Hansard 25th February 2014
Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (17:32): The Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Amendment (Dairy Produce) Bill 2014 will amend the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Act 1999 to enable the dairy industry to continue to meet its obligations in relation to animal health and welfare and its membership of Animal Health Australia. The amendments increase the maximum rate—that is, the caps—of the Australian Animal Health Council levies on dairy produce from 0.058 to 0.145 of a cent per kilogram of milk fat and from 0.13850 to 0.34625 of a cent per kilogram of protein. The current operative levies are equivalent to the current caps.
The bill will not increase the operative rate paid by industry members and does not impose a financial burden on dairy farmers. Any increase to the operative rate requires a case to be put forward by industry, a case which would demonstrate widespread industry consultation and strong industry support. This bill will allow the dairy industry, led by Australian Dairy Farmers Ltd, to meet its requirements as a signatory to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement and to meet its obligations in any event of an emergency response, including any expenses that may be incurred in dealing with those events.
The opposition very strongly support this bill. It has been requested by the industry and will give the industry far more flexibility if the need arises and a case can be made for an increase in the levy in the future. A second reading amendment has been circulated in my name. I move:
That all the words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: "whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes the: (1) failure of the Government to act urgently in response to the effect of the drought on the dairy and other agricultural sectors; and (2) omission of 'resource sustainability' in the terms of reference for the Government's agriculture white paper."
I believe the member for Perth will be seconding my amendment.
I have moved this second reading amendment not to in any way politicise what is an important bill and a bill with bipartisan support but because I think it is timely to have a discussion about a number of issues that affect agriculture. There are many reasons that cause me to do so, but a few stand out. The first is the ongoing challenge of climate change and drought. Another is the current focus on the increasing demand for food globally, particularly the increasing demand for food in Asia and what that might mean for Australia in terms of opportunities to take up a slice of that increasing demand in the future. Third is the government's decision to produce an agricultural white paper, hopefully, in the not too distant future. That is going to create a vacuum in the public policy space for at least 12 months.
I will start with drought and climate change. Australian farmers are currently facing a very severe drought. It is time the government responded to that drought. The opposition have been extending bipartisan support on this matter for well more than a month now. We have indicated we will extend any cooperation required to pass any legislation required. We have indicated that we acknowledge that money needs to be spent and we will, therefore, support any appropriate measures. There are some caveats on these things, but I said 'any appropriate measures'.
I have put forward three things the government could do almost immediately. Firstly, it could do something with the farm household support payment. It is currently a transitional payment, but it is going to be an allowance after 1 July this year.
I note that the Prime Minister announced two days before the Griffith by-election that he was going to do something on that. He said he would bring it forward, but bringing it forward is more difficult than it sounds. It requires legislation; it would require an additional commitment to further relax the means testing of that payment. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister missed the opportunity to do that when the House last sat. The Senate is not sitting this week, and the opportunity has now passed to get that legislation through this place effectively any earlier than 1 July. That should have been done, and it should have been done with some urgency.
Secondly, I have invited the Prime Minister to do something with Labor's Farm Finance package. This is the $420 million package that extends debt relief to farmers facing difficulty with their debts, whether it be caused by drought or market conditions or whatever it might be. Obviously, that program is very heavily in demand given the severity of the drought. It would appear to me that a very sensible and quick way would be to further enhance that package. Curiously, on being elected, Minister Joyce changed that package by denying money to some of the states with smaller populations—South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and Western Australia—and only distributing part of the money he took from those states to the larger states of New South Wales and Queensland. In doing so, he effectively withheld $40 million of the Farm Finance package—a package that I note is now fully taken up by those on the land in New South Wales. So why the minister continues to hold back that $40 million is a mystery to me. At the same time, I am calling upon him to put more money in. He is holding money out of that package, effectively reducing it from a $420 million package to a $380 million package.
Thirdly, it is past time that the government further progressed the drought reform process. This is a reform process which was begun by the former Labor government, and which enjoyed bipartisan support in this place and the support of the states. It removed all of the old EC programs, which a whole range of expert bodies, including the Productivity Commission, declared not to be good public policy. It had the retention of a welfare payment, if you like, for those who need it. The next step was to progress something to replace the old EC arrangements, something which is more in keeping with good public policy—probably and possibly, for example, a payment that acknowledges drought situations that are the equivalent of natural disasters. Sadly, not only has the government not progressed that reform in its first six months in office, it has also abolished the very COAG vehicle responsible for progressing that further, and I refer there to the Standing Council on Primary Industry.
