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Monday, 26 February 2018
Page: 1898


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (19:11): It's quite surprising that we're here, still debating this issue. I said to my office, 'Is this bill up again?' They said, 'No, it's another slight amendment.' Here we are again—how many years into this government? We're still talking about country-of-origin labelling. It makes you question why this amendment didn't come up the first time we debated this issue and why it's taken so long for this minor amendment to come before us. But, as the member for Hunter has said in moving his second reading amendment, it does give us a chance to really look at this government's record when it comes to Australian agricultural policy and how this government is failing to deliver any decent reform on time to ensure that Australia's agricultural sector continues to grow, thrive and achieve its fullest potential.

As previous speakers have acknowledged, the Imported Food Control Amendment (Country of Origin) Bill 2017 is a minor amendment that will ensure that authorised officers can enforce country-of-origin labelling requirements on imported goods. In the shops, you laugh when you pick up that box that says 'Made from local and imported products'. Great! Fantastic! That tells me not a lot, and they've put that on the label.

However, no labelling is perfect. Among the concerns that have been raised with me about the new labelling that we have is that in some cases the actual country has been removed. Whilst giving you a percentage or a bar showing you what is local and not local is good, what some people said to me is: 'Well, I used to know if those tomatoes were from Italy. I've got more confidence in the Italian product than I do in a product, say, from a country where they've had a hep A scare or something of that nature.' So there is some concern even with this labelling that it doesn't really give consumers all the information that they require. I think that that's what's really hard when we get to debating this at this technical level at the federal level, and I think that what we need in our country-of-origin labelling is a really robust ACCC that continues to work with stakeholders, with consumers and with growers and producers about how we can give people the information that they require.

I can remember when this issue was first being discussed. The then agriculture minister tried to link the hep A scare with the berries that came in from China. The problem with trying to link those two issues was that people knew where those berries came from. It said where they came from on the box. It actually said straight out on the box that this was a product of China. The problem was not about the labelling; the problem was that there wasn't a proper biosecurity regime, the product wasn't being tested, and people were in fact infected, not once but twice. There were two scares with hep A.

This is an area where the government has dropped the ball—biosecurity, making sure that we have the most rigid and robust biosecurity framework in this country to give Australian consumers and families the security that they need about the food that they're eating. This biosecurity risk also puts Australian producers at risk. We've heard Tasmanian members speak about the fruit fly problem in Tasmania. I really feel for our Tasmanians. On mainland Australia we have had the problem associated with fruit fly for quite some time. I know from growers in Victoria around my electorate of Bendigo, particularly in Harcourt, how bad the fruit fly has been this year for their crops and the frustration they have.

Another area this government is failing in is to invest enough in research to get on top of these pests. In the last few months, Tasmania has gone from being completely free of fruit fly to having discovered it and then having exclusion zones. This government has said very little about this issue. It does not have an action plan to instantly react to stop the spread of fruit fly. I had the chance to meet with some of the growers in Tasmania. On the day that fruit fly was discovered and the exclusion zone was implemented, China instantly banned the importation of cherries coming from this particular area of Tasmania, so there was a drop in value of these cherries. The farmer went from having a buyer at $20 a box down to a buyer at $11 a box. That's the cost if we don't get biosecurity right. If the government had an action plan it could instantly enact to reassure China or other countries that we are on top of these biosecurity threats, then maybe that farmer wouldn't have lost that client and maybe they'd still be earning $20 a box instead of $11 a box. That's a massive drop for anybody to try and absorb. The government has been slow to respond to issues of biosecurity and it is not investing enough resources in it. It is not ensuring that agriculture in this country is meeting its full potential.

Farmers in our agricultural community are really proud of the clean and green image that we have with Australian food, but it can only continue if we have the strongest biosecurity measures to protect our growers. The government have failed to develop a way to market that strategy overseas. The government like to champion their free trade agreements and what they've done for agriculture, but where they have failed again to help agriculture reach its full potential is in doing anything about the non-tariff barriers to trade that exist. Not one person from the government has stood up in this place and talked about the 40 per cent non-tariff barrier to chickpeas that India has just announced. It's great to see our growers be innovative. Our farmers decided, in the Year of Pulses: 'Chickpea prices are rising. Let's change what we're growing.' More farmers invested in growing chickpeas—fantastic. They were growing an industry on their own, developing a market. India, seeing the competition, whacked a 40 per cent tariff on Australian chickpeas. What's the government doing about it? Why aren't they actively and aggressively protecting our farmers and standing up? There are also other non-tariff barriers.

In a hearing of the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation the last time parliament sat, the NFF said that the government is going too slowly in working to abolish and reduce non-tariff barriers. There are problems with China, Japan and lots of other countries that we currently have free trade agreements with, yet the government have dropped the ball. They think that getting a free trade agreement is enough. It is not. Not enough work is being done by this government to really help our exporters in agriculture benefit by reducing the non-tariff barriers that we have.

