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Wednesday, 8 March 2000
Page: 14137

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (12:27 PM) —I rise to support the shadow minister for primary industry and his second reading amendment to the Dairy Industry Adjustment Bill 2000. In a lot of ways, in this initiative the national government has sat on its hands as usual and left to the industry and the state governments the hard decisions about what to do with respect to dairy deregulation. Having had the decision made for it, the national government has then been required to face up to its responsibilities to make a financial contribution to try and assist in the tough decisions made by others in the community. It is again about a question of leadership. I believe leadership requires that people make recommendations, stand by those recommendations and be willing to fight them through. Having made such a recommendation, following proper consultation with the industry and the broader community, you make sure that you are convinced that the direction you are pursuing is right. On this occasion, as with the population debate, the issue of Aboriginal reconciliation, the question of adjustment in regional Australia generally or—the more complex issue of recent weeks—the issue of mandatory sentencing, this Howard government has yet again gone missing in action.

For that reason I supported and seconded the second reading amendment moved by the member for Corio and shadow minister for primary industry. With that amendment we are saying to the Australian community, and especially the dairy industry and the regional communities in which it operates, in association with the manufacturing industry that is part and parcel of the industry, that we will support the bills before the House this afternoon. But, more importantly, it is our responsibility, following consultation with the participants and players in the industry, to raise in the national parliament this afternoon for public debate and consumption some of the weaknesses that are out there in the community at the moment and the subject of major debate.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you know, this bill represents the government's legislative response to proposed deregulation by state governments. Yes, it was the state governments and the industry that, again, were required to make the decisions because of a lack of leadership by the national parliament and a lack of leadership by the Howard government. Those state governments have been required to make decisions, in association with the players in the industry, going to the issue of milk marketing arrangements and the end of the Commonwealth domestic market support arrangements because the federal government again wanted to wipe its hands of the hard decision and basically say, `If you are prepared to make the decision, we are prepared to impose a levy on consumers to ensure that we also avoid our fiscal responsibilities to this industry.'

The package itself provides a total of $1.7 billion for compensation in exit payments for dairy farmers to be funded by a Commonwealth levy of 11c per litre on sales of drinking milk applied at retail level and collected at the wholesale level over the next eight years. It is not dissimilar to the GST. Ordinary Australians will again pay the full tote odds for a lack of leadership at the Commonwealth level.

The shadow minister for primary industry has dealt with the specifics of the legislation, of which we are all aware. The shadow minister, the member for Corio, has also done an exceptionally fine job in outlining Labor's concerns with the legislation which are also detailed in his second reading amendment. We are talking today about major industry restructuring. We are talking about legislation involving $1.7 billion, and I contend that we have clearly got to get it right. That is why the second reading amendment goes to the fundamental issues before the House for debate this afternoon.

Rather than getting it right, we find ourselves today on 8 March 2000 with legislation the government has had in its hands since April 1999—almost 12 months ago—and has endorsed since September 1999. The government is sending a message around a number of rural and regional communities claiming that it is the Australian Labor Party—the opposition—that is delaying this legislation. The truth is that, as the facts go, it is the government that has sat on its hands time and time again on issues that are fundamental not only to the future direction and importance of this industry but, potentially, also to the future direction and make-up of Australia.

Having said that, having finally got the package before us, the government now wants to rush it through parliament. That is what it wants to do. It does not want a debate about it; it wants to rush a piece of legislation through the parliament without proper consideration and with an unwillingness to actually consider amendments to overcome weaknesses in the legislation. Labor very clearly recognises the importance of the industry and the need for change in the industry. We do not see this as an either/or debate. The concerns we have relate to how we deal with adjustment. They are specific to this instance, but the questions they pose have a much wider application. I believe that there is a recognition of the need for change within the industry. But there is also an appreciation of the need to plan for the industry's future too. That is a fundamental weakness of the bill before the House this afternoon. This legislation actually presented an opportunity to do that, to actually think through the future direction of the industry in a proper constructive and objective way. Unfortunately, the government has elected not to take up that challenge.

The package before us does not offer a vision of an industry modernising; of an industry investing in research and development; of an attempt to expand market access; of an industry paying attention to the needs of young people, who are so vital to the future of this industry; of the need to actually bring more and more young people into the industry, to train them and ensure that they have the capacity—not only from the skills point of view of working a farm but also from the management and business point of view—to take the industry forward into the 21st century; and of an industry that ensures that its work force is skilled and adaptable. These essential elements of a modern industry, a modern regional structure and a modern Australia are missing from the government's blueprint.