There is speculation that tomorrow, if my intelligence serves me well, the government might finally announce a drought package. I see some members on the government benches smiling, which indicates to me that my intelligence is correct. That would be very welcome. It is a number of weeks too late, in my view, and certainly in the view of the National Farmers Federation and other leading farm organisations; it is certainly a few weeks late in the eyes of those who are suffering so badly on land and have been doing so not for weeks now, but a number of months.
Mr McCormack: Years.
Mr FITZGIBBON: I hear the interjection 'years'. That is, in effect, true, but the severity of the drought has grown worse week on week in recent months, and it is past time the government acted.
This brings me back to climate change. There is still a lot of debate around this country about climate change and appropriate government responses to it. I recall very vividly being out with Bruce Tyrrell in his vineyard, in June last year I think. Bruce Tyrrell pointed me in the direction of his vines and he said to me, 'You see those leaves on those vines?' I said that I did. He said: 'They shouldn't be there. They shouldn't be there at this time of the year. That's climate change.' He was quick—I am sure he would not mind me sharing this story—to make the point that he did not necessarily believe that climate change was the result of human activity, but he was very certain in his view that the climate is changing in Australia. The climate is changing in Australia. We can have our arguments about what is causing it—whether it is cyclical or whether it has been going on for hundreds of years—but whatever the case might be, the climate is changing. Droughts are becoming more regular and more severe, and that trend, unfortunately, is likely to continue. It is time we all acknowledged that collectively. We can still have our debates about what to do about it, but one thing is certain: we will not fulfil our ambitions in our quest to take our share of that massive growth and demand in food in the coming decades that I spoke about earlier if we do not more efficiently manage our natural resources, the resources that allow us to produce food in such a plentiful way in this country. As a parliament, we need to recognise that and get more serious about that.
And that takes me to the third point I made—that is, the failure of the government in this coming white paper to include in the terms of reference resource sustainability. I would have thought that resource sustainability would be right at the top of that white paper and its ambitions, because we cannot produce a lot more food in this country with the same or depleting land, water and even human resources in many senses—workforce issues are a huge challenge for agriculture in Australia. It is very disappointing that regional sustainability is not in the terms of reference, and I suspect, sadly, it is because we have not gone that step further and collectively announced that we all believe the climate is changing and that this is posing a big challenge for those on the land, because that might be an admission that the current government is wrong to be taking such a 19th century approach to the issue of climate change.
It is a shame, because they have consistently said—and in doing so in a sense recognised the size of the challenge—that they have committed themselves to the same greenhouse gas emissions targets as has the now opposition. What remains unclear to us is how they expect and hope to meet those targets. We hear a lot about Direct Action but at the same time we hear a lot about what might be the future of the renewable energy target, and of course we have not seen any detail of where the money is going to be coming from or where it is going to be spent. It is going to be a big tax on all of us and distributed to rent seekers? We do not know. After six months in the life of this government, we simply do not know what Direct Action is really going to look like.
We support this bill, but we would like to see more debate in this place about these massive challenges facing not only those on the land in rural and regional Australia but those who work on the land and those who work in small businesses and other pursuits who rely so heavily on the health of our agricultural sector. We cannot allow a policy vacuum to exist for another 12 months while Minister Joyce develops his white paper—or, should I say, while the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet develops the white paper, which is my understanding of the process. Why the white paper is being written by PM&C, I do not know. I do not know that it is something which would give a lot of encouragement to those in this place who hold hopes of a positive white paper, a white paper that is active and useful and that really does something for those who work on the land. They may prove me wrong, but again it is a great shame that they have been given inadequate terms of reference from which to work.
So the derivative is important but so too are all these issues. I made a point about the white paper in a recent article I wrote for the Farm Institute. I listed a number of research papers that have been done on agriculture in recent times. This is just some of them: Greener Pastures, Farming Smarter Not Harder, the NFF Blueprint, Feeding the Future, Infrastructure and Australia’s Food Industry, the National Food Plan, the Rural Research and Development Statement, and many Farm Institute papers, to name a few. I put it to the House that there is a wealth of information and research out there. I think we know what the questions are. I think a range of reports, including those I have mentioned, have answered the questions. I believe we know what needs to be done in agriculture to make it more productive, more profitable and—I underline—more sustainable.
I do not know whether we can afford to wait another year for the white paper to determine what those responses should be. I suppose we have to, because that is the government's intention. The opposition will do its best to participate in that white paper process in any way it can and in a positive way, but I think it is a great shame that the government has decided to put everything on ice and create such a policy vacuum and so much inertia in agriculture policy while we are waiting for that white paper process to be completed. I believe the member for Perth will second my second reading amendment.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vasta): Is the amendment seconded?