Senate debates

Thursday, 9 February 2017


Western Australia: Agriculture Industry

6:20 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Our farmers play an important role in our society, not only because they put food on our tables but because they hold a crucial place in our economy and in our culture. For many years our nation's economic fortunes rode upon the sheep's back, and, especially in my home state of Western Australia, broadacre cropping and livestock production continue to be the major regional economic activity—especially with the downturn in the mining and resources sector.

In Western Australia, 2016 proved to be an exciting year for agriculture, and 2017 looks as though it has the potential to be even better. Record pasture yields last year had many graziers celebrating their best season in five decades, a turn of fortune that is expected to flow into the coming season as well. At the same time, across WA's north, cattle stations in the Kimberley have had an ideal start to the year with steady, consistent falls of rain. Despite numerous setbacks over the past year, including frost and waterlogging, WA's grain growers were still able to deliver the largest crop in the state's history, at 16.5 million tonnes. This is an outstanding achievement, especially when one considers that there are approximately 4,250 grain growers across Western Australia and that they are farming in some of the most challenging conditions on the planet.

These growers have been provided a high level of certainty for 2017 and beyond, thanks to the WA Liberal government repealing one of the last remaining pieces of legislation strangling WA growers, that being the previous Labor state government's Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act. This means that Western Australia's growers are allowed the freedom to choose which types of crops they will grow without meddlesome government intervention and regulation. This includes the freedom to grow GM canola, a crop which previously could only be grown under an exemption order. This is an immensely valuable crop for our state. Indeed, the 2016 harvest alone was estimated to be worth more than $200 million, and that value is reflected in take-up by growers. GM canola is now is the most heavily adopted cropping technology across Western Australia. So valuable and so popular has it become that even the WA Labor Party has been dragged kicking and screaming to recognise this point.

In the second week of 2017, WA Labor executed one of the greatest backflips since Nadia Comeneci scored perfect 10 in the Montreal Olympics. At long last, they have abandoned their impossible dream to prevent the growing of genetically modified crops in Western Australia by lifting a ban on the growing of GM crops. WA Labor's agricultural spokesman, Mick Murray, has finally conceded that the growth of GM in WA could not be stopped. The fact that something so blindingly obvious took so long to be understood by WA's alternative agriculture minister is deeply troubling and still speaks to Labor's fundamental inability to grasp agricultural issues central to WA's future economic prosperity. This leaves the WA Greens as the lone voice of opposition to the growing of GM crops. I am sure that is a fact not lost on the tens of thousands of voters in the agricultural region of Western Australia who will cast their vote at the state election in March. And, if a potential WA Labor government were reliant on the Greens to pass its legislation, you can bet for sure they would sell out WA's farmers in a flash.

Despite Western Australia being traditionally known as a top producer of bulk products, focus in regional WA has increasingly been shifting towards premium, high-quality products, including premium wines, truffles and seafood. This shift is expected to see the WA agricultural industry, which is currently worth $7.8 billion, double in value over the next 10 years. This strong growth in niche, premium food products has been fuelled primarily by the rising demand from China's emerging affluent middle class and the ever steady increase in cultural tourism. In a timely release, yesterday the Menzies Research Centre launched a new publication, authored by Andrew Bragg, titled Fit for service: Meeting the demand of the Asian middle class. As the publication notes, exporting to this market will be critical in determining our future economic success, with the emerging middle class in the Asian region expected to number some three billion people by 2030. When it comes to WA's products in particular, we know they are among the world's best. It is up to us to make that understood in Asia, as well as at home in Perth. It is worth remembering that Australia's quarter-century of uninterrupted economic growth was fundamentally established by trade liberalisation, reducing subsidies and cutting tariffs. The neo-protectionist approach, which is currently enjoying some measure of popularity, even in this Senate, has never shown itself capable of producing similar runs of economic growth. And I confidently predict it never will.

The core task is clear: to encourage people to visit Western Australia and to experience the quality of our premium goods whilst here, and then to continue purchasing them when they return to their homes in other places in the world. This approach has driven the success of WA's premium wine industry, which has capitalised on meeting the appetites of tourists. The industry is set to experience further growth, thanks to the Turnbull government's recently announced changes to the wine equalisation tax. These measures not only address the inequality between WA fine wine producers and bulk and unbranded winemakers in the east but also introduce a new Wine Tourism and Cellar Door grant scheme, designed to offset the reduction of the WET rebate cap from $500,000 to $350,000. It also recognises the important role played by the wine industry in creating jobs and investment opportunities across regional Australia. The government's comprehensive response to the concerns of WA's wine industry representatives, its preparedness to seek improvements to the original reforms and a willingness to understand the unique nature of wine tourism and the regional economies it supports have meant the final outcomes are better that they could have possibly first imagined.

The same can be said for another one of the Turnbull government's outcomes—one that began last week —supporting the refurbishment of the Busselton-Margaret River Regional Airport. This $60 million project not only will allow direct flights to and from the eastern states but also, thanks to the federal government's Building Better Regions program, will see the runway length increased to cater for important international airfreight. This $9.78 million investment will make Busselton the first major regional freight hub in Western Australia, increase regional employment, support new and emerging markets, and provide a least-cost pathway for farmers, fishers, winemakers, horticulturalists and exporters. That includes exporters like south-west meat processor V&V Walsh, who last year became the first red meat processor in Australia to receive full accreditation from Chinese authorities to export chilled sheep, goat and beef meat, providing a market for a further 500,000 lambs each year. It can also assist the state's largest beef abattoir, Harvey Beef, which has invested over $30 million in upgrading the chiller capacity and retail-ready packaging facilities to meet the growing international demand for beef and sheep meat. Winemakers, fishermen, fruit and vegetable growers, dairy farmers and cut flower suppliers are also set to benefit from a direct air link with China and South-East Asia.

Early last year, Volga Dnepr, operators of the Antonov An-225 Mriya, the world's largest plane, met with the City of Busselton to discuss using the airport as a regional transport hub flying direct to Singapore. Ocean Grown Abalone, located at Flinders Bay, is the world's first abalone sea ranch and will produce 100 tonnes by 2018, primarily for airfreight to the Chinese market. WA's avocado farmers are experiencing a huge increase in avocado production as strong demand for the fruit continues to grow throughout the country. Over 40 per cent of all avocados grown in Australia are grown in WA's south-west, primarily for the eastern domestic market.

These are just some of the tremendous examples of the exciting future for agriculture in my home state of Western Australia, a future made possible not only through the science and research that has been going into developing new products such as truffles, or the commercial farming of abalone, but through the innovation and the determination of Western Australia's primary producers.