Monday, 13 February 2017
Questions without Notice
My question is to Minister for Resources and Northern Australia representing the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Senator Canavan. I have just completed chairing a series of roundtables on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, in Camperdown, the Kiewa Valley, Congupna and Gippsland. My question relates to the Australian dairy industry, which employs over 140,000 Australians, contributes $13 billion to our economy and is the No. 1 exporter off the Melbourne docks every day. What is the Turnbull government doing to support the dairy industry in my home state of Victoria?
I thank the senator from Victoria for her question and recognise her longstanding support for our dairy industry and also the work she has done over the past couple of months to get out and about and listen to the dairy industry. Senator McKenzie has been hosting roundtables on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister in rural Victoria over the past few months to listen to the industry and hear from them how they are responding to what has been very tough and a struggle for many farmers, given the low prices we have seen.
It is important to listen, and Senator McKenzie has done that. But it is even more important that a government acts after listening to those concerns. Having spoken to Senator McKenzie after her roundtable, I know that she did hear from dairy farmers about how waiting times were too long to receive assistance through Centrelink and that sometimes the assets tests and how they were applied were not well suited to the farm sector—that they were more designed for non-farm individuals trying to access assistance. Because of that, the government has acted on those concerns.
On 9 February last week an amendment bill was introduced into this parliament proposing that farm household allowance recipients not be required to serve waiting period before they commenced receiving payments. Furthermore, the bill proposes clarifying the treatments of certain assets, such as water assets, to ensure that these are recognised as an essential operation of a farm enterprise. This will mean that more dairy farmers will be able to receive assistance more quickly. It is a sign of a government that is acting on the real issues and concerns that face average Australians in the real world. We do rightly offer generous assistance to those farmers that find themselves in difficulty, but we also must recognise that sometimes that assistance does not flow on the ground. I congratulate and again recognise Senator McKenzie for her work in making sure that the decisions made here do flow through and help people out there in the real world.
The changes I mentioned in response to the first question build on the assistance of government announced last year—a package of nearly $600 million, a $579 million dairy support package, which the government announced very shortly after it became evident that farmers were facing unexpectedly lower prices in the dairy sector. This package included $555 million of dairy recovery concessional loans, which provide loans at a rate of 2.47 per cent over 10 years—a very generous rate—to help dairy farmers get back on their feet. It involved providing $2 million for a milk commodity price index to improve transparency and predictability in the marketplace, and the government is also putting more resources into rural financial counselling.
As I mentioned earlier, it has been a very difficult period for our dairy sector, but the government has responded to those concerns and done all we can to help and support our farmers in the dairy industry, which, as the senator said, is a very important industry in our country.
I recognise, from talking to Senator McKenzie, that there are additional concerns and issues out there in the dairy supply chain. There are concerns about behaviour of processors and some retailers. There are remaining concerns about dollar-a-litre milk in the marketplace as well. That is why the government has announced an ACCC inquiry into the supply chain. At the same time as Senator McKenzie was conducting roundtables, the ACCC was conducting symposiums with the dairy sector to feed into that supply chain inquiry, and the government will be considering very carefully any recommendations that flow from that inquiry.
It is also the case that the government is ensuring that our dairy farmers have access to world markets to maximise the price and benefits they have for their product, and it is happy news to report that our exports of dairy products to China increased by more than 100 per cent since the signing of the ChAFTA agreement. These are all measures that are helping our dairy sector and making sure we have a strong farming sector in our country, and the government will remain committed to ensuring that occurs.