship with a significant customer of our lamb and sheep trade.

In March 2018, the sheepmeat sector committed to changing the definition of 'lamb' to bring Australia in line with other producing countries. But, of course, it's taken this government this long to legislate anything. That delay has meant real money foregone at the farm gate. Now, here we are again: two years and Sheep Producers Australia has agreed on the revised definition, amending legislation to give effect to this industry supported change. The government's go-slow on this issue is emblematic of its approach to agriculture policy more generally. Country people appreciate the joys of a slower pace than the city, but no-one likes a stalled engine. The government's failures to deal effectively with agriculture policy have done farmers, producers and regional communities no favours. Empty promises, inquiries, reviews—so many reviews!—and piecemeal and ad hoc commitments are a poor return on investment. In Tasmania, more than 10,000 workers dependent on agriculture are asking why the government talks itself up so much but doesn't deliver a lot. As Lord Byron once said, 'Self-praise is no praise at all.'

The government has a goal to increase the nation's agricultural output from $65 billion a year to $100 billion a year by 2030. It's an ambitious goal, made even more ambitious by the events of the past year. It's a goal that Labor supports. But we do scratch our heads at the government's inability to articulate a clear path forward. The National Farmers Federation has provided some ideas that the government should be looking at. The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association says growth and productivity require more attention to a range of areas, including water security, skills and training, biosecurity, R&D, technology and—I know the government hates to admit it—climate change. In fact, it is the government's juvenile insistence on weaponising climate change for its culture wars that is arguably the most significant impediment to the nation achieving the $100 billion goal. Failing to recognise the threat that climate change poses to agriculture means the government is also failing to implement the measures necessary to manage its impacts.

The government's failure has been so manifest that farmers got together in 2015 to form the group Farmers for Climate Action. Now representing more than 3,000 growers across the country, Farmers for Climate Action is demanding change and is articulating practical, achievable ways to implement that change. Key to this is generating $10 million and creating 16,000 jobs from carbon storage, providing a significant income stream for many farmers while also improving our soils.

Labor knows that Australia can and should be a renewable energy superpower. Realising that goal would be good for the nation as a whole but even better for our regions, where much of the renewable energy infrastructure and jobs will be based. With our abundance of renewable energy resources, Australia should be the Saudi Arabia of solar. With wind, pumped hydro, geothermal, hydrogen and biomass added to the mix, backed up by fast emerging battery technology and plenty of run life still in our existing assets, Australia's energy future is bright, and that's good for agriculture. But this government continually fails to harness the potential. It doesn't have the long-term vision that is needed to build and grow a nation. The Liberals' inability to recognise the opportunities arising from meeting the climate change challenge fail the country as a whole. It particularly fails our farmers and Australians living in our regions.

It is years of climate policy failure that have given rise to groups such as Farmers for Climate Action. We are talking about farmers leading the demand for strong climate change action—people living in the regions driving the agenda, because it is the regions that suffer most directly from the impacts of climate change. Let's be clear: anyone who thinks that it's only people living in the inner cities who care about climate change have a few sheep lost in the paddock. Climate change doesn't care if you wear sandals or steel-capped boots. It affects us all, whether we live in the city, the suburbs or the country, but it is country people who are exposed to its impacts most directly—hotter bushfires, dryer droughts, more extreme floods. It's the regions that suffer. It's the regions where people die and where livelihoods and homes and businesses are destroyed. So the requirement to take strong climate change action should never be narrowed to identity politics. Real leadership demands so much more.

In Tasmania, primary industries underpin prosperity across our state's rural and regional communities, particularly in my electorate, which covers half the state's land mass. Labor understands the importance of primary industries and has led the way in transforming the sector. It was a Labor government that started the state's irrigation schemes in collaboration with farmers. These schemes have opened up vast tracts of previously marginal land to high-value production for horticulture and dairy. It was a Labor government that started the state's aquaculture industry, a sector that provides well-paying full-time jobs to hundreds of Tasmanians in regional communities. It was a Labor government that started the state's forestry industry and which is rock solid behind the sector's sustainable growth, particularly in value-add processing. The Liberals make a lot of promises and noise on forestry, but they consistently fail to deliver.

Combined, agriculture, forestry and fishing employ around 16,400 Tasmanians, representing seven per cent of the state's workforce, and they contribute $2.6 billion to the state's economy, accounting for nine per cent of the state's GDP. And, the now broken dry notwithstanding, it's been a few good years to be a Tasmanian farmer. High lamb and mutton prices, coupled with increased output, saw the value of sheepmeat increase by $40 million in 2017-18. Mutton was the saviour for farmers during the 2019 drought, with seven-year-old sheep bringing in $160 to $180 each. It was a cashflow lifeline when farmers needed it most. Cash income of Tasmanian sheep industry farms increased by 47 per cent to $208,000 in 2018-19, mainly due to increased turn-off, higher prices for sheep, lambs and wool, and increased production of grain.

