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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1524


Senator COLBECK (Tasmania) (09:42): In rising to make my contribution on behalf of the coalition to the debate on the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012, which covers a number of different areas of the agriculture portfolio, I note that the coalition will be supporting the legislation. But there are a number of comments around the legislation and agriculture generally that I would like to make as part of my contribution.

This proposed legislation effectively makes some minor changes to a range of portfolio areas. As the government whip just noted, it makes some amendments to the Wine Australia Corporation Act 1980. It makes some modifications to the Fisheries Management Act 1994 to explain requirements for directions to close a fishery, particularly a specific part of a fishery, and also to correct some grammatical errors and delete some redundant text. The opposition supports those amendments.

It also makes some changes to the Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Act 1991 to allow the departmental secretary to consider requests made by levy payers for remission of penalties. It also makes some further technical amendments to the Fisheries Management Act, the Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Act, the Export Control Act 1982 and the Quarantine Act. But none of the amendments make any substantial changes in substance to the law.

So, in that context, the coalition is quite happy to lend its support to the legislation, but I think it is pertinent at this stage to look at the way that the government has actually managed the agricultural portfolio. There is a long history of legitimate concern from the primary industry sector about the way that the government has managed this portfolio, and I suppose prime amongst those concerns would be the carbon tax. We are seeing right now the very negative impacts of additional cost imposed by this government on the rural sector, the farming sector and the fisheries sector right around the country. For example, in dairy, I acknowledge that there are global issues in respect of the market price and that the dollar is high, and that is having the impact, but that is being exacerbated by the additional costs imposed by this government through the carbon tax. The government has been trying to convince farmers that they are not subject to the carbon tax, but you tell that to a dairy farmer who has a quarterly power bill of $40,000 that is going to receive, and has received, a 10 per cent increase due to the carbon tax, or you tell that to the same dairy farmer, whose processor is also subject to significant extra costs. If their milk, for example, is going into milk powder, 30 per cent of the cost of producing that product is energy. The global market is not going to carry the cost; it is being sent back to the industry. We know that that is the case, because a number of organisations, including the government's own ABARES, have done some work to indicate that those costs will be pushed back to the agricultural sector. The government really has not understood that. Its line is, 'Well, agriculture's not subject to the carbon tax,' but agriculture is subject to the impacts. That needs to be remembered and understood.

Of course, if you live in Tasmania, the cost of shipping is impacted by the carbon tax. The minister came to Tasmania and was asked on Tasmanian radio about the costs of freight and the impact of the carbon tax on the costs of freight. The minister ridiculed the person who was asking the question on the radio, saying, 'You don't know what you're talking about, because freight is not subject to the carbon tax.' The minister did not even understand the impact of his own tax. I am not talking about the minister for agriculture; I am talking about Minister Albanese, the transport minister, who does not understand the impacts of the carbon tax on his own portfolio, much less the impacts that flow back to the rest of industry.

So it is important for the community to understand that this government continues to make decisions that are not in the interests of agriculture. We talk about being the food bowl for Asia and about sending our produce all across the globe, particularly into South-East Asia. Yet for seven years—two under the coalition, admittedly, but also the last five years—what has happened to the progress of the China free trade agreement? New Zealand commenced at the same time as we did and finalised theirs in three years. As of the beginning of this year, we are at a 15 per cent disadvantage for our fisheries sector into the Chinese market because this government has not progressed a free trade agreement. There is a free trade agreement with South Korea sitting there waiting to be signed. At the NFF blueprint launch a few weeks ago, the head of the NFF was asked, 'If there is one thing that the government could do for you, what would that be?' The very quick response was, 'Sign the South Korea FTA tomorrow.' Where is it? What is going on with that? How are we supposed to be providing agricultural produce from this country into those markets—markets that are growing and are demanding our product—if we are at such a significant price disadvantage compared to a country like New Zealand, which already has significant cost advantages over us for a number of other reasons, currency being one of them, but also labour cost?

We are seeing our food processing and our food manufacturing businesses go offshore because the government is not dealing with these particular issues. What it is doing is imposing additional costs. And so for an exporter to get licensed and to have export access, what has this government done? It has removed a 40 per cent rebate that assisted with markets, market development and access into those markets; it has made it more expensive to export. That is the legacy of this government; that is what it has done. It is forcing businesses to make the decision on whether they might stay registered as an exporter or not. That is what is starting to occur.

In the fishing sector, we have seen an increase in fees for access to some of the fisheries from $7,000 to $14,000 per unit for access to the fishery. And after huge swathe of industry players said, 'We can't afford that, we'll bail out; we'll surrender our licences', what happened next? The government changes the cost structure completely and makes it more affordable for these businesses to get in, but these businesses, having conceded their licenses, have no entitlement to get them back. The complete inconsistency in the decision-making of this government really does not stand up. The lack of consultation, the lack of consideration of the impacts of its decisions have been a real drag on the agricultural sector at a time when the global market and the dollar, because of the resource sector boom, have had a negative impact. And what has this government done? It has added additional costs over and above those broader economic conditions.

We have coming to us the agricultural and veterinary chemicals legislation that adds millions more to the cost of doing business for agriculture. How many more things can this government layer on top of all of the other impacts that it has had over the past four or five years? We have had a circumstance with access to markets where it just becomes slightly difficult to actually get into the markets. Lobsters into China has been a significant issue. I have to concede that the government, through the trade minister, has put into place a program to start dealing with lobsters and the supply chain project there, but that sat there for a couple of years while the industry suffered significant disadvantage. Bearing in mind that the New Zealand industry has a free trade agreement which gives it a 15 per cent advantage over the Australian fisheries sector, when you are talking about a commodity that is valued at between $65 and $95 a kilogram, then a 15 per cent disadvantage into that premium market is a significant one. That is having a major negative effect on our rock lobster sector, which is a major business for Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. We need to continue to work on the supply chain project, but where is the free trade agreement that is going to assist those industries getting into the country?

