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Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Page: 2642


Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (15:58): It is interesting to note that the government and the member for Fraser have put forward this topic for today's matter of public importance debate. I agree: there is an 'urgent need for market based reforms and for strict and transparent budgeting'. This is no more so than with the issue of water, especially in and around my electorate of Riverina. This parliament has long agreed that there needs to be a water plan which satisfies the triple bottom line approach, taking in the social, economic and environmental implications of any reform. Our nation should not, cannot and must not implement water reform which does not meet all three of these important objectives. Unfortunately, this Labor government is rushing headlong towards reform which is not 'conducive to a prosperous future'. They are the words that the Prime Minister used in question time today: 'conducive to a prosperous future'. We all in this place want a prosperous future and we should be doing everything we can to make that happen.

The Labor government wants to legislate a Murray-Darling Basin Plan before the end of the financial year. Public submissions on the draft end on 16 April. Helen Dalton, who heads the Women for a Living Basin—members of which met the water minister and other key stakeholders on 29 February—sensibly wants the public consultation period to be pushed back. I have written to the water minister to ask for that to happen. Mrs Dalton argues that the recent flooding rains in the Riverina and elsewhere are reason enough for everyone to push the pause button on this whole flawed process. The districts around Griffith have never previously been flooded. The events of the past week are unprecedented. The ungauged Mirrool Creek, normally just a quiet country stream at best, became a 15-kilometre wide lake swamping Yenda and much of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area last week. The water has still not receded in many parts.

In other districts, the worst is yet to come as they brace themselves for the swollen waters of the Murrumbidgee River to peak in their locations. Locals will be cleaning up and counting the cost for many weeks and months ahead. Those with a stake in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—and that is everyone who resides in the now flood-affected Coleambally and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas—have a little more on their mind at present than putting together careful and considered submissions about water reform and sending them to the independent authority.

The fact that Australia is out of the drought for the time being at least is also good reason not to rush into any binding and restrictive policy which would place the nation's food security and ability to meet its global and domestic food task at risk. The water reform being pushed through by the environmentalists without so much as a thought to water savings made in the past, in the name of efficiencies and healthy rivers, is not market based. It is not common sense. It is not good policy, and it is not in the national interest.

In this, the Australian Year of the Farmer, I find it amazing that the government is willing to allow our farmland, the best agricultural land in the world, to be hocked off to any overseas investor who simply turns up with a chequebook. At present, unless a farm or agribusiness is worth $244 million, it can be sold to a foreigner without so much as raising an eyebrow in the Foreign Investment Review Board, and certainly not by the Treasurer, who gets the final say on any such buyouts. When Labor came to office it lifted the trigger for notification of an overseas purchase to $230 million and in the midst of recent controversy about the fact that this figure was too high—and it is way, way too high—the amount was increased by another $14 million. What a farce, just like this government!

Now the trade minister has outlined plans to harness capital from emerging economic giants such as China and India to spark a so-called 'revolution' in Australian food production. A report in the Australian newspaper yesterday said:

Dr Emerson believes rising global food demand will provide lucrative opportunities for Australia but warns that the scale of investment required to meet the demand will require offshore investment.

He told The Australian yesterday that just as foreign investment by Asian nations seeking energy security had bankrolled the development of the booming resources industry in previous decades, the demand for food security could unleash a new wave of investment in Australian agriculture.

It may come as news to the trade minister, but all our farmers want is a fair go. They want water availability. They want the government to start spending some of the $5.8 billion set aside by the coalition to achieve real, genuine and lasting water saving outcomes in on- and off-farm infrastructure. They want the government to acknowledge the role they play in feeding our nation and others around us. They want to be able to get on doing the job that they do best: farming the land and helping to grow our country, rather than spending time writing submissions to uncaring bureaucrats about water security and attending meetings in Griffith, Canberra, Deniliquin and Shepparton and elsewhere to argue their case and to fight for their futures.

In answer to the trade minister's call to tap Asia for farm funding, the National Farmers Federation demanded more policies to boost productivity and strengthen the economy to help farmers rise to the production challenge. This is the appropriate response. The NFF is correct. Tonight in Parliament House representatives of Apple and Pear Australia Ltd will be here to present their wares and give an update on the state of their industry, an industry forgotten and, indeed, rebuffed by this government, which allowed New Zealand apples, despite the obvious and serious risks of fire blight, to enter our markets for the first time in 90 years last August. As the shadow minister for agriculture and food security—and I am glad that he is here at the table listening to this—said:

Agriculture continues to be ignored by Labor who simply sees the portfolio as a funding pool which they can divert funds elsewhere to cover up their wasteful spending in other departments.

Well said, shadow minister.

The Labor government needs to show it is serious about research and development by supporting programs such as the Aussie Apple Accord. Labor passed a number of resolutions at its national conference last November which focused on research and development for increasing the sustainable production of more food. Apple and Pear Australia has unveiled a multimillion dollar Aussie Apple Accord to prepare the industry for the future with innovation to improve quality and productivity, and this program meets the criteria of Labor's resolutions. Given this and the fact that Labor is supposedly serious about agriculture and improving R&D, Minister Ludwig should support the Aussie Apple Accord and give the industry the government's backing.

Yet despite all this, Labor has the hide today to stand here and talk about market based reforms. Labor has delivered nothing based on markets, nothing based on what is needed, and nothing to help this country. On 1 July Labor's insidious carbon tax will hit the Australian economy and hit it hard. Labor calls it the 'clean energy bills' and a 'price on carbon'. Why not call it what it is—a tax, a toxic tax, an unwanted tax, a tax which will do nothing for the environment yet will sap the life out of so many of our industries including agriculture and cost so many Australian jobs.

Agriculture is not excluded despite what you might hear from those opposite. Costs for farmers will rise and make it harder for the agricultural sector to compete. Modelling by agricultural industries has showed that farmers will be hurt by this carbon tax directly with increased electricity and gas prices which will flow through to fertilisers, chemicals and other inputs. Electricity price rises of up to 10 per cent and gas by nine per cent will compound, hurting farming families, when regional areas are already paying disproportionately higher prices than metropolitan areas. Shipping, rail and aviation cost increases are already having a dreadful impact on agriculture. Transport costs will increase in 2014 when heavy vehicle fuel will be subject to the new tax. Regional Australia cannot move ahead without the heavy transport industry, so these increases in costs will be directly relevant. Price increases will erode farm profitability—as if they are not having a hard enough time as it is—as farmers compete on a world market with other countries which are not subject to this tax. Labor goes on in this MPI about transparency. Labor should never use the word 'transparency' in this parliament. After all, it was the Prime Minister who said, prior to the 2010 electorate, 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead,' and soon we will have one. Talk about transparency!

We talk in this MPI about strict and transparent budgeting. The previous coalition government ran accumulated budget surpluses of $97 billion and turned $96 billion of net debt into $70 billion of net worth. And what did Labor under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard do? They blew it all. This Labor government has run accumulated deficits of $167 billion and is on course to $136 billion of net debt. The cost of just servicing the interest is heading towards $7 billion a year. Labor has not delivered a surplus since 1989-90 and this year will be its tenth deficit in a row. The member for Longman was not even born when Labor delivered its last surplus. The government will bear a massive increase in expenditure over the next few years in off-budget expenditure such as the $50 billion NBN and other disastrous policies. (Time expired)