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Wednesday, 8 March 2000
Page: 14144

Mr ZAHRA (1:07 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and I support the remarks that have been made by the shadow minister for agriculture, the honourable member for Corio. At the outset, I say that there is opportunity in the dairy industry, but there is a tragedy in this legislation, and that is lost opportunity. We are talking about a package worth $1.74 billion. In Gippsland alone, the amount of money that is going to go from this package to dairy farmers is estimated to be about $224 million. Therefore, we are talking about an enormous amount of money and an enormous opportunity to do things with that money. I think we could have achieved so much more.

It seems to me that somehow we lose our collective memories in this place and in other parliaments. It seems to me that people forget about other industries that have been given large compensation packages or have been paid large amounts of money.

I can think of a recent example in my constituency. Only about nine or 10 years ago, the State Electricity Commission of Victoria paid out in the order of $600 million to retrenched SECV power industry workers. That is an enormous amount of money—a stack of money. Yet have a look at what the Latrobe Valley is today, even though so many individuals in that community were given fairly large packages by the state government at the time. The unemployment rate in the Latrobe Valley remains at around 17 per cent, and in Moe and Morwell the unemployment rate is in the order of 18.5 per cent or 19 per cent. This is in spite of the fact that so much of that money has gone into the Latrobe Valley community. All of that money went into individual compensation for those people who were losing their jobs in the power industry. Yet our community in the Latrobe Valley is no better off. In fact, it is far worse off for that money being paid as compensation to those people who lost their jobs.

It seems to me that we have wasted an opportunity to allow for some of that $1.74 billion which is going as compensation to the industry to be put into localised development funds. To me that would have been a good idea. When I speak to people in the industry and local dairy farmers, they say the same thing to me privately. Very clearly, the government has insisted on the money going directly to farmers, with none of it going to local development funds that will ensure the success of those rural communities which depend on the dairy industry for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, this has all been about more for supermarkets. Unfortunately, dairy deregulation will mean higher milk prices for consumers. It was interesting to hear the comments made by the honourable member for Page, and I regret the fact that he is not in the House to hear this. He spoke about the instigator of this whole package of legislation. He said that it had to do with Jewel supermarkets selling milk into New South Wales. Clearly, he laid the blame for this legislation at the feet of Jewel supermarket. I am not sure whether he is right.

Government members interjecting

Mr ZAHRA —I note that some honourable members opposite made the point that he probably was. In his remarks he mentioned that people to whom he had spoken from the Woolworths Supermarket Corporation had communicated to him the fact that they did not think they were making enough money. When do the likes of Woolworths Supermarket Corporation ever agree that they are making enough money? I do not think it happens very often. When I speak to executives from any corporation of that size, they always say, `We're just not making enough money. The only reason we're employing people is because we are all such good-hearted citizens and we see it as our responsibility to keep these people in a job to prop up communities.' Of course, that is a nonsense. Any honourable member who genuinely believes that the Woolworths Supermarket Corporation is not making enough money or thinks that we should have this legislation so that it can make more money has rocks in their head.

Unfortunately, as has been admitted by government members, this whole package of legislation has been left up to the industry to develop. Earlier we heard a comment by the honourable member for Page that everything which the industry has asked for it has got. That might be all well and good—I do not begrudge any farmer a cent, because everyone accepts that they work very hard—but honourable members should think about that comment: everything the industry has asked for it has got. It is as though everyone in this parliament should be thankful that everything that the industry has asked for it has got.

Perhaps I need to remind some honourable members opposite that their duty and responsibility are not to the industry and making sure that it gets absolutely everything it wants; they are to those people in the rural communities who depend on the dairy industry for their livelihoods. Who on the other side has been going in to bat for them? Who has been going in to bat for those rural communities that depend on the dairy industry and saying, `Why don't we make sure that some of this $1.74 billion goes to the communities, not into the pockets of the farmers?' Absolutely no-one! There is stunned silence from the other side. They may well see themselves as the champions of the dairy industry and the international corporations that stand to make heaps of money out of this type of legislation, but they are wrong. They should be the champions of those people who will struggle in their electorates as a result of some of the provisions in this legislation and, more accurately, the people who will struggle in their communities because this legislation does not specifically direct assistance to the rural communities that stand to be most directly affected.

