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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 27086

FRAN BAILEY (10:19 AM) —Probably one of the few things that the member for Corio said that I would agree with related to the importance of some of our small agricultural industries like the dried vine fruits industry. One of the things that the member for Corio failed to do, in having a go at the government, was to face up to the legacy that his former government left many of these small rural based industries. When we came into government in 1996, we had a legacy of $80 billion worth of debt. These small rural based industries were lucky to hang on to the family farm when they were struggling with interest rates of 22 per cent.

The member for Corio talked about innovation. There was no innovation in those years prior to 1996. I refer to one simple fact. With respect to these small rural industries getting their product to market, one of the most important things they needed was access to a decent road from the farm gate out onto a highway. It has only been since this federal government put all of this money into the Roads to Recovery package, more than $1 billion worth, that these small rural industries have had the opportunity to get their product from the farm gate to a highway without the product being ruined because the roads were in such a deplorable state. It is all very well for the member for Corio to stand up in this place and have a go at the government, but the facts are there. In 1996 many small rural industries like the dried vine fruits industry were struggling because of lack of attention by the federal government. I am pleased to say that that has been corrected, and I will talk a little later about some of those measures.

The purpose of the Dried Vine Fruits (Rate of Primary Industry (Customs) Charge Validation Bill 2001 and the Dried Vine Fruits (Rate of Primary Industry (Excise) Levy Validation Bill 2001 is to validate previous changes to the excise levy and customs charges for dried vine fruits. In late 1999 the Australian dried fruits industry requested reductions in both the rate of excise levy and the customs charge from $10 to $7 per tonne in both cases to prevent the excessive accumulation of funds. The government agreed with the industry's request. There is a point of difference that I must highlight. When small rural industries such as the dried vine fruits industry come to the government with a good idea, with good purpose and goodwill, this government listens. It does not impose the government's will on small industries; it actually listens to what industry has to say. In agreeing with the industry's request, it made the reductions retrospective to January 2001. Subsequent legal advice indicated that the retrospectivity of the regulation of the changes to the charges might be invalid. The bills that are being presented today are designed to correct this possible problem with retrospectivity and validate the excise levy and customs charge on dried vine fruit.

As the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry stated in his second reading speech, the monetary size of any refunds will be minimal. The bills do not create any new administrative burden for levy payers, and the only rights adversely affected are those of the Commonwealth. What a change that marks: there is a stark contrast between post-1996 and pre-1996. The dried vine fruits industry covers sultanas, currants and raisins. The Australian dried fruits industry started in the early 1900s in the Mildura region of Victoria and was made possible by the development of irrigation. There are also areas of production in the Riverland area of South Australia and there is a small presence in Western Australia. The focus of the production has been on sultanas, currants and raisins. Angas Park is probably recognised as the most successful dried fruit company in Australia. Angas markets 15,000 tonnes of dried fruit each year from the Barossa Valley and Riverland, Victoria's Sunraysia and New South Wales's Riverina. The sultanas, raisins and currants are mostly treated with drying oils, then dried in the sun. There are also grape varieties that are mechanically dehydrated without the use of drying oils.

Scientific methods have played a large part in the previous success of the industry. Research has been undertaken into soil, irrigation practices, drainage, viticultural techniques and drying processes—in stark contrast, I have to say, to what the member for Corio was asserting here earlier in this chamber. This has resulted in reduced labour input and lower costs. What was once done by an army of fruit pickers who painstakingly picked the grapes and then laid them out to dry is now accomplished by just one person by utilising the Shaw harvesting system.

The dried fruit industry has, unfortunately, been in decline. In 1992 growers produced more than 91,000 tonnes of sultanas; however, last year production dropped to around only 22,000 tonnes. Until recently, dried vine fruit was the highest value horticultural export, but it has been eclipsed now by wine. Export figures for dried vine fruits have been kept since 1925. Exports reached their peak in the seven-year period from 1960 to 1966, with total tonnage exported totalling 67,288 tonnes.

Unfortunately, since the 1980s there has been a steady decline in dried vine fruit exports. Exports have dropped from a seven-year average of 41,000 tonnes in 1988 to 1994 to a low of approximately 4,960 tonnes in 1999. Exports of season 2000-01 fruit are expected to be low again due to the poor season associated with unfavourable weather conditions in late 1999. The marketing outlook for 2000-01 continues to be challenging, with the American, Turkish and Iranian industries harvesting near record crops and placing supply pressure on world markets, including our domestic market.

It is unfortunate that Kelloggs recently gave Australian dried vine fruit producers an ultimatum to cut $300 to $400 a tonne off the price of sultanas or they would buy from overseas. It is disturbing to hear that Sultana Bran will soon contain fruit from Iran, not Australia. This is purely an economic decision and is not indicative of the superior quality of Australia's dried vine fruits.

The federal government has acknowledged in the budget the importance of agricultural development and it will work to enhance and protect industries, such as the dried vine fruit industry that faces the ever present threat of disease and pest. A $596 million package has been announced to strengthen Australia's border agencies in their work to counter threats from exotic pests and diseases.

I repeat that this government is only able to put this level of funding into our agricultural industries because we have repaid $50 billion of the debt that we inherited in 1996 when we came into government. Further, $519 million will be provided in increased funding to support the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and the Customs Service, and $68.8 million will be provided for new infrastructure to assist international airports, seaports, mail centres and Australia Post achieve a target of 100 per cent screening of all mail and cargo entering Australia. These are very important measures.

Yesterday I was speaking with delegates from the European Union, who are in Australia, about the threat of disease and pests in their agricultural environment. They had nothing but praise for what we in this country are doing in prevention, and the minister at the table is to be congratulated for his commitment to that. As the delegates were saying to me yesterday, Australia is free from many of the pests and diseases found in other countries. It must be kept that way, and this government is doing everything in its power to do so.

Our clean and green reputation is largely responsible for $124 billion worth of agricultural exports every year. Major markets for Australian dried vine fruit exports include Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. It is important that these markets be protected for the sustainable future of our region.

I have previously made mention of the fact that the industry was largely made possible in the Sunraysia area by irrigation, and to this day it draws heavily on the Murray. However, this has created a salinity problem. The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality is part of a commitment from the Commonwealth of $700 million over seven years. In the 2001-02 budget the Commonwealth is committing $65 million to the initial stages of the national action plan. This plan represents the first concerted and targeted national strategy to address salinity and water quality problems—two of the most significant issues confronting Australia's rural industries and regional communities and its total environment.

The key objectives of the national action plan are to prevent, stabilise and reverse trends in salinity, particularly dryland salinity affecting agricultural production; conserve our unique environment and community assets; improve water quality; and secure reliable water supplies for human, agricultural and industrial uses with regard for our environment. The national action plan brings a combination of incentives, funding for on-ground action and access to technical assistance, information and policy settings to secure the long-term future of our land and water resources.

The federal government is also acknowledging the need for partnership in agricultural development—$26.4 million will be provided over the next four years for a new program to support government-industry partnerships in key agricultural regions. The agricultural development plan program will help to revitalise agriculture in regions under stress. Diversification, innovation and improved natural resource management will be the key elements of the program. The dried vine fruit industry will, of course, have access to this program.

None of this could have been presented to the Australian agricultural industry had this government not shown the will and the resolve to pay back $50 billion of the $80 billion debt that we inherited in 1996. None of it would have been possible. While this is a relatively small and technical piece of legislation, this small agricultural industry supports, importantly, regional communities, and this government is totally committed to ensuring that regional communities get the very best of assistance. I commend this legislation to the House.