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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 278

Senator O'SULLIVAN (Queensland) (13:15): I rise to provide an update in relation to matters in our very important beef industry. I know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, that you will have a keen interest in my short report, as much of it relates to an inquiry under your chair. I am sure you will be interested in a comprehensive update. Prior to the end of last year, arrangements were made for a group, at my invitation, to travel through Western Queensland to have public meetings with producers and stakeholders in the beef production industry. The group included a senior director of the Cattle Council; the director of Meat and Livestock Australia, Mr Richard Norton; the chair of the Australian Meat Industry Council, Mr Lachie Hart; and the chair of the Australian Meat Processor Corporation, Mr Peter Noble. The meetings related principally to one of the core objectives of the Senate inquiry being undertaken: the independent assessment of meat carcasses.

Agricultural production in this country will be worth over $60 billion this year, with $12.5 billion, or about 20 per cent, coming from the beef sector. It is fair to say that there are existing and emerging technologies that have not been embraced, and I think everyone concedes that they would make for a much more competitive and fairer environment in the relationship between pastoralists and producers and, of course, our processing sector. These two sectors have a very symbiotic relationship, and it will only be when they are as one in what they need to do with their industry that they will prove to be a success. It is one thing for us to have a Senate inquiry but, as you have heard me say, Mr Acting Deputy President—and I mean no adverse reflection on you, as chair, or on me, as your deputy chair—it would not be wise for the industry to leave resolutions to their problems up to a burnt-out old truck driver and a retired detective. The industry needs to repair these issues and to manage their own affairs without government being involved. Nobody wants more regulation or legislation in any sector, particularly in agriculture and particularly in the beef industry. They need to be urged to fix these things themselves.

You are aware, Mr Acting Deputy President, that there are issues with the Cattle Council at the moment. I do not want to reflect adversely on the Cattle Council, but it is true to make the statement that they are not, in my view, sufficiently reflective of the 40- or 50-odd thousand cattle producers in this country, and they need to be. There are things that government needs to do to support them in the transition to being a strong peak industry body. They are well and truly down the path of doing that, but it is going much slower than it should. We are now at about the eighth month. A transition body is in place, trying to agree on the finite details of how they will be funded, operated, measured and audited, but my message to them—I have said this privately and I will do so publicly—is: get on with it, get it sorted and get out there so that you can provide a very strong and cohesive voice for all the pastoralists and beef producers around the country.

Additionally, we have problems with AMIC. Two of our biggest processors are no longer active members of the peak industry body, so, again, that peak industry body cannot speak with the authority of the whole packer sector, as it is known, or the processing sector. My message to AMIC—again, I have said this privately and I say so now publicly—is to get on with the job; get yourselves back into a position where the peak body speaks with one voice on behalf of this very important part of the industry. These problems impact on the Australian Meat Processor Corporation because they, in effect, are the research and development and marketing arm of the sector and if they do not have a cohesive peak body then, of course, decisions that they make will sometimes only reflect the views and attitudes of some of the members of the industry and not all of them.

While all this is happening, we have what is known as DEXA technology. It is not a new technology—it has been around for decades—but currently, in its enhanced form, it is almost ready to roll out across the beef processing industry in this country. For the first time, testing will be independent—if you accept that a platform that operates effectively and consistently is independent of human influence and interference. It certainly provides the opportunity for objective carcass testing. Why is this significantly important?

It is important because it does not matter where a producer's cattle are sent for slaughter; they want two things. They want to be treated fairly in terms of being paid for the commodity, and that payment is of course underpinned by a description of the carcass yield. That is the first thing they want and need. The second is that they want feedback in terms of the data that is collected through the use of this technology so that they can make on-farm decisions about breed plans and patterns, genetic selection of size, and dams and so on, right through the entire industry. What will that do? That will underpin us and continue to reinforce the reputation that Australia has in the world as being the prime producer of quality beef. Why is that important, Mr Acting Deputy President? You know the answer: we are a trade exposed nation, where over 70 per cent of the beef that is processed in this $12½ billion industry is exported.

The prospects for the further export of this commodity are very promising. We are in discussions with India, although India probably will not become our biggest purchaser of beef. Nonetheless, it is a very important potential trading partner. Of course, there is Indonesia. I have said before that, if every Indonesian took the amount of beef that they could fit on a fork each day and consumed it as part of their diet, we would not have—nor could we ever have—a sufficient number of cattle to meet their demand.

At a time when we are transitioning—it is an old economy come new again—and as things taper back in the resources sector and we see agriculture becoming more significantly important to our terms of trade position and in its contribution to the GDP of our national economy, it is important that we support the industry to get themselves into the very best position that they can. I say to our government that we need to stay out of this as long as we can whilst we encourage industry and provide them with the tools, the support and the pathway to fix the issues themselves.

I call upon the Cattle Council and all the other stakeholders in the negotiations in transitioning to a new cattle house to get on with the job and to get on with it soon. Let us know—people like you and me, Mr Acting Deputy President—if there are some issues that they need us to intervene in. MLC needs to get itself back together so that it is a full contingent of the big processors in this country. Between them, I am certain that they will be able to provide the framework and the self-regulatory environment that will take this very strong industry and make it stronger and underpin the wealth of our nation.