The areas in my constituency that stand to be affected include Drouin, Neerim South, Yarragon, Trafalgar and Warragul—all of the places that depend heavily on the dairy industry. I do not think people understand just how profound an impact this package of legislation stands to have on these areas. I visit every retail small business in my constituency every six months or so. We have had bad seasons in West Gippsland, in particular, which have affected the farmers there for the past two or three years. Unprompted, whenever we ask small businesspeople in those towns how things are going, the response on 90 per cent of occasions is: `Not so good because of the drought.' There is a very clear cause and effect. When the dairy industry is struggling in those communities, everyone struggles. This is the point. When we are talking about legislation which stands to drive a considerable number of people out of the industry, we should be sensitive to the needs of the Warraguls, Drouins, Neerim Souths, Yarragons and Trafalgars. We should be making sure that the legislation and the package itself can provide some sort of assistance directly to those communities that are going to be affected most directly.

I think there is a lot of ignorance around this place as to how important the dairy industry is in areas such as West Gippsland. It seems clear that people have not considered, either, the likely impact in terms of the make-up of the industry that this package and deregulation are going to have. The people who are carrying the most debt in the dairy industry, at least in my electorate, are the younger dairy farmers who have invested heavily and are highly geared. These are the people who were encouraged by the industry years ago to get bigger, spend money and do all of those things which the industry was forecasting would be required for a successful business in the industry. However, it would be fair to say that things went a bit bad—and that is a bit of an understatement.

West Gippsland experienced two or three very bad seasons and people had to pay for things which they had no idea originally that they would have to pay for. Obviously, their debt levels increased during that period. These are the people who are most going to be attracted by the opportunity to leave the industry. These are the people who stand to be most easily enticed by this package and the opportunities it provides to get out. These people are in their 20s or 30s and, in many cases, they have gone to university. In short, these are the people who are going to provide a future for the industry. Indirectly, this package of legislation is most likely going to drive more of those people out than the older farmers who have been associated with the industry for a very long time.

It is regrettable to note that there are no specific provisions within the legislation for ensuring a high income, highly skilled future for people in the dairy industry. That is what I want to see in the dairy industry—a high wage, highly skilled future. It seems to me that all of the pronouncements from the government side about regional areas and rural communities have talked about, as the Treasurer himself has mentioned, the need to lower wages and break down job security. That is not the future which I see for regional areas. That is not the future which people living in those communities wish to see for the areas in which they live.

I would have thought that, with a package of this size—$1.7 billion—firstly, there would have been scope to have allocated a sum of money to localised development funds and, secondly, there would have been enough money for a fair dinkum industry retraining and development plan. I would not have thought this was too unreasonable given the amount of money that we are talking about. There still would have been plenty of money left to have compensated farmers for the loss that they would have felt as a result of deregulation.

It is not a huge, irresponsible ask which I am suggesting that the federal government should have made. All I am asking for is leadership, and this is the clear role of government. It is not to come into this House and trumpet how it has delivered 100 per cent of everything which the dairy industry—the companies—have asked for; it is to come into this House and say that it has done what is right as far as public policy goes for those people in those electorates who stand to be most profoundly affected by this type of legislation. I think that those people who think that they have the role of being the champion for the industry as opposed to those rural communities need to get out the full-length mirror and have a long, hard look at themselves.

I know that many other people have made comment with regards to the future of this industry in contributing to the debate. In the time remaining, I would like to offer my view of what I see as the future for the industry. In Gippsland we are blessed with one of the finest dairying regions not just in Australia but probably the world. In order to achieve our potential, we really need that leadership from government to enable us to fulfil those objectives which so many people locally have been striving to achieve for so many years. In my electorate I have quite a few outstanding employers: the Tarago River Cheese Factory in Neerim South, which until six months ago employed only 23 people but is now exporting into Asia and employs 45 people; a newly established company in a little district called Rokeby, which is the Piano Hill Farm Cheese Company; and National Foods, the yoghurt company in Morwell, which employs more than 200 people. We also have the Darnum park development in Bonlac, which is one of the most advanced manufacturing plants probably in Australia, if not the Southern Hemisphere; and, of course, we have the Drouin butter factory. So in my electorate we are blessed with having many important dairy industry employers.

