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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2820

Ms LIVERMORE (5:00 PM) —I also welcome this MPI from the member for New England. I know his heart is in the topic he has put forward and in everything he had to say in the debate. This MPI comes at a time when the parliament has just received the report from the Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Resources, called Farming the future. I am proud to say that I am a member of that committee. I want to congratulate the chair, the other members of the committee and the secretariat for the work that went into that report. The report sets out a bit of a stocktake of what is already happening in adaptation and innovation in our farming sector and it underlines quite strongly the need for government to be involved in facilitating the further change that will be required.

The committee’s inquiry gave us the chance to hear from farmers, their representative bodies and researchers about how they see the future and the government’s role in that future. Of course, the future of Australia’s agricultural industries and the communities those industries support is something that is very important, and the government well understands that. The importance of agriculture to Australia’s economy was illustrated during the worst days of the global recession, when it was our farming sector that stood out in the export figures and made such a strong contribution to the nation’s GDP. We do not take that for granted for a minute, so we have been active in vital policy areas like biosecurity, drought reforms, natural resource management and programs to help farmers adjust to climate change and to boost their productivity.

There is plenty of work to do to help our farmers prepare their businesses for the challenges and opportunities of the future. I am pleased to say, though, that we are already seeing the signs of the future of agriculture in my electorate. I know that the member for New England is passionate about the contribution our farmers can and will make to Australia’s energy needs and how that can be a source of diversified revenue for them. I know he will not mind if I start my speech on this MPI by telling the House, yet again, about the fantastic cogeneration project that is underway in Mackay, in my electorate.

I have talked about this project a number of times in the context of the renewable energy target legislation because it is a great example of how the expanded renewable energy target is encouraging renewable energy projects in regional Australia. This project is also great news for sugar growers in the Mackay district and points the way to the opportunities that are there for farmers in the energy sector to produce energy as they grow food.

As I say, this is a fantastic project. Mackay Sugar, which is Australia’s second-largest milling company, will invest $120 million to install a new boiler at its Racecourse sugar mill in Mackay. The mill has always burned bagasse—a waste product from sugar milling—to produce energy to run the Racecourse sugar mill. The new boiler will now burn bagasse much more efficiently and will be able to produce 36 megawatts, of which 28 megawatts will be exported into the grid. That equates to 30 per cent of the city of Mackay’s electricity needs and will also abate 340,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

Thanks to the expanded renewable energy target, Mackay Sugar has signed an off-take agreement with electricity retailer Ergon Energy. This project has been devised and driven by Mackay Sugar. Mackay Sugar was a milling cooperative and is now a company whose shareholders are its canegrowers. The contract with Ergon Energy represents a significant new source of revenue for Mackay Sugar. This will be passed onto some 850 growers, as shareholders of the company and through the cane price that they receive from Mackay Sugar.

Former chair of Mackay Sugar Eddie Westcott summed up what this means for farmers. I should just say that Eddie Westcott stepped down from the role of chair of Mackay Sugar. I wish him all the best in his retirement and I welcome the chance to work with the new chair of Mackay Sugar, Andrew Cappello. When this project was reaching its final hurdles and contracts were being signed, Eddie Westcott said what it meant for farmers—and he should know, because he is a sugar farmer. He was quoted as saying that having an extra stream of income that does not depend on weather or exchange rate is music to growers’ ears. He also said:

It is certainly a difference in income, because we are now divorced from the vagaries of the world market for sugar and the vagaries of the exchange rate. We will be selling in Australian dollars locally. So that’s probably the biggest change for us—an income stream purely in Australian dollars not dependent on the world market.

          …        …        …

It just puts stability in the business … It is what the whole of us want from the growers, the harvest to the staff and employees—we want a bit of stability and this is what this will provide.

This is an example of innovation in the agricultural sector. It is the kind of innovation and capacity to adapt that we saw so much of as the agriculture committee travelled and talked to farmers through the course of the inquiry. It is also an example of where government policy can provide the incentive needed to unlock this kind of opportunity. In this case it is the expanded renewable energy target, but there are other ways the government is providing support to assist farmers to identify and pursue opportunities.

For example, I spent last Friday with the chair, Royce Bishop, and some staff from Reef Catchments, which is the community based catchment management group for the Mackay-Whitsunday region. Reef Catchments has received over $6 million in funding from the government’s Reef Rescue program and works very closely with local farmers on projects to improve water quality and reduce runoff. These projects also require investments from farmers but they pay off in reducing inputs, improving soils and boosting productivity.

Reef Catchments has developed an investment strategy which will improve water quality in the regional priority sub-catchments identified in Reef Catchments’ recent water quality improvement plan to improve water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. That is something that is important to all of us as we do our best to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Projects will utilise strong, effective and efficient collaborations between the region and industry delivery partners, such as canegrowers, to engage regional farmers in Reef Rescue. Regional land managers are set to benefit from the investment through support for farmers to undertake risk assessments, on-ground works and multifarm projects.

I visited some of the on-farm projects with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry last year, and the engagement with the Reef Rescue programs was very encouraging. The staff from Reef Catchments told us that they were getting an even greater level of interest in the program for the next round of project funding, so this is clearly having an impact and is more evidence of the willingness of farmers to adapt when good information and support is available.

It is a similar story in the southern part of my electorate where the Fitzroy Basin Association is the natural management body charged with the responsibility of working with landholders on projects that deliver both improved productivity and environmental outcomes. The member for New England might remember that the Fitzroy Basin Association hosted us for a couple of days in Rockhampton. We went out to Neil Johansen’s property at Dululu to see what he was doing in his cropping business in using controlled traffic farming. We also went to a very large property near Springsure with the Chair of the Fitzroy Basin Association, Charlie Wilson.

In the case of the Fitzroy Basin Association, the Reef Rescue component of Caring for our Country will allow it to invest $23 million over four years in collaboration with its industry partners. Regional land managers are set to benefit from the investment through support for farmers to undertake risk assessments and on-ground works. The focus for the Fitzroy Basin region is grazing and cropping, and it will target activities that will result in a reduction in the sediment that reaches the Great Barrier Reef.

The Fitzroy Basin Association tells me—very proudly, I should say—that landholders across the region are already reducing annual average sediment loads delivered to waterways by about 75,000 tonnes and are on target to cumulatively reduce sediment entering waterways by 4.1 million tonnes by 2014. That represents significant change going on in farming practices in our Central Queensland region, and Reef Catchments’ experience tells the same story.

This underlines the message that came out in the Farming the future report—that Australian farmers are innovative and adaptive because they have always had to be. The new challenges of globalisation and climate change, among others, will call on these traits, but there has to be input from governments to support and encourage farmers through these challenges. One of the key recommendations in the report is for the government to understand the needs and decision-making processes of farmers and to ensure that the delivery of adaptation programs is flexible and responsive to the needs of farmers and rural communities. (Time expired)