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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1549

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (11:35): I endorse the remarks of Senator Ruston. Just this morning, we were both on Leon Byner's program on Radio FIVEaa to talk about the plight facing Mick and Tanya Punturiero—salt of the earth people, lime growers. They are innovators and hard workers in the Riverland of South Australia who are now in a position where they cannot export to New Zealand, a niche market that they need and that has been denied to them because the AQIS inspection fees have gone up from $550 to something like $8,530, a 1,300 per cent increase. I know there are rebates involved, but there is bureaucracy, paperwork and red tape involved in that. The fact is that it should not be that hard to be a farmer in this country. You have a situation where there are so many obstacles and barriers, particularly for smaller producers—for the Mick and Tanya Punturieros of this world, who are the innovators and have done the right thing. I and Senator Ruston know Mick and Tanya well. They have been overseas and they have looked at the latest technologies in terms of water-saving techniques. They have looked at ways of producing limes that are world quality—they are clean, green producers—yet they are missing out on an export market because these rules have been put in place that just do not make sense. We also have to look at the context of how important agriculture is to this country. The gross value of agricultural, fisheries and forestry production in 2010-11 was $51.8 billion. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of jobs were created as a result of that, and yet we are making it more difficult for our farmers. Whilst I welcome this legislation, it does not address the fundamental issues and the fundamental challenges facing our farmers.

I note that Senator Colbeck in his contribution made reference to Asian honey bees. There was not adequate consultation and an opportunity was lost to eradicate the Asian honey bee when it was first discovered on a ship near Cairns. I note the work that Senator Milne has done in relation to this and her similar concerns. It is also worth mentioning, in terms of the context of labelling, that we are talking about wine labelling and improvements in respect of the integrity of our wonderful wine industry.

Senator Siewert made mention of genetically modified organisms, GMOs, and how there are reports coming out of the United States that Monsanto's corn crops, which are GMO crops, are failing. I think that is very, very significant. We need better labelling of GMOs in this country not just so that consumers can make an informed choice as to whether they want to buy a product containing GMOs or not, but also to protect those farmers that want to be GMO free and that want to keep export markets in Europe, in Japan and throughout the world where there is a clear preference for non-GMO crops. That would mean that those farmers would not be prejudiced as well.

I note that Senator Edwards made reference to the forward selling of the forestry contracts by the South Australian government—a stupid, stupid decision that will prejudice the vitality and the economic development of the south-east of South Australia in particular. It does not make sense. One issue I have is not with Senator Edwards but with the endorsed Liberal candidate for Barker—we have had a bit of an interchange in the media about what a state Liberal government could do to cancel that contract. The advice I have sought and had from constitutional law experts such as Professor John Williams, the Dean of the University of Adelaide Law School, is that there is no constitutional prohibition in the South Australian Constitution to stop any future government tearing up that contract and saying, 'We will go back to our original position.' Of course there are issues of sovereign risk, but there is no legal impediment to any future South Australian government to say, 'We will take back a particular contract and keep it in state hands.' I maintain that position is technically and legally correct. There is an issue of sovereign risk, but I would have thought that the risk to the people of the south-east—their jobs, the future of the timber industry and associated industries—is too great as a result of what the government has done.

This bill also looks at wine labelling. There is another issue that has not been touched on, and that goes to fraud. That goes to winemakers, particularly in overseas markets, where there is counterfeit wine. I was involved in the case not so long involving Emanuel Skorpos, who runs the Flinders Run Winery. He is an award-winning winemaker on the Southern Flinders Ranges Estate. He had to spend his own money and chase up the counterfeiting of his labels in China. I think more needs to be done on this. We need to give as much support as we can, particularly for small producers, in respect of that.

The Blewett review has also been mentioned in the context of this debate, and I note that Senator Joyce made a useful contribution. Several years ago, in a very unusual unity ticket, Senator Joyce, then Leader of the Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown and I introduced a bill. We co-sponsored a bill in relation to the issue of food labelling and country-of-origin labelling. That shows that this is an issue that transcends party politics. It transcends ideologies and it is about common sense. We need to have effective food-labelling laws in this country in order to assist, as Senator McKenzie said and as Senator Ruston made the point in her contribution, people who want to be able to make a choice about buying Australian produce. Right now our food-labelling laws are an absolute disgrace. You have a situation where 'Made in Australia' just means that a product has been 'substantially transformed' by 51 per cent in the production process. What does that mean? It means that you can buy orange juice that says 'Made in Australia', yet 90 per cent of the concentrate of that juice could have come from Brazil, for instance, and consumers are none the wiser. The label says 'Made from local and imported ingredients'. That is an insult to consumers.

The Blewett review was a long time coming. It made some recommendations to improve the system. I thought the Blewett review was weak in many respects and that it did not go far enough. But at least it made some constructive recommendations, and I commend the work that Dr Blewett did in relation to that. But what did the government do? It ignored it. It ignored it to the cost of consumers. It ignored it to the cost of our farmers. Last year I went to a property in the Riverland where 50-year-old orange trees were being ripped out because the price of oranges was so terrible. If you talk to Ron Gray in the Riverland—a stalwart of and an advocate for strong food-labelling and country-of-origin labelling laws—he will tell you about the trees that he has had to rip out having turned off the water. His neighbours have done the same thing. Prices are so low, in part because our food-labelling laws are so weak. This bill does not address that and we need to address that.

