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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1946

Dr STONE (Murray) (19:19): We are told it is the Australian Year of the Farmer. Many people in rural Australia really wonder if this is a sick joke, as they stare at their overdrafts and listen to the banks hammering on their door saying, 'Won't you sell your water? You owe us $1 million, your farm cannot be sold. But the government has just put out another tender in the Murray-Darling Basin and if you sell your water, sure, that means the end of your dairying but you can pay down some of your debt to us.' Those same farmers go to the supermarket. If people from the government had gone to the Coles supermarket in Kialla, which is in my area, they would have seen magnificent Australian plums selling for 50c a kilo. No-one can grow plums for 50c a kilo. You cannot grow them, pick them, pack them, prune them, store them, refrigerate them and put the sticky labels on them—that is, they simply cannot be produced—for 50c a kilo. Yet Coles is skiting about its 'down, down, down' 50 per cent cheaper prices for fruit and vegetables. You might ask, 'Why are the farmers selling their product at a loss?' The answer is that Coles and Woolworths between them own 80 per cent of the supermarkets in Australia, so the farmers have no choice. They cannot sneak off to a grocery ombudsman—or, as some have asked for, a supermarket ombudsman—and talk about the unconscionable use of market power by Coles and Woolworths. Where else would they go to sell their product? Fifty cents a kilo is below the cost of production, but at least the fruit does not fall on the ground. Also, they have a conscience: they know that a lot of pensioners can probably buy fruit for the first time at that price. The farmers are going broke, but someone is going to get a beautiful plum to take home.

The carbon tax, which was mentioned by the previous speaker, is a joke. How many business enterprises in Australia other than the farmers would be made to comply with an act which required a covenant on their business for 100 years? But that is what Labor's carbon sequestration initiatives are all about. In addition, farms are going to be hit by the increased cost of utilities and the extra cost of wages with the new industrial laws about after-hours work. All that is a real problem. It makes farming less viable every day, yet here we are talking about the Australian Year of the Farmer and the need to celebrate it!

We should celebrate the fact that the farmers of Australia on the 136,000 farms in this country are producing $405 billion worth of enterprise each year. They are not only producing that value at the farm gate but also generating jobs in transport, in food manufacturing, in retailing and in marketing. They generate export earnings which come back into the country. They do a magnificent job. In the course of their day-to-day activity of growing food and fibre in this country, the farmers also perform environmental services—that is, they produce the fresh air, the decent soils and the water quality, and they kill the feral animals and destroy the weeds. No-one else in the Australian economy does that. There are not enough public servants to go around, and no-one is paying public servants in the states or the Commonwealth to perform those environmental protection services anymore. The farmers do that work, but they cannot do it when they are near to being broke, and so many of our farmers—particularly those in the eastern arc of Australia—are doubly in debt as a result of 10 years of drought and then floods.

We have to celebrate the extraordinary resilience of farm families, who battle on in the face of blow after blow, many of which are delivered through bad government policy. Think about the current exchange rate—the $1.06 and $1.07 exchange rate of the Australian dollar against the US dollar. Why isn't this government managing the dollar down when it is rendering not just farming export activity but also the activity of all our manufacturers less competitive in global markets? By the time the dollar comes down, if and when it does come down, we will already have lost so much of our manufacturing in Australia—and, quite frankly, you do not get it back. The country will be deskilled, and we will not make anything anymore.

On the subject of deskilling, I point out that—contrary to what the previous speaker, the member for Blair, tried to claim—there has been an enormous decrease in the number of agricultural science and agribusiness graduates. This means that there is an enormous shortage each year of skilled people entering agribusiness. They ask themselves: 'Why would I? My father was a farmer, and his father was a farmer. Why would I suffer too? The risks are too great, and the returns are too small.' I am a sixth generation farmer myself, besides many other things. My brother and sister are farmers, and my only son is a farmer. I see what they do every day to try to produce good food and fibre for this country. Enough is enough—they deserve a decent set of policies in this country and a decent break. What they do should be respected. Let us celebrate the farmers. (Time expired)