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Thursday, 3 December 2015
Page: 9808

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (12:45): The Export Control Amendment (Quotas) Bill 2015 is an uncontroversial bill. But even though it is an uncontroversial bill it does go to many of the issues that are important for Australia to maintain a strong export capacity in the agricultural area. I will come to some of those issues shortly.

This bill consolidates four pieces of legislation which govern export quotas and it allows quota certification arrangements for agriculture to be carried out under one set of powers. That is a good thing; people know where they are going, we consolidate it and we get one set of powers. Australia is, of course, a great producer of food and fibre product—despite the fact that Australia faces many, many challenges as a food-producing nation. We are challenged by water scarcity, we have less than optimal soils, and we are challenged more than most countries by climate change. Climate change is an issue that I think the coalition have not dealt with seriously in terms of their policy, which is the direct action policy. Most people now understand that the direct action policy is, as the current Prime Minister said, a fig leaf policy—a policy that will not deliver the goods.

In relation to our capacity to export into the future, a decent, proper climate change policy that is understood across the country is the key issue for agriculture going ahead with benefits to the nation into the future. It should be a policy that is non-controversial in terms of anyone with any scientific understanding at all or anyone who has been briefed properly by the scientists.

We have got vast distances between the farm gate and our markets—both our domestic markets and our export markets. These vast distances that we send our produce across are also coming under the threat of climate change. Not that long ago countries were saying that if you do not play your part in climate change you could be faced with a climate change tariff at the border when you bring goods into another country. That is another challenge that the agricultural industry faces, and that is why it is important for the good of our agricultural industry and for the benefit of our economy into the future that we play our part in dealing with the challenge of climate change. As we have seen this week, climate change is becoming a bigger issue around the world with countries trying to deal with its scourge. Despite all of these challenges, the value of our farm output, for an island nation of only 24 million people, is more than $50 billion annually, and our exports are more than $30 billion. In other words, we export around two-thirds of the food product we produce.

While we should always be cautious and alert to our food security issues, talk of food insecurity in Australia is really rather silly. Food security is not one of our challenges in food production and this is made clear by the fact that we export two-thirds of everything we produce. It is also why much of the debate around foreign ownership is so silly. If we are to grow our agricultural opportunities we will also need a lot of investment in agriculture over the coming decades. With a small population and a limited savings capacity, much of that investment will need to come from other sources, as it always has done in all of our history.

I would simply say to those who are behaving in an alarmist way in relation to foreign ownership that they should turn some of the alarm that they have about the future of farms in this country to properly understanding the science that governs climate change—the physics of climate change, what the scientists are telling us are the problems for our agricultural industry arising from climate change.

We have got to be willing and able to provide leadership and strategic guidance in an increasingly globally competitive market for our agricultural products. When I hear about all the great benefits that we are about to achieve in relation to free trade agreements through ChAFTA or China, if you go onto the websites of the departments of agriculture of our competitors—Canada, the USA, Brazil and elsewhere—you will see that they are saying, if not exactly the same thing, similar things to us. We have signed this free trade agreement and look at the great opportunities we are going to reap. What none of those websites says is that all of the countries that are importing have the same challenge, and that is to be competitive—to be able to deliver the produce at the right price, the right quality and on time.

From the speeches that we hear here in the Senate from the coalition, we must be up to about 25 million new jobs in relation to free trade. In relation to agriculture, nothing is guaranteed. The econometric modelling that is done about the benefits that agriculture will achieve through free trade are simply that—they are econometric models. They are economists' best guesses. As the deputy secretary of the Treasury once told the Economics Committee, econometric modelling is not accurate but it is better than asking your Uncle Ted. It is not a science. As they say, you can put garbage and you can get garbage out.

So the modelling in terms of our export capacity is something that we have to understand, and we also have to understand that everyone is claiming the same benefits as us. Every one of our competitors who has signed a China free trade agreement, and every one of our competitors who has signed any free trade agreements, is claiming the same benefits as us. China will not be importing from everyone; China will be using their best endeavours to reduce the costs into China. They will be looking at the quality and at on-time delivery. We need to understand that our competitors are catching up and some of our competitors will be able to service those markets equally as well as us.

So effective management of our limited natural resources—more importantly, our water and soil resources—is critically important. The question in the future will be: how do we do more with less water and soil resources? We are already the driest continent on earth. I have to say that that is the debate I would have thought the National Party would have been engaging in. The National Party, who claim to represent rural and regional Australia and claim to represent the farming community, have not, in my view, made one constructive contribution to the debate about the sustainability of farming in this country. In fact, when the then Labor government tried to do something in relation to our contribution to global warming their position was to ridicule our contribution and run a scare campaign about a $100 leg of lamb. We all remember the $100 leg of lamb, and we all remember that 'Whyalla would disappear as a town'—wiping out Whyalla. That is the sort of rhetoric and rubbish we hear from the National Party, instead of focusing on the key issues affecting the farming community: global warming, climate change and the need to conserve both our water and our natural resources.

