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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 7099

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (11:36): It is always a pleasure to follow the member for Murray, who like me represents an agricultural region vast in the variety of produce it produces not only to feed our nation but to feed other nations as well. I know how desperately worried the member for Murray is about a future for farming. These bills are to do with agriculture, and agriculture is under great pressure at the moment through a combination of factors, not least of which is the high Australian dollar. Fortunately, that high Australian dollar is weakening—fortunately, that is, for the farming sector, who rely on overseas importers in order to export their produce at a price that is reasonable and good for them so that they get the maximum price at farm gate. With a high Australian dollar there is a disinclination for those overseas countries to continue to trade with many of our fine farmers.

Australia does have the world's best farmers—there is absolutely no question about that. I know the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries at the table would concur with me on the fact that Australian farmers are the very best in the world. They are using world's best practice. They are using less water to grow more. Yesterday I commended the member for Braddon, who is the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, on the wine-marketing export arrangements—the new statutory body which is being formed. But, unlike with that particular piece of legislation, I do not think that there has been due diligence or sufficient consultation with respect to this bill. It bothers me that in the last few days of this parliament we are seeing this rushed through without the coalition being properly consulted, and moreover without industry bodies and key stakeholders being consulted. They are the ones who are going to wear the effects of any changes and they need to have the comfort and security to know that the government of the day is doing the right thing by them. But I am not certain that they have those assurances.

We have seen agriculture under enormous pressure, and not helped at all times by this government. There has not been the focus on regional Australia that there should have been in this parliament. I hope that in the next parliament, whichever party has the Treasury benches—

Government members interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: You do not come from regional Australia and so, quite frankly, would not know. There needs to be a greater emphasis on regional Australia, and I know that the members opposite would agree with me there, whichever party is on the Treasury benches. Regional Australia grows the food to feed this nation and others. Regional Australia is the backbone of this country—it always has been and may it long continue to be. But it is not being shown the respect that it should have been shown.

These bills will implement the changes to the rural research and development corporations, or RDCs, as the statutory RDCs will be permitted to undertake marketing activities where the relevant industry requests this and agrees to raise a marketing levy. Government matching funds may only be used for research and development activities, but industry owned RDCs have demonstrated that benefits can result from combining these roles. These bills make arrangements for providing government matching funding for voluntary contributions made by industry to an RDC. This change is intended to encourage voluntary private sector investment in rural R&D to ensure equal treatment of RDCs by the government of the day.

I heard Warren Truss, the Nationals leader, saying in answer to a question about foreign investment that one of the reasons why there is so much interest by overseas countries in Australian agriculture is that it is the very best, but more than that there is not the same inclination by Australian companies—and, indeed, superannuation funds and others—to invest in Australian agriculture. That is a pity, because there is a bright future for Australian agriculture. There is a bright future for regional Australia, and it is a shame that more Australian investors do not acknowledge that fact. At the moment we see Archer Daniels Midland, an American company, attempting to take over GrainCorp. There needs to be more investment by governments and certainly by the private sector in Australian agriculture. I heard the member for Murray talking about the R&D factor. Research and development in genetic foods and better farming methods and practices is so very critical. I know the great work that Charles Sturt University, in Wagga Wagga and other regional campuses, is doing in that space.

These bills will remove product-specific maximum levy and charge rates to reduce the costs and delay associated with primary industries electing to increase their investment in research and development and/or marketing. The requirement for the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to consult with and take note of the opinions of levy payers when setting operative rates will be maximised, bolstered and strengthened. The minister will be prevented from setting a levy or a charge rate over that recommended by industry. That is not such a bad thing—in fact, it is a necessary thing.

For statutory RDCs, board selection processes will be changed to reduce the size of selection committees and lower expense and delay in filling board vacancies. That is a good move, too. Selection committees will create a reserve list of appropriate candidates and more emphasis will be put on diversity and gender balance.

Funding agreements between statutory RDCs and government will be required from July next year. Funding agreements will provide a more flexible mechanism for agreeing governance and performance issues, something that I am sure industry will concur with. This will allow timely modification of these arrangements where and when needed without requiring legislative change. It will improve consistency in the government's relationship with RDCs—there is certainly no argument there. To try to match the coalition commitment to cut red tape and moreover green tape and to try to add some substance to Labor's hollow promises to reduce regulation—because we have seen more and more red tape and green tape in this 43rd Parliament—statutory RDCs will no longer have to submit their annual operating plans to the minister for approval.