We know already that the quality of Tasmanian produce is second to none. Recently, lamb from Arundel Farm at Macquarie Plains, in the Derwent Valley, in my electorate, was judged among the best in the nation, collecting the gold medal in the From the Paddock category in this year's Harvey Norman Produce Awards. Owned by the Hume family, who have been farming in the Derwent Valley for more than 100 years, Arundel Farm was one of four Tasmanian producers to win a gold medal.

Another big vote of confidence in the quality of Tasmanian produce came early in the year, with premium grass-fed lamb being sold in Coles stores across the country. Under this deal, the retailer is offering Tassie lamb in 800 of its supermarkets for 10 months of the year, expecting to buy 100,000 lambs from 40 Tasmanian producers. Scott, who farms at Blackwood Creek in Tasmania's Northern Midlands, has been supplying Coles for several years and he says the new deal will allow him to expand. It is a similar story for Richard and Bec, from Highbrae Farm at Westwood in the Meander Valley, who are supplying Coopworth Poll Dorset cross lambs into the Coles Graze program. This is a real opportunity for Tasmanian lamb producers, especially considering some of the challenges they have faced over the past 12 months, including the closure of abattoirs in the state and the drier weather through 2019.

Looking forward, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences forecasts the average saleyard price of lamb to fall by nine per cent in 2021 to 734c a kilo and sheep to fall by six per cent to 549c per kilo. ABARES also predicts that the income of lamb producing farms will fall by 12 per cent in 2019-20 because of drought and COVID-19 suppressing international and domestic demand. We have also seen fine wool decline during COVID.

Markets go up and down, the weather is fickle, droughts come and go, but you won't find a more resilient bunch of people than Australian farmers. They can't count on the weather but they should be able to count on good policy from government, a steady hand on the tiller. Instead we've had seven years of stalling, seven years of review after review, seven years of stop-start, seven years of delays, seven years of do-nothing government when it comes to agriculture. Agriculture legislation this government has failed to prioritise includes this bill and the wine amendment bill scheduled for debate soon after. Both bills were brought on by the government at the back end of the parliamentary year, when they had had two years to act. That's the priority this government places on agriculture legislation. Other bills that the government has failed to prioritise includes the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill and the Export Control Legislation Amendment (Certification of Narcotic Exports) Bill. Both were written last year. Where are they?

Then we have the minister's failure to respond in any meaningful way to the $2.6 billion review into RDCs. The report, paid for by taxpayers, was delivered before the election last year. When is the minister going to implement the necessary changes to these important bodies? Farmers need real leadership. That means more than putting on an Akubra and RMs and wandering around the paddock in a checked shirt. Leadership isn't about where you live; it's not about your political pedigree, which boarding school you went to. Leadership is about action, not announcements; it's about delivering solutions, not slogans. On that score, this government and this minister are sadly wanting.

6:07 pm

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

The Excise Levies Legislation Amendment (Sheep and Lamb) Bill 2020 updates the definition of lamb for the purposes of imposing and collecting primary industry levies and charges to align with the new definition of lamb used for export purposes and by the industry. The bill updates the definition of land across four pieces of legislation: the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Act 1999 and the Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Act 1999, which authorise the imposition of levies and charges on primary producers, processors and exporters; and the National Residue Survey (Excise) Levy Act 1998 and the National Residue Survey (Customs) Levy Act 1998, which authorise the imposition of levies for the purposes of residue testing.

The sheep and lamb industry contributes $4.5 billion to the Australian economy each year, with around 31,000 agricultural businesses involved in sheep and lamb production. The definition of lamb used in Australia for export and industry purposes was changed in July 2019 following a proposal from the sheep and meat processing sectors. Extensive stakeholder consultation on the charge was undertaken by Sheep Producers Australia and the Australian Meat Industry Council. The new definition of lamb is designed to bring Australia's definition into line with our international competitors and provide a definite signal for producers about when a sheep is no longer a lamb.

If these bills are not passed it represents a lost opportunity to reduce regulatory inconsistency for industry and to ensure that the intent of the sheep- and meat-processing industries are reflected in the levies they pay. Updating the definition of lamb used for the purposes of imposing levies and charges to align with the new industry definition will provide administrative clarity for levy payers and will support compliance with levy systems by ensuring consistency across legislation. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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

Question agreed to.

The question now is that the bill be read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.