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Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Page: 6952

Senator AYRES (New South Wales) (10:50): I did listen with interest to Senator McMahon's contribution to this debate, which is rooted very much in her own expertise in this area. It does cause me to reflect that it is a pity, in my view—I'm not sure what Senator McMahon's views is—that she won't be back here in the next term, because bringing that perspective is very important. I'm sure there are a lot of things about which I don't agree with Senator McMahon, but she does genuinely bring perspective and expertise from that sector with her. I think it is a bit of a symbol of the decline of the modern National Party that instead of continuing to put people from the agriculture sector into parliament—somebody who brings that particular set of expertise with them—they've decided, in this case in the Northern Territory, to put a Sky After Dark right-wing operator into the parliament. I just wanted to say that at the outset of this discussion.

Senator McMahon is right. Yes, these issues about the regulation of agricultural and veterinary chemicals are important for the future of our agriculture sector, but they do have an impact, too, for people who operate in the veterinary industry, in terms of people's companion animals and also in terms of the greyhound-racing and horse-racing industries. They are critical questions.

The chemicals that are regulated and the process for utilising the chemicals that are regulated are important also from an animal welfare and environmental perspective. They are often powerful and dangerous chemicals that require an effective regulatory system. Just like chemicals that are used for human health, the applications of these chemicals should be properly enforced in a proper compliance regime.

Of course, human health and animal health aren't interchangeable. I've noticed that the coalition backbench isn't immune from having members on it who think that products that are used for horse health, for example, might have applications for human health. There have been some characters who inhabit the government's backbench who've been urging Australians—who should be paying attention to real scientific research, not to people in their cellars doing their own research—to buy horse paste and use it on themselves, instead of getting themselves properly vaccinated. Those people ought to stop. They ought to pay attention to the science, and they ought to actually act in the national interest.

More broadly in agriculture, we've seen falling public investment in agricultural research and falling public investment in research. I take Senator McMahon's point: Australia is small, in population terms, compared with the rest of the world. But our agriculture industry is large compared with the rest of the world, so our investment in public research—whether in veterinary medicine or pesticides or on broader questions of genomic research, plant development, animal husbandry and on-farm activity—ought to be punching above its weight in global terms. But it's not. At both the Commonwealth and state levels, public investment in these areas has continued to decline.

We have big challenges, as a country, in agriculture—in terms of water availability, future animal and plant diseases, and insulating Australian agriculture. We have been a step ahead in developments in animal and plant disease and in productivity, but we are absolutely behind the eight ball in terms of the Commonwealth's engagement with Australian agriculture in the effort to lift Australian agriculture up the value chain so that we're not just exporting raw commodities overseas but also creating good jobs in country towns—food processing jobs in particular: meatworks in our north, making just-in-time food products for the South-East Asian market. We are falling well and truly behind in those areas.

It's all very well for the National Farmers Federation and the government—and, indeed, the Labor Party—to say they support the National Farmers Federation's objective of $100 billion in agriculture exports by 2030. But it's not enough. On-farm productivity in Australia has continued to rise every year since the 1970s except for drought years. Australian farmers—the 86,000 farming operations—have been doing their bit in lifting productivity. The real lift in national productivity will be in shifting Australian agriculture up the value chain, not just operating on the basis of incremental improvements in on-farm productivity and then being a function of volume and price. We should be leading the world in these areas.

Returning to just this agency, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority controls the assessment and registration of all these chemicals as well as the supply activities right up to the point of retail sale. The bill really proposes to just create an additional governance arrangement. That governance arrangement was the result of the Independent Review of the Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Regulatory System in Australia. They are correct that the APVMA is one of the few corporate Commonwealth entities without a board. The other Commonwealth regulatory entities that have direct responsibilities for human life and health—Food Standards Australia, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority—all have boards, and the APVMA does haven't a board. Gosh, it needed one. Somebody needed to stand up in the public interest when the then Deputy Prime Minister—and again Deputy Prime Minister—Mr Joyce announced the transfer of the APVMA's offices to Armidale without any process. But, on the basis that this has been proposed and it's consistent with what's happening more broadly, Labor will be supporting the bill.

It is worth noting that critical stakeholder groups have expressed some concerns with the design of the bill. They say it will have no independent power over the authority, there's no clear policy rationale for it to exist and, as always, the costs will be borne by farmers themselves through higher prices. It's not often you can construct a governance system that alienates all of the stakeholders in the sector, but, of course, this is the modern National Party. Senator Canavan says, correctly, that they don't represent farmers anymore.

There's an utter hypocrisy in this legislation. We'll support it. There needs to be some governance over this authority. A few years ago, the Deputy Prime Minister filmed himself yelling at the sky about how he doesn't want government in his life. It was quite an odd video. If you haven't seen it, you should watch it. In the other chamber, he mocked the concept of achieving public policy outcomes through legislation or even regulation, which is an odd thing for a bloke who sits in the parliament to say.

It is notable that the Deputy Prime Minister wanted to get a whole lot more government in the lives of the citizens of Armidale by moving the APVMA there. It's hard to accept the claim he made at the time that this was all about creating jobs in regional Australia. At that time, the government was embarked upon a course of deleting thousands of public sector jobs. Thousands of public servant jobs were deleted all across regional Australia at the same time, and the New England government cuts to agricultural research devastated scores of jobs in the Deputy Prime Minister's own electorate. Two hundred jobs were gone from the local university, the University of New England.

The relocation was opposed by the department. Almost all of the serious stakeholders opposed it. Even Ernst & Young, when commissioned to provide a report, argued there would be little or no benefit. It wasn't legislated. There was no cabinet process. There was no consultation. It was utterly bungled. The APVMA and Minister Joyce forgot to hire an office space. Public servants, for months, were reduced to going and sitting in McDonald's to use the wi-fi. Eighty-five per cent of the staff refused to move. It's been plagued with financial difficulty ever since. It's cost at least $26 million. There's no way of calculating the real financial cost of this utter bungle. It's hard not to think that having some board, even with the deficiencies of this regulatory system, would have provided some assistance at protecting this capability from Mr Joyce's pre-emptive and senseless approach to this move.

The other thing that gives me pause for thought, in this, is it allows yet another government board that the government can make appointments to. We've seen what happens with the National Party and Mr Joyce, in particular, and their approach to government appointments. Recently, the mayor of Tamworth, who's retiring, sat down with the Prime Minister as he outlined in the Northern Daily Leader, which is a fantastic newspaper based in Tamworth, that he was worried about what he'd be doing to occupy his mind in his retirement. So he spoke to his old mate, Mr Joyce, and Mr Joyce appointed him as the chair of Infrastructure Australia. It entirely swept aside any idea of merit, any idea of what's in the national interest. He just appointed his mate who needed a retirement job. It's a 'men's shed for mates' approach in the National Party these days. I hope, but I don't trust, that the Morrison government and Mr Joyce can make fair-dinkum appointments to this board—appointments that are actually in the national interest—by appointing people like Senator McMahon who've actually got a little bit of expertise in this area rather than appointing former staffers, retiring councillors, political fixers, branch stackers and National Party mates to all of these boards, because that's all this government has been capable of doing when it comes to public appointments.

As I say, there's a deep complacency in the National Party about the future of Australian agriculture. Much more work needs to be done. We'll support this legislation, but what Australian agriculture needs is a government that actually stands up for it and actually does a little bit of work.