What about the process of change? One of the major challenges facing the government today is how we deal with the process of change. There is a live debate in this house of parliament, there is a live debate in the dairy industry at large and there is a live debate around the breakfast tables of dairy farmers and their families; but there is also, importantly, a live debate in metropolitan Australia because of the fact that they are now going to pay for this restructure of the package and a live debate in regional Australia about the impact of this dairy industry package on the future livelihood of many regions around Australia.

I would have thought that, in that context, the Howard government would be acutely aware of this challenge, given the reaction of the Prime Minister to his recent whistlestop tour of regional Australia—I note he did not get to your seat, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker; you are obviously not very important in his thinking—yet, as with every other piece of legislation produced by the Howard government, there is no consideration of the effect of dairy industry deregulation on particular communities. That is what it is all about: it is about people and places. The truth is, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker—because you are not one of the hardliners on the other side of the House who is always prepared to forget the needs of people and places—that the debate, when you consider the issue of dairy regulation, is also intimately related to the very firm view in regional Australia at the moment that people and their local communities are missing out.

That is why regional Australia is the flavour of the month at the moment in the eyes of the Prime Minister. It is not because he cares about the people and the places that are so vital to the make-up of Australia, especially regional Australia, but because he has actually read a more recent opinion poll which says, `Dear Mr Prime Minister, please scratch your head and think about regional Australia, because if you do not you will not have another three years living at Kirribilli House in Sydney, in the context of you having forgotten about the needs of regional Australia over the last four years.' When you look at the expenditure on upgrading Kirribilli House in more recent times—that actually represents consumer dollars too—while the changes at Kirribilli House have been found to be something that we can go without as a community, the Prime Minister has determined that whatever is required to assist him to live in the lap of luxury must be supported by the Australian taxpayer.

Mr Causley —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. I would ask you to bring the member for Batman back to the bill. I cannot understand how many cows are grazing in the grounds of Kirribilli House, but it has got little to do with the bill.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hawker)—The member for Batman will, I am sure, be coming back to the bill.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —I understand the sensitivities of the member. I also note that he is one, for example, who has offered criticism to the federal government, including of the Treasurer because of his lack of concern for regional Australia. I am pleased that he has joined us on this side of the House in offering criticism of a Kirribilli-eccentric Prime Minister and a would-be Prime Minister in the Treasurer of this country. For the past four years the standard response from the Prime Minister has been to throw his hands in the air and say, `Oh, it's just economics. We've got a trickle down theory. You might, if you're lucky, get a little bit of the benefit of economic change in Australia. Just leave it to the market.' Just leave to the market; it will all be all right, mate.

In the case of the dairy industry, we will see communities such as those in Gippsland, the Bega Valley and northern Tasmania face a major restructure. But when you ask the government, it cannot even tell you what the regional implications are, because the Howard government has failed to make any specific arrangements for those regions heavily affected by deregulation. It has also failed to commission any detailed study of the regional impact of deregulation. The only rigorous study done of the potential regional impact to date was for the Bega Valley, and that was an initiative not of the Howard government but of local dairy farmers, businesses and the community. The government has gone missing in action yet again when it comes to support for regional Australia. That is the view of the Bega Valley on the Howard government.

That study showed that deregulation would result in significant long-term contraction in the local economy. And that is in a region that is already doing it tougher than just about any other area in the country. Unemployment in the Bega Valley has increased from 8.8 per cent to 16.2 per cent and in Eurobodalla from 12.2 per cent to 22.2 per cent. Both Bombala and Queanbeyan also now have double digit unemployment figures. They are not alone, of course. There are over 220 areas around Australia with double digit unemployment—communities the Howard government has chosen to leave behind. After all, those are only people and places and we are not worried about them missing out because we are doing well in Sydney and Melbourne, and especially at Kirribilli House.

Until now, the government's only response when questioned on regional impacts has been to claim that funds provided to dairy farmers under this package will stay largely within local regions. That is pie in the sky. They have produced no evidence to back this up. Even if the money does stay in the local community, why hasn't the government asked whether local education and training providers, particularly TAFE colleges, are equipped to retrain large numbers of people looking to develop new skills? Why is there no mention of new industry opportunities at all?

