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Thursday, 17 June 2010
Page: 5839

Mr BURKE (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister for Population) (11:49 AM) —Can I deal with the issues raised by the shadow minister first. I suspect I am going to want a few goes at my five minutes to work through the different issues that have been raised. I will deal first with the non-apple issues raised by the shadow minister, then deal with apples and then deal with the different issues that have been raised.

First of all, the shadow minister raised the issue of the Productivity Commission review into the research and development corporations. I believe I can actually give him all the assurances he seeks by simply referring to the National Press Club speech I gave when the Productivity Commission inquiry was launched. There is no desire by government to use this as a mechanism to reduce funding. What we are trying to do is find ways for the money that is made available for research and development through the RDCs to be used far more effectively and efficiently than it has been.

The research and development corporations by and large do a very good job. I do not want to mince words on that; generally they do. For each of them I do believe there are examples where they could use their money more efficiently than they do, which would result in more money being made available for research and development, not less. The key examples that I think you can focus on fairly easily are: first of all, there were a handful of them where executive salaries became completely out of control. I believe that whoever is the CEO of a research body is doing an incredibly important job. When their salaries got beyond the salary of the Prime Minister of Australia, and they were doing that off the back of farmers’ and taxpayers’ money, I think it was not a reasonable call. I spoke to them for a long time, asking them to do something about it. One of them moved a tiny bit but very few of them moved at all, and I do believe it is an appropriate issue for the Productivity Commission to have a look at.

Secondly, there is the issue of co-location. We have more than half-a-dozen of the research and development corporations based here in Canberra, but they all have their own building, they all have their own conference room, they have their own payroll systems under different enterprise agreements and they have their own receptionist. I do not believe for a minute that there are not opportunities to co-locate, streamline and outsource some functions, even if the RDCs all want to keep their separate identities and not amalgamate. I really believe that at the moment there is money that could go to research and development—that farmers believe they are paying for the purpose of research and development and that taxpayers are pretty happy to contribute to in the matched funds—that, though it is not being thrown up against a wall, by any means, is not being used as efficiently as it could be. The intention of the Productivity Commission review is to find a way for the money that is provided to be used more effectively and efficiently than it has been.

There are some people, including some in the electorate of New England, for example, who oppose the levies outright. It is a common view as well among beef producers in that part of the member for New England’s electorate. It is also a common view among a number of grain growers in Western Australia. It is not a view I hold. I am not opposed to the levy system. I actually think it works and works well for these reasons: firstly, if you believe that there should be an Australian government contribution to research and development—and I do—then the people who get the financial benefit from the research and development should pay a higher contribution than the general taxpayer does, and the levy system does exactly that; secondly, research and development is only of any use at all if it makes it from the lab to the farm and if farmers have been involved on the boards. If the farming organisations have had a direct stake in what is being chosen for the purposes of research, I believe that is the best way you can have of ensuring the extension part works—that the research actually makes it from the lab to the farm.

My commitment to the current system is one where the more I have looked at it, the more I think it works. I think it is a smart structure. There are individual issues. Some of them have got more tied up in agri-political activity than I think is warranted for a research body. There are different areas where the money can be used more efficiently than it has been. But as a general rule the model itself is one I support and I have said so publicly previously.

The next issue raised by the shadow minister concerns whether I am receiving information, advice and complaints from other departments on the work of the research and development corporations. The advice that comes to me on the RDCs comes from two sources: it comes from my department and it comes from farmers. That is it; that is the only advice that comes to me. The extent to which other departments have chosen to engage in the Productivity Commission process, for example, I do not know the answer to, but I suspect the Productivity Commission would be able to provide very quickly which departments have made submissions to it. The advice that comes to me comes is from my department and from farmers, and I am not sure that advice on research and development corporations from any other department would be as useful to me as those two sources of information.

We then go to the issues surrounding apples. I will deal with the issue of China and the issue of New Zealand separately because they are very different issues in terms of biosecurity. I first of all thank all members who participated in that discussion on apples for the fact that, without exception, everybody was arguing from a biosecurity perspective. No-one was arguing—in the questions that I heard and the way they were framed—from a protectionist perspective. I think that is a very important message not just for us to relay to each other but for the rest of the world to hear Australian politicians argue.

