Tuesday, 16 February 2021
Agriculture and Water Resources Committee; Report
I rise today to speak in favour of and to endorse the report, Growing Australia: Inquiry into growing Australian agriculture to $100 billion by 2030. In doing so, I would also like to recognise the good work of a fellow committee member, the member for Lyons, who is in the chamber today. This was an extensive inquiry conducted over many months and involved visits to all parts of the country. From my own background as a farmer from north-western Tasmania, I recognised similarities and problems that came up from time to time as we travelled around Australia listening to those people who took the time to invest in our agricultural future and made submissions and sought counsel with us face to face around the country. Further, I would like to thank the efforts of the chair, Mr Rick Wilson, the member for O'Connor. I would also like to recognise the great work and the professionalism of the secretariat, in Tim Brennan and Jenny Adams. I thank you sincerely for your great work.
The committee received 113 submissions from 67 organisations and attended almost 70 public hearings. To all of those around the country who made submissions and took the time, I say, 'Thank you; we learnt a lot from you, and you have contributed to your industry's future.' As we went around the various parts of the country, a lot of the issues that farmers and growers raised were consistent with the issues faced by farmers and growers in my own state.
I'll speak for my own state just for a moment. The great state of Tasmania is only one per cent, in geographical size, of our nation, however, we receive approximately 9½ per cent of Australia's rainfall. We have more than 26 per cent of Australia's freshwater in 54 dams and 30 power stations right across our state. That water is in turn used by irrigators to grow food and agricultural produce in the rich soils of the north-west coast of Tasmania. It's in this investment of more than $100 million that we've seen the tranche 2 and 3 irrigation projects in Tasmania come to full fruition. That agricultural produce has seen an exponential growth in exports—achieving records this year. It was a growing frustration as we moved around the country that the inquiry didn't cover irrigation or irrigation infrastructure. It was a common concern for all farmers that attended inquiries and I'd like to raise that today.
One of the other similarities that I have seen around the country is the access and increased diversity that we require in an ever increasingly turbulent global commodity market. It behoves government, as a result of this report, to do more work when it comes to giving out market indicators earlier so that farmers don't see their headers in the paddock when the bottom falls out of the grain price. Logistics too will play a great part in the growing of Australian agriculture because if we can't get this food to market it is absolutely no good for anybody. In Australia we grow approximately three times the amount of food that we actually need. It's important that we get this as quickly as possible to various parts of the country and we diversify that market so that we've got a stable platform for our markets moving forward.
As I sat there on one side of the table and I listened to the farmers, I listened to the growers and I listened to the young people, I couldn't help but feel the amount of emotion and the investment that they have in their chosen field. I couldn't help but notice the amount of corporate knowledge that exists within our agricultural sector. I couldn't help but notice how generations of farmers have produced people who are at the absolute pinnacle of agricultural production. I think this is the key to unlocking our future. I think if we can't recognise and unlock that corporate knowledge, if we can't transfer that knowledge to a future generation of farmers, if we can't introduce technology in smart farming and if we can't introduce training adequately and we can't inculcate that information then we can't grow as an industry and we can't grow as a nation.
In closing, I'd like to fully endorse the findings and the 13 recommendations contained within the report. I'd like to thank my colleagues. I'd like to thank all those involved. I would like to recommend Growing Australia: inquiry into growing Australian agriculture to $100 billion by 2030 as recommended reading to all those who want a future in agriculture or food production.
I'm also very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the report. A previous speaker did acknowledge the Chair, Mr Rick Wilson, and the Deputy Chair—this outstanding individual here with us today, the member for Lyons—Brian Mitchell. I'd like to thank the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources and all my committee colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but I particularly want to thank the secretariat for their work. There were many valuable contributions that were made in the last sitting by the chair and the deputy chair.
