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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4634

Dr STONE (Murray) (10:35): I too wish to speak on the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. The coalition is happy to see that this government is finally addressing some of the complexities and unnecessary red tape and regulation that make agriculture, fisheries and forestry in Australia even more difficult than they need to be. Many of the complexities have only been put into place in the last few years. This government needs to address them, but some of the complexities go back many years indeed.

It is not just the complexity and the pure quantum of regulation that need to be changed; there is also the issue of the costs that are often part of fees or different charges that are made. I use for example the recent removal of the 40 per cent rebate on AQIS inspections that we put in place when we were in government. We now have some exporters with increases in costs to export with these inspections of over 1,000 per cent. When you add the costs of the carbon tax to those AQIS inspection costs, you can see that we are really heading down the non-competitive-market slippery slope. That is just too hard when you think of the enormous global food task growing, especially in our region just to the north of us.

So the coalition are happy that we are seeing a bill containing minor amendments to at least eight portfolio acts, but we need to go much further. I will begin by talking about one of these areas, the vintage labelling. Of course, this is of great concern and interest in my electorate, where we have a number of wine producers. A vintage year at present is from 1 July to 30 June the following year, but some producers make wines from grapes harvested after 30 June. In fact, they develop their characteristic the longer they are sitting on the vines, so producers wish to produce some wine with harvests after 30 June. Common sense is now going to allow a vintage year to be considered to be the period from 1 September to 31 August. This is sensible, and I know the wine industry will welcome this.

We also have other areas of labelling which are equally difficult for different agricultural sectors. I refer to the pork meat sector. If only we could remove what is currently allowed, which is that, when a piece of pig meat comes in from another country—say from Denmark—and it is cured in Australia, that product is then allowed to be labelled as 'product of Australia'. That is just not appropriate. It is confusing and deeply distressing for those who wish to buy an Australian product to find that they have been hoodwinked by the label simply because the product was cured in Australia. It had no origin at all in Australia's lean, clean farm practice. The pig meat was produced in another country in another hemisphere.

There are a whole range of labelling issues. We know a lot about them because they are constantly before the public. Our labelling laws need a major pull-through, a major re-examination. It is adding to the supermarkets' capacity to increase their home brand, because the labelling laws allow them to get away—whether it is canned or plastic-packaged product—with not making it absolutely clear that there is very little Australian product in their generic or home brand. I want to also refer to the part of this bill which refers to the repealing of States Grants (War Service Land Settlement) Act 1952. A great deal of the farm development in the middle of last century in the electorate of Murray came as a result of soldier settlement—the Second World War soldier settlement activity. There was not so much First World War soldier settlement, which was more developed in the Mallee or west of Northern Victoria. Soldier settlers in particular pioneered the closer settled dairy industry in my area. They often had enormous burdens to carry with their injuries and life-changing experiences of the Second World War, including as prisoners of war, yet they literally soldiered on as farmers—some without much experience before, others already the sons of local farming families. These soldier settlers were given very generous treatment by the governments of the day, including very low-interest loans, including housing and shedding that was built for them, roadways, and the farms themselves were subdivided in order to be viable with the irrigated agriculture that was accessible and developed at that time.

Of course, 1952 is a long time ago. We understand that we do not have a soldier settler need in the way we did in those days, but it is a very important illustration of how low-interest loans can and should be applied to certain developing industries like agriculture. We have still in Australia some attempts to offer special concessional low-interest loans for young farmers or into agribusiness—I refer particularly to the recent flood related loans that in Victoria Rural Finance has been offering, which were in turn largely funded by the federal government.

It is almost impossible for a farmer to access those Rural Finance loans. The interest rates are not much better in some cases than commercial loans, but some of these flood related concessional loans are at two or three per cent interest, so that would be of enormous value to farms wiped out by flood: where all their fencing has gone, where they have lost a lot of their livestock, where gravel tracks have to be replaced, where their fodder has been washed away. They have also in my area come out of seven years of drought preceding the floods, so the equity on their properties was substantially eroded during those drought years. You can imagine their distress when they go to try and access these concessional loans made possible through the federal government's funding and they are told: 'Sorry, the equity in your property has dropped in recent years. It has dropped to quite low levels. Sure, you have a long history before the drought of very viable farming. We can see you are expert. We can see that you are only in your midlife as a career farmer—you are in your forties or early fifties; that is young for a farmer.' But they are rejected.