Australia’s approach to biosecurity and quarantine has always been within the context of us being largely a free-trading nation. But we are also an island nation. There are pests and diseases which do not exist here, and Australia has every right to protect itself from those pests and diseases using the formula of the appropriate level of protection which has been used by both sides of politics for a very long time, which is that the level of protection should be for very low but not zero risk. If we sought zero risk, we know that that would mean that you would take no imports of anything, you would allow no tourists in or out of the nation and you would shoot all migratory birds as they approached the border. The approach of zero risk is one that no-one can deliver in any sensible public policy approach, but to minimise the risk is good and appropriate public policy, and that has had bipartisan support within Australian politics for a long time. I think the discussion we just had, the questions and the way they were framed affirmed that very strongly.

I now go to the biosecurity issues which we are dealing with. With respect to New Zealand, we are talking principally but not solely about fire blight, in terms of the issues which have been raised. Drosophila suzukii—I always have to check that name—is the pest that we are talking about with China.

Honourable member interjecting—

Mr BURKE —I can spell it if you need that. I will deal with New Zealand first because the biosecurity arguments there are the strongest ones in the sense that they have been around as arguments between the two nations for 70 years. When I was shadow minister for immigration, I took a quick trip to New Zealand as a guest of the then New Zealand government. I was shadow minister for immigration, and every discussion I had with every member of parliament or government agency began with a discussion about the migration of New Zealand apples to Australia. It is a massive issue for New Zealand, but fire blight is a massive issue for Australia, and we have every right to defend ourselves in every international court.

There are protocols around WTO decisions, protocols which—from leaks that have appeared in the international press—it would be arguable that not everybody has followed. But there is a protocol that there is a gap between when the parties receive a ruling or a draft ruling from the WTO and when they are allowed to make it public. We observe those protocols to the letter. The final report is expected to be made public later in the year, possibly in July, but that will have to follow very strictly the WTO rules about when it is allowed to be made public, and the release of it would come not from me but from the Minister for Trade, as he has principal carriage of the issue. (Extension of time granted) The issue of an appeal obviously always depends on legal advice and is a call made by the Minister for Trade in the final instance, not by me, although it is an issue on which we do work closely together.

Without in any way compromising the formalities of the process we are in, I will just say there is no difference between the vigorous way in which this government will defend Australia’s biosecurity in every international court and the way in which every previous Australian government has defended our biosecurity in every international court. I do not know that I can go any further than that without reflecting on information which at this point is still confidential.

With respect to New Zealand, that applies to the fire blight issues surrounding both apples and pears. China is different. Since 1999, pears from China have been allowed into Australia. That means that a large number of biosecurity issues and the science on apples had in fact already been resolved to Australia’s satisfaction since 1999. The issue of the pest whose name I have pronounced once—and I will leave it at that; we will refer to them as the suzukii pest—has been raised by industry recently. I know the shadow minister has met with the peak industry body. The peak industry body were offered a meeting with my office, but it was not at a time they could do, in fairness to them, and we are still finalising another meeting. There is certainly no reticence from me or from them about sitting down and working through this issue.

Any decision on the pest that has been referred to will be made on the basis of the science and will be made at arm’s length from the minister, as previous ministers have done. But a decision will be made on the basis of the science, and if the science says there is a biosecurity problem which has only recently come to light then I have no doubt that the Director of Biosecurity will act according to the responsibilities he holds in that job by making sure that the level of risk that is dealt with for Australia is kept at the appropriate level of very low but not zero. I cannot answer further than that, as the shadow minister would respect, without there being a ministerial direction of that nature to the Director of Biosecurity, and I think we would both agree that to go that distance would be inappropriate.