We had the last remote public hearing of the inquiry in Darwin, in my electorate of Solomon. This was back in March, before COVID-19 shut everything down and changed our lives in ways that we could have only imagined back then, and, indeed, in ways that we never thought would ever happen. But there we were, right in the middle of a visit to Darwin. It's great that the committee visited Darwin. I'm glad that we were able to hear from some stakeholders whilst we were there, because, in my opinion, as you well know Mr Deputy Speaker Falinski, Darwin, and the Northern Territory, is the best place in Australia—I do love Tassie and the South Coast of New South Wales as well! But there's huge potential for agriculture in northern Australia and huge potential for increasing the ag output, and, after all, that's what this inquiry was about. So, thanks to the chair for agreeing to come up to Darwin. I appreciate that very much, and I'm sure he and the other members who joined us in Darwin got a lot out of it.
I want to thank all our witnesses from the Territory and everyone who put in the effort to make a submission to this inquiry. The hearing up in Darwin was a great opportunity to hear about the possibilities and opportunities that exist and some of the considerations that may impact the expansion of those industries. We heard at that hearing from key players in the industry, such as the NT Farmers, NT Cattlemen's Association and Tiwi forestry.
The chief executive officer of NT Farmers, Paul Burke, told us about their $270 million farmgate turnover, which they believe can double to $600 million by 2030. This is from the Territory's principle crops of mangoes, melons and an emerging cotton industry, but also from other emerging industries like peanuts. They told us that over the next 10 years cotton could become a $300 million industry in the north. They also told us about a growth in exports focused on mango trees and melons, with the opportunity to create more markets into Asia, most predominantly into South Korea, Japan and China. Two weeks ago it was announced that overseas seasonal workers can now quarantine on farms in the Northern Territory. This will help to ease the burden on those growers in the Territory who have been doing it tough, like growers around the country, and who continue to face significant labour shortages. They're struggling to find workers who want to pick and are also trying to navigate those international travel restrictions, which are impacting their ability to bring a labour force into Australia. NT Farmers also mentioned some of the challenges that exist with access to land in northern Australia, as much of it is locked up in the pastoral state. It doesn't really need to be said that access to water is a major issue.
The Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association spoke about its beef industry, which is worth $1.2 billion to the economy. For a population of under a quarter of a million people in the Northern Territory and a herd size of 2.2 million, it's a pretty impressive figure. The NT Cattlemen's Association spoke about how, with investment in infrastructure, water security and roads, as well as more secure land tenure, they could contribute 15 times more than what they're currently projected to make between now and 2030. That will increase their output to $15 billion. Obviously that goes a long way when we're trying to increase our national agricultural output from $60 billion to $100 billion. That will go a long way towards helping us get to that goal. I'm sure you'd agree, Mr Deputy Speaker, that's a colossal level of growth—the Territory punching above its weight once again. The NT Cattlemen's Association spoke about live exports as well and how they send 400,000 head of cattle to Indonesia alone, representing 40 per cent of all Australia's live exports.
We also heard testimony from Mark Ashley, the general manager of the Tiwi Plantation Corporation. He spoke about how the plantation is exporting 16 shiploads of timber to global markets, including China and Japan, as well as exploring interest from Indonesia. He spoke about the significance of forestry as a major economic generator on the Tiwi Islands and how they're generating employment for local people through their harvesting operations. Last year forestry paid approximately $6.8 million in wages, including $2.3 million to Tiwi and other Indigenous employees, making it a major commercial employer on the Tiwi Islands. Indeed, there has been a recommendation made that the government commit to the establishment of a forestry hub for the Top End of the Northern Territory. This would allow Indigenous and private land owners alike to make the most of forestry investment in the Northern Territory, and it would enable the NT to contribute to that national goal of planting one billion trees.
At the hearing we also heard from the Humpty Doo barramundi farm. It's a great success story in the NT. They spoke about the fact that they anticipate the farm gate value of their existing business to be around $200 million per year by 2030. That's about a third of the size of the existing Tasmanian salmon industry, so it's big. They want to extend their lead as a leading global technology barramundi farmer, worldwide.
