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Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Page: 2507


Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaNationals Whip in the Senate) (22:01): I rise to comment on a fabulous event held last weekend, the 98th Victorian National Party state conference, which was held at the Lakeside Centre at the Benalla showgrounds. These showgrounds I remember well, but I will not go into details, Acting Deputy President Stephens. Let's just say I used to ride horses and the Benalla agricultural show was a great place to take your pony out on a Saturday morning. It will be the last state conference before the Victorian election on 29 November. It opened with a function organised by the Young Nationals and youth remained a theme throughout. It is a period of renewal for the Nationals in Victoria and we have great crop of new, vibrant young candidates vying for a place in the Victorian parliament and in history, as four of our longstanding members retire at the next election.

Sonia Smith is our candidate for Buninyong. Buninyong actually replaces the current seat of Ballarat East. Sonia is a lawyer in Ballarat and runs a small farm with her husband at Navigators, and has said, 'We'll be moving mountains to make sure jobs are being created, bringing government, metro-based businesses, to our regions.'

Steph Ryan is our fabulous young candidate in Euroa. Euroa is a new electorate created due to the abolition of the districts of Seymour and Benalla, and encompasses most of the north-east area currently represented most ably by Bill Sykes. Steph is 27 and has extensive experience as a strategic policy adviser for the Nationals in government and says she 'will bring fresh ideas to parliament'. She has the energy and passion to deliver for the entire community. I have been out on the campaign trail with Steph and she is definitely kicking some goals in the local community.

Emma Kealy is our candidate for Lowan, where the longstanding member Hughie Delahunty is retiring. Emma is the CEO of Edenhope hospital and lives in Edenhope with her young family. Emma says she has a strong vision for the future about making sure that we focus on the three things we need from government: infrastructure, investment and innovation. I am sure Emma would have loved to have heard the Treasurer's speech tonight about the federal government's commitment to infrastructure, investment and innovation in a similar way.

Scott Turner is our candidate for Ripon. He is hoping to become the first Nationals MP to represent the western Victorian seat of Ripon, as the current ALP member retires. The seat itself has been redistributed to include a lot of the former seat of Swan Hill, held by our deputy leader Peter Walsh. Scott is a 44-year-old former Richmond Tigers defender and now human resources manager in Ararat. Scott says, 'In footy terms, I am in it to win it. I am enjoying it at the moment. Come campaign time, it is going to be crazy which will be like finals fever.' Spot the cliche?

Greg Barr is our candidate for Shepparton, where our retiring member, the former Minister for Local Government and Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jeanette Powell, has served the local community with distinction. He is a former policeman and lives in Katandra with his family. Greg says, 'I am committed to working with our agricultural sector, business, local government and community groups.' He has a strong standing within that local community.

One of the most important debates at our state conference was on a motion put to it by the Victorian Women's Executive relating to food imports. This follows the difficulties experienced by the fruit-processing industry in regional Victoria. Our fruit-processing industry is anchored around the Goulburn Valley and one iconic brand still operating there today, thanks to the state government, is SPC Ardmona, employing 870 workers with over 160 growers supplying the cannery. Obviously, the employer multiplier is much wider, being estimated at 2,700 jobs across the Goulburn Valley as a result simply of the economic activity of SPC Ardmona.

Like other manufacturers, it has been shaken by a series of factors over which it has no control, principally the rise of the Australian dollar, which appreciated 50 per cent between 2009 and 2013, leading to a flood of cheap processed fruit imports and the decimation of the company's exports. Rising energy costs, in part because of the carbon tax, made it even harder for the industry to survive. The fruit industry is vitally important for regional Victoria. According to the government fruit industry profile, 1,310 agricultural businesses in Victoria stated their primary activity was growing fruit or nuts. In 2010-11, the gross value of fruit production was $1.4 billion and that included 129,000 tonnes of apples and 109,000 tonnes of pears. Eighty per cent of our national pear crop is actually taken from the Goulburn Valley. In 2011-12, around $194 million worth of Victorian fresh or dried fruit was exported.

The national state conference motion on food imports called on the government to implement measures that require all fresh and processed food products imported into Australia to meet the same stringent environmental and health requirements as our own local product.

The stringent water management and land management practices that our farmers must adhere to are important. They are an important way to ensure that our natural resources continue to sustain us and our food-producing capacity into the future. Our farmers are the frontline of our natural resource management and do a fantastic job, knowing, I think, from a very personal perspective that how they treat the land will have generational impacts on their families and their farms' profitability.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan negotiated through state and federal governments over the last year has been a breakthrough in how to manage water. It means that Australia leads the world in how to manage water resources most effectively. The drip irrigation, for instance, used by fruit growers in the Goulburn Valley is second to none, minimising water loss through the timing of irrigation, the measurement of soil moisture and individual plant needs. This is a very sophisticated approach to using our most precious resource. Similarly, the types of chemicals that our landholders can use to grow their products are restricted, rightfully, to those dosages and types that ensure human health is protected and, indeed, the health of our soils.

