Second Reading – Rural Research and Development
Mr PITT (Hinkler) (17:15): I rise to speak on the Rural Research and Development Legislation Amendment Bill 2014. Agriculture is vital to my electorate and the Wide Bay region more broadly, so let me read, for the benefit of the House, some of the data contained in the 2014 ABARES report for Wide Bay. About 15 per cent of all people employed in the Queensland agriculture, forestry and fishing sector are based in Wide Bay; the sector employs about 8,500 people locally, representing about eight per cent of the region’s total workforce. In addition, about 2,700 people are employed locally in food product manufacturing. In 2011-12 the gross value of agricultural production in Wide Bay was $949 million, or nine per cent of total agricultural production in Queensland. Of that $949 million, fruit contributed 22 per cent, or $207 million, and vegetables contributed 17 per cent, or $166 million. Sugar cane accounted for 14 per cent, or $128 million. The region is home to about 4,620 farms, or 16 per cent of all farm businesses in Queensland. I am a former cane farmer. My father and brothers continue to operate a substantial cane harvesting business. Agriculture and family farming are a part of me, and always will be.
The Australian government supports rural industries in a variety of ways, including grants programs. Since coming to government, the coalition has signed free trade agreements with Japan and South Korea—two of our largest trading partners. My region has endured two major floods in three years and is now in the midst of a drought. Would you believe it? Two floods and now a drought! With exorbitant electricity prices and ongoing price pressure from the supermarket duopoly, growers are locked in an uphill battle. That is why I am pleased to be part of a government that consults and not one that makes ad hoc decisions, like Labor’s overnight suspension of live export trade. We are committed to restoring some stability to the sector, to improve productivity and farm gate returns.
Last week Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, released the government’s green paper as another step forward to developing an agriculture competitiveness white paper. The green paper draws on feedback from real people, people on the ground, people who have shared their experience and opinion on a wide variety of agricultural issues. The taskforce held hearings in Bundaberg earlier this year, and I would encourage Hinkler constituents to comment again on the green paper, to share their ideas for opportunities and solutions. The green paper represents a range of possible policy options that now need further consideration and prioritisation.
Support is also currently being provided to the sector through 15 rural research and development corporations. During the 2013 election campaign the then coalition opposition committed to provide an additional $100 million to these rural research and development corporations when in government. This is aimed at improving Australia’s capacity to deliver cutting edge technology, continuing applied research focussed on collaborative innovation and increasing the appeal of Australian commodities to potential markets. The boost is on top of the $250 million already provided each year as matching funding and more than $450 million in levies collected from industry. To keep our rural industries engaged on the world stage, the government is a member of international commodity and regional fisheries management organisations. This bill changes the way the government pays its membership of these organisations. Membership fees will now come directly from the budgets of our 15 rural research and development corporations. This will save the government about $7 million over the next four years.
Agricultural research and development operates in a global system and, as such, must take international issues into account. The same can be said for trade. If we expect to be able to sell our produce overseas, we must also be willing to accept their exports when it is safe to do so. Australia is a member of the World Trade Organisation and, as such, import risk analysis must be based on science and free of political interference. The Department of Agriculture recently announced it will lift a ban to allow imports of fresh ginger from Fiji to Australia. Fiji has exported fresh ginger to New Zealand and to the United States for years, but Australian growers were understandably concerned about the threat posed by pests and diseases—things like burrowing nematode and yam scale.
There are 49 ginger growers in Australia who produce around 8,000 tonnes a year, worth about $35 million. Having met with Australian Ginger Growers Association chairman, Anthony Rehbein, on numerous occasions, I publicly urged the federal Department of Agriculture to adhere to the strictest possible import standards when inspecting fresh ginger from Fiji. The department assured growers and the public that it had very stringent measures in place to ensure biosecurity risks are reduced to the lowest level possible. The department said it could review import conditions in light of new scientific information.
The association intercepted five boxes of ginger at Sydney Markets in one of the first consignments from Fiji and asked the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to inspect them. DAFF said the ginger was generally very clean but of poor condition. They found scale, traces of soil and foreign vegetable matter such as nut grass. There were also sunken lesions present, which could be indicative of burrowing nematode or fungal invasion. There were also a considerable number of rhizomes affected by root-knot nematode. There is now a dispute between ginger growers, the association, state and federal biosecurity officers, scientists and departmental bureaucrats as to whether similar pests already exist in Australia; how deep each of these bug varieties burrow; which variety is more invasive; and whether methyl bromide fumigation can disinfect ginger rhizome of both external and internal feeding parasites.
But the point that growers and the association are now making—and it seems to me to be a valid one—is that on page 2 of the import risk assessment it states:
… consignments must be free of live insects, disease symptoms, trash, contaminant seeds, soil and other debris on arrival in Australia.
Should it matter whether some of the parasites already exist in Australia? Should the testing carried out by DAFF and the research gathered by the association be considered new scientific information? The risk is this: we may find ourselves in the future in the same situation as the Northern Territory, which, from recent reports, now has an outbreak of cucumber green mottle mosaic virus. This will absolutely decimate the melon industry in the Northern Territory. This virus in other countries produces 50 per cent losses in the field—50 per cent!
This is an industry in the Northern Territory that is worth $50 million to their economy and it is something that is transmitted by sea. I note the contribution of the member for Capricornia about the pineapple industry, which is worth $80 million a year to Australia. There are 80 growers and they have year-on-year growth, but they have real issues with the potential for a disease which makes pineapples in the field explode. Can you imagine walking through a field of exploding pineapples?
As I said earlier, the import risk assessments must be free of political interference. It is incumbent upon the federal Department of Agriculture and Australia’s biosecurity officers to ensure our crops and farmers are protected, because I sure as hell hope we do not see a repeat of what is happening in the Top End. Agriculture is vital to our national economy, our regional economy, and of course the people in my community in my electorate. Their livelihoods depend on the vigilance of these officers. It is absolutely vital that it be protected.
I encourage Australians to support their local farmers by buying Australian produce as the first choice and, of course, especially ginger.