Labour is a massive issue for us in agriculture, and I'm not just talking about the debacle with the backpacker tax—and that was a debacle. I'm also talking about the government's failure to attract and retain Australians in the full-time jobs that exist in agriculture. Because they focus so much on seasonal workers, on the people required for harvest, they have forgotten to promote agriculture as a career opportunity and job opportunity to all the Australians who may be interested in working in agriculture.

There are serious labour shortages across the agricultural sector. Whether it be highly skilled veterinarians to help with breeding programs and livestock, whether it be the need for scientists to continue to improve everything from water moisture in the soil to the quality of the soil that we have, whether it be people to help do the marketing for businesses being agribusinesses or whether it be people working on a farm in the packing rooms or helping with the pruning, there are good jobs in agriculture. Some have estimated that, for every person who takes a job in agriculture, there are four other jobs waiting to be filled. This is why the farmers and the agricultural sector are saying, 'We need backpackers.' It is because they have been left with no other option. The government has failed to come up with a decent workforce strategy for agriculture.

Do you know how unproductive backpackers are? I will tell you. The government is saying, 'Let's bring more backpackers out to work in the seasonal workforce,' but in some areas they have a 40 per cent turnover in backpackers. How is that productive? They need 2,000 and just under 800 of those will disappear before the six weeks is out. How is that a productive workforce? They have people who they train to be constantly training up the new backpackers. One farmer said to me last week, 'I'd rather have someone other than a backpacker. I feel like I am a camp counsellor when I have backpackers on my farm. They're here for a holiday; they are not really here to work.' Surely we can do better than that. Surely we can do better than our farmers having to be camp counsellors for a group of backpackers. We must do better than that if agriculture is going to continue to achieve its potential.

There is a problem with this government's failure to (1) acknowledge climate change and (2) work with our farmers so that they can stay ahead of the impacts of climate change. We know through really progressive, active farm groups and farmers who come to see us who are involved in groups that are against climate change or working to mitigate against the effects of climate change that they are working out how to be more efficient with water, they are working out when to plant and they are working out when to harvest. They acknowledge that our climate is changing and they are trying to use all the science and all the technology at hand—and they are doing this with very little help from the government, who continue to have people on their back bench saying, 'We're climate change sceptics; we don't acknowledge it.' We can be in front of climate change. We can continue to grow and produce in this country. But it needs to be informed by the science and we need to work fast. We need to make sure that we have the research dollars going into the CSIRO and that they are connecting with our farmers.

Water will continue to be an issue, and I'm not just talking about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which is a plan that must have integrity if all of our states, all of our communities, all of our irrigators and all of the stakeholders can have confidence in it. I'm also talking about water in other areas of agriculture. We've done some amazing things in the Murray-Darling Basin in terms of water efficiency. Where's the government's program to help roll out that water efficiency to other agricultural areas? I note that the new Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources was in Werribee last Friday. According to the VFF, he kind of said, 'I've got to get out to a farm, but it has to be 45 minutes from Melbourne.' Luckily, in Werribee they are still growing lettuces, broccoli and cauliflower. So they went out to Lalor, which I guess we could say is the safest Labor agricultural seat that we have. It was the lucky seat to get a visit from the agriculture minister last week. He hasn't been to Gippsland or Bendigo or up to Shepparton, but he did make it out to Werribee. Water is an issue for those irrigators. They lose 40 per cent of their water because of ageing infrastructure. The state government has put money on the table, but there is no federal money to help improve that system. This is an opportunity that the government is ignoring.

The government is not doing enough to ensure that Australian agriculture is achieving its full potential. If it really is going to be the future area of growth for us, if it really is going to achieve the opportunity to give young Australians a career for life, we need a government that is serious about agriculture and doesn't just tinker around the edges, like this legislation does. Most Australians agree that we need to see some change in our country-of-origin labelling. After five-plus years of this government, we are still kind of tinkering. We haven't moved to tackle the real issues that our agriculture industry is facing.

A final issue that I wish to mention is telecommunications. This government has completely messed up the rollout of the NBN and telecommunications in the regions. On the Mobile Black Spot Program, which the government champions, the Audit Office revealed that in so many cases it did not actually improve coverage. Why would you spend money on a program that didn't improve mobile phone coverage? In the area of having access to the internet, farmers can go completely wireless so that the technology can inform them about when to move water around or so that they can monitor stock. It is a bit hard when you are squashed onto the Sky Muster satellite NBN program with users from the city, because this government hasn't rolled out enough fibre-to-the-premises technology or fixed-wireless technology.

This government is failing agriculture. They pretend to say that they represent the regions, they pretend to say that they represent the bush, yet all they do is tinker at the edges and turn up to the parties afterwards. We need genuine reform and genuine policy that is built in partnership with regional communities, whether it be around water, climate change, the non-trade tariff barriers, tackling the labour crisis that we have in the regions or working on biosecurity to rebuild our clean and green image. This government is failing on all of those fronts.