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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4492

Mr FORREST (11:04 AM) —The budget appropriations provide an opportunity for the member for Mallee to comment on the state of the Mallee electorate, particularly in regard to the budget the House is considering. The electorate is large—the largest in Victoria, though by no means the largest in the nation. It is bountiful and has wonderful potential in dryland farming, horticulture, small business and lifestyle, and it now has an opportunity to participate in the future particularly in regard to solar power. One thing we have, which is bountiful to share, is ample sunshine. I am pleased to see the budget maintains in the forward estimates the coalition commitment of $75 million for a photovoltaic power station in the north-west of Victoria, something that will provide a stimulus and give Mallee the opportunity to say it is contributing to the challenges confronting the environment.

Mallee is typical of much of regional Australia, which is the engine room providing a productive base on which our national economy depends. But to achieve our full potential we need the consideration, the understanding and the cooperation of both federal and state governments. A good example of what can be done is one of our most significant engineering feats—the completion of the piping of the Wimmera-Mallee stock and domestic system. The recent opening in Horsham of the Wimmera section of that project gave enormous encouragement to the community across the north-west of Victoria. When you add the Wimmera section to the northern Mallee section completed in 2001, the region has seen a total investment of a figure nudging $1 billion. This is an investment in our most precious natural resource of all, water. It has been achieved through federal, state and community and customer cooperation in a genuine partnership with costs being shared one-third/one-third/one-third. I am immensely proud of my role in ensuring the federal government provided a significant proportion of the funding for this project. It is a project that simply would not have happened without a federal partnership.

The pipeline system replaces 18,000 kilometres of leaking and evaporating earthen channels, and will save 100,000 megalitres of water every year—100 billion litres of water, every year. It has been said that that is enough water to fill Olympic swimming pools placed end-to-end from Melbourne to Darwin and back again. I continue to be immensely proud of this project, and, if I do not achieve anything else during my career in this place, the completion of that scheme, which has been debated and discussed for 60 years, will do. It is a modern-day engineering triumph that replaces an earlier landmark engineering achievement—a channel system which first brought water to thirsty communities in the Wimmera and the Mallee in the early 1880s, having taken 60 years to complete.

However, Canberra is still to come good with the final $25 million promised by the Rudd Labor government during the 2007 election. It is still short on that commitment it made, and this is a significant contribution that could be used to backfill the old channels. Most of the smaller ones are being backfilled by the landholders themselves, as part of their own contribution, but the big supply channels, which are as wide as a cricket pitch is long—massive carvings in the landscape—will need backfilling by the responsible authorities and those authorities will need the funds to do it. I am concerned that there is no provision for this $25 million anywhere in the current budget. I call on the Prime Minister to honour the promise he clearly made, and subsequently has reiterated, to provide this $25 million.

On a broader note, much of the Mallee electorate is dedicated to dryland farming and irrigated horticulture along the Murray River. It has three major regional centres—Swan Hill, where I reside, Horsham in the Wimmera, and Mildura in Sunraysia. They are all linked by smaller and no less vital contributing communities. Sadly, our immediate farming and value adding prosperity has been adversely affected by five major elements: irrigation water cutbacks on a scale never envisaged by those visionary people who built the irrigation systems along the Murray, a decade of drought, low commodity prices, a looming mice plague to add insult to injury, and, even worse than that, the potential for one of the worst locust plagues ever seen in Victoria.

While we all appreciate and know the impact of the drought, and the Murray-Darling Basin is very much on the news, the effect on irrigation communities has been devastating, and that is seldom reported. Particularly when you look at the enormous potential of the community around Sunraysia, around the strong provincial centre of Mildura, to visit that location today causes one to be greatly concerned about a provincial centre that was once the third-largest growth centre in the whole of the nation. Coalition shadows, to their credit, have been spending time out there talking to irrigators in their packing sheds in a bid to drive a fairer outcome for those special irrigators of our major food bowl. Irrigators who have had their rights severely eroded by inappropriate decisions by governments, state and federal, in recent years, are now fearful that new sustainable diversion limits, SDLs, which are currently being pursued by Rudd Labor, will add further to their disadvantage. Currently the SDL would seem to be badly biased against the farmer, biased against the irrigator, biased against the wealth creator and biased against the economic activity that creates employment in regional Australia because it targets another 30 per cent of water used for agriculture to be converted to environmental needs.

It needs to be recognised that every gigalitre lost to productive irrigation throughout the Murray-Darling Basin represents 30 jobs across the local economy. It affects the corner store and it affects the retail sector, right down to the shoe shop—lost jobs and lost opportunities. The value of irrigated horticulture flows right through the whole community and it is the reason why strong communities like Mildura and Swan Hill are there in the first place—to support the services needed to encourage horticultural activity. There is also the enormous concern of my constituents that water being taken from the Murray catchment is being sent down to Melbourne and the real concern that this will get rebranded for urban use in a permanent allocation, giving it a greater priority than to those people who produce food—valuable food for the nation.

In 2010 the Victorian irrigation landscape is badly scarred, with many producers having no option now but to sell their water and often their land, although without the water it is not of very great value. This is because their crops were bringing in less than the cost of production, and this has been happening for far too long. It is a tragedy, and the greater tragedy is that it is not yet recognised by the government that presides over Treasury in this place.

We the residents of the north-west of Victoria, we the hardworking people of the Wimmera-Mallee, call for a better balance between the needs of the environment and the river and the needs of wealth creators, employment providers and food production security providers. This can only be achieved by turning to modifications of the overarching federal Water Act. Each year more and more people are getting to the situation where they cannot wait any longer for better times, with more reliability on a water security system that was once the envy of the world. In addition to that, they need a fairer market in a marketplace where they have to contend with the avaricious price pressure from supermarkets. These irrigators are not second-class citizens; they are food producers, they are wealth creators and they are important contributors to this nation’s wellbeing, and their hardship and now their pain flows right across the economic line to every small business. Pretty well every nation around the world defends its food producers, and Australia has a lot to learn in this respect. It is time greater focus was brought to the importance of this productive base in the Australian economy.