My vision for the dairy industry is that we have more manufacturing, more of the new manufacturing which so many of us hold dear as being able to provide the opportunities for people living in rural areas to have a high skill, high wage future. That is the vision which I have for my district. That is the vision which I have for the dairy industry in my area. It seems a shame to me that, in all of the offerings, in all of the suggestions which have been made by government members in this debate, not one person has made a contribution in regard to what their vision for the industry is going to be, what their vision as far as manufacturing in the industry is going to be. Not one person from the government side has made any contribution along those lines. They have been pretty quick in coming in here and getting all hairy chested saying, `We have delivered 100 per cent of what the dairy industry and what the large corporations have asked of us.' Well, hip, hip, hooray for them, but it is cold comfort for those people living in those rural areas who want a future. They want jobs; they want the jobs in the new manufacturing industries which the dairy industry supports. It is my own belief that that is exactly the type of development which we need to ensure they get.

When we talk about these regional areas, it is important to talk about them not just as areas in which there are farmers, not just as areas in which there are dairy industry manufacturing plants but as genuine communities—communities in which there are secondary colleges and communities in which there are primary schools, kindergartens, local retailers and shops which have been built up to service this sector. We are not talking just about farmers. This seems to me to be the fundamental stumbling block which government members have in considering the impact of this legislation. They are all getting excited about how this package delivers X number of dollars into the pockets of farmers, but none of it is guaranteed to go back into the community. This is exactly the point. There are going to be people who will exit the industry, and that money is going to be gone in many cases from that community directly. They will just up and leave. That is why it is called the dairy exit program—they will up and leave and take the money with them. So no percentage of that money is going to be left in the community to be used as an incentive to get some of the new development into that area which is going to ensure jobs and opportunities into the future.

So often we hear just about the farmers in those communities. The farmers understand the important role which they play in the community, but they are not everything. They are not everything in places such as Neerim South. They are not everything in places such as Yarragon. They are not everything in places such as Warragul, Drouin and Trafalgar. They are very far from that and they understand the role which they have as one part of that broader community. We need to ensure that, when this restructure takes place, important institutions in those local areas, such as the Neerim District Secondary College, do not lose so many students that they have to close. We must make sure that institutions such as the Yarragon Primary School are not forced to close because they do not get enough students. We must ensure that institutions such as local kindergartens and child-care centres are not decimated because of young families leaving the area—and I have indicated already that I think it is mostly young people who will be exiting the industry. We need to ensure that when those people do leave, they do not have such a detrimental effect on those communities that those valuable institutions will be forced to close. I hope that that does not happen. But I should not be made to hope in this the federal parliament of Australia. Specific provisions should be contained within this package of legislation to ensure that measures are put in place to ensure that enough jobs are able to be sustained in those communities. That will ensure that none of those institutions are put at risk.

In Neerim South, for example, there is a magnificent institution called the Neerim District Soldiers Memorial Hospital, which is one of the last bush nursing hospitals in Victoria. Every year the community fundraises with a great deal of willingness on their part to ensure the survival of that institution. If the dairy industry package means that they have half as many farmers and no specific provisions are put in place to ensure that new industries are attracted to that area which will keep the money in the town, then what is going to happen every time they fundraise? They are probably going to get one-third or one-half less out of the community. There is only so much blood you can get from a stone. There is only so much you can squeeze from these people. This is going to be one of the likely impacts of this package of legislation, because no specific provisions have been put in place to ensure that there will be enough of the new manufacturing jobs in industry in those towns which will ensure that there is enough income in the town to ensure that that level of support for local institutions is maintained.

I conclude my remarks by saying that there is opportunity in this legislation, but it is heavy with tragedy, heavy with lost opportunities. If only we had some leadership in this nation. If only we had the leadership which would ensure that Yarragon, Trafalgar, Neerim South, Drouin and Warragul were definitely going to have a future in the new dairy industry which we will see in years to come. (Time expired)