The reality is that these practices add additional costs to producers and, consequently, processors and consumers right throughout our supply chain. A Productivity Commission inquiry into the types of regulations that agricultural value chains are subject to—and rightfully so, particularly when it comes to environmental regulation—actually received a variety of submissions around the imposts. The Virginia Horticulture Centre said:

First and foremost imported produce being traded within Australia should meet the same or more stringent regulations and standards as domestic produce.

Agricultural imports still do not undergo the same treatment as domestic food, and they called for a strengthening of import protocols to ensure that Australian food and safety standards applied equally to Australian and imported food.

Some of the types of regulations that food growers are subject to include the National Pollutant Inventory, water access regulations, livestock regulations and identification, export certificates, food safety regulations, quarantine regulations, livestock movement regulations et cetera. These are very important to ensure that we use our environment sustainably but they do add an additional cost, and I think that we actually need to start accounting for that.

Rather than fearing pursuing application of environmental standards as a consideration in global trade agreements, Australia could be leading the way in environmental best practice. This way, we will achieve a fair deal for domestic producers while still complying with our international obligations.

For its part, the Victorian Liberal and Nationals government responded promptly and effectively to the difficulties in the fruit-processing industry in regional Victoria, and has in fact ensured its future. The lion's share of the package agreed with SPC is coming from the parent company Coca-Cola Amatil, at $78 million. The state government investment of $22 million requires tough conditions for SPC-A in having to keep at least 500 workers for three years. It will also have to reimburse the taxpayers if it closes its doors. The government's contribution will be phased in over three years, and will be attached to infrastructure investments.

Deputy Premier and Nationals Leader Peter Ryan is the architect of this excellent package, but it could not have happened without a huge amount of work and goodwill from many stakeholders. SPC Ardmona's problems did not arise because of poor product: people do want to buy high-quality processed fruit made in the Goulburn Valley, as demonstrated by the very successful SPC Sunday Twitter following that has ensued.

The state conference not only supported our agricultural industries and regional Victoria more generally through those specific motions but the Deputy Premier actually announced the Victorian freight rail plan at the conference. The Victorian Liberal and Nationals government has not only chosen the smart way to support local food producers supplying the domestic market but it is also clearing the transport arteries which allow us to export. Two-thirds of our agricultural products are exported. The Nationals have always been focused on infrastructure's role in getting our fabulous product off the farm, out of the processor's doors and out into the world market. I think that our contribution from the infrastructure minister tonight, including the long-awaited Brisbane to Melbourne inland rail link, with $300 million—$48 million in the first year—and the second Sydney airport, will both contribute to the freight task.

That is why in his keynote address to the state conference the Leader of the Nationals in Victoria and Deputy Premier Peter Ryan announced a $220 million upgrade to standardise freight rail between Mildura and Geelong:

By converting the existing broad gauge tracks to standard gauge, the Murray Basin Rail Project will deliver modern rail infrastructure and transform Victoria's freight network to meet the increasing demand for freight services.

It was welcomed by Peter Toohey, the VFF president, who was also in attendance at the state conference.

Similarly, the Sunraysia Daily, the local daily up there in Mildura, said it was the news north-west Victoria has been waiting for for more than a decade. The newspaper went on to say:

Mr Ryan’s announcement presages a new era of fast, reliable rail freight in the state’s north-west, and a major boost to the region’s economy—where rail has gone, history shows economic development invariably follows.

The editor also wrote:

It is also a major achievement and timely development for the Member for Mildura, Peter Crisp, who has been lobbying State Government to repair and standardise the Melbourne-Mildura line since he was first elected in 2006.

The ability to deliver food from paddocks to ports quickly and efficiently is vital if we are to seize the food export opportunities arising from economic and demographic growth in Asia.

Thanks to the Nationals in government, the Prime Minister is well aware of those challenges. That is why Mr Abbott said in regional Australia earlier this year:

If our country is to prosper for decades and indeed in the centuries ahead, we are going to need a strong and dynamic agriculture sector. I think that farming is going to be a very, very significant part of our economic future.

At some point we may not be exporting as much iron ore but we want to be exporting plenty of foodstuffs to the growing middle class of Asia. We have got a tremendous opportunity but we have got to keep the farming sector strong to make that happen.

And, indeed, deliver the infrastructure that will allow us to get that product to the ports.

