Senate debates

Monday, 2 December 2019

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Dairy Industry

3:01 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Agriculture (Senator McKenzie) to a question without notice asked by Senator Green today.

It's the last week of parliament, and what do you know? It's another bad week for the National Party. Over the course of these last six months, since the last federal election, we've had the National Party, the junior partner in the government, who should have been triumphant after their victory in May, just gradually go down in this spiral with issue after issue after issue concerning their actual base in rural and regional Australia, particularly when it comes to farmers and farming communities. We've seen it on the drought. We've seen, over the course of estimates and other proceedings, it exposed—that all of the work that the National Party claims to be performing in the interests of farmers and farming communities to provide money to combat the drought is all just built on massive fibs and misrepresentations. We've seen it on the dairy as well, and of course we see it in the ongoing leadership rumblings, usually surrounding Senator Canavan and other Queensland Nationals.

We've seen it again today with a series of questions asked by Senator Green of Minister McKenzie about the government's extremely poor performance on the dairy code of conduct. As we have said here on a number of occasions, if you can't get the National Party to care about dairy farmers in Queensland, in Victoria, in New South Wales and in other states, what can you get the National Party to do? They are letting down their core voters, their core constituents in the form of dairy farmers and farming communities generally. What we've exposed over the last few months—and I recognise the efforts of Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts on this matter as well—is that the National Party has profoundly let down dairy farmers across Australia. They've finally made promises, under sufferance, to introduce a dairy code of conduct, but we're still waiting. We're into the final week of this parliamentary sitting, and there is still no sign of this dairy code of conduct. You look under every rock, looking for the National Party's dairy code of conduct, and it's still missing. And, yet again, we see here today, that there's no sign of this code of conduct being delivered any time soon to save the dairy farmers that the National Party says they exist to represent.

The minister was given every opportunity today by Senator Green to tell us when this dairy code of conduct would actually come into effect, and, yet again, there are no answers, no promises and no time line. Dairy farmers, who are fast going to the wall, will have to just sit back and wait for this National Party to get its act together and come through on this dairy code of conduct.

In fact, things have got so bad that one of the National Party's own senators, Senator McDonald, has had to take matters into her own hands by writing to Coles' and Woolworths' chief executives, as well as to major milk processors, urging them to sign up to the proposed code of conduct and commit to paying fairer milk prices immediately. Senator McDonald wouldn't have to do that if Minister McKenzie were actually just doing her job and getting this dairy code of conduct provided and out there into the public. But because Minister McKenzie is unable to do this and has had to go and do deals with Senator Hanson to try to stave off leadership challenges in her own ranks, Senator McDonald has had to take matters into her own hands.

The extraordinary situation we saw here in question time today was that irrigators from the Murray-Darling Basin, who had travelled here, ended up walking out on the National Party agriculture minister. I don't think anyone has seen farming communities walk out, literally, during question time on answers from a National Party agriculture minister. That shows you the level of difficulty this minister and the National Party in general are faced with. What this goes to more generally is an incredible split that we see opening up day by day within the National Party. The body language that was on display by all of the National Party senators here today was something to be beheld. We had the National Party's own deputy leader, the agriculture minister, on her feet and trying to defend herself from the accusations that she hadn't done her job on the Murray-Darling Basin or on the dairy code of conduct. The level of misery on the faces of National Party senators was something to behold.

Of course, chief among them was Senator Canavan. We know that Senator Canavan and the other Queensland National senators and members of parliament cannot wait to get rid of Senator McKenzie out of the deputy leader spot, because they want it for one of their own. They want it for the Queensland National Party. They have never accepted Senator McKenzie, and I predict that, before the week is out, we are going to hear more about leadership rumblings in the National Party. (Time expired)

3:06 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If there was a look of misery on the faces of National Party senators, I would imagine it is because they have to look at Labor senators during question time, and that would be quite understandable!

What the National Party senators are confronted with is a suggestion by the Labor Party that they are somehow concerned about dairy issues and drought. Yet, bar one question, every single question was not about government but gutter. It was dredging the gutter in relation to an issue that is being investigated by the New South Wales police for only one reason, that the serial letter writer, Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney, has yet again written a vexatious, vacuous and venal letter to a police authority, seeking to have an investigation into somebody in the coalition. And what have all those letters turned to?