We were going to go to Tipperary station for a visit but we had to delay. That was unfortunate, because members would have really enjoyed that visit down to what is a very famous cattle station in the Northern Territory. I'm hoping that the committee has the opportunity to go there again. It is not only a cattle station; it is famous for experimenting and research and development. The potential of cotton there, as I mentioned, is fantastic. I hope we can try and get there some time down the track once the pandemic is hopefully under control. We're doing exceedingly well in the Northern Territory, but obviously if we can get some of those vaccines out around the country we'll be able to travel again.
My thanks to all the witnesses from the Northern Territory and everyone else who put in submissions to this inquiry. In closing, a big shout out to Frank Miller. Frank Miller is a champion bloke up in my electorate from the Forest Industry Association of the Northern Territory. It's great that we have an industry association now. I also want to thank Will Evans from the Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association and thank them for all the work they do for Territory farmers and getting our fantastic product to market. And of course I thank the NT Farmers CEO, Paul Burke, who has been a fantastic support to industry, not just during this very difficult year, but before that as well.
They all do excellent, tireless work promoting our Northern Territory agricultural industries, because we all have that common goal of wanting to see Australian agriculture get to the value of $100 billion by 2030. We can do it with the right investments. The Northern Territory offers a huge potential to support and achieve that aim. So thanks again to all the committee members, my colleagues, for a good report.
I too would like to thank all the committee members on this inquiry. It's been a very interesting journey. I'd like to thank the secretariat for all your work. I think with COVID we have seen every type of hearing: phone hearings, in-person hearings and travel and, as Mr Gosling said, some interruptions with COVID. But nevertheless we got there.
I'm always delighted to have the opportunity to talk about farmers in my electorate and growing Australian agriculture. I come from a dairy farming family. Agriculture is very close to my heart. It's very close to who I am. The desire to fight for a fair go for our farmers, in particular our local dairy farmers, is one of the things that drove me into politics here in the first place.
It's absolutely clear we need to support our farmers to grow our agriculture industry. We need a national plan. Our farmers have been doing it tough for far too long, and, frankly, they deserve better. This government has failed our agriculture industry over and over again. It has no plan to address the real crises our farmers are dealing with every day. This report is, sadly, more proof of that—another opportunity lost.
Before I get to that, I want to acknowledge and thank all our local farmers for their incredible strength and resilience over the last several years, particularly in the face of the challenges the last 12 months or so have brought. Farmers on the South Coast have been suffering under a relentless drought for years. Then came the bushfires, then the floods, then finally a pandemic, which has made every day on farms even more challenging. Farmers don't like to ask for help; it isn't in their nature. But there is only so much anyone can take.
In the immediate aftermath of the bushfires, I heard so many harrowing stories from farmers about how they survived—farmers like Rob and Vince, who stayed on their farms and tried to protect their stock. Farmer Rob lost 150 of his dairy cows in devastating circumstances. Farmer Vince lost hundreds of bees, and even more were at risk in the days and weeks that followed with no food and no help. Farmer Greg, from Sassafras, who had been drought impacted for so long, was denied help because he hadn't been earning enough from his agriculture business in the lead-up to the fires. Why? Because of the drought.
I have rallied against this cruel decision to deny Greg financial support because his on-farm income was deemed too low under the government's arbitrary criteria. We thought we had a win, and Greg thought he was finally catching a break: in July the government announced they had changed the off-farm requirements, in recognition of the drought. But, once again, the sting in the tail was to come. The New South Wales government continued to deny Greg's application for the special disaster grant for primary producers. So I wrote to Minister Littleproud to ask him to again reconsider. I want to quote from the minister's response now: 'The Rural Assistance Authority have advised that the grant application was refused, as Greg could not demonstrate that he earns or would earn at least 50 per cent income from primary production. The RAA also confirmed the eligibility changes announced in July were taken into account when considering Greg's application.'
