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Friday, 28 June 2013
Page: 4475


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (14:01): The sugar industry has been a very significant contributor to the economy of Queensland and Australia almost since the first Europeans landed on this shore. The first stick of sugarcane came into Australia with the First Fleet, and since then the industry has grown to be a major contributor to the economy and, I might say, culture of Queensland and that part of northern New South Wales that supports a sugar industry. I proudly come from a sugar town, the town of Ayr, in the Burdekin region, and somewhat parochially I say that the Burdekin region is without doubt the best sugar-growing area in the world. We have sunshine and not a lot of rain but plenty of underground water. We have a significant growing industry, with farmers who are very skilled, innovative and forward looking and mills that are fairly well up to date and amongst some of the best organised around the world.

The sugar industry in Queensland and indeed Australia really owes a lot to Pacific islanders, who were first brought to Queensland to do the work that it was thought that white men could not do in the tropics. In the time when the blackbirders were rife—not quite slavery traders but almost—some 62,500 Pacific islanders are thought to have been brought to Queensland to engage in the sugar industry. Most of them were from Melanesia—Vanuatu, the Solomons—and some were Polynesians. Many of those families never returned to their homeland, or, having returned, some of them came back to Australia, and of course the descendants of Pacific islanders now form a very significant part of many of the communities along the coast of North Queensland.

It is such a significant industry. It has had its ups and downs, but by and large it has been a very big contributor to the wealth of Queensland and Australia. It goes in cycles. In my time of living in Ayr and working around the sugar industry, there have been cycles of good times and bad times. Back in the early 2000s, the industry was in some difficulty. The Howard government provided some $400 million in assistance to help the industry through that difficult time because the Howard government recognised just what an important factor the industry was to many coastal towns and cities along the coast of North Queensland.

In the early days of the Federation of Australia, the influx of Pacific islanders was stopped. You might recall that the Labor Party in those days were very keen on a White Australia policy—something that, of course, they like to airbrush out of history these days. But it was good for the sugar industry. Many of the islanders who played such a big part in the sugar industry remain. But what it meant was that European migrants came in to take over the hard, backbreaking work in the tropics that was previously done by the Pacific islanders. We had in those early days a lot of people from Italy, and later from Greece and Spain, and even later from central Europe. These people entering Australia—often as very poor, almost penniless immigrants—worked very hard in the hot tropical sun cutting cane by hand and made some money. Over the history of the sugar industry, those early European immigrants doing the hard work have saved their money and bought farms or invested wisely, and now most of the sugar industry growers and many of the milling people are descendants of those early Europeans. They have done particularly well along the coast of Queensland.

Not only have they brought economic value to North Queensland, north Australia and Australia as a whole, but also it has been a big part in the multicultural development of Australia. If you go anywhere in the North, you will find very multicultural communities that still recognise and celebrate their connection with their homeland. Indeed, the Australian Italian Festival that is held in Ingham every May Day is a great event that really highlights the influence of Italian immigrants on the Australian way of life and particularly on the sugar industry.

One of the things that have kept the sugar industry going so well is that it has always been an industry which is keen on innovation, development and research into new ideas. These days, of course, competing with cheap-labour countries overseas, the industry could not continue to exist if it did not have that innovation, that research and the cutting edge in industry innovation and development. That is why the Sugar Research and Development Services Bill 2013 is so important and that is why I am delighted that the coalition will be supporting the government's initiative.

At this stage I express my thanks both to the former agriculture minister Senator Ludwig and to the Greens political party, particularly Senator Siewert, for facilitating this bill on the program today. Unfortunately, when the first list of the bills that were going to be guillotined through this place before parliament rose came out, this bill was not on the list. When I approached Senator Ludwig he said: 'Yes, it should be, but I don't know what's been happening with those who make these decisions. It's disappeared from the list.' Because I know the industry is so keen to have this bill passed and because I know it is essential for the continuing development of the industry, it was necessary to encourage the Labor Party and the Greens to ensure that this bill was dealt with today, and I express—not only personally but on behalf of the sugar industry as a whole—my thanks, particularly to Senator Ludwig and Senator Siewert, for facilitating the passage of this bill today.