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz, please resume your seat. Senator Wong?

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm sorry, Deputy President, but I think the motion moved was in relation to answers given to Senator Green's question.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind senators that this is a broad-ranging debate. I am listening carefully, and I'm sure Senator Abetz will address the specifics of the taking note.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, actions speak so much louder than words. Senator Watt pretended that the Australian Labor Party were concerned about drought and dairy, yet their actions in this question time belied that by virtue of the fact that each and every single question, bar one, was addressed to the issue of Mr Dreyfus's vacuous, venal and nasty letter to the police. They then suggested that there is now a criminal investigation into Minister Taylor. That's wrong—it is an investigation in response to Mr Dreyfus's letter and, given past performance in relation to Mr Dreyfus's letters, we will see a lot of taxpayer money being spent on an investigation into that, rather than into crime and corruption in New South Wales and elsewhere. And what's going to be the result? A big fat duck egg—zero, nil, nothing, zilch! That is what always happens with the letters that come out of Mr Dreyfus's office.

And so let the public be very much reminded that, whilst I'm sure Senator Watt will post up on social media his little five-minute speech as an indication of the Labor Party's concern on dairy and drought, the simple fact is that it's not part and parcel of their modus operandi because it is not about the government that they have a concern: their attraction is to the gutter and the trawling of the issue to which I have referred.

Let's make no mistake: dairy farmers are doing it tough. They have done it tough in the past and they will do it tough again in the future. I am sure that, with the assistance of good policy, there will be a better and brighter future for the dairy sector. If you are to have a code of conduct, if you want some government interference or assistance or help, what would you seek to do? Would you just say 'Canberra knows all the answers' or would you actually go about consulting? Wouldn't that be a good idea! And, what's more, that's exactly what Senator McKenzie has done. If Senator McKenzie had come into this place and said, 'I've got a code. Here it is. End of story,' who would have been the first people to criticise her for lack of consultation? It would have been the Australian Labor Party, with a little note for social media to say the minister has not consulted.

This is the typical display you get from an opposition that has resigned itself to opposition because it is unable to present good, positive policy platforms for the people of Australia to consider. They will trawl the gutter and then pretend they are interested in an issue and say, 'What has the minister done? We will say the exact opposite.' If that minister was consulting, they would say she should have acted. If that minister had acted, the argument from those opposite would have been that she should have consulted. It is one of these no-win situations. I have no doubt that the Australian farming community—in particular, the Australian dairy farming community—understand that in the Australian Labor Party they do not have a friend. Indeed, they have somebody who has never sought to look after the rural sector. We on the coalition side make no apology for consulting and seeking to support the vital dairy industry of this nation.

3:12 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As the senators opposite congratulate themselves on doing anything and everything to talk about something other than their complete failure for the dairy farmers, I am going to talk about what has happened in this chamber today, and that is an outpouring of anger by dairy farmers. It is clear that dairy farmers and farmers across the country are angry. We on this side understand that anger. These are tough times for farmers all across the country. We know that there are really tough times ahead. If the drought continues and farmers continue to suffer from the drought, things are going to get even tougher. I have met with representatives of dairy farmers in Queensland. There is a very big collection of dairy farmers up in the tablelands in Far North Queensland close to where I live in Cairns.

Senator Rennick interjecting

Is 45 a small number for you, Senator Rennick? I think one dairy farmer is good enough for me to stand up and represent them. Are 45 farmers not enough for you to get up and tell the minister that she should do her job? I will stand here and defend every single one of those farmers—whether it is 45, 55 or 450—because they are people who deserve the respect of this chamber instead of getting swatted away by the Minister for Agriculture when we put questions to her about what she's doing. It is obvious that farmers are angry because they are being ignored by this government. The Nationals have let down dairy farmers. They have voted in this chamber against motions to make sure that legislation is discussed, that we have the debate here, that we get some processes moving. But they don't want to do that because they're protecting the Minister for Agriculture.

Today when I asked the Minister for Agriculture questions about this code of conduct and what is going to be happening, we got cynical answers and lecturing and condescension from Senator McKenzie in trying to tell the Labor Party about the supply chain. Well, I can tell you this: farmers do not need any more cynical, condescending lectures from the government. What they want to see is action.

