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Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Page: 838

Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (19:23): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. You can be assured that I will not be numbering the cows in the electorate of Blair! I do speak in support of the amendment to the legislation and I speak in support of the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment (Dairy Produce) Bill 2014. I thank the member for Hunter, the shadow minister, for his amendment, which I think is important in terms of the failure of the government to act in the sector, particularly with the effects of the drought on the dairy and other agricultural sectors in the farming industry. I also support his reference to the omission of resource sustainability in the government's agricultural white paper.

Briefly, the legislation is supported by the industry. It enables the dairy industry to continue to fulfil its obligations, as many people have talked about, in terms of animal health and in relation to its membership of Animal Health Australia. There are increases to the maximum rates, known as the caps, of the Australian Animal Health Council levies on dairy produce in relation to milk and protein. I will not go through the details. It will not increase the operative rate paid by industry members and does not significantly add to any financial burdens on dairy farmers. The industry and its peak bodies support it. I do note with some irony that it is an area of regulation that those opposite support, having heard many speeches from them in relation to regulation over the years. We agree with them in relation to this form of regulation. It does allow the industry and Australian Dairy Farmers Ltd to meet requirements in relation to being a signatory to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement to meet its obligations in the event of an emergency in the sector. So I speak in support of the bill.

Travelling through Asia on numerous occasions, I have been in grocery stores, supermarkets and delicatessens and places like that in parts of Asia only to think that I was in Woolworths in the Brassall shopping centre directly opposite my electorate office, with so much yoghurt, so much cheese and butter as well as milk being on display, recognising brands that are produced here in Australia. Obviously it is an industry that adds considerably to our national wealth. ABARES have in fact underestimated the benefit in terms of export. They thought $2.5 billion this year but it is about $2.7 billion. So the dairy industry is tremendously important in terms of export. Some people say it is a two-speed or two-tier industry. States like Queensland and New South Wales have more domestic focus; other states have more of an export focus as well. This is an important industry and our projections into Asia are particularly important as the middle class continues to grow. Milk products which are safe are really crucial for the health of this country and many country towns are most dependent on the dairy industry.

In my electorate of Blair country towns like Esk and Toogoolawah, Lowood, Minden, even rural Ipswich, and country towns like Rosewood and Walloon are very much dependent historically on the dairy industry and farming. As I say, the levies are payable by the producer of the relevant dairy produce and collected by the Commonwealth for disbursement to Animal Health Australia.

This is an important industry for my home state of Queensland. I read recently that the Queensland Dairyfarmers' Organisation, on about 24 February, talked about a survey they conducted in relation to the industry, saying that almost nine in every 10 Queensland dairy farms lacked confidence in the future. Most of those have negative cash flow situations. They are concerned about farm gate milk prices, which will need to rise by about 12c before confidence can be renewed in the sector and fresh milk restored for Queensland consumers. That was a key finding. The survey was conducted around January. We have about 500 dairy farmers in Queensland. There was a time when that would have been a small part of the total even in my electorate of Blair.

I note the comments made by the Queensland Dairyfarmers' Organisation president, Brian Tessmann, who said that the survey confirmed the ongoing impacts of the confidence crisis hitting Queensland dairy farmers, who have been rocked by floods, cyclones, the milk price war and now severe drought. Those dairy farms in my electorate have very much been impacted by floods, as has the whole farming sector. I have in my electorate the Wivenhoe Dam and the Somerset Dam, the Brisbane River and the Bremer River, Lockyer Creek and other areas that are notorious in terms of flooding. So the farming industry has been particularly hard hit. Indeed, the Somerset region was even worse hit in the 2013 flood, which did not impact as adversely on Ipswich as the 2011 flood that really devastated Ipswich and Brisbane.

Eighty-seven per cent of those surveyed, according to the QDO, said they were uncertain about or not confident in the future, and 79 per cent were either uncertain about or not confident in their own dairying business. I have spoken to many dairy farmers over the years, and they have always said that this is an industry that they were born into. They work hard. Often their children perform a great deal of work before school and after school. Many of them would love to hand on their farms to their progeny, but in fact the truth is that many of them are concerned about their future.

I saw that firsthand during the 2013 federal election campaign when I attended, in my electorate, the forum that was held in Esk at the Somerset Civic Centre on 25 August 2013. The then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the member for Hunter, was not able to be there, nor was the parliamentary secretary, but, as the local federal member and a parliamentary secretary in the former federal Labor government, I was asked to be there. I was pleased to be there to hear what dairy farmers had to say. There were a number of candidates. There was someone from the Greens and someone from Katter's Australian Party, and the now member for New England, now the Minister for Agriculture in the Abbott government, was there to speak. He and I were, of course, the people who spoke the most on that particular day.