Through the thirties and fifties, there was a lot of innovation. Indeed, because Australia could not compete with cheap labour overseas, a lot of work went into mechanical harvesting and mechanical transporting of the cut sugar cane. A lot of innovation has gone into mills and the way sugar is extracted. In more recent times, a lot of innovation and research has gone into the energy uses of sugar cane and its by-products. That is why the industry was so keen to have this new arrangement put in place.

Those who understand that R&D companies are supported by the Commonwealth government would be surprised at the universal support for the new research and development program that is set up in this bill. Indeed, millers and growers in the sugar industry in Queensland—not always the best of friends, I might say—have got together and formed the Australian Sugar Industry Alliance Limited to make sure that the industry moves forward as a whole. The alliance was very keen to see that this new research facility—involving both the growing and the milling—did enable the Australian industry to keep ahead of the pack in research.

These new R&D corporations always come at a cost and in this instance the cost per tonne of cane that will support the new research body is 70c per tonne of sugar cane, paid equally by the growers and millers. This 70c a tonne, though, replaces other levies that used to be imposed on the industry for research and development: 14c a tonne for the Sugar Research and Development Corporation; 55c a tonne for the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, a Queensland based research organisation which, I might add, has done a magnificent job over the years that it was in operation; and a further 5c a tonne for SRL activity.

Indeed, the industry is paying less in total than it was before and that is why 77 per cent of canegrowing businesses—some 3,440—returned their voting papers on the ballot to determine whether this new industry body would operate and whether the new levies would apply. Of those 77 per cent of growers who returned their voting papers, a massive number of 84.3 per cent approved the proposal and supported the new arrangement. Only 15.7 per cent voted no. Those people who understand how these ballots usually occur in rural industries would understand that that is a massively significant positive result. All seven milling companies voted yes, so this new arrangement of research and development has universal support within the sugar growing industry, both in Queensland and in New South Wales.

There are some 4,400 individual growing entities within the sugar industry, which has a total employment of some 16,000 people. They form the mainstay of many communities, like my own in Northern Queensland, and in the north of New South Wales. Some 360,000 hectares are harvested annually and the cane crushed in 2012 was some 30,000 megatonnes. The amount of sugar produced was 4,250 of a unit of quantity that I am not familiar with. A significant amount of that sugar is exported overseas. The industry's revenue in 2012 was $2,000 million and the value of sugar for export was $1,500 million. Clearly, this is a very significant industry for Queensland.

I pause here to recognise the significant role that the former President of Canegrowers Queensland Mr Alf Cristaudo contributed to the industry. Alf has been leading the industry over very difficult times for a very long period and he has been a magnificent leader. He has retired as chairman of the Canegrowers organisation, although I know he will still be around, making a contribution to his community and the cane industry in the years ahead. I welcome the election of Mr Paul Schembri, from Mackay, who is the new Canegrowers supremo, if I can call him that. I know Paul will continue to lead the industry in the very adult and sensible way that it has been led to the benefit of the canegrowers, the millers and, indeed, the wider community over many years.

As I briefly mentioned before, this industry is not just about producing its main product of raw sugar; it has also, in more recent times, gone into the green energy area. There is a huge potential for greater use of sugar cane for energy. Some sugar cane is used for ethanol, and that is an area where there is a big future. But all of this requires proper research—clever, well-funded research—and dedicated and focused development and research issues. That is why this bill today and this new organisation that is being set up to do the research and development for the whole industry are so absolutely important.

The process has been going for some years now. If I were critical of Senator Ludwig, I would say in passing that it has taken a long time to get to this particular point, but we are at least here, so I think that is tremendous. It is important this bill go through. I see my colleague Senator Joyce is in the chamber, and I know Senator Joyce's significant support for the industry over many years. I might curtail my remarks there so that Senator Joyce can have a couple of words on this significant industry research and development and extension program that is being supported by this bill. As I mentioned, the coalition will be supporting this, and good luck to the industry in the future. I know they will go on from strength to strength.