It is surprising that we have seen a letter from Senator McDonald sent to supermarkets about this issue. Senators opposite want to pretend this isn't something that should be focused on, but I can tell you that Senator McDonald would not have had to send that letter if Senator McKenzie were doing her job. Why does George Christensen have a campaign petition on insurance on his website? Because the government is refusing to do its job. When there are members of the National Party and other backbenchers out there, campaigning against the government, you really have to wonder who is listening to who. This is symptomatic of a complete breakdown of this government representing the constituencies that matter to those members opposite.

I am deeply concerned that we are not going to see the action that dairy farmers need to prevent the closure of their dairy farms. This has been a very hot topic in Far North Queensland, where I live. I do lament the frustrations of dairy farmers and the people who have written in to The Cairns Post about this. There has certainly been a lot of anger and a lot of debate about this. It is frustrating. The member for Leichhardt wrote a letter to the editor on this issue, and I want to share a response that was received from a member of that community. Jerry from Tolga says, 'For the dairy industry, he has never done anything positive.' That's what he said about the member for Leichhardt. He said:

Why didn't Warren host a meeting with Tableland dairy farmers prior to July 1,1999, when his LNP colleagues under then Prime Minister John Howard, deregulated the dairy industry.

Senator Rennick interjecting

No good talking it out there, other people. Can you guarantee a resurrection of dairy in the Tablelands to 300-plus farmers through your so-called unwavering support? We are waiting for that miracle to happen, not fairy tales.

Senator Rennick interjecting

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rennick, you have constantly interjected. Interjections are disorderly. I would ask you to discontinue that, please.

3:17 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let's make no mistake: the farmers who are here and outside protesting today are not here protesting just about dairy. They are protesting about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was drafted and developed by the Labor Party. When you talk to the farmers, they will say there was a decided lack of consultation in developing the Basin Plan. They're also protesting about the impact of buybacks. Buybacks were a Labor Party policy which our government has capped. That's what those farmers out there are protesting about. Let's not conflate the two issues.

We know we are consulting on the mandatory dairy code of conduct. We were asked to consult. We did consultations in the drafting phase. We released the exposure draft and we consulted again. We are collating the feedback because no-one wants a poorly drafted policy—that can be much worse than no policy at all. We are making sure we get this policy right, based on our consultations and based on feedback from the industry. Senator Green says she's consulted with Queensland dairy farmers. Congratulations to her. But Senator McKenzie, the agriculture minister, is the Minister for Agriculture across the whole of Australia, not just for Queensland dairy farmers. Make no mistake: there is not wide-reaching support for a floor price, which is the Labor Party policy. They are working with Senator Hanson to ensure they get their policy put through. We will not accept that. We listen to the broader industry.

I have feedback from the New South Wales Farmers Federation dairy committee just today, which says they support investigation into a regional floor price and they support the current Senate inquiry that is underway because that gives them the opportunity to participate in the process. They have concerns on the model as proposed by Senator Hanson and they believe it needs further investigation. That is what we on this side are doing, and we are working with industry to make sure that we get the mandatory code of conduct as recommended by the ACCC in place, right and operational as quickly as possible.

So for the Labor Party to say that we have turned our backs on dairy farmers is completely offensive and completely incorrect. We on this side are the ones sitting at the table with the dairy farmers from across all states to find out exactly what they want, to address their concerns in our mandatory code of conduct, to get the mandatory code of conduct in place and then to further discuss with them how we can support their industry going forward, including by looking at divestiture powers for supermarkets to see if that's required, if that will provide a better and more competitive marketplace, so that our farmers get paid appropriate prices for their produce. Let me make it clear: it was not consumers who demanded $1-a-litre milk; it was the big retailers who decided that consumers would want $1-a-litre milk. It was the big retailers who undermined the value of our high-quality agricultural produce and that's where we need to address our attention.

