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Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Page: 2255

Senator SMITH (Western AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (22:30): I have often noted during previous contributions to this chamber that regional Australia has the potential to make a much larger contribution to our economic strength than is currently the case. As I have often noted, to achieve this potential will require a government with the commitment and drive to turn talk, which has been going on for far too long, into action. Nowhere is this truer than in my home state of Western Australia. Regional Western Australia has particular qualities that set it apart from other regional areas in the nation.

For most people, Western Australia is synonymous with the resources sector, and that should not come as a surprise given the significant contribution that sector continues to make to Western Australia's economy. Iron ore, gold, diamonds, oil and natural gas are all major industries which have long contributed to Australia's economic wealth, creating jobs and infrastructure and improving regional communities along the way. But there is vastly more to WA than just holes in the ground, and it is here that I wish to focus attention this evening.

Western Australia's second largest export industry is agriculture and food. In 2014-15, Western Australia exported an estimated $7.79 billion in agriculture and food products, up from $7½ billion in 2013-14. While wheat, representing $2.9 billion, barley, representing $997 million, and canola, representing $806 million worth of revenue, are the most well-known agricultural exports, just as valuable is our livestock industry, which is worth approximately $2 billion at the farm gate. Incorporating live cattle exports to Indonesia from the Kimberley and the Pilbara, as well as live sheep exports to the Middle East from the Murchison and the Goldfields, the Western Australian livestock industry is the future of our agricultural exports, as international demand for high-quality meat products continues to rise.

To make the most of that opportunity, we must do everything possible to protect the viability of WA's pastoral industry. One of the greatest differences between Western Australia and other states is the size and scope of our pastoral rangeland, which covers 87 per cent of the state's 2½ million square kilometres and includes all but the south-west of Western Australia. Approximately 980,000 square kilometres is pastoral lease land where the prime activity is grazing. To help those from other places understand the scale, that is an area larger than the state of New South Wales. Until you have actually been there and gained appreciation for the vast distances involved and how isolated some communities are, it can be difficult to fully comprehend the challenges and issues faced by Western Australian pastoralists. Too often some of those issues are considered trite and can be the subject of sceptical amusement from an increasingly urban-centric public and government. But for those of us representing these regions, including both me and my colleague the member for Durack, Melissa Price, these concerns are paramount.

It was just over a year ago that I drew to the attention of this chamber the devastating impact and social impacts of wild dog attacks on the WA pastoral industry, especially in the Southern Rangelands. After numerous representations from local residents in the region, Melissa Price and I both travelled to the Murchison to meet with pastoralists during their annual baiting day and discuss firsthand the impact the wild dog problem is having. Stock losses due to wild dog attacks are estimated to cost the Western Australian pastoral industry around $7 million annually and have forced many small-stock pastoral stations—sheep and goat stations—to destock. For those in this chamber who have never had the opportunity to travel through the Western Australian rangelands and visit a station, to destock is one of the most devastating decisions a pastoralist can ever make. It is more serious than the equivalent of a restaurant closing its kitchen, a shop shutting up its doors or a factory shutting down its assembly line. In essence, it is surrender, and the emotional impacts can be every bit as crippling as the financial ones.

Last year I mentioned the devastating impact that destocking had on the Dowden family, who own Challa Station in the Murchison. Ashley and his wife, Debbie, destocked entirely in 2008, unable to contend any longer with their flocks being decimated by wild dog attacks. Ashley remembers:

We were mustering for shearing and putting them in holding paddocks and going in the next morning and there were dead sheep everywhere from dog attacks.

Debbie recalled that, over a two-week period in 2008, their goat stock was entirely destroyed. She said:

The goats disappeared, followed by the sheep … and they paid the bills. If we were lucky, there was a bit left over to put in the bank to cover the hard times. The pastoralists themselves were the next to go and next, of course, will be the sustainability of the land, because no-one will be left to manage it.

The flow-on impacts are significant. With pastoralists destocking, there is no work for shearers, no work for wool pressers, no work for fencers, no work for caterers and no work for shed hands—many of whom are local Indigenous people. This is the lived experience of so many Western Australian pastoralists.

We have an obligation to do more to assist, which is why one year later, after bringing the issue of wild dogs to the attention of this chamber, of the media and of the public, I am pleased that there has been some progress in addressing this plague of the WA rangelands, including support for complementing the Murchison Regional Vermin Cell fence. In August last year, the federal government provided the Western Australian state government with $1.13 million to support strategic wild dog control in Western Australia, which included the development of a Western Australian Wild Dog Action Plan, an on-the-ground strategy initiated and developed by the pastoral industry itself.

The plan, which was finalised in late November, has now completed its final phase of public consultation. Its key recommendation is that industry, not government, set the priority and strategy for wild dog control. Because wild dog impacts and risks differ between regions and livestock industries, the plan is focused on local management to protect the relevant regional assets, including livestock, the natural estate, native fauna, tourism or mining. It recognises that wild dog management is now a cost of production, in much the same way that fuel and feed are. It acknowledges that landowners spend an average of 43 days a year on wild dog management, mostly ground baiting, which costs each property about $18,000 a year.

The plan acknowledges that effective wild dog controls involve the integration of a suite of control measures, including trapping, shooting, fencing and 1080 baiting. It recommends the continued funding through the WA state government's Royalties for Regions program of professional doggers over the next three years. Also recommended is the completion of the state barrier fence by completing the Esperance extension, funded by a Royalties for Regions grant of $7.25 million. Most importantly for pastoralists in the Murchison like Ashley and Debbie Dowden, it recommends the development of a barrier or cluster fencing in strategic regions of Western Australia. This includes the proposed Murchison Region Vermin Cell, a $4½ million project which aims to construct 480 kilometres of new dog-proof fencing, connecting with existing vermin fencing. It has been stalled due to bureaucratic obstinacy. These projects are to be funded through an arrangement of public-private funding models, including the use of Royalties for Regions.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my address, the ability of our nation's regions to achieve their potential requires a government with the commitment and drive to turn talk into action. We have already witnessed how inaction on wild dogs has permitted the destruction of much of the small-stock industry in Western Australia—inaction caused by ignoring the pleas of landholders and giving preference to the self-interest of external stakeholders and departmental bureaucrats. I note that just today Minister Barnaby Joyce has announced that the federal and Queensland state governments are providing more than $5.2 million to help with the construction of cluster fencing to prevent wild dog attacks. I hope that this is the sort of action we can soon expect to see in Western Australia. Our pastoralists at home in Western Australia certainly deserve it.

The pastoral industry is and always has been the major source of economic wealth in the Western Australian rangelands, creating jobs and empowering communities. While the small-stock pastoral industry continues to decline, mostly due to wild dog attacks, it is not too late to save it. By implementing many of the recommendations put forward in the WA Wild Dog Action Plan, there is a strong possibility that we can see the return of the sheep industry throughout the Murchison, something that is long overdue.