In terms of particular references that have been made by others, any recommendations obviously will not be taken lightly but extremely seriously. I go to issues first raised by the member for Gippsland and echoed by the member for New England with respect to Landcare, and then there were a couple of other issues that were raised by the member for New England. On Landcare, I believe that part of the way in which the member for Gippsland described the issue is accurate. Some of it is, I think, rhetoric which does not quite match the truth, but some of it is accurate. Is there less money for Landcare? In the forward estimates of this budget, when compared to the forward estimates of the previous budget, the answer to that is yes. Is there more money for Landcare next year than there was last year? Yes. Is there more money again for Landcare the year after that? Yes. So what does that mean? First of all, in dollar terms, in 2009-10 there is $35.1 million for the National Landcare Program; in 2010-11, $36.2 million; and in 2011-12, $39.1 million. Would we all—everybody here—liked to have had a situation where the budgetary constraints were different and we had a whole lot more money for Landcare? Of course we would. But I do not believe it is reasonable to put it in the terms that the member for Gippsland did. He said that this would result in a reduction in practical environmental work. You cannot increase the funds and reduce the practical environmental work.

Mr Chester interjecting

Mr BURKE —If there is a view that an increase from $35.1 million to $39.1 million in two years is in some way less than other expenditure and a reduction against CPI, there are rates of CPI being projected by the coalition which, I think, do not reflect what their shadow minister for finance or their shadow Treasurer would be saying is the case. But, Member for Gippsland, if you believe that the CPI is going to be running at those sorts of proportions over the next two years, by all means run that argument. But I do not think your economic spokespeople are matching that argument at all.

In terms of Landcare, the member for New England went a little bit further and just asked: where is government policy taking Landcare? I dealt with a lot of these issues in a speech I gave to the National Landcare Conference in Adelaide. I believe Landcare in the future has to work on three pillars: food, environment and climate. I think those three pillars provide the basic framework for the work of Landcare, where work that has now been going for 20 years for the challenges of the past—whether they be soil degradation, salinity or soil moisture problems through drought—will also deal with a whole lot of climate challenges that we will be facing in the future.

There have been areas where government policy in the first two years of government fell short and which we have acted to fix. Initially, when we got rid of the local facilitators, a number of members of parliament—including the member for New England and, I acknowledge, the member for Corangamite—argued vigorously with me that that was an error. We responded to that and we reinstated the facilitators on a local basis.

Secondly, there are the community action grants. We had no small grants program. The only way to be able to access grants was to largely work in with a big project through the catchment management authorities or whatever the NRM bodies are called in the various states—certainly for the member for New England it is the CMAs. There were many small groups that felt they were shut out and could do good, practical work with smaller amounts of money than were being made readily available, so the community action grants were introduced.

On the issues surrounding the Liverpool Plains, a large number of those in terms of final policy carriage, to the extent that there is a federal involvement, go to issues within the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, through the water portfolio, because the issue of quality of downstream water is something that, to the extent it rests with the federal government, rests with that portfolio. But certainly, within the arms of government, my department does feed in information on those issues.

In respect of this, though, there is an issue which was raised by the member for Mayo—which I have skipped; I am sorry. He refers to fertile soil, which is a similar argument to those about the changes in land use. This is something which does not rest at a federal level, and it is being dealt with very differently by different states. Tasmania, for example, has zoned agricultural land in particular ways to be able to make a zoning decision about preservation of fertile soil. One of the particular features of Australia since white settlement has been that people move where the soil is at its most fertile and then put cities over the top of our best soil. It has been an ongoing practice. Some states are now starting to deal with that in new and creative ways, but I do not want to pretend that land zoning is a federal power; it is not.

Finally, on the science of soil carbon, the work that we are doing on soil carbon is less than we had hoped to do. There was an extra $50 million on the table as part of the package surrounding the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme for research and development in agriculture, a good part of which was to go to soil carbon, coupled with a system of incentives whereby farmers would get cash for good work in soils. Some of that is now off the table because we were not able to secure passage of that legislation. Certainly, with the funding that we have available, there is more work being done in soil carbon than there ever has been before. It goes in two ways. One is in terms of measurement—not simply measuring the improvement in the soil but measuring how much carbon still finds its way out. The second is working out ways of integrating that with farm practices. There has been one simple rule that I have put over the programs there under Australia’s Farming Future: when research and development are being done into carbon sequestration, I want there to be an alignment between improved carbon levels in the soil and improved productivity. Regardless of where any other policy gets, if you get a productivity dividend, that is the best way of making sure you get uptake by farmers.