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Monday, 23 February 2009
Page: 1555

Dr STONE (9:06 PM) —I want to talk about some very serious issues that a lot of my Labor colleagues would not understand—but you would, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, because you represent a rural electorate. Southern regional Australia is in the grip of the worst drought on record. That is exacerbated in Victoria by the pipeline issue. This is where the Labor government has decided that long-term food security and the protection of permanent plantings do not matter. We are talking about orchards, tomato crops and annual crops, and one of the biggest industries is dairying. Manufactured dairy products are mostly exported. The two big companies are Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, but there are others as well. In fact, about 22 companies who manufacture milk have factories in my electorate, and the vast majority of their output is exported.

The manufacturers are there because the area was traditionally drought-proofed with an irrigation system. That irrigation system had never failed us in over 100 years. And it probably would not have failed us now either. We would get over our current problems with drought—no doubt exacerbated by climate change. However the Victorian government have another issue, and that is their failure to put in a long-term water policy for their metropolitan areas, particularly Melbourne and Geelong but also Ballarat and Bendigo. The easiest solution for them technically, but also financially, is to take the water from the north of the state—unfortunately, that is in the Goulburn Valley, from the Campaspe and Loddon rivers—and pump it over the Great Dividing Range to Melbourne. This means that we are permanently in drought. Whenever there is a demand for water in Melbourne—because Thomson Dam is low—there is also low rainfall in northern Victoria. This means that our long-term future in terms of ever again having an abundance of water—which guarantees the dairy production and the manufacturing sector—is gone. This is a very, very serious issue.

We are told that we should not complain, because the state government has invested in its own ageing irrigation infrastructure and is therefore lining channels with plastic and cutting off a lot of the farmers’ spurs when they have been found to be no longer viable or they are not prepared to pay for taking over their part of the channel supply system. The good farmers of northern Victoria are told that they should be grateful for this state government investment in its own infrastructure—and a lot of that funding has been committed by the federal government—and that they therefore should give up what would have been this year 30 per cent of their available water supply to the people in Melbourne.

We do not think that is a fair trade or a fair deal at all. You can imagine a suburb in outer Melbourne being finally given a new school—perhaps for the first time a secondary college—and being told, ‘Because you have got a secondary college you have to give up your hospital or your train station.’ It does not happen in suburban Australia or metropolitan Australia and we do not think it should happen in a rural region. The costs are not just to the long-term economy. The problem is that we do not have the capacity to guarantee food security for all of Australia. This is one of the parts of the food bowl of the great Murray-Darling Basin.

We also now have failed government policy in relation to the labour supply. I mentioned that we are big fruit growers. We have had this promise of a Pacific islander guest worker program for seasonal fruit harvesting that was to have delivered workers before the season this year—in other words, in November-December. The three trial regions were said to be Swan Hill, Stanthorpe and perhaps around Griffith. However, despite the organisation of this guest worker program being between at least four Australian government departments and despite some tens of millions extra being granted to them to help fund this program, we have only just had 50 guest workers delivered—far too late for the summer fruit season, even for the grape season—to Robinvale to pick almonds. The guest workers were to come from Tonga, Kiribati, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. We see that some from Tonga have arrived. You might say: ‘Well, at last. It is late, but the Pacific islanders are being given a go.’ The trouble is that just a few kilometres from there, in my electorate of Murray, the town of Pyramid Hill, population 400, just last week lost 57 workers with their pet food factory closing. So we have the government bringing in Pacific islander seasonal workers from Tonga—50 of them—to pick almonds, and a short distance away we have the pet food factory in a town of 400 people sacking 57 Australian workers.

Just how this government is responding to the domestic and global economic problems that we have does not quite compute, does it? They have to be more flexible. They have to understand that regional Australia is in meltdown not just because of the worst fires on record in Victoria and not just because of the worst drought on record but because of being overlooked and neglected by this government’s policy. When you think that only 14 per cent of farmers were eligible for the so-called stimulus package announced the other day—in other words, those on exceptional circumstances payments—and they were to be paid $950 each in a one-off payment, it would become almost laughable if it were not so tragic. You can imagine the despair and the disgust when the farming community heard about that.

In fact, they have as we speak a begging request to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke, saying, ‘Please understand that the manufacturing dairy industry, which is now being paid below the cost of production for its primary production, will fail.’ It is in its seventh year of drought. There are 40,000 workers associated with the manufacturing dairy industry in Australia. The centre of that particular industry is in my electorate of Murray. When you are offered a price half that offered at the opening of the season and it is below the cost of production and you have locked in your seasonal inputs at the first price offered to you—your fodder, your water and your veterinary services have all been locked in at a price you expected to be paid—to have that slashed in half a few weeks later means that the only conversations you begin to have with anyone are with the banks.

Unfortunately, all the stimulus package had for farmers, besides the $900-odd, was extra money to buy the water from so-called willing sellers in the Murray-Darling Basin. So the banks will lean on these dairy farmers and say, ‘You have got your herd you can sell; you have got your water you can sell.’ You have no-one left in the water market but the Australian government, so it is goodbye irrigated agriculture. Some people might say: ‘That’s fine. Who cares?’ I guess I care, because I would like to think that my children and grandchildren, when they go to the supermarkets, will have a choice of Australian fine food, not imported food—not to depend in the future on, say, milk powders from China or New Zealand. We need to recall it was a New Zealand company that had the problem with the Chinese milk powder contaminations.

We are staring down the barrel in Australia of not being food self-sufficient. It seems extraordinary when we fed half the world in times of war, but it is a reality for us in Australia today. It requires Australian government policy which is innovative and closely developed in cooperation with the industry itself. I beg the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to urgently address the collapse in the dairy manufacturing industry and to understand they cannot hang on another six months. They can hardly hang on another one month, the pressures on them are so great.

The pressures for them can only be relieved by selling their means of production, which are their herds and their water. What we have left after that is a dry property with millions of dollars of infrastructure in the form of dairy buildings, milking sheds, silage sheds and so on that a hobby farmer does not want, much less any other sort of manufacturer or food farmer. So this is a serious problem. I am also very concerned that there are environmental consequences. When dairy farmers have to leave, their properties become a dry wasteland of rolling weeds, and when it does rain again we can expect to see a salinity problem.

So this government must act and look beyond the automotive industry, which instantly got a bailout, and the retail sector, which got bailed out before Christmas. What is wrong with help for the dairy manufacturers, I wonder? I do know, I suppose: they do not vote Labor typically. But this is not a time when we should be partisan. We should be saying that this industry is in great distress. It employs 40,000 people and it generates export earnings of billions of dollars annually—the biggest export quantity and quality and value of product out of Geelong in Victoria each year. If this government does not act very quickly I do not think it will be good enough for us to look back and say, ‘We could have done it.’ We simply must, because there is too much value to lose.