In the next year, we in the National Party will be making sure that we have a thorough look at our retailers, their market powers and, if action needs to be taken to make it a better and fairer operating environment for our producers as well as our processors and the retailers, then we will take that action. We do support our agricultural industries, all of them—our beef producers, our dairy producers and our croppers—and that's why we've got the Water for Fodder program out today, to get some water out there so that farmers can produce fodder, because this drought is ongoing. This drought is crippling across the board. We want to stand with our farmers, support our farmers and do what we can to not undermine property rights, and that will be the right decision for agriculture. (Time expired)

3:22 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

You know, I've been here a long time. We get passionate about issues and challenges in this nation. But it does us, as legislators of this fine nation, no decency or good to hear senators interjecting all the time through taking note, when we're talking about one of the greatest challenges we're facing. For the poor people sitting in the chamber and those who may have been listening and tuning in, I am absolutely embarrassed by the comments being thrown across the chamber at each other by senators, who couldn't keep their mouths shut for longer than 10 seconds to try to interject and belittle other senators. The senator accused has left the chamber. It is probably the best thing that he has done in his short-term—

3:23 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Sterle, It's not appropriate to refer to senators whether or not they're present.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rennick is not here so I won't refer to Senator Rennick.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Sterle—

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you want me to withdraw that?

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I just called it to your attention.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

I will not apologise for being embarrassed. I haven't even met the farmers—I don't know if they were irrigators or dairy farmers; I have no idea—but you could see the anger in the people in the gallery. And what did we have here? The Minister for Agriculture was on her feet; she had been asked a question from Senator Davey. The people in the gallery stormed out. They all left while all of you over there were trying to defend or whatever, let's not forget. For those in the gallery, may I remind the government: you have been in government seven years. This issue just hasn't popped up in the last couple of sitting weeks. These issues, these challenges, have been here many, many times.

Senator Davey, I know you're trying your best to defend your part of the world, as you may do, but you don't realise how silly and how condescending you sounded when you had a go at Senator Green because she quoted that Senator McDonald had written about Queensland dairy farmers. Your response was—I can't quite remember your exact words, because I was shaking my head so hard it nearly fell off—that the minister has to look after all farmers, not just Queensland. I think Senator McDonald has the right to look after her farmers and have her concerns, the same as Senator Hanson had the right to protect and defend and represent her farmers—the dairy farmers who are the same as Senator McDonald's. And I'm very, very well aware of the bullying tactics from the top of the supply chain. I think Lion is one that we've invited, as well as Coles and Woolworths—and, I think, Aldi—to come here next week and have a chat to us. That is because, I'm told, Scenic Rim dairy farmers are actually getting their feet nailed to the floor now, because, they are being forced, and bullied, into signing contracts on 9 December, which is only about four or five days away, that will lock them in—I believe; don't quote me—to 69 cents a litre. I said to Senator McDonald: can't they just tell them, 'Stop, we don't want to sign it while we're waiting for the mandatory code that eventually is going to get here one day, we're told'? And do you know what the answer was, Senator Davey? Because, if they do, they lose their bonuses and they're down to 50 cents a litre. As someone who has had to fight for years in my work life to get my rates when I was a self-employed truck driver, I know the power of negotiation from the top down.

How condescending and disgraceful the behaviour has been here today! Politicians think they know everything; sadly, they don't. But they could say at times, when they listen to the Australian people, 'Well, I was going to do this, but, you know what? Maybe I'm not the gatekeeper of all intelligence. Maybe I haven't got it right. Maybe I should consult further.' If people are angry enough to come down here—and, with all due respect to Canberra, which is a lovely place to visit, I think farmers have got better things to do and would rather be somewhere else—the least we can do is have the decency to sit down with them. We are not the be-all and the end-all, and we don't have the fix-all. We don't have the magic bullet, but I've got to tell you, from what I'm hearing here, we could be doing a hell of a lot more as a nation. We're very good at collecting taxes and we're very good at having photographs taken when we cut a ribbon and open another piece of infrastructure that's been around for 30 years, but if you dare to come to us with a really serious problem such as people being driven off the land—and I don't know how many dairy farmers we're losing. I'm told that it's one a day in Queensland. Is throwing insults and barbs at other senators across the side of the table the best that senators on that side can do? Seriously? Do we pride ourselves on going into the last week of our sitting year thinking we have done the Australian people a major justice by defending very poor legislation and by defending statements that are now a year old? (Time expired)

Question agreed to.