MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE
Rural and Regional Australia
The government failing rural and regional Australia.
I've just checked SportsBet, and I can confirm that the member for Flynn has now emerged as the leading contender to be the next leader of the National Party and, after his question time performance, I think we can safely say he'll be better than the current bloke.
To have a strong national economy, you have to have strong regional economies. It's a statement of fact that it's been a tough four years for rural and regional Australia under the Abbott and Turnbull governments, whether we talk about hospitals policy, schools policy, higher education policy, energy policy, infrastructure investment and, of course, the biggie: the NBN.
It is also a statement of fact that, when you cut funding to physical infrastructure or to services, the impact falls disproportionately and adversely on rural and regional Australia. That's exactly what has been happening over the last four years. Every time the government grabs money to pay for its $65 billion worth of tax cuts to the big end of town, the big corporates in this country, there is a cost and that cost falls harder on rural and regional Australia than it does on our capital cities.
Let me give you just one example: the schools policy. In the first two years, the impact on schools in Wentworth will be about $10 million but the impact on schools in New England, the electorate of the Deputy Prime Minister, will be more like $20 million—double the impact. Of course, it goes without saying that, when you have cost blow-outs and a hopeless and underserviced NBN, the impact is greatest on rural and regional Australia where we rely so heavily on a decent NBN to narrow the gap between city and country.
I want to leave it to my colleagues who will follow me to focus more on some of those issues, as I am sure they will, and I've no doubt that my colleagues from Tasmania will have something to say about the biosecurity concerns in their state as a result of the failures of this government.
I want to use the time remaining to focus on my own portfolio: agriculture. I want to begin by citing a contribution in the Australian Financial Review today. The headline warns 'Competition slashes wheat exports'. It then reads:
Australian wheat exports have slowed to a trickle as traditional markets in south-east Asia turn to cheaper alternatives. Why would I quote that story here today? There are two reasons. One, it stands in stark contrast to what we hear on an almost daily basis from the Deputy Prime Minister, who likes to come to the dispatch box and attempt, at least, to claim credit for higher commodity prices where commodity prices are high. The funny thing about that is that everyone in this place and everyone outside this place knows that the member for New England can make no claim for impacting upon those commodity prices. He likes to talk about the beef, sheep and goat sectors. These higher prices are a direct result of drought and a small herd—simple supply and demand. What he doesn't do is talk about the commodities which have fallen—and there are very many of them. He certainly doesn't talk about the crisis in the dairy industry—not only in Murray Goulburn in Victoria, for which he did nothing, but generally across that sector, which is facing some very significant challenges.
But I also quote the article to remind people how dumbed down agriculture policy has become under the tutorage of the Deputy Prime Minister. Thank goodness he has gone. I always said he'd wreck the joint and move on and leave it for someone else to clean up. I wish David Littleproud well, because there is plenty to clean up.
I've said it before here and I'll say it again: there is no doubt in my mind that the member for New England is the worst agriculture minister in the history of our Federation, and I think that will become even clearer over time. All we saw from the member for New England in this portfolio is boondoggle after boondoggle and pork barrel after pork barrel—most of them, of course, not benefitting farmers but benefitting the Deputy Prime Minister in his own electorate.
Our regional economies are very diverse—and we welcome that—but you can't have strong regions, at least in most of our regions, if you don't have a strong agricultural sector. Surging demand globally for high-quality, safe, clean green food provides us with many, many opportunities as an agriculture sector. But it also offers many challenges. The so-called dining boom won't come to us; we need to go to it. We need to be prepared for it. There is competition out there.
I want to outline 10 things—it is not an exhaustive list—that government must do if we're to make the most of those opportunities. We need to establish high policy guidelines, something you do not get from this government—and the agriculture white paper was a joke. We need to restore a genuine and effective COAG process, where we have the Commonwealth and the states working together once again. We need to protect our great reputation as a provider of clean, green, safe high-quality food, our key competitive advantage— and you can't do that when you've got biosecurity failings, as we've had from this government and as we've seen most recently with white spot in prawns in Queensland and now fruit fly in Tasmania. We must adapt to a changing and harsher climate and we must tackle drought. We haven't had any progression in drought policy over the last four years. We must pursue a vigorous productivity agenda; embrace more efficient and more sustainable land use practices; further develop market mechanisms for the maximisations of the allocation of natural resources; and encourage the pursuit for higher value products. We can't be doing more and more in a commodity market where we're simply price takers. It's not the future for Australian agriculture. We must give higher priority to non-tariff trade barriers. We have free trade agreements but no access because the protocols haven't been complete by this government. And we must lift our research, innovation and extension efforts. There are many other areas of government responsibility, like infrastructure—which, as the member for Grayndler so successfully pointed out, has been so underdone by this government.
I want to quickly take us to the member for New England's performance. I'm going to read this as quickly as I can. There are so many to talk about. He forcibly relocated the APVMA to his own electorate—a disaster for Australian agriculture. He abolished the COAG committee, which was doing so much work to bring the states and the Commonwealth together. He sacked his departmental head, destroying the culture, trust and motivation of those who work in the department. He doctored his Hansard. He ditched drought assistance. He tried to move the Regional Investment Corporation to Orange without any governance, giving him full flight to do whatever he wanted with his pork-barrelling exercise. He's destroyed trust in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, a real threat on
the water front and in our food bowl. Biosecurity has been a disaster. He tried to abolish the Inspector-General of Biosecurity. It was only our resistance that prevented that from happening.
When the Murray-Goulburn fell over, I offered to help him—nothing! He did nothing for the farmers who suffered from the Murray-Goulburn collapse. He reregulated the sugar industry. He's giving money to leadership groups in the agriculture sector for no apparent reason. Taxpayers' money is funding these leadership groups. He failed to address leadership issues in the red meat industry, something he promised solidly before he was elected.
He introduced a backpacker tax for the first time in this country, and now our growers can't get pickers. I heard the minister at question time talking about 457s. We now have people coming from other countries to work at the APVMA because the local staff won't go to Armidale. He had a multiperil crop insurance boondoggle in his white paper, which failed at the first hurdle. He abolished federal leadership at the Animal Welfare Strategy. He ignored the plight of our thoroughbred breeders when they had a disease problem in the industry. He also misled the community on the implementation on the carp eradication virus. Do you remember the carp? Have you heard anything about it since?
The member for New England is hopeless. He was a failed minister. As a result of many government failures across those four years, rural and regional Australia is struggling. There is no doubt it is time for a change of government.