The relationship that we have with Indonesia has been so badly damaged by the decision to ban the live cattle export trade without notice. They heard about this on the radio after being told via our foreign minister the day before: 'Everything's okay. We'll continue to work with you. We'll sort something out here.' Then the next day a decision was made and the Indonesians found out about it on the radio. It is an absolute disgrace that we put countries and our trading partners through these things. How long is it going to take to repair the damage that has been done by that decision? Indonesia now says: 'Australia is a risk to our protein supply. We need to mitigate that risk.' And so from the situation where we were sending over more than 600,000 tonnes of product to them, we are now down to around 200,000 tonnes a year—and we will potentially receive further cuts. The relationship with China also needs to be managed. China is a huge opportunity for agriculture in Australia. In fact, it is one of the few really growing markets. If you go back to 2005-06, we were sending something in the order of $630 million worth of food to China. If you go forward to 2011-12, that is $2.1 billion. The growth in food sales from Australia to China was over threefold in that period of time. We hear complaints about the food imports from China which have grown by about $300 million in that same time frame, with imports less than doubling from China. How we manage our relationship with the Chinese has to be done in a way that continues to provide for that opportunity.

I think that some of the scaremongering that goes on in this country around the relationship with China quite frankly needs to be reconsidered very carefully because, at the same time as there has been that threefold growth in our market to China, countries like the UK and the US, for example, have actually halved the amount of food produce that they are taking from Australia. So who should we be working with and who should we be maintaining a positive relationship with? Should we be going to China and in their language telling them how to run their own country? Is that the sort of thing that we ought to be doing?

Look at the circumstances that occurred around the management of the incursion of Asian bees where the critical scientist was not invited to the critical meeting to make decisions around whether or not to declare them endemic and if we cannot actually deal with them. Why didn't he get invited? Because we lost his email address. This is the most eminent scientist on bees in the country. He did not get invited to the key meeting to make a decision as to whether or not we think we can combat or eradicate the Asian bee incursion in and around Cairns. There are just completely absurd decisions. Something like 65 per cent of our agriculture relies on wild bees for its pollination. An incursion of Asian bees with varroa mite could wipe out our native bee population in two or three years. What is the potential impact on agriculture from that? Australia is the last continent on the planet that does not have varroa mite. We need to ensure that our borders are secure in respect of that and yet here we are at the critical point in time not inviting the guy who has the most knowledge about the issue to the meeting. It is just absolutely absurd.

In respect of something that is pretty close to my heart, the way that the government has dealt with the forestry industry in Tasmania is nothing short of a disgrace. The deal that they have on the table right now is being debated in the Tasmanian upper house. It basically spells the end of the native forestry industry in Tasmania by 2030. That is the effect of the deal. It is simple to work out. All you need to do is to look at the wood supply projections. The wood supply projections say that if you lock up half a million hectares that the government is proposing to lock up and harvest 137,000 cubic metres of category 1 sawlogs from now on, the industry will be gone by 2030. There will be between 25,000 and 40,000 cubic metres of category 1 sawlogs left by 2030. Industry will look at that and the decline will start straight away. Who is going to invest in an industry where the resource has a 17-year life? Who will make that decision? Yet that is what this government is doing to my home state of Tasmania. While the industry might continue to 2030, the death of the industry has already been determined if the Tasmanian upper house passes this sham legislation that is in front of it right now.

The government claims that a deal was negotiated between the environmental movement and the industry, and that is correct; it was. But the industry was negotiating for itself, not for the rest of Tasmania. And this piece of legislation deals with more than just the forest industry; it deals with the mining sector, the tourism sector and the agriculture sector. The absurdity is that this government is looking to move the forest industry out of the forest and into a plantation industry, which puts it onto our farmland. The proposal says that 20 per cent of Tasmania's agricultural land is to go under plantations—130,000 hectares. How is Tasmania supposed to be the food bowl of Australia—which is what is being claimed by some people in Tasmania—if we are going to put 20 per cent of our agricultural land into plantation? Why are we spending $400 million in Tasmania on irrigation development to irrigate trees? The complete lack of logic from this government—albeit Greens driven, because of their partnership with the Greens in this place and in Tasmania—is absolutely absurd. But here they are, proposing to take out one of the pillars of the Tasmanian economy. What was a $1.4 billion industry is now down to about $700 million but by 2030 will be zero. The native forest industry will be dead, because there is no viability in an industry where the supply volumes are between 25,000 and 40,000 cubic metres. It just does not exist.

That is what this government is doing to the forest sector, but it also applies to agriculture. And when you look at what they have done to the fishing industry through their management of significant fisheries issues over the last 12 months, taking political decisions rather than science based decisions, you get the picture. So, in respect of the marine planning process, they are doing deals with people in this place—a little piece here for a vote over there—and taking the side of the environmental groups over industry. If people in agriculture do not think they are next, they are kidding themselves, because once the environmental groups are finished with the forestry sector, the mining sector and the fishing sector they will come after them on the land. You only have to look at what they are doing in New Zealand.

This government's record in respect of the agricultural, fisheries and forestry sector is completely and utterly dismal—remember, they did not even have a policy at the last election. Having said that, the coalition will be supporting this piece of legislation.