The previous government speaker talked of self-determination, but self-determination for this government is code for doing it yourself—you are on your own, mate—without any government help or assistance to you with the process of difficult change. So much for the concept of mateship, especially in regional Australia, under the Howard government. Once again, the package lacks the coordination that looks after people and places affected by change. We on this side of the House have consistently called on the government to face up to its regional responsibilities either directly through providing funds out of the levy pool or in the budget. Given that anecdotal evidence suggests that the $30 million allocated to the dairy exit package may not be fully used, the government should consider using these funds for this purpose.

It is also pertinent to point out, on International Women's Day, that changes in the dairy industry will present a particular challenge for rural women. Rural women are renowned for their resilience and for the unpaid contribution they have made over many decades to rural communities and rural families. It is often an unacknowledged contribution and I take this opportunity to recognise it. In the case of change in the dairy industry, the resilience and capacity of women to deal with tough change will be critical in ensuring that families and communities can move forward. I had the pleasure this morning of meeting with the Australian Women in Agriculture group, a group of ambitious rural women who are striving to ensure that the contribution of women is recognised and that women receive greater representation on regional bodies and boards. It will be interesting to see whether the National Farmers Federation, as just one example, improves the representation of women in key positions and on their board. But it is more than simply positions on board; it is about recognising the true contributions of the past and present, and the potential contribution of rural women in the years ahead.

What about the Howard government's approach to regional Australia? It is not one that will take much time to talk about, but I will spend a little bit of time touching on it. It is notorious in regional Australia for ignoring the effects of its policies on local communities. This is a deep-seated problem that reflects the dilemma that a Liberal-National Party coalition will always face. The problem is that most regional coalition MPs actually care about their local communities, but they are treated with contempt by the coalition government. The problem is that the person who holds the purse strings does not give two hoots about regional Australia—

Mr McArthur —That's not right. What do you mean?

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —as the member for Corangamite willingly acknowledges. It is little wonder, because we have a Deputy Prime Minister in cabinet who does not have much clout. We have a Treasurer who delights in running the rule over his proposals and making sure that as little as possible is given to regional Australia, even going to the point of suggesting, for example, that nurses, police officers, doctors, child-care workers and teachers ought to have their wages cut for being willing to work in regional Australia and to serve and assist regional Australians in meeting their needs and aspirations in what the Rural Women in Agriculture told me today has been an absolute priority—education and training.

I suggest that in the end, as usual, even though they like to talk about the needs and aspirations of their local regional and rural communities, when the hands go up they will be there like lap-dogs supporting the views of the cabinet, which has no consideration for or understanding of the needs of regional Australia. There is a need for someone to actually stand up and fight for the needs of rural and regional Australia. The Howard government are not prepared to do that. Prior to the 1996 election they actually made a lot of promises saying they were committed to rural Australia and the needs of industries such as the dairy industry. But very early on they sent a message to those communities and to the nation at large, `Well, hard luck, mate. We don't care much about you. We are going to abolish the Office of Regional Development.' People still remember the way it was done. Feeling safe with a comfortable majority in the parliament, what did the Howard government so proudly declare? They said, as the member for Corangamite reminds me from time to time, that there is no role for our national government in regional Australia. How things change. We even had the member for Corangamite today standing up and making a speech about the needs of his regional electorate. I think he might have done an opinion poll, have actually done a bit of polling that shows that perhaps he is a little bit on the nose yet again.

I actually believe that we need a government with a big heart that is prepared to fight for the needs of rural and regional Australia. I know that at the agriculture ministers meeting of 3 March this year the federal government backed down to pressure from the federal opposition and state governments. They at long last accepted the need for a high level task force to examine the regional impact of dairy deregulation and to make recommendations to the ministers at the August meeting. We have finally got a breakthrough, but it should have been done a lot earlier. The legislation was introduced early last year and approval was given in the second half of last year, and they finally accepted that the Labor opposition and a combination of state governments were right, that we had to look at the regional impact of dairy deregulation. The question is: why wasn't the regional impact part of the analysis all along? The answer is simple: because this is not the way the Howard government do things. They do whatever their obsession with free markets tells them, and only after that, and after the political backlash, do they think about regional impacts. Rural and regional Australia has had enough of poll driven afterthoughts of the Howard government.