This response is complete dumbfounding. It was more than devastating for Greg, who has told me that he feels abandoned and traumatised not only by the bushfires but now by the government. Greg can't meet the 50 per cent threshold, because the drought has meant he has had to find more off-farm income. The drought meant it wasn't possible to earn enough on the farm. He was told to reduce his stock, and he followed that advice. Now he is being punished, again, for doing what he had to do. I know I have repeated this already, and have said it many times in this chamber before, but it still beggars belief to me.
This is the drought that, over and over again, the Morrison government denied farmers in my electorate were experiencing. Clearly, they still think that—another case of announcement not matching delivery. Farmers like Daniel tried and tried again to access drought loans only to be told no, because they were not in drought according to the government. Farmer Daniel and other farmers like him told a very different story. Perhaps if the minister spent any time visiting with local farmers, he might actually see what that reality is on the ground.
The government loves to make flashy announcements, but all too often they are shown to be just that. Take, for example, the crisis that is unfolding across the country because there are not enough farm workers. It is no secret that our harvest is heavily reliant on backpackers, and we knew very early on that COVID-19 meant that backpackers were few and far between. But what did the Morrison government do? They waited until the industry was at breaking point. In mid-December the National Farmers Federation launched the National Lost Crop Register. By 8 January, 55 farmers from five different states and territories had anonymously registered losses of more than $38 million. The federation said this was just the tip of the iceberg. The government's attempts to address this have been weak and piecemeal. It's our farmers who are suffering. We urgently need a national quarantine plan that will help to address some of these issues, but once again they have no plan.
Yet another critical issue in our farming sector is an ageing workforce. We are simply not doing enough to encourage young people to stay on family farms or to consider a career in farming. Dairy Connect is one organisation trying to do its bit to rectify this. The Young Dairy Network helps young people working on dairy farms to meet, connect and learn from each other. They participate in workshops on-farm field days, professional and personal development opportunities, study tours, leadership programs and more.
It is fantastic to see, but more needs to be done. There is a real risk that we will end up losing sections of our agriculture industry simply because we are not doing enough to encourage the next generation of agriculture workers. As Labor noted in our dissenting report, we need to look at the possibility of a HECS system for agriculture. We need workforce development officers. We need a national plan. I feel a theme emerging here. Labor has made some further recommendations about that in our dissenting report.
I could talk about our agriculture industry all day. I am passionate about helping our farmers, and I'm dismayed if not disgusted with what I have seen from this government when it comes to support of farmers. They try so hard to pitch themselves as the friend of the farmer, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that farmers in my electorate want real action on climate change. Many people think this doesn't fit with agriculture, but that's not the case. Farmers have seen firsthand the climate changing. Once again the government is all talk and no action in this space. Take for example the chair's foreword in this report. It has no mention of climate change. As Labor noted in our dissenting report, this simply fails to recognise the gravity of the threat that climate change poses to Australian agriculture.
Several witnesses, including the National Farmers' Federation, spoke about climate change representing one of the most significant threats to Australian agriculture reaching the goal of $100 billion by 2030. There is also no recommendation in the government's report about how we will deal with this threat. This speaks volumes about the Morrison government's real agenda.
Farmers are doing what they can instead. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that an exciting new project in Nowra is getting off the ground. A large-scale renewable energy biogas power generation plant is in the works. The unit will receive manure from dairy farms in Terara, Numbaa, Pyree and Brundee from an underground pipe and will extract the methane gas to produce clean, green energy. This will then be shared by 18 local dairy farmers who are supporting this great initiative. While the project might be being assisted by a Commonwealth grant, it is being driven by the private sector and by local farmers. Because the government does not have a broader climate change policy, they are still mincing their words about how they will reach net zero by maybe, hopefully, possibly 2050. That isn't enough. Once again, we need a national plan.
One other issue which I simply don't have time to explore here, but which is so important to note, is that the government has no national disaster plan. My electorate has seen the consequences of this. We need to ensure that that is taken into consideration.