As we become a dryer continent, our droughts are becoming more protracted. And we are entering into another El Nino period, which means that these challenges are going to become greater. We need to focus on how we better manage our soils, including our capacity to retain water in our soils. How are these challenges being met by the current government? They are being met in what I would describe as a very dopey way. In fact, they are reducing the capacity, the scientific capacity, of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to properly analyse and deal with the biggest challenge to farming into the future, and that is climate change. The office within the agriculture department dealing with climate change has basically been disbanded.

The minister's focus is on how he can increase the cronyism in the National Party by promising his mates in regional Australia that he will move jobs out of Canberra and into regional areas where he thinks that will benefit himself and the National Party politically. Departments within agriculture are now saying that they are going to lose all their history, all their capacity and all the people who actually know the industry, because those people have lived in Canberra, their families are in Canberra, they have commitments in Canberra and they cannot move out of Canberra for personal reasons or as a matter of choice. So Minister Joyce's big policy issue was to dismantle an effective operation or organisations under the umbrella of the department of agriculture and try to move them for political purposes into the bush. I do not think that is a very smart thing.

It would have been far better for the minister to actually concentrate on the big issues in the bush. How do we ensure the survival of the industry in areas that will be affected by climate change and El Nino? How do we meet the growing competition from overseas? How do we keep the head of cattle that we need to be a competitive exporter when the breeding cattle are being shot as a result of drought of El Nino? They are the big challenges for the department. I never hear the minister talking about any of those issues. So while we are talking here about export control amendments and consolidating different bills and being a bit more efficient in terms of the regulation of the industry, the major challenges facing the industry are not being dealt with effectively at all. I think it is quite clear that Minister Joyce really does not have a great understanding of the challenges that face the industry. He might be able to go out and gladhand, he might be able to talk the talk and he might be able to go out there and have the latest joke at someone else's expense, but I do not see much more in this minister than that.

The clown prince of the Senate has now become the clown price of the House of Representatives, and he wants to be the leader of the National Party—what a joke! We have seen the Nationals start to manoeuvre to try and get more influence in the government, and that influence is going to be because people are now deflecting from the Liberals to the Nationals. I think I have said here before the Liberals hate the Nationals, the Nationals hate the Liberals and the Liberals hate each other, and that is where we are. It is a rabble that is under the guise of a government that is actually going to deliver. They are an absolute rabble. We know that, no matter how shiny the new apple or the new peach is, the grub is in there eating away at the heart of this coalition, and we have seen that today when we now have defections.

Instead of playing petty politics, as in the reports in the press this morning by Minister Joyce, he should stop playing petty politics. He should stop trying to pork-barrel for his members in rural and regional Australia. He should actually focus on the real issues. How do we conserve water? How do we use water more efficiently? How do we conserve our resources? Are there family farms that, year after year, do not produce any profits but simply rely on support from government? When is it time to say enough is enough?

It did not take the coalition long to say they were not prepared to support manufacturing workers in the car industry. But, for the sake of this rotten and crumbling coalition between the two parties, they are prepared to continue to support and to put public money—good money after bad money—into some areas that, quite frankly and quite sadly, are not sustainable. But, really, there have to be some hard headed decisions. Is Minister Joyce in a position to do that? I do not think so. The minister has not ever, in my view, dealt with the key issues in terms of rural and regional Australia. If we do not deal with climate change and if we do not deal with the economic issues that are impacting on the social sustainability of rural and regional Australia, then we have lost the plot.

Headline grabs of $100 legs of lamb are not good enough. We need a government that is actually focused on the key issues. How much support do we give agribusiness? How do we ensure that agribusiness in this country can compete against the challenges from our overseas competitors? How do we ensure the quality of our produce with declining resources in terms of water and land? A dry continent and more droughts: these are the issues that we need to deal with.

I am not a farmer. The closest I got to being a farmer was living for 12 years in Muswellbrook. In Muswellbrook I could see great farming families, families that have been there for years and years, challenged by the impingement of the coal industry and challenged by global warming. They had huge challenges about conserving water. Yet we have a minister who disassembles the capacity of his department to deal with these issues. I am of the view that, while we support these bills, we would call on the government and call on the minister to actually concentrate on the real issues that are facing the farming community in this country. Show some leadership and stop playing politics. Be serious about the environment. Be serious about the future of our agricultural industry and deal with the real issues. Stop playing games and get on with the main issues affecting the country.