I spoke to important farmers in the region as well as other locals. I caught up with John Cochrane, who is a Gympie rural industry figure and a very well-known figure in Queensland. He really impressed upon me the plight of the dairy farming industry as I sat down and ate with him and talked to him about what was happening. He has been in the industry for such a long time and has been involved in the representative bodies, and he has a really good knowledge of the industry.

After hearing about the plight of the farmers, I am pleased that progress has been made on the voluntary code. Many in the industry want a mandatory code, but in fact this government had the same policy that Labor had with respect to a voluntary code, and I am glad that there has been progress in that area.

When we were in government, we made a big impact to try and assist farmers in this area. We know that there is competition in the domestic retail sector. We know that there have been low farm gate milk prices. There has been a fluctuating Australian dollar. There have been variable climate conditions, and we know also that climate change has an impact on this industry. In Queensland there has been work done by the National Farmers' Federation. In fact, they got me to launch a report, when the Lockyer Valley was in my electorate, in relation to climate change and the impact in Queensland. So we made a big impact to assist people in this sector.

We developed the Farm Finance package—short-term assistance in the form of concessional loans for productivity enhancement projects or debt reconstruction. We funded 17 additional full-time counsellors with the Rural Financial Counselling Service. We increased the non-primary-production income threshold for farm management deposits from $65,000 to $100,000 and allowed consolidation of existing FMDs. We established a national, consistent approach to farm debt mediation.

We also assisted the farming sector by pushing hard in relation to the voluntary code I referred to before. We assisted with initiatives such as 'Tactics for Tight Times'—workshops to help farmers to better understand their business position and cash flow options and to develop management plans to reduce operating costs and improve their incomes. That gave them the opportunity of one-on-one sessions to discuss those issues. There was also the Carbon Farming Initiative and other energy efficiency grants which we provided, such as $1 million to Dairy Australia to undertake farm energy assessments for a number of dairy farmers nationally.

There was lots to be done, but there is still more to be done. I noticed recently the comments that have been made by the National Farmers' Federation. The President of the National Farmers' Federation, Brent Finlay, said that basically the procrastination of the Abbott government across this space meant that there was some increased anxiety from farmers who were hoping for some support and help from the government.

We have been critical of the failure of the Abbott government in terms of their progress on drought policy in the six months they have been in office, and I think that is justified. Also, I cannot believe they scrapped the Standing Council on Primary Industries. I think that was a very bad mistake. We know that the money that was provided in debt relief and other assistance to New South Wales has all been taken up. We saw the New South Wales regional assistance authority receive 138 applications, administering $30 million in debt relief for eligible farmers.

I think this government should really restore the $40 million it withheld from the farm finance low-interest loans scheme. I think that was a very bad move by this government upon coming to office. It sent a very bad signal to the industry as well. I think the government should restore that. There should be a quick response to the growing drought emergency. So far we have seen photo opportunities. It has been across the national media, but not enough is being done. The government could take steps by further lowering the 4.5 per cent interest rate and adjusting the guidelines to improve access for those farmers as well.

As I said, I think this government should never have abolished the COAG Standing Council on Primary Industries, which dealt with drought reform, because that was the place where you went to the table with people from all of the sector. It meant that people in New South Wales and Queensland and federally could get together and talk about the issues at a peak level and response could take place. It meant that people had to be engaged and thinking about what needed to be done.

So there are things that the government could do. It is time to end the photo opportunities opposite. It is time to take steps to provide the help that this sector needs.

In closing, I just want to mention a couple of things pertinent to my electorate. I think it is really sad that National Foods closed the butter factory which had been operational in my electorate since 18 May 1901. They closed it about three years ago. My father worked in the butter factory there. It was at Booval, in Jacaranda Street. Jacaranda iced coffee was pretty legendary, to be honest with you. In 1962 the factory produced 9.5 million pounds of butter and three million gallons of milk and provided 10,000 bottles of milk to 82 schools in and around Ipswich. It was an important part of Ipswich. Actually, Jacaranda iced coffee had a cult following on Facebook and even has its own Facebook page.

I also want to mention what we have done in terms of regional development in Australia. We put in half a million dollars to resuscitate the old condensery which Nestle used to have and which employed a couple of hundred people. They closed that factory in 1929 and many families left the district. At its height, Toogoolawah had about 3,000 people up in the top part of the Somerset region. That half a million dollars is being leveraged with $1 million from the Somerset Regional Council to create the new Toogoolawah Cultural Precinct, and around 47 people will use that cultural precinct every day. I have spoken with people from the McConnel family, who were the first owners of the milk factory, and I have also spoken to the council and many people in that region. They are looking forward to the project being completed later this year. It goes to show that it is a Labor government that invests in regional Australia. It has always been a Labor government which has been a friend to the farmers, and it has always been a National Party government in Queensland that has let down the farmers.