Biosecurity was touched on by Senator Colbeck. It is worth mentioning that we have a situation where apples have been allowed in from New Zealand. AQIS says it has risk matrixes in place, but I do not know whether they are that effective. I am concerned that we are looking at bringing in potatoes from New Zealand which will potentially have a huge impact because of the zebra chip disease in New Zealand. If we get that disease in this country, we will never get rid of it. It is the same with fire blight. I really wonder whether the people in biosecurity are more interested in pursuing a free trade mantra than in pursuing what their core activity should be, and that is to guarantee the clean, green reputation of Australian produce and to keep it disease-free.

Senator McKenzie made a point about buying Australian products and how we need to have truth in labelling. We need to have truth in labelling because, if we do not have truth in labelling, Australian farmers will not stand a chance. This bill really just touches on the edges of that for wine labelling. It is worth reflecting on the issue of foreign ownership of our farmland. Despite my name, I am certainly not xenophobic, but I think there is a real need for appropriately balanced and appropriately targeted foreign investment in this country, particularly in greenfields sites. Our current foreign investment laws are so vague and so imprecise in terms of a national interest test. Also, the threshold is so high—something like $244 million before the Foreign Investment Review Board will even look at something. It is not in the national interest.

We could learn, and it pains me to say this, from the Kiwis across the Tasman. The New Zealanders have an Overseas Investment Office where there is a more clearly defined national interest test, where they look at any transaction involving more than five hectares of prime agricultural land. I am not suggesting we go down the path of five hectares—though that was initially my view—but a $5 million threshold would seem to be more realistic and in line with the consumer price movements from the 1970s when the test was just $1 million.

We need to revamp our foreign investment rules, not in a way to discourage foreign investment but to encourage transparency. It also begs a number of big questions about sovereign funds—funds owned by other governments, effectively controlled by other governments, where the threshold is zero dollars, as it should be. Our national interest test is so vague and so imprecise as to be useless.

It is worth reflecting on what was said by David Farley, the chief executive of Australian Agricultural Co., whom I think is widely respected in the industry and who knows his stuff. He gave very useful evidence at an inquiry on foreign investment, which was instigated by Senator Heffernan. An opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review in June of last year stated, 'Why should China be given the inside running on a very promising agricultural project?'—and this was talking about Northern Australia—and Mr Farley said:

Our political and business leaders are arguing that we need to pay more respect to China and put more effort into our relations with the Chinese at the expense of our neighbouring South-East Asian countries.

I would say more respect should be paid to the expertise contained in our own agricultural industry and more effort put into making sure that Australia is equipped to play its role in the global demand for food.

I agree with what Mr Farley says and that is not to say that we should not have significant investment from China and other countries in our agricultural sector, but we need to ask some fundamental, seminal questions. One of those questions needs to be: are there enough incentives for farmers and for superannuation funds to invest in agriculture? I do not think we have the relevant taxation and superannuation investment vehicles and incentives in this country to drive that investment, to drive R&D and to drive the changes that we need to be a powerhouse for the region and for the world in food production.

Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, you are probably well aware of the article in the Adelaide Advertiser of 23 February this year by Cameron England which talked about a Qatari government owned company, Hassad Australia, that bought a $9 million cattle property near Bordertown and is understood to be negotiating with several farmers on the Eyre Peninsula to buy prime property and grazing land. The reason that Hassad Australia is doing that is the government of Qatar on behalf of the citizens of Qatar understand the potential of Australian agriculture. They get it. They understand that Australia has the potential to be the food bowl of the region, and indeed of the world. But we have a situation where our own farmers are driven out of business because we do not have the food labelling laws, the investment rules and the taxation rules to encourage investment. To me, we must redress that and this bill does not do that.

If I could just mention coal seam gas. The government have made some announcements on that and I congratulate the work that Senator Larissa Waters has done in this area, and it is an issue that Senator Joyce has raised on many occasions. There are going to be rules for coal seam gas and about the aquifer, but I worry that it might be too late for some of the developments that have been approved. Unless we give appropriate priority to our prime agricultural land, that is a real issue. I am hoping that it is not too little too late in terms of what the government announced only yesterday.

Finally, I want to comment on the Murray-Darling Basin. I note that Senator Hanson-Young, who is in the chamber, has been a very strong advocate in relation to ensuring the health of our river system. I think there is a real issue here concerning the early adopters of water-saving measures. Senator Ruston, who is from the Riverland, knows well that our producers in the Riverland had to be more water efficient much earlier because they are at the tail end of the river system. After the 1968 drought, a number of measures had to be implemented to ensure the survival of our food producers, the farmers and irrigators, in the Riverland. I do not believe there is anything in the current Murray-Darling Basin plan that gives adequate recognition to early adopters. It does not do that and that is a fatal flaw in this plan. You must of necessity, for the sake of equity and for the sake of rewarding good behaviour many years ago, give something back to those farmers whether it is encouraging research and development or whether it is providing a specialised fund for those farmers who have already done the hard yards and who can only access a tiny, tiny fraction of the $5.8 billion in water infrastructure programs. They cannot access those funds, by and large, because they are already too water sufficient to qualify. That is an anomaly and it is not just in South Australia's interests but also in the national interest to acknowledge those early adopters.

This bill does address some issues but it needs to go much further. If we are going to be serious about ensuring the viability and the strength of an industry worth over $50 billion a year to the Australian economy, with massive flow-on effects and with massive job impacts, we need to do much, much better. This parliament and this government, and future governments, must take up the challenge so that we can be the food bowl of Asia and so that we can also give our farmers a fair go.