The previous government said Australia could become 'the food bowl of Asia'. This was strong rhetoric, but as so often happened with that government, it was all spin and no substance. You cannot become the food bowl of Asia with a carbon tax your international competitors do not pay. You cannot become the food bowl of Asia when you are hit with higher import tariffs than your competitors because you do not have competitive trade agreements. For six years Labor dithered and failed on free trade agreements with Korea and Japan.

The Abbott-Truss government, thanks to the work of Minister Robb, has achieved both in just six months. And a free trade agreement with China is around the corner. As ministers and prime ministers have said, these free trade agreements actually represent opportunity. They actually open the door and have to be signed only when they are in our national interest.

As the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering put to its Innovating for our Food Future: Mining Boom to Dining Boom food issues seminar in Sydney on 1 May:

It is not realistic to expect Australia to be the food bowl of Asia, but it can become the 'delicatessen of Asia', by producing high-value products that trade on our natural advantages and meet the needs of consumers, but at competitive prices.

At that forum, Mr Gary Dawson, Chief Executive, Australian Food and Grocery Council, said that over the past seven years Australia had lost almost half of its key import markets in Asia and its global competitiveness ranking had reduced. We had left the door open for our competitors. We have a unique geography that we are all very aware of but, by going to sleep at the wheel, others have been able to get the march of us, which is why the Japanese free trade agreement was such a fabulous outcome—particularly given the iron triangle that does exist within the Japanese agricultural sector.

Another problem with Labor's approach was that when it said 'Asia', it only really meant 'China'. China is an important customer for Australia and will continue to grow, but it is not the only one. China represents 18.3 per cent of Australia's agricultural export market: $6.7 billion in 2011-12. However, Japan remains extremely important, with 12 per cent or $4.4 billion in the same year. Having just come back from Japan where I talked to the locals and saw the response in the local newspapers, Japanese farmers actually make French farmers look quite soft. When we talk about the iron triangle within the Japanese agricultural sector, there is a very strong, real, persistent gerrymandered link between regional electorates, the parliamentary system and the bureaucracy that is unparalleled. So, for us to actually get our foot in that door, it is hats off to Minister Robb.

Japan is Australia's single biggest export market for both beef and dairy products, and Australia's second-largest trading partner overall. Japan imports 300,000 tonnes of Australian beef annually or 26 per cent of all beef exported. Australian beef was estimated to have occupied 32 per cent of the total beef market in Japan in 2013. And that is before the recent free trade agreement which has cut tariffs. It is the big-ticket item. Under the free trade agreement the 38.5 per cent Japanese tariff that currently applies on frozen beef will be halved to 19.5 per cent over 18 years, with deep cuts in the first year.

The agreement also significantly increases the amount of duty-free cheese that Australia can send to Japan, by 20,000 tonnes per year. The issues of food security and energy security were also raised with me by the foreign affairs department in Japan on my recent visit. They are concerned about issues on the seas, the Senkaku Islands and a little further south, and about ensuring there is freedom of navigation to ensure that their food and energy needs are met. Australia has a strong role to play in delivering both those commodities to one of our longest standing friends in the region. Australia's reputation for high-quality food production and Japan's demand for high-quality and safe foods, presents an opportunity for the food industries of both countries to work closely to meet the requirements and expectations of each other. Australia is a reliable producer of food that meets the quality and security demands of Japanese consumers.

I am passionate about education and I did take the opportunity to visit a couple of universities in Japan, but I want to touch briefly on trade issues. I had the opportunity to meet with Meat and Livestock Australia, who were very keen to discuss the importance of the free trade agreement with me and what it meant to our product there. I was actually able to see Gippsland beef on the shelves of a Japanese supermarket, which was fantastic. I would suggest that anybody who does not know what Genki is should get on YouTube and have a look because it is Meat and Livestock Australia's new promotional tactic into the Japanese market and it is quite fabulous—if not a little bit funny.

I was in Japan as a result of the Asialink Conversations, an initiative of the University of Melbourne. We were able to discuss a variety of regional security, education, energy and cultural issues with the ASEAN nations and Japan. Time does not permit me to go into the detail of those but the keynote speaker was Julie Bishop.

This journey took me from my state conference in Benalla, where we are passionate about the fabulous food produced in regional Victoria, about the issues faced by our producers, and what the Nationals are actually doing to get our product out of the farm gate, through our processors and out onto the world market so that our environmentally sustainably produced and safe agricultural product can be enjoyed by more and more people. But we need to reduce the cost of production for our farmers and we need to advocate for the high environmental standards that they are subject to to be a condition of producing food throughout the world. We are forging ahead as a government with FTAs with China. We need more cultural, education and business exchanges to make this work. (Time expired)