The bills make several small and minor arrangements to improve consistency in governance between RDCs. They will clarify the role of RDCs and they will simplify the arrangements of governance. The Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Act 1989 will be changed to clarify funding arrangements for the fishery sectors, which have a statutory levy in place which is specific to that particular sector. This amendment will allow the future establishment of levies for individual fishery sectors where requested by industry. Certainly, the fishing industry has not been at all assisted by this government—locking up marine reserves, the case with the supertrawler which was banned from Australian waters. There are so many factors and so many ways in which this government has disadvantaged the fishing industry, so anything in this will be looked forward to.

The amendments will also incorporate a widely supported 1995 ministerial direction requiring the Fisheries RDC to spend industry funds raised from a particular fishery industry sector or jurisdiction on research and development projects relevant to the source of funds. That is a good thing. The government committed in the commitment to regional Australia—and it is a shame that the government has not followed through on some of the other commitments to regional Australia—to reviewing the RDC model. Passage of these bills will implement changes arising from that very review.

The government conspired with the Productivity Commission to cut R&D funding, and shame on it for that, but industry and the coalition shamed them out of it. That was necessary. In an effort to regain credibility on R&D—and nothing is more important than R&D, particularly in the farming sector—the minister put out a policy statement in relation to research and development, and now these changes to legislation are an effort to show that Labor is coming to the party in this particular area. We could say, 'Too little, too late,' but we have two days of parliament to go. Finally, even though it has rushed it through and even though there has not been consultation, the government is doing it.

Given the short time frame, the lack of consultation is a major issue. It is a significant issue. Industry has had no time to review legislation. A lot of the legislation that industry is often tackling here is complicated and complex, and industry needs to talk to its grassroots stakeholders to see how it will affect them. Often, the devil is in the detail; it is something that is forgotten on that side of the parliament. We heard the Senate bells going crazy last night and again today as upper house members scurried about trying to get through the dozens upon dozens of bits of legislation that this government is rushing through at—symbolically—five minutes to midnight in these last few days of parliament. It is not good enough. The public deserves better. Industry has had no time to review the legislation and, like the coalition, it has not seen it before its introduction last week. That is simply not good enough.

However, we have spoken to a large number of stakeholders. As you would expect from the coalition, we consult with people. We care about people and we care about those affected. Their feedback—and you might be surprised to know this—has been relatively positive, with no substantive concerns raised. The changes appear positive, as they allow RDCs to undertake marketing at the request of industry, and that was an industry request. It enables the government of the day, by providing matching funding for voluntary contributions to all RDCs, to encourage the private sector to invest in rural R&D. It removes the requirement for statutory RDCs to submit their annual operating plans to the minister of the day for his or her sign-off. It makes statutory RDC board selection processes more streamlined, and that is a good thing. It introduces funding arrangements for statutory RDCs to drive performance improvements, something we might see on the other side eventually. Performance improvements—that would be good. It increases transparency in the delivery of R&D services and allows individual fisheries industry levies to be collected and matched, subject to a cap based on the gross value of production of that industry. It removes product-specific charge and levy rates.

The coalition has consulted with a number of stakeholders, including the National Farmers' Federation, that important, august body. I had the Chief Executive Officer of the NFF, Matt Linnegar, in my office yesterday and he is hopeful for better things to come. He is hopeful for an improved relationship between the government of the day and the primary industry sector because he obviously knows—and coming from the Riverina he would well know—the benefit of good consultation between government and the agricultural sector. Having worked at Murrumbidgee Irrigation he has seen how the water rights debate did not go as well as it ought.

There are many farmers in my area who are hoping to see better legislation. They are looking very much forward to buyback being capped at 1,500 gigalitres so that farmers can get on with the job they have been doing in the Riverina for 100 years; that is, growing the food to feed our nation. I know that water is important for South Australia, even in regional areas such as Kapunda, in the member for Wakefield's electorate. I know that water is important for South Australia, but it is also important to be able to utilise that water as it flows down the Murray-Darling and Murrumbidgee systems to enable the farmers to get on with the job that they have been doing and that they were asked to do by government 100 years ago.

They are getting on with the job. SunRice is certainly getting on with the job, having reopened its mills at Deniliquin and Coleambally, and with all the rain we have had in recent weeks we are very much looking forward to a great grain harvest. We certainly hope that the profits of that grain harvest will stay right here in Australia and that they will not be going overseas to be decided by a boardroom in Illinois. I ask that the Treasurer reject the ADM takeover of GrainCorp out of hand because it is un-Australian, it is not necessary and we need to keep the future of Australia's grain harvests in Australian hands. That is so very important.