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Thursday, 6 March 2003
Page: 12461

Mr ZAHRA (10:31 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Dairy Industry Service Reform Bill 2003 and the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment (Dairy) Bill 2003. The dairy industry is no small thing when we talk about Australia's export performance, the number of people who are employed in the sector and the industry's importance to certain regional and rural communities which depend very heavily upon the industry for people's livelihoods. As you would be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker Corcoran, the electorate of McMillan is Victoria's premier dairy region. We have had a proud association with the industry, which has been to the benefit of the dairy industry, the dairy sector and the people in the electorate of McMillan.

With this debate, we always tend to drift away from talking about the people who make it all possible and end up talking about the big dairy corporations and cooperatives in discussions about the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars that might go through national dairy authorities. But all of that is impossible without the people who are doing the work—the farmers, the people who work in the milk processing facilities and the people who make all of it happen. They are the ones who drive the industry forward.

In my electorate, we have seen a number of very important dairy developments over the last five or six years. In particular, we have seen the development of the Darnum Park facility—the Bonlac milk processing plant in West Gippsland—at a cost of, I think, between $200 million and $300 million. It was an incredible achievement by all of the construction workers involved in building it on time and under budget. The work force that they have over there are incredibly dedicated to the work they do on behalf of the Bonlac Cooperative.

We have also seen further east in my electorate the development of the National Foods yoghurt manufacturing facility at Morwell. Once again, it was a great achievement by the construction workers to build it also under budget and within time frames. We have seen that facility go from strength to strength over the last few years. I was very heartened to see that around about 18 months ago they reduced the number of casual staff that they had there and employed 30 more people on a full-time basis. This is exactly the type of thing that we want to see. We want to see these full-time, high-wage jobs in country districts.

We have proved in the McMillan electorate that, when big dairy employers want to do business with us, we will support them, make them profitable, deliver good employer-employee relations and cooperate in helping them achieve their objectives. In return, we expect to be treated decently, to have people employed on decent wages and, of course, to have as many full-time positions as possible rather than a heavily casualised work force. The relationship works well between the companies and the work force in the electorate of McMillan. There have been some great success stories, which are really great examples for the rest of the industry about how to go about doing these things.

I heard the member for Paterson talking a little bit earlier about how farmers are finding things right now in the dairy sector. I myself, the member for Blaxland, the member for Braddon and other members of the Labor Party in the House of Representatives talked a lot at the time of dairy industry deregulation about the likely impact on communities and farmers and about the likely consequences. We were not so much concerned for the states that we are from—Victoria and Tasmania in my case and that of the member for Braddon, which have had a very different dairy industry for many years and were better able to cope with the changes brought upon us by dairy deregulation—we were more concerned about how farmers in New South Wales and Queensland would be affected. They had had a very different industry for many years and had come to know the existing arrangements, and we knew the transition would be a difficult one.

It was not easy to get the government's attention in relation to the likely impact of dairy deregulation on these communities. But we did, and we did it with the help of the dairy industry itself. I remember having many discussions—and I am sure the member for Braddon and the member for Blaxland recall this—with people who were in senior positions within the dairy cooperatives in particular and other dairy corporations in which we appealed to them to join us to try to make sure that communities and dairy farmers were not left behind in dairy deregulation. Out of all of that came the range of compensation measures that were put in place to try to offset some of the likely impacts of dairy deregulation. We welcomed that at the time from the government and, of course, supported it as it went through the parliament.

One part of that was the Dairy Regional Adjustment Program, which my colleague and friend the member for Braddon made some reference to in his remarks today. We have seen some good projects funded and we have seen some appalling projects funded out of that program. The worst one I saw was a wine appreciation room which was funded at an Anglican grammar school in Queensland out of the Dairy Regional Adjustment Program—appalling, disgraceful, a shocking pork barrel and an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money, especially taxpayers' money that was supposed to go towards helping dairy farmers and the communities that depend on the dairy industry to cope with this massive change.

