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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 178

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (11:49): I rise to speak on the International Fund for Agricultural Development Amendment Bill 2012. The bill is intended to allow Australia to accede to agreement establishing the International Fund for Agricultural Development under Australian law. The International Fund for Agricultural Development is a specialised agency of the UN. It was established in 1977 to finance agricultural development projects in developing countries. We were a founding member of IFAD; however, in 2004 the Howard government announced its intention to withdraw from the fund, citing its limited relevance to the Australian aid program's priority countries, quite obviously those in South-East Asia and the Pacific. There was a lack of comparative advantage and focus, because it was evident that other organisations were more strongly involved in rural development in our part of the world, and there were shortcomings in management response to concerns that the Australian government raised with IFAD senior management.

The issue of relevance to our region is enormous. There are countries that we need to work with us in development—our biggest and nearest neighbour and others. IFAD was shown then, and I believe it is still the case, to be not adequately equipped—certainly not at this point of time. An assessment by the current government in November 2009 confirmed that the Howard government had valid reasons for Australia to withdraw from the UN organisation. While the review was supportive of Australia's re-engagement with the fund, it noted that challenges remained in HR and financial management. It also stated that, if Australia were to re-join IFAD as a contributing member, the Australian Government must:

…ensure it provides the financial and human resources required to support the level of engagement it seeks

This bill was sent to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade for further consideration, and it was clear that the issues raised by the former Howard government had not been fully addressed. As a result, the coalition, in a dissenting report, recommended:

…the Bill be delayed until the concerns of the Howard Government are fully addressed and the impact of the reform program commenced by the organisation's new management is known and properly assessed.

This issue goes to the heart of this government's attitude to spending. They say they are economic conservatives but the reality is that they seem prepared to take a chance on taxpayer money, when we do not believe we should. Labor's lack of due diligence on this is reminiscent of other programs, such as the oft mentioned pink batts and school halls debacles.

As the shadow agriculture minister I am very disappointed that my portfolio has been plundered while there has been so much wasteful spending. I am certainly disappointed that, despite the tearing down of the agriculture budget, the Gillard government, whose budget is bleeding one billion dollars every month or two, at least, in interest alone, has a net debt of over $150 billion. That is a $220 billion turnaround from the $70 billion that was left in the bank by our previous government.

In agriculture, since 2007, the budget has been reduced by $2 billion to a miserable $1.7 billion, although it is a very important sector of the Australian economy. If we drill down further we see that of that $1.7 billion, over $700 million is funded directly by industry—it is not government or taxpayer money; it is industry money from levies or cost recovery and around $250 million matching R&D contributions by the taxpayer under legislation. It is a fact that of that $1.7 billion only $134 million in the current budget is actually for programs to support agriculture. That is only $134 million for a vital industry—the agriculture industry—which was, for many years, the only large industry we had. There was $134 million to support agriculture and $126 million for others to decide about—not us by passing this bill—spending, and probably not in a relevant situation for Australia. Only $134 million is currently being spent to set Australian agriculture up for the future and provide a robust future to underpin not just our food security but our markets.

Let me say that I have been in agriculture for my whole life—and that is a while now—and I have never heard farmers talk about it being tougher to make a quid. I am not talking about them whinging about drought or anything like that. Good farmers I have known my whole life talk today about just how tough it is to make a quid, as do those in the retail industry, tourism, small businesses and large businesses right around our country.

Since coming to government Labor has cut $33 million from the agriculture department's already strained operating resources. It has taken about the same amount from the co-operative research centres—the CRCs—so that fewer CRCs are funded each year. As most CRCs are agriculturally based there will be less funding for agriculture there. Labor also cut $63 million from agricultural research in CSIRO within its first six or seven months of government and closed agricultural research sites in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.

They scrapped Land and Water Australia, which was also an R&D organisation. They also most definitely planned to cut R&D funding by 50 per cent and had a productivity report to support that. However, industry woke up to what they were going to do. We woke up to what they were going to do, and I am happy to say that we were, in the end, able to shame them out of that.

However, billions of dollars has been brought forward to fund more water buybacks, guaranteeing many communities along the Murray-Darling system will go from a climatic drought straight into a Labor drought. Very little money has been spend on water infrastructure, either in the system or on farm. The suspension of live exports to even those Indonesian abattoirs practising good animal welfare standards has certainly put at risk, as we have seen in the last 12 months, a $1 billion industry and set back animal welfare. Labor have weakened industry confidence and threatened jobs. They have also sent a very clear signal to our trading partners around the globe that, under this government, sovereign risk has become an issue.

Furthermore, while Australian industries are struggling with the high Australian dollar—it has certainly caught up with us in recent times—this government continues to make it more difficult with the carbon tax, with more cost-shifting to industry and increasing costs from excessive and growing regulation. I draw this comparison. Labor are looking to hand $126 million to an organisation which has shown bad reporting, bad HR and a poor ability to convince us why they are doing it, and which is not in our own region, yet Labor have cut the 40 per cent rebate for export certification.

The government has further underresourced biosecurity, with Myrtle rust endemic and the Asian bee not eradicable. And there have been a raft of other issues to do with our quarantine and our biosecurity which have become very apparent over the past four or five years. And the government is now moving to remove mandated levels of inspections—not for efficiency but so that they can shift the cost from the government onto industry. We have already seen 97 staff moved from airport biosecurity, which is funded by government, to cargo quarantine, which is funded by industry. What a backhanded way of putting the cost, which government has traditionally financed, onto industry, without saying a word about it.

We now have the new legislation for the chemical regulator before us, which ignores stakeholder concerns that increased regulation will increase the cost of chemical registration by one-third, or around $8 million, and will add another layer of bureaucracy and red tape. This is despite the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, listing agvet chemical reform in the 2012 update of the Australian government deregulation agenda as a key to reducing regulatory compliance costs for businesses and to improve their competitiveness, when in fact we know that this is a sop for the Greens who want to mandate—and make it harder to register, to re-register or to continue—the use of chemicals which are not harmful.

The reform process was supposed to address two key areas, but by adding a seven- to 15-year automatic review it is increasing the cost to industry and increasing the difficulty of producing what Australia needs—the best and the most food in the world. It means agvet chemical companies cannot recover the costs of extensive registration and re-registration processes, and many cheaper, safer chemicals will simply be unavailable to Australian farmers, not because they are unsafe but because Labor has made them too expensive.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has a mere $134 million in funding for programs to support the development of one of the nation's greatest industries, agriculture, yet the government proposes tossing $126 million, nearly as much as the entire Australian agriculture budget, towards a fund from which the country withdrew just a few years ago because of very significant problems, and our research clearly shows that these issues have not been addressed.

How much does the government spend on foreign aid? I believe it is $4.8 billion; I am not absolutely clear whether the $126 million is part of the budget or extra. We do not seem to be being told that—it would be nice to hear it. If it is part of the current aid budget, it would clearly mean the government has made a commitment to increase the aid budget by so much that it does not know what to do with all the money, even though it concedes there are serious issues with this program. If it is extra money and Labor cannot fund the NDIS and all the other big-tickets items it has mortgaged our grandchildren to pay for in the future, then why?

We need to be able to control where our money goes. We need to know that it is being spent in our region. As I said earlier, there are countries large and small in our part of the world which we should be targeting with agricultural aid, countries with which we have real reasons to repair or improve relations. I do not support the International Fund for Agricultural Development Amendment Bill 2012 for the very good reason that I do not believe it is in this nation's interests. I ask the parliament to reject it.