Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper

7:32 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to briefly talk about the coalition's agricultural competitiveness white paper, which is designed to ensure a vibrant, innovative and competitive agricultural sector, by making sure industry can make the most of the opportunities that lay ahead. We have now announced the first step in public consultation on the white paper, by releasing the issues paper. Today in Bendigo, a town of 100,000 in the centre of Victoria, a round table forum was held between officials of the taskforce established to develop the white paper, farmers and other stakeholders, to start the discussion about how we actually ensure that our agricultural sector, our communities, the skills sets that underpin it and our industry are best placed to take advantage of all that the 21st century offers Australia.

We have a strong and proud tradition in this country of building our national competitiveness, and our national financial security indeed, on the back of regional Australia and on the back of our agricultural industries. I do not see why that should change. Maybe the way we do that will change. How we do it and who we engage with will change. The types of skills we need in order to do it will change. Maybe even the types of investments we have to make will change. But the fact will remain that much of our economic stability and our future will result from a strong agricultural sector and a strong regional economy.

To a lot of people greater Bendigo, as a regional city, is famous for its art gallery, its Grace Kelly exhibition, its universities and its diverse economy. Agricultural output in 2010-11 was $133 million, which increased from $105 million in 2005-06. The largest sector within the agricultural industry was livestock slaughtering. There are issues that have been canvassed here and in other places, and indeed in many Senate committee inquiries, to do with skill shortages, particularly for abattoirs and slaughterhouses, and to do with the effect the carbon tax has on this industry. In fact, that particular sector of the agricultural industry accounts for almost 58 per cent by value of the City of Greater Bendigo's total agricultural output. Right around the city we are surrounded by regional areas where we have intensive farming industries, such as cider, apples and poultry, not to mention dairy, which is a bit further out.

The roundtable that was held today was a fantastic opportunity for farmers and agribusinesses more generally in central Victoria to raise their concerns and have their voices heard in what is the first step in the development of a comprehensive understanding of how to ensure that agribusinesses and agricultural industry are best placed to be competitive. That means we are going to need to have some tough conversations about what makes us uncompetitive in the 21st century. I note Senator Colbeck and Senator Ruston are both in the chamber tonight. They are both passionate advocates for agriculture and agribusiness, particularly.

Some of the issues I am going to speak briefly about tonight stem from a report, chaired by Senator Colbeck, into the food processing sector. The serious challenges posed include skills sets and skills development and food processing, if I could turn to that sector of the industry for just a moment. The 2012 inquiry found:

… the food processing industry employed some 194 300 people across about 10 000 businesses.

So we are talking about a lot of people. In food processing I think it is around 350,000 nationwide, most of them in regional areas. The sector has been experiencing the combined effects of the high Australian dollar, skills shortages and a lack of investment in research and development. One of the things we found throughout the inquiry, which I hope the white paper goes to, is the fact that in universities it is not sexy to study food processing or food technology. Senator Urquhart, who also worked in the food-processing industry in Tasmania before she arrived here, can attest to the fact that it is not sexy to study food technology. But in the 21st century it is a creative and innovative space where you can combine chemistry and artistic endeavour and create the products and the produce of the future. It is a quite exciting place. We need to get young people turned on to the exciting opportunities available to them in agribusiness going forward.

I have severely strayed off my discussion of the agricultural competitiveness white paper. The coalition is committed to placing agriculture in the national skills list and to providing $2 million for agricultural education to help teachers inform young school students about where food and fibre come from. It is essential that young people have a much better understanding of the role that agriculture, farmers and their communities play in putting clean, green produce in front of them every night, rather than assume that somehow farmers are the environmental vandals. The land management practices that farmers function in mean that our produce is the cleanest and greenest in the world.

We are absolutely committed to getting out there because, unlike the Labor Party, we know that the real understanding of how to address competitiveness issues within the industry does not lie in the Senate, does not lie in the House of Representatives and does not lie with the very small subsection of the Australian community that works in this place but is found within the community and businesses themselves. They know what they need to make themselves more competitive on the domestic and the international markets. We are committed to getting out in the regions and hearing from them about how we can get the policy mixes right, which is our responsibility, so that they can get on with doing what they do best, which is growing that clean, green produce.

It is important because every year our farmers grow around $50 billion worth of produce. We export 60 per cent of what we grow and that earned the country $32.5 billion in 2010-11. So it is important for us to get these policy settings right. The issues paper is the first step in consultation on the development of the white paper, which we hope will be released by the end of 2014. The issues paper will form the development of the green paper, which we hope to have ready by mid-2014. It is about getting out there amongst the people and hearing their solutions to the very real challenges affecting our exporters. The white paper will identify the way that we can grow farm profits. We will look at food security and will address the issues involved in the cost of doing business.

We have been in government for six months. We were elected to get rid of the carbon tax, which is a direct impost on the cost of doing business in this nation, particularly for regional Australia and the food-processing sector. Come July 2014, our logistics and transport—how we get our product to the port—will be similarly affected. We want to look at taxes and the impost of government on the cost of doing business—not just direct costs such as the carbon tax but the cost that the regulation burden adds to doing business. There is the cost of environmental legislation, and the types of chemicals we can and cannot use add costs to our businesses and add to our competitive disadvantage. We need to look at environmental standards and tax regimes—how we structure our tax arrangements—and the reviews we can make within that area of our economy to assist the competitiveness of the agricultural industry. And there is industrial relations reform and skill development, as I mentioned earlier. Time and time again in the regions we hear that young men and women in farming communities are not coming home—they do not want to run the dairy farm; they do not want to run the wheat farm. Why? Because there is not a dollar in it. If you make it worth their while economically, our communities will be strong, moving not only their local community forward but, indeed, our nation.