Senate debates

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Ministerial Statements

Dairy Industry

3:43 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | Hansard source

I take the interjection from the two senators. They claim that they did. Well, you have to ask them why their own senator, in an interview with Radio National, is pointing out the crisis in the dairy industry.

Instead of National Party members stepping up and supporting the industry, what we see is a minister who has completely lost control of the portfolio, Nationals backbenchers writing policy and still no action from this government. The minister promised One Nation that she would implement a dairy code of conduct by the end of the year, yet here we are on the final day of the parliament for the year and still no code of conduct. It's completely missing. No matter how far we look for it, it's not here. But this comes as no surprise. The minister and the government have promised a lot of things to our farmers that they have not delivered. The only way the Liberal Party will start to take the plight of Australian dairy farmers seriously is if Senator McKenzie and her National Party colleagues in the Senate are prepared to take a stand to ensure that dairy farmers are receiving a fair farmgate price.

Liberal and National senators will say that, in response to the Murray Goulburn debacle, dairy farmers were given access to the farm household allowance and concessional loans. But they're missing the point. It never should have come to that. The reckless actions and the failed capital raising structure by Murray Goulburn fell disproportionately upon dairy farming families, and it was not fair. Murray Goulburn could have suspended the direct link between milk prices and the money it pays to investors. They could have directed funds back to higher milk prices for farmers to provide a significant cash flow boost to farmers. But there was no pressure from the then agriculture minister on Murray Goulburn to do the right thing.

Dairy farmers need a fair farmgate price, transparent contracting and effective dispute resolute mechanisms. All senators in this place already know this, and there have been a number of inquiries supporting the fact that the dairy industry is facing a number of challenges and a crisis situation. There have been a number of interjections with all sorts of suggestions about what could be done. I ask any of those senators: why don't you actually just do it? You know you're in government. You're in government. You can actually do things. I know it involves having bit of a plan and deciding you want to get something done rather than just getting in the COMCARs, rolling in, sitting there for a few hours and then rolling out home. You've actually got the power. The reason we wanted to win the election was so that we could actually do things. You opposite just wanted to win the election so you can sit on that side of the chamber and nod along. If you've got so many good ideas, why don't you do it? You're in government. That's what government does—get things done. You don't just sit there and roll along and see the supermarket monopoly roll over the top of farmers. Get your act together and get something done.

There have been plenty of warnings about the need for action. In 2017, the Senate Economics References Committee presented its report, Australia's dairy industry: rebuilding trust and a fair market for farmers. The reference for the inquiry was made on 14 September 2016, and it investigated how to establish a fair, long-term solution to Australia's dairy crisis. That's nearly four years ago when this all kicked off and we still haven't seen any action. The inquiry made particular reference to fresh milk security, the legality of retrospective elements of milk contracts, the behaviour of Murray-Goulburn and other related matters. This is not a new thing; this has been going on for years.

The Senate also noted back in 2016 that the Australian dairy industry was facing an unprecedented crisis, with the retail cost per litre of bottled milk often less than the retail cost of bottled water. In 2011, eight years ago, a report of the Senate Economics References Committee recommended that producers' contracts with dairy farmers should offer a clear and consistent formula for milk pricing, with unambiguous conditions. Five years later, the livelihoods of up to 40 per cent of Australian dairy farmers are under threat because of imposed retrospective debt helped by unclear and inconsistent milk-pricing contracts with ambiguous conditions, and Australian rural and regional communities face losing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs if a fair, long-term solution to Australia's dairy crisis is not found.

The committee further noted:

Despite being Australia's third largest agricultural industry, the dairy industry faces a number of significant challenges which, if left unaddressed, have the potential to threaten the long term viability of dairy production.

These are not new matters. These have been known for years, while this government has been in office—turning a blind eye and saying it was all too hard. Sadly, the issues facing the dairy industry have been left unaddressed, and that is most likely why government members voted against another inquiry into the dairy industry by the Senate during the previous sittings on 17 October 2019.

Fortunately, the motion was successful—even without government senators. Senator Duniam was given the job of trying to explain why the government would not even support a Senate inquiry into the dairy industry, claiming:

The government does not support reregulation via an ACCC investigation, as reregulation is not supported by the industry. As recommended by the ACCC, we're implementing a mandatory code of conduct to increase fairness and transparency between dairy farmers and processors. The code has been developed in consultation with industry and will help to address the imbalance in bargaining power between farmers and processors. Progress has been made to expedite the code. An exposure draft will be released shortly for industry feedback, and it's expected to be in place by 1 January 2020.

The problem for the government is that this rhetoric just doesn't stack up. A Senate inquiry doesn't have the power to reregulate the dairy industry, and the code of conduct can only do so much, if, indeed, it ever gets implemented. Essentially, Senator Duniam was being loose with the truth. But, most likely, he was just given the statement to read out by the agriculture minister, Senator McKenzie.

The Senate inquiry is seeking to ask and answer questions about the performance of Australia's dairy industry and the profitability of Australian dairy farmers since deregulation in 2000. Therefore, the question has to be asked: what are government members and senators are scared of? Angry farmers is the obvious answer. This week, the fact that farmers took the time to protest outside Parliament House should cause the government to reflect upon its failings. While it's nice to see members of the National Party finally stepping in to support our dairy industry, simply sitting on their hands and hoping that consumers go into their supermarkets and ask to pay more for their milk is a fantasy proposal and begs the questions: who is responsible for this government's agriculture policy? Is it Senator McKenzie? Is it Senator McDonald? Is it Minister Littleproud? Is it Woolworths? Is it Coles?

The government accepted the ACCC's recommendation for a code of conduct 19 months ago. Farmers are still waiting and government MPs and senators are still fighting over what it should look like. This government has had ample opportunity over the last six years to do one thing, to lift one finger, to assist our dairy industry. There has been Senate inquiry after Senate inquiry after Senate inquiry, and other inquiries, which have made recommendations to this government to take action to support our dairy industry. But every single time the government has found a reason why it's too hard or just not in its interest to make progress.

As with so many other issues, how many years of this government—how many terms of this government—will it take before this government actually gets around to helping out the people who it says it stands for? This government says that it stands for farmers, but every time it's asked to help it says it's all too hard. It's about time this government started doing some work. (Time expired)

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