We hear a lot of talk about a two-speed economy and the way to address this. It is not to apply additional taxes to those who are successful but to invest wisely in research, extension and implementation. In the past 2½ years under the auspices of this government we have seen nothing but the demise of local research infrastructure, particularly in the north-west of Victoria. Better infrastructure and improvement to those irrigation systems that are nudging 100 years of age and the replacement of the Wimmera-Mallee system are good examples for other locations around the nation to follow.

Our food producers need encouragement to be more globally competitive. They operate where there are not subsidies against commodities in the marketplace internationally that are subsidised. We in the Mallee have had enough of setbacks. I note that regional Australian parliamentarians have been fighting hard to keep their communities together, to try to give them some leadership in the lowest times that we have ever experienced. In the face of drought and low commodity prices, what is looming is the crippling impact of debt. Passionate representations have been made by me in this place about the need for farm debt mediation, because we cannot afford to lose good contributors and expertise in our rural communities. We must do everything we can to put procedures in place to encourage them to stay in their wealth-creating activities. If farmers and small regional businesses cannot trade out of situations, often not of their own making, then we at least need a safety net so that they can exit with dignity. Their passing must not cause a tsunami of lowering of land values. This puts pressure on neighbours across-the-board, puts even more farmers at risk and puts at risk the local government rate base. Local governments across regional Australia are already struggling to raise the revenue to supply the services increasingly demanded of them.

The immediate future of my Mallee electorate concerns me greatly. Reasonable rains have come but accompanied by the blight of a locust plague that could possibly be the worst in history in Victoria. The locusts have already come, blown down from the north out of Queensland. I understand the Plague Locust Commission position, because of the rainfall and flooding up there they lost the opportunity for pesticide spraying of locusts before they got to the air. I am grateful for the attention the minister for agriculture on the other side has provided, with personal assurance to me that he is alert to the need to deliver radical locust control measures when the hatchings start in Victoria in the coming spring. Each female locust mates at least four times; they are worse than rabbits. Each time she lays eggs she lays 50 eggs. With literally billions of locusts already in the air across the South Australian and Victorian Mallee, that is a prediction for a locust plague in our spring of biblical proportions—black skies which old-timers tell me they can recall from the 1940s, and there was a similar event that happened in the 1970s when I was at Melbourne university.

It is seldom that locusts have penetrated this far south in Victoria. It is amazing to see what they will do to a crop overnight. They have already devoured vegetable crops in my electorate, including those of one of Australia’s largest carrot growers at Wemen. Some $500,000 worth of carrots were wiped out within a few hours, which I watched happening while standing beside the desperate landholder. They do not eat carrots; they seem to know where the juicy parts are and they eat the week-old leaf that has just emerged out of the ground. I saw them do that to barley crop in my electorate last month. I have seen them wipe out a dairy farmer just north of Swan Hill, to the point that within two days he arranged to sell his 300 milking cows. That was the last straw for him. Having just got his water back, irrigated to get a nice pasture going, for some reason only known to the locusts they picked out his brand-new juicy green crop and wiped him out within 48 hours—just staggering. That really worries me about what might happen in the spring. So what I am asking for, due to the high cost of pesticides, which farmers just do not have the resources to budget for, is that governments in Victoria and the Plague Locust Commission get together to make sure that there is adequate pesticide in the nation and get ready for the spring. It is not just on local private land; the huge number of national parks in the north-west of the state require governments to play their part, because that is a breeding ground for many locusts.

Two or three months ago we were all joyful down there that this was the best start to a season that many farmers in south-eastern Australia had seen for a decade. Many got busy with their cropping program after Anzac Day, which is the traditional date to start planting barley, wheat and other legume and grain crops, but now they are hesitant to proceed with their cropping, worrying about what the future might hold. They are worrying about making that massive investment and having it destroyed later by a locust plague. All governments, federal and state, need to work cooperatively to ensure there is enough pesticide in the nation and, better than that, have a plan for its expeditious distribution. Farmers will do their part, but governments need to do their part in the national parks and public land.

When a season starts like this it increases the hope and expectation of farmers that they will have an opportunity at long last to reduce their accumulating debt, which is their greatest ambition, increase their productive investment and take the opportunity to invest in improved technology. We have to encourage them to do this, even with the uncertainty of the season they are confronting.

We as a nation have to defend our regional Australian productive base as never before. The vision of a prosperous Australian farmer driving a Rolls-Royce is long gone—that was maybe 50 years ago. The modern farmer today is a tough individual, working long hours for little reward and busting their guts to remain world-competitive, with no subsidies and no barriers to the importation of cheap competitive products. I admire their resilience and their dogged pursuit in producing first-class, quality food and quality livestock. I commit to continuing to provide them with the vociferous support they deserve in this place. It is time to give our regional economies the respect and recognition they deserve so that they might continue producing the quality foods that too many Australians take for granted.

Critics of irrigators have obviously never gone hungry. They need to be reminded that the plethora of fresh fruit on supermarket shelves—stone fruit, citrus, table grapes—or the good wine, the good steak and the prime Mallee lamb they consume does not originate in a supermarket but comes from the backbreaking work of Australian farmers who have carried the nation for the whole of its history. Today I ask the parliament to give the recognition due to our nation’s productive base and stop treating our regional communities—who are used, abused and neglected—as the poor cousins of those in the cities and call on the Rudd Labor government to respond.