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Thursday, 16 February 2012
Page: 1724


Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:50): As we commemorate 2012 as the Australian Year of the Farmer, I want to take this opportunity to emphasise the Nationals' support for farming families and to highlight some key issues facing the agricultural sector. The organisers of the Year of the Farmer should be commended and I wish them well in their efforts to promote the vital role that Australian farmers play in feeding, clothing and providing building materials to house us all.

The Year of the Farmer will remind all Australians about the critical role our agricultural sector plays in the wealth and prosperity of our nation. It will also remind us of the unique cultural heritage of our pioneering forefathers. When you consider that Australian farms and the businesses which support them generate more than $400 billion each year or 27 per cent of our nation's GDP, you begin to appreciate the enormous contribution made by and the importance of our rural industries.

It is worth reminding those opposite about those numbers because this government has not been good for our farmers. Sometimes I wonder if it is deliberate or just plain ignorance. In any case, this government has failed to demonstrate a true appreciation for the importance of our farming communities. I do not want to dwell on all of the issues now, but its handling of the live export industry was a debacle, the treatment of mountain cattlemen in Victoria has been a disgrace and the failures in areas such as biosecurity and water security for the irrigation sector will undermine the future viability of many farm businesses. On top of all that we have the carbon tax. The government likes to claim that agriculture is exempt from the carbon tax but the reality is very different and the Australian farming community knows it.

The carbon tax will cascade through the economy like a toxic waterfall. It will add costs to all of the inputs into farm businesses and make Australian farmers less competitive on world markets. Take, for example, a dairy farmer in my electorate of Gippsland. The Australian Dairy Industry Council claims the combined impact of a carbon tax on electricity, fuel and input costs could result in an increase in average dairy farm costs of $5,000 to $7,000 per annum. It begs the obvious question: what impact will that have on the competitiveness of Australian dairy exports?

This government does not seem to care about regional Australia. I do not believe it understands regional Australia. Regional Australia does not have a voice at the highest level of this government. Not a single Labor cabinet minister lives in regional Australia. I believe that to understand regional Australia you have to live there. To really care about the future of regional Australian families you have to make the choice to live among us. You need to have a passion for the future of regional Australia.

Hopefully, the Year of the Farmer will stir some passion in those opposite and give them cause to reflect on the importance of all rural industries. There are many challenges facing farming families—intrusion by government policies is just one of them. One of the biggest issues in Gippsland is the ageing nature of the agricultural workforce and the fact that many young people are not choosing a future on the land.

I was interested to read a comment piece in today's Herald Sun by the editor of the Weekly Times, Ed Gannon. Ed comes from good rural stock. I remember playing footy against Ed when he was a young bloke growing up in Newry in my electorate. He makes the point that there is an overall decline in tertiary education in agriculture at the same time as there is a decline in young jackaroos and jillaroos gaining practical experience on the land. That is a major issue and he points to the image problem that farming has—long hours, low pay and the remoteness of rural life. These are things we need to turn around and governments have an important role to play in that regard.

The Nationals' plans for primary production and food security are all about giving agriculture the central place it deserves in our national identity. We want to protect fertile agricultural land and allow for expansion of food production where appropriate. We support the maintenance of targeted assistance for producers hit with major drought, flood and fire events because we understand that our farmers may be resilient but every now and then they need a helping hand to keep them in the business of providing for our future national food security.

The Nationals also support investment in infrastructure in regional areas to assist farming communities to get their products to market. We want to see additional resources for quarantine, customs and inspection services. But perhaps the biggest thing we can bring to the agricultural sector in the Australian Year of the Farmer is a healthy dose of respect. On this side of the House, we respect Australian farmers. We know they are world-class producers of the finest food and fibre products. We in the Nationals want to work with regional communities to help them prosper and we respect the role that farming families will play in fulfilling that aim.

I acknowledge that we have some huge challenges ahead of us. We need to make sure that young people growing up on farms can see a future for themselves on the land, that they invest in their own skills and recognise opportunities to earn a decent living. We need them to have the skills to meet the challenges of the modern generation of the agricultural sector, as it becomes more high-tech and as more productivity demands are placed upon them. This is so that they can still see for themselves the prospect of earning a decent living and of paying off the debt that goes with a farming business. Succession planning and providing for the next generation to take on the farm will only occur if young people can see a decent future for themselves. This year, the Australian Year of the Farmer, will provide a chance for a national discussion about the importance of farming, and it should be followed by real action to help farmers prosper in the future because our nation depends on them. (Time expired)