At the other end of the scale we have seen some positive things come out of the Dairy Regional Adjustment Program. Some of those things I have been able to negotiate for my electorate directly with the minister—and I place on record my appreciation for the direct discussions I have been able to have with Warren Truss, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, in relation to those issues. I have been able to talk to him directly about getting funding for Flavourite tomatoesin West Gippsland which has seen them expand their operation in a dairy dependent community, employ more people and expand their business—a great outcome for West Gippsland. I have been able to talk to Warren directly about getting funding for the Tarago River Cheese Companywhich has seen them expand their business and employ more people. I have been able to speak to him directly about getting support for Jindivick cheesewhich has seen them expand their business and employ more people.

These are good outcomes, and these are the types of discussions which people in our communities expect us to be able to have with ministers irrespective of what political party they or we might happen to be in. So I place on record my congratulations to the minister on the open way in which he has been involved in discussions with me in relation to those projects. We do not agree all the time—and it will not surprise anyone in this chamber to hear me say that—but on these matters he has been a decent man to deal with and I would like to think that, between the two of us, we have been able to do something good for the community I represent. The dairy industry is much bigger than party politics. I think it is the industry in Australia with the most potential to drive our export performance. In Victoria the state government has a target to substantially increase exports of dairy products over the next 10 years. We will not do that without new investment. We will not do it without a focus on bringing in that new investment, much of which we know is out there looking for a place to base itself. We will not do it without a government that is prepared to be interventionist and work with the big dairy cooperatives and companies to make it happen.

We in my electorate say to the Murray Goulburns, Bonlac Foods and National Foods of the world, and to other big dairy corporations, that we are open for business. We are very interested in working with those big companies and other companies to try to get new dairy investment in our region. We have in South and West Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley dairy farmers who are among the most efficient in the world. We have people who have demonstrated that they are creative and hardworking, and that they can close a deal and make it happen. We have local governments that are engaged in supporting business, and we have a state government in Victoria that is very interested in the dairy industry and very keen to see these types of developments take place in the short to medium term.

I know that the state government particularly wants to see this new dairy manufacturing based in Gippsland. I say to these people that, if they have a proposal, we will make it happen. We will make it happen in the interests of our community—the dairy farmers in our district and the people who will be employed in it—and also because it is in the interests of the state of Victoria and in the interests of Australia. So the dairy industry has a lot of potential. It is an incredible industry that is thriving and growing. There is a lot of new development and there are a lot of exciting things happening in it, but it still has so much more potential.

I want to spend a bit of time talking about the other part of the dairy industry, which we do not tend to see too much of in country districts: the research and development and the science and technology. Too often, that takes place in settings removed from farms and milk processing operations. That is for historical reasons. A lot of this development is linked to big cities and research laboratories, and all sorts of other historical reasons have meant that it is not based where we would like it to be based: in country regions.

I would like to see some interest from the federal government in this. I would like to see them work with the dairy industry and try to get some of this research and development and technology and science based in country districts so that people can get the benefit of having those jobs—those high-tech, high-wage jobs—in our communities. I would like to see people spending money in our towns, investing in our local communities, sending their kids to our local schools, and us getting the benefit of their economic and cultural activities in our communities.

It is of benefit to them, too. It is not just a one-way street. It is not about us saying, `We want them to come here so we can get all this stuff from them.' They also get the benefit of being at the coalface. They get the benefit of being right next to the farm and right next to the milk processing facility. I would like to see the federal government engage in debate and discussion with the dairy industry to see what can be done to get some of that science and technology and research and development associated with the dairy industry relocated—or developed, if it is new development—to country districts, next to those communities that depend on the dairy industry for their livelihoods.

I turn to the Dairy Industry Service Reform Bill 2003 and the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment (Dairy) Bill 2003 more particularly. Labor is broadly supportive of these steps, as they are initiated by the dairy industry itself. We want to see a bit more accountability from the government in relation to what has been proposed here. We want to see a little bit more detail. We think it is reasonable to expect accountability in the types of arrangements we are talking about. We think it is reasonable to expect some details in relation to the constitution of the organisation that is likely to manage the affairs of the dairy industry. We think it is reasonable to expect that the minister should have done a little bit of work in relation to the nature of the contractual relationship between the Commonwealth and the authority that is likely to manage these operations.

So we say to the government, in general terms: let us work together, let us try to get the best outcome for the dairy industry—let us try to do a good thing for the people in South and West Gippsland and those other parts of Australia that depend on the dairy industry for their livelihoods. But be up-front with us. Give us the detail we are asking for. We are only asking for it because we are interested in making sure that we have the best possible framework and the best possible arrangements for the dairy industry in Australia.

A lot of Labor Party members represent areas with a lot of dairy farmers and a lot of people who are employed in the dairy industry. In the chamber today is my friend and colleague Sid Sidebottom, the member for Braddon, who represents a very strong dairying district in Tasmania. Dick Adams, the member for Lyons, represents a lot of dairy farmers in his electorate. Michelle O'Byrne also represents a lot of dairy farmers in her constituency. We have a number of other members who are passionately interested in the future of the dairy industry. We are interested in working with a group of people who in the dairy industry define themselves as people who bend their back and work hard; people who are prepared to engage in commonsense rather than ideological discussions; people who are prepared to get an outcome for the communities in which they live.

So we are interested too, and we do not want to see an approach from the government that is all about taking a partisan view and not about working with us and accepting the goodwill that we extend to the government and have extended in the past to the government in terms of the dairy industry. As I mentioned before, individual members on this side of the parliament have been able to work directly with the minister to get good outcomes for the dairy industry in our local constituencies, and we applaud that. We want to see good things delivered for the dairy industry. We want to see some cooperation between the government and us, and of course between the government, the dairy industry and the people involved in the dairy industry.

It is my passionate belief that there is much more to come in the dairy industry for Australia. This is one of those few industries genuinely orientated towards global opportunities. It is an export-orientated industry, and a large proportion of the jobs in the dairy industry is linked to Australia's export performance. As we know, any industry that is not faced towards the world is an industry that invariably will be in decline. In the dairy industry we have been fortunate to have had a number of visionary leaders—a number of people who have been prepared to see the potential for the dairy industry and to strive to achieve it. Those people have orientated some of the big businesses involved in dairy towards world markets. In the opposition we applaud them. We applaud their guts, determination and hard work in making that happen. We know that this is the future for the dairy industry and, because it is the future for the dairy industry, it is the future of places such as West Gippsland, South Gippsland, the electorate of Braddon and other areas that have a large slab of the dairy industry in them.

The government must not sit idly by and allow opportunities, in particular for new manufacturing, in the dairy industry to slip through Australia's fingers. Because it is a global industry in a global marketplace, we do not want to see investment decisions taken by increasingly global dairy corporations result in Australia's chances of cementing itself as a global leader in the dairy industry slip through our fingers. We want to see companies make decisions to build new factories and new milk processing facilities and to establish new research and development laboratories in Australia. We particularly want to see those new facilities in country districts—places such as West Gippsland and South Gippsland. We want to see those developments in our communities.

The only way that is ever going to happen is if we have a federal government that is actively involved and actively engaged with these companies to try to make sure that that development stays in Australia—and, in particular, that it goes to country districts. We in the opposition will work with the government to try to make that happen and we will work with our colleagues and friends in state and territory governments to try to support those types of initiatives. For too long there has been a hands-off approach taken by the federal government in relation to closing these investment deals. We want to see the federal government actively involved. We think the federal government can play a bigger role in making sure that some of this new manufacturing investment—in particular, in the dairy industry—stays in Australia and goes to regional communities where the dairy industry is strong.

We do not want to be just the place that supplies the milk. We do not want to just have our efficient farmers. We want to have our efficient farmers, our efficient workers in these milk processing facilities and our efficient scientists, research technicians, technical officers and people based at universities as well. We want to have all of those people in our communities, because that is what the dairy industry is. We contribute enormously to it, and we want to get the maximum benefit from our association with the dairy industry. We are happy enough to support this legislation. We have made some reasonable requests of the government. I hope that, in the spirit of goodwill and bipartisanship, they will accept our requests.