In the floods that occurred 18 months ago in the west of my electorate, only a handful of these concessional loans were approved through Rural Finance when two and three times that number actually applied. With this more recent flood that has occurred, I am told that virtually no-one has been approved for these concessional loans.

We did it right in the soldier settler days: we had potential farmers, often not experienced farmers, who had been broken by war. We were prepared to take them on and give them low concessional interest loans. We built their infrastructure for them, and they were magnificent in building the dairy industry of Northern Victoria—the biggest exporter of product out of the ports is still out of Geelong, major employers through the dairy manufacturing sector. We did it then and we have to remember the lessons of the past and not make it unrealistic and too hard for these often, through no fault of their own, battling farm sectors, who have seasonal conditions they cannot always predict wiping them out.

I want to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution that the soldier settlers made throughout Australia, but particularly in northern Victoria, and it is rather historic repealing this particular act as we are going to do in this bill. It is important to note the contribution that these people made and the foresight of that legislation at the time and the generosity of its conditions which allowed this industry to become a major Australian economic contributor and jobs provider.

In this bill we have reference to cutting red tape to try to make it easier for agribusiness to survive. That then makes it a little bit ironic that in the budget announced this week, some 48 or so hours ago, this same agriculture sector that is being targeted through these eight portfolio acts has seen the hypocrisy of $941 million of infrastructure funding for improved water use efficiency in the Murray-Darling Basin being deferred and $40 million for water buy-backs off drought-debt-stressed farmers being brought forward to be spent before the end of this financial year. Those same descendants of soldier-settlers in my area who have continued to dairy—often they are now up to their second or third generation in those families—are often now pressured by the banks to sell their water. But when you do that your capacity to recover from drought and then flood is substantially reduced. Yet this government has brought forward another $40 million to pay for a water buy-back tranche, one that it announced on the day that the actual submissions as to the Murray-Darling Basin proposal closed. I find that very concerning and it is deeply distressing to the agribusiness sector in my electorate that is trying very hard to recover from extraordinary seasonal circumstances. They would recover if only the foot were to be taken off their throats in terms of financial pressures and the demand that they sell their water to the environmental water holder, who has not as yet convinced me and many others that that extra water will indeed do the job that we want it to do in improving the Murray-Darling Basin's environmental sustainability.

We also have $34.4 million in reduced department and agency funding for direct agricultural support. We have circumstances throughout Australia needing funding—for example, tasks associated with weeds and feral animal control and agricultural research and development. All of those very important tasks are now being defunded or having funding deferred. This is a serious problem when we know that, in addition to mining where we have a competitive advantage throughout the world—or we should have and certainly we do before 1 July, when the carbon tax comes in—we have a competitive advantage with agriculture and food and fibre production, yet we are killing that competitive advantage by not understanding that government needs to be a partner in this business and certainly put some hope and faith back into the agribusiness sector.

At the moment we are seeing young farmers walk away, saying it is all too hard. We are seeing the agricultural education sector with the numbers of its new graduates or even those entering courses in agricultural science or natural resource management at their lowest ebb ever, with courses closing right around the country. This piece of legislation is an important step forward but we need to not step forward quietly. We need to run ahead. We need to address seriously the problems that are at the moment facing agribusiness so it can take advantage of the opportunities that are there for us. The government should really stop trying to kill off the goose that laid the golden egg for us not just in centuries past when we depended on living off the sheep's back but now, when we can do much better with our food production. I commend this bill but I want to see it go much further, and when we are in government we will make substantial new changes.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Windsor ): The question is that the bill be